The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture

The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture

The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture

The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture

Synopsis

Vaudevillians used the term "the wow climax" to refer to the emotional highpoint of their acts a final moment of peak spectacle following a gradual building of audience's emotions. Viewed by most critics as vulgar and sensationalistic, the vaudeville aesthetic was celebrated by other writers for its vitality, its liveliness, and its playfulness.

The Wow Climax follows in the path of this more laudatory tradition, drawing out the range of emotions in popular culture and mapping what we might call an aesthetic of immediacy. It pulls together a spirited range of work from Henry Jenkins, one of our most astute media scholars, that spans different media (film, television, literature, comics, games), genres (slapstick, melodrama, horror, exploitation cinema), and emotional reactions (shock, laughter, sentimentality). Whether highlighting the sentimentality at the heart of the Lassie franchise, examining the emotional experiences created by horror filmmakers like Wes Craven and David Cronenberg and avant garde artist Matthew Barney, or discussing the emerging aesthetics of video games, these essays get to the heart of what gives popular culture its emotional impact.

Excerpt

WOW!
Consider the singular beauty of the word “wow.” Think about the pleasure in forming that perfectly symmetrical phrase on your tongue. Imagine the particular enthusiasm it expresses—the sense of wonderment, astonishment, absolute engagement. A “wow” is something that has to be earned, and in the modern age we distribute standing ovations far too often when we are just being polite, but we have become too jaded to give a wow. The term takes on a certain irony, as if it can only be uttered in quotation marks. Perhaps we are not as jaded as the Variety critic who was asked to review a performance by a pair of Siamese twins who did impersonations, sang, did ballroom and tap dancing, and juggled, all in the course of a ten-minute vaudeville act. All the critic could muster was, “Not bad for an act of this kind,” a phrase that falls far short of a wow.

There's a wow-worthy sequence near the beginning of Zhang Yimou's 2004 film House of Flying Daggers. A blind courtesan has been brought before a local magistrate who suspects that she may be a member of the secret Flying Daggers organization, and not a brothel entertainer. He demands a performance, challenging her to what he calls the “echo game.” She is brought to the center of a room lined with drums on poles. The crowd gathers on the balcony to watch. The magistrate flings a bean and hits one of the drums. The blind woman thwacks out her long sleeves and slaps them against the same drum. A group of musicians signal their enthusiasm for her perceptual mastery. Then, he throws a second bean and this one ricochets across several drums before dropping to the floor. Again, she flings out her long sleeves and hits the first and then the second drum, followed by grand leaps and twirls. Finally, the magistrate flings the entire bowl of beans, which rain down upon the drums. She listens carefully, waits a beat, and then goes into an elaborate dance, hitting . . .

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