Saturday, April 24, 2021

Space Jam (1996).

Could someone please explain to me why this is such a big deal?  I don't get it, at least not quite.  Like, you do realize this is just a movie, right?  It's not anything like a cure for the common cold.  When it comes to assessing the importance of any given, potential work of fiction, there's always a trick involved.  I'm quite willing to go out of my way and stand up to declare certain books and films as genuine works of art.  That's the easy part.  What about the rest of the story?  I'm no longer talking about the Shakespeares, the Welles, or Harper Lees of the creative world.  While it's a mistake to describe that type of artist as an open and shut case, there is at least a certain amount of truth in saying that the critic's task is a lot less complex with a writer like Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, or Thomas Woolf.  Part of it is the way their writings make it easy for fans and critics to latch onto.  There is so much to talk about even in a simple short story such as "The Lady and the Tiger" to the point where they are sort of like a critic's dream come true.  The sharp-eyed reader can tell they are witnessing the kind of artwork that offers a great deal of hidden riches that are worth uncovering.  That still leaves us with a lot of other material out there, most of which goes unnoticed.

The type of writing I'm thinking of now belongs to that special category that might once have been known as mid-list fiction.  I'm talking about the books and films that might have been popular when they were first released, and that audience favor is probably still hanging around.  It's just that, for whatever reason, none of the books or movies I'm thinking of now have ever really gone as far in the fame and acclaim department as others of their kind.  Perhaps the best example of what I'm talking about can be seen if we take the example of two writers who sort of work not just with similar material, but also the more or less near identical style.  If I mention the number 42 out loud, some of you will wonder why I even bother to bring it up.  It just sounds too random to have any point in the argument.  Others, however, might just have a series of slow-spreading smiles on their faces as they try and re-contemplate the meaning of Life, the Universe, and the curious phenomenon of digital watches.  That's because the number 42 has to be one of the greatest punchlines to an entire book-length joke, as written and delivered by Douglas Adams.   

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
is one of those favorite texts that starts out as a cult following, and then over time gets lucky enough to find its status as a recognized classic.  There seems to have been just enough talent and inspiration involved to make the joke worth re-telling time and again.  Because of this, Adams's text has become something of a recognized icon.  Is the same true of the efforts of Terry Pratchett, however?  You might recall something about the guy, don't you?  He used to write that old Discworld series.  They were an extended collection of novels which, when taken together, amounted to a lifetime satire and parody of all the cliches, tropes and plot elements that make up what is still termed the Fantasy genre.  What Pratchett was doing for Sword and Sorcery, Adams was accomplishing for Science Fiction.  Both men adopted an absurdist style of British Satire, one whose identity seems to have been first solidified by the efforts of Monty Python, and applied to the written word.  They then used this style to tell and construct their respective novel length jokes.

The point I'm trying to make here has less to do with the books themselves, and more about how the efforts of each author has been received by the public.  I think the way Adams and Pratchett have been treated by audiences can tell us a bit about what distinguishes great writing from the merely good.  I don't know whether Adams counts as a one-book-wonder, with Hitchhiker's being this great spurt of inspiration which the author could never live down or re-capture.  I know it's the sort of phenomenon that has happened in the past.  Ken Kesey might have experience the same thing with Cuckoo's Nest.  Either way, what I'm getting at here is that Adams's first book has gone on to be recognized as containing elements that make his story a genuine classic.  I'm not so sure that the same has ever been said of Pratchett's efforts.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not calling him a bad writer.  Nor am I about to deny that he's got whole legions of fans out there who admire his work.  I don't deny a single bit of that.  It's also a mistake to claim that he doesn't have a great deal of popularity, enough so that Pratchett's secondary world has often been lumped alongside places like Middle Earth and Earthsea.

It's just that I don't think I've ever seen him gain the same level of fame as Adams, or even Monty Python for that matter, have been able garner over the years.  This can be seen in the kind of notoriety attached to his name. People might have heard of the Discworld, but how many can point to any one story in the series that stand out from the rest?  That's where the trick and the irony lies.  Pratchett seems to have been skilled enough to be a genuinely good writer.  He also appears to have stopped at being just that.  He can create good writing, I'm not sure I've ever saw him produce a Great Book.  If he did, then the closest objective candidate I've got is that one time when he co-authored a book with Neil Gaiman, a name who probably has more than at least one Big Text to his resume.  The result is that while it's true to say that Pratchett's books are enjoyable, maybe even memorable, they do not hit quite the same note in the minds of the audience with the same precision as works like Hitchhiker's or Sandman and Coraline.  Hence, we're able to note a difference, and make a distinction between first and second tier types of fiction.

It's not a distinction that many people bother about, nor am I all that sure that it's as important as I've made it sound.  The reason for that is because while I rate a story like Hitchhiker's somewhat better than Discworld, and a film like The Godfather is able to pretty much clobber the both of them put together, I still insist that it's a mistake to make too big a deal about it.  The simple reason for that is because its too easy to allow various types of snobbery to creep and crawl its way into the conversation.  If you let that kind of thing go on for too long, pretty soon all sort of arbitrary and artificial exclusions will be made, where none can logically be said to exist.  I don't see the point, really, in trying to set all the texts of the world on exclusionary shelves.  I think it's more than possible to just set them all side by each other without discrimination.  With that in mind, there still remains the matter of one film in particular.

If I had to take a guess, I'd have to say that Space Jam is the type of story that fits in well as a good example of mid-list fiction cinema.  It came out a long time ago.  In many ways, it really is the product of another world altogether.  I must have just been starting high-school when I first heard about it.  It was 96, so that must have been during my first early freshman years.  This would have been during that strange limbo state between the last desperate grasping at genuine childhood, and the start of the teen years.  By and large, my major concerns at the time were learning how to fit in, and the first glimmering awareness of an author known as Steve King.  I think I had yet to take up reading in quite the serious way I do now.  The spark of interest was being ignited, however.  In the meantime, there was still classes, TV, and the movies to consider, as well as the other growing awareness that girls existed.  Somewhere in between all that, I managed to catch sight of Warner Bros. mid-decade tribute to basketball and anarchic, Golden Age animation.  I can remember some of my initial reactions.

