Roland Barthes needs SOAP.

Or maybe a better title would be "SOAP needs Roland Barthes". Or possibly "Irony as Rebellion"? Regardless, it's sure easier to think up lame dissertation-style titles than it is to actually write coherently about modern culture.

So. Roland Barthes was an awesome French semiotician (one of the very first to use the term, I believe) who wrote some amazing essays about the higher meanings of stuff that your average Frenchman wouldn't believe had higher meanings. Like professional wrestling. He's awesome.

SOAP is, of course, the acronym for the cinematic must-see event of the summer (at least for a certain demographic): Snakes on a plane (warning: music). Here's the deal (according to IMDB):

  • A bunch of movie producers were sitting around the bar playing a game where they came up with the worst possible title for an action movie. David Berenson, who had just read the script for Venom, suggested "Snakes on a Plane".
  • Later, this title was used as the working title for a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson. The actual title of the movie would have been "Pacific Air Flight 121", but Jackson wouldn't stand for it: "We're totally changing that back. That's the only reason I took the job: I read the title."
  • This tidbit inspired a storm of internet interest and a huge amount of free publicity, hype, fan parodies (of the unreleased movie) and what-not. For once, the people in charge actually paid attention.
  • In fact, although the typical policy of Big Movie Studios is to go for the lowest rating possible, New Line scheduled an additional five days of shooting and changed the rating from PG-13 up to R. In part, this apparently includes an homage to one of the fan parodies, in which Samuel L. Jackson says "I want these mutherfuckin' snakes off my motherfuckin' plane!".

I find that line just awesome. I'm not sure why, however, and I want Roland Barthes to explain it to me. This movie is essentially marketing itself as a ridiculously terrible action movie--that's its big selling point--and I can't wait to see it.

I have these vague notions that ironic appreciation of pop culture is, in some way, a form of rebellion. Maybe it's like de Sade, rebelling against God by advocating extreme Evil? Which is to say, if nice people are supposed to enjoy Friends, then by gum I'm going to watch pro-wrestling and SOAP?

Er... ok, maybe it's democratization gone horribly awry? Certainly Roger Ebert doesn't like it. Once upon a time only the wealthiest could attend High Culture, and day laborers could no more attend the Opera than they could sing it.

Now, any homeless person who can scrape together $30 can see the finest operas in the world (Hooray!) but even the richest and most powerful people shop at Target. Perhaps things have gone all wrong?

Finally, maybe it's just that our society is so cynical and full of lies that anytime someone tells the truth about something it's a cause for celebration. Even if it isn't a pleasant truth.

David Brin argues that while Joseph Campbell was using George Lucas to promote his book, Lucas was using Campbell to sell the idea that Star Wars was more than just a sci-fi flick with explosions, it was a modern retelling of the classic myth cycle. In the same way, the Matrix Trilogy was sold (in part) as a deep exploration of faith and humanity, or some such tripe. Then along comes Snakes on a Plane, which is basically saying, "This is a big, dumb action movie where people say ridiculous things and there are lots of explosions (presumably). We don't promise anything except for snakes. And a plane."

Even though I'm not necessarily interested in the things that they are offering, the mere fact that they are so upfront about it is really fantastic.

And then, of course, a lot of the fervor can be attributed to Samuel L. Jackson himself, who really has a fantastic personae. In closing, here's the speech that he gave as a presenter at MTV's movie awards:

"I'm here tonight to present the award everyone's been waiting for: best movie. Now, this award holds a special place in my heart because next year I'll be winning it for Snakes on a Plane. Now I know, I know that sounds cocky, but I don't give a damn. I am guaranteeing that Snakes on a Plane will win best movie next year.

Does not matter what else is coming out. The New James Bond... no snakes in that! Ocean's 13... where my snakes at? Shrek the Third... green, but not a snake. No movie shall triumph over Snakes on a Plane. Unless I happen to feel like making a movie called Mo' Motha-fuckin' Snakes on Mo' Motha-fuckin' Planes."

Oh, and, of course, it's directed by the same person who directed Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco