0. We Crave Mythologies, Not Stories
Humanity has always told and listened to stories. Given that these stories sometimes provide the backbone for an entire culture or mode of being, it is only natural that stories should evolve to suit the needs of the cultures that tell them. Western culture has changed a lot over the last fifty years and one of the ways in which our culture has changed is that we have acquired a taste for longer and longer stories. Once upon a time, we watched films, read novels and enjoyed TV shows that could be watched in almost any order. Now, we read series of novels, watch trilogies of films and feel cheated if our TV series do not end by paying off storylines that span multiple seasons and dozens of episodes. As a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies.
While explanations for this trend towards narrative expansiveness may lie beyond the scope of a single blog post, I would suggest that we crave fictional mythologies because the religious mythologies we inherited have lost all credibility and the market has stepped in to fill the gap. Though we may not believe in the mythologies of Marvel comics in the same way that our parents believed in God, the experience of engaging with escapist literature is very similar to that of engaging with religious text. As J.R.R. Tolkien once put it:
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having peculiar quality.
This ‘turn’ comes in the form of the moment when we suddenly lose ourselves in a fictional world and cheer inwardly when the narrative logic of that world asserts itself upon the events of the plot. When a hero finally wins the day or the tragic queen finally dies, we feel a sense of consolation that is entirely lacking from the ‘real world’ we inhabit for much of our waking lives. This desire to feel that the world abides by the rules of a story and that everything in the world happens for a reason is central to the religious impulse. Even a staunch Catholic like Tolkien recognised that the sense of fulfilment we gain from a good piece of escapist literature offers a faint echo of the sense of fulfilment that can be gained from having Faith in the Christian story.
As Westerners have come to demand more and more from their escapist media, creators have responded by not only satisfying those desires but by encouraging them whenever possible. These days, one cannot have a successful film without a franchise and one cannot have a franchise without a suite of media tie-ins including novels, games, TV series and comics. Each of these spin-offs adds complexity to the franchise and allows for the creation of yet more products whose worlds intersect that of the core franchise. The talent, manpower and money poured into the construction of these trans-media megatexts would be horrifying were it not so historically familiar… The truth is that our culture builds media franchises for the same reason that the Ancient Egyptians built pyramids and Medieval Christians built cathedrals: We are taking the fantastical and making it concrete so as to make the fantasy feel more like reality.
1. When Mythologies Fail to Take
One of the side effects of the rise of geek spirituality is that fans are sometimes frustrated when works either fail or refuse to make the transition from simple text to quasi-religious megatext. An excellent example of this frustration can be found in some of the reactions to Takeshi Koike’s science fiction anime film Redline (2009). The film revolves around a kinetically paced and psychedelically designed road race featuring colourful aliens, magical princesses, energy beings, orbital weapons platforms and an ending that is best described as an enormous space orgasm. While the film does contain a very sweet romantic subplot, the film’s emphasis is clearly on the race itself and the action set pieces that comprise it. Much of the film’s plot and setting do not make a huge amount of sense but this is completely unimportant as the film is designed from the ground up to provide a visceral cinematic experience. When the film was reviewed on the influential Anime News Network website, many fans took issue with what they perceived to be shoddy worldbuilding. As one poster named Timeenforceranubis put it:
My thing about science-fiction is: The worldbuilding is a big part of what makes me to care about a work of science-fiction. Without it, there’s little context. Sure, it keeps the story simple, but at the cost of immersion, and I felt like the whole movie was trying to make me care, despite the fact that it refuses to build its world. I never thought I’d use this phrase to seriously describe something, but it insists upon itself.
Conditioned by the market to associate the science fiction genre with escapism, the poster perceived Redline’s deliberate lack of worldbuilding as a weakness in the text and a mistake on Koike’s part. Despite being generally well disposed to the film, the poster genuinely seemed to struggle with the idea that a work of science fiction might have an artistic goal other than providing a textual foundation for flights of escapist fantasy.
This sense of megatextual expectation also explains why it is that so many fans are still attempting to resurrect Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly despite the fact that a) the series was cancelled ten years ago and b) the series already had a ‘conclusion’ in the form of a 2005 film entitled Serenity. As the original series was unexpectedly cancelled after only 14 episodes were made, many fans feel that the world of Firefly is somehow ‘incomplete’ and so they continue to lobby for the creation of more Firefly-related content in the hope that this new content will answer all of their questions.
Similarly intriguing is the anger generated by the supposedly unsatisfying final season of the ABC TV series Lost. Created by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber, Lost tells the story of a group of people who survive a plane crash only to find themselves trapped on an isolated tropical island. As the group starts to explore the island, they encounter a series of increasingly baffling mysteries that include polar bears, time travel, sinister corporations, magic numbers and smoke monsters. The most striking thing about Lost is that, while each new mystery compels you to keep watching, there is little sense that these mysteries form part of a wider and more coherent truth. This approach to running a series can be compared to Calvinball, the game played by Calvin and Hobbes whose rules are entirely made up on the fly. As the Calvinball theme song has it:
Other kids’ games are all such a bore!
They’ve gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!
Calvinball is better by far!
It’s never the same! It’s always bizarre!
You don’t need a team or a referee!
You know that it’s great, ’cause it’s named after me!
Calvinball storytelling emerged at a time when ‘serious’ American TV drama was attempting to move away from the production of stand-alone episodes and towards a focus upon long-term storylines (or ‘plot arcs’). Early pioneers of arc-based TV storytelling included Twin Peaks and The X-Files, both of which pre-empted Lost by using an open-ended mystery to provide an impression of narrative cohesiveness.
Calvinball storytelling is a transitional approach to show-running in so far as it provides an operational bridge between treating individual episodes as self-contained stories and treating individual episodes as component parts of much larger narrative tapestries. Calvinball storytelling allows writers to focus upon churning out the best possible episode they can without overly worrying about how that episode will fit into the greater narrative. As Twin Peaks, X-Files and Lost demonstrate, Calvinball writers throw a lot of ideas at the wall and only some of them stick. It is only when writers of later episodes begin drawing on previously used ideas that the illusion of a deeper narrative structure begins to emerge.
One of the peculiarities of running a Calvinball TV series is that the audience must never be allowed to think that the writers are making stuff up as they go. The reason for this is that mysteries tend to engage our interest only in so far as they appear to have solutions. By acknowledging that none of their mysteries were designed with solutions in mind, TV writers would effectively break the spell and so reveal the mess of dangling plot strands and stand-alone episodes that lie hidden behind the illusion of narrative cohesiveness. The author M. John Harrison once expressed a similar insight on his (now defunct) blog, writing about the challenges of ‘worldbuilding’ he said:
The worst mistake a contemporary f/sf writer can make is to withold or disrupt suspension of disbelief. The reader, it’s assumed, wants to receive the events in the text as seamless & the text as unperformed. The claim is that nobody is being “told a story” here, let alone being sold a pup. Instead, an impeccably immersive experience is playing in the cinema of the head. This experience is somehow unmediated, or needs to present itself as such: any vestige of performativeness in the text dilutes the experience by reminding the reader that the “world” on offer is a rhetorical construct. All writing is a shell game, a sham: but genre writing mustn’t ever look as if it is.
The art of Calvinball storytelling lies in the ability to keep the shell game alive so as to not disrupt that suspension of disbelief. In order to do this, TV writers must manage a vast number of active plotlines with little or no guidance as to how these plotlines are intended to develop. Skilful showrunners keep the Calvinball in play by knowing when to keep a plotline open, when to close it, when to combine it with others and when to bail on it completely. The most successful Calvinball series are those that manage to keep themselves on the air for year after year without alienating or frustrating the audience and without having to resort to such heavy-handed ground-clearance techniques as crashing a plane into a village, travelling back in time, revealing that it was all a dream or repeatedly hitting the reset button. The aim of the game is not to provide answers but to hold an audience’s attention by asking ever more evocative and unexpected questions until the continuity eventually becomes so cluttered and unmanageable that the entire enterprise collapses in on itself like a dying star.
