In those days when it seems like we’ve entered the darkest of all possible timelines, some times it’s nice to just get lost in pointless debates about pop culture. It’s what God invented the Internet for (and if God didn’t create it, man certainly would have had to.) So it seems appropriate that when Twitter demands we #savecommunity, that we should engage in some truly Abedic discourse. Specifically, the arbitrariness of the Advanced Genius Theory.
Critics of “Advancement” say that the very not-scientific theory is bad for culture because it cuts off any further inquiry on a subject — a sufficiently “Advanced” artist cannot progress any further. At least in terms of discourse. As Chuck Klosterman states in his July 2004 Esquire essay that introduced Advacement to the masses, “once something is deemed advanced, all debate is moot.” To paraphrase a Rolling Stone writer from that same article, Advanced Genius Theory may simply be “a way…to appreciate shitty [art] by people [you] consider to be non-shitty.”
What is Advancement?
Advancement is a cultural condition in which an Advanced individual—i.e., a true genius—creates a piece of art that 99 percent of the population perceives to be bad. However, this is not because the work itself is flawed; this is because most consumers are not Advanced.
Now, don’t assume this means that everything terrible is awesome, or vice versa; that contrarianism has no place in Advancement theory. The key to Advancement is that Advanced artists a) do not do what is expected of them but also b) do not do the opposite of what is expected of them. If an artist does the direct opposite of what is anticipated, he is classified as “overt” (more on this later). The bottom line is this: When a genius does something that appears idiotic, it does not necessarily mean he suddenly sucks. What it might mean is that he’s doing something you cannot understand, because he has Advanced beyond you.
So, in terms of contemporary movies (bear with me here)…
Stephen Spielberg is most certainly not “Advanced” under these conditions. He might have been when he originally made Schlinder’s List, but then he followed that with a consistent “one for me, one for them” philosophy (as well as bizarrely ignoring Empire of the Sun). Neither is Martin Scorcese, unless Hugo proves to be the start of a slightly more esoteric career away from gangsters and rock docs. Peter Jackson isn’t, neither are James Cameron nor Christopher Nolan, but Joss Whedon might be once he makes and releases a few more movies. George Lucas, Michael Bay, and Brett Ratner certainly aren’t, because they’re just in it for the money, but Uwe Boll might be if he ever made a movie that anybody considered genuinely great. Kevin Smith? Since he’s only supposedly making one more film after Red State before he retires, and that movie is going to be a hockey comedy, Smith is currently out of the running. David Fincher would be “Advanced” if he had made Alien 3 after Fight Club and Darren Aronofsky would be if he had made The Wolverine, but alas. If J.J. Abrams follows up Star Trek 2 with a period piece that contains no fanboy genre riffs, and then an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, and then Star Trek 3, he might “Advance.” If Julie Taymor had successfully brought her version of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to Broadway, she certainly would be less a hot mess and more of a genius.
Point being, you can disagree with every bit of that, because this is the Internet and we have Godwin’s Law and the Polanski Corollary here. You can argue that any of those above filmmakers, and more not mentioned (or listed below), are “Advanced Geniuses,” but you have to back it up with evidence. I’ve tried to do that for the six directors, and one actor, listed here, hopefully proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are beyond reproach. Indeed, that these Seven Artists Are Sufficiently Advanced.
And if you do disagree with my selections, or lack thereof, just remember arguing with me only proves your own fall into the pop culture looking glass. I’m not even sure if I’m doing this right, or if there even is a “right” way. That’s how silly it is. That said, enjoy!
Moment of Advancement: Dune, 1984
Why Dune? Because Lynch had already made a name for himself as a true auteur, but when taking on his first (and only) Hollywood blockbuster, he maintained that artistic integrity (much to many a Frank Herbert fans’ dismay) to deliver a very Lynchian sci-fi masterpiece. This is a key facet of being a genius, as he could have sold out his own sensibilities to make something much more studio friendly, but satisfied himself and his own impulses first. He may have alienated some audience, but that’s the point, and it isn’t like those were his fans, anyway. The fact that his only other “commercial” work were actual commercials for Sony’s Playstation 3 game console several years ago, in spite of some moderate box office/awards success, simply accentuates Lynch’s “Advancedness.”
Other Notable Advanced Works: Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mullholland Dr.
Joel & Ethan Coen
Moment of Advancement: The Big Lebowski, 1998
Why Lebowski? Like David Lynch, by the time this movie came out, the brothers Coen made movies that clearly delivered on their past promise, but this update on Raymond Chandler shocked critics and fans alike when it was first released. It was only appreciated after it achieved cult status on VHS, and has only become a modern classic in recent years. Some might say that the trifecta of Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, and The Man Who Wasn’t There were the films that propelled the brothers to true “Advancement” as they were (and still are) considered to be their lesser works, but those movies were merely shrugged at and those people forget how skewered Lebowski was when it first plopped in 1998. So many viewers hated it simply because it came immediately after Fargo, and threw them for a loop they didn’t expect or want. Which is exactly what “Advanced Geniuses” do.
