This year sees a slew of films reaching milestone birthdays. Aoife Loughnane revisits two and wonders why pop cultural icons are worth celebrating?
American novelist Colson Whitehead puts it aptly when he says, “the insistent grey muck that was pop culture, was always merely there and underfoot. It stuck to our shoes and we tracked it through our lives.”
Pop culture is that grey muck stuck to our shoes; it is the books we devour as a child, the music we glower to as a teenager, and the movies we watch on Netflix on a rainy Saturday morning.
“Whether it’s through the ‘creature feature’ mutations of the Cold War era or the shadow of HIV that hangs over Rent, popular culture has always echoed the dreams and anxieties of the people who consume it,” brand specialist Lou Ellerton says.
And it seems that 2017 is the year when many significant pop culture films celebrate a big milestone anniversary.
These include The Jazz Singer, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, Annie Hall, Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever, My Cousin Vinny and Titanic, to name but a few.
Since their release, these pieces of cinema have gained pop culture status and are viewed as iconic.
“The films, plays and books that continue to appeal to us long after their immediate context has passed are those in which we find reflections of the things that concern us here and now: echoes of the future in the past,” Lou Ellerton explains.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Annie Hall are two great examples. They’re both very much of their time, but still manage to speak to audiences today,” she says.
Dinner and race
It has been fifty years since the first kiss between a black man and a white woman had its silver screen debut in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, the film was controversial upon its release due to the issues it explored: mixed-race marriage and feminism.
Poitier was the dinner guest in question, attending to meet his new fiancée Joey Drayton’s parents. However, both of their parents are shocked to discover that their children are intent on a marriage that will be interracial.
In 1960s America, while there was no nationwide anti-miscegenation laws, state laws, particularly in the southern states, prohibited marriage between a mixed race couple. Although attitudes towards mixed-race marriage are different today, the fact remains that tensions between different cultures persists. “The interracial tensions of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may have changed form, but they’re still around in an America that’s fifty years older,” Ellerton says.
Issues of feminism are also dealt with in the film. The 1960s were a decade of social, political and cultural upheaval. Women were demanding more in terms of workplace equality and reproduction rights amongst other reforms in what has become known as the second-wave of feminism.
As the film opens, Joey mentions that her mother owns a gallery. There is no expectation of her being in the kitchen, apron-clad and taking a tray of warm cookies out of the oven which would have been typical of that time.
The Boston Globe notes that the themes of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are still very much relevant in today’s society. The film portrays a turbulent time, but also reminds us that “although we have come a long way since 1967 in terms of race relations and attitudes, we still have a long way to go.”
Mrs. Prentice is responsible for Mr Drayton’s (Spencer Tracy) softening attitude towards the union between their son and Joanna. She argues that the couple are in love and reminds him of the love he first felt for his wife all of those years ago.
The powerful statement impacts all the more as it is a black women providing a white upper class man with a life lesson. An image like that was ground-breaking for its day yet in today’s increasingly unstable and scary world, it is an image of respect and equality that is important to remember.
The central themes of race and feminism are ones that are still contentious in today’s society and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is an outstanding film that broke down social barriers in 1967. It continues to do so half a century later.
Annie Hall, arguably Woody Allen’s greatest work, is also celebrating a milestone birthday this year: its 40th. The story follows the breakdown of a relationship between neurotic Alvy Singer (Allen) and Diane Keaton’s Annie.
The 1977 film has every ingredient to make the perfect slice of pop culture; quirky outfits (1970s masculine ties and waistcoats paired with feminine ruffles and a tennis racquet), impeccable punchlines, fourth wall breaks, and well, Woody Allen in every scene.
And in an age of overwhelming narcissism with hourly selfies, Allen’s masterpiece about a neurotic sociopath fits right in.
“The middle-class angst of Woody Allen’s first big hit keeps on hitting home with us in the twenty-first century,” says Lou Ellerton.
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The Best Play Ever features an article called ‘Annie Hall and Why Not To Expect Another’, explaining how the ground-breaking movie paved the way for the romantic comedy in Hollywood.
“Diane Keaton helped to create the archetype of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ from which most modern romantic comedies take their basis. Screenwriters began to pepper their tales equally with melodramatic laments and throwaway zingers in tribute to an instantly iconic movie.”
Annie Hall is a classic piece of cinema, and movie magic like Keaton and Allen’s on-screen chemistry is not easy to come by. Without it, we wouldn’t have many rom-coms that we know and love today.
The Instagram Age
Instagram has given a new lease of life to pop culture with many pages solely dedicated to celebrating it such as the aptly-named page Pop Kultcha. These popular Instagram feeds are littered with images from every film, TV show, book and person you can think of associated with popular culture.
It seems as though everyone is embracing films that are hidden gems or ‘oldies but goodies’, and putting them up on their own personal Instagram or Twitter or Facebook feeds. But why? Psychiatrist Dr Jim Taylor explains it in his article ‘Pop Culture: We Are What We Consume’.
Taylor dismisses psychologist Dr Lawrence Rubin’s description of pop culture as “an expression of our collective experiences.” He goes on to explain that while popular culture once reflected what society was interested in, now it does not. It is corporation-made with the aim to make money “then marketed as ‘must-haves’ which, admittedly, the masses then embraced.”
One commenter TerryS compares pop culture to fast food for the soul. “American Idol, People Magazine, iPods, and Brangelina are tasty and addictive. But, just as fast food isn’t healthy for the body, synth culture isn’t healthy for the soul. Neither provides real “nourishment;” our bodies, minds, and spirits remain hungry for real sustenance.”
In celebrating Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Annie Hall, are we marking how far society has come regarding the big issues, or is it just a self-indulgence fest where we can show on our Instagram feeds that we’re aware of these iconic films?
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A 2016 article by The Guardian predicted what the future of popular culture would look like. The conventional studio album will be extinct, the blockbuster era will have truly run its course, and alarmingly, “the act of going to the movies itself will likely become an expensive, high-culture sort of ritual, like the opera.”
Already you can see how popular culture is integrating more and more into our everyday lives, thanks to social media. You can get a degree in Harry Potter, do your thesis on Beyoncé or take numerous pop culture modules at different universities.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Annie Hall have such an enduring appeal because they deal with timeless issues, ones that we are still grappling with in 2017 and still will be in 2057.
Featured Image by Sally via Flickr, licensed by All Creative Commons