Morgenstern on Elephant Movies, Unforgivably

Writing in the Pursuits section of the Wall Street Journal's weekend edition today, film critic Joe Morgenstern takes approximately 70 square inches to explain why the "gory, stupid" action movie 300 is a symptom of the empty bigness that Americans now demand from their entertainment. (We'd link to it, but according to the "Notice to Readers" that pops up when you visit WSJ.com, the Journal's entire website is completely down.) 300 is "blood-soaked and utterly bloodless," Morgenstern writes, and its popularity is an indication of our preference for fast and loud hugeness over slow and moving smallness.

Well, okay. Can't really argue with a meaningless claim. But! Right below the main column is something more intriguing: a slight, dark grey sidebar called "Morgenstern's Picks" that proves meaningful in spite of itself. Indeed, the 35 square inches it takes up on the page are indicative the same way 300 is indicative, exemplifying an insidious hollowness in the culture of weekend media that seems to be growing increasingly, regrettably blatant.

After the jump, a speculative look into the Morgenstern process.

The point of the sidebar, as far as we've been able to gather from skimming it every other week, is to recommend a few good movies united by a theme related to the topic of the week. This week it was big, dumb action movies. So what did Morgenstern decide to write about? Elephants. Specifically, movies that somehow involve elephants—as he puts it, "elephant movies." As he explains in the intro text, he did this because 300 is "elephantine." A classic example of an elephantine movie in the same tradition, he writes, is the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra (like an elephant, he explains, it was "lumbering, but entertaining").

What follows amounts to more than just filler. It is a particular kind of filler, distinctly 2007 in its naked, almost smug reliance on common search engines and its apparent disinterest in concealing its laziness. Quite simply, Morgenstern typed "elephant" into IMDB. Or maybe AllMovie; maybe both if he'd already had his coffee. This was after he decided that identifying 300 as "elephantine" was enough of an excuse to do so.

He found two movies that were sort of about elephants: King Solomon's Mines, a safari film from 1950 that features graphic violence w/r/t elephants, and Elephant Walk, in which a stampede of elephants "reclaims the land it lost to human planters."

The last one was easy: The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch. Never mind that The Elephant Man is not about elephants. Nor is it "elephantine" or flashy—in fact, it is in black and white. That's okay, Morgenstern thought. And he put it in his column. For the accompanying blurb, he wrote a bit about the plot and the circumstances of its production. He put the actors' names in parentheses—something he didn't do in the other blurbs, since at that point, presumably, he was getting on towards word count. Then he realized he needed a few more lines. So, he looked it up on Amazon.

He noticed the first user's comment: "Amazing, but not for the weak of heart." Morgenstern thought that was pretty well said, so he decided to quote it in his article. Happily, he copy-and-pasted it into his Word document.

That's three, he thought. Good. That's three, and that's how you write an article on Saturday. Call it "Elephants on Parade." God help us, and never mind the elephant in the etc., etc., etc.