Sunday, November 17, 2013

Scribblings of a Madman: You Keep Using That Word

Well, it's the anniversary of my first review today, and I'm currently at my university stuck in exam and project hell. Huzzah! At any rate, I was planning on releasing my first solo video review today (after being pretty much inactive for the last few months) but it just wasn't in the cards, trying to wrap it up today would be incredibly stressful and exhausting and quite frankly I don't need that right now, it's bad for my performance, bad for my health and bad for my skin. It is coming along and I will have it done soon, hopefully next weekend, and after that I'm planning to come back with a vengeance, you can look forward to that, it's just that right now I have to do what's right for me. Until then, have some amusing musings.

Remember how when we were kids we'd hear a word and start using it without really knowing what it means? It's not as cute when you're a supposedly fully-functioning adult with a friend named Webster to consult on such matters. In every culture and community that values intelligence (and several that don't), there are those who feel the need to sound like they know a lot more than they actually do, and this is especially common among preachers, politicians, and media consumers. I'm an apolitical agnostic so you can probably guess which one I plan to talk about, but before breaking off it's worth noting that participants in all three cultures have a tendency to pick up and latch onto a few words, often perfectly good words, and use them to death until everyone forgets what they are actually supposed to mean. In layman's terms: buzzwords.

Let's take a step back for a moment and look at a little thing called "metacognition". In the simplest terms possible it means "thinking about thinking", and in a broader sense it's essentially the process by which we determine how we know what we know. In my experience, the best media critics are the ones who don't just react to a work, they think about why they reacted the way that they did and break down what that reaction means about the work itself. I bring this up because none of the words that have become buzzwords started out that way, they're all very useful words with perfectly good meanings, they all have a place in thoughtful and dignified discussions, but nine times out of ten when you hear them, it's in the form of an offhand reaction without any thought given to what makes that word applicable or why it matters. For the purpose of this discussion, then, I'll be going through a few such words common to media discussion, what people think they mean (or don't bother to think they don't mean) and how they're misused, and what they really mean.

This may be an odd inclusion because technically, if we're just going by the dictionary definition, it's generally used correctly. Angst is a broad term for anxiety, dread, extreme stress, and generally being troubled by life. Rather than its denotation, I include it on this list because of its connotation. It has become something of a bad word for people; it's associated with stopping the story in its tracks to dwell on a character wallowing in sadness with little to no progression. The connotation itself is not the problem, it's as good a definition to operate by as any and the word is nigh impossible to divorce from its connotation at this stage. Where it starts to get a little messy is when we see the word being applied by its dictionary definition while still carrying its unique connotation. In a nutshell, and this is the point I'm trying to make, the word is sometimes used to write off sadness, depression, indecision and uncertainty categorically. And it really shouldn't be, these can be just as fascinating and fulfilling as grand action spectacle and passionate declarations of love.

As we get further into this, there's going to be a bit of a pattern that I'll address now. Most of these words can be broken into roughly two categories by connotation: lazy praise and lazy criticism. "Artsy" is a special case that can swing in either direction depending who you ask. I don't really feel the need to explain this one, you know who you are, so let's try a different approach. A work that displays artistic finesse isn't necessarily artsy. Cowboy Bebop's understanding of the cinematic art form is masterful, but I don't think anyone in their right mind would call the show "artsy"; the strengths of its presentation are very straightforward and it rarely feels the need to jump out at the audience screaming "LOOK AT ME I AM ART"! I distinguish "artsy" from other words, such as "artistic", "artful" and "arthouse" (which will have to be the topic of another rant altogether, methinks) because it describes that very property: of a work actively jumping out at the audience and showing them its artistic side, such that it's very distinctly part of the appeal. So when is it good and when is it bad? Well, that's a diffucult question, but what it comes down to is as simple as whether a work's "artsiness" gets in the way of telling a good story.

Oh deconstruction, you lovely little mess of a word, you, where do I even begin? Let's start with the definition: deconstruct literally means to break something down into smaller parts, usually for the purpose of studying its inner workings. In fiction, it means giving attention to the oft-ignored logical consequences of a trope or setup. In colloquial usage this translates into another lazy praise word and, like its slightly more well-mannered cousin "subversion", is often automatically attached to anything that happens to be dark. Deconstruction implies cleverness and insight and I've seen plenty of dark works that have neither; Evangelion wasn't a deconstruction because it was dark, it was dark because it found dangerous implications in the concepts it chose to deconstruct. At the opposite end of the spectrum deconstructions don't have to be dark or serious. You know that thing in anime where boobs jiggle everytime a girl moves? Let's say the girl gets chaffing. Boom, deconstruction.

Do I even need to explain this one? It's the most bland, uninspired, nondescript way to praise content that has far too much to be summed up in one word. When used correctly it doesn't really do the subject justice, and when used incorrectly (more on the distinction between faux depth and actual depth later on) it's laughable. Incidentally, the word "depth" doesn't bother me at all, not because it's any more descriptive but rather due to a nice little quirk of the English language. "Deep" refers to the work as a whole while "depth" tends to attach itself to specific instances, so the latter invites the speaker to justify the point he or she is trying to make, and I have also occasionally come across works that couldn't be called deep as a whole, but have little bits of commentary scattered throughout that you could call depth. Maybe it's just me being pedantic, but the latter seems far less insulting to me. Not to say "deep" doesn't have its place, but be prepared to back it up.

