Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Methinks Thou Protest Too Much: or, how conservative critics often miss the point by being too detail-oriented

Normally I eschew apologizing for long lapses of absence, but in this case I'll make an exception, sorta. And while I'm at it, I apologize for using the word "eschew" in a sentence... I swear, my language gets 5x more hypocritically high-brow when I write these things... it just kinda comes out...

At any rate, in what little time I have these days (a few operas, Lent, and a job/housing search notwithstanding) I'm working on a project to collect, organize, and synthesize all my posts and essays on the Arts from the past few years. This has been taking me away from writing new posts (because I have the lingering feeling I'm cyclically repeating old arguments without meaning to) but it's also made me want to write more, too many more in one sitting actually... so I suppose it's a pro-and-con situation.

The comments I wanted to (maybe briefly?) make tonight just to get the ball back and rolling again has to do with moderation.

In the past few months I've heard a few really great talks and essays that in their own way have collected into a single theme for me. The paradox is a familiar one, if you think about it:

1. On the one hand, the little details really do matter.
You can have a fantastic story with exciting plot points and great techniques and moments, but as I've pointed out in previous posts, if it twists the final message just a little bit, it can honestly ruin the whole thing. (For an excellent example of this sometime, get me going on the move The Matrix...but I won't get into that now, the second point coming up is more important)

2. On the other hand, almost nothing annoys me more artistically than someone who is offering criticism that goes well beyond the original scope of the work's original intentions.
I was listening to a podcast this week talking about our environmental worldview, and the speaker usually has very good points to bring up, but he's also very often overly hyperbolic in his examples, which to me, very quickly undermines the whole adventure.

Here's a case example of what I mean: The speaker was talking about going too far in our "environmental conservation" mindset that we lapse into demoting humans and their place in the world. This is a really important point. He was denouncing the kind of generic spiritual "mother earth" language that wrongfully deifies Nature. But then he brought in the film Avatar. He then went on to say that the film, through it's Native American-style spiritual content, was promoting a dangerous pantheistic religious worldview which was also suggesting that the only real sollution to man's pollution of the planet is to evict humanity from it. Now I'm gonna stop right there and say, "no it doesn't."

For the record, the film was proposing an fictional alternate ending to the tragedy of the Native American conquest. Yes, it was environmentally based. But the world of Pandora was a direct metaphor for the New World, aka North America. It wasn't saying we ought to take Earth and ship out our people to space. That's just the kind of analysis that goes too far which I'm speaking against here.

From here I want to take one step back and address one more broader point, one that some of you have heard me say many times before... Sometimes for a story to be effective and true to itself, it has to contain elements which are in themselves ...not ideal. In this case, the film contained a Native American style spirituality. Obviously a Christian observer would not endorse converting to animism when (s)he extols the film's environmental message. Would the story even work if the Navi had a monotheistic religion that looked surprisingly like Christianity? This sound ludicrous, but I almost feel like I have to go this far to counteract the points I hear a lot. This is the essence of the whole anti-Harry Potter mania that came out of the Religious Right.

It comes down to misunderstanding a very important rule of Art: In fiction, not every element is a 1-to-1 parallel to the real world.

So a balance has to be made. And I'll admit, it's a tricky balance. The first half of the paradox still stands. Details do matter. If those little elements do manage to push the final message over an edge, then it has to be called out. But let's not go nuts here. Especially when we're talking about art which is made by non-Christians.