Friday, January 18, 2008

In My View: Hemingway and Joyce, some thoughts on pretentiousness

So iknight's got me thinking about language lately. Thanks. Just thanks, because all I needed was my mind churning around in semantic circles like some car where the wheels on the right side have gone out.

Okay, so it's not his fault. But I've been thinking about the word pretentious. Doesn't that word just sound like what it is? Pre-tent-ious. And while I don't think the anime reviewing circles have totally mashed that word into a bloody pulp, I do think it's really really overused.

The problem I have with it, is that it's a gut reaction word. On top of that, it's a word that holds all of it's meaning in the connotation and a little bit in the denotation.

The denotation of the word is:

" characterized by pretension: as a: making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing) b: expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature "

At least according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Yeah, it isn't the OED, but it's good enough for me.)

So really, it isn't about the show at all. The word is reflective of claims that are made about the importance of the show. What I think it's come to mean is a story that seems to think too highly of itself without actually delivering. The problem is that I don't think it's really reflective of what people are actually reacting to.

How Joyce and Hemingway relate to anime

Okay, so a long time ago I was forced to read "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" (now that's a pretentious title if I've ever seen one). During the lead up to reading it, I learned Joyce mainly wrote for a small group of his friends. Now all of them really liked what he had to say. In all honesty, I think that's what people are reacting to when they say a show is pretentious.

Essentially, there is this show (take your pick, but I'll take Lain), that is directed at a particular audience (people who like theme heavy science fiction with a broken narrative). Now the target audience is going to love it. While the rest of everyone else is going to sit around scratching their heads going, "Huh?"

In Literature, the supporters would call it art. They'd sit around discussing the various implications and talk like this is truly the most important piece of writing that has come along for the last decade or longer. The same thing happens in anime to a certain extent, but mostly because anime in general doesn't attract the same culture.

The type of culture that is attracted is a Hemingway culture. Now I use Hemingway in specific because he stated that he wrote for a mass audience. He wanted people to understand what he was writing. He didn't doll it up. He didn't obfuscate what he was trying to say by fooling around with form or language. He just said it. Now that doesn't mean he couldn't be subtle. But he focused on the story first and the rest of the stuff second.

In general, that's the type of culture that anime attracts. We usually want more Hemingway and less Joyce type of stuff, because it's geared at a mass audience. (That's why something like Lain will never have the commercial success of something like Cowboy Beebop.)

So which one is better?

Okay, so I've kind of hinted at my feelings on the subject. But I think there's two general trains of thought that go through anime. There are the storytellers and the artistes. Now the storytellers focus on story first and theme second. In fact, I think the perfect example of that is Paranoia Agent, which while it had a pretty big theme that was overtly important to the plot, it didn't forget that the characters needed to go through arcs, that there needed to be a build in tension, that people were watching this show for the show and not for whatever the creators are trying to say.

Whereas artistes are dedicated to art-form. They don't care about the audience that "doesn't get it". They only care about the people who will admire their brilliance. And on general audiences, that doesn't work. For the most part, their message gets lost somewhere in the broken narratives, the symbolic discourses and the bizarre twists. The artistes are doomed to be misunderstood and derided. And they should be, because they don't give enough of a damn about their audiences to really make a story.

Related Link

Just to prove how unoriginal I am, Michael over at AnimeOtaku wrote about a similiar thing a while back concerning ErgoProxy


Anonymous said...

Yeah, this is why I try not to condemn shows like Lain as bad per say. I didn't particular enjoy the show but I try to see it in a way that someone out there probably liked/got the references and terms.

bateszi said...

Unless a series is being intentionally cryptic, I can usually stand (and probably appreciate a little more) a director's attempts to do things differently. I gave up on Ergo Proxy because it was so heavy-handed with its philosophical references, but Texhnolyze didn't even have any dialogue for the first 10 minutes of its first episode and I still loved it. To this end, I think we sometimes underplay the importance of visuals in anime; if I'm fascinated by how something looks, I can usually fill in the gaps myself. Ghost in the Shell 2 is probably the best example where the dialogue and plot is so incredibly hard to decipher, yet the art and soundtrack is so deep and beautiful that its a triumph of completely immersive visual storytelling.

Iknight said...

You draw some interesting distinctions here. I'm inclined to agree that 'pretentious' is a rather overused term, but then again I'm likely to have it used against me at some point, so I would agree.

I think that, however Joycean a series wants to be, it's a critical error to rely absolutely on complex, niche content.

