(THROWBACK!) Timelessness Part 2: Influence, Importance and Pop Reality

Published on September 16th, 2011

James continues his look at what makes a piece of media timeless. Originally run on September 5, 2011.

In Part 1 of this article, I left off saying how timeless movies are rarely important movies.

I need to define the term important as it can be rather broad, as it could mean either important to movies or important to the rest of the world that doesn’t involve movies (Alex is not aware this part of the world exists). So for the sake of this article, ‘important’ means ‘having a major impact on the world outside of film’ and ‘influential’ means ‘having a major impact on how people make movies.’ I am going to look at what makes certain movies one or the other and how intentional or perceived timelessness contributes to both.

Super Size Me is far more important than it is influential. The film was definitely a major catalyst in people looking more closely at the nutritional value of fast food and caused many chains to provide healthier options. This is why you can get a salad at every fast food place in 2011 even when you couldn’t get a vegetable at any fast food restaurant in 2001. The documentary is good and entertaining but not a groundbreaking example of the medium and therefore didn’t change how people make movies. Its noticeable effect on the fast food world and its minor-to-nonexistent affect on documentary or film world make this movie much important than influential.

Important films can make the world a better place but don’t always even need to be qualitatively good. Blood Diamond is now viewed as a movie that raised awareness of the awful conditions in the diamond trade and popularized the notion of ‘conflict-free diamonds,’ meaning people buying precious stones want to make sure that they weren’t extracted with the bloody means from the film. While this is morally good, the film is well…bad. It had a positive effect but the film itself is simply not well made. People reviewed it well at the time to seem sympathetic and supportive of people working to eliminate diamond-related atrocities, but one can tell by how quickly this movie was forgotten that no one actually loved this movie, except maybe Leonardo DiCaprio, who surely shouts at the TV enthusiastically in his South-African accent whenever it plays on HBO.

I assume he’s being arrested for doing work that is TOO important.

In 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope was released and quickly became a massive hit. Not only did it make millions in box-office receipts, it also raked in plenty through merchandising. It surprised almost everybody with how well it did and changed the way people market and distribute movies and pioneered the now unquestioned idea of summer blockbusters. And while it was unarguably a cultural phenomenon, it didn’t prompt much change in how people live their lives outside of movies. It was one of the most influential movies ever made, as its special effects showed directors many new ways to tell fantastic stories and revolutionized studio’s approaches to moviemaking by spawning decades of spectacular popcorn juggernauts. However, it wasn’t important (in the specific way I’m using the word here) because it caused no cultural or social change outside of cinema, except maybe giving Ronald Reagan a name for a missile defense system unlike anything actually seen in the movies.

Pictured: People under the influence of Star Wars. And possibly meth.

It’s rarer but some movies can be both influential and important.  Triumph of the Will is possibly the best example of a movie that changed the way people makes movies and the contributed to the course of modern history. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 film pioneered many editing techniques, revolutionized the use of music in film and displayed creative and powerful cinematography unlike anything that had been seen before. People were amazed at her ability to compile such a moving spectacle and filmmakers from many genres point to this inspiration for their techniques.

Outside of the film world, this movie had an impact that is hard to calculate but impossible to ignore. Those who disagree with Nazi ideology admit that it was their utilization of the media and propaganda that allowed their rise to take place, and Triumph of the Will is often pointed to as the greatest example of that. The movie strengthened Hitler’s fame and furthered his reputation as a charismatic speaker with fresh ideas. It portrayed his party as a popular and undisputed party and suggested Germany’s return to global was just around the corner and that the German people deserved this. The film is widely credited as a major factor in Hitler’s rise, Germany’s military actions that started the war and shaping the history of the world. Social logic dictates that the nature and content of the movie would cause many people to distance themselves from it for fear of being branded a Nazi sympathizer but it is such an undeniably impressive, powerful and revolutionary picture that people have no problem listing it as one of the best films ever made, despite its message.

As I stated in Part 1, making a movie like Wizard of Oz, where the time and setting are mostly fantastical, can make it easy for people from different times and places relate to it. However, by making it this broad, vague and accessible, you reduce its ability to affect social change and become important. When looking at a list of important movies, you can see that a large majority of them are tied to a specific time and/or place. This is how they cause social change; by pointing to certain events or cultural opinions and showing the negative effects. Super Size Me is set in America in the 2000s and that is absolutely vital to the film. It ties itself to a certain time period by stating how unhealthy contemporary Americans are and the popularity of fast food; these two facts intersecting is of great importance. With obesity rates being at their highest point in history, the timing of this movie was valuable in making this film important.

