Pop Culture is Hard on the Little Grey Cells

Well, the presidency is in crisis, and with it the nation. Corruption is rampant, on a scale we’d never previously imagined. Our citizens are at each other’s throats, and the very ecology of the planet is in such peril as to likely render all of these divisions a moot point in a few decades’ time. To take our minds off all these calamities, we as a nation have chosen to head to our multiplexes and enjoy a nice, twisty whodunit, a throwback to an age of secret passages and red herrings.

Yes, the paragraph above refers to the current day, with the whodunit in question being Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. But it just as easily applies to 1974, when a nation worn down by the Watergate saga, the war in Vietnam, and countless other upheavals, sought refuge from cares by lining up in droves to watch a stylish tale of ritual slaughter – Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

It’s not one of the obvious signifiers of the decade, like disco or pet rocks. But take it from a grumpy old coot like me who was alive at the time; the seventies were chock full of Agatha Christie. In one sense, it was perfectly natural; Murder on the Orient Express was a box office hit, so naturally more Christie adaptations followed. Peter Ustinov took over for Albert Finney for a total of six outings as Hercule Poirot. (Seriously, there’s six of the darn things. I counted.) We got Miss Marple adaptations to boot, and film versions of plenty of other properties besides. It’s basic Hollywood logic – when something becomes profitable, milk every last dime out of it. Simple, right?

Except there was more to it than that. Agatha Christie, British mystery writer whose works first gained fame in the Jazz Age, wound up permeating 70s pop culture in increasingly strange ways. I lose track of the number of sitcoms which stranded its cast on a luxury train to force them to solve the murder of a slew of guest stars for a special episode. Seriously, during the height of the 70s Christie craze you could watch Laverne and Shirley solve murders. You could watch your soap opera turn in to a murder mystery for a month for no apparent reason. You could watch these characters referenced and parodied at every turn. (Sorry, cineastes, but Neil Simon’s Murder by Death is the greatest movie ever made and I’ll fight you if you say otherwise.) The original Christie vogue, of course, had been decades in the past; likewise, in the future there would be more Christie adaptations to come, (and in 90s-era BBC productions like the David Suchet Poirot there would be far better adaptations to come). Yet there would never be quite the craze, the all-pervasive reach, that there would be in the 70s.

It was comforting, you see. Agatha Christie’s puzzle-box plot construction offers the promise that an ingenious solution is to be had. That there is no plot so byzantine, no conspiracy so shadowy, that the little grey cells can’t unravel it in a fifteen minute monologue. Furthermore, this solution was dressed up in the clothes of a previous generation’s childhood, and that generation was increasingly viewing its childhood as the only safe place to be. (There’s tons of retro-30s stuff in 70s pop culture for precisely this reason, as the children who grew up with it became the adults making the movies. This goes from everything from Peter Bogdonavich films to Star Wars.) There may be bloodshed in a Christie plot, but it’s always the most genteel sort of bloodshed – and compared to the rest of the world, the Orient Express is the happiest of holidays.

Which is why, to come back to our day, there’s such a sneaky brilliance to the Christie pastiche of Knives Out. And it’s clearly all intentional pastiche, even down to the font of the credits, familiar from a hundred dog-eared Poirot paperbacks. Director Rian Johnson is fully aware of the comfort we derive from all this, and he weaponizes it. Instead of providing a respite from our current divisions, the movie makes them the engine driving its plot. (Take my word for this because I’m not going to spoil the plot for you here – just go see the movie, okay?) It takes a medium that was embraced for its comparative lack of politics, and makes it the delivery system for the most pointed political satire I’ve seen in the movies all year. If you go seeking nothing but nostalgia, you’re in for a rude awakening.

Well, maybe not as rude awakening as (spoiler alert) a train car full of suspects standing over you with a dagger, but you get the idea.

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