I think a sense of familiarity must have played some part in it.  I'd caught Who Framed Roger Rabbit once during a very important and impressionable viewing session at a neighbors house.  So I knew about the combination of live action and animation.  However, it was a very niche sub-genre, and one I hadn't really been back to for a long while after that first viewing.  Part of it had to do with getting caught up in the daily grind of living, another, more important factor, had to do with Christopher Loyd in a performance that still remains the stuff of nightmares.  I didn't even work up the courage to go back and watch the earlier film for myself until sometime long after the Warner film had come and gone.  Some of you may be wondering why don't I get to the film itself already?  I think some of the reason for this delay is that it at least helps give a sense of just the kind of minuscule impact it must have left on my psyche at the time.  For me, the whole thing seems to have amounted to the following statement.  I came, I saw, I shrugged, it was okay, I guess.  It didn't set the world on fire, or anything, it was just a last bit of my childhood, and that seemed like enough for me.

That's why it's something of a genuine shock to discover how that just really sells the case too damn short for a great deal of the audience out there.  I'll confess, this is the last kind of film I would have expected to pick up the sort of following it enjoys now.  I can't say I know just where all this momentum came from.  It's status as a piece of mid-list fiction should have meant that it would have stayed at that level.  It turns that doesn't appear to be the case.  For whatever reason, Space Jam has become its own kind of phenomenon for a lot of 80s and 90s kids.  Like it's this something that everybody not only has memories of, they also turn out to be of the type that one reserves for favorites like Back to the Future or The Dark Crystal.  And here, believe it or not, is the part where it all gets interesting, complicated, and sometimes even downright contentious for some reason.  Maybe it's best to begin with the film that set this whole strange phenomenon into motion.

The Plot.

I'm not sure there's any normal description for a film like this.  We, as a society, have spent years, even multiple decades trying to establish ourselves on some kind of rational basis.  What that tends to mean is that when a story like this comes along, there's always a lingering sense of off-kilter about the whole thing.  I mean you have a basketball player (Michael Jordan) teaming up with Bugs Bunny (Billy West), Daffy Duck (Dee Bradley Baker), a newcomer named Lola (Kath Soucie) and the rest of the Looney Tunes (June Foray, Bill Farmer, Bob Bergen) in order to stop a corporate takeover from a gang of aliens led by Danny DeVito.  Also Newman from Seinfeld and one of the Ghostbusters are there to help out.  

Does any of that make sense?  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that most in the audience can't find any other response except no.  It's like I said.  Most of us, sooner or later, will tend to wind up trying our best to create a rational, sustainable life for ourselves, along with those of others.  If this is how people choose to live their lives, then having a joker or wild card in the deck, such as whatever the Imagination happens to be, will often wind up striking too off - balance a note.  That's the best case scenario, by the way.  It's easy to see how it gets a whole lot worse when you toss a concept as off-kilter as this one, single mid-90s anomaly into the mix.  I suppose it doesn't help matters to learn that my take on the whole thing is a bit more complex than the usual sort of response this film gets from viewers.

Some Much Needed Context.

It's been described as a feature-length commercial.  It's the sort of irony where you're never quite sure just who the joke is on.  Not only is there a grain of truth in the statement, it also tells a great deal about the movie's origins.  The truth is it all started out as a bunch of literal TV commercials.  This was way back in the 90s, a time that still isn't all that distant, yet it always looks that way in the memory's rear-view mirror.  It's kind of hard to catch a glimpse of the whole outline of that decade for a lot of the people who lived it.  Part of the problem, I think, is because it stands as a transitional phase, having no real well-defined identity of its own.  It started out kind of as the 80s lite, and from there it just becomes a kind of grey, pop-cultural osmosis sludge.  What it may have lacked in personality, it sort of makes up for in retrospect by the sense of relative comfort and stability.

One of the few elements that stand out about the 90s is that it was kind of the last time when American society was able to generate the sort of personality that acted as a benchmark for the public to maybe idolize, although I think the more proper description is to say that they were the sort of figures you could look up to.  Michael Jackson is one such individual.  During first half of the 80s, he was, in essence, the defining presence of that decade.  While it's probably a mistake to say that it can all be summed up in the work of just one artist, it's true enough that Jackson still remains one of the iconic images that people turn to when they want to conjure up a sense or atmosphere of those times.  

If Jackson came near to being the face of the start of the decade, then it is at least possible that NBA shooting guard Michael Jordan inherited that mantle as the 80s came to a close, and the 90s began.  For the longest time it was like the guy's face was everywhere.  You could find him plastering and hawking his half-grinning visage (often with a ubiquitous basketball tucked under one arm) onto soft drink cups, coffee mugs, and even beach towels for some reason.  Some of my earliest memories involve catching an almost constant glimpse of the guy as he stared down at me from the poster that my sister hung on the inside wall of her room, just as you walked right through its doorway.  If I ever wanted something from her, or left an item of my own in her room, I always had to pass by MJ in order to find it.  At some point it disappeared entirely from the wall, and I haven't seen that poster since.  The irony is it just now occurs to me how far the potential asking price of such an item has gone up with the passing of time.  We often don't know our own best interests while we're "in the moment", it seems.

The point is that for a lot of the 90s, Jordan was, if not any sort of idol, then definitely the kind of celebrity that could do no wrong.  He was the guy a lot of us wanted to either be or emulate for the longest damn time.  Jordan was also smart enough to realize that his popularity also translated well into marketability.  Nowhere was this more obvious than when he signed on as an official spokesman for the Nike brand line of sports sneakers.  It really does seem to have been his endorsement that made the shoes the sort of era defining image that they've long since become.  If any younger readers out there ever bother to wonder how come an entire decade was willing to make a shoe with a single check-mark emblazoned on its sides into something close to this weird national treasure type deal, then you have to the former lead player for the Chicago Bulls to thank for that.  It does leave one element unexplained.

