Thursday, May 21, 2009

The invisible influence

A few years ago, when I was young(er) and dumb(er), I remember asking my mother what was the big deal about the Beatles. They had a ton of famous songs, but they really did not sound all that much better than other bands. Catchy, yes, but nothing that no one else was doing. My poor mother might be not a pop culture junkie, but gave me the perfect answer: "you don´t know how dull music was before the Beatles came around".

The Beatles is only one example of band, movie, game or TV show that does not look all that impressive for the untrained eye, mainly because they have been so massively influential that they don´t look all that exceptional anymore.

For someone that did not had to slog across the dreadful movies of the eighties, "Pulp Fiction" is just another clever post modern artifact. Yeah, wicked script, clever writing, tons of witty quotes and cute time line gimmicks. As artifacts go, it is a very shinny one, but it is not that different. Of course, that misses the point that movies got a whole lot better after/because "Pulp Fiction", basically because they were shamelessly ripping it off. The movie was such a change of direction that it is easy to forget what it spawned.

We have this kind of movies across the decades, hidden in plain sight. "North by Northwest" is just another clever action thriller; of course, it just invented the whole idea. "Jaws" it is just another summer blockbuster - just the one that invented the concept. "Night of the Hunter" basically invented the psychokiller movie. Even "Citizen Kane" is only obviously great if you have watched some of the stilted wrecks that were typical of the era - movies that no one watches anymore.

The same goes for TV shows (and that´s why "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is awesome, kids), videogames ("Ocarina of Time", "Half Life", or even "Super Mario Bros"), music (Joy Division, for instance), comics (Watchmen) or even novels (Don Quixote, if I have to be a snob). Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but sometimes it has the side effect that it makes your work invisible - what you added to the art gets such a widespread use that it is easy to forget that you are the one that brought it to life.

And yes, "Buffy" is that kind of show. One hour drama with long arch plots, character focused episodes (no, Lost did not come up with that), irony, pop culture references galore and smarty-pants self awareness looks common now, but it wasn´t used all that often a few years ago. But that´s a discussion for another post, where we workship the Whedon as he deserves.

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