It’s practically inevitable that the culture and thinking I absorb eventually seeps into my writing. But this week offered one of the best chances for application ever.
I’m about halfway through Chuck Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong?” This collection of cultural criticism applies a futuristic lens to the present day, removing our contemporary moorings from the equation and attempting to predict how later generations will see us. One big thesis is fairly depressing: most culture gets forgotten, and often what lasts cannot be appreciated in its own time. A group of people must find something in the work that its original audience was not able to see or fully grasp.
Not even thinking about the potential connection to the book, I watched 2001’s “Josie and the Pussycats” this week. For whatever reason, I have been on a bit of a late ’90s-early ’00s culture kick recently, so this felt like a natural thing to finally see. And wow, was I in for a surprise. This choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” has an additional sense of urgency thanks to Klosterman’s writing. 15 years after its release, we need to start reappraising the movie and appreciating it as an eerily prescient and wickedly smart comedy.
I was eight years old when the film was released, so I can do only the most basic reconstruction of the 2001 moviegoer. But I can imagine just how easy it would be to mistake “Josie and the Pussycats” for the kind of mindless schlock it mercilessly mocks. Just read the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus, presumptively from the theatrical release: “This live-action update of ‘Josie and the Pussycats’ offers up bubbly, fluffy fun, but the constant appearance of product placements seems rather hypocritical.”
Even in the decade or so since this film hit screens, Americans are seemingly more aware of the consumerism in which our culture is so heavily steeped. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying with a straight face nowadays that “Josie and the Pussycats” is an endorsement of this relentless corporate bludgeoning; after all, we have endured the rise of Kardashianism as well as the reality show non-commercial product spotlights that surged as traditional advertising fell. And need any further proof of how insidious this ideology is? Don’t forget what George W. Bush told Americans to do in the wake of 9/11, just six months after the film was released – go shopping.
Writer/director duo Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan wisely chose to steep their modern Josie and the Pussycats story in this culture because, after all, rock has become more an empty signifier than a vital musical movement. It is dominated and controlled more by elites and executives than the people from whom it traditionally arose. This acknowledgement of a sad reality makes the traditional “behind the music” tale more than rote repetition of a cliché; it exposes the corporate logic behind that narrative becoming a cliché. When record companies can pre-package starlets into familiar stories, it dumbs down their consumers and allows them to slip in some more subliminal messages to purchase other goods.
This kind of cynical, conspiratorial thinking might have seemed far-fetched in 2001. Sadly – or perhaps encouragingly, depending on your vantage point – it feels oddly plausible in 2016. And if you have any doubt, pay attention to the record executive Wyatt Frame, played by Alan Cumming, and his frequent fourth wall-breaking winks to the audience. It’s a look that says, “you hate this, but you know you’ll be buying Starbucks later today because of this.” There are signs for hope that our society has latched onto some of the thinking espoused by “Josie and the Pussycats.” But is it too late to reverse the cultural direction that relegated this film to the sidelines of discussion for so long?