I haven't got a clue whose idea it was to cast Jordan alongside an old Warner Bros. cartoon character in order to sell shoes.  Like Mt. Everest, it's almost something that was just sort of "there".  That's not the truth of course.  It never is when it comes to something man made.  The trouble is just how difficult it is to find any real solid information on who had the original light bulb moment.  All that can be said for sure is that in the course of the promoting the original Air Jordan merchandise line, somebody had to have had the thought somewhere along the lines of "Wouldn't it be funny if Michael was playing a game alongside Bugs Bunny"?  It's the kind of thought process that invariably leads the more sober minded to ask which particular drugs were in use when the idea occurred.  I can't tell whether such speculation have any merit or not.  All I can say for sure is that somehow the idea was pitched, it must have had enough charm to it to make the heads of both Nike and Warners green-light the project, and the result is one of those now touchstone moments in the collective childhoods of a lot of 90s kids.

I guess some would claim that makes me kind of lucky, in a way.  They may be at least onto something approaching an insight.  Either that or at least you can just make it out in the distance on a relatively clear day.  The irony is I was one of the fortunate kids of that era to catch maybe a handful of what are now known as the "Hare Jordan" commercials when they first aired in between re-runs of things like The Teenage Mutant Turtles or Garfield.  This is not something I caught on any sort of religious basis.  It was more like the simple luck of the draw, where if you didn't pick yourself up off the floor in order to go raid the fridge until the show returned, you might be likely to catch an NBA star hanging out with one of your favorite childhood characters.  The clearest memory I seem to have on any of it is from the "Aerospace Jordan" incarnation of the promotional campaign.  It's the one that features not just Bugs, but also Marvin the Martian.  Looking back on it now, I seem to have a mixture of reactions all rolled up into one.  Perhaps this itself is pointer to my thoughts on Jordan's later Tune related project.  

Either way, what happened next is where the film itself comes into play.  All it happened just because the director of the original Ghostbusters was on the same plane as one of the Nike executives responsible for the animated Jordan commercials.  I've never been able to find any information on precisely which executive Ivan Reitman spoke with, however he must have been part of the company that was trying to get a feature-length film with Jordan and the Tunes off the ground, because any real serious effort in that direction appears to have begun from there.  The one major setback at the time was that Jordan chose that particular moment to retire from the NBA in response to a lot of recent difficulties in his personal life.  It also resulted in him trying his luck as a baseball player for reasons that were just as equally personal.  This put everything on the back burner for a while, at least until Jordan returned to play basketball in 1995 (web)".  From there, everything seems to have fallen into place.

Examining the Criticisms.

Going over a lot of the back story seemed necessary in order to give audiences some insight into the thought that went into this film.  The trick is that already there are probably more than a few in the aisles who are willing to point out that it's all just proof that no real storytelling effort went into any single facet of this production.  It demonstrates conclusively that the whole thing was an ill-conceived and poorly thrown together hodge podge of sight gags and set pieces with little or nothing to hold any of it together, and no reason provided for the viewer to care about what's happening on the screen.  That's not where the criticism of this film comes to a stop, not by a long shot.  I almost want to say that if you tried to compile all the complaints this movie has received in the years following its release, then you might just have created something like an encyclopedia-length book.  All I've done is to give the best summary evaluation of this collective response as possible for a venue such as this.  

It's one of those phenomena that I suppose has to be counted as natural enough, given the digital environment.  It always just remains as something of a pointless puzzle to me.  I mean, it's just a movie folks.  I suppose my real unspoken question is that if everyone dislikes the damn thing so much, then why do you keep crawling back to it.  It's a strange, OCD style cycle that I'm having trouble figuring the logic of.  Let's put it this way.  Part of me wonders if hatred is what's really driving a lot of the vitriol directed toward Jam's direction.  Don't get me wrong, I'm more than willing to agree that a genuine unimpressed reaction is out there for this film.  However, I'm also inclined to wonder if there's a distinction to be made between an honest dislike, and something that is, at best, merely a strange kind of masquerade for something else.  I think the one's who really don't care for this movie are more inclined to just dismiss, move on, and leave it at that.  A person who really hated this film would never bother to keep coming back to it, almost as if they were reluctant fan boys and girls in disguise.  I think it's an awkward reluctance in a phenomenon known as Guilt Pleasure Syndrome.

At least there's one theory I have about the curious fan circles that have accumulated around Jordan and Reitman's picture.  Another possibility I've considered is the curious phenomenon known as what I think has been called "Hate Viewing".  This is where a person willingly subjects themselves to a film that they despise, just so they can trash on it from the comfort of their own living room.  There are people out there who are willing to go through this process, even if it sometimes comes off as a kind of torture to them.  Then again, it could always be argued that last sentence provides a solution to at least a part of the puzzle.  I have been inclined for some time now, anyway, to wonder if something like "Hate Viewing" is really just something else than a mere dislike of certain books or films.  To give a good idea of where I'm coming from, I've often substituted the word "Troll Viewing" in my thinking about this process.

In other words, my own look into these ways of looking at stories makes me wonder if there isn't a segment of the population out there to which books and films are there less for the purposes of taking in a story proper, and more to serve as outlets for venting various forms of turbulent emotional problems.  I'm at least willing to consider it as a possibility that has to remain on the table, more or less.  It seems to be a very recent development, something that could only have become possible with the advent of a democratized digital age, when people who never gained much of a foothold in the public conversation now have a door in that most of us remain ignorant of.  This is all just theory, mind you.  However if there should ever be any truth in this, then it comes to the one observation I'm willing to remain adamant about.  It does nothing for a proper appreciation of creative arts.  Instead of furthering the aesthetic conversation, this is the type of outlook that brings all dialogues to a dead stop.  What better way to do that then by using tactics that cause people to scatter to the four corners, at least if they value their lives?

