Monday, November 19, 2012

Technically Not a Review: Determining the Value of Art for Ourselves

Note: As the title suggests, this is not technically a review.  But it is enough like one that I can present it here.  It is a paper I just finished for my persuasive writing class.  Enjoy!

Determining the Value of Art for Ourselves

The quality and value of various art pieces has been debated for thousands of years.  Everyone has different expectations of what art should be and from what sources good art can be found.  However, people generally agree that the search for such art is noble and important for both individuals and society as a whole.  The question of what makes art “good” or “bad” is a complicated one and (much to the chagrin of opinionated individuals such as myself) probably has no definite answer.  Instead of making arbitrary value judgments, examining which works of art are more or less enriching to an individual is a more pragmatic and achievable goal.  Through careful self-reflection a person can discover what art will be better or worse for them personally.  Too often people pre-judge art based on its genesis and their expectations; this causes them to spend their time—and often their money—on art that is not as enriching as other art would be, as well as causing them to miss opportunities to be enriched by art which they have judged to be of no value.

Consider this evocative monologue, which has been deliberately removed from context: “The question that once haunted my being has been answered.  The future is not fixed, and my choices are my own.  Destiny has one great test in store for us all.  Has mine already come, and have I failed it?.... A deed once done cannot be undone, but it may yet be mitigated.”  This quote poses interesting philosophical questions, leading one to consider his own past actions and experiences.  Reflection on this may lead a person to ask if there is a “great test” lying in wait at some point in his life, or if he has already faced it.  If he feels he is still preparing for such a test, this may even stand as a wake-up call, helping him understand that he will want to be ready when that time comes.  When I first heard these words I was a child, too young to fully understand their significance, and certainly too young to know what the word “mitigated” meant; but still, they had a profound impact on me.  At the very least I gathered that my decisions were important, and that I would have to live with the choices I had made after the fact.  It may be surprising to those unfamiliar with this monologue to know it was delivered by an introspective, gravely-voiced, fifteen-foot tall, half-raptor/half-robot transformer named Dinobot, a character in the Canadian children’s cartoon series Transformers: Beast Wars.  

I wonder if this thing has an RSS feed.
In 1995, two cartoon scriptwriters—Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio—where asked by Hasbro and the animation company Mainframe to create a television show loosely based on the 1980’s Transformers cartoon.  Transformers was a dying franchise at the time, so Forward and DiTillio were chosen for their acclaimed work on similar shows and given free-reign to do whatever they wanted with the series within reason.  They created new characters and set the show in another time period in order to give themselves room for their ideas and creativity.  In the first episode, an exploring team is shot down by an enemy war vessel, each travel back in time during the accident and crash-land on a prehistoric world.  They then go on to wage the Beast Wars, named such because on this planet they must transform into animals instead of the usual cars and planes.  This may sound like typical sci-fi fanfare—and in many ways it is—but infused within are layers of careful thought and more than a few memorable characters.  Forward and DiTillio worked within the framework of a small budget and very limited resources, but by focusing on what they could do rather than what they couldn’t, they created a show that would go on to be a cult classic with a strong following.  In the Beast Wars featurette “Remembering the Spark”, Forward and DiTillio explain how they wanted to deal with complex issues like military intrigue and treason, philosophical questions such as the need to fight against tyrants despite a desire for passivism, and of course, as Dinobot’s earlier quote explains, the place of fate and destiny in the lives of the characters.  They gave the robots souls (called sparks), conflicting desires, and individual ideas about warfare and honor.  They effectively created a many-layered world in which to explore different situations and concepts. 

Even though DiTillio and Forward knew they were trying to make something new and interesting, they admit they didn’t realize how special many fans felt Beast Wars was until later on.  Years after its final season, DiTillio said of the show, “It all came together in Beast Wars.  That was the thing I got many, many letters on…. [about] episodes that had touched people’s hearts.”  And Bob Forward remarked: “When I meet fans [now], and they just tell me how much… [Beast Wars] meant to them, I almost want to cry.  I almost want to apologize.  I almost want to say, ‘I’m sorry! A lot of the time I was just jamming something out [against a deadline].  If I’d known it was going to affect you this much I would have tried harder at it.’  But still, I think the sort of free-swinging, swashbuckling spirit that Beast Wars had made it…. [That] gave it part of its charm.”  The two worked on the show for the entirety of its run, and fifteen years after it’s release, DVD sets of its three seasons are still being printed and purchased (quite a feat for such a small-budget endeavor), the characters and plot lines are still actively discussed on web-forums, and some of the voice actors are still attending animation conventions to meet fans, sign memorabilia, and speak on public panels where—in addition to dialoguing and answering questions—they re-enact scenes or improvise as favorite characters from the show.  

I am not ashamed to say (nor am I alone in saying) that it is one of the most personally important pieces of art I’ve encountered in my life.  It changed how I see the world and how I see art.  There is an ethereal, ineffable quality to some of the finest episodes that is at once unmistakable to the astute viewer and very difficult to describe.  I am by no means sounding the battle-call to encourage the reader to seek out and experience Beast Wars for himself; more simply, I would like to elucidate how something of great artistic value to me came from a source as improbable as a children’s cartoon about transforming robots.  Because of what it is—a computer animated TV show for children—many people might never take the time to consider it, judging it as not for them or not of worth.  Even more likely, they will never hear of it, for the following is large, but by no means to the point of being pervasive.  Even if a person does happen to start the series based on a favorable review or the recommendation of a friend, he might turn it off after the first cheesy voice-over, dated rock guitar riff, or awkwardly animated fight scene, never revealing what is to be found beyond the superficial glance because he had simply not expected to find anything of worth.