Another trend in these words is their tendency to come in pairs; if deconstruction is the lazy praise for a dark work, then grimdark is the lazy criticism. Now it's true, I have seen plenty of stories that try too hard to be dark just to push the envelope without the internal logic to give such an atmosphere justification or meaning. That is what grimdark is supposed to mean. Consistently dark works that understand why the story they are telling needs to be dark, those are not grimdark. What's more, dark stories can be fun. No, I'm serious here, there are some playfully self-aware over-the-top dark titles can be creepy and twisted in a non-threatening, non-offensive (well okay, they're probably still pretty offensive) way. Case in point: the Major's speech from Hellsing Ultimate episode 4. Look it up on youtube, it's sick and twisted and so much fun! Really, though, if there's one word on this list I could completely do without, it's this one. "Trying too hard" is an apt substitute.

This one's a double whammy. Not only is it often misused, but it's also not necessarily a bad thing. Melodrama is simply exaggerating an emotion. So first off, screaming and writhing in agony isn't melodrama if you're having your fingernails wedged off with bamboo, and bursting into tears isn't melodrama if you've recently lost a friend and it's still sinking in, etc. If the reaction is justified, proportionate and in character, that's regular drama. But even if you do give a reaction a little more emphasis than what's due, so what? In a fun and passionate story that doesn't take itself too seriously, I have nothing against expressing big emotions in big ways to make the characters' investment as real to the audience as possible, it can be used to positive effect. There's a place for over-the-top in action and comedy, so why not drama? It can still be lovable and sincere, and both those things go a long way with me.

One of the fundamental aspects of storytelling is controlling what information your audience receives, as well as how and when. Obfuscation means concealing information from the audience--you know the drill by now, say it with me--without justification. So what justifies concealing information? To me, that usually comes down to whether we, the audience, have a solid grasp of the viewpoints of the characters we're following (though there are exceptions of course). So if there's a question that the characters in the story avoid asking because they're afraid to learn the answer, that's a perfectly valid reason to avoid bringing said question to the forefront. Getting back to the idea of metacognition for a moment, if the audience doesn't know what they are expected to know about the world we're seeing, then you have a problem. Probably the surest way to avoid fall into the trappings of obfuscation is to give your audience a sense of normalcy and let later developments unfold naturally from there. Then it's not obfuscation, it's subtlety.

There is no such thing as objectivity. Everyone and everything capable of making a decision is biased, period. A good reviewer isn't objective or unbiased and shouldn't strive to be; rather, a good reviewer should strive to be honest and fair. The end.

This word is probably the most dangerous on the list. Like everything else here it has its place, but if you don't have a solid grasp on what makes something good than it comes to naught. The vast majority of people out there, whether they're fans of movies, books, videogames, or anime, don't really have a solid definition to operate off of outside of what they like and don't like. It's perfectly fine to like what you like and not like what you don't like, but if you can't translate that into something more widely applicable then calling a highly praised something or other "overrated" just means you don't like it, and that only really means anything to you. That doesn't mean you should take how you feel about something out of the equation, of course. You felt that way for a reason and there are others out there who will probably share your reaction, but if you want to be taken seriously, try to frame your points in such a way that the audience can sympathize from an outside perspective. Underrated is a tamer word, much less confrontational; overrated should be reserved for extreme cases.

This is a difficult one to talk about because in some ways I actually don't feel like it's overused, just misdirected. In many ways audiences have more of a role in what and how shows, movies and anime are made than ever before, and the most successful (notice I don't say best) works take advantage of this. But if I'm going to keep some semblance of consistency, I'd better talk about how this word gets misused, because it does indeed get misused. This is another case where the denotation (giving people what they want) isn't as important as the connotation (doing so at the expense of good storytelling), and once again the latter is the definition I'll be going by. By that definition, it's not pandering for a story to be conscious of its target audience and go out of its way to be relatable, some of the best stories, by successfully connecting with a specific age group, have managed to become unexpectedly timeless (see: the Toy Story trilogy). There is nothing wrong with tapping into what your audience happens to enjoy; while many of the best stories are the ones that don't try too hard to please everyone, a dispassionate tale that pleases no one isn't worth telling.

Those of you who know me well were probably waiting for this one, and if you're familiar with some of the things I like you'll know why. Yes, I'm the guy who wants more from his entertainment than entertainment. I like stories that have a point they want to make to their audience, layers you can analyze and dive into, little details scattered throughout that you won't notice the first time, metaphorical and philosophical underpinnings... basically, I like depth. Yeah, there's that word again. So where do you draw the line between pretension and genuine depth? Well, this is another topic that could fill an entire rant, but what it comes down to for me is whether the purported truth it's conveying feels natural. If the events in a narrative, rather than following any internal logic, come off as contrived and artificial for the sake of making a point, if they discuss philosophies and themes without providing any real evidence for them, then why should we believe there's any truth to what the story has to say? If the creators are more concerned with making a deep story than with the actual depth they want to convey, they're just pandering to intellectuals, and that is what makes true pretension. It follows, then, that real depth, even if it's hard to get and not always fun or pleasant, can make its message feel true to life, like the most obvious and natural thing in the world. If complex, layered, thoughtful narratives aren't for you, that's fine, but that doesn't make them pretentious, they're still complex, layered and thoughtful.

I'm not saying you should start an effort to banish any and all of these words from your vocabulary. These words exist for a reason, they do mean something and you should use them when they're the best words to convey that meaning. Still, take some time to consider why you make the connections you do. Knowing what you're saying allows you to say it with more confidence and believe in it with greater conviction, and I think that's something worthwhile to strive for.

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