Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
Reader Tom Melly asks:
“A recent AVQ&A made me think of Dan Simmons’ Ilium and the sequel, Olympos. Loved the first, but the second turned into something of an anti-Muslim rant, leaving me with a nasty taste in my mouth and the feeling that I’d been conned by a sneaky bait and switch. That got me thinking about baits and switches I’d enjoyed: Pop culture with a significant change in tone and direction taking place long before the end. Top of my list is Fight Club, with From Dusk Till Dawn a close second. What are your favorite and least favorite cultural bait and switches?”
When Cave In’s Jupiter was released in 2000, I wasn’t the only one thrown for a loop. The album caused widespread consternation, if not outright hostility; the band’s previous album, 1998’s Until Your Heart Stops, was a monumental work of dense, technical, abrasive metalcore, a masterpiece that’s still cited as a cornerstone of that much-maligned genre. Jupiter, though, sounded like the Cave In guys had been stuck in a room with a crate of pot and nothing but Pink Floyd records to listen to. Its spacious, melodic approach sounded like a lazy cop-out to me at the time—and I was, and always have been, a huge fan of space-rock. But over the years, the album’s subtly daring atmosphere has really grown on me, to the point where I’m almost—almost—as likely to throw on Jupiter as Until Your Heart Stops.
My favorite: the 1986 Jonathan Demme-E. Max Frye movie Something Wild. The film stars Jeff Daniels as a square New York City bank executive who, in the heat of the moment, allows Melanie Griffith to pick him up at lunch, drive him out of the city, and check into a motel, where they spend the rest of the work day drinking and screwing while handcuffed to the bed. It starts out as a screwball comedy/road movie that believably captures the excitement of throwing off safe, polite behavior and then, at the midway point, shades into an equally believable thriller about the excitement of running for your life. (Short story: Griffith has a husband, and he’s Ray Liotta.) My least favorite example, or at least one that I’ve always had deeply divided feelings about, is the 1957 Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg movie A Face In The Crowd, which many people regard as a classic, prescient study of media manipulation. I love the first half hour or so, because I love Andy Griffith’s performance as a hobo-turned-broadcaster: He’s like Jerry Lee Lewis without religious guilt crossed with a Will Rogers who meets men he doesn’t like all the time. But when the character turns satanic and starts teaching right-wing plutocrats how to seduce average voters by acting folksy on TV, it all just looks to me like a hysterical shit fit by a couple of big-city filmmakers who regard television and rock ’n’ roll as blights on the landscape, and who hate and fear the white trash amateurs who use such tools to become stars without paying their show business dues.
I don’t think anyone who finished The Golden Compass thought that the next two books in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy were going to lead to the death of God (or The Authority, as he’s called in the series). The first book is a beautifully written, classic piece of fantasy, with witches, talking polar bears, and a hefty dose of world-building. But what began as a story about a young girl in a single magical world became an epic story about destroying the corrupt power of a single deity over all worlds (including our own). It’s heavy stuff, but Pullman wasn’t interested in just telling a story for young readers; he had a theological point to make. Pullman is a noted atheist, and His Dark Materials isn’t a religious work, but a humanist one. Plenty of fantasy series have religious overtones (The Chronicles Of Narnia is my favorite example, but Twilight is chock full of allusions to Mormonism), but usually they’re pretty obvious from the get-go, not themes that dawn on the reader halfway through. The three books work beautifully in tandem, and His Dark Materials is one of my favorite series in any genre. But I do feel like I got hoodwinked. I don’t mind that the books are a kind of counter-allegory to Paradise Lost, but it seems to me Pullman was a little coy about his intentions.
