One of the dirty little secrets about art (yuk! a rubbish and mostly unhelpful word but still) is that it’s basically used in different ways by different people (and yes sometimes different ways by one person or whatever): it’s like a phone/mother box in that it’s a technology that can do a lot of stuff – play music, take pictures, get the internet – even (if you’re old) – to phone people… And maybe you just use it for one of those things or maybe many – whatever.
But what kinda tends to happen (from my experience at least) is that mostly people tend to reduce art down to just a bare few functions. They just want to use to escape, or for it to make points about the world, or to be beautiful or whatever. And then once you’ve done that – it can be really difficult to even recognise anything else as “proper art.” Like: if you just use / want art to be beautiful – and then someone comes along and say – puts a turd in a box – then yeah: it makes sense that you wanna go – well: that’s not art.
I say all this because thinking stuff over (and thinking about Scott Pilgrim) I reckon I’m like more guilty of this than anyone. I was talking to a friend over the weekend and she was talking about poetry and about how reading this poem made her realise how her relationship worked with her sister. Which you know – is powerful and cool and is a nice app for art to have: but my response to her saying that was like: well – that’s not how art works for me you know? I prefer art that pushes me further – that shows me more things – that goes into new places and reflects the world back to me in a way that I’ve never thought of / felt before. Because yeah – you know: the future is only a recent concept but we’ve still managed to get pretty far with it. And we’re doing things now that previous generations wouldn’t have been able to comprehend. I mean – the London Graphic Novel Network: it’s a bunch of strangers connected by email but talking about the same thing: and one person can write something – but then everyone can see it. I mean – imagine trying to explain that concept to someone a hundred years ago who’s only used to thinking in terms of telegrams and letters (sorry – I’ve been reading The Information by James Gleick which is really good and you should very much check out)… And so yeah: I want to read and experience stories that help me make sense of this world and reflect the strange and new emotions that helps to create: and so yeah even tho Jane Austin and whatever can talk about love – it’s not really about love in the 21st Century (and I just know someone is going to disagree and say stuff “Jane Austin is like really good and never goes out of date because love and marriage are forever” but whatever).
And yeah – I realise that maybe this is a lot to say about a comic. And yeah – wow. I mean: Scott Pilgrim is one of the few comics that I own but I don’t think I’d read it since I finished Volume 6 a few years back: but rereading it last week for the first time in a long while (and the colour version which is very swish): I dunno – I mean: I felt a few different things:
Part of it was like: wow. Ok. I’ve kinda built this thing up in my head as “Greatest Comic of All Time” but the experience of actually reading it: I mean – I guess it felt a little slight? A little light? I mean – it’s just goofy jokes isn’t it? I mean – that bit where Scott is like: “it’s like Trainspotting”
I mean – that’s just kinda silly and throwaway but then – damnit damnit – (and I kinda hate myself a little for saying this): but isn’t that what life is like you know? And isn’t it just so fantastic and amazing and unlikely to have something from life captured in a few little panels for all time?
And yeah: ok I guess it’s doing character stuff (Scott isn’t really all that smart while Wallace is – and is also kinda long suffering) but it’s like one of those (kinda rare) sweet spots where you’re getting information about things (the characters) but you don’t even notice / don’t even care – because the way it’s being handed out is so damn – well – pleasurable.
(The two words I would use to describe reading Scott Pilgrim are “pleasure” and “entertainment”)
But then but then: I mean – Scott Pilgrim isn’t really held up as an example of “comics that are like real life” all that much – because you know: end of Volume 1 and the fight with Matthew Patel where it literally turns into a song and dance number and then he punches him and he turns into coins. And well – I guess this is where I’m going to try and talk about Kafka and – oh boy – David Foster Wallace.
Basically – there’s this little essay here “Laughing with Kafka” written by David Foster Wallace. I mean – I would recommend you go away and read the whole thing to get the point that I’m trying to make here (the point of why I love Scott Pilgrim so much and why you should too and way it’s like important and stuff damnit) but yeah stuff like: “The claim is that Kafka’s funniness depends on some kind of radical literalization of truths we tend to treat as metaphorical.” is the thing I’m trying to get at. Because punching someone and having them turn into coins isn’t actually a metaphor for anything – which is kinda how most stories/fiction tends to work – it’s more just an end of itself: “His world would be like our world, only way better.” etc
(And yeah – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the point where me and DFW and Kafka kinda diverge is towards the end “And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance” because – damnit damnit – I like my entertainment and would consider well-made and thoughtful entertainment to be one of the best forms of pleasure there is – because a little reassurance can be a beautiful thing you know?)
Re: Comedy being the best genre of them all.
I mean – back when I was young my go to answer to “so what’s your favourite film?” (and I have never understood why so many people hate that question but oh well) would probably be (yes) 2001: A Space Odyssey because obviously yes when you’re a teenager being serious and thinking deeply and “of course I understand the ending – I’ve read the book” is what it’s all about isn’t it?
