Thursday, October 18, 2007
On the Home Video Generation
I remember "Weird Al" Yankovic saying in an interview for his episode of VH1's show, Behind the Music, that his career works in a progression in which he releases an album, gets everybody jazzed about it, then disappears for a few years. Then, just when that wandering thought of "Hey, I haven't heard anything new from Weird Al in awhile" occurs, he drops a new record and gets the world fired up about musical parody again. Unlike other bands we may not hear from in a while, with Al it's never a hope to hear him again, just a matter of when.
Disney tries to do the same thing with its mythical vault full of animated classics, pulling them off the shelves of video retailers until (it seems) a new home video format evolves. But with each release, beneath the embossed slipcovers lettered in gold leaf, we get exactly what we wanted with the movie itself, an experience that takes us back to that first viewing and gives us, marked by time, a new perspective on something old. Nothing deep, of course, just an older set of eyes, a more complex brain (one would hope), and a fading set of memories ripe for fact-checking against the primary source.
Such is the primary function of many of mine, also known as nerds, that attempt to roam the halls of adulthood. A primary focus as we breached our twenties was on the past. We demanded nostalgia and got it by way of Lion-O's red Thundercat beacon on a shirt black as pitch; we have circulated videos on YouTube with vile redubbings of G.I. Joe after-episode public service announcements, because knowing still is half the battle; we have two seasons of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe spread over multiple DVDs, I mean my god, has anybody watched that show?
We have Hot Topic to indulge people like us, to capitalize and spread the indie-cred of 80s youth culture among the socially awkward of today, kids so young that they were born as these shows sat heaving for breath and calling for oxygen, having run their courses too quickly. Many of these kids were born long after these shows went home from the race.
It was easy to catch the wave when it first curled--having thought I would never again find such an opportunity, I purchased an over-priced navy blue shirt with the mirrored Autobot logo on the chest without hesitation. I have Optimus Prime standing at arms on a pair of floor mats in my car (purchased at Hot Topic years ago). How could I not? I love the Transformers.
Now I was never--and am not--what some would consider to be a die-hard Transformers fan, but the show was one of the two I watched as regularly as possible as a youth. I caught the shows when I could, many more than I gave myself credit for, but missed most of what would come to be known as Season 3, that is, the episodes that took place after the events of the movie (1986). Apparently, in said season the writers took themselves to new heights with a toy-related television show and scrounged together a complex Transformers mythos that is lost on many. I recently looked at a book that tried to explain the whole thing, but I admit I carry a certain amount of stupidity in place of common sense and logic, because it was lost on me. For awhile I wanted to get it, to get into it and have it make sense.
But then I stopped to think why. And then I stopped wanting this information.
No knocks to those that do want it and have it, but you want different things than I out of this beloved franchise. As with many television shows based off of toy lines, during the initial production consistency and continuity were not prized attributes among those of whom said yes! and no! to scripts. Get the toys in the cartoon so they can be sold--that was the drive behind the entire venture. But it is because of that capitalistic impetus that I respect the first two seasons and that first film so much more than I probably would this highly scrutinized third season.
I operate under the firm belief that an artist (of whatever, it doesn't matter; to me, art in this sense means creative endeavor) can't work effectively lest s/he cares about the art to be produced. Looking at those first two seasons one can see the subversive attempts at artistic integrity operating underneath the 22-minute commercials that captivated me. By crafting the simple story of good against evil, an interplanetary goose-chase, and the dichotomy of gigantic robots fighting their war on our world established (in me) a set of values that I needed to learn as a kid: good people fight to protect, bad people fight to win. Oh, and I guess I learned that humans are puny, defenseless creatures.
If one were to read anything deeper into the Transformers it would stand beside the point of the show and be wholly unfounded. If you wanted you could see in the Autobot v. Decepticon battle an allegory, a satire, a tale of the absurd, inexcusable silliness, and a long advertisment for toys. It is interesting to think about, but like in literary criticism, it's useless to say that one explanation is the correct way of thinking over another because we simply do not have the creator's support to lend anything credence. In the case of any show during the 1980s, a throng we hold so dear, the only definitive statement we can make is that these shows were created to sell toys. But in Optimus Prime I found a role model, a character whose virtues I wanted to emulate, like a child staring starry-eyed at his indestructible father. But, like our fathers, we grow up to learn the truth of their fallibility. And like our fathers we have to accept that. I connected with Optimus Prime and his kin, a quality that was solidified by the 1986 movie and which hit the creators of the show completely by surprise. As stated by a writer of the show on the 20th Anniversary release of the The Transformers: The Movie, by killing off Optimus Prime and all the other characters the children had grown attached to in the first two seasons of the show, they only considered it a liquidation of the first two years of product, making room for the next phase. That the intended audience actually cared for these characters was something they never considered and it is the very thing that makes opinions so strong today. We're not attached to Transformers because of the philosophical potential, but because we love Optimus Prime and Megatron. A line in a review of the new movie by Cammila Albertson for AMG summed up the sentiments of nostalgic nerds perfectly:
"It would be just plain tragic not to acknowledge what it does for the film to have original Optimus Prime voice Peter Cullen reprise his role. Cullen sounds like a cross between a badass action hero, the guy who does the movie trailers, and God. His voice, in combination with the actual character of Optimus Prime, creates the ultimate giant-robot incarnation of the archetypal warrior king: full of bravery, emanating wisdom, and frequently transforming into a kick-ass Mack truck."
Nerds have a problem because they expect their nostalgic idols to grow up with them, and they threaten Michael Bay and his Transformers movie (I won't go so far as to call it a film), they hack into his computer and scrutinize the script and bark skyward on internet forums when the first images of the movie's robots are released. But they are the first ones to cheer and get goosebumps when Optimus Prime rolls onto the screen and they watch in silence to hear every inflection of the words he is about to speak as if they had been waiting for years.
I accept the show for what it is, a modern morality tale that came with cool toys. It asks nothing more of its young audience than to say those are the good guys who want to help us and these, over here, yeah the cool-looking ones, these are the bad guys and they want to do us harm. All I wanted out of the flick was the basic premise that the writers back at the genesis of the show came up with out of necessity: good versus evil, a barbaric alien war fought on our home turf for reasons that can't be easily explained. That alone is mythic, and about as much as the fairy tales we heard as children had to go on. What's wrong with that? Why does the Autobot/Decepticon struggle have to be anything more than that? That alone provides a sound framework for discussion and thought.
On the whole I was pleased with the movie. Any disagreements I had with it have to do with Mr. Bay as a terrible storyteller (and he is terrible) than with the story adhering to the contradictory canon established decades ago. But I loved seeing these characters again, and it made me appreciate them even more because on July 3rd, 2007 (and again on October 16th when I bought it on DVD) I was sitting there literally seeing the Transformers in a different way than I had before, a new perspective brought before me that wasn't merely provided by time and a growing brain. On that day I was happy because I got to smile and say, "Hey, there's Optimus Prime. I haven't heard from him in awhile."