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Vacation is Here–Beach Party Tonight!

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For those of you too old, too young, or too sensible, the title of this post is a line from the theme song to a movie called Beach Party, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.  It came out in the early 1960s, after Kennedy and the pill but before middle class college students started rioting in the streets and everybody seemed either to be overdoxing or assassinated.

I’ve got Beach Party stuck in my head because it was on TCM yesterday as I was flipping through channels desperately looking for some advance notice about today’s weather.  We’ve got another big storm moving in this afternoon, but since a lot of the public school systems are on winter break, the closings lists on the local television stations don’t look anywhere near as impressive as they did the last time.   It’s also hard to get find weather bulletins and even harder to get plowed out, since the roads people are likely to decide that if nobody lives on your road who is either a medical professional or on emergency alert for a heart condition, you can wait.

Welcome to New England, which is, sort of, what I want to talk about today.  That, and Annette Funicello.  I’m having one of those mornings when everything seems to connect.

To begin with, I was thinking about what I’d said yesterday, not the depressing part–well, some of it–but the part about how I don’t read much fiction that is new. 

Part of that, I think, is the Frankie and  Annette syndrome.   I’m  nobody’s Communist.  And, except on social issues,  I’m nobody’s radical, either.  I don’t think that corporations are the evil supervillains of the world, or that they’re out to destroy the planet, or that they’d just as soon murder you for profit as put out a press release. 

What I do think is that corporations are what they are and do what they do.  Complaining that Megacorp is fixated on raising its profits is like complaining that lions eat gazelles.  They are what they are.  They do what they do.

And corporations are very good at some things, assuming they’re being intelligently run.  There’s the economies of scale thing–it makes the lives of a great many people much better if they can afford things like DVD players and washing machines instead of having to live without them.   Yes, goodness knows, the damned stores are tacky and they force some Mom and Pop operations out of business, but I live in the mecca of Mom and Pop businesses and some of them deserve to go out of business.  I’m not the woman on the zoning board with her entire life invested in keeping the town quaint.

The other thing corporations are good at is planning, and that’s a wonderful thing.  Many of the most important projects in any industrial society takes years, and sometimes decades, to bring to fruition–new drugs, new bridges, new buildings.  Planning requires the ability to predict the consequences of our actions, however, and that’s where corporations have and  probably always will get into trouble in the arts. 

I don’t care if your media is mass or niche, the simple fact of the matter is that it’s damned near impossible to predict what the public is going to respond to next Tuesday, never mind a couple of years from next Tuesday, in music, painting, theater, film, or fiction.  What’s more, the actual element that the public responds to is not quantifiable, or rationalizable (is that a word?), in the way the elements of things like cell phones or videogame systems are.  

The reason Frankie and  Annette are on my mind is that they’re a perfect example of what happens when a corporation tries to predict what its public–in this case, early Sixties teenagers and pre-teens–will like.  It has some vague idea of what the elements of previously popular movies have been (protagonists in the right age group, surfing) and what else is popular with that same audience (rock and roll music).  It sets its people the project of putting those elements together to make a popular film. 

The Beach Party movies existed because the Gidget movies existed.  The Gidget movies were lame but basically honest B flicks that got a little extra boost because their star, Sandra Dee, turned out to resonate with a fair chunk of the teen-aged public.   The Beach Party movies were dishonest in every possible way, and they’ve come down to us as paragons of badly acted phoniness. 

This is, I think, my problem with a lot of contemporary fiction, and especially contemporary “best selling” fiction.  Publisher do today with that fiction what American International Studios did with the Beach Party movies:  they have a vague idea of what is already “popular,” and they try to find authors and editors who will take those disparate elements and put them together in a single package.

This is the only explanation I have for the “cozy,” a subgenre theoretically meant to reproduce the Golden Age world of amateur sleuths and country villages.   Ask any of the dozens of cozy writers now throwing books into the mix at your local  Barnes and Noble, and they’ll tell you that their inspiration is Agatha  Christie.

But  Agatha Christie didn’t write “cozies.”  Her books are spare, not jokey, and although they’re stripped of the kind of vulgarity that would have made them seem more “realistic,” they’re very realistic indeed when it comes to murder methods and the psychology of murderers and their victims.  Miss Marple says at one point in Nemesis that she believes in evil, everlasting life and goodness, and she’s being entirely serious.  She is never cute.

It’s rational “planning” for a best seller that seems to me to explain the endless stream of serial killer books that have poured out of publishers in the last fifteen years, books that by and large all have exactly the same plot and exactly the same focal character.   It’s not even a new character, although Thomas Harris did some new things with it, and the rest of the serial killer writers have stampeded along behind.  Hannibal Lecter is Dr. Moriarity with very bad habits.  His imitators are a mind numbing array of obsessional losers with charter subscriptions to the kind of Internet web sites that depend heavily on clothes pins and goats.

I don’t read much contemporary fiction because too much of what I read is Frankie and Annette–a consciously constructed attempted to hit the best seller lists by writing something “the same, only different” from hat’s hit the best seller lists before. 

There’s nothing terribly evil about trying to do this, about trying to rationalize the process.  The only real problem with it is that it doesn’t work, and I think it may in fact decrease the audience for books overall.  A book is a larger investment of time than a Frankie and Annette movie.  If you’re not used to reading to begin with and you pick up the equivalent of Beach Blanket Bingo, the chances are good that you’re going to think that books are less interesting or worthwhile than movies, especially if the movies you’re comparing it to are Schindler’s List or even Ocean’s Eleven.