Thanks, Morgan!

Triumph of the Will is another film whose importance is based on not being timeless but instead being tied very closely with the realities of Germany in the 1930s. The country had lost World War 1 and had a nationwide sense of defeat, embarrassment, inadequacy and powerlessness. The economy had suffered greatly after WW1 finished and leaders were made to sign treaties promising not to do certain things such as develop militarily. A figure as radical as Hitler may not be given much of a chance in Germany in other decades, but at a time when they were desperate for change and control of their own destiny, he was able to become, well, Hitler. Triumph of the Will highlights both the state of the nation and abilities of Hitler at the time and both of these time-based facts are vital to the film.

Star Wars is the exact opposite of these movies that draw their importance from the time they are depicting. It is set in an unspecified time, and while broad metaphors can be used to create certain meanings in the film, the time and place are so vague that these readings say more about the viewer than the filmmaker. One does not need to be born in a certain time or place to ‘get’ what’s being said because not much is really being said. The thing that makes it accessible is also what neuters it and prevents it from impacting society in a non film-related way.

In university, I had a professor talk about the timelessness and placelessness of pop music, and she didn’t mean either of those things as a compliment. What she was describing was the musical version of what I just described happens in film: people write songs that don’t mention locations or dates and this makes it easier for anyone getting into the song at anytime while making it nearly impossible to say something of cultural substance. Saying things about your city or country or your generation makes it meaningful to some people but alienating to some people as well and this is not acceptable. The goal of pop music is to sell as much music as possible and the way to do that is to be as vague and broad as possible in order to exclude nobody or make them feel like they aren’t the target market for that song. For this reason, the characters and events in pop music exist a vacuum. There are rarely dates, locations or references to people and events that tip you off to the setting. Regional slang and references are done away with and more importantly, lyrics are temporally vague and usually could be written in any different number of past decades, so that they can remain popular and relevant forall ages and for future decades of music buyers.

This professor used the example of 2Pac constantly saying the year the song was recorded in and frequent references to New York and California as a radical departure from bland pop. To me this didn’t seem like a particularly radical thing to do and that saying where and when you’re rapping is pretty tame and non-inflammatory. It had never really occurred to me why so many pop songs were so vague. However, when 2Pac talks about New York and 1994 and then talks about racial injustice and poverty, we can look at social attitudes or government policies around that time and place and see what could be changed to make things more equal. Even if Britney Spears wrote a pop song about negative feelings, without a time and place for reference, it is difficult to specifically indict a certain cause for her sadness. 2Pac, however, is constantly framing his lyrics temporally and geographically so even someone stumbling across his music in fifty years could research the culture he lived in and draw powerful meanings about the world he wrote about.

I find it interesting that these constant references to contemporary events in rap music are used to fuel rumours that 2Pac is still alive. Rumours state that there are tracks in which 2Pac references the film Armageddon and the Denver Broncos most recent Superbowl win, both events that took place after his death. Proponents of the 2Pac Lives theory claim this is proof that he’s still alive. While I don’t want to get into that theory right now because it would take too long*, what is interesting is that his tendency to make time-related references in his raps is what allows people to use this evidence in support for their theory. There is a famous (and equally stupid) group of people who claim Elvis is still alive but since he was a pop star, we don’t have comparable lyrical evidence. Elvis was a pop singer who lived in the pop vacuum and his lyrics weren’t based on the time he was performing. He had those vague lyrics not connected to his place in history at all, unlike 2Pac who genuinely wanted to highlight perceived injustices that existed in the time that he lived and therefore reminded us constantly when/where he was.

*Of course he’s dead. Oh, that didn’t take long after all.


This pop vacuum that pop lyricists write in serves a few functions, including the politically neutral nature as discussed above which means it won’t lose sales to a disagreement with his opinions. Its lack of time and location-based references makes it accessible for everyone around the world. The Spice Girls and The (particularly early) Beatles were able to gain tons of success in America because even 9 year old girls knew what they were singing about, as it didn’t require any understanding of British culture. Also, because these songs are so divorced from the reality of time, they are just as immediate and relevant to new listeners as they’ve ever been. I always knew pop stars were criticized for not using their place as a public performer to say something meaningful, but I wasn’t aware exactly how much of their lyrics they were able to keep in this pop vacuum.

