For weeks now, the excitement has been building, among the young, and the young-at-heart, over that magic day when the man in the funny red suit arrives. I am speaking of course of Ron Burgundy, and the release of Anchorman 2, the sequel to Anchorman, the Will Ferrell vehicle of a few years back.
By all accounts this is as average and lazy a comedy as the original was, and as just about all United States film comedies now are. Lacking the stable studio system that allows the TV industry to turn out genuinely funny stuff — teams of writers, multiple script revisions — the film industry has for years focused on lowering people’s expectations. They’ve created a sort of comedy-alike movie — Judd Apatow and his successors are the past masters at this — in which a joke of sorts wanders along every five minutes, kinda funny, kinda not. Ninety minutes later, you’re back out in the foyer, feeling conned again.
This decline is a managed one. It can take a year or more to write a genuinely funny full-length script, by which point everyone you cast in it has moved on. Once you’ve got the name actors in place, you shoot with the script you’ve got, not the one you’d want.
That strategy works on a gap between general and particular need. We need films in general, as screen fantasy, more than we need them to be good — just as we would buy bad shoes if no good ones were available. Filmmakers make their profits in that gap. In the last decade it has given rise to the “mass opening” strategy, where a movie opens on so many screens at once, with such hype, that it stands a chance of making a decent profit before bad word gets around (hence multiplexes have become picture palaces once again, with 12 screens playing three movies).
Now, even that strategy is beginning to fail — especially as downloads start to crowd out cinema — and so a different strategy has been devised, in which just about all the work is done by the marketing. Enter Ron Burgundy and the everywhere strategy. For months, across all its release zones, Ferrell’s character — a ’70s newsreader, another example of a nostalgia for the last part of the 1960s, now slipping away from us — has been inserted into every available e-rifice on all platforms. He’s appeared as a real person on The Project, Q&A’ed in newspapers, given a “lifetime international achievement” award in the United Kingdom, and on and on.
The Guardian, having documented the hype, did not resist it, running a review of this utterly unremarkable film as a near full-page, page 7 story in its print edition. Retrospectively, Burgundy has been engineered as some pop-culture meme, re-inserted into our memory. Suddenly you start questioning yourself — “Was it a huge phenom? Have I forgotten how much I liked it?” — and then the amazing thing happens: you have vaguely amused memories of something you never experienced at the time. It is fascinating to watch this occur in oneself, subject to some training and awareness as to how ideology works; terrifying to contemplate its workings in a wider field.
But propagandistic mass culture is nothing new. What is new — and the UK is a good test of this — is the degree to which high or even mid-culture has lost the confidence to resist the draw. Thus the Burgundy character, and Will Ferrell as himself, appeared not merely on Channel Four, but on the principal radio review program Front Row, and the flagship current affairs program Newsnight, before they landed in The Guardian. On Newsnight, the occasion was an excruciating interview with Ferrell about what this bland comedy said about the “state of the meeja today”; on Front Row, the reviewers had to contend with the fact the movie barely hangs together plot-wise — as most of these movies do not — and try and avoid the obvious question of why they were reviewing it in the first place.
The point of this is not that these programs, papers, etc, should not review mass culture, but that they abandoned any judiciousness about what mass culture they should review. Having long ago surrendered the absolute distinction betwen high and mass cultural realms — for better and worse — it is as if they have now lost any capacity to make judgements within mass culture.
Which is another way of saying that such culture has changed its relation both to mid/high/meta culture spheres above it, and to the publics it is distributed to below. There is markedly less chance for it to make a difference, even in the vestigially subversive way of mass culture of past decades. As resistance and contestation migrate to less organised and streamlined areas of media/sociation, the high/mid/mass process becomes a total delivery system — because no one at any point in the process really cares if the movie, even on its own terms, is good, bad or a piece of shit.
Ironic thus, that the one genuine moment from the Anchorman franchise has been the now ubiquitous sign-off: stay classy.