Shorter version published as "Pop Goes the Canon" in the Weekend Australian Higher Education, August 20, 2008.
It's not that easy bringing popular culture into the classroom. Dive in head-first with some good old-fashioned literary analysis and you're accused of replacing the classics with "Gilligan's Island" (and it's always "Gilligan's Island" for some reason); use it in league with cultural theory, and you're accused of defining art as something that can be shoehorned into some pre-existing ideological viewpoint.
Pop culture in the service of cultural theory is probably the easiest to justify, since it's usually a tool in demonstrating just how stupid general society is, and that always goes down well. It's not exactly the most inspiring use of culture, but is surely acceptable as long as Charlie Sheen is allowed to have his own TV show.
Trying to demonstrate actual artistic value in popular culture, however, can be a little more contentious. Dwight MacDonald defined pop culture as voiding "both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and also the simple spontaneous pleasures".
Well, sure, it's pretty clear that the mass-entertainment industry doesn't have the artistic enrichment of our souls as one of its primary concerns, but that doesn't mean that surprising and unexpected moments of authenticity can't sometimes burst out from the cultural mess one way or another.
In fact, it can be difficult to identify great pieces of pop culture without finding that they've already been claimed in a more reputable canon. Shakespeare and Dickens may be the classic examples, but how about Leonard Cohen, film noir, "The Searchers", Raymond Chandler, or Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel "Maus"? Do these still count as pop culture?
A canon might go against the very idea of pop culture, but if you're looking for a place to start, the following pieces o' trash, in a handy semester-sized list, might offer you some fodder for cultural theory, a piece of neglected historical context, or even a deep reality or spontaneous pleasure somewhere along the way.
Hell's Hinges (1916): William S. Hart may have been the kind of cowboy superstar who wrote a poem to his horse, and even gave him a few lines in his autobiography -- but this was no horse-cuddling singing cowboy like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. The Western seems to get 'saved' every few years with gritty realism or psychological depth, but Hart's popular films (most of which he co-directed) aimed to bring a historical realism and emotional intensity to the Western way back in the teens, all wrapped up in a formulaic and commercially-viable saddlebag. Hart's usual image was that of the "good bad-man", a rogue ultimately saved by the love of a good woman, the Bible, the loving eyes of his horse, or somesuch -- but Hart wasn't just out for moral triteness, and when he turns to God in "Hell's Hinges", he doesn't put down the guns, he just picks 'em up for a different reason. In the film's apocalyptic climax, Hart razes his town of sin and iniquity with apocalyptic fury (in a scene that predates "High-Plains Drifter" by almost sixty years), not only pinpointing a constitutive moment of fundamentalist rage inside the most trite of morality lessons, but also capturing that uneasy alliance of the wild and civilised that would later become such a academically-celebrated trope in masterpieces like John Ford's "The Searchers".
The Unknown (1927): Still recognised in horror circles for his leering vampire grin, Lon Chaney managed to be a ridiculously popular superstar at the box-office by revelling in hideous deformities, bodily distortions and tortured anxiety. The Chaney formula was thoroughly commercial and repetetive (boy meets girl, boy tries to kill girl, boy sacrifices self for love of girl), but current culture's endless fixation with sexual depravity as a psychological insight (like the "Deadwood" blowjob-monologue) still hasn't come up with much as audaciously depraved as Chaney's legless criminal of "The Penalty" (1920) forcing one of his sweat-shop girls underneath his piano seat to 'work the pedals' while he plays himself into an ecstatic frenzy (it shouldn't be too hard to read between those lines). "The Unknown" from 1927 is perhaps the peak of this unique fixation, with its weird mix of symbolic castrations, villainous angst, and opaquely evocative symbols (an oddly creepy 'double thumb') - all tied in with a Joan Crawford romance story. Somehow, in a film world full of good old boys like Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and dreamy lovers like Valentino, Chaney stepped into the silent melodrama and became a megastar by parading a strange and troubling mix of depravity and physical distortions within its generic boundaries.
Little Orphan Annie (1924) and Dick Tracy (1931): Common sense suggested that, in the classic days of the newspaper strip, there was no point aiming for the kids: after all, it was their father who was going to buy the paper. Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Annie" and Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy" are solid examples of this approach, but the indifferent memory of modern pop culture appreciation has seen them both relegated to the lowest levels of childishness.
