Friday, 24 September 2010

Pop Goes the Culture

In my early twenties (yes, long, long ago) I became obsessed with how much referencing of popular culture was going on in movies and TV. Postmodernism was in full effect at the time and it seemed like more of a playful novelty than the soul-crushing death of originality it would eventually morph into.

My friend and I set up a website, grandly called The Encyclopedia of Cultural References, which was mostly an exercise in satirising the nostalgic artefacts of our childhood, reinventing them via weird stories that could almost be true. Our generation had already started looking back with misty eyes and I felt that some kind of satirical response was in order. Of course, nobody read the entries, but they were a fun way to pass the time. Rereading them now, a lot are still funny, but also deeply strange - tales of Richard Nixon inventing the Slush Puppie and very bizarre riff on how the cartoon series Dungeons and Dragons was actually an early reality series, with the storyline decided by men in Japanese pubs rolling 20 sided dice. Before you ask, I wasn't smoking anything - maybe there was more fluoride in the water or something.

I watched Kick Ass recently and was struck both by how up-to-the-minute it was trying to be and yet how some of the cultural references had already dated. A character talks about being afraid of dying because they won't get to see what happens at the end of Lost - even though the series had already finished by the time Kick Ass reached cinemas. And what's with all the references to MySpace instead of Facebook? I suspect money may have changed hands there.

But in "real" life people reference popular culture all the time, especially teenagers on public transport who often spoil TV shows and movies for me by being more up to date I am :-) So it makes sense that teen books should be full of this stuff. Except I think a lot of us - me included - labour under the fear that it will date our books, the same way that Kick Ass will become dated.

One author I know who believes wholeheartedly in the cultural reference is Keren David. In fact, at the recent launch party for Almost True she gleefully selected an extract from the book where two characters were discussing the Twilight series and generally poking fun at it. From our conversations, I know that she even updates her pop culture references at the proofing stage, to keep things ultra-modern.

Are books a lasting artefact that should be kept pure and understandable for future generations? Or should we accept that most of the copies get sold in the first year and that it's ok to stuff them with contemporary relevance? I'd appreciate your comments on that.

Before I go, I'm going to unleash just one of those entries from The Encyclopedia of Cultural References on you, so you can worry about my mental state just a little more. This is how I used to write fifteen years ago, and to paraphrase Rufus in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, I did get better at it.


Roald Dahl

Life has always been a struggle for the political author. Years can go by with only a few lines of reactionary vision committed to paper. Then, in a sudden flash of inspiration, a blazing spew of rhetoric appears and the work finishes itself.

Spare a thought, then, for the young Roald Dahl, attempting to create existential socialist children’s books. His only published work The Noble Proletariat and its Reaction to Class Butchery (Stories for 8-12 year olds) had been a critical disaster. Now he was struggling with his latest work: Javez Regards the Plutocratic Dichotomy of Inflationary Fruit Cultivation Monopolies. Turning on the radio in the hope of finding some soothing tunes to aid his thought processes, he was confronted by the evils of dance culture embodied by Chubby Checker and "The Twist". Incensed by this intrusion, Roald destroyed the radio with a fire axe and posted each piece to a different address in Eastern Europe. He then returned to his novel, struggling once more with his metaphysical demons and that all-important opening paragraph.

A year later, penniless and with little more than a third of the book written, Roald was to experience one of those epiphanies so beloved of the genre. After finally affording a new radio, he turned it on, hoping for news of the communist struggle. Instead, the charts were once more alive to the sound of Chubby Checker and "Let’s Twist Again". But this time Dahl’s annoyance was short lived - he only managed to smash the radio on the doorjamb seven times before the idea hit him. His book could have its very own twist - the title would be shortened to James and the Giant Peach and there really would be a giant peach in it and it would fly and everything! Excited by the sudden shedding of his extreme socialist ideals, he rewrote the whole book in one sitting.

From this point on, Roald became the King of the Twist, each book introducing more and more outlandish plot perversions. This reached something of a peak with Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. The already strange narrative became an entirely different story halfway through, as Grandpa Joe discovered his entire life had been a monumental acid flashback induced by an LSD-spiked Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight.

Dahl’s publishers tolerated his less twist-prone work, but they quickly lost their patience. Faced with losing an enormous worldwide audience they instead hired a ghostwriter to smooth out the stories. Since Dahl never read his published work, the deception worked beautifully. After a while, they began to use the ghostwriter from start to finish, leaving Roald free to pursue other projects. This lead to one of the most preposterous plot devices of all time in You Only Live Twice (1967) wherein Dahl suggested that Sean Connery could in some way be transformed to resemble a Japanese ninja.

One attempt was made to faithfully translate a Roald Dahl original to the big screen, when Italian horror director Lucio Fulci discovered the original manuscript of Danny Champion of the world. His film Campione di Danny del Mondo (1982) attracted a triple X rating and was something of a flop on the Saturday morning circuit. It can only be hoped that George A Romero’s forthcoming adaptation of George’s Marvellous Medicine will recreate that Roald Dahl magic.

1 comment:

  1. It's a tough one with pop references. I did a blog post about a phrase one of my young readers used: "slang goes in and out of style like pink shirts on boys." I thought that was brilliant.

    When I was in my 20s the fax machine was invented, no one was sure it would catch on ... ;-j