Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Completing the Circle: The Role of the Audience in Fiction

Picture this:  A dream-like fantasy world––not unlike something you’d imagine from a children’s book––becomes the victim of a devastating catastrophe.  What’s left is little more than hunks of earth, adorned with scraps of vegetation and ruins of homes and castles floating in space.  Survivors are few, but they know––as part of their history, mythology, or religion––that their world can only be brought back to life through the mystical, restorative will of something pronounced “Bass-chyuhn.”

For some of you––probably gamers of the recent era––this synopsis may remind you of the 2011 Supergiant Games release, Bastion.  A post-apocalyptic action-adventure game, the player controls a character simply known as “The Kid,” a youthful adventurer   who lives in a world of suspended ruin, literally.  Pieces of the world that used to be float in space, seemingly unconnected like leaves in a pond.  What’s interesting about the game is two-fold: first, the game is narrated as you play by another character in the game.  The narration is kind of dynamic, responding to how the player controls The Kid as well as revealing story.  Second, but related, is that the world only exists as your character exists; where he stands is all that is real.  For example, at the outset, The Kid wakes up in his bed in a room, which is just a bed on a rock with half a wall and a doorway just floating in the middle of nothingness.  The player can see other floating islands in the background, all at different depths, in different sizes.  The player moves the control stick which causes The Kid to get out of bed and as you guide him up and out through the door the ground literally rises up underneath his steps in disparate pieces, creating a path only as you move forward on it.  It’s an unsettling feeling at first, but you quickly get used to it, especially when creepy creatures are trying to do you in.  The crux of the story is that, despite the utter destruction of the world, The Kid is trying to collect fragments of the world to run a machine called The Bastion (a combination of terraformer, time machine, small town, and space ship) which––when fully powered––has the ability to undo the effects of the Calamity––the event that made the world what it is.

The Kid wakes up amid floating ruin. Source: Supergiant Games.
For others, after listening the description at the beginning, it may remind you of the classic 1984 children’s fantasy film, The Neverending Story––the last third, specifically.  The movie is based around a child in our present day finding an old book in a book store called, The Neverending Story.  The viewers watch as he reads the book, which is about a hero, a warrior-boy named Atreyu, trying to save an ill princess and, at the same time, stave off the oncoming cataclysmic event called The Nothing.

Not for lack of trying, Atreyu ultimately fails at the latter part of the to-do list and the fantasy world is left in literal fragments, highlighted by the image of the princess’ castle floating on a lonely bit of land in the vacuum of space, surrounded by other bits of the once beautiful world floating along side it.  Even amid such destruction, the princess assures Atreyu––and the reader of the book––and the viewers of the film––that there was still hope to reverse the effects of The Nothing––in this case, it was an otherworldly entity called Bastian, which happened to be the name of the kid reading the book, a name I’m assuming it’s short for “Sebastian.”  Instead of a floating city––a veritable planet all its own––the child named Bastian is imbued with the willpower to affect Fantasia, the fantasy world in the book he’s reading.  What’s interesting about this is that even though, to us viewers, Bastian is as fictional as Atreyu and the princess, but he represents reality and the fact that the fictional characters of the book he’s reading can’t repair their world––and that only a person in the “real world” can––speaks to the very nature of fiction and narrative itself: the readers are as important to the creation of a story as the writer is.

Fantasia becomes a world of floating ruin.
While I have drawn distinct parallels between these two apocalyptic fictions––and in my research I have seen no overt mention of the movie by the game’s designers––the similarities I found most interesting weren’t the obvious ones, though they are eerie.  Instead, these are fictions about fiction and use absolute destruction and vacuous absence as metaphor for a person’s engagement with fiction––how a reader or viewer actually completes the process that is “fiction.”  Games, like books, when unused sit there on a shelf (or hard drive) and figuratively don’t exist when not in play simply because the whole purpose of a book or video game (or a movie, or an album, etc.) is to be consumed.  Entertainment products are the closest things we have to tangible verbs in the sense that verbs only happen when they’re happening: a runner only runs when she is running, a painter only paints when he is painting.  They are realities conjured by action.  When looking at how this existential dilemma is brilliantly illustrated in the Toy Story movies, it’s not a far reach to think that, were things like books or video games sentient, they would be fighting night and day against this sense of non-existence––call it The Calamity, in the case of Bastion (the video game), or The Nothing, in the case of The Neverending Story.

This is my suspicion.
What this means for the player or reader is that consuming entertainment is not completely a passive act.  The books you love don’t exist as you know them until your eyes glance over the words on the page––only then do those characters exist at all for you and they cease to be when you close the book for the night.  With regard to Bastion and video games, the imagery of the ground flying up to meet your every step is a not-so-subtle metaphor for not only how games are processed internally but that polygons are only really processed at all once the player engages the controller––the real world’s umbilical connection to the virtual world.  The point is that these fantastic worlds don’t just exist because someone wrote them––Emily Dickinson wouldn’t be important at all had her poems not been found locked away in a chest; they would be nothing in the cultural and historical schema otherwise because they weren’t being read––fiction exists in individual bursts of imaginative light, a reaction that occurs when a fiction finds its audience, one by one, keeping it alive like the beat of a heart.

Friday, July 18, 2014

All the Nerdy Things

There’s little doubt that an ironic, meta-appreciation of culture has dominated popular consciousness for almost the entirety of the last decade.  I don’t particularly know when or why this trend started (though I have my hypotheses––the rise of reality tv being the catalyst, mostly), but the prevalence of an ironic self-awareness––or its more biting cousin, sarcasm, or its mean uncle, cynicism––has permeated deeply into nerd culture as well.

Now, chronologically, this spread from popular culture into nerd culture is not a surprise––the emergence of meta-humor shot pretty much along the same trajectory as that of the general acceptance of nerdy and geeky things.  I honestly believe that the two aren’t parallel or share causation insomuch as they collided at some point, an intersection from which they’ve been orbiting each other ever since in a strange, self-aware helix and, in the way most nerds do, we have capitalized on the meta wave almost better than any other facet of pop culture.

I think we’re so good at it because it’s mixed with a hint of earnestness.  When we wear a shirt that has an NES cartridge on it with the caption “Blow Me” or see movies like Snakes on a Plane or read books like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, there is an honest love for the original properties or concepts that motivate us to consume them.  However, we consume all of these with a knowing wink which brings me to the heart of the issue: what does it mean for the nerd community to embrace this trend of ironic humor?  The obvious answer also happens to be very true: it’s funny.  Being funny only goes so far.  Some of the most earnest fiction that’s created with “traditional” nerdy properties are incredibly scrutinized by nerds––remember the simple announcement of Heath Ledger playing the Joker for The Dark Knight and the cloud of Brokeback jokes that were made in response?––but properties that sort of celebrate their traditional nerdiness, waving it almost like a parade banner, are praised and supported with an almost blind devotion (I’m thinking of things like Scott Pilgrim or Red vs. Blue, for example––to an extent, even things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer fit this mold, too).  The fact that I mentioned any of the above properties while making an analysis of nerd culture already has some of you sharpening your claws; some of you may already be challenging my own nerdiness.  But that’s the problem––were do we draw the definition for devoted geekiness?  Does everything that is for “real” nerds now have to be self-aware and a comment on its own genre or culture in order to separate it from the stuff that is no longer “ours”?  At the very least, does everything that used to be “ours” have to be met with a severe skepticism?

What's the honest point of this?

I wonder if the real answer as to why we embrace this meta-approach so readily is a bit more psychological.  The boon of having the Marvel movies and even things like the Transformers movies destroy the box office, or that things like Doctor Who are drawing huge crowds of American teenagers of both genders at conventions is that––as I’ve said before––it allows those of us who have loved these properties––properties which helped us not only have fun, but which have shaped our personalities, world views and, most importantly, our identities––to do so openly and have so many more people to talk to about them.  That’s also the problem, though; the dominance of nerd culture is creating a sort of identity crisis within nerds, and so we retreat into this meta-shell because it keeps us safe from a world that now accepts us.

Ironic meta-humor allows us who were chastised and ostracized in our youths to stay on the “outside,” especially in the face of being forced to share what, at first, separated us from the general public.  Meta-awareness seems to be the more positive side of the “fandom” coin: instead of telling movie and tv show fans that they aren’t real nerds, we can call ourselves nerds and own it before people can use it as an insult.  By showing how aware we are that these are products with motivations, processes, and histories behind them, we are effectively trying to control them by exerting a sense of continued ownership over things that aren’t ours anymore and, more importantly, weren’t ours in the first place even though it felt like it.  The best and simultaneously worst example of this recently being put into practice is the confusing self-awareness of Star Trek Into Darkness.

The world's most nerdy in-joke or touching character moment?

This implies an interesting side effect to our new “nerd culture”––as a nerd who remembers the time when it was bad to be a nerd, many of us are just as defined by that period in our life––by that rejection, if you will––as we were by the things that kept us sane.  And, as is evident by the the geeky prominence in modern popular culture, many of us have worked hard to surmount that rejection and succeed––and, boy, have we done so.  But now we exist in a culture where everybody wants what only we had wanted in our youths and that feeling of having something special, all to ourselves or to share with only a select group of others, is effectively just a piece of history, a “remember when” moment.  We thrived under that burden of nerdiness and geekiness and we strengthened our legs to stand beneath it and now we rule every possible metric.  Naturally, we become perplexed when we find that we are no longer rejected, and it scares us as much as we bask in it.

The embracing of this ironic and self-aware view of movies, tv, comics, books, video games, etc.––all the nerdy things––has become a self-placed Othering, to an extent.  Whether it’s healthy or detrimental, I don’t know because, up until recently, that wasn’t an option.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Fighting Dragons

"If your ever want to get out there to fight dragons, you need to stop all...this."

"But you just pointed to all of me."

-From How to Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks, 2010)

A phrase that really bugs me is one usually said in conjunction with any animated film, but especially Pixar: “It has elements that both adults and kids can appreciate.”  Or, as a variation of that, “It has jokes in there only adults will get…”  While not, figuratively, untrue, it’s a bit insulting on a few levels.  First, it’s implying that Pixar makes movies for children and, as a mercy stroke for parents it throws in some subversive winking so that they will have a laugh all for themselves.  Second, it exposes the inherent fallacious thinking that modern American culture has towards animated film––that they’re only for kids.

The first one is a problem because it undermines the types of stories that Pixar wants to tell.  Sure, there are movies that are just for kids and there are movies that are made with more mature audiences in mind, but a majority of movies are just stories anybody can enjoy, as long as it’s a story someone wants to consume, no matter of age, creed, or gender.  Pixar takes advantage of its medium, creating worlds, characters, and visuals that can’t exist in the real world.  They want to tell adventure stories and comedies and fantasy and science fiction stories––none of which require catering to a specific age.

However, as soon as most people see that it’s animated, they assume that something like Wall-E––a very funny, complex, emotional, and thorough science-fiction cultural commentary––is just for kids because the protagonist is appealing, because the music is emotional during emotional scenes, and because the ending is mostly “happy.”  Then again, so are most Steven Spielberg movies.

For years, the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

The American view of entertainment tends toward compartmentalism.  Sometimes––such as with genre divisions of a medium––this allows potential consumers to find entertainment of the exact timbre they desire.  Horror movie fans shouldn’t have to wade through a selection of romantic comedies if they’re in the mood for a fright, for example; hip-hop fans shouldn’t be bombarded with ads for country music albums when listening to Pandora, either.

Overall, I would say that this compartmentalization is a good thing.  However, when new media comes along, they must endure a vetting process, the overarching culture must decide (actively or not) what this new thing is.  An unfortunate anomaly that can form from this process, however, is that a medium can be so mired in a specific type of product that it becomes classified as a genre unto itself.  That is, whatever audience the medium’s popular and successful products seem to be aimed at could, in the eyes of our culture, become the only audience that this medium can satisfy.  With children’s products, especially, this can be damning.

Such is the current fate for any animation in America, despite our best attempts.  Exceptions such as South Park or The Simpsons or any show on Adult Swim are notable but seem to be more niche deviations rather than cultural sea changes for the medium.  This is mostly still the same for comic books despite the average age of a regular buyer ranging somewhere between thirty and forty-five.  Video games were relegated to children as well, but in the last eight years or so they have gone through (or are still going through) a veritable puberty and are much more accepted as the vehicle for a wider variety of audiences.  Without falling into eye-rolling fetishization of European and non-western countries and cultures, the fact is that the United States is one of the few places that still infantilizes media like animation and comic books.

Why The Iron Giant wasn't at least nominated for Best Picture is a travesty to cinema at large.

Legendary animation director, Brad Bird (the mind behind Pixar’s The Incredibles and the brilliant The Iron Giant, among many other wonderful works), has been a vocal advocate trying to get greater American culture to view animation as what it actually is: a medium––a method of visual storytelling––rather than as a genre––a format that dictates audience, tone, and content.  His argument boiled down to the fact that Disney, for decades, was pretty much the only game in town––and they got rich from making all-ages material.  What also helped was that Disney was very good at what they did––their animation was standard-setting––and anybody that tried to tell more mature or complex stories (in America, again) couldn’t approach the material with the same level of quality that Disney brought to the table.  Therefore, any attempts to push the medium forward, culturally, was swept under the rug beneath Disney’s feet at no fault of their own.

Nowadays, however, a bushel of studios are making top notch animated films (and television), but they are still churning out products that are, ostensibly, aimed at younger audiences.  Of the aforementioned infantilized media (animation, comics, and video games), American animation seems firmly locked in its place while the others are arguably “growing up,” and it makes me wonder why.

Years ago, I was hoping with the rise of home video––and especially digital distribution––that the dwindling box office numbers would allow big studios to either a) experiment more with their creativity or b) support the endeavors of the more experimental independent creators.  The internet has basically eliminated the second option and, with the success of things like RealD cinema and the new reign of blockbuster explosion movies such as any Marvel movie or the Transformers, these big-budget investments are what dictates creativity; for animation, that means Pixar-type movies.

Toy Story 3's effective meditation on mortality and friendship.
But it's just a "kid's movie."
Luckily, (for the most part) Pixar does not look content to sit on its duff.  Movies with daring storytelling such as Toy Story 3’s “we’re all going to die” scene, Wall-E’s poignantly lonely and silent opening, and Up’s devastating first ten minutes have shown that American animated films can be as affective as any other movie on the market.  But my hope is that, someday, if people were to categorize Up, their answer wouldn’t be a “kids movie” or an “animated movie” because those terms don’t dictate content.  With the amount of green-screen, CG, and digital replacement, the Star Wars prequels basically count as animated movies, but we don’t count those, for some reason.  The same goes for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Until our culture recognizes how blurred the lines really are between animation and live action, the best I can do is keep waiting for animation’s mile maker like The Last of Us has been for video games or Maus was for comics.  Meanwhile, as adults go watch their R-rated action movies that are really only satisfying the rebellious twelve year-olds that sit quietly in their souls, I’ll gladly go to the next Pixar movie or the next How to Train Your Dragon movie to satisfy the adult in mine that craves sophistication, craft, and story.  And also dragons.