In its heyday, Lost demonstrated how skilful writers could focus upon telling simple stories and yet create the illusion that they were exploring a vast and complex mythological framework. However, at the end, Lost also demonstrated how that mythological status could be revoked when answers are not forthcoming. A similar thing happened with Twin Peaks when the series was cancelled and a cinematic spin-off was made and marketed on the basis that it would provide audiences with answers that had not been forthcoming during the original run of the series. Directed by David Lynch himself, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) was intended as both a prologue and an epilogue to the series but its failure to provide audiences with satisfactory answers resulted in an audience backlash that killed the franchise stone dead and forced Lynch to abandon his plans to produce two further Twin Peaks films.
What the fall of franchises such as Lost and Twin Peaks demonstrate is that, while fans are drawn to series and franchises that appear to possess a mythological depth, their commitment to said franchises only persists so long as the impression of depth remains. Some franchises (like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) endure because they were built with such depth in mind. Other franchises (like Chris Carter’s X-Files) endure because their managers are highly adept at keeping the illusion of depth alive. Some franchises (including the Marvel and DC comics universes) begin as illusions only to eventually gain the substance and depth of true mythology. While there are many strategies available to writers and franchise managers who hope to encourage immersion and keep their mythologies alive, some franchises simply have mythological status thrust upon them.
2. Mythological Despite Itself
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was never designed to support a franchise. The film began life with the somewhat inauspicious title “Star Beast” before undergoing a series of re-writes, legal difficulties and production changes until it eventually entered the orbit of Walter Hill, the man who directed The Warriors (1979). Hill felt uncomfortable with the science fiction elements in the script and so passed it on to the then relatively inexperienced Ridley Scott. As Kim Newman observes in an excellent recent piece for Sight & Sound magazine:
Alien was one of those masterpiece-by-committee films fathered by writers, producers, designers and cast as well as director (and it’s probably Scott’s only film as a director for hire). The subsequent development of the series, even in its despised entries, has taken a similarly wayward path, with Hill and Giler calling in talents as diverse as [James] Cameron, William Gibson and Vincent Ward (both of whom worked on earlier versions of Alien 3), David Fincher (that film’s eventual director), Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Joss Whedon (director and writer respectively of Alien Resurrection) to add in elements of the universe. Even noveliser Alan Dean Foster was responsible for elements that became canon, while Sigourney Weaver became a more dominant and involved voice in the crafting of successive films.
While Alien’s masterpiece status may be something of a happy accident, its status as core text of a vast multi-media franchise seems nothing short of perverse.
Alien was built neither to sustain an escapist mythology nor to create the illusion of mythological depth. In truth, the film is nothing more than a traditional horror movie that replaces the trappings of gothic romance (vampires, decaying mansions, terrifying forests) with the trappings of space opera (aliens, decaying spaceships, terrifying planets). Those elements of the film that hint at a wider universe are there largely for their capacity to evoke feelings of awe and foreboding in the audience. Indeed, what are the original Space Jockey and crashed spaceship other than an updated version of the crashed spaceship and mummified corpse from Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit (1959)? Like the videotape in Hideo Nakata’s The Ring (1998), the puzzle box in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) or the countless objects that crop up in the basement to Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012), the Space Jockey exists purely in order to pose an unanswerable question that destabilises the audience and forces them to begin doubting what they think they know of the world. Alien opens by introducing us to an empty and barren universe where humans continue to work shitty jobs for shitty pay… then they discover a crashed alien spaceship. If everything the characters know about the universe is wrong then who knows what lurks around the next corner.
The success of the Alien franchise to date owes more to the iconic design of the original film than it does to the depth of its worldbuilding. Armed with only a final girl and a monster, James Cameron was able to ‘evolve’ Alien into the action film that was Aliens (1986). Armed with an aging final girl and a radically debased monster, David Fincher ‘evolved’ the series yet again into Alien 3 (1992), a grim meditation on the futility of a life lived without purpose. Since then, the franchise has been happily spawning games, spin-offs and sequels that draw heavily on the themes and images of the first three films without adding anything to them.