"Dick Tracy" perhaps suffers the least: Gould's early stories could be as tough and intense as any crime fiction, and the fate of the two unfortunate girls in 1944's "The Brow" is not easily forgotten, but they never rose too far above Gould's generic conservatism. More important is his place in the history of procedural police fiction: Ellery Queen (that's both a character and an authorial pseudonym) credits Gould with kickstarting its popularity, although I doubt "Dick Tracy" gets much of a look-in in the crime fiction classrooms. But it's worse for Gray's "Orphan Annie", which gave the papers a unique mix of eloquent narrative and none-too-subtle editorialising -- Gray's conservative bent (which didn't seem to have a problem with vigilantism, public beatings and implied lynchings) was frequently attacked, but was always literate and evocative, as Annie morphed from a little girl with a sad story to an oddly abstract wandering commentator (in that same red dress every week). And, while Gould's serviceable style led to some great pop-art tropes (like the rigid profile and explanatory arrow), Gray's Sunday pages overwhelm with their obvious artfulness when experienced, as they should be, spread over the full broadsheet page.
Night Watch (1954): Reality TV doesn't give us much. Sure, I like the moment in "The Two Coreys" when Corey Haim cries because Corey Feldman got offered a part in "Lost Boys 2" and he didn't, but we're in trouble if that's the high point. But then there's "Night Watch", which we'll conveniently describe as reality-radio. Police recorder Don Reid sits in on the night shift patrol in Culver City, California, and records the night's events as they unfold (surely not the easiest task with 1950s technology). Unlike "Cops", there's no desperate attempt at sensationalism, and we experience everything from attempted suicides to running a drunk out of town with straightforward detachment. Reid's perfect mix of necessary description, restrained interaction, and occasional personal input, allows for an extraordinary look into the everyday miseries on these 1950s streets with a simplicity in approach that is all the more disarming when compared with the current trend of relying on borderline urban-supervillains or extreme social circumstances to create drama. In "Night Watch", as in the best episodes of fictional police-procedurals like "Dragnet" (not the lame 60s version), "Hill Street Blues", and "Homicide: Life on the Street", there's no strained emotional battle: the perpetrators are broken down before they're even caught, and the cops just pick up the pieces.
Leave it to Beaver (1957): A definitive pop culture reference for the generic and ideologically pure family sitcom, "Leave it to Beaver" is probably less interesting for its own implied nuclear family ideology than for the anxiety this ideology seems to provoke today when we're all so afraid of seeming conventional. Putting aside the obvious ideological enclosure, "Leave it to Beaver" is surprisingly effective on its own terms. In fact, despite seeming to be the foundation for an endless number of family sitcoms, the show was neither overwhelmingly popular when first broadcast, nor does it really provide the excesses we expect from a family sitcom (such as "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet"). The show's strength instead lies in its intention of simply recreating minor, but once-important, childhood experiences for nostalgic adults. Small details like Wally's casual indifference to, but ultimate reliance on, his younger brother, and his assumed maturity when he tries to deal with childish problems he's not quite outgrown himself, are carefully crafted elements that suggest a clarity of focus and surprising restraint well beyond a sterile sitcom striving for cheap laughs. These details don't make "Leave it to Beaver" profound, but if they can't help "Beaver" be forgiven for its suburban-pastoral focus, then a similarly delicate memoir like Marcel Pagnol's "My Father's Glory" should be on the trash-pile right next to it.
The Prisoner (1967): Still one of the most symbolically confounding experiences on television, "The Prisoner"'s strangeness is only accentuated by the fact that it seems to flow so naturally from creator and star Patrick McGoohan's generic previous series "Danger Man" (known as "Secret Agent" in the US). With interpretations still flying around about the show's statements on personal freedoms, social responsibility and the right to resist, "The Prisoner" remains a cult favourite. But aside from the show's own immediate appeal, McGoohan himself is an intriguing example of an actor who has engineered his own artistic concerns into his popular output ("one of the best actors of his generation if TV hadn't grabbed him", said Orson Welles). Having found a personal artistic energy in the lead role of Henrik Ibsen's "Brand" in 1959, McGoohan's selective approach to his roles, along with his mannered portrayals, often suggest that he's still grappling with Ibsen's core concerns of ethical mandates and the human will: McGoohan refused the role of James Bond more than once, instead choosing the rigid professionalism and cold ethical distance (a McGoohan specialty) of his own spy, John Drake of "Danger Man". And if "Danger Man" is McGoohan's generically disguised "Brand", then it's taken to a non-generic extreme in "The Prisoner", and peppered through later works like 1979 TV-movie "The Hard Way". Like many more traditional artists, McGoohan is, at his best, inseparable from his work.
Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (1986): Frequently battling it out for the title of greatest graphic novel ever written, "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns" are both pivotal moments for superhero comics' entry into the so-called adult world. "Watchmen" usually comes out on top (and was included on a Time magazine 'greatest novels' list), but probably because it so closely replicates modern literary concerns. While Alan Moore's "Watchmen" deconstructs its superhero icons and strips their outside images to show the broken-down humans inside, Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" takes a pre-existing superhero icon and doesn't pretend that all the ideals, drives, and contradictions inherent in the image can be reduced to a modernist literary statement on the miserable human condition. Nor does he allow his vibrant and iconic treatment to simply expound a single viewpoint, and Miller's work (in this instance, at least) is neither as straightforwardly conservative or pointlessly dark as is often claimed. Both extraordinary works, Moore's "Watchmen" feels like a superhero comic with a "Death of a Salesman" approach, while Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" is perhaps the closest thing to the tangible intensity and abstract personifications - simultaneously simple and impenetrable - of the "Iliad" that modern literature has produced. And it has Batman in it.
Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (1997): A "Buffy"-boom overtook humanities departments a few years back, and, although it was neat to share a communal text for the first time, it was easy for "Buffy" academics to start overstating their cases and decide that "Buffy" had created just about every literary and dramatic device in existence. Outside of the academic-hysteria, "Buffy" is a superior work in the chicks-kicking-ass genre, but still suffers from the usual problem of being nothing more than a metaphor for basic teenage problems (of course, for many academics, this is ok because "Buffy" created the very idea of metaphors) without delving into the complexities its genre suggests. Like similar shows "Alias" and "Dark Angel", the genre fantasy is spun around angst-problems with boyfriends, roommates, and the burdens of being the most special and misunderstood person in the entire universe.
Better is Canadian "La Femme Nikita", a miserable and dour show set in a government (presumably US) agency that readily kills, tortures and strikes pre-emptively; and, unlike "Alias", it doesn't pretend that you could be a world-class superspy ninja assassin tightrope-walker without running into some bigger moral complexities than whether or not your dreamy boyfriend is upset that you're ten minutes late for dinner.
Even better are later seasons of "Xena: Warrior Princess", the most ridiculously schizophrenic show in existence, ranging from Three Stooges-style nonsense too stupid for your six-year-old, to violent crucifixions and inter-princess abuse. Not only did it completely ignore male-female hierarchy, while also embracing themes like birth and motherhood, but the relationship between its two leads reached heady extremes of both love and violent abuse and still maintains a popular subtextual lesbian internet following.
Deadwood (2004): In the midst of a thousand new shows trying to push the envelope in order to comfort a public desperate to feel edgy and provocative, "Deadwood" could have been just another bundle of bad and brooding characters saying naughty-things, killing people wantonly, having sex randomly, and all the while angsting about the void in their souls. Shows like "Six Feet Under", "Sex & The City" and "The Sopranos" were so desperate to shock that they ended up more ideologically stunted than "Leave it to Beaver": "Deadwood" takes this fashionably callous state of the world for granted at a superficial level rather than mistaking it for depth. In the midst of its corruption, murders, and psychopaths, the real dramatic moments are reserved for strange eruptions of compassion, sincerity, and professional devotion. Mephistophilean pimp Al Swearengen, surely one of the great villains in popular culture, is not the standard good man who has been opened up to the horrors of the world (as seems to be the standard trope), but a product of a naturally horrific world, strong enough to be its ruler but also intelligent enough to spot and be intrigued by the glean of morality: not as a relic, but as a radical, if doomed, intrusion on his world.