I bring all this up merely to highlight the kind of obstacles I've kept running into when it comes to getting a clear reading of what after all is, in the end, just a film, a story told on celluloid.  If this is the perspective that some insist on bringing to their viewing experience (and really, in this particular setting, all concerns of art are right out the window when the real topic is that a personal, egoistic satisfaction) then I'm afraid it will be too easy to call the claim invalid, and get down to the real serious business of looking at a movie in the kind of proper mindset that allows the narrative to reveal whatever secrets it may (or might not) contain. 

Overlooked Aspects.

The one complaint that stands out the most is that the story itself is next to non-existent, with the characters and their development suffering as a result.  The key charge centers around questions of just what exactly an artistic narrative and its fictional personalities are supposed to be?  This may seem like an off-topic tangent for some, however it really is at the heart of the criticisms this film has faced pretty much since its inception.  The whole problem centers around what the movie is in and of itself, versus the expectations of the audience over just what a proper story is, or should be.  It can be difficult trying to figure out just what sort of artistic standards that a mass public might hold.  A legitimate question would be to ask how it's even possible for there to be any sort of standard in a world with more than several million points of view walking around all over the place?  The trouble with this outlook is that it focuses in just a bit too much on the individual at the expense of the collective expectations of humans as a group or society.  At this level it becomes possible to get a sense of the kind of standards a culture might hold in regard to its popular entertainments.

It's a topic that has been something of a constant background concern of mine for quite a while now.  Based on the frequency with which certain opinions and judgements in the audience have re-appeared with a more or less steady consistency, my overall takeaway is that the best term to describe how most viewers approach movies (even the one's whose entire method and approach is based on a distinct lack of reality) is that of the concept of realism or naturalism.  It seems to have become the unofficial-official adopted lens through which we take in all of our art.  This can make it more of a challenge for a lot of content creators out there than most of us are aware of.  It means a lot of them have to cater or shape their ideas to an acceptable pre-determined format.  I'm not talking here about pushing any sort of boundary, or cage shaking.  This is a lot more basic, a phenomena which is so fundamental that most of us remain unaware it's even going on at all, nor that we are the ones perpetuating it.

The fact is I'm convinced that it's this almost subconscious mindset of audience expectation that counts as the major strike against Reitman's film.  Without it, who knows what could have been.  There might even have been the smallest sliver of a chance that it could have worked out in a different way than it did.  However, because this naturalist streak remains more or less in place, and most of the folk in the aisles haven't trained themselves how to enjoy any alternative form of storytelling, the result is that Space Jam was and remains a film with a lot of the deck stacked against it.  For better or worse, Reitman chose to make a movie whose style and content is so removed from the currently accepted norm, that a lot of viewers out there can't even be bothered to ask themselves just what sort of film it is we're dealing with?  The answer is surprising because while it does have a rational explanation, it's one that involves a lot of talking points which are going to sound right out of left field to a lot of people.  

For instance, what happens if we decide to bring Shakespeare out onto the court?  Some will probably have to take it as a joke.  It just sounds so ridiculous to bring a writer of that sort of caliber into a discussion about a freaking Loony Tunes flick, that some will consider the idea so bad that it almost makes sense to regard it as a discarded worst draft of the script.  It isn't, however.  Nor is it any sort of joke.  I'm afraid I'm being dead serious.  The reason for bringing Shakespeare up at all has less to do with the writer himself, and instead is more focused on the kind writing he used in his plays.  Without being facetious, I'm being serious when I claim it is exactly that type of story Reitman is trying to tell us.  

It's best to as clear as possible about this.  That way it's easier to avoid being misunderstood.  What I'm about offer next is very particular take on Space Jam.  It's one I'm fairly certain that none of the major critics have ever tried, and I'm not so sure how much acceptance it would have in professional circles.  What I aim to do next is provide what I regard as a much needed critical lens, or like the right sort of microscope that's needed to get at the heart of this film.  Shakespeare himself isn't the core of it, though his works have pretty much enshrined the kind of writing style that does form the center of the film.  The fact that it is somewhat novel (if not strictly original), as well as being obscure as hell, means there's always the danger of going way over too many heads.  However, I'm convinced that what I have to say next will be of at least one explicit value.  It may help us to determine why some people flock to this movie, where others barely seem able to stomach it. 

Space Jam as Popular Conventionalist Performance.

What it amounts to is a form of writing I've spoken about at least once or twice before.  The best term I've found for it is "The Popular Dramatic Tradition".  Peter Davison gives a good overview of what I'm talking about in Popular Appeal in English Drama to 1850.  At the beginning of his study, Davison introduces a distinction between legitimate and illigit forms of storytelling (1).  His focus is on dramatic production, yet I think the observations he makes are valid in an essentially trans-media way.  What he says could very well apply to all forms of telling a narrative, in other words.  While Davison's two terms are borrowed from the history of literary criticism, he also admits that trying to call any production legitimate or not doesn't help get the point across.  He is not trying to judge good and bad forms of art (nor does he care to be a snob, for that matter), but rather to bring to light a distinction between different narrative techniques.  The best term I'm able to use for the twin frameworks Davison is talking about is to call one the Popular Conventional, while other is best described as Naturalistic.

These are two modes of storytelling that have played a large part in the history of the arts.  Both modes or definitions remain a bit too unfamiliar with the mass audience than is perhaps very healthy.  This is the case even when it really does seem as if viewers and reader seem to remain on very friendly terms with at least one of these techniques.  The Naturalistic seems to be the de facto go-to position for how we watch a movie or read a book.  It's the frame of reference that demands a complete and total suspension of disbelief.  Any story that introduces any sort of plot element or narrative choice that shatters that illusion is argued to have been a failure because it will not hold with the principles of dramatic realism.  It's a complaint lobbed at a great many filmmakers and authors out there.  It's become so ubiquitous, in fact, that the audience seems to have reached a point where it is no longer entirely aware of the principles on which their arguments are often based.  This can often be a clear sign what sort of artistic beliefs are governing the behavior and responses of the audience toward any given work of art.  All the evidence I've seen tells me that most of us are naturalistic in the way we handle the art of make-believe.  There's just one issue.  It didn't always used to be be like this.