Given the success of the Alien franchise and the increasing tendency to ground franchises in some sort of fan-friendly mythology, it was perhaps unavoidable that someone would eventually try to put the house of Alien into some kind of mythological order. As with Twin Peaks, the decision was taken to go back to the beginning and produce a prequel to the original Alien that would fill in all the unexamined gaps in the film’s supposed mythology. When it was announced that this prequel would see the return of Ridley Scott not only to the Alien franchise but science fiction as a whole, the Internet (quite understandably) went mental. However, while Prometheus (2012) is being both marketed and discussed in terms of its capacity to supply answers, the film itself limits its mythological engagement to playing around with mythic symbolism. In fact, I believe that Prometheus is best understood as vicious critique of the tendency to seek answers to big questions and to weave these answers into some kind of escapist fantasy. Far from providing us with a mythology that makes sense and answers all questions, Prometheus suggests that life is nothing more than a series of random events leading not to Tolkien’s meaningful ‘turn’ but to a sense of profound bafflement.
3. Prometheus Unravelled
Auspiciously, Prometheus opens with an answer.
The answer is to the long-standing question of what the figure of the Space Jockey actually represents. Was the Jockey’s insectoid appearance due to the fact that his species was insect-like or was the insectoid appearance due to the shape of his spacesuit? The answer, it transpires, is the latter as the Space Jockey is revealed to be a member of a species that shares 100% of humanity’s DNA… except for the fact that they are ten feet-tall and hugely muscular with skin the colour of freshly-milked semen.
This is the only definitive answer that Prometheus provides its audience.
Having answered this question, Prometheus sets about asking a whole series of new questions as our Space Jockey-lookalike downs a shot of something black and gooey before dissolving himself into what we assume to be one of Earth’s primordial seas. From there, the film skips forward several thousand years to a scene in a Scottish cave where archaeologists have just discovered proof that aliens have visited the Earth. Based on a piece of imagery that reappears in the artwork of a number of geographically isolated human cultures, the archaeologists work out that the aliens who visited Earth in the distant past most likely came from one particular star system. Claiming that these aliens may well have created mankind, the archaeologists convince a dying trillionaire to fund their expedition to the stars on the assumption that these aliens will be able to answer humanity’s most fundamental religious questions, namely that of why we are here and what part we have to play in the grand narrative of creation.
Prometheus lays out its mythological stall with an excruciating attention to detail. For example, the film is knee-deep in mythological allusion and symbolism ranging from the name of the ship (Prometheus, the titan from classical myth who rebelled against the gods and supposedly fathered humanity) to the name of the android (David, both a biblical king and a famous work of art). The film also blurs whenever possible the line between the organic (landscapes, species that evolved organically) and the synthetic (robots, products of genetic engineering, buildings, spaceships and works of art). The result is a dense thicket of disparate and incoherent symbolism that is forever poised on the brink of becoming a meaningful metaphor. While these allusions and symbols ultimately add very little to the film’s substance and message, they do coax the audience into a heightened state of pareidolia in which they cannot help but search the screen for answers.
This state of expectation is further excited by the derivative nature of the ideas on display. Indeed, the idea that alien visitors might have played some role in the emergence of humanity will be familiar to anyone who has either read or heard of books like Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968) and Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods (1995). The idea will also be familiar to anyone who has seen films such as Quatermass and the Pit (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stargate (1994), Mission to Mars (2000), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). My point is not so much that the ideas contained in Prometheus are old and tired, rather that we approach the film with quite a clear set of genre expectations and those expectations encourage us to believe that the human crew will discover the truth about human origins once they reach the alien planet. Intriguingly, the audience’s sense of expectation is mirrored by that of the crew.
Once the ship lands on the mysterious planet, the crew finds both an alien installation and proof that these aliens were planning on returning to Earth. However, they also find a big pile of dead bodies and thousands of urns containing an evil-looking black substance. While the exact nature of this ooze is never made clear, we know that it is some kind of biological agent that turns humans into monsters and insects into enormous snake-penis-things with acid for blood and a marked fondness for face-raping.
As the film progresses and Scott moves us from symbol to symbol and mystery-to-mystery without ever offering any explanations, one cannot help but be reminded of Calvinball TV series such as Lost, Twin Peaks and the X-Files. The structural similarities between Lost and Prometheus are far from accidental as one of the people credited with writing Prometheus is the Lost show-runner Damon Lindelof. Indeed, much like Lost, Prometheus keeps its audience interested by Calvinballing its way through a dazzling array of evocatively staged mysteries including:
- Why did the Space Jockey dissolve himself into the sea?
