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Almost Famous offers a number of representations of popular culture and its relationship to consumers, critics, and social norms. What theories have we studied this semester that deepens our understanding of the film, either in the world it represents or how the film itself functions in the more contemporary cultural moment?

14 Responses to “Discussion questions for 5/5”

  1. Alana Wall says:

    Poststructuralism can be applied to Almost Famous to understand the context of the movie in terms of what it is saying about American society during the 1970s. A poststructuralist approach to the film would point out that, although Almost Famous is centered around one particular band, it is actually commenting on various ‘70s rock bands, as well as rock bands as a whole at that particular time. In this way, poststructuralists would argue that the film serves as a “discursive relay system” in which, in this case, rock culture – including bands, groupies, concerts, fans, and the press – are transmitted to people so that they gain a better understanding of not simply Almost Famous, but more importantly, various cultural systems of the 1970s. By watching the film, audiences should develop a better understanding of how ‘70s rock bands both impacted American culture and helped to construct individual identities within American society.

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  2. Melissa Marshall says:

    Although I’m not sure which exact theory I would apply to “Almost Famous,” it most certainly struck me with many “themes” we have grappled with all semester. One, I think Alana touched on, is nostalgia: A 2000 movie is attempting to recreate a 1970s ideal. And while some of film’s direction and crew may have experienced the 1970s, the “Tiny Dancer” scene (which I do, in fact, love) seems to embody a sense of nostalgia for an American life that probably never existed.
    The second, also building off what Alana wrote, is structuralist theory. However, I would tend to lean to a more structuralist reading than post-structuralist reading. The role of language: both the lingo of the time and the act of writing itself, plays a prominent role in the film, and the encoding and decoding of certain “signs” in the film are different for the characters in the film itself, as well as dependent on the age range and exposure of the audience.

    the third, and most obvious, is fandom. William is ultimately a fan, but outside of the texts, we as an audience can be a fan of 70s rock, Rolling Stone, or music in general. In this way, I think “Almost Famous” is a commentary on contemporary fandom as much as it is a nostalgia piece. I’m curious, did music preference have an impact on anyone’s opinion of the movie?

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  3. Jeremy Martin says:

    First off, I’ll just say that Almost Famous definitely rocks as a film – theory or no theory – and I’m glad that this course gave us a chance to see the longer bootleg version.

    As we were discussing with regards to the Manchurian Candidate the other day, Almost Famous reflects the ideals and ideas of multiple time periods. The movie says a great deal about Hollywood cinema in 2000 as well as how it chooses to depict 1970s psychedelia and rock fandom. It also sheds light on how we not only long for the past but how the past resonates with us, how it impacts our feelings and logic. I would argue that the movie is trying to also persuade us of more timeless notions as well: that anything is possible given the right passion (recall the pubescent character William Miller, played by Patrick Fugit, and how he amazingly rights for Rolling Stone), that nothing is as it seems (as seen in the intense politicization of what appeared to be an uncorrupted, organic music scene … (quite the shoutout to all the hyperrealists out there)), and that when you try to be something that you’re not you are inevitably destined for failure. Go Cameron Crowe!

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    Jeremy Martin Reply:

    I meant writes not rights… wow…

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  4. Ian Trombulak says:

    Almost Famous provides us with a great look at popular culture from the inside, and in the process we see examples of several theories we’ve studied. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character recalls John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity, albeit despite some major differences: Cusack and Black played obsessed fans, while Hoffman portrayed a jaded musical journalist. However, both roles contained elements of culturalism — Hoffman decries “new” rock, lambasting (Grammy winner…not that it really means anything) Jethro Tull for taking too long to “not achieve” anything. Just as Black denied customers music he felt was unworthy, Hoffman has particular tastes and steadfast opinions, for the most part revolving around the same fact: new music sucks.

    Meanwhile, I found several bits of the movie related in some ways to the hegemonic idea of bottom-up versus top-down. The band Stillwater clearly sees themselves as focused on the fan (as is stated and discussed several times in the film), lending weight to the bottom-up creation of their sound — the formed through their mutual love of music (Bebe put out an add which presumably the all answered), and “play for the fans, not the money”. As they are sweet talked into hiring (the oddly cast) Jimmy Fallon as their new manager however, we see the commercialization Adorno and the Frankfurt School fear so much. At that moment, Adorno would probably say, Stillwater went from being a potential break from the mold to another cog in the machine. Their reasons for switching managers also recalls the Marxist ideas of base and superstructure.

    In addition to those points, Russell’s brief desire for “real” things, the relationship between the band and William (tellingly also known as ‘the enemy’), Elaine’s guarding of her children, and many other bits (that I don’t remember because the movie is 3 hours long and I’ve only seen it twice) relate in interesting ways to theories we’ve discussed. I just haven’t thought enough about them to articulate just how they relate. But I’m pretty sure they do.

