Dispatches from the telly and pop culture wastelands

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From Polonius to American Pie, there's an aphorism out there for everyone

Popular culture is bursting with handy tips.

Thought gross-out comedies from the late 1990s had nothing to offer you? Wrong!
Thought gross-out comedies from the late 1990s had nothing to offer you? Wrong!

Erica Jong once wrote: “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” Now that we have that at the forefront of our minds, what is to be the reaction to two bits of advice I came across recently? The first, in a women’s magazine, came under the title “Brilliant love advice you haven’t read before” and featured tips gathered from people in all walks of life – a barman, a nurse, a travel agent, a hotel concierge, and so on. From a member of British Airways cabin crew came this: “Want to boost your chances of chatting to a cute stranger on a flight? Ask for a seat on the aisle, somewhere near the toilet. You’ll get noticed every time people get up to stretch.”

The second bit of advice came from a counsellor in a newspaper column, in response to a woman seeking guidance on what to do with a boyfriend who found her vagina “repulsive”. She was advised to read a book on sexual and physical diversity with her boyfriend and “discuss the material as equal adults, not teacher/pupil, and reward him when he demonstrates maturity”.             

Both of these bits of advice struck me as so incredibly odd that I have been unable to stop thinking about them. Was I missing something? Were these the answers that had already occurred to the readers, as Jong might argue, or were these just two examples of seemingly absurd and incorrect advice?

Dispensing wisdom, informed or not, isn’t hard. We can all do it and often do: despite having no degree (or real interest, to be honest) in economics, I could tell you my thoughts on what we should do to turn this financial downturn around, at 20 paces.

Personally, I like to deliver my perceptive titbits of good judgement with a languid stroke of my chin and a thousand-yard stare, which gives unearned gravitas to the most idiotic utterances. The internet is a mass grave of advice – good, bad, misogynist and racist. When you have a spare few hours, I urge you to trawl the “advice” tag on Tumblr; humanity’s problems are laid bare, from the anonymous person who wants to know a noncreepy way to procure the phone number of a crush to the person looking for book recommendations for the summer. Your screen will squeak at the platitudes unironically held up as wisdom from the lips of King Solomon himself.

There is guidance on how to survive your miserable teens, your footloose twenties, your regretful but now appropriately grateful thirties. Conclusion: we’re a mess at all times and there is foolish advice to be foisted on us at every turn.

But back to popular-entertainment culture, which is what this column is all about. What instructions from the finest fictional minds out there have you squirrelled away for everyday living? Are you a fan of Polonius (a twinkly-eyed Ian Holm, for fans of Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation), clearly destined for an Oprah-esque talk show before Hamlet puts paid to that, who advocates “To thine own self be true”? Perhaps you prefer the new age/The Apprentice contestant-style braggadocio of Yoda’s “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try”? The dignity in the words of Ree in Winter’s Bone (played by the Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence) – “Never ask for what ought to be offered” – is admirable but somewhat misplaced. Saddest of all, I’ve yet to utilise this gem from Vizzini, the wily Sicilian hunchback in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

And so, with best wishes, here are my current top three bits of useful, pertinent advice from the movies.

This unstintingly truthful nugget from the non-rom-com (500) Days of Summer: “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

This bit of quiet, overlooked profundity, from the comedy Bridesmaids: “Make room for someone who is nice to you.”

And this useful tip for 99.9 per cent of human interactions, from American Pie: “You ask them questions and listen to what they have to say and shit.” See? Just when you thought gross-out comedies from the late 1990s had nothing to offer you, there it is. My advice for you is to skip the other movies in the franchise, though – no good ever came from watching those.