When I try to voice my frustrations with how modern entertainment and art is viewed, consumed and analyzed I always come back to Christopher Nolan for some reason. Not because Christopher Nolan is great or bad, but because of the perception of Christopher Nolan and his movies. Because it’s 2019 and the internet is everything and everywhere it’s difficult not to fall down rabbit holes like YouTube. With YouTube it’s hard to avoid conservative, garbage content like Jordan Peterson ETHERS a feminazi or Ben Shapiro DESTROYS a libtard with FACTS and LOGIC kind of shit, but there’s actually a lot of truly good, interesting YouTube content in the world right now.
Of late I’ve found myself rolling back subscriptions that I’ve had for a while in favor of newer stuff, which is largely in part to the bigger, more well-known YouTube channels feeling really sad and empty to me now. One such channel is the AngryJoe Show. I don’t think that anything on the channel is actually bad or anything, but I’m just not invested in the kind of analysis that channels like that provide. I think that Joe and his pals are likable, relatable and fun to watch, but their pivot to talking more about movies and television, in addition to games, has led me to the harsh realization that the way that they view movies and television is, well, not anywhere near how I view them, which in turn means that their approach to game criticism is perhaps similar to their movie critiques, but doesn’t seem as glaring because of the infancy of game discourse.
Much like everything else, there’s a certain language that comes along with criticism that has to be learned. Not having the correct words for something is fine, but not having the understanding of the nuts-and-bolts while speaking to an audience as an authority isn’t. While game criticism has largely relied on the idea of nebulous ideas like “graphics,” “writing,” “sound” and “gameplay” to criticize games, as games become more advanced and ambitious, those ideas no longer suffice. Instead they feel almost childish in nature. What the hell does “graphics” mean anyway? What is “writing” in a 60-hour videogame with endless side quests, monetized loot and quarterly DLC?
It’s too broad of a scope and lacks an understanding beyond the surface level of a game to really get deeper into it. This becomes painfully clear when you see people (not just Joe and his friends at this point, but the larger population of YouTube) talking about movies and really digging in their heels about “meaning” without having much of a background in criticism, form or artistry to really be able to look at the core parts of a piece and delve into it. For many critics, there’s an intuition of what they like or consider good, but they’re unable to fully verbalize what makes these things good or valuable. There is also a lot of focus on stuff that is intended for mass consumption, stuff like superhero movies, zombie shows and whatever else, which is not only incredibly not interesting to me, but really without much artistic merit in the first place.
So, Christopher Nolan, right? I promise you that diatribe has meaning to it. Christopher Nolan makes these sort of pop culture, big budget movies that masquerade as deep and meaningful by cramming a lot of surface level signs and signifiers into a frame for fans to pore over obsessively to find the true meaning. If you know me you know where this is going and how frustrated I get with people looking for “true meaning” in works of art. It’s looking for something that doesn’t exist.
I’m very much a believer in death of the author in that regard. It doesn’t matter what the creator says in public or what they intended for something to mean. There is some weight to that, but at the end of the day, they aren’t in control of something once it has been disseminated to the public. Their input is obviously valuable and it’s interesting to look at what went into the creation of a work, but their intent doesn’t correlate with what you or I make of it. Creating work that encourages this obsessive, surface-level reading obfuscates any deeper understanding of ourselves, our culture or our world, leaving works to stand on their own as self-contained husks.
Thinking back to Inception, the mind-warping DREAM WITHIN A DREAM WITHIN A DREAM gimmick was fun and all, but hardly worth obsessing over. The idea of the “totem” that each character who went into dreams would have to tether them to reality became a focal point for fans after the movie was over, with the questions being raised amounting to: DID THE TOP (his claimed totem) TIP OVER? WAS HE IN THE REAL WORLD? WAS HIS RING REALLY HIS TOTEM? WAS HE LYING TO HIMSELF?
There are THOUSANDS of videos debating this stuff. THOUSANDS.
Maybe even millions? Who knows, I don’t care enough to count. But the thing is: who fucking cares? I’m not saying that exploration of surface details in movies, television, books, etc. is worthless, but that it’s only one way to look at a work. To obsess over these details is to ignore any and all subtext that exists. Instead of wondering if DiCaprio’s character is really in the waking reality and not a dream, take a look deeper at the character’s relationship with the world, his family and his tenuous grasp on his reality. What could this possibly be trying to say about the world, the characters or anything else? Isn’t that at least a little bit interesting?
The character’s obsession with living inside of a dream world without consequences, which in turn claimed his wife’s life, and him then further retreating into these layered dream worlds to avoid the horrors of the real world always struck me as far more interesting than just making sense of the ending and if the character lived happily ever after. The same with the idea of him finally taking responsibility for the remaining members of his family who were still alive and needed him, instead of obsessing over a lost loved one that he could still revisit inside of his whole layered dream thing.
Instead incessant fucking debate over the REAL TRUE MEANING behind the ending of this movie.
This is my Structuralist Hell. Okay, it’s technically New Critical Hell, but Structuralist Hell sounds a lot better, doesn’t it? The basic idea is still similar enough in that a lot of modern readings of art consists of looking for meaning inside of the structure, the words and images, but that meaning excludes deeper, most substantial analysis.
Dan Olson, who creates videos on YouTube as Folding Ideas delves into this with the recent-ish movie, Annihilation. I also sorta feel like he did making this video while I write this piece, because I wonder if I’m just being mean at times, even if I’m not intending to be.