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    Ian Trombulak Reply:

    oops, I meant culture and civ, rather than culturalism.

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  5. James Schonzeit says:

    Elaine, William’s mother, exemplifies the culture & civilization approach. Her fear that the spreading ooze of low culture corrupts and leads to anarchy (or in her case, teenage rebellion) is evident as she scoffs at Simon & Garfunkel, saying:

    Elaine Miller: That’s because it’s music about drugs and promiscuous sex.
    Anita Miller: Simon and Garfunkel is poetry!
    Elaine Miller: Yes it’s poetry. It’s poetry of drugs and promiscuous sex. Honey, they’re on pot.

    While she acknowledges that Simon and Garfunkel may be poetry, she draws the line between high culture and low culture in that low culture (Simon & Garfunkel) deals with the crude subjects of drugs and promiscuous sex. In turn, she praises young William, saying “I can’t believe you wanna be Atticus Finch. Oh, that makes me feel so good.” In her role as a mother and an educator, she serves as a critic of the mass culture which, in the case of Almost Famous, is identified as rock n’ roll and as the upholder of culture.

    Adorno’s concept of pseudoindividuality is addressed as well. While rock n’ roll appears to be a resistant form of music, it is co-opted by the music industry as explained by Lester Bangs who is skeptical of all forms of industry but is ultimately a product of it himself as a paid critic of rock n’ roll. The band struggles with the changing face of rock n’ roll from the groupies, to the focus on selling merchandise and even the abandonment of the tour bus for a private plane. Russell Hammond confesses to William that he only wants to search for what is ‘real’, in effect saying he is too real for the band, but ultimately he is drawn back into the cycle of stardom.

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  6. Lilian Hughes says:

    Wow, I love “Almost Famous” and I’d never seen the extended version so that was great! The length works well, it reflects the extensive creativity of the seventies when guitar solos lasted until fingers bled.

    In regards to deepening my understanding of the film, I think the cultural context surrounding the film is incredibly significant (I choose you post-structuralism). Alana and Melissa both mention nostalgia, which is interesting. The film is undeniably nostalgic, and nostalgic (as nostalgia is) for something that never really existed. The film comments on the fall of the pure rebellion and youthfulness rock ‘n’ roll, but does not mention in detail the rise of punk nihilism, rather the focus is on the commercialization of the music industry (which existed in the US long before the seventies). The film’s attitude is hopeful, it upholds family values, friendship, honesty, and adventure. And why shouldn’t the film be hopeful, I mean, it’s only set in 1973, four years after Nixon gained power (and a year before he resigned), four years after the number of American troops in Vietnam increased to 542 000, three years after four unarmed, protesting students were shot dead by the National Guard, two years after eighteen-year-olds were enfranchised, one year after the beginning of the Watergate scandal, one year after the draft was phased out, and the same year American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. See, withdrawn from Vietnam, hopeful, right?

    But the film was made in 2000, when plane’s landed safely in fields and everyone survived. The economy was looking up. There was no war in Iraq. There was no war in Afghanistan. There was no war on terror. Only hippies were worried about global warming and no one was worried about torture. It was the new millennium and we’d all survived. We could live happily in a world where the government didn’t care about our library records.

    To a certain extent the film is the director’s personal, semi autobiographical, story but I feel the historical social context of the film played a significant role in shaping the film’s tone. I wonder if the film would have turned out the same if it had been made two years later?

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    Toren Hardee Reply:

    I think to say that everything was hunky-dory in 2000 and we’re teetering on the brink of the apocalypse now isn’t quite right…also I feel like we don’t do enough disagreeing and arguing on this blog, so I’m glad I threw that out there!

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  7. Kyle Howard says:

    No doubt Elaine Miller brings a fairly Arnoldian perspective to the table, one which relies on cultural absolutes and reasons that intellectuals are the ones best suited to tell us what “is the best that has been thought and said.” Furthermore, she certainly shares the mass culture critique, constantly trying to stay ahead of the capitalists trying to exploit everyone. As she tells her son, “Adolescence is a marketing tool.”

    Lead singer Jeff Bebe, on the other hand, represents what McGuigan calls the “crisis of qualitative judgement…in which the popular reading is king or queen, always ‘progressive.’” (intro, chp. 9) The scene when Will is interviewing (not by choice) Jeff on the bus, Jeff says, “the best music is usually what’s popular” (or something to that effect).