The phenomenon of artistic naturalism wasn't always the defining trait is has since become.  It's a style of writing that can trace its roots as far back as the Middle Ages, and perhaps it stretches even further than that, all the way to the primitive beginnings of Ancient Greek drama.  What's interesting is not just its antiquity, but also just how long its managed to hang around.  As far recent as the 1950s, the idea of Popular Conventionalism still retained a solid enough hold on the minds of viewers and readers.  Samuel Leslie Bethell was one literary critic who understood this dynamic well back when it was occurring.  In a study of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, Bethell makes an observation that must have sounded fundamentally scandalous to the scholarly readership it was aimed at.  However his observations remain solid for the point to that's being made here.  Back in his day "The popular audience in a contemporary cinema (say from about the start of movies to as late as 1968, or just about, sic) or music hall, unconcerned with theories of dramatic art, finds no difficulty in accepting the most 'impossible' conventions: unseen orchestras strike up and characters break suddenly into song; pure farce may mingle with domestic tragedy; a stage show occurring in a film may develop into a performance that no real theatre could possibly contain (1)".

What Bethell is talking about here is a form of story that must seem very unfamiliar to the majority of viewers.  It's the sort of thing you don't see much of any more.  It used to be not any one staple, but rather mare like a collection of artistic devices and tropes that had their heyday back during what's now known as the Golden Age of Hollywood.  This was the time period you tend to here about from college professors, film buffs, and maybe the odd retrospective documentary here and there.  You can still find examples of it everywhere, that is if you even care to bother with it.  TV channels like Turner Classic Movies devote themselves to this kind of thing.  What that tells me is that there is still an audience out there for these kind of older, non-realistic forms of storytelling.  It also tells me that I am a part of what appears to be very much a distinct minority.  Either way, the point in bringing all this up is that the style of Popular Conventionalism used to be the accepted norm for how people told and enjoyed their written and cinematic entertainment.  In a way, the fact that this holdover of Conventionalism reached its greatest cinematic heights during the 1930s and 40s kind of makes sense when discussing a film like Space Jam.  It was during that period when the Looney Tunes were created.

The old Warner Bros. cartoons are in and of themselves, something of the purest Popular Conventional expression of the sort that Bethell and Davison are talking about.  This can be demonstrated when you turn to a lot of the first theatrical cartoons the fledgling Warner company produced for distribution.  What's remarkable about them is the reaction they garner from critics of a contemporary mind.  Once you know what you're looking at, it begins to sink in that the complaints directed at Reitman and Jordan's efforts are far from original.  Hank Sartin offers a helpful observation about this mixed critical reception of the early Tunes as part of his essay in a collection entitled Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation.  He's talking about the Merrie Melodies, the initial first run shorts that historically were essential to both Warners and the animators of Termite Terrace in helping to establish just what kind of identity their characters were supposed to have.  Bear in mind, that they were up against the stiff competition of The Disney Company.  It was Walt who had staked out the territory for the animated cartoon, and set the initial stamp on it.  This meant artists like Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones knew they had to define themselves in a way that would set themselves apart from what the early Mouse House was up to.

They found their inspiration in the Popular Dramatic Tradition.  It's this very same dramatic conventionalism of which Sartin makes the following notes.  "Cartoon historians often describe these early thirties musical cartoons in a negative light, in part because they want to describe the history of this period as a steady development toward the recognized narrative structure of "Golden Age" Hollywood cartoons.  In their view, the musical cartoons are a dead-end experiment.  Leonard Maltin says, "The serious fault with the...cartoons was that they did not innovate or improve."  Norman Klein remarks that 'these little cartoon operettas seem painfully maudlin today...Filmic story is turned into a sentimental interlude...Most of these cartoons were devoted to interpreting the music and little else.  They toss in an endangered hen house, or evil creatures in bookland, but it is mostly to hang the crescendos on, and rather elliptically at that.  One can expect a kidnapped chick somewhere, or an affianced girl bee carried away like Lindbergh's baby, and so on.  The the hive rallies, kicks the varmints out, and saves Sue Bee, all to a rousing symphonic finish'.

"Both Maltin and Klein complain that these cartoons have "thin story lines," with narrative an afterthought to the interpretation of music.  These early musical cartoon leave Maltin and Klein dissatisfied because of their loose associative structure.  Much as early "actuality" films were treated in some histories of the early cinema, these cartoons have fallen from favor in part because of their peculiarly weak narratives.  If we examine the beginnings of Warner Bros. animation from a different perspective, though, we find that these films are in fact a very important part of cartoon history (68-9)".  The irony comes in once you start to realize that what Maltin and Klein take to be tissue thin plotting is really the sort of artistic practice that the Warners animators needed in order to find and shape their own artistic identity.  In utilizing Popular Conventionalism for this purpose, Freleng, Jones, Tex Avery and the others sort of discovered just who their characters were supposed to be, and the kind of stories that could be told with them.  I think Peter Davison is able to give us a pretty good idea of just what the storytelling context for the Looney Tunes was, and in many respect appears to remain, when he gives an overview of the two narrative conventions that the illustrators of Termite Terrace incorporated into both their characters, and the act in general.

"In traditional, West End or Broadway, fourth-wall removed drama", he tells us, "the audience 'overhears' what is being performed; the actors act as if the audience wasn't there, yet they not only hope they have a house, but, in fact, direct their voices and gestures to that outwardly unacknowledged audience.  Furthermore, they need that audience to complete their performance; they may well feel as strongly as did one nineteenth-century tragedian who appealed across the footlights to the audience, 'How can I act if you don't applaud?'  Nevertheless the fundamental distinction between 'overhearing' and direct address will be clear, even thought the contrast in modes may not always be so simple.  Thus, in a double act, one performer may directly address the audience whilst the duologue as a whole is 'overheard' - the appeal being made directly through the proscenium arch, or even 'through the camera' to a film o television audience, as in the routines of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, the Marx Brothers, and Morecambe and Wise (2-3)".