For years and years before I ever sat down and actually watched the movie Stripes, I thought the entire movie was about Bill Murray’s character, John Winger, trying to rehabilitate his sorry, thirtysomething ass in the Army, and dragging his buddy Russell (Harold Ramis) with him. I thought the entire movie was the funny story about how this slacker managed to make it through basic training, being a wiseass the entire time, and I thought the movie ended with the famous graduation scene where Murray leads his platoon in the marching cadence, “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get from the left to the right!” But what I didn’t realize is that graduation scene is about two-thirds of the way into the movie, with the other thirtaken up by a weird mission Murray and Ramis take in a militarized RV—which they were supposed to be guarding, but end up stealing so they can visit their girlfriends—and drive through Italy and Czechoslovakia. All of a sudden, this movie about two slackers in basic training turned into a less funny military-adventure comedy, where our heroes inadvertently create an international incident, and through their idiocy and ingenuity, return to the States as unintentional heroes.
I went into Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) knowing what genre the film would eventually transition into—and at this point, the movie’s notorious climax is its most well-known aspect, so some of the punch that comes with its tonal shift may be diminished for new viewers. Nonetheless, when Miike does pull the rug out from the audience’s feet, it’s even more thrilling, disturbing, and surprising than one might expect. Conversely, because Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007) had been somewhat hyped as a more faithful translation than previous adaptations of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name, I went in expecting something particular, and was disappointed by what I ultimately got. The film’s first act gets so much right that the way it devolves into a generic monster-action movie—culminating in an ending that completely inverts the meaning behind the title of Matheson’s story—stings all the more.
Noah’s response about The Golden Compass reminded me that one of my least favorite baits and switches as a child was C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles Of Narnia. I blitzed through The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe at a young age—it was required reading in fourth grade. I liked the story quite a bit—it was confusing and heartbreaking, but good fantasy stuff, the kind that I was reading more and more of. I got through a few more books in the series before losing interest. It took me a few years to realize that Aslan is a rather explicit stand-in for Christ, and when I did, I felt a bit of unease creep into my stomach as I connected more and more dots between the action in the story and Christian symbolism. It was easier to like the story when it was a story about a talking lion and four weird kids. But when I got the sense that I was being preached to, I backed away from it, hackles raised. I know that most people don’t take issue with some Christian symbolism being packaged into a story aimed at children, but I felt a bit cheated, a little taken advantage of. In either direction—toward Christianity, as C.S. Lewis would have it, or away from it, as Philip Pullman went—it’s very frustrating to get an agenda wrapped in the pretty packaging of a fantasy story. It feels like I’m being sold something that I’m not smart enough to figure out for myself, and that doesn’t sit quite right with me.
In terms of musical baits and switches, I’m still smarting from Rilo Kiley’s swan song, Under The Blacklight, where the band eschewed confessional songwriting and pedal-steel atmosphere to make a weird, slicked-down statement on fame and those who seek it. But I should’ve seen that coming—the album was previewed with a 12-minute promo clip for “The Moneymaker,” which opens with nine minutes of screen tests from and talking-head interviews with the porn stars featured in the performance portion of the video. Which is to say that the Internet has made it next to impossible to get baited and switched by pop culture: So much information about what we consume is available before the fact that I rarely go into any record, TV show, movie, or book without having read, watched, or listened to (accidentally or on purpose) something about it. This might take some of the surprise out of a genuinely shocking sleight-of-hand act like Audition, but it also makes the second season of Twin Peaks less of a crushing disappointment.
I don’t think anyone would claim what The Anniversary did on its debut album, Designing A Nervous Breakdown, was revolutionary, but it was a record full of Weezer-influenced emo that—while very much of its time—hit all the right notes. It took two years for the band to release a follow-up, and when Your Majesty arrived it was downright perplexing. Instead of building upon its earlier work, it took a sharp left turn, sounding as if the band had traveled back to the 1970s and recorded an album that pulled from a Neil Young influence no one knew it had. A decade later Your Majesty has still yet to resonate with me in any meaningful way, but I appreciate the fact that The Anniversary went in such a divisive direction when the vast majority of its peers were content limiting themselves to the genre that groomed them.