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Why Pop Culture Gets Under Our Skin

There are pieces of pop culture—songs, plays, movies—that touch us in ways that get inside of us and don't let go. Taxi Driver, The Graduate, or even Lost in Translation, are movies that stir something deep inside people. I liked Lost in Translation well enough but it is one of my wife's favorite movies and it speaks to her in a way she can't fully express. I'm not talking about great pieces of art, necessarily. Take Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The movie's appeal was lost on me but I appreciated that people felt so strongly about it, that it meant something to them.

I got to thinking about this after reading Lawrence Grobel's 1979 Playboy Interview with Marlon Brando. Starts with a question about the theater:

Brando: It's hard. You have to show up every day. People who go to the theater will perceive the same thing in a different way. You have to be able to give something back in order to get something from it. I can give you a perfect example. A movie that I was in, called On the Waterfront: there was a scene in a taxicab, where I turn to my brother, who's come to turn me over to the gangsters, and I lament to him that he never looked after me, he never gave me a chance, that I could have been a contender, I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum..."You should of looked out after me, Charley." It was very moving. And people often spoke about that, "Oh, my God, what a wonderful scene, Marlon, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." It wasn't wonderful at all. The situation was wonderful. Everybody feels like he could have been a contender, he could have been somebody, everybody feels as though he's partly a bum, some part of him. He is not fulfilled and he could have done better, he could have been better. Everybody feels a sense of loss about something. So that was what touched people. It wasn't the scene itself. There are other scenes where you'll find actors being expert, but since audiences can't clearly identify with them, they just pass unnoticed. Wonderful scenes never get mentioned, only those scenes that affect people.

Playboy: Can you give an example?

Brando: Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow. "Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly, birds fly over the rainbow, why, oh, why can't I?" Insipid. But you have people just choking up when they hear her singing it. Everybody's got an over-the-rainbow story, everybody wants to get out from under and wants...[laughing]...wants bluebirds flying around. And that's why it's so touching.

He's on to something here. Nobody in TV built a reputation for their use of pop music more than the British playwright Dennis Potter. His two masterworks–both six-part mini-series made for TV–Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective were fantastic examples of this.

When asked, “Why do popular songs have so much power in your work?” Potter replied:

Because I don’t make the mistake that high-culture mongers do of assuming that because people like cheap art, their feelings are cheap, too. When people say, “Oh listen, they’re playing our song,” they don’t mean “Our song, this little cheap, tinkling, syncopated piece of rubbish, is what we felt when we met.” What they’re saying is, “That song reminds us of that tremendous feeling we had when we met.”

[Lost in Translation poster via the ever-amazing This Isn't Happiness]

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