The distinction between overheard and direct artistic address is one that Jones and Company were more than happy to blur and meld together in the course of their own creative exploits.  It's what accounts for the Tunes' sense of wit.  It can be found in every double entendre, every time Bugs gives the camera a quick, glancing, smirk, or when Daffy informs us that he's having "Pronoun Trouble".  This is to say nothing of all the lines of dialogue that get spoken or tossed directly to the audience, often in the form of insults that are directed at, yet aren't meant to be heard by the likes of Elmer and Sam.  It also applies to our first (re)introduction to Bugs in the course of Space Jam.  It's the moment where he pauses in running from Elmer, and decides to inform us that "I'll be with you in a second, folks.  After I finish with nature boy, here".  

It's the first of many such fourth wall break moment, in a film that is almost composed of them from start to finish.  In fact, just a few lines later, Bugs does us a further favor by comparing himself to "A Shakespearean Actor".  The way he delivers the line is meant as a form of self-mockery.  Bugs is pointing out to us a very obvious fact.  It really would be a total mistake to try and believe that a character like the Hair-brained Hare could actually be placed in a serious dramatic role.  It's about as ludicrous and schizoid as believing that someone like Pierce Brosnan can sing.  The trick is that there is more going on with that line than appears on the surface.  It comes off as a throwaway moment, yet it think it's crucial.  In retrospect, it's becomes easy enough (with the proper background knowledge in mind) just what is going on in that scene.  This is the character (and by implication, the movie) flat out telling the viewer just what kind of story we as audiences are in for.  We are not hear to witness any straightforward drama.  Instead, the movie is expressing the wish or hope that the audience is willing to enjoy a Popular Conventional Comedy.  It's a form of dramatic address and practice that is so subtle in its very simplicity, that it really does appear that you don't even have to blink in order to miss it.

It's a plot element that does have relevance for the demands it makes on the audience.  We are being asked, in effect, to adopt an older, more foreign from of audience participation reference.  It's a key point about the very nature of the movie as a whole.  And whether or not any given member of the audience can bring themselves to meet the film at its own level might go a long way toward distinguishing the naysayers from its fans.  Again, a lot of help in this regard comes from keeping in mind the history of the very storytelling technique the film uses as its modus operandi.  Davison mentions the names of a lot of forgotten comedy legends in the paragraph above.  What needs to be added is that it was guys like Hope, Crosby, and the Brothers Marx from whom Clampett, Avery, and Jones took their inspiration.  Joe Adamson is one of the few Tune fans out there who makes a note of this.

In his book-length study, Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare, Adamson makes the link between the Tunes and Popular Dramatic artists likes the Marxes open and explicit.  "When Tex Avery, credited by most people as Bugs' creator, attempted to synopsize his rabbit for the Kool-Aid people, he told them, "You should visualize him like Groucho Marx.  If he ever runs from anyone, he has a trick in mind.  If you look back at the old Grouchos, he would run, real slow, with that funny lope, but then he'd stop and make some crack.  He was always in command; he knew what he was doing (20)".  For a good example of Bugs' outright referencing his debt to the Brothers, go back and watch one of the old Terrace entries like Wild Hare.  The point is that what unites all these real life entertainers with the animated characters is their shared storytelling method.  Rather than relying on a straight-forward illusion of reality, the Popular Dramatic Tradition eschews the suspension of disbelief altogether.  On the contrary, it is it's exact purpose to remind you that what you are watching or reading is in fact total make-believe, something that can never happen.  It then utilizes this knowledge, or double awareness, in order to pull off its particular brand of entertainment.  S.L. Bethell is still the one who provides the best explanation of the artistic effect that Dramatic Conventionalism is able to achieve at its finest.

"Deliberate emphasis upon the unreality of the play world is uncommon nowadays.  It is still, however, an habitual device of the Marx brothers, those excellent Hollywood comedians, who combine the wildest nonsense with a delicate satirical probing of the defective values in our modern civilization".  What Bethell says next is perhaps the most important point to grasp when trying to understand the nature of Jordan's film.  "Their methods are purely conventional, and they require above everything an alert audience, ready to grasp at every word and each significant gesture.  It would be fatal for their purpose if the audience were to become emotionally involved in the thin line of romantic story which holds their performance together.  

"In their best film, Animal Crackers, which appeared some years ago, there are two direct reminders of the film as film.  Groucho forgets the name of the character he represents, and turning to the audience, demands a program: this is complicated by the reference from film to "legitimate" stage, since programs are not provided in the motion picture theater.  At another point in the film he reminds us after a feeble pun, that "You can't expect all the jokes to be good."  The effect is the same as in Shakespeare; it reinforces the double consciousness of play world and real world, and at the same time it distances the play as play and produces intimacy with the audience for the actor as actor rather than as character (37-8)".  Bethell was talking about an old comedy troupe when he penned those words.  The almost pitch-perfect irony, however, is that he could also have been describing the Tunes in general, and their movie in particular.

Conclusion: A Harmless Curiosity with a Peculiar History and Reception.

If we take Bethell's insights just a bit further, it can become easy enough to see how a "deliberate emphasis upon the unreality" of the secondary world fits a movie like Space Jam.  I've mentioned before that the first thing Bugs does when he makes his entrance is to interrupt the story to address the viewer.  That's one way of enforcing a double consciousness on the audience.  Bill Murray's entrance during the finale is another instance, and we have DeVito saying "I didn't know Dan Aykroyd was in this picture"!  I have spent a great time discussing what appear to be a lot of ancillary facts and figures, rather than focusing on the nature of the Jordan flick in and of itself.  To those who argue that I've taken what should have been a straightforward film review, and gone off on some long, digressive tangent, you're going to have to just believe me when I maintain that I've been doing my damnedest to stay on point.