I do find it fascinating how one audience will swiftly describe something like Texhnolyze's dialogue-less 10 minutes as 'brave' and another audience will describe it as 'lazy'.

CCY said...

I imagine you've never seen ef - a tale of memories (recent fansub show, visual novel stuff, etc), and yet somehow you describe the discussion that's going on about it perfectly.

Actually, a lot of SHAFT shows (Zetsubou Sensei, etc.) are like that. Some call it 'art', others call it...yup...'pretentious'.

I actually think that a lot of people around the anime blogging networks enjoy the less 'mass audience' productions, because of the ability to analyze something like it and 'get' it. That sense of superiority or something, of the "this is what it means, look, isn't it cool and aren't I smart?" manner. At least, that's what I like to do sometimes, because honestly, it's hard to discuss the obvious stuff.

Regarding the use of the word itself, yeah, totally guilty. I think the community as a whole likes grabbing on to words (generally Japanese, though) and using it; it's kind of like developing a sort of anime lexicon, again, that feeling of being 'in'.

Cameron Probert said...

@ koji oe - Agreed. And to be fair, I liked Lain, but I thought it really should have answered it's own internal questions.

@ bateszi - See and I actually liked what I've seen of ErgoProxy. But I agree that it's a bit heavy handed. And I liked the first 13 episodes or so of Texnolyze. I sort of fell off when it came to the last section of it. I personally thought it got a bit too heavy-handed there.

To be fair though, visuals are something that interest me. But generally I put story above visuals. (Granted that's just me). For instance, I really liked Kaze no Yojimbo - a lot, but even I'll admit that the visuals suck. But I really wasn't as much of a fan of Texnolyze or even Ghost in the Shell 2 even though I appreciated the visuals. Mostly because I need the story to suck me in.

@ iknight - I do agree that it's a mistake to rely on niche group to get it. To be honest, I think a deep mass market piece is always going to be better than a deep artsy piece.

And that's one of those things about "pretentious" pieces is that one group of people will call it pretentious and another group will call it brilliant. Kind of like what CCY said about ef-tale of memories. (Even though I haven't seen it).

@ CCY - That is a great point. In fact, I tend to think there's a group that gets it and a group of posers who say that they get it because all the "cool" kids get it.

I haven't seen ef. I have heard a lot about it. And I've been toying with idea of watching Zetsubou Sensei. That and I actually have watched the first few episodes of Air and I really liked it. (I'm such a horrible person, I think). And I watched the first episode of Kanon and kind of liked it. (The girl with the backpack kind of turned my stomach).

And hell, I'm guilty of using the word. To be honest, it's a quick and easy way of communicating the feeling of watching a show that feels too artsy for it's own good.

Anonymous said...

"That's why something like Lain will never have the commercial success of something like Cowboy Bebop."

See, the thing that's always confused me about Lain is that it /did/ have the same commercial success. Within the sphere of anime watching most people have watched Lain. It sold incredibly well in the States, even making Yoshitoshi ABe a household name. I'd goes as far to say, in the minds of Western anime fans, it's as canon as Evangelion or Cowboy Bebop; one of the 'greats'. Which is baffling because it's so bloody obtuse and hard to appreciate 'as is'. Eva is painfully pretentious, yes, but beneath it there's a lot of entertainment value. With Lain even its aesthetics are alienating. I've never understood why it did so well in the West.

Also, the thing you have to consider with literature (and using it as analogy) is that is has an incredibly strong academic body analyzing its every move. Academics want pretension partly to validate their work and partly to give their minds something to play with. And because Literature as an academic subject is so institutionalised now it’s influencing how 'artists' produce their art, often turning things into a mass intellectual bukake session.

Anime may well be going this way, and I agree some shows are more preoccupied with pretension than others, but it seems dangerous to me to talk of story-telling and artistic endeavour as if they were binaries. Paranoia Agent, and a show like Boogiepop Phantom (and yes, Eva, too), demonstrates it is possible to unify the two intentions and make something universally appealing. Now that I think about it, FLCL is perhaps the most appropriate example of this: completely fucking mad, indisputably, and highly pretentious beneath it all, yet incredibly well loved by a cross-section of people.

Bateszi’s example of Texhnolyze also demonstrates how a show doesn’t pander to any particular audience but manages to couple rather highbrow artistic intention with something that feels inherently watchable with a compulsive story. I won’t spend another 300 words explain why, but it stands as an example of how the two aspects and sit together and create something fundamentally accessible.