A map of memes (who produces culture now?)

There’s an ad playing on TV that has a graphic novel (aka comic book) artist, saying

"we like to think of ourselves as the people who do the R&D for Hollywood"

This notion was still circulating in my head when, Wednesday, I finally got to see V for Vendetta.  And it was easy to see the scenes that sprang from the graphic novel.  It reminded me of early Hollywood movies where you can still see the signatures of the stage play from which they came.

Today, I noticed that there is a new book out by Richard Zoglin called Comedy at the Edge.  Zoglin describes the rise of the comedy club and its influence on TV and film.  And it’s true; so many Hollywood stars began in comedy (Richard Prior, Jim Carrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Catherine O’Hara, Drew Carey, Liley Tomlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Tiny Fey, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Larry David, Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris), and so many shows go straight from the comedian’s club persona straight to the screen (Roseann, Home Improvement, Everyone Loves Raymond, The Drew Carey Show, The Larry David Show, etc.)  R & D indeed.

It’s no surprise to think that Hollywood steals from everyone.  But this favorite 90s metaphor conceals a more interesting creative process and the possibility of a larger cultural shift.  I mean, was there a moment when Hollywood "rolled it’s own," when the studios created both the cultural forms and the entertainment that sprang from it?   Noir certainly came from the world of fiction, but Hollywood did something more than steal it.  Action-adventure, surely that’s largely Hollywood’s own.

And if between stage plays and comic books, Hollywood was producing its own, how is it that it was once again obliged to look "outside the box" for ideas.  I am assuming that, left to its druthers, Hollywood would prefer to invent things in-house.  I mean, who wants to deal with those quirky comic book guys if you don’t have to.  If we can do our own production, we do.

The other question, the anthropological one, is whether we could capture the net givers and takers of cultural inspiration.  More than most culture, ours is a place where meanings are in constant motion.  And not because Baudrillard was right to say they have been emptied of significance and now chance one another deliriously in popular culture.  This is wrong, and you would have to be a French academic to think it even vaguely plausible in the first place.  Happily, it looks as if the Humanities and Social Sciences that embraced this lunacy are now coming to their senses (see Menand below). 

The question is this: can we identify and locate all the new producers for Hollywood?   It’s a long list: graphic novels, sports celebrities, the comedy world, youth cultures (several and various), other national cinemas, the avant-garde (music and film), other creative worlds (e.g., The Devil Wears Prada), and what else… 

This is the sort of thing Richard Florida should be able to do.  And this would be a glorious contribution to our understanding of contemporary culture.  We need to see where all the ideas are coming from, by what means they "diffuse" to a place like Hollywood, who does the retrofitting, and how ideas are changed in the process, and what happens to contemporary culture as a result.  How porous is it?  How mobile are the ideas within it?  What turbulence is created as a result of swift passage?  What producing stations are becoming more important

The image above describes flight patterns in North America.  Planes, I mean.  What if it were a map of memes? 

References

Menand, Louis. 2005. Dangers Within and Without. Profession 2005. Rosemary G. Feal. editor. New York: Modern Language Association.

Zoglin, Richard.  2008.  Comedy at the edge: How stand-up in the 1970s Changed America.  New York: Bloomsbury.

Warning: Quote approximate.

6 thoughts on “A map of memes (who produces culture now?)”

  1. Great post. Two thoughts come to mind. First, with the cost of big budget movies running from $80-120 million dollars, it’s no surprise that studios are looking for subject matter with built in audiences and proven concepts (comic books, best selling novels, and hit plays) to hedge their bets. Second, it is also worth noting that influence of foreign cinema on Hollywood. For example, American remakes of Asian horror movies is turning Hollywood into a cultural importer as well as exporter. Even if the exporting of culture still outweighs the imports by far, the shift overall is good.

  2. baudrillard was not too far off topic, i d say.
    your whole post seems to illustrate that, grant. – if i understand you correctly you speak of hollywood as those who set the cultural agenda in the US. … – the land of the free and flying memes. …the french are not always right – but in this case i think they were at least not completely wrong.

  3. ok – let me correct my above comment a little bit: you are actually saying the opposite of what i hastily read from it… happens.

  4. Interesting that Alan Moore (who wrote the V for Vendetta comics) had his name removed from the movie adaptation.

    That suggests that the film-makers were doing more than just putting someone else’s ideas up on the screen (and that something else they contibuted was not to the writer’s taste).

  5. Interesting that Alan Moore (who wrote the V for Vendetta comics) had his name removed from the movie adaptation.

    That suggests that the film-makers were doing more than just putting someone else’s ideas up on the screen (and that something else they contibuted was not to the writer’s taste).

  6. Alan Moore is a prickly guy. In an interview he didn’t make any specific objections–he just generally seemed not to be able to tolerate the Hollywood people and process.

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