Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Born to the Metaverse: Scream 4 and the Future of Pop Culture

This is gonna contain some spoilers. Sorry, but it will. I'll try to flag the major ones, but if you really want to be surprised, you should probably stop reading right now. There's really no reason for that, though, because Scream 4 is by no means a good film. It's a slasher movie, and not a terrible one at that, but still just a slasher movie. The interesting aspects of it are entirely cultural: it's a window to the future. If you want to know what the next ten years are going to look like, you should see Scream 4. If you're a fan of the genre you might also want to see it, but I'm not going to talk about that here. I'm not a film critic, nor am I interested in what it did well with regard to film-making--I'm interested in it as a cultural phenomenon, and as a lens into the difference between youth culture 15 years ago (which is mainstream culture now), and youth culture today (which will become mainstream culture over the next 10 years). Scream 4 is one of the first definitive digital-native generation pieces. Here's why.

The original Scream was instrumental in mainstreaming the concept of explicit self-awareness in popular culture: as a friend pointed out to me, it certainly wasn't the first major movie to play around with genre-awareness (Pulp Fiction, at least, beat it by a few years), but it certainly was the first major movie to do it so explicitly: the characters inScream talked about the conventions of the teen slasher genre, and the film was largely predicated on the novelty of such meta-commentary: the characters used their knowledge of genre conventions to survive. It was a slasher film about people who knew something about slasher films. This was prescient: Scream came out in 1996, and it would be precisely that kind of self-referential meta-commentary that would come to define the popular culture contributions of the 2000s--think of the difference between the humor of The Simpsons in the 90s and the humor of Family Guy in the 2000s for another good illustration of this. Scream was a trend-setter in presaging the rise of what technology writers have called "remix culture:" the artistic style of creating novel creative works by recombining the elements of existing works, and feeding popular culture back into itself. Whatever you think of this phenomenon (FUCK OFF JARON LANIER!), there's absolutely no question that it was the definitive cultural innovation of the 2000s; the kind of entertainment that people my age (what I call "young immigrants" to the digital world) grew up on was largely predicated on playing around with self-referentiality.

For most digital natives, though, this isn't anything new or original. Remix culture isn't an innovation--it's just the way things are. The oldest digital natives were only 3 or 4 years old when the original Scream came out; that generation is now starting to graduate from high school, go off to college, and make its own mark on popular culture. Scream 4 is the embodiment of that mark. HERE COME SOME SPOILERS. The movie opens with several rapid "frame shifts." We get a few really bloody kills immediately, but after each one, the movie zooms out to reveal that the scene was actually taken place inside a slasher movie (a thinly-veiled version of the Scream franchise itself called Stab) that other people were watching. The new characters pick apart the genre for a while, and are then killed. This process repeats (if I recall) three or four times. By the last zoom-out, the whole thing is just patently ridiculous--people in the theater were either groaning or (like me) laughing. At this point, it's really unclear where the movie is going; this whole process takes somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes, and I was buckled in for a really awful movie: I thought it was just going to be another sequel recycling the now decades-old trick of genre awareness. But that's not what happened.

This early absurd level of meta-humor is essential for what follows. Like a tasteless sorbet, it cleanses the palate, erasing all traces of what came before, and opening the way for you to appreciate the new flavor of what's going to follow. It gets all the issues about self-awareness and meta-commentary right out in the open immediately, loudly, and exaggeratedly. This is surely deliberate, and the message comes through loud and clear: yes, yes, there's meta commentary going on here. That's obvious, and it's been done. Let's get all of this right out in the open. If Scream was meta, Scream 4 is post-meta: not just self-aware about horror film conventions, but self-aware about self-aware film conventions. This lets the meta aspects of the film fade into the background from that point forward: this isn't the gimmick driving the film anymore, but just a fact of life, and part of the scenery against which the rest of the narrative plays out. Everyone not only knows about the horror film conventions, but everyone knows that they know this: it's just assumed that everyone is constantly analyzing what's going on at a higher level of abstraction (or, at least all the youngcharacters; more on this in a bit).


