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‘Shiny Happy People’ as postmodern placebo

In “The Precession of Simulacra,” sociologist Jean Baudrillard argues for the “murderous capacity of images” (1560). In our postmodern culture, images have killed and replaced reality, he proposes. Just as the symptoms of the hypochondriac are neither real nor unreal, the therapies used to treat our cultural lack of reality also “float on either side” (1558). Postmodernity is a world in which the only cure is a placebo: Happiness must now be constructed in a Disney-like, “hyperreal” realm of “illusions and phantasms” (1564).

The 2009 music video “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M. comments on the illusory two-dimensionality of postmodern joy. People dance, clap and sing about happiness on a stage while a crudely painted backdrop with scenes of people in in life rolls behind them. The tune is upbeat and everyone is smiling. The viewer can be swept up in the illusion and enjoy three and a half minutes of bliss.

As Baudrillard suggests, when images detach completely from reality it results in a Godless era where yearning for the real is so strong that society is compelled to manufacture it.

However, unlike Disneyland, which displays its “Happiest Place on Earth” slogan in all earnestness, “Shiny Happy People” gives an artistic wink to the absurdity of produced happiness through it’s self-conscious simulation: the moves are a little too choreographed, the costumes cartoonish and the smiles a bit too wide. Yet, even more revealing of its self-imposed hyperreality, is the way it depicts itself as a production.

Baudrillard criticizes science for placing reality in a museum. “We have all become living specimens under the spectral light of ethnology,” he writes (1562). This idea is reflected in R.E.M.’s video through the staging and construction of the scenes. The video opens with a shot of two mechanical monkeys with symbols on a shelf. The viewer sees an old man’s hand put a coffee cup on a saucer and mount a stationary bicycle. The bicycle cranks the rolling backdrop, and the camera follows it to the other side of the stage where the band performs. The viewer sees that the performance is produced by the man backstage who dwells among his nostalgic furnishings: He has created his own “museum” of shiny, happy people.

Baudrillard suggests that our simulations serve to “save the reality principle” by concealing the fact that society has made all of reality into an amusement park (1565). There are a few moments when R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” would seem to imply that the image can be an effective placebo—the unreal can become real if one claps along with the band. At the end of the video the stage fills with a crowd of real young people, as if they were conjured from the backdrop, and they all dance in unison. As they jump around the stage, the camera turns to the old man’s face. He has stepped around the corner to watch the spectacle, and it’s impossible to judge whether he approves or disdains it from the look on his face as he bites down on his pipe. He is the grandfather of the illusion created for generations to come. If there is no greater good, the character seems to suggest, then let them simulate it—give them the two-dimensional cure because it’s the only “happiness” they have left.

The problem with his conclusion is that the absurdity of the song lyrics, the dance moves, the costumes, and props suggest that the young people know the score. The production within a production serves to emphasize that it’s all just a show. It’s the same problem with the placebo—once the patient knows what it is, it doesn’t work. As Baudrillard suggests, when images detach completely from reality it results in a Godless era where yearning for the real is so strong that society is compelled to manufacture it (1561). R.E.M.’s video reveals that a production of joy is nothing more than a sugar pill.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.

R.E.M. “Shiny Happy People.” Warner Bros. Records. YouTube. 2005. Web. November 17, 2013.

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A visual world

le_voyage_dans_la_lune

From A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliés, 1902

 

Theorists might argue that film influences and reflects cultural presumptions and biases. Contemporary culture is saturated with visual information: film, photography, and video. I often think we are rarely conscious of how visual our world has become and how many snippets of narrative we come in contact with daily, through television, Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. Film is artistically constructed narrative. When we go to the cinema, we expect to be thrilled by a fictional work. In theory, much film (other than documentary) does not purport to convey reality, whereas other visual media, such as news, video clips, and commercials are presumably based on reality. However, with advances in technology, much of what is produced for television and the Internet has become more cinematic. When our day is filled with moving, clamoring pictures, are we able to distinguish the real from the embellished? Can we learn the devices filmmakers use to create their effects? Can we understand their connection to history, philosophy, and politics? Film theory sheds some light on the connections between culture, the work, and the viewer.

A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions.

Film theory can help us be more conscious consumers of the experiences we seek in film, but it can also wake a more general tendency to ask why, what, and how when presented with any product of art or culture. As Nealon and Giroux convey in the first chapter of The Theory Toolbox, theory prompts us to ask questions about what we might otherwise accept as “natural” (5). Moreover, they write, theory invites us to think and act, not merely consume (5).

It’s natural to be swept away by the cinematic experience; this is certainly one of the joys of film. However, film can be a powerful conveyer of messages. It functions very similarly to our own minds and memories in its rich presentation of images and sounds, its emotive impact, and its manipulation of time and space. A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions. Today we have movies in 3D; tomorrow we will have virtual reality movies. It seems that critical thinking about film is becoming ever more important as film becomes ever more engulfing and enticing.

Postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that signs now precede reality—technology has become so astute at simulation that it has replaced the real (“The Precession of Simulacra”). When I first read Baudrillard several years ago, I reflected on a tangible experience that supported his theory. Upon returning to America after 13 years of living abroad, I noticed that people had begun to speak to each other in sarcastic manner that was similar to the way Americans in sitcoms spoke. It seemed to me that they were imitating the imitation of their lives. Since then, I have assimilated, and it’s no longer noticeable to me, but the question sticks with me: how much of what we have become can be traced back to the media we consume?

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Precession of Simulacra. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.

Nealon, Jeffrey T., and Susan Searls Giroux. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts For The Humanities, Arts, And Social Sciences. n.p.: Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Print.