Whether you think this is a smart way to sell music over many decades and continents, or if it’s an absolute bastardization of the terms music and art because it contains nothing of substance, I think you have to admit it’s pretty impressive how pop singers are able to fill entire albums without giving the listeners a frame of reference as to where or when they are. MTV can go an entire day playing songs (although I don’t think they’ve gone an entire day playing music since 2pac was alive) that don’t let any air out of this pop vacuum but to me, what is much more impressive is that they are able to do it while depicting someone’s life. Specifically, I am amazed by TV shows like Jersey Shore that can show continuous footage of someone’s life without ever letting anyone know when it’s taking place.

Reality TV is obviously a flawed term, and countless people have pointed out how whatever they are experiencing is not ‘reality’ as the rest of the world knows it. They are surrounded with cameras and receive much different treatment wherever they go. Their stories are edited, rearranged and otherwise manipulated for a more interesting viewing experience. However, one of the most fascinating elements of the reality for the cast of Jersey Shore is how they manage to live in the same pop vacuum as the songs MTV plays during the other hours of the day. I know it sounds odd, but when is there ever any indication as to when each season of Jersey Shore takes place? We know because we read in the news when Snooki was arrested on the beach before it aired, but inside the show, there is no way to know when what you’re watching took place. The things that could happen to give us this frame of reference are absent from the show for multiple reasons. There is never any discussion of current events or politics and this the result of both MTV telling them not to date the show in this way and that there’s no way any of those people give a fuck about politics. Seeing what they watch on TV would be a good way to figure out the timeline but again, this would raise multiple problems. They are not allowed to watch TV because producers know how boring it would be for the viewers to watch Snooki watch TV and whatever she is watching couldn’t be anything but an MTV show or they’d have to pay for the rights. We could check what videos they watch online and place those on the meme timeline but that also has two problems. Again, watching people sit on a computer is boring and if they were just doing Double Rainbow quotes now, you’d be pissed off and think they’re lame, even though that shit was hilarious at the time.

All of this contributes to the idea that you are kind of watching Jersey Shore as it happens. It’s live in a weird, MTV pop vacuum way. Intellectually we know that’s not the case but while watching the show, there are zero reminders that’s the case. Jersey Shore is in a perpetual state of constantly happening. When they do their talking heads segments, they always speak in the present tense, even when describing a fight from two days ago. The show plays with time in a way that someone can be hitting their head against a wall in a fight and explaining that happening at the same time, both in the present tense. This combination of perpetual liveness and the lack of time indications lead to a state of constant timelessness and immediacy. They don’t live in reality and it’s not 2011. They live in pop reality, a state where it could be any year but it’s always whatever year it is right now. I don’t even just mean that these shows can be shot and aired six months apart and still seem fresh. Jersey Shore could take place any time since MTV started. I have been trying to figure out how this isn’t true but other than music, clothes and cars, there is nothing to say Jersey Shore wasn’t shot in the 80s. They have no cell phones, just one landline (by the way, how come the duck phone isn’t back yet?) for 8 eight people. They use maps instead of GPS. They have no Internet, no plasma screen and no mention of a black president. They utterly disengaged from anything that’s not in their pop bubble and never venture outside their pop reality. They live in the same world we live in but it runs on the same rules that pop lyrics do. It’s perpetually current and timeless simultaneously.

Perhaps I should be more upset. Maybe those people who criticize pop music for being hollow are right and that pop culture ruined music by forcing it into that pop bubble of timelessness and meaninglessness. I assume those people are even madder at Jersey Shore because now it’s not even just one art form that lives in that pop bubble, but entire people’s lives. The cast of Jersey Shore are now celebrities which means inevitably role models and perhaps I should be mad that children are going want to be like them, choosing to live in this meaningless, isolated scenario that could happen anytime because you have no connection to the world you inhabit, just a few people to smush and fight with. Instead, I’m just more impressed. I thought it was impressive when pop singers could stay in the bubble three minutes a time and MTV made their career off it. It’s a precarious and fragile bubble and I’m amazed that with all the kicking, throwing, stumbling, puking, car crashing, sloppy 3 way kissing and punching they do, these 8 people can live it for several months at a time. Well, not a time, exactly. Every time and no time, all at once.


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