Monday, May 21, 2018

All In on Earnestness

If you've missed the recent Thundercats series reveal, consider yourself fortunate. It's the latest trash fire in fandom, as hipster creators keep on trying to subvert old stories that the audiences love. But while many will take the art to task, some critics instead focus on the attitudes. From a thread by @Banned Ali on Twitter (with the entire thread collected here):
I haven't see the usual suspects this mad since the term "SJW" was coined. "Calarts" looks like it's going to be a surprisingly devastating label and meme. Which is odd, because at first glance the term "calarts" seems to criticise an art style.
However, most of the people using this art style seem to share certain ideological tenets as well as tastes. A common theme is social justice. Another is self-aware post-meta irony instead of earnestness.
I haven't seen many people raise this last point but IMO it is absolutely fundamental to understanding culture wars in the current year. First, let me explain what I mean by "self-aware post-meta irony".
In recent years, films have become increasingly aware of their genre and the cliches that predominate it. Some avoid these cliches, but others embrace them by pointing them out and having fun with them. In small doses, this can be fun(ny) if done well, but if you saturate...
.. the entire film with this stuff it undercuts the plot. The first clear example of this trend, IMO, is Scream, a horror film which lampooned other slashers while at the same time trying to be a "real" slasher flick in its own right.
While IMO Scream was well done and hit the right balance between ironic comedy and earnest horror fairly well, its sequels didn't do quite so well. Worse, the series spawned the ungodly Scary Movie franchise.
I would argue that Scary Movie and all its sequels and spin-offs are (sadly) some of the most important cultural artefacts in understanding contemporary pop-culture. The combination of genre-awareness& endless pop-culture references as comedy is a defining feature of our time
Soooo, back to "calarts" as a meme. One of the defining features of these new shows is irreverent self/genre-awareness. The entire premise of a show like Adventure Time is to appeal to D&D nerds by poking fun at all the cliches and stereotypes in tabletop gaming.
This sort of thing can work if it is done with enough love and respect for the subject material, but when it's done poorly, the result is angry fans of the original.
What the Calartists defending the new #ThunderCatsRoar show don't seem to grasp is that for most people, self-aware ironic mockery of the old show, slapstick and pop-culture references are no substitute for a story with heart. 
On a related note, this conflict between self-aware deconstruction and earnest storytelling also explains why most fans of the original Star wars trilogy loathed The Last Jedi, whereas postmodern hipster pop-culture enthusiasts loved it. 
I realise that I probably should have elaborated what I meant by "earnestness" as opposed to "self-aware post-meta irony". 
Most stories have surreal elements and cliches. Many genres are inherently goofy. Fantasy: goofy. Superheroes: goofy. Sci-fi: goofy. etc. 
Now one can studiously avoid being corny and using cliches, and sometimes that works. But more often than not, a film has to embrace its inner corniness, believe in itself if you will, in order to work. 
An early Bond movie 'works' because they play it straight despite the incredibly cheesy premise of a man in a volcano lair plotting world domination. Now sure, it was less of a cliche at the time, but these films wouldn't hold up if Bond was constantly winking at the audience...And this last bit is where Calartists and most of Hollywood go off the rails. In their urge to show their own maturity and maturity, they can't help but tell the audience that they know the film is cheesy. Over and over again...This deflates all the tension in the plot and forcefully reminds the viewer that he is watching a work of fiction.
For a story to be gripping, it has to believe in itself in order to convince the audience.
The emphasis here is mine. There have been a number of ways I've seen and used to describe an element to pulp that's missing today. Sincerity, love, earnestness, playing the story straight. Embracing the tenets of your story. And we're seeing more and more how a refusal to do so undermines story and audience interest. And while it is rampant in the visual arts, this disconnect occurs in print as well. In comic book confessionals, in magic system fantasy, in the crunchiness of hard science fiction, and the quotas of social science fiction. Wherever the author is selling themselves instead of a story.

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