Yes, I Got That Reference. But Who Cares?
reference culture is a human centipede
A moment in the first episode of the new season of Stranger Things, Netflix’s beloved 80s pastiche sci-fi show, crystalized so much of what I dislike about contemporary television and movies. We’re introduced to a new character, the stoner buddy of sad-sack older brother figure Jonathan Byers. His name is Argyle. This is a reference to the character Argyle from Die Hard, a beloved 80s touchstone and precisely the kind of media property the Duffer Brothers never stop waving at. And… that’s it. Here’s a new guy, he’s got a name you recognize, please renew your Netflix subscription. There’s nothing deeper or more interesting going on than that.
Why is this interesting? Why should I care? How is the character any more worthwhile than if he were called Ralph or Buddy? What is this reference for? References in art are given meaning by the connections between the work referenced and the work doing the referring. When Of Mice and Men opens by mimicking the opening verses of Genesis, the reference deepens the book’s overall commitment to finding the macro in the micro and the tragic in the mundane; the setting of a little novel about an itinerant farmer and his intellectually disabled brother is thrown into symbolic relief against the literal creation of the universe. When Stranger Things names a character Argyle, it reminds you that Die Hard exists. Why? What’s the point?
This is an observation that the Red Letter Media guys have made over the years, that contemporary filmmakers seem to believe that simply making a reference your audience understands to be a reference is somehow inherently entertaining. But why? The massively successful Spiderman: No Way Home was essentially two and a half hours of “hey, remember Spiderman? Remember that other Spiderman? Remember Dr. Octopus? Remember when Willem Dafoe said that line? Remember? Huh?” The nadir of this style of mythmaking may be Ready Player One, where beloved nerd references keep wandering onscreen for no discernible purpose. (“Hey, the Iron Giant! He’s here, for some reason!”) That movie and the book it’s based on are a firehose of stuff you remember that you liked before. But while we might feel a twinkling of emotion when we encounter those references, we do so because those movies and shows were actually good, were capable of wringing emotional resonance out of us themselves. Today’s reference media attempts to cut the line by borrowing that resonance from the past. It’s a sad statement about our power to create meaning in fiction and, if nothing else, will inevitably lead to diminishing returns.
What makes this so much worse is all the goddamn reverence this type of media is stuffed with. The Force Awakens is so fucking reverential to the original Star Wars films it seriously undermines my enjoyment of what’s a well-crafted piece of pop entertainment. (“You knew Luke Skywalker?!?”) The recent Ghostbusters reboot was just sickeningly up its own ass with its worshipful reverence for the original films. Which is kind of fucked up, given how resolutely irreverent Ghostbusters is! This is where the cynicism really gets to be too much for me; the relentless effort to treat these properties with heavy-handed respect plays directly to the interests of the “fandom” class that rules over our artistic culture. In 2009, before fandom became as hegemonic as it is today, Roger Ebert pegged this whole world:
A lot of fans are basically fans of fandom itself. It's all about them. They have mastered the Star Wars or Star Trek universes or whatever, but their objects of veneration are useful mainly as a backdrop to their own devotion. Anyone who would camp out in a tent on the sidewalk for weeks in order to be first in line for a movie is more into camping on the sidewalk than movies. Extreme fandom may serve as a security blanket for the socially inept, who use its extreme structure as a substitute for social skills. If you are Luke Skywalker and she is Princess Leia, you already know what to say to each other, which is so much safer than having to ad lib it. Your fannish obsession is your beard. If you know absolutely all the trivia about your cubbyhole of pop culture, it saves you from having to know anything about anything else. That's why it's excruciatingly boring to talk to such people: They're always asking you questions they know the answer to.
The point is not “geek properties are bad” or “nerds are bad” or any such thing. The point is that at some time in the recent past the most devoted fans got high on their own supply and decided that the intensity of their love for Ghostbusters or whatever was deserving of celebration in and of itself, and that’s how you get a movie like Ghostbusters Afterlife; it’s not an organic vehicle for creating the kinds of feelings that cause people to become fans, but rather a celebration of those who are fans. It’s a mawkish, masturbatory ode to the people who love Ghostbusters, which happens to be the very people who will drop their $18 for a ticket on opening night. That this pretension and forced awe are totally contrary to the laid-back jocularity of the original movie is just one of those little ironies. Someone who goes to see a movie five times in the theater really loves that movie; those dudes who saw Avengers Endgame 100+ times in the theater are guys who want to be celebrated for liking the stuff they like better than you do.
And, yes, I know, Star Wars was heavily indebted to Flash Gordon etc etc. I understand that everything that came before had influences too. But influence is organic and homage can be fun; when the Fantastic Beasts films wedge another pointless wave to some tossed-off nothing factoid from the original Harry Potter stories, when Lucasfilm thinks it’s absolutely imperative that we see the origin of Han Solo’s specific blaster in a galaxy with trillions of blasters in it, something has gone badly wrong. The Indiana Jones films are indeed homages to the golden age movie serials that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg looked back on with reverence. But how many of the people who have seen and loved Raiders of the Lost Ark have ever watched one of those serials? How many of the people who enjoyed the original Star Wars had ever seen Flash Gordon? Could it even be 1%? And yet while The Force Awakens is not a bad film overall, the experience of watching it would be totally emotionally incoherent without a preexisting love of Star Wars. That’s the difference. You can come to Raiders knowing absolutely nothing of its influences or references and find absolute magic there. The Force Awakens needs you to already feel that the Millenium Falcon is magical.
The punchline here is that I don’t hate Stranger Things. I often find it quite charming, and I recognize the quality of its craft. It’s just that there’s an all-encompassing hollowness to the whole enterprise. When it’s grooving along with its sunny little small-town sci-fi plots, I have a good time, and I like the characters even as I acknowledge they’re all a little thin. I do love Winona Ryder and David Harbour is charming and the rapidly-aging adolescents are tolerable. (And who doesn’t love Steve?) But the show is much less than the sum of its parts, empty calories, and there’s a hole where its emotional core should be. Its creators trust that enough references will substitute for meaningful relationships, dramatic stakes, and satisfying narrative arcs, so there just isn’t any particular commercial pressure to invest in what really matters. Which is why the endless “remember Goonies? remember John Carpenter?” moments, the let’s-name-a-random-indigenous-teenager-Argyle-because-Die Hard moments, are so jarring for me. They remind me of what we’re getting instead of real feeling - limp waves to all the stuff we loved before.