It turns out there were a number of reasons for talking about the audience for this film.  The main one has to do with just how much of a strange phenomenon this movie has become.  Everything about it tells me that the proper way to regard it is as just a harmless diversion, something the studio did in an attempt to see if there was still any life left in a few of their legacy characters.  In that sense, the final product is something of a test reel.  They just wanted to create a bit of fun, and not much else.  Within that sort of paradigm, then I'm afraid I can't find much of anything to complain about.  What's interesting is how none of this has stopped an interesting number of battle lines being drawn around this movie by various types in the fan community out there.  Some look at the whole thing as a fundamental slander against Bugs, Daffy, and everything that the whole gang stands for.  Others, meanwhile, found it a refreshing update of the characters.  I seem to have wound up somewhere in the middle of it all.  I find the story entertaining, and yet there is nothing much to be called innovative about it.  All it amounts to is the Warner characters being just being themselves, really.  

That's it, as far as I'm concerned.  I can't say I minded what I saw up on-screen.  Nor do I find anything objectionable with the introduction of Lola Bunny.  If fact, if I'm still being honest, I was okay with her pretty much.  If anything, I'm sort of a reverse Rorschach test on the whole matter.  When I found out how they reshaped her character into a brainless ditz for a TV series a few years back, it just came off as an unnecessary insult.  I've heard a lot of defenses of the move.  The basic point everyone tries to make is that it's a lot more truer to the Tunes aesthetic.  The unspoken idea seems to be that there's no need for a straight-man character in the bunch.  For some strange, reason, however, no one's ever managed to convince me on this. 


I can't think of any irrefutable reason why a character such as Lola can't function as an audience surrogate figure.  She can be our eyes an ears into this weird and wacky universe all the others inhabited.  It's perhaps an overlooked and necessary function, especially when it comes to trying introduce young Post-Millennials to this kind of secondary world.  Sometimes the audience really does need someone to hold their hand and make first introduction.  Let me repeat.  I can't think of a good reason why Lola shouldn't have been the right character for the job.   Another reply I've heard is that she blunts the anarchic edge of the the characters.  The trouble with a word like anarchy is that all it amounts to is just another loaded gun.  Please kindly think of some other term to describe a product that has nothing to do with ideology.

I think that whole last paragraph is about all you should need to get a good idea of the weirdness (not in a good way, either) that's grown up around what's meant as a pretty basic kids entertainment.  The funny part is that I'm very much a late-comer to all the controversy that's grown up around it over the years.  When it first came out I watched it a few times, then put it up on the shelf and went on with my life for the longest time, without bothering to worry much about it, one way or another.  That's what's made coming back to it after all these years like stepping into the Twilight Zone.  It's like it's not the film itself I have to worry about, it's viewers in the aisles.  That's not the most comfortable discovery you want to make.  To tell you the truth, I do sometimes wonder if this isn't another telltale clue about a problem I brought up once before.  In a review of Ready Player One I talked about what might be called the degradation of fandom.  It's one way of describing a breakdown in the communities that normally came together over shared interests in various franchises, TV shows, films, or even books on rare occasions.  Right now, it all looks as if whatever held it all together is starting to break apart, causing a form of natural enough fragmentation in the collective as a whole.

This seems to be a mirroring also of a similar fragmentation that's going on with the arts scene in general.  There's been a lot of false starts and missteps going on in most of the major franchises out  there of late.  If you're willing to be into the idea that artists and audiences are, by necessity, almost joined at the hip in the joint venture of the making and enjoying of art, then perhaps that is the best explanation for the sense of breakup going on.  If many in the contemporary arts scene cannot find any meaningful way to coalesce, especially in regard to the kind of stories that have drawn in the biggest crowds, then is it any wonder if the audience is slowly starting to drift out of the theater in search of other pursuits?  I don't think this means it's possible for the arts to disappear forever.  It just means a lot of the best stuff will go back to the kind of underground status it held back before the Blockbuster became a popular trend.  Could it also be that the trend itself is ending?  If there should ever be another possible artistic Renaissance somewhere in the future, then part of it might involve the audience learning how to be entertained once again.  I suppose that's the real reason I focused so much on the audience response to Space Jam, more than on the film itself.  Part of my hope, though, is that the Popular Dramatic Tradition in storytelling can make a comeback as well.

It seems as if at the heart of this film lies an unspoken, or ill-defined controversy over just what the Looney Tunes are supposed to be, yet also what possible relations can they have with the art of narrative.  A further unspoken question tied up in all this is just what the hell is a narrative supposed to be in the first place?  Like I said way back at the beginning, our current taste is locked into a naturalistic mindset whose basic rule of thumb is the more realism, the better.  Where does a product as fundamentally anti-realist as the Tunes, or a film like Jam, have in such a mindset?  I think part of the answer can be provided when you start to ask just how popular are the original Termite Terrace gang with general 21st century audiences?  My own exploration of the question has led to the conclusion that their popularity rests somewhere in the 50/50 percent range.  That means that half of the world knows at least something about the deranged duck and the wascally wabbit.  Here's the key point, though.  As of this writing, they are all just famous enough by half.  The Tunes are perched on a tightrope of pop culture awareness, in other words.  This  means that the other half of the audience, through lack of exposure and experienced familiarity, has little choice in the matter except to ask "what the hell is up with all of this crap"?

That does not look like much of an enviable spot to find yourself in as an artist, to say nothing of characters like the Warner lineup.  I guess being a Tunes fan means that while you probably don't qualify as an endangered species, you're still what might be called a common rara avis.  It's a known quantity and quality that is still somehow half mired in obscurity.  I guess that's the best summation of the kind of almost natural obstacles a film like Space Jam will always have in its way.  That's a shame too, as I think the film is able to hold its weight on its own terms.  The trouble is getting half the audience to understand just what those exact terms are.  Scholars like Peter Davison can be something of a help in this regard.  His works tend to examine the Popular Dramatic Tradition as it has managed to survive on the margins of pop culture.  In particular, it has maintained a steady existence for itself in the field of the British Music Hall performances.  That's really what Reitman's movie is, when you get down to it, a feature-length version of Vaudeville.

