In her Salon article on the Snakes on a Plane hype, Aemilia Scott manages to name-drop both Chuck Klosterman and Theodor Adorno in the space of just a couple of paragraphs, criticizing both Klosterman’s “prefab populism” thesis and Adorno’s “culture industry” thesis as inadequate explanations for the enthusiasm for Snakes on a Plane, basing her argument in part on the film’s unusually specific title and on the studio’s decision to tap into the blogosphere as a massive focus group, reading both as illustrating the ways in which Snakes exposes the artifice of Hollywood film production.
Like Scott, I’ve argued that there’s nothing new about testing films on audiences (whether through test screenings or reading blogs), leaving me relatively unconvinced by Klosterman’s argument that Snakes on a Plane will usher in a new era of prefab populism. Scott also notes that the film likely was not conceived as a “ready-made cult classic,” that it was likely originally imagined as a standard-fare summer action pic (she called it a “PG-13 snoozer,” while I called it a “PG-13 yawner”). In this context, I find Scott’s reading to be relatively convincing. The audience enthusiasm for the trailer has less to do with “honest” cult directors such as John Waters and more to do with our boredom with Bruckheimer-style blockbusters (although given Pirates’ boffo box office, we’re obviously not that bored). This positioning is implied in Snakes’ playful trailer, which offers the film as an alternative to the pirates, Pixar, and superheroes who’ve been dominating the megaplex. So, yeah, arguably, part of the film’s appeal is the film’s tacit acknowledgement “that the industry itself doesn’t believe in its own magic.”
However, Scott misreads Adorno in order to dismiss the relevance of his critique of what he calls “the culture industry,” using Adorno’s pessimism to stand in for all cultural critics. Building on the false assumption that Adorno believed that exposing the artifice of the culture industry would lead to “riots” against the status quo, Scott argues that “Americans don’t just love the culture industry; they fetishize it. But Americans are also savvier than most theoreticians believe. The lamest and most transparent attempts of the culture industry to deceive us are defeated not by outright rejection, but by assimilation.” I don’t think this exposure of the artifice is all that unusual. In fact, DVD commentary tracks, blooper tracks, and making-of videos constantly call attention to the ways in which films are constructed. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to argue that sites such as Box Office Mojo and strategy games such as Hollywood Mogul have also contributed to our knowledge o fthis artifice. But I think her more explicit argument, that cultural critics believe all audience members to be passive dupes, is probably the most insidious one. Quite a bit of cultural studies scholarship in recent years has sought to investigate how audiences use poular culture in a variety of ways, including ways that are remarkably resistant to the initial attempts at “deception,” a concept she never quite defines clearly (who is deceived by Hollywood? what is the nature of this deception?).
I’m still not convinced that Snakes on a Plane represents anything more than a remarkably savvy, if accidental, marketing coup by the folks at New Line, but I continue be interested in the promotion of the film and the online discussions of this promotion (which are pretty much inseparable at this point).
Update: Via the Cult News Network, a report that New Line will be skipping press screenings for Snakes on a Plane so that they can take the film “directly to the fans” (which seems to assume that critics aren’t also, potentially, fans). The decision to release the film to “select theaters” before opening widely seems pretty savvy, though, as internet/blog buzz will be far more important in promoting this film than two thumbs up from Ebert and Roeper.