Other Notable Advanced Works: Raising Arizona, Fargo, O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Burn After Reading, True Grit
Moment of Advancement: The Limey, 1999
Why Limey? There’s a theme with many of these choices, and Soderbergh’s excursion into crime films (with Limey sandwiched between Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven) is no different. The director was an indie darling who was sniffing at mass market appeal, and then he made The Limey, a movie that barely anybody saw, but that proved he was going to do whatever the damn hell he pleased. Terence Stamp’s line, “You tell ‘em I’m comin’!” may as well have been delivered by Soderbergh himself. He’s proven himself capable of directing any type of movie in any type of genre, and he makes movies with little or no apparent plan in why he makes them when he makes them; shuffling between budgets large and miniscule, between Hollywood’s acting heavyweights and non-thespians like pornstar Sasha Grey, MMA fighter Gina Carano, and Charming Potato . He challenges himself, which challenges his audience, who would just like for him to make Ocean’s Fourteen, okay? But that isn’t how the “Advanced” artist proceeds.
Other Notable Advanced Works: Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Ocean’s Eleven, Solaris, The Girlfriend Experience, Che, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (upcoming), Everything he’s ever done, really…
Moment of Advancement: Fail Safe, 2000
Why Fail Safe? Before George Clooney became one of the most consistently damn good actor/directors working day, he was a television star who tried to make his first steps into multiplexes by go the big time blockbuster route with Peacemaker and Batman & Robin. To no avail, obviously. After those misfires, Clooney looked inward to discover the artist he would rather be. His first step into that larger world was the TV movie Fail Safe, which was an adaptation of a 60s movie, and remained set, shot, and performed as though it were still a 60s movie — and they did all of this on live television. Twice (for both East and West coast broadcasts). Clooney wasn’t even the star onscreen, but off-screen, as producer, Fail Safe wouldn’t exist without him, thus setting the foundation for his genius.
Other Notable Advanced Works: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, Solaris, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Men Who Stare At Goats
Moment of Advancement: Adaptation, 2002
Why Adaptation? Undoubtedly with the shortest relevant resume in terms of noting his “Advancement,” Kaufman’s brief history as a screenwriter and director is rife with the man doing what he wants, when he wants, and succeeding where no other artist working in his field could possibly succeed. By the time he made Adaptation, he had already written the man-raised-by-wid-animals farce Human Nature, the mind-bending Being John Malkovich, and the first draft of Clooney’s Chuck Barris fictional autobiography Confessions. But by inserting a version of himself into his adaptation of The Orchid Thief — as well as his attempts to adapt that very script, a fictional brother, and the imagined off-the-page lives of the book’s author and protagonist, respectively — proved Charlie Kaufman would always follow his own muse. Whether we liked it or not. (Good thing we did.)
Other Notable Advanced Works: Human Nature, Being John Malkovich, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York
Moment of Advancement: Tideland, 2007
Why Tideland? Whether you find yourself to be a regular fan of Terry Gilliam’s work or not, one would be hard pressed to never appreciating or admiring a few of his films. As a former member of Monty Python, anyway, he’ll always be beloved. While he’s survived strong critiques in the past, very few of his movies unleashed the ire of both critics and moviegoers quite like Tideland. It is, without question, his hardest movie to watch, most likely because he refuses to flinch as a little girl tries to maintain her innocence in a world seemingly determined to crush her spirit. It doesn’t hurt that Gilliam himself considers Tideland to be his most personal work. Apparent Artistic Failure + Deeply Felt Artistic Expression = The Definition of Advanced Genius Theory.
Other Notable Advanced Works: Jabberwocky, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Moment of Advancement: The Razor’s Edge, 1984
Why The Razor’s Edge? Like Clooney, Bill Murray is mostly known as an actor, and started his career on TV, and his first several films belied his true artistic passions. He capitalized on his inherent sarcastic humor to become a comedy legend, but fairly quickly he began scratching that artier itch by producing and starring in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. A period piece about one man’s psychological breakdown and subsequent rebuilding after World War I, this was Murray’s first attempt at something besides comedy. Of course, it failed miserably. But watching it now, the movie is not only a solid piece of work, but Murray is every bit the all-around performer he’s only recently been acknowledged as. After Edge, it would be more than a decade before Bill Murray stretched himself this much again (in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore — himself on the verge of Advancement with The Fantastic Mr. Fox), but after doing so and not being raked over the critical coals, his career would never be the same again. It’s just too bad we didn’t appreciate all that he was trying to do way back in 1984. But now, even if he succombs to Dan Aykroyd’s pleas for Ghostbusters 3, Bill Murray will always be considered a genius.
Other Notable Advanced Works: Quick Change, Scrooged, Hamlet, Rushmore, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers
Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force and tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar. He’s pretty sure Abed from “Community” would love to engage in an Advanced Theory debate, and he’s proud to honor that hopefully not-fallen hero, and no he isn’t taking this whole thing too seriously, thanks.