No, Virginia, Yogi Bear Is Not Postmodern

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Looked at one way, last weekend’s (January 14–16) top ten box office movies present quite an eclectic array. There’s (in order of gross sales) The Green Hornet (live-action superhero cartoon), The Dilemma (dramedy), True Grit (Western), The King’s Speech (historical drama), Black Swan (a ballet thriller), Little Fockers (relationship comedy), Tron Legacy (cyber science fiction), Yogi Bear (computer-animated cartoon), The Fighter (boxing drama), and Season of the Witch (medieval drama). But despite the apparent variety there is actually a significant pattern here, one that has been apparent for a number of years in movie land. That pattern pertains to the number of remakes/sequels/adaptations in the list: fully half of the films. The Green Hornet joins decades of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, X-Men .  .  .  You-Name-It-Man movies, while True Grit reprises the movie of the same nameLittle Fockers is a sequel in an ongoing franchise, Tron Legacy is a sequel to Tron (hey, it’s the year of Jeff Bridges), and Yogi Bear revisits America’s favorite animated bear. Since patterns are a good place to start when looking for semiotic significance in popular culture, let’s consider what this one might indicate. One hypothesis is that all of this repetition is a reflection of postmodern times—a signifier of a cultural epoch and ethos that hold that creativity is no longer possible nor desirable in an age of mass media that has left the cultural landscape strewn with existing images and paradigms that can be remixed and recontextualized in an ongoing process characterized as “repetition with a difference.”  Under such an interpretation, all of this repetition can be classified as aesthetic signifiers of postmodernity. On the other hand, all this repetition may reflect a cultural ethos that has nothing to do with aesthetics at all; rather, in an era that is seeing declining box office attendance (2010 was an especially bad year), movie producers want to go with a sure thing, and repeating existing formulae and successes is the most common way of seeking box-office security.  This is especially effective if the formula can appeal to multiple generations (adults who read Green Hornet comic books as children can now take their children to the Green Hornet movie; quondam teens circa 1982 can take their teenagers to see Tron Legacy; and a growing number of viewers can take their grandchildren to see the Yogi Bear they watched on TV when very young). Throw in some 3-D effects (as Tron Legacy does) and you can go a long way to making up in ticket prices what you are losing in gross ticket sales. In this interpretive scenario, the governing logic is that of consumer capitalism, with the profit motive trumping aesthetic creativity, and with no relationship to postmodernism at all. So, how do we choose between these conflicting interpretive hypotheses? One way is to consider the movies themselves. Postmodern aesthetics, while repetitive, carries a certain self-awareness about its repetitiveness. You can usually find a winking sense of parody or irony, as in the musical performances of the postmodern musical group Talking Heads or in Tim Burton’s Batman. Madonna’s impersonations send postmodern signals, and so do Lady Gaga’s. The difference within the repetition is crucial. But when the movie practically screams, “oh look, here’s your favorite cartoon character but with better technology”;  or “wanna see how Jeff Bridges can handle John Wayne?”;  or “hey guys, before there was the Internet or The Matrix we had Tron, right”, you are not getting postmodern signals. It is not the difference that is being sold here but the sameness, with nostalgia, not irony, being the leading emotion. So, I would put my money on capitalism, not postmodernism, as the more likely explanation for the continued dominance of repetition in contemporary movie making.  Which makes further sense because the movie industry (please note the word “industry”) is not an aesthetic phenomenon at base; it is a business, and, to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, the business of business is business.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.