- Why did the aliens visit Earth in the first place?
- What happened to the alien ship?
- Why were the aliens planning on visiting Earth with a shipload of sinister black goo?
- When that mission failed, why did no alien ships turn up to either complete the mission or tidy up the mess left by the first ship?
In addition to these Big Questions, the film also provides a number of much smaller, character-based mysteries including:
- Is Charlize Theron’s character a robot?
- Why did one of the people on the ship conceal his presence?
- Why did the android begin experimenting on the crew?
- Why did nobody bother to check when the team returned to the ship and accidentally left two people behind?
The main difference between the structure of Prometheus and that of Lost is that while Lost used mysteries as a means of driving inter-character conflict and setting up action sequences, Prometheus uses them to spark discussion between the characters. This makes for a far more subdued viewing experience as all of these discussions drain the film of both pace and tension. Robbed of all momentum and emotional resonance, Prometheus’s few action sequences feel decidedly lacklustre as nothing Scott throws at the screen comes anywhere close to recapturing the tension and excitement contained in the first three Alien films. On a more structural level, Scott’s decision to anchor the film in discussion proves disastrous as these discussions not only provide few tangible answers, they also allow the audience just enough time to realise that Prometheus is nothing more than an elaborate narrative shell game. This is precisely why Lost would frequently cut to Jack and Sawyer having a fist-fight; the more the audience is entertained and distracted, the less likely it is that they will get bored and begin demanding answers.
Seemingly aware that the audience may be getting restive, Prometheus takes an unexpected left-turn at the end of the second act when the ship’s android discovers a surviving member of the installation’s alien crew. Desperate for answers, members of the crew crowd around the freshly awoken alien and attempt to elbow their way to the front and ask him the greatest questions of all. At which point the alien wordlessly rips off the android’s head and goes on an angry, angry killing spree.
Naturally enough, the alien’s psychotic behaviour invites the audience to raise a whole new battery of questions:
- What did the android say to the alien upon its awakening?
- Why did the alien respond to a first contact situation with psychotic violence?
- If the alien had a ship all along, why did he bother to put himself in cryogenic hibernation in the first place?
- Why was the alien headed to Earth?
- After 2000 years in cryogenic stasis, why did the alien not bother to check-in with his home culture or command structure?
One of the most amusing things about the online reactions to Prometheus is that many people have responded to this mass of plot holes by attempting to create an elaborate back-story that fills in all the gaps in the narrative. Some are even touting the inevitable extended director’s cut as the version of the film that will both make sense and provide actual answers. To my mind, these attempts to wring meaning from the text of the film are hopelessly deluded as Prometheus is quite explicitly a film about the absolute futility of seeking Big Answers to Big Questions.
Though ostensibly a mystery, the plot of Prometheus is really nothing more than a series of doors slammed in characters’ faces by a cruelly indifferent universe. The film begins with a group of humans voyaging to the stars in search of Big Answers to Big Questions. However, once the humans arrive at their destination, every attempt to uncover answers results either in death or the discovery of yet more questions. As death follows puzzle and puzzle follows death, a clear theme begins to emerge: The universe is utterly indifferent to humanity and has no interest at all in answering its questions. Though laughable on a dramatic level, the decision to have the alien attack the humans on sight actually makes a good deal of thematic sense: if the universe is unwilling to answer our questions, why should our gods be any different?
The idea that our creators may not have any Big Answers to give us is further explored in a beautifully understated scene at the beginning of the film. In this scene, the android David asks about why it is that humans felt the need to create androids. Visibly uncomfortable about talking to what he considers to be a piece of technology, the archaeologist glibly suggests that humans built David because they could. The flippant indifference of the archaeologist foreshadows the flippant indifference of both the alien installation and the aliens themselves. If we have no answers to give David, what right do we have to expect similar answers either from our creators or from the universe at large?
