Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The 10 Pop Culture Milestones of the Last Decade: My Take

A lot of people did lists of individual milestones in a particular media or genre for the first decade of this century recently, and I didn't think that I could sum up my experiences in the past 10 years by listing items from just one kind of media. So, instead, I have chosen 10 series, movies etc which revolutionized the way I looked at pop culture and the world as a whole over the past 3650 days, give or take a week.

I realize this post would have been a little more timely if it had been finished before the end of 2009, but there was just so many things that I was influenced by over the past decade that it was a little difficult for me to narrow things down to a nice concise 10. But I managed to come up with what I feel are some interesting choices.

Won't you join me in re-examining the decade through my eyes. These are in no particular order.

Kill Bill: By 2003, Quentin Tarantino was already a critical darling who had redefined movie making in the 1990's with Pulp Fiction (after all, think about all the movies that followed its 1994 release that had plots or characters which seemed to have been spawned from that universe). However, other projects he had been involved with after that success seemed to be disappointing and there was talk that perhaps Tarantino had mined his psyche completely clean and he couldn't produce anything else era-making. And then the rumors about Kill Bill started to circulate. The Kill Bill films are my favorite films created by him, mainly because I love Spaghetti Westerns and the action movies of Hong Kong/Japan, which this was a love letter to. To me, Kill Bill proved that Tarantino was capable of creating exciting action scenarios (even though I am sure someone else choreographed them). It was also refreshing to watch North American movies with a heavy emphasis on fighting in the post-Matrix age which did not resort to a heavy reliance on computer technology. The soundtrack was also stellar, as it incorporated music from the very same sources Tarantino was referencing on screen. I could have picked an art film, but really, if it comes down to it, if it is a choice between a slower, ponderous movie and a movie heavy on action, I will almost always pick the latter.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas: I remember being in the office of my university newspaper back in the spring of 1998 and watching a few people playing a top down action game that was just over-the-top violent, and although I didn't know it then, that was the first installment of a game series which would change my life and perspective on games in the following decade. If I had gotten on board with the Playstation 2 earlier in its lifespan, I know that this entry would be about GTA III or Vice City, but San Andreas was the first game in the series that I had played. As I've said many times in the past, this was the kind of game that I had wanted as a kid (the sandbox driving game), and while Driver had done much to whet my appetite for this kind of game, it was still limited in many ways. San Andreas was an experience that changed my decade and was instrumental in turning me into a gamer once more.

Sinfest: Started in January 2000, Sinfest was a breath of fresh air in terms of web comics. Yes, there are dirtier, edgier comics out there, ones that are more geek-friendly too, but Sinfest doesn't need to be those things to be great. I love the art style, the underlying messages and the commitment that creator Tatsuya Ishida has to put out a topical comic daily with characters I can care about and some rather biting social commentary, and it is topical without really dating itself. The fact that it does all those things while remaining funny is a testament to Ishida's talents.Featuring a cast of characters that include God, The Devil, Buddha, Death, a talking, pot smoking pig and numerous human characters, the comic has a lot going on and it has some good story arcs. It has a point of view, and it isn't afraid to court controversy, and I applaud it for that.

Launchcast as a Yahoo property: Launchcast has existed as an entity in the late 1990's, but it was when it became part of the Yahoo empire that I first noticed it. And the reason I started using the service had nothing to do with the music service at first. Rather, I was interested in watching music videos. This was back in mid-2002, before later video services like Youtube and the like made watching music videos a lot easier. I had also been a fan of internet radio for years, going so far as to start a Live365 station in October 2000, so when I discovered that you could create a personalized music station based on your tastes and continual ratings, well, I thought that was great too (which now sounds like a lot of services these days, doesn't it?). It certainly broadened my tastes when it came to music. Of course, that golden period has sort of come to an end with the decision to tie Yahoo! Music to CBS Radio, a move which destroyed personalized stations.

24: As a fan of this show, even I have to admit that there have been times that it has been hard to love this show, especially after that awful sixth season. However, on the whole, it has been a great experience. Started as a one season experiment in television narrative covering a single day in the life of counter terrorist unit superbadass Jack Bauer and Presidential Candidate Senator David Palmer in real time, the show quickly developed a following and it was picked up as a series. It isn't just the time-based format or the Brian De Palma-type split screening that makes this show so compelling, it is the fact that aside from an exception or two, anyone can die at any moment. Even with its missteps, it is still compelling television, and despite what some have said, it has been very timely and critical of the events that were going on in the real world during many of the seasons.

Mythbusters: Who would have thought a couple of ginger special effects guys would somehow change the world of television? I wouldn't have believed it back in 1999, but this is the little Discovery Channel show that could. At first, it was like with some explosions, but over the past 6 seasons, it has slowly evolved into a much larger entity, testing things from movies (with explosions), pseudoscience (with explosions), internet videos (with explosions) and even old sayings (with explosions AND thermite). Entertaining and educational, a rare combination, the show has become an institution, and it has led to a number of other shows which explore some of the same territory of mixing experimentation and fun. It has also made Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman stars in their own right. There is a term on the TV Tropes site which describes how over the top some of their attempts to replicate the results of some of the myths have become, and that term is Refuge in Audacity. That's what filling a cement truck with high explosives and literally vaporizing a stationary hatchback with a rocket powered sled certainly is. It is also awesome.

