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July 14, 2006

Klosterman on Snakes

Taylor of The Devil in the Details referred to Chuck Klosterman's Esquire rant about New Line's attempt at "prefab populism" with this summer's zeitgeist pic, Snakes on a Plane., the film that has inspired more blog buzz than just about any film in recent memory (note: in addition to writing an insightful blog entry on Snakes, Taylor was also a student in one of my media studies classes). As Klosterman points out (and as many film bloggers will know), New Line actually reshot several scenes, incorporating more snake violence, some gratuitous nudity, and new dialogue ("I've had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!"), apparently because bloggers thought all of the above would be cool. But whether New Line's reworking of Snakes constitutes anything new, much less the "prefab populism" Klosterman diagnoses is an open question.

Klosterman, who is certainly one of the more insightful popular culture critics working today, offers a much needed corrective to the Snakes hype, arguing that it "is like the Wikipedia version of a movie," with New Line tapping into the collective wisdom of the blogosphere in reworking a film that might otherwise have been a quickly forgotten Samuel L. Jackson vehicle, a typical PG-13 yawner that would bring in popcorn money for three weeks before really cashing in on video. He then compares New Line's pratcice of mining the blogosphere for plot suggestions to his experience working on struggling newspapers who used focus groups in a desperate attempt to recover lost readership, concluding that "when it comes to mass media, it's useless to ask people what they want; nobody knows what they want until they have it." For the most part, I think he's right about how the suggestions of focus groups can be misused. Listen too closely to focus groups and your film or TV show will try to be everything to everyone. Of course, studios have responded to focus groups or test screenings for some time, so that's nothing new; if anything, the blogosphere just makes it into an interesting gimmick, providing the film with some cheap buzz (and, yeah, I know I'm contributing to that buzz as we speak). In a sense, all Holywood films are "prefab" in the sense that studios cater to audience expectations.

The second question I have (and perhaps this is completely trivial) is whether the edits of Snakes can be understood as a kind of populism along the lines of Klosterman's other examples (The Beatles, The Godfather). If populism involves, at the very least as Klosterman puts it, an expression of "the shared sensibilities of large groups of otherwise unconnected people," or more precisely an expression of the common person against a larger elite, then perhaps Snakes on a Plane is doing something else. I think Snakes fits far more easily in the genre of cult film than into what he's describing as "prefab populism." If anything, the appeal of the added scenes relies at least in part on an insider's knowledge that lines of dailogue or film taglines were added because of the film's internet fandom. In other words, the online audience for Snakes might be read not as populist but as a pop savvy elite, with audiences congraulating themselves because they know all of the film's pop culture references (Taylor's discussion of the film's use of "injokes" articulates this point well). Klosterman makes a similar point when he concludes that "the only purpose of Snakes on a Plane is to make its audience feel smarter than what it's seeing. Which adds up, since that's part of the reason people like reading the Internet." In fact, this pop culture savvy is a big part of the appeal of filmmakers such as Kevin Smith, who frequently engages with his audience on his blog.

Whether the film will be a "good" cult film remains to be seen (and isn't really an issue for me because the marketing of the film has been interesting enough, although I will certainly see the film early in its run). I do think that the production and marketing of Snakes have tapped into the desires of bloggers to feel less alientaed from the Hollywood flms that seem increasingly calcultaed to appeal to the widest possible audience, but I'm also inclined to agree with Klosterman that this appeal is somewhat cyncial, or prefabricated, to use his phrase. What I'm suggesting here is that I don't think Snakes on a Plane will change how films are made in any measurable way (although we may see a few imitators) but that it may contribute to the ongoing changes in the ways in which films are marketed (which, come to think of it, may be the same thing).

Posted by chuck at July 14, 2006 2:16 PM

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"the only purpose of Snakes on a Plane is to make its audience feel smarter than what it's seeing. Which adds up, since that's part of the reason people like reading the Internet."

This line in particular bothers me, even though I didn't go into much on my blog. I think he's COMPLETELY wrong in this aspect, although I know what he's trying to say. People aren't seeing this movie because they like feeling like they're better than it, they're seeing it because it's fun and they've been a part of its creation! I actually think it's a bit pompous on Klosterman's part to assume so.

Posted by: Taylor at July 14, 2006 8:26 PM

I think you're right that Klosterman misses the mark here. I don't think that Snakes on a Plane fans feel smarter than the film they are seeing, but instead they feel smarter (than other moviegoers?) because they have insider knowledge about which scenes were added to appeal to the bloggers who've been hyping the film.

In that sense, I think you're right that much of the "fun" of Snakes will be the fact that audiences have been involved, at least to some extent, in its creation. I probably should have clarified that when I was writing the initial entry.

Posted by: Chuck at July 14, 2006 11:12 PM

Actually, most of the teenagers I've talked to say that they're going to see SoaP because they think it's going to be so incredibly bad it's funny. Basically, as one said, "it's going to suck! yes!"

That never occured to me. I heard the title and chuckled. I am a sucker for titles that are unconventional (although Snakes on a Plane is really just a description in plain language, isn't it?, never mind that!).

Anyways, the title cracked me up, Sam Jackson shouting things cracks me up, but I never expected it to "suck." I've only seen short previews. I guess it could suck, but I'm not gung ho about it like the masses seem to be.

Posted by: Jay S. at July 28, 2006 7:22 AM

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