One of the early frames is worth mentioning in particular: it plays out the "Facebook stalker who comes to kill you" sort of plot. The girls being stalked and killed have slightly out-of-date slider phones, adding a weird sense of one-off anachronism; this is exactly the kind of thing that an actual movie would have been about just a few years ago, but now it's passe. After the characters in the frame are slashed by the FB stalker, the "zoom out" commentary remarks about how "it would be a twitter stalker today." This frame in particular has the effect of not only getting meta-commentary out of the focus and into the background, but also of getting technology out of the focus and into the background. Everyone in Scream 4 (or, again, every teen character) has a smartphone that's constantly connected to the Internet, but that fact isn't in the least gimmicky in the way that it would have been just five years ago; social networking is portrayed with perfect versimillitude, and the presence of ubiquitious computing and information is--just like the generalmeta-commentary--presented as just a normal feature of the world. Characters transition seamlessly between real-world interaction and digital interaction, and everyone just takes this as a matter of course. The fact that everyone is constantly connected to everyone else (and the Web) is no longer a novelty to be played with, but rather is just a fact in the same way that everyone's having access to a car is just a fact. Someone who knows more about the history of the genre than I do could probably point to a time when that transition took place--when teengers with automobiles ceased to be a novelty driving (so to speak) a horror film's plot, and just became transparently there. Digital technolgy in Scream 4 is perfectly transparent: ubiquitous and taken for granted.

Or, again, at least for the younger characters. Part of the film's brilliance is the degree to which it nails the weird sort of techno-gulf between the older generation (Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox, the heroines of the first film) and the new generation of high-school aged victims. Neve Campbell was supposed to be a teenager in the first film, which would put her in her very late 20s or early 30s now. She's right on the older edge of the young-immigrant generation, and is by far the most competent of her generation's characters in this film. The rest of the older characters are portrayed as relatively bumbling incompetents who are always a few steps behind (largely in virtue of their reliance on landline phones and radio communication). SPOILER. At one point, Courteney Cox's reporter character, in a vain attempt to remain relevant, sneaks into an underground film festival to plan cameras, which transmit via closed-circuit to her laptop in front of the building (as she sets them up, she congratulates herself on her relevance, saying something like "still got it!"). This would have been the height of technology in the first film, but in light of the fact that the high school's gossip-blog owner spends the entire film wearing (I shit you not) a live-streaming wireless webcam mounted on a headset (a fact which no one ever remarks on), it looks comically archaic. Her cameras are promptly disabled by the killer, and she gets stabbed when she tries to go fix them. This is what you get for using wires, 30-somethings.

The iconic trivia scene from the first film is also replayed, but it seems bizarrely out of place by the time it comes around: we've spent the whole film stewing in the fact that everyone knows everything about everyone all the time (none of the younger-generation characters are ever missing for more than a minute or two at a time, and are consistently tracked down with technology when they disappear for even a second), and so the idea that being able to simply recite a list of facts would possibly have any relevance to anything seems laughable: all that trivia knowledge that was so impressive in 1996 is just a Wikipedia search away for all characters all the time now. That point is hammered home by the single classroom scence in the film, in which a balding history instructor vainly tries to take control of a totally disinterested audience of students, each and every one of which has a smartphone out, and isn't paying attention. Behind the teacher, the phrase NO GOOGLING!! is written on the chalkboard in all capital letters. The irrelevance of normal education in light of the informal education made possible by the devices that all the students are carrying (and the teacher's frantic attempts to maintain the orthodox approach to pedagogy) practically slaps you in the face, and it is awesome.

All of this comes to a final head when the killer is revealed near the end. I'm not going to reveal which of the characters it really is, but MAJOR SPOILER he/she is one of the younger generation, and gives a long tirade about the role of the Internet, at one point yelling "We all live in public now, and to be famous you don't have to do anything great; you just have to do something fucked up. I don't want friends--I want fans." I wish I could find a copy of the film to find this speech again, because there was a lot more to it; I'll come back and revise this once I have a chance to see the movie again, but it makes many of the themes I've been pointing to here at least somewhat explicit, and also reveals the movie's greatest flaw--even though it's aware of these issues, it's ultimately still being directed, written, and produced not by digital natives (or even young immigrants), but by folks from the Old Country. In the end, all of this ubiquitious computing is cast very negatively, and it's suggested that the killer was driven to this in virtue of being immersed in a culture that encourages shallowness, extreme pragmatism ("we are whatever we need to be," says the killer), and amoral narcissism. SPOILER When the killer is finally defeated (by the just-barely-still-relevant Campbell), it is with a set of defibrilation paddles--the ultimate wired, analog technolgy finally triumphing over the digital menace.

If you want to see what the world is going to look like as the next generation starts to assume power, this is the movie to watch. You can see the writing on the wall here; the characters were born in the metaverse, and treat ubiquitous digital technology, social networking, self-referentiality, and remix culture not as novelties, but simply as part of the background against which they operate. These things are moving out of the fringes and being integrated into the mainstream of popular culture; as that move happens, it opens the door for new ways to define genre, and starts to suggest new conventions. This is beyond simple remix; the meta aspect of the 2000s has started to settle down and become just another facet of creative culture as a generation born to the Web starts to define itself in contrast to those who have come before. It's very, very exciting to watch.