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‘pop culture is the collective dream of the unconscious’

This acute observation is from Adam Lawrence, a Rolling Stone journalist played by John Travolta in a 1985 film called Perfect.   In the film, he travels to Los Angeles to investigate a drug case and decides to write an exposé of the health-club craze of the 1980s. He sets out to trash the fitness craze as just a replacement of the shallow singles bar scene of the 1970s. He even has a title in mind: “Looking for Mr. Goodbody.” As he researches his story, Adam meets Jessie (Jamie Lee Curtis), a sexy fitness instructor who has little use for scribes like him and bad history with reporters. Adam charms the reluctant Jessie, and before long the hot couple is ‘working out together–in more ways than one’. Suddenly Adam is faced with a quintessential dilemma of journalism: Can he be Jessie’s lover and still ridicule her friends and workplace?

I saw this now pretty obscure film at about 2am one morning when there was nothing else on and I was most likely suffering from a bout of insomnia. I don’t remember picking up on this particular quote but I do remember thinking it was pretty remarkable for a mainstream film to have such critical insight into contemporary culture. Lawrence/ Travolta’s quote came up in conversation with Jesse (a different Jesse, with a different spelling) as we were preparing for an interview about her work. It was only when she described the film in more detail as we were actually doing the interview that I realised I had seen it too.

This struck me at the time as a really amazing coincidence, and it still does. It always surprises me the sense of connection that I feel with people through this kind of memory, the surprisingly rich and nuanced texture of it. And it seems to describe something about how popular culture might operate as a kind of reservior of collective memory… somehow Bosco, a particular TV advert, a momentary fashion fad, can really locate a personal biography within an era.

This is of course cynically exploited by the endless recycling of ‘I (heart) 1970s’ and ‘Top Ten X’ shows; remakes of 70s, 80s TV shows as films; and so on and so on. But in a roundabout way, this only reinforces the texture of the quote itself, and I wonder about its potential.

September 2007