The need of corporations to plan explains the mania Hollywood has for sequels and the penchant many publishers have for series–it worked once, maybe it will work again.  And remember, it’s the phoniness I’m complaining about, not the mindlessness.  It’s harder to make “serious, thoughful” stuff phone, but it can be done.  Take a look at big whacking hunks of the hard boiled private eye tradition.

I wish  I knew what it would take to jump start a viable network of alternatives that could still be significant enough to get those alternatives into the consciousness of the general public.  Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the phoniness problem.  I Love Lucy and Perry Mason were far more honest than Full House and the myriad versions of Law and Order.

I’ve been listening to people all week who describe the period we’ve just been thorugh as “a new Gilded Age,” but I don’t think that’s right.  I don’t think this is a new Gilded Age, but a new Roaring Twenties, a time in which youth and money were the only criteria for judging anything, a time when those two things acted like a tidal wave, wiping everything else out.  

Robert notes that out of those mistakes and the mess they made of the world, we got the Greatest  Generation.  I’d say we also got Robert Frost and Alan Ginsberg, Charles Mingus and James Brown.

And I’m sinking into the slough of despond again.  Who’d have guess that a slough would be this big?

Happy New Year, everybody, and better books in all our futures…

Written by janeh

December 31st, 2008 at 8:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Vacation is Here–Beach Party Tonight!'

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  1. Sometimes the ‘do it again’ thing works, at least for the purposes of making money.

    I mentioned I read fantasy. This includes vampire novels (I rather like the name ‘vampire shagger’ for some of the newer ones!) Of course, in recent years, this sub-genre has expanded incredibly, presumably for exactly the big-corporation reasons you describe. Due to having only 24 hours in a day and other things I like to read, I’ve read an increasingly small percentage of the total oeuvre, not including the ‘Twilight’ series. I did see the movie, and by all accounts doing yet another remake of a vampire movie seems to have been a great success!

    My own opinion was considerably less positive (as John knows, since I emailed him about it). I really don’t understand a teenaged girl who has no interests or ambitions outside her obsession with the local Bad Boy. I know they exist (at least for brief periods during their adolescence), but their story simply doesn’t grip me.

    Maybe I’m too old. Finding the girl’s father more attractive than the romantic lead, who inspired a desire to tell him to brush his hair and stop sulking might have been a sign of this!

    It’s hard to remember when engulfed in them, but sloughs of despond, however big, do eventually drain away.


    31 Dec 08 at 11:34 am

  2. I believe you will find the length of the American Standard Slough to be two good nights’ sleep–alarm clock NOT set–and one first-rate meal in a restaurant. In an emergency, hot tea, asprin and popcorn may help one traverse the slough.

    Don’t despair! Even if no one planned, any successful work of art leads to imitation. Unimaginative writers, backed by equally unimaginative publishers or producers, see how close they can come without actually being sued for copyright violations, and Sturgeon’s Revelation is once more proven. This is inevitable, but only really harmful if one is a publisher, studio head or critic.

    The good news is that talented writers also pay attention to their fellows. Some of them are able to pick out what made the earlier work appealing, and that way, you get golden ages: swashbucklers from TREASURE ISLAND to THE BLACK SWAN, detective novels from Holmes to Wolfe, and science fiction in the Age of Campbell. But the golden ages and the eras of imitation happen at the same time.

    We tend to see only the golden age in retrospect because by then the bad imitations are forgotten and the classic titles and authors are well known. We are now, I think, in a golden age of romantic comedy in book form–but that doesn’t mean no one’s writing dreck.

    And, of course, every now and then someone will rudely insist on writing something that can’t be “pitched” easily, since it’s a type not seen before, or one thought to be dead. And then a Conan Doyle, a Hammett, a Heyer or a Tolkien winds up creating an entire genre. As long as there are enough publishers or studios, someone will be desperate enough to give the new idea a try, and then the pattern repeats.

    And meantime all the Good Stuff written since the invention of moveable type is available to us within two or three days. Keep a used paperback or a library discard of the best so you can loan it to a young person. If you’ve picked the right combination of book and young person, they’ll want to know if there’s any more like that.

    Books may come off high-speed presses in hundreds of thousands, but book lovers are still individually hand-crafted.


    31 Dec 08 at 6:32 pm

  3. I tend to think there was a different reason for the “Beach” movies (I show one of them to my “History of Rock and Roll” class, and they throw popcorn at the screen as they laugh). It occurred to me several years ago that every teen idol of the Dick Clark era made at least one movie . . . and that several young movie stallions made at least one record (whether they could sing or not). It was simply squeezing the asset for all the juice there was; it was maximum exposure. The teens (really, the girls) would pay to see the movies and to buy the records. It made $en$e.

    Since I was a teen during those years, I can personally vouch for the fact that we would have paid money to watch our favorite teen idol take a nap. And somebody with authority knew it!

    To follow the rest of your thread, though, my indulgent but wise parents dragged me to Bach concerts, art museums, and historic sites . . . and insisted that I read classical literature to balance out the movie mags I so dearly loved. It worked!


    3 Jan 09 at 8:29 am

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