The closest Prometheus comes to providing us with an explanation for the events in both this film and the original Alien is that it is all an accident. This theory is put forward by the ship’s captain who speculates that the alien installation may be some kind of bio-weapons lab whose experiments got completely out of control. This certainly fits with what we know about the film’s non-humanoid creatures that invariably emerge as a result of accidental contact with the black ooze. Thus, alien worms turn into giant penis-snakes, human gametes turn into an enormous rapey octopus and a chance encounter between the octopus and the surviving humanoid alien results in the birth of something that looks almost exactly like the xenomorph of the original Alien films. By showing us how a series of random events can lead to the creation of whole new species, Prometheus is effectively calling into question the human need to myth.
Mythologies differ from scientific explanations in so far as the logic they use to explain events is narrative rather than causal. For example, Prometheus offers an explanation for why certain things happen but the nature of this explanation is purely causal in that the film shows us how A lead to B and how B resulted in C. The reason why so many Alien fans walked away from Prometheus frustrated is that they wanted a mythological back-story for the first film, not a causal explanation. They wanted Prometheus to take the unanswered questions of Alien and answer them in terms of a story that made narrative sense and so allowed them to experience that Tolkienian ‘turn’. By explicitly denying its audience the chance to experience that narrative ‘turn’ where everything makes sense and fits into a neat little story, Prometheus is breaking with the accepted wisdom that all stories support sequels and that all sequels add mythological depth.
4. Kicking the Mythology Habit
We live in an age where little seems to make sense. Today’s young people have done everything that was demanded of them; they did their homework and gained good qualifications before embarking on ambitious careers. They worked long hours for shitty pay on the assumption that someone would notice and give them a helping hand. They did as they were told and they followed the rules but still the lives promised to them never materialised. An entire generation has been laid off or shunted into low pay and low prestige sidings while the rich old fuckers in power get older, richer and more powerful. Today’s young were sold a scam and this sense of anomie has driven them into the arms of popular culture where everything makes sense and everything feels good.
I have endless sympathy for the desire to seek escape from a life that didn’t quite work out as planned. I know the attractions of shutting out the world’s problems by immersing oneself in an escapist realm that makes perfect sense and so glows with the distant warmth of true salvation. I know what it is like to mourn a Faith I never possessed and I have imbibed enough postmodernism over the years to realise that religion does not require truth in order for it to be effective. We are all native postmodernists and we know that ‘truth’ is relative to time, place and perspective. Myths do not need to be true in order for them to make us feel at home. I understand all of this and yet I also realise that there is a time and a place for everything.
Escapist media is central to what it means to be Western. For decades now, we have been burying our heads in various franchises and using what we find there to both make sense of ourselves and to make sense of the world. The quest for palliative entertainment lies at the heart of many of the most successful media franchises that Western culture has yet produced. Indeed, it is entirely fitting that today’s Cathedrals and Pyramids are erected in film to a pantheon of comic book gods who claim no greater reality than that of subjective spectacle. We crave stories in order to cope and the stories that help us most are those that resemble mythology.
Prometheus is a timely reminder that not all stories can support a myth and that attempts to force mythological status on largely self-contained stories can prove disastrous. The problem highlighted by the very existence of Prometheus is that the demand for synthetic mythologies is now so intense that it is beginning to distort the nature of popular culture. With fans demanding mythological depth and investors demanding the type of monies that accompany owning people’s fantasy lives, the market for self-contained stories is beginning to shrink. Indeed, the pressure on the market is effectively double sided: On the one hand, investors would rather invest in properties with the potential for further growth and, on the other hand, fans are increasingly reticent to invest their time and money in properties that do not offer immersive mythological depth. Prometheus is an important film as it is the first attempt to reboot an existing franchise and place it on a more mythological footing. Though an undeniable artistic failure, Prometheus has been a hugely profitable venture and I would not be surprised if it not only spawned further ill-conceived sequels but also provided a template for other works that, despite being non-mythological in character, have existing fanbases that would be receptive to mythological reboots.
My worry is that the growth of geek spirituality may be shrinking the market for works that, like Koike’s Redline, are beautiful precisely because they are perfectly self-contained stories. Prometheus is a legitimately terrible film and yet I cannot help but feel that it contains the future of all popular culture.