We often tend to think that the best era for trash culture was sometime in the middle of the Twentieth Century. An era where there were a lot of 25 cent paperbacks with gun-toting lesbians on their covers, plus drive-in movies, stag films, cheap comics and weird burlesque shows. And so on. But actually, the pinnacle of trash culture is right now. We're living in the best era for pulpy disposable culture right at this moment. Future generations will look back on the early 2010s with a caustic, adoring envy.
Why is 2012 the best time ever to love pulp trash? Because we're witnessing two things: the death spasms of old media, and the unruly birth of new media, at the same time. And both of these phenomena are unloading huge bounties of trash. You're lucky to be alive at a time like this.
Top image: Team Alcide by ~PowlaM on Deviant Art
Actually, I'm tempted to say that you only need two words to explain why today is the pinnacle of trash culture: "reality TV." The makers of Lost, Lonely and Vicious could not even have imagined Bad Girls Club or Jersey Shore. Or Bridezillas, or any of a million other weird shows that are on extended cable.
But really, the rise of reality TV is just one aspect of many, that signify the dawn of a new golden era in beautiful trash.
Old Media Peaking and Going Crazy
The past decade or so has seen the rise of major corporate-funded culture to never-before-seen excesses. There are more huge-budget movies per year than ever before. More books seem to be getting multi-million-dollar advances, although I can't find any data on that. There are now TV pilots that cost tens of millions of dollars. And so on. And yet, the wave is clearly cresting — Hollywood's total box office, in real dollars, peaked a few years ago. And traditional publishing is facing some major, possibly insurmountable, challenges. The broadcast TV networks are losing ground. And so on.
That means one thing: this is probably the only era in which it'll be possible to have multiple movies, costing over $150 million, which everybody involved cheerfully admits had no script during large chunks of filming. (Off the top of my head, both Iron Man movies and Men in Black 3 had no scripts to speak of, during at least some of their filming.) This kind of thing can't go on forever.
Meanwhile, we have five broadcast networks, which is the most we've ever had. And at least two of them seem constantly on the verge of melting down, while throwing increasingly weird and trashy shows at audiences in a vain effort to stave off the inevitable.
Advertising-supported television and movie theaters are two business models with an expiration date — and the end is probably nearer than anybody wants to admit. You'll see the day when nobody pays for overpriced popcorn, and big companies no longer splash out on commercials that everybody fast-forwards past, probably in the next decade or two. And both these business models are going to go out with a technicolor scream.
And then there are cable TV and direct-to-DVD movies. Neither of these is a particularly new phenomenon — if you substitute "direct to VHS" for "direct to DVD," then they both go back to the 1980s. But cable TV is giving us some amazing bounty right now, from American Horror Story to True Blood — and even though Game of Thrones has a lot of high-culture aspirations, it also fits in perfectly with the trashtastic aesthetic of director Neil Marshall, who just helmed an episode.
We have Syfy Original Movies like Jersey Shore Shark Attack and Piranhaconda, almost every week! Seriously, doesn't that count for a lot?
And then there's porn. Porn has been a great source of trash culture forever — but in the past couple of decades, the internet has made Rule 34 as absolute as the Law of Gravity. Weird, unseemly porn is everywhere. And over the past decade or so, the internet has also changed conventional porn movies in a way that might turn out to be as significant as the rise of the VCR in the 1980s: You can now download whole porn movies instead of having to go buy or rent a DVD, and people can use the internet to promote their weird porn movies to niche audiences, whereas before they had to advertise in adult magazines or what not. All of this spells just one thing: full-length Flintstones porn movies. (Seriously, I googled "Flintstones XXX" without knowing for sure that such a thing existed, and there it was. Starring Peter O'Tool.)
All in all, there is more corporate-funded trash being unleashed on the public than ever before... and meanwhile, there's a huge wave of new-media trash coming as well.
The New Pulps
A while back, we were wondering where the new pulp media was going to come from — but it's becoming increasingly obvious now. It's e-books. It's webseries. It's books aimed at younger readers. It's video on demand and iPhone games.
One thing that's really been fascinating to watch is the rise of Kindle bestsellers — books that sell tons of copies on the Kindle, at least in part by offering free or ultra-cheap copies for long periods of time. The rise to fame of Hugh Howey's Wool and Fifty Shades of Grey dangles the possibility that the direct-to-Kindle market really could become the new avenue for authors to make it big — but also, the Kindle really does seem to be the new drugstore rack, where a ton of authors with zany ideas can reach a wide readership. You can read 20 pages and then discard your newly purchased book, or thumb over every page 100 times.
And then there's the fact that young-adult novels have gone from a niche to the most vital area of publishing, inside of a decade — especially young-adult science fiction and fantasy, which serves up the mix of heroic questing and oddball worldbuilding that science fiction for grownups used to serve up, back in the day. Not all YA novels count as trash culture, of course — but there are certainly tons of YA books that feature a lot of the same wafer-thin characters and improbable plotting that made cheap paperbacks so amazing and fun, back in the 1960s.
And meanwhile, fan-art and fan-fiction are filling the needs that used to be filled by reading piles of ten-cent comics in a lot of way — the need to be fully immersed in the soap-operatic lives of stylized, heroic characters. With lots of improbable plot twists and unapologetic Mary Sue-ism.
And I have to believe we haven't yet seen the rise of trashy webseries in earnest. There are now tons of webseries out there, but where's the web video equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey? Where is the next over-the-top exploitation webseries, or the web TV show that is as nutty and random as Heroes at its peak of craziness? I'm sure it's out there, but maybe it hasn't been dragged into people's consciousness yet. All of the webseries I've seen thus far have either been arty or too ironic in their pulpiness.
Even still, it's amazing how quickly things are moving, in terms of digital media taking over.
So we're seeing an unprecedented combination of high-budget trash and low-budget trash, as old media spews out burning ichor in its death spasms at the same time that new media bursts with fresh life. This is an amazing moment to love cheesy, disposable, semi-unironic low culture. We should cherish every minute of things like The Cape and the upcoming CW series Arrow. We should drink in every moment of Fifty Shades of Grey being our new national obsession. We should live for terrible reality TV and appreciate the heck out of Battleship and Ghost Rider 2. One day, your grandkids will ask you, "What was it like to be alive when they were making movies like Ghost Rider 2 and Jonah Hex all the time?" And you'll shake your head and reply that it just passed you right by, because you didn't know what you had.
Michael Bay is one of the world's greatest film-makers! Just let that sink in. Oh, and Zack Snyder, who is possibly the greatest trash auteur working right now, keeps getting handed $100 million+ movie budgets!
I've seen a lot of people debating why Americans are so obsessed with the apocalypse right now. Is it 2012? Is it the economy? Is it our Protestant religious background, with its Armageddon obsession? Or something else? But maybe it's this — we're feeling apocalyptic because we have so much richness of pop trash right now, and we know it can't last. We can't live in an era that gives us so much bad television and forgettable movies forever, and we see the deluge coming. If you think of trash culture as a form of wealth, then right this moment we're the richest we've ever been, or ever will be.