Are Pop Culture References As Bad As Product Placements?

Juno Movie Poster

Juno Movie PosterFeature film budgets have spiraled out of control in recent years, and movie studios have done almost anything and mostly everything to control costs and trim expenses. It seemed inevitable that producers would start selling spots in their movies for certain products, and you can thank Steven Spielberg’s E.T. for hastening it.

To a point, you can’t blame advertisers for jumping on the bandwagon success of that damn Reece’s Pieces. If it works once, why can’t it work again?

But product placement was only solicited for big budget blockbuster movies that 1) needed the extra financing, 2) wouldn’t hesitate to take the money, and 3) would get the sizeable audiences that advertisers craved. A movie like Transformers was a giant advertisement anyway, so why not recoup some of that $150 million budget by showcasing a few products by Apple, Chevrolet, and HP?

I always expect to see dozens of things with logos on them when I watch pretty much see any theatrical summer release. This, however, doesn’t really apply to indie films, which tend to feel too high brow for that sort of thing. But they do often contain something that feels like product placements: pop culture references.

Many films strive to maintain a separation between themselves and the real world. Some films break away from that idea with reflexivity and taking the audience’s attention from the movie reality and to the fact that the screen is showing something unreal. I don’t think the producers get paid for these references, so their inclusions seem somewhat less diabolical.

But is there another side to it?

With product placement, there wasn’t really much to it besides an advertiser wanting to make you more aware of their buyable, usually affordable goods. With pop culture references, there might be an artificial conceit to those even more carefully planned, or maybe even deliberate, moments of contemporary consciousness.

Sam (Natalie Portman) taking a few minutes to give Andrew (Zach Braff) a life-changing earful of Iron & Wine’s “New Slang” in Garden State (which by the way is a really song) is as pretentious and unneeded as the ridiculousness of Abigail (Jessica Biel) taking a few minutes to load her iPod with a few new tunes on her spankin’ new Apple Powerbook before she kills some vampires in Blade: Trinity.

There are a few ways you can look at that. The former wants to either 1) showcase a really good unknown artist or 2) highlight the filmmakers’ enlightened musical tastes. The latter wants to either 3) make the iPod or the movie look cooler or 4) make envious the millions of people who don’t have an iPod yet but are dying to have one or 5) make a whole bunch of comic book geeks even more lustful of Biel by having her use the popular portable electronic device. Her using a Nintendo DS probably wouldn’t have made much sense.

You could argue that any of those five points apply to pop culture references AND product placement, but the second point is the most troublesome because taste is so nonconforming and subjective that showcasing it can be obnoxious and spiteful.

Three recent movies use pop culture references often but in different ways. Jason Reitman’s Juno has Juno (Ellen Page) list her three favorite bands, take digs on a band she doesn’t really like, as well as spend time to show a scene from the awesomest horror movie. There are reasons these references were included in the movie for storyline reasons (which I’m not going to get into), but just looking at their inclusion can give you pause.

Only older people are more likely to know who Iggy Pop & The Stooges are, only teenagers in the 90s or rock critics even remember who Sonic Youth is, and only the weirdest of people have ever seen anything from The Masters of Horror or even heard of Suspiria. With the latter, (outside of storyline reasons) if a discussion about horror movies is to take place why mention what nowadays are obscure titles rather than use more mainstream fare like Halloween or The Blair Witch Project if not for the reason of seeking authenticity and self-gratification? (See Ghost World for problems with striving to be authentic in a world that doesn’t want to be.)

Greg Mottola’s Superbad has Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) use references in a slightly more casual, but still seemingly random and abrupt manner. In the convenience store scene, the two discuss their failures at getting girls, to which Evan compares Seth to Orson Wells and how Seth and Wells both reached personal peaks at such young ages. This is a generalization, but a probably true one, that the movie’s targeted demographic of teens and college kids have absolutely no idea who Orson Wells is or why the comparison would fit.

You could match the pieces when they describe Seth’s situation with more detail, but the joke falls flat with anyone who doesn’t know that Wells’ first movie Citizen Kane happens to the most lauded of all time and everything he did after never compared (or could ever compare) to his debut (but for many other reasons than the movie mentions). The reference could be for the older audience that has seen Citizen Kane, or more likely, to reward those “cool” young people who have actually seen the 1941 classic or know its director. The reference still works because Hill’s last line (“I honesty see now why Orson Wells ate his fat ass to death”) just sounds funny.

There are other pop culture references too, like mentions of the Coen brothers, the Beatles (a line which I have heard many times before), Charlie’s Angels 2, and The Guess Who’s “These Eyes,” all of which bounce between highlighting taste and trying to sound cool.

Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up is even more casual and subsequently more realistic in its references. There’s a Star Wars joke where Jay (Jay Baruchel) compares Martin (Martin Starr) to Chewbacca, a reference to Spider-Man 3, and I don’t know a man alive who hasn’t heard of Mr. Skin.

The references Knocked Up use are more mainstream and thus enable more people to be a part of the joke. The more advanced references serve as layered jokes, being funny on an obvious scale but also contain a higher level of humor to those who completely get it. Exclusions happen because people are not really “in the general know” (Sandra Ruttan slightly touches on these points here). The question then becomes should they be and why.

This isn’t to say that product placements don’t naturally exclude people or make people feel excluded. Not many people want to know or care who Orson Wells is. Not many people can afford Aston Martins or drink martinis shaken not stirred like James Bond does. But these latter exclusions deal with the true realities of the world in which the number of well-off people are vastly outnumbered by those not — capitalism and consumerism at their finest. The former exclusions deal with the potential superficiality of art and the struggle to define acceptable criticism and praise. To the fair, that last point can apply to the latter as well.

Just appreciating and experiencing art are its most crucial ideals and the fundamental nature of human beings is to express their feelings about these experiences. The problem will always be whether one believes himself to be better than others for those feelings. Pop culture references might be the more subtle way of doing so.

UPDATE: Movie images removed.

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