Apr 26, 2008

Postmodern Techniques in the Friedberg and Seltzer Films

The team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer should be a force to be reckoned with, perhaps as the most corrosive duo in all 21st century art. Their three films Date Movie, Epic Movie, and Meet the Spartans have each drawn in over double their respective budgets, and the latter two debuted as the #1 film in the United States. All three of these films have been critically panned, and Date Movie has the highest rating of 6% on RottenTomatoes.com. This might seem perplexing to one unfamiliar with the technique behind these movies, or for that matter, the nature of all of contemporary culture, but to those of us predisposed to the awful truths of 21st century America, it is quite obvious that Friedberg and Seltzer are masters of their craft. They are, in fact, the harbingers of true genuine postmodern film and the cryptic intellectual artisans ready to contribute bringing all culture to its knees through strictly postmodernist action.

For those who may not know, these three movies are “spoof films” that carry their weight entirely on gross-out gags, minor T&A, and references to other contemporaneous films, television shows, popular news items, popular catch phrases, and even popular advertisements. I feel it is important to at least provide some background information to help explain the nature of this strictly technical phenomenon. In an increasingly technological society, the role of art inevitably diminishes into a means to encourage mindless consumption and servant-like passiveness until it eventually disappears entirely. This is not controlled by humans in a concrete sense, but rather, the techniques necessary to sustain such a society. People need to be burdened with constant distractions in order to ensure a distinct conformity with which to properly operate in the technological society. Whereas technology allowed a certain breathing room for art to have spiritual and philosophical depth at one point, the tightening of circumstance has forced art to become a product of its increasingly technicized culture by being more technicized itself. Moreover, this technicization of art is not new, nor is it a radical shift, but part of a long ongoing process. Consider modernism, for example. As Jacques Ellul explains,

modern art expresses the subconscious precisely to the degree that the subconscious has been influenced by the machine. The artist is in fact a seismograph that records the fluctuations of man and society. The cubist and abstract schools of art (as, in poetry, dadaism and oneirism) are aspects of this deep reality. With very different forms, Chiciro, Leger, and Marcel Duchamp, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, show us the coupling of machine and person. They show too the absurdity of the mechanical world, however rational it may be, and the impossibility of an aesthetic based on the technical movement unless it is an aesthetic of madness.

Given that Ellul wrote this in 1964 and had no way to predict the oncoming vicissitudes for art forms, it is thus my own belief that postmodernism represents that aesthetic of madness that Ellul describes. All of the prerequisites for postmodern cinema are met in these three Friedberg and Seltzer films. They constantly reference (not necessarily condemn or salute, but merely reference) cultural items, giving weight to the postmodern belief that all possible ideas have been expressed and thus can only be archetypically represented in one form or another in any new medium. They show reflexivity and self-awareness, playing with the conventions of the film medium itself, and therefore questioning the very foundations of reality through metaphysics in the way postmodernists often do. The plot of these films will irrationally jump around between time and space, enabling a reference point from any corner of the world or time in history to surface, reinforcing the postmodern belief that all things are connected somehow and in some way. But most importantly, these films bring absolutely nothing new to the table and provide literally no valuable insights on anything at all whatsoever. Their purpose would be more comparable to the utilitarian art of the Soviet Union than any art meant to express human spirit or creativity. In my opinion, that is perhaps the most postmodern element to these films above all else.

Think, for example, of how classical music began to be composed in the 20th century. It started to become designed by technique, as cold and sterile as machinery itself. Pieces of music began to be composed through computerized Markov chains or through merely the rolling of dice. Although the production of this art was technicized and impersonal, the message could be interpreted in a number of ways, and often the interpretation would prove meaningful to life and the human condition. The Friedberg and Seltzer duo, in a true act of postmodernism, are able to take the creation of art through technique and strip it bare of all provocations. The purpose of the film, to make a lot of money, is obvious, and moreover, it becomes obvious entirely because of the technique in which it is made. Around the end of the year, before the Oscars come on television, people begin to consider the best films of that year. Beyond this, they begin to question the best anything of the year – music, TV shows, advertisements, whatever – and so a demand arises for a recap of some sort to summarize the year in pop culture. The brilliance of these manufactured spoof films has nothing to do with their writing or production values, but within the fact that they specifically market the technique of spoofing movies itself. Date Movie stays largely contemporaneous, but the very title gives away the fact that it seeks to parody romance comedy films. Nobody cares about date movies enough to really watch a spoof on it, but the fact that a movie is coming out with such perfect timing, promising to be rife with pop culture references is reason enough to go spend $8 or $9 on it. And as it indirectly promises through advertising, it offers many references to pop culture items of the past year.