Conversely, many millions of people have spent the time and the money to see director Michael Bay’s 2007-2009 Transformers movie franchise despite over-whelmingly negative reviews by professional critics.  The second film in the series, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, received a rating of 3.5/10 from the media review website Metacritic and only 21/100 from Rotten Tomatoes, both sites give an average score based on dozens of professional reviews.  Regarding the quality of the film, respected film critic Roger Ebert said:  “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is a horrible experience of unbearable length…. To save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together.  Then close your eyes and use your imagination.  The plot is incomprehensible.  The dialog of the Autobots®, Decepticons® and Otherbots® is meaningless word flap…. The human actors are in a witless sitcom part of the time, and a lot of the rest of their time is spent running in slo-mo away from explosions.”  I could include hundreds of similar reviews and statistics from other critics and websites about all three films, but the point is clear: despite record-breaking viewership and undeniable financial success, the films were not well received by professionals. 

The creation of Bay’s Transformers films was very different from that of Beast Wars.  The project began as a live-action film about G.I. Joe, but after the war in Afghanistan began Hasbro and Dreamworks Pictures decided a Transformers film would be more timely.   One man wrote the first draft based on ideas by Steven Spielberg and Don Murphy, then two other screen-writers were asked to re-write it including ideas by Spielberg, Murphy, Tom DeSanto and a number of others involved in the project.  Spielberg felt the focus should be a responsibility motif about a boy and his car, Murphy was interested in the films mirroring some of the disaster films that had been popular around that time, and DeSanto explained that he wanted to produce the movie because he believed a truck transforming into a robot had not yet been captured on film, and that people would like to see it.  At this point Spielberg asked Michael Bay to direct.  Bay admitted he was not excited about the project, dismissing it as a “stupid toy movie,” but agreed because he had always wanted to work with Spielberg.  Once Bay came on he explained that he was interested in making a movie with a lot of military action and asked for the script to be re-written again.  He also expressed interest in the novelty of watching cars transform in live action, stating, “By adding more doo-dads and stuff on the robots, more car parts, you can just make it more real.”  In counterpoint to the two-man team who had a clear vision of the concepts they wanted to include, dozens of individuals had their fingers in the Transformers pie.  This is not inherently negative, but it’s easy to see how such a development might lend hand to the incoherency many critics have complained about, and how it could decrease the probability of the viewer finding something truly enriching.

Interestingly, all three of the recent Transformers films are on the list of the fifty highest-grossing films of all time.  The third installment alone generated over a billion dollars at the box-office, not including DVD and associated merchandise sales.  A strong case could be made that the films are not as bad as the reviewers say, that the public has voted with their money and declared the films to be the kind of art they want, or even that “good” and “bad” are irrelevant in what people choose to watch.  But please keep in mind I am not suggesting these films should not be enjoyed, or that anyone who likes them is wrong to do so.  What I am suggesting is that because these were high-budget Hollywood films staring attractive and recognizable actors, many of the general public assumed before ever seeing them that they were worth the money and time required and never fully considered the potential benefit of seeking out something better for themselves.
The question of how much art affects us is central to my claim that seeking out more enriching art is important and worth the time and effort; if it does have a considerable effect, then of course people would want to intake more enriching art, but if it does not, than anything that entertains will suffice for artistic needs.  Serial rapist and murder Ted Bundy claimed that pornography played a serious role in his interest in murder, and many other convicted criminals have expressed similar sentiments.  In their point of view, what they took in had a serious impact on them.  Certainly not everyone who has viewed pornographic material has gone on to become a serial killer, but it is striking evidence that we should carefully decide what art to focus on.  In the 2009 documentary Kimjongillia, which documents the real-life stories of North Korean prison camp survivors, one young man relates the emotional account of his escape at the age of twenty-four.  He was born in the camp and lived there his entire life until he was assigned a new duty in one of the more secluded areas.  It was during this time he had the following experience:  “There were smuggled books circulating in our camp.  The Count of Monte Cristo.  Anna Karenina.  Resurrection.  I think The Count of Monte Cristo touched me the most.  Reading Monte Cristo gave me the idea to escape North Korea.  [And] if I ever got out, I would take revenge like him.”  For this young man, art had a very dramatic impact; it opened up new possibilities to him, and indeed, went on to change nearly every aspect of his life.  He escaped in the early 2000’s and is still alive today, consider how his life might be different if instead of thought-provoking and enriching books circulating the camp, there were only base thrillers, formula romances, or—Heaven forbid—a 90-page Scholastic novelization of the second Transformers movie.  These are extreme examples, of course, dealing with situations and actions the vast majority of us will never face or be in, but the concept is sound.  If art has such an ability to change us, and if each of us will react differently to different art pieces, then we should take great care to intake the kinds of art that will be most personally enriching, and not through laziness or ignorance take the course of least resistance by seeking out only the art that is most popular and easily accessible.
It is my firm opinion that many of the people who have enjoyed the Transformers films may not be fully analyzing their worth, or, potentially, lack thereof.  Not everyone will gain as much as I have from the Beast Wars series, but it is important to ask ourselves—outside the framework of popularity and funding—where we will find value in art.  And if anyone feels that they have wasted time and money on art of lesser worth, they need not despair.  There is still time; it may yet be mitigated.

- MA 11.19.2012

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