At the other end of the spectrum, it might still be possible to provide a sort of lens or perspective for those who still can't work their minds around the concept of narrative double awareness.  This offer would come in the form of a fan theory that asks whether or not what we are seeing half the time is an family friendly version of a Fight Club movie?  In other words, you could always suppose that the entire story is about the private fantasy that Jordan experiences after suffering from a minor form of mental breakdown after a series of private hardships, and professional setbacks.  Maybe it can be one of those stories where half the narrative takes place in the mind of the protagonist as they retreat into an inner world of fantasy in order to help themselves cope, and otherwise just generally try and sort their own lives out.  I don't know whether or not approaching the movie from this perspective is of any great, help, or if it will make some reluctant fans find their way into the narrative that doesn't spoil their suspension of disbelief.  At the very least, you've got to admit it does help iron over more than one element of the story.

I'm able to extend this particular form of creative olive branch for one very important reason.  I seem to be imaginatively ambidextrous.  In other words, I seem to have the sort of mind that is capable of assimilating both the naturalistic and popular romantic forms of telling a story.  I can watch a film, or read a book, on the most basic level if that's all it's got to offer on the one hand.  I can also enjoy a narrative that forces you to have a double awareness of both the tale as an account of a secondary world, alongside an alertness of the artifice of the narrative as mere fictional performance.  I can see how that's a tall order to ask for a lot in the audience.  It might take some doing, though achieving such a goal is not an impossibility.  

That's why I think this upcoming sequel, featuring Lebron James, will at least be an interesting test case.  How audiences react to this continuation of the Tunes and their usual form of telling a story, whether positive or negative, might tell us at least something of the state of the audience in the 21st century, and how it relates to the various types of myths we like to tell ourselves.  In the meantime, the original 1996 version of Space Jam still seems to remain what it is.  It's a harmless moment's diversion, nothing more.  It is a rare, late 20th century example of the proto-metafictional Popular Tradition in the dramatic arts, and relies on the audience to be in on the joke of poking fun at it's own pretensions.  The rules are unusual for some, however, if you are willing to play the game as they are laid out, then you shouldn't have too much trouble enjoying this peculiar bit of 90s era goodness.


  1. I admit, large swaths of this entry were impenetrable to me, alas. (Did you... like the movie? The original one? I honestly can't tell.)

    But to your initial question, I must counter... IS "Space Jam" a "big deal"? I think it's a fairly minor blip on everyone's cultural horizon. I suppose huge basketball fans might remember it fondly, but is there anyone to whom it's any kind of anchor-film, of their childhood or otherwise?

    I've no doubt someone might claim it to be the case, but I have trouble believing it.

    Perhaps I just don't know enough 90s kids. Maybe it's a big deal if you were a 90s kid. But, I'd wager, not the majority of them. Just a hunch.

    Anyway it's not a good film, no. A harmless moment's diversion, sure, but the animation is really dark and shadowy, the voices are off, and the script is pretty cheesy. I've no interest in the Lebron remake, or indeed much of anything out of that guy. Some folks are just too toxic to drum up interest in anything they touch. I'm struggling, actually, to remain a Red Sox fan, the more Fenway Sports Group gets in bed with Lebron. Watching the situation carefully.

    1. Did I like the film? I'd have to say I came away from my recent viewing with a more positive reception than even I was expecting.

      The look of the animation and the voices were not the issue for me, nor was the look of the animation. Although, if I had to go there, then it was precisely more of those very same dark scenes you mention that can stand out as a sign of the talent involved in the film. In that sense, my reaction is still a polar opposite.


    2. It's funny because I still can't tell!

    3. Erm, what I mean to say is, yes, I came away surprised by how much I came away liking the film after a revisit for this article.

      Stranger things have happened, I guess.


  2. (1) I saw this on opening night when it came out, and was pretty well unimpressed by it. I didn't dislike it, I just didn't get much of anything out of it. Never saw it a second time. But I've been quietly observing it gain in stature, and I reckon the way that makes me feel must be similar to the way most people younger than me seem to fee about things like "The Goonies" and "The Monster Squad." That is, you either get it or you don't. I guess I don't, and I guess further that I'm okay with that. But who knows? Maybe I'll see it again someday and have cause to reassess it.

    (2) "In other words, my own look into these ways of looking at stories makes me wonder if there isn't a segment of the population out there to which books and films are there less for the purposes of taking in a story proper, and more to serve as outlets for venting various forms of turbulent emotional problems." -- I think this is probably accurate.

    (3) My guess is that Shakespeare considered just about anything to be fair game. He might not necessarily USE everything at his disposal, but I bet he'd have felt few compunctions about it if he felt the need to. I am talking 100% out of my butt here, but it feels like there's probably something to what I'm saying.

    (4) Not sure what I think of the upcoming sequel (I haven't even seen the trailer), but my guess is it's going to be a hit.

    1. That seems to be a common process with a lot of the older films of the 80s and 90s. I know its what happened with "Squad" and "Goonies". I'm even something of a textbook case in point. I grew up catching the Donner film in bits and pieces, and have been making my way back to it ever since.

      Not sure I've seen the same process at work with the current Hollywood crop, however. I know I had an initial positive response to Pete Jackson's "King Kong", for instance, and then felt it was maybe "OK", to "just sorta there" upon re-watching it recently.

      (2) There's a sort of irony going on there. I'm pretty sure most psychologists would say that even films can have their own therapeutic value, at least sometimes. If that's ever the case, then what you've got is a product that is, at least in part, meant as an outlet for emotions.

      I think the difference between what the head shrinks talk about and the kind of troll viewing mentioned above is that the mental health experts are focused on a way of watching or viewing that is diametrically opposed to what the trollers are up to. Psychiatrists are talking about when the audience allows the film or book to work a positive modification in human behavior. With trolls, on the other hand, it all seems to be about mere use in the service of abuse. Hence, an obscure, yet perhaps necessary distinction. I wonder how long that's been the case.

      (3) I'm pretty sure ol' Bill was happy to be a crazy-quilt with his influences as any artist ever was.

      (4) My expectations range somewhere between hopeful and six of one, half a dozen of the others. Seems to be as best I can figure it, at any rate.