Freakonomics: A little work of non-fiction that took the world by storm. Written by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, this book found the freaky and at times controversial connections between various elements, like the similarities between the organizational structure of an urban crack dealing network and a Fortune 500 company, or the relationship between legalized abortion and crime rates. It was a work of non-fiction that got a lot of people talking, even if they didn't like what was said. But I think the important thing about this book and the discussion is unleashed was that things that seem like they are commmon sense may in fact be wrong, so even the most rudimentary of assumptions need to be examined. I look forward to reading the sequel to this book at some point.

The Corporation: Yes, there is a lot of creepy stuff in this documentary that I already knew about, but some of the stories are just beyond the pale and shook me to the core. The one I think of immediately when this documentary comes up is the tale told by Steven Wilson and Jane Akre's about their collective battle against a Fox affiliate who had told them they had free reign to investigate anything, but when they submitted their first finished report about a Monsanto bovine hormone that increased milk production, but also caused cancer, well, that was the beginning of a series of skirmishes between the parties involved and led to a court case that essentially said that a news organization can lie, and if you work there and you refuse to do so, you can be fired. There is also a woman who discusses her work a children's marketer, and just how much worse it is these days when compared with the kind of advertising I was exposed to as a kid (meaning how well they've been designed psychologically). And that is just the tip of the iceberg. It was a great counterpoint to the Michael Moore-style of documentary film making, and made me want to seek out other quality films in the same genre.

Hot Fuzz: I know there are people out there who would question this inclusion instead of the earlier Shaun of the Dead, but I've always been more partial to action movies than the exploits of those battling zombies, as shocking as that sounds. But what amazed me about this movie and still keeps me captivated by it to this day is it started off as a gentle little homage and it exceeded nearly every movie in the genre it was playing off of. That takes skill. The fact that they did that on a budget that wouldn't get a lot of romantic comedies off the ground is astonishing. It is a movie that took the cliches of the genre and constructed an edifice which is more impressive and seemingly effortless. And it certainly put those more expensive *blank* Movies to shame as well. I think given enough time, it may indeed achieve the same level of cult love as Shaun of the Dead, especially if Hollywood continues to make less intellectual buddy cop action comedies.

The Venture Bros: I will admit that when I first started watching the continuing adventures of the Venture clan years ago, it didn't really click to me that I was watching something which was going to blow my mind. But in taking in what the series encompassed, it really is awe inspiring. I think the thing that initially left me unimpressed at first was the episode endings, which seemed almost premature at times, as events didn't generally get full closure. But as I watched more of the episodes, I saw that the writers left a lot of little bits and pieces that eventually come back as the punchline to a joke, because they are indeed the masters of the long haul when it comes to payoff. And while the show is named after the Venture Brothers, it is their father and his bodyguard who are the real stars of the show, along with the various archvillains from the Guild of Calamitous Intent who seek to destroy them. The show also playfully made fun of a number of beloved cartoon and comic book heroes by showing slightly different aspects of their characters. Even though there isn't a huge number of episodes, in its relative brevity, it is a remarkably well-designed and implemented series.

I know that these are not the choices everyone would make, but then again, I am not everyone, I am just one man. I would love to hear your opinions about this list, and what choices you might make. I know at least one of my choices would definitely not make some of your own lists.


Maven said...

I'm a huge fan of Mythbusters (as well as Dirty Jobs) on Discovery.

I would have to include a few more genres:

1. The food genre. Eating disgusting things. Eating massive quantities. Eating around the world. Shows which include all three of those ideas. God I love the Travel Channel.

2. "Reality" TV." Without it, the masses wouldn't know the ins-and-outs of such folks as "The Half Ton Man," "The Man Whose Arms Exploded," "Little People, Big World," and relative new-comer, "Hoarders."

This type of programming has something for everyone, whether they be exhibitionist or voyeur. I, myself, don't tune into such things intentionally, more often than not, I'll be channel surfing, and then the "train wreck effect" kicks in and I just can't turn the channel further. It's all so horrible, I can't look away.

3. "Breeder-vision," shows which spotlight and damn near "fetish-ize" folks with big-to-enormous families (i.e. Jon & Kate Plus 8; The Duggars, etc).

Honorable Mention:

"Dr. 90210." Without him, the masses would probably have gone on their merry way without the knowledge that such things as vaginal rejuvenation and sphincter bleaching ever existed, and yet, NOW everyone needs them both, which IMHO bespeaks a deeper, more sinister problem in our (the US) culture of abysmally low self esteem.

For the most part, when I do watch TV, it's the Travel Channel or Discovery, just to avoid dealing with any other type of "reality" or worse, insipid programming which is neither amusing, nor entertaining nor enlightening. It all just makes me sad.

MC said...

Oh God, the Man Whose Arms Exploded... I remember that.

Arjan said...

Kill Bill is indeed awesome.

GTA: you never played #1? Ah the good times I had with that game.

Sinfest: I don't know how I came across it but after reading up on about 3 or 4 years of comics I stuck with it. Now when will he publish book 4 *and 5 and 6*

Tv series in general have been a big part of my last decade.

Mythbusters: just awesome.
I also really enjoy top gear.

Hot fuzz: there were probably really moments where I was rolling on the floor laughing.

Don't know the other things well or at all, but that freakonomics book sounds cool too.

MC said...

I played the first GTA... but it didn't really grab me in the same way as the 3D iterations of the Franchise.

Top Gear is pretty good too I admit.