Monthly Archives: May 2012

Managing Expectations

Some wonderful people, including Mike Woycheck and Burghbaby, have wondered why I haven’t been blogging lately. It’s true; since I started my new job, I haven’t blogged a word, until now. And since I’m not the kind of guy who cares when other bloggers start or stop, I didn’t feel obliged to blog a “Sorry I haven’t blogged more” post, because I doubt you really care either. Either I’m here or I’m not; life goes on.

But while part of the reason I’ve been so silent is because I’m still adapting my life to my new schedule, a larger reason is because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about expectations.

Like, a serious lot.

Like, so much so that I haven’t seen fit to blog about my thought process in the interim, because I doubt I’d be able to meet my own expectations for what a blog post about expectations should actually be.  (How meta, no?)

But a trio of articles I read this weekend all overlapped with this theme of expectations as they apply to art, and it got me thinking… what should we be expecting from the media, and from ourselves as audiences?

So, let’s throw some mind darts and see where they land.

A Revolution from Below?

There’s a great back-and-forth happening here about whether or not genre fiction should be taken as seriously as literary fiction. At its heart, this is a debate about expectations: we expect genre fiction (e.g., mystery, horror, sci-fi, comics) to be escapist entertainment, and we expect literature to “mean something.” But what happens when a genre story also means something? Or when literature follows the structure and pace of genre stories, which are traditionally seen as plot-driven at the expense of character, nuance and depth?

Can’t we have both?  Or, since when did “fun” become a four letter word?

Why So Serious?

I think Film Crit Hulk is one of the sharpest minds writing about film today. (That he does so in all caps, as though he’s the Incredible Hulk, is a distracting gimmick that — to me — has outlived its original attention-grabbing purpose. But, hey, it’s his brand…)

In his review of The Avengers, FCH makes two bullseye-worthy points:

  • The Avengers is fun, at a time when we’ve been trained to believe that only seriousness should be appreciated.  (See: The Dark Knight.)  Granted, that’s always been a prevailing argument about art — like literature, as above, or like the inability of a comedy to ever win Best Picture — but lately it’s seeped even into our genre films. (That’s why the original Iron Man was such a welcome (and financially successful) departure from the post-grunge era of dour superhero films like the X-Men franchise.)
  • The Avengers is incredibly well-constructed and fulfilling. Not just as a genre film, and not just “for what it needs to be,” but as a film; as a piece of art. Which, in itself, is a complete subversion of our expectations of a) comic book movies, b) Hollywood blockbusters, and c) popular art in general.

Just to elaborate on that last point for a second (because FCH nails it otherwise), consider this: when’s the last time you were in a theater where the audience kept spontaneously applauding? It happened to him, it happened to me, and it probably happened to you, too.

That’s a rare occurrence whose significance can’t be overstated.

Why?  Because an audience doesn’t spontaneously (and continuously) applaud special effects and witty one-liners; they applaud earned emotional catharsis. You’re supposed to expect that from an Oscar-nominated drama; you’re not supposed to expect it from a comic book movie, or a story about teenage wizards. And yet, it happens.

Which means it’s not only possible, but it’s something we should be expecting, cultural labels be damned.

Not that it has to happen all the time.  But wouldn’t it be nice if we held our pop culture to a higher standard than “a way to kill time between cubicle-induced bouts of depression”?

Speaking of…

Why We Can’t Actually Talk About Kevin (or Anything Else, for That Matter)

At the risk of sounding hypocritical, not everything in pop culture is all fun and games.  At least, it probably shouldn’t be.

David Simon, creator of The Wire, recently caught hell when he sounded unappreciative of The Wire‘s newfound resurgence as a posthumous pop culture tour de force. What he actually meant was: hey, I’m glad the show entertained you, but we didn’t just create the show to be entertaining; we did it to tell a story about modern America that no one else wants to talk about. And when you only celebrate its entertaining side, what you’re really doing is burying its greater purpose in the exact same way that the topics the story is built around never get proper media attention, either.

It’s not that we don’t want to talk about Important Things; it’s that our current journalism and entertainment culture is designed to distract us from life’s problems instead of illuminating them in a way that helps us consciously consider them and take action.

Granted, I’m sure pop culture was a guilty pleasure escape valve during the Civil War and the Dust Bowl, too. You can’t focus on the problems perpetually or you’ll lose all hope in humanity.

To me, the key is finding the balance.

If we can commend supposedly “light” entertainment when it exceeds our expectations, and we can appreciate the lighter side of “deep” art, don’t we also owe it to ourselves to appreciate both simultaneously?

Can’t we admit that The Avengers is a great comic book film and a rock-solid example of storytelling that, if analyzed from a structure and arc perspective, holds its own against The Godfather?  (Which, let’s remember, was supposed to “just” be a gangster film.)

Can’t we celebrate the entertaining side of The Wire and recognize that the humor and style in the show provides a tension-relieving counterpoint to what’s otherwise an incredibly emotional drama about the very problems that make our lives so difficult in the first place? The problems that actually drive us to seek escapist entertainment? The problems we should be talking about?

Are we still capable of demanding more from our art and ourselves, while also allowing ourselves the freedom to step back from it all and simply enjoy life (and art) while we can?

Or have we embraced labels — including personal branding — to the extent that we only reward the art, the headlines, and the people who don’t push beyond our preconceived notions of what they should be?