In this regard, Meet the Spartans represents the ultimate in perfection of this technique. It strips away a genre-specific title, pinpoints only one major film (in this case 300), and uses that film as a vehicle to insert whatever miscellaneous debris is deemed necessary and important. In addition to the newfound elasticity of this concept, it also invokes the spirit of old novelty records that used to focus on one particular film and “comment” on it by throwing in sound bytes of contemporaneous pop songs interspersed along a largely pointless narration. These novelty records were never meant to be particularly intelligent, nor were they meant to satirize one genre or film in particular. In all three movies, techniques from those records are employed. The Friedberg and Seltzer team manage to make their films combine an irrational story element with song and dance sequences featuring musical content reminiscent of the Now! CD compilations. The major difference between those old novelty records and these films is that the novelty records in question would only make pop culture allusions, but these films more analytically allude to the techniques behind these products of pop culture. Because of this, the novelty records would only appeal to 8-12 year olds then, whereas these films are marketed toward teenagers and young adults now. Any child would enjoy these Friedberg and Seltzer movies despite the grotesque humor and degradation of women, and another technical triumph of Meet the Spartans is its PG-13 rating as opposed to the previous films’ R ratings. Children will learn to enjoy just about anything, but the fact that more mature people are enjoying this indicates a growing understanding of the basic framework that makes up film itself. The more man knows, the easier it is to manipulate him. As soon as man learns to read, he can be manipulated through writing. As soon as man understands percentages, he can be manipulated through statistics. And most importantly for Friedberg and Seltzer, as soon as man understands the conventions of film, he can be manipulated by the subversion of these conventions. The latter tactic simply molests the mind of man with no real attainable goal other than pure sterile calculation. Once man begins to think with a more technically-oriented point of view, morality, spirituality, and artistry become less and less relevant.

This subversion is exactly what people are looking to get when they buy the tickets for these films. Since people are not really looking for parodies of “date” or “epic” films specifically, it can only be deduced that they are looking for the technique of subversion to be shown to them in addition to simply being reminded of the products’ existence in the first place. As long as the pop culture item is still fresh in the people’s minds, the technique of subverting pre-existing techniques will suffice with no other added content. It is safe to say that this has already been popularized by TV shows like Robot Chicken and Family Guy as well as other spoof movies of the past. This sort of subversive nihilism is what people are looking for, and so by keeping all possibilities open tied around one theme, Meet the Spartans accomplishes this nihilism the most effectively of all three films. At one point in the Stone and Parker movie Team America: World Police, a song is featured set to a montage sequence explaining what a montage is and how it is used. The intent of the joke is to say that people are already familiar with montages, so the filmmakers are therefore hip enough to see the silliness of this convention. Meet the Spartans represents a full-length film adaptation of this joke in many respects. The apex of this principle occurs when a member of the Spartan army carries around a large green screen showing that this particular technological item allows for the illusion that there is a much larger army, when in reality it is mere computer wizardry that does the trick. The joke is so telling that it is actually used twice. And, of course, throughout the entire movie itself, the backdrops of each set are created through the use of green screens.

In addition to the thematic open-endedness in which Meet the Spartans presents itself, it also is superior to the other two because of its efficiency as a film. Supposedly it was created on a budget of $30 million, but I don’t believe this for one second. Whereas Date Movie and Epic Movie (which both cost $20 million) feature a multitude of different on-location sets, costume arrangements, and special effects, Meet the Spartans is stripped down and bland. The special effects are largely nowhere to be found and the sets are all pretty much the same. If it really did cost $30 million, the difference would most likely be in marketing. Meet the Spartans also claims to be an 84-minute film, which is not true. It is actually around 64 minutes, but the ending credits roll so slowly, that they clearly are part of a technique to artificially bloat up the running time. This technique is used to a lesser extent in Date Movie and Epic Movie, but the credits are only a mere ten minutes in those films as opposed to the audacious twenty in Meet the Spartans. Also worth noting is the much more intense use of product placement in the third film, whereas the first two use it sparsely. Popular commercials are mocked in all three films, but the first two often refrain from having the actual product being used during this mockery. Meet the Spartans does have some commercial spoofs with the product absent, but it compensates by throwing in a fair amount of other products at other points in the film. This idea is largely absent from its two predecessors. It also represents a technical subversion of conventions as previously noted: the products are advertised so blatantly that the film makes it appear as if it is trying to communicate that product placement in films can be silly and obvious. Nevertheless, this technique is still being employed.

