Why Does Pop Matter?

Patrick Schabe

Reading a magazine called PopMatters, you would probably expect to find out why Pop matters? What is the purpose of Pop? Is there a difference between Pop and popular when we talk about culture? Is popular culture study a convenient excuse for wasting intellectual resources, or is it the most vital issue in contemporary society?

Reading a magazine called PopMatters, you would probably expect to find out why Pop matters? What is the purpose of Pop? Is there a difference between Pop and popular when we talk about culture? Is popular culture study a convenient excuse for wasting intellectual resources, or is it the most vital issue in contemporary society? If you read a magazine called PopMatters without asking those kind of questions, you're missing out on the point.

Popular culture is all around us, everyday. We have many names for it: Information Society, Junk Culture, Mass Media, and Crap are some of the most common. Each of those labels applies to a specific aspect of the synergistic process of popular culture, but none of those can really come close to appreciating the totality of the idea. Popular culture is itself a system, not a fixed and located place where a communication exchange occurs. What we experience as the fluctuating waves of an ocean of data, sensory input and intellectual rationality is the influence of popular culture in our lives.

Fine, fine, fine. But what use is it to debate the feminist angle of the Dinah Shore Show, or whether Martin Scorsese is a more important director than Spike Lee, or whether Marilyn Manson and the Backstreet Boys have more in common with each other than either does with the Beatles? The answer lies not in the analysis, but in the reason for analysis. Popular culture is the culture of communication, not the data that it transfers from one computer to another, one brain to another. The data is the cellular matter of the living organism, but it is only in the communication process that it lives. How we interpret the data, the values and meanings we assign, the signs and signifiers, these are the "places" that popular culture happens.

Cultural anthropology in the academic tradition has long been wrapped up in the confines of comparing the workings of a dead culture to our own in an attempt to learn from the past what is happening in the present. This is all well and good, for it supplies us with the understanding of our origins and the evolution of society, which we need, but it does little to delve into the present. Because we exist in a living culture, it is assumed that we all experience that culture in relatively equal ways. However, the communications bridges built throughout the twentieth century allowed us to experience the world as en emergent global society. Yet, as the world grows smaller in the scale of reach, it grows larger in the scope of culture. Alexander Graham Bell could be attributed with the Western discovery of Taiwanese cuisine as well as he could the telephone. As technology developed, so did our ability to communicate with cultures outside of our own, and as that happened our cultural knowledge expanded exponentially.

Today, we, the world at large, are living in a society that allows American children to become obsessive fanatics over a Japanese cartoon show turned trading card phenomenon (which is itself a chaotic system's reiteration of the earlier influence of American baseball and baseball cards on Japan). When we put forth a cultural product in today's society, we are faced with the possibility of it becoming iconographic, representing a popular archetype, or fizzling into obscurity, but not before being transported to the rest of the world, to influence culture on a global scale. Aborigines in Australia wear Lee jeans. This is how popular culture has become its own system.

So studying it becomes vitally important. We need to understand our living system if we are to understand our own lives. The culture that surrounds us allows for our own self-definitions, and in that act it becomes personal. Popular culture study is self-reflection. We don't need to learn about tribal customs among native Amazonians to figure out why we do these crazy things. We need to open our minds to the hidden eddies and currents of the culture around us. The popular in the phrase "popular culture" is meant to indicate that it is the culture of our mass society, not the culture of secluded groups. When we study popular culture, we study the myths, ideas, and information that we communicate to one another, the things that influence our daily lives and color our outlooks on life.

One of the things that makes magazines like PopMatters and other like it crucial to the continued exploration of our popular cultural space is that we are only now, in the last quarter century, beginning to realize that our daily lives are worth some serious attention. We are also fast approaching the end of a century of deconstruction, an attempt of science and theory to take everything apart until the basic units of our lives until we are at the essence of who we are and what we believe. This deconstruction has left us with many methods of analysis, but not many answers. At the extreme of the deconstruction spectrum is the idea that the combination of object and observer creates the only reality we can be sure of. It is this assignment of meaning that magazines like this one attempt to explore.

Pop matters because it is a part of us, the essential element of our communication and expression in a postmodern world. This little essay cannot answer the questions I posited at the beginning of my rant, but magazines like PopMatters can. They are essentially the basis of the new ontology, and an explanation in 2,000 words or less would paint a picture of our contemporary society as fairly simple and two-dimensional, but just by looking around we can see that it's anything but. Magazines that explore popular culture, through examinations and theories and reviews, help all of us come to a fuller appreciation for the 3-D, 4-D, or 5-D worlds we inhabit. In that, we interpret our surroundings, our humanity, and ourselves. That is why pop matters. That is why PopMatters.

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In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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