    Jeff also says (in an earlier scene backstage), “rock and roll is a LIFESTYLE… and a way of thinking and it’s not about money and ‘popularity!” Not to get too much into tonight’s reading on taste and popular culture, but Fiske claims that there is both a “financial economy” and a “cultural economy.” I think Jeff realizes there is a difference between economic capital and cultural capital, but he fails to realizes that they are seperate YET related. The “buzz” people get from hearing the music might provide a cultural use value, but is this “buzz” not also an exchange value in that it sells records and tickets? “Getting people off,” as Jeff puts it, also sells records and functions within the economic realm.

    Finally, I want to finish Ian’s thought about the “real” in almost famous. In our discussions of fandoms and audience studies, we often find that groups of people define themselves in relation to something else. As Henry Jenkins puts it, “whereas youth subcultures defines themselves against parent and dominant cultures, fan cultures define themselves in opposition to the supposed everyday cultural passivities of ‘Mundania.’” (Intro, 164) I think Anita (the sister) exemplifies this youth subculture and Penny Lane exemplifies the culture of the rock/roll fan (or, perhaps more accurately, they are both part of youth and rock/roll subculture). Whats really interesting about Almost Famous is that it acknowledges both the ups and down of life as part of the “circus” and life in the real world. One one hand, “famous people are just more interesting.” But, as Will painfully breaks to Penny, “Well, I would be worried that they were using me.”

    That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I love this movie and here are a couple of my other favorite lines that I found of some relevance to what we’ve been studying:
    “You’ll meet them all again on their long journey to the middle.” – Lester Bangs
    “I didn’t invent the rainy day, man. I just own the best umbrella.”
    Dennis Hope (manager)

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  8. Tahirah Foy says:

    I believe that the film Almost Famous highlight many aspect of Althusser’s ISA theory. The movie shows a progression of a band from underground to how they become commodities for the industry. This progress illustrates what Althusser terms relative autonomy. Each time the group gain popularity or branched out some other force came in to keep them in the capitalistic system. This begins with William comes representing Cream and then Rolling Stone. Both are an attempt to categorize and make Still Water’s music a commodity. Relative autonomy is also illustrated through the two managers. The film shows how the bands is constantly pushed towards the status quo no matter how hard the tried to resist it. Finally the film also illustrates subjectivity and how individual view themselves in relation to system. This is most evident in Williams character. He see the band in two different lights. He sees them on way when he is a a part of the system at Rolling Stone and another when he is on the road with them.

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    atolstoy Reply:

    I didn’t start thinking about ISA’s until the very end of the film, during the montage of various things going right for everyone, but it illuminated a number of other scenes that had taken place earlier. The one that came to my mind immediately was the phone conversation between Russell and William’s mother. She, as a representative of the family ISA, intrudes into the apparatus of rock n’ roll; like the government/police RSA also did at the time, although this is not expressed in the film – perhaps as an idealization of the era. At the end of the film, Russell’s confrontation with William’s family enables him to harmonize his relationship with the band, Penny Lane, etc., thus demonstrating that the family, which was initially perceived as a hindrance, was in fact a highly useful apparatus. By coopting Russell into the family, they coopt rock n’ roll.

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  9. Ralph Acevedo says:

    I agree that Almost Famous dealt with issues related to marxism and the Frankfurt school of thought. Lester exemplifies the marxist perspective when he laments the growing commercialization of rock music. Through nostalgia he fondly recalls a past with purer and more authentic music, a past which really only exists in his mind. The whole movie, in fact, could be interpreted as a work of nostalgia: a movie from 2000 being set in 1973. William’s mother can be seen to represent the culture and civilization approach as she looks down upon popular rock music as well as the commercialization of Christmas among other things.

    In terms of William’s mother, I would say that as the film progresses she changes her views on popular rock music to the extent that she forgives her daughter and she seems to accept William’s career path. In the scene where Russell is about to enter William’s room, she tells him that he is on his way to do something with substance and meaning. I saw this as the birth of a middle ground between the extreme views of the ideology of mass culture and populism; this created a space where popular culture had the potential to be recognized as meaningful and worthy of serious consideration. Up to this point, I feel that Russell, as well as the band as a whole, presented a deterioration of authentic art into money-motivated commodity. With the publication William’s writing at the end, authenticity was restored to popular culture and fandom gained respect.

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  10. Dustin Schwartz says:

    I definitely see a postmodernist aspect of how important nostalgia is in the film, as the film celebrates a time when Rock n’ Roll mattered and what at its best for influencing and maturing our main characters. I also see a sense culture and civilization within the character of Elaine because of her feelings against the low-brow culture of popular music and how it compares to her ideas and feelings as a college professor. She also speaks of how adolescence is a “marketing tool,” and that reminds me of how hailing is used by advertising companies in a way that uses popular culture to create new forms of products. I also see how popular fandom and taste are within the film as it regards to music, especially as it compares to High Fidelity.

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