Just like it drove me insane seeing people tearing apart Twin Peaks: The Return to figure out the real meaning behind everything, which orb was Judy, what Judy’s intentions were, if Judy was an actual, physical character and so forth. Twin Peaks fans tend to be aware that there’s deeper meaning to look for, but still seemed to refuse to get there without first raking through the muck that Lynch tossed their way, sometimes without real intention, to come to a perceived “truth” about Lynch’s work.
Videos like this are just so… confident?
Who cares about Judy? Who cares what happens with Judy? Judy is a symbol. My god. That isn’t to say that those clues and small details that Lynch tosses in don’t matter, because they do, but they’re pieces to the a larger puzzle that goes beyond the plot. Those pieces can help to glue together the plot of Lynch’s work, which can always be a bit surreal and obtuse, but trying to decipher if BOB WON or COOPER WON seems to ignore a larger attitude that Lynch has about his work.
In fact, this is one of the reasons why I always point to David Lynch as one of my favorite artists: he’s not going to explain the “real meaning” of his work and instead invites the viewers to fill in the blanks on their own. This works in conjunction with the post-structuralist reading of art and literature to where the baggage that the viewer brings into a work helps to provide points of reference and influence their reading of work. If it matters that Judy resides in the Palmer house, if the actress that answered the door was actually the real life homeowner, if Laura’s scream broke reality or destroyed evil, or if the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return was just an understanding of the horrors of reality and that sometimes, regardless of our best intentions, we’re unable to fix what’s wrong with the world and things are disappointing, those remain up to you.
In all fairness I should also point out that Nolan himself errs on the side of not giving explanations of his work, as do a fair number of creators still. In Nolan’s case his work is simply more accessible to wider audiences, which is why the narrative of THIS FAN THEORY WILL BLOW YOUR MIND is so prevalent with his work. As longtime readers will know, I also really hate his brother’s Westworld for some very similar reasons.
But, seriously, he also sort of gave away what he thought the ending of Inception was.
While the Internet has done important things, such as giving a voice to those that usually would not have a voice or a platform due to not being “inside” of any given industry, it has also given rise to a constant churn of content that looks to appeal to our collective, baser instincts. When I talked before about how Angry Joe didn’t have the “language” of film, I’m not saying that as insult, but merely an observation that for someone who’s claim to fame is game criticism and who has matured as a critic and a person alongside the medium, he’s yet to really find the same intuition with movies yet beyond “I like movies and enjoy talking about them.” That’s OK, but the problem comes with the thousands of other people doing the same thing, who take on an air of authority without putting in the work to understanding whatever it is they’re criticizing in the first place. Joe’s thoughts on his given genre are genuine, his critiques are good, but at this point I’m simply looking for more in-depth analysis and understanding, which his videos lack. Yes, he even has an Inception video from 2010, which in and of itself is inception, amirite?
None of what I’m saying here is to dissuade discussion or certain ways to read art, but instead to talk about how the New Critical approach has become dominant, in part because of it being easier to understand and proving to be a lower barrier for entry when it comes to criticism. Analyzing a work by treating it like a self-contained experiment and reading only what has been presented, using only the context of the piece itself can lead to quicker “ah ha” moments. Back to Inception, an interview with Michael Caine where he claimed that Nolan had explained to him that his scenes happened in the real world, then Caine’s character’s presence in the ending led to fans being able to affirm their theories and then put the movie to bed. Once again, this is fine, but the incessant need to find meaning and decipher the true intent of the artist completely discredits themselves, the viewer, from unlocking some of the other joys of art.
Just the other day my wife and I were talking in the car and I brought up the ending to Twin Peaks: The Return and the overwrought fan theories, which got us talking about what the ending could represent, how to read the duality of Laura Palmer, the town as a character and how outside perception of reality doesn’t always reflect the world that others experience, from perception of Michael Jackson or Catholic priests and other topics. We watched the show together a year prior and we’re still able to have open-ended conversations about the show compared to if it had a clean, decisive ending with meaning easily derived from the plot and whatever was on screen alone.
At the end of the day, that’s what makes art special and valuable. Trying to find the one true meaning of something loses sight of this sort of open-ended discussion and effectively leaves it as a passing curiosity for purely entertainment’s sake, which once again is fine, but doesn’t really do itself any favors. It’s up to us to decide how we view art and entertainment, to seek out criticism and discussion of these mediums that help to analyze, demystify and deepen our enjoyment of them just as much as it is to look for great art and entertainment.
So don’t be afraid to talk about what you love, or to talk about it in a manner that doesn’t seem to jive with other discussions that are dominant. Remember that while it’s important to help make art accessible and avoid excluding people from enjoying and discussing art, it’s also important to help steer conversations, signal boost valuable voices and for all of us to do our part to ensure that the truly good, interesting stuff in the world isn’t merely lost in the shuffle.
If you’re wondering why I’ve been going down this rabbit hole, it has a lot to do with my relative silence when it comes to releasing new fiction. Late last year I decided to return to writing short stories for a while and to throw out any preconceived notion about what I should be doing or worrying about commercial viability. It’s something that I’ve grappled with for years now, punctuated by the few public releases that I’ve made where I worked on projects strictly to hope that they’d be commercially viable. Instead I’ve returned to more surrealist, satirical work, some of which I’ll hopefully share on here soon.
That’s about as good of an apology that I’ll issue (for now) for never releasing the follow-up to Terminus Cycle. Or the book after that. Or the other finished book.