Saturday, January 16, 2016

some links for the weekend and a few rambles on nostalgia and genre, the line between "art" and "propaganda" may just be the degree to which 1) you can/can't impute your own ideals to something you just observed and 2) whether you liked it.

Noah Berlatsky makes the paradoxical case that the Bechdel test can lead to the rejection of a lot of womens' literature

... But if a movie for women, with female stars, about female friendships and the evils of male infidelity can’t pass the test, maybe the problem isn’t with the film, but with Bechdel’s

He's also got an amusing riff on the irony of George Lucas' complaints about artistic integrity and liberty in commercial cinema contexts in contrast to the Soviet Union.  Never a particularly historically informed sort (how else to explain Lucas' insanely stupid belief that the Vietnam conflict demonstrated that more "primitive" societies could defeat more "modern" societies), Lucas' success has depend on his capacity to regurgitate and process the ideas of others.
You could argue that Lucas cheapens everything he touches—and sure, he does. But that cheapening is part of the joy of the film. The big themes of conventionally better filmmakers are robbed of their emotional content and their difficulty, and turned into bite-sized adventurous fun. Star Wars really is a movie that seems based on its toy line, rather than the other way around. Lucas has no original ideas. He has a talent for commercialization—for chopping up other people's thoughts and gluing them together in the least challenging, shiniest, most incredibly salable way possible.

In fairness, Lucas does have another talent—collaboration. A huge part of the greatness of Star Wars is due to the puppeteers, and the designers' creation of a grimy, soiled, tangibly run-down future. The best film in the series, The Empire Strikes Back, owes much of its unexpected bleakness to director Irvin Kirshner. When Lucas seizes more control and tries to put his own individual vision across, you get atrocities like the added CGI effects in the digital rereleases of his films. Without others "ruining" his vision, Lucas has no vision—except for the bits where he's ruining someone else's.

To go by interviews and commentaries it can seem as though one of George Lucas' signal talents has been a penchant for self-mythologizing.  Whatever could be said about Joseph Campbell's monomyth in the mouth of Lucas the monomyth seems to apply less and less to the Star Wars franchise itself and more and more to George Lucas' various accounts and explanations for how he (as opposed to dozens of others with him) envisioned what we're supposed to have seen.

Over at Mockingbird Matt Schneider revisited the topic of Thomas Kinkade.

There were some dissenting comments.  I saw some dissenting opinions in response to another recent Mbird piece proposing that the core theological paradigm in the Star Wars franchise can be considered Pelagian.

We live in a time where franchises are rebooted and refurbished and it seems as though among critics whose job it is to write about this stuff there's little imagination that's observably going into WHY people keep buying stuff.  "It makes money" is both too obvious and uninformative.  People buy things for reasons and if economic theories propose any level of rational agency we might want to ask what people may be buying and for what reasons.

I've proposed that the nostalgia Americans have for sci-fi franchises can be seen to cluster around the franchises that peaked in the LBJ and Reagan periods of blue state and red state nostalgia.  Whether we nuke the world or save it there's no fate but what we make, we being Americans.  Seeing the trailer for Star Trek Beyond raises once again for me some doubts as to whether there's any reason to keep Star Trek around in a post-Cold War moment. We're so far removed from the end of the Cold War and people left and right have doubts about the perfection and purity of the American exceptionalist vision that there's a sense in which Roddenberry's optimistic vision seems ridiculous.

If half a century ago we had an America in which Star Trek could be imagined we now live in a different century, one in which there's a cartoon called The Venture Bros systematically skewering the generational optimism of the generation that gave us Star Trek half a century ago.  Just because the optimistic patriotism of Star Trek has historically had more blue-state futurist utopianism doesn't mean it hasn't been jingoistic along the way. Star Trek can be seen as much as a work of institutionally funded propaganda for liberal secularism as Veggie Tales can be seen as moralistic propaganda for evangelicals. 

The question of art may in some sense be irrelevant by misunderstanding as fixed the notion that art for the sake of art is even a given.  Something can be treated as if it's art to the extent that you can impute your values to it and if you find there's no values of your own (as you perceive them) that you'd impute to something it may just be that that delineates the difference between "art" and "propaganda".  If you like Star Trek, regardless of how red state Christian you might be, you'll come up with a reason to keep watching Star Trek in spite of everything you may have read Roddenberry say about this ideals and hopes for the franchise.  If enough evangelicals in America like Star Wars they will retroactively impute soteriological parables on to the films whether or not those had anything to do with Lucas' thought process. 

But then the fun thing about art is that the gap between intent and "reception history" gives room for that kind of thing.  Stravinsky had the luxury of being able to sympathize with fascists (literally) in the 1930s before changing his mind.  Liberals in the United States had the luxury of being sympathetic to Stalin before they found out how many people he had killed. 

The cultural undercurrent of skepticism at Cold War idealism as contrasted with Cold War era applied ethics in a post-Cold War society seems to be, well, more an explicit current of thought in American cartoons.  But that's a fancy to play with for some other occasion, if I ever get around to riffing on that at the blog.

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