My initial goal was to watch all three of these films in one sitting, but it proved too aggravating of an experience. I had to wait a week before watching Meet the Spartans. It is perhaps not enough to explain the difficulty of this project by saying what the films were about, because they weren’t really about anything, or what they consisted of, which was essentially nothing, and I was anticipating all of this quite readily. What blindsighted me personally was how extraordinarily hateful toward the audience these films were within the realms of their own reflexivity and self-awareness. The key is to understand that although many popular culture items and techniques are “spoofed,” they are at once simultaneously condoned. Nothing about the jokes (in what presents itself as a satire) are really critical of the status quo, but more at the audience for partaking in it. Once the films start to show their own cynicisms, the real butt of all of these jokes proves to be the viewer. Take, for example, the preponderance of gross-out gags in all three of these films. It was not out of intellectual laziness that the writers decided to rely on them – many of them had no deliberate comedic value that I could discern in the first place. So why use them at all? Imagine any seemingly vile scenario, and more than likely it can be found in these films. A woman projectile vomits on many people at a party. A hump growing on Paris Hilton is revealed to be a purulent growth, which is popped. A nude shapeshifting woman on top of someone grows a unibrow and about a hundred pounds heavier at his request. A woman pops a particularly large pimple. A man eats raw sewage believing it to be a river of chocolate. A cat sits on a toilet and makes loud shitting sounds. A heavy woman slurps her own liposuctioned fat through a tube coming from a large vat labeled ‘mayonnaise.’ At first, these occurrences seem cryptic and inexplicable, but after a while, their existence seems to prove the efficiency of the aforementioned techniques. Since a large part of the appeal for the audience is recognizing the target of reference, these grotesque elements to the film seem to serve as a sadomasochistic test of faith. If the viewer can sit through a completely disgusting scene, he will feel more psychologically rewarded when he is able to recognize Paris Hilton holding her Maltese dog and talking on her cell phone. The best part is that if he is not able somehow to catch the reference, then typically the reference will be openly said out loud so as to eliminate any confusion. This element of psychological difficulty thus makes each of these films very “challenging” for the viewer, resulting in feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment after they end.

If anything, the elements of gross-out humor prove that if the technique of subverting other techniques had not been pre-popularized by other films and media, these films simply never would have worked. If a film, for example, with an identical structure and 50’s pop culture references had come out in the 1950’s, it would have failed, and the reason is because people’s brains would not have been sufficiently prepared for the acquiescence of technical sterility necessary to derive appreciation from these pseudofilms today. Even without the scatological elements, the conventions of TV Westerns and successful commercials would not be fully grasped by the American public, and so they would merely prove confusing to the average viewer when pointed out or alluded to. It would actually take a fairly advanced person to understand what is happening. But this is not the 1950’s and we as filmgoers are now privy to pop culture conventions and understand the techniques behind these films and television shows. Never let it be said that as soon as we understand the workings of the media, it automatically will leave us more enlightened and critical. Friedberg and Seltzer prove that this understanding can actually prime us to be less conscious of reality and more easily distracted. That is essentially what postmodernism is all about. Even with a more cohesive plot structure, genuine wit, and popularity from previous films, Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs only raked in around one third of the amount that Meet the Spartans was able to in the opening weekend and considerably less in total box office. The reason is because even as recently as the 1980’s, postmodernism did not have the relevance it does today. As information becomes decentralized and the secrets to techniques become disseminated, art simply loses its meaning.

It would be folly to dismiss these asinine parody films as mere anomalies. Every single one is very much ahead of its time, and the innovations of Friedberg and Seltzer as pioneered in Meet the Spartans hit the bullseye on a target so distant from our understanding that people don’t even know it’s there. The lack of positive reviews do not really matter, because as history has shown, people’s opinions can be easily molded by sheer repetition anyhow. As Sylvester Graham points out in his manifesto A Treatise on Bread and Breadmaking from 1894, assembly-line produced white bread was initially met with negative response, but the negativity certainly didn’t last very long. The sheer repetition and constant technical reproduction eventually led people to prefer this nutrient-deficient, bland, tasteless bread as opposed to naturally-grown bread with fiber, whole grain, complex carbohydrates, and a hearty taste with character to it. Right now, the only positive review for Meet the Spartans on RottenTomatoes.com (which makes up its 2% positive rating) comes from some woman from an obscure website called “News Blaze” who says, “Don't expect anything of depth and you won't be disappointed by this predigested pabulum. Mental bubblegum for the brain whose cinematic taste lasts only about as long as the viewing.” Given the low costs, high profits, and intellectual laziness it takes to pump out these films, it is safe to say that this woman represents the critical voice of the future. But what will the future hold for us when art begins to seep further and further into the nihilistic realms of meta-narrative? When the people have been so narcotized as to believe that any idea can be characterized by sheer archetype, what will this say of us? What will we have to judge ourselves by when the only art we can produce will be in the innovations of scientific applications and mathematical equations? Would we even be human, or the product of some far-reaching abstraction? If there really is salvation to be found in the possibilities of some sort of technological utopia, then do you really want to be saved?

-Blind Lame OKB


Anonymous said...

recently i was feeling the same way about these films. culture's mind is dry of ideas. we've consumed to the point where art is unrecognizable to the layman and as easily dissected. they have produced the thought that beauty and knowledge isn't felt, its weighed. its very scary. i just wonder if our society can get up from the mud its been wallowing in and remember "the dark knight" doesn;t equal "the godfather 2". some dolts at the harmony korine board were comparing the two!

josephdriftwood said...

"It would be folly to dismiss these asinine parody films as mere anomalies. Every single one is very much ahead of its time, and the innovations of Friedberg and Seltzer as pioneered in Meet the Spartans hit the bullseye on a target so distant from our understanding that people don’t even know it’s there."

I think you're giving these guys too much credit...