Only nowadays – well yeah – I much prefer my entertainment to be: well – entertaining. Which basically means jokes (hooray for jokes!).
I mean obviously it’s a bit of a contradiction in terms to take jokes seriously (in fact there’s that Funnybot episode of South Park that puts it better than I ever could) but that’s not what I’m advocating for. It’s more a kinda – maybe just a realigning of the perspective that serious things with no jokes are somehow superior to the not so serious things with jokes about Mr Silly’s shoes?
But why is that? I mean – is it just cultural conditioning (my new favourite phrase) in that it’s easier to spot the things that are serious and we all from early on taught that serious is good? (I mean I know English teachers love to say that Shakespare has jokes and stuff – but man: I don’t ever remember having any healthy gut laughs reading it…). But also hey – in terms of getting close to real life: I mean – all the stuff in my life tends to have funny mixed in with it (I mean – I just know that I’m going to die like this): and like someone at work once said to me: I feel sorry for all the people that don’t realise that The Sopranos is a comedy.
Because yeah – I mean in terms of all the options of what a particular genre can do to you (Drama makes you feel sad, Action makes you feel exciting, Romance makes you feel all loved up) – I mean: do I even need to say it – isn’t the nicest emotional state to be laughing at stuff?
Jane Austin is like really good and never goes out of date because she’s just that cool.
I want a little bit more from Joel on why something that ~seems~ to be a metaphor and then turns out to be just a thing in itself (a shiny bit of fun) is actually great news. Because from my Buffy-obsessed perspective, it feels like a letdown. And one of my problems with vol 1 when I picked it up was that I actually couldn’t get a handle on what the evil ex battle ~means~. The first boss is almost non-existent as a character, and its very hard to get a sense of what Scott’s victory says about him or Ramona or relationships or anything. It’s just a shiny bit of fun.
On comedy being the greatest genre, this is q an interesting issue with Scott Pilgrim as the book shifts tone a little bit – you could even say the series grows out of (and away from) comedy. Jokes have victims. Some characters (like Knives) don’t get treated that well by Scott, and because the reader is so close to his perspective, by the book as well. There’s something a bit uncomfortable about that when other characters (generally other Scott exes w/ more privilege) are relatively joke-free zones. O’Malley may have realised this issue as he went along, which is why the later volumes get darker, and the last one doesn’t have any good jokes at all. Feels to me like comedy in the series almost becomes a feature of its immaturity, and Scott’s consequent dumbassery.
What makes this even more interesting is that the first book’s comedy is so very inventive. Formally, particularly in the way conversations are paced and placed on the page, SP is awesome in all senses of the word. For me, that formal excellence is less important than character and theme, and so I tend to respect later volumes a bit more.
Hi Joel, everyone,
I’ve been reading this exchange with interest, and thinking on and off about chiming in with my own two cents. I’ve been somewhat preoccupied with some other writing, but an exchange with Joel via email convinced me to add my opinions to the mix.
And I have to say, Joel, I’m not really clear about what point you’re trying to make, or who you’re arguing against. I get the sense that you’re trying to argue that it’s OK or good for art to be entertaining and amusing, and to have jokes and so forth. But if that’s the case (and please forgive me if I’ve misunderstood you), then what confuses me is—who on earth is claiming otherwise? Who has argued that art, in order to be good, must be “serious”? Or not entertaining?
Here’s another way to put it: what do you mean by “entertaining”? From some of what you’ve written, it seems to me you mean “comedic” (i.e., contains humor, as in the case of Scott Pilgrim). If so, that seems to me a bad argument, being a reduction of the word “entertainment.” “Entertainment” isn’t and has never been synonymous with “comedy”: dramas and tragedies and epics can be plenty entertaining (and you yourself would seem to recognize this, since you’ve told me you consider Lost to be the most entertaining television series ever made, and Lost isn’t a comedy, but a mystery drama). And people find sports entertaining, and sports aren’t comedies or dramas or tragedies—they’re competitions. So if you’re going to be arguing that art needs to be entertaining, I think you need to back up and define what you mean by “entertaining.”
Me, I understand that word to mean, in its most basic sense, some kind of experience that people enjoy. As in, some things in life are not very entertaining—such as going to work or doing chores—and we would rather not do them, but we do them because we must. And then there are other things that we enjoy doing because they’re more fun, or because they capture our attention to a greater degree. And this isn’t exclusive to art; plenty of things are entertaining, such as playing games, and eating nice dinners, and taking walks, and looking at nature, and talking with loved ones, and traveling, and so on. There are infinite ways to amuse oneself, all of which can be enjoyable and enriching in various ways.
And art in general seems to me to belong to the set of enjoyable and entertaining human behaviors. And I’ve never heard anyone argue that art shouldn’t be like that (that it shouldn’t be entertaining), or that art should be more like work—should be less fun, more boring, that one shouldn’t enjoy it or laugh during it, etc. In the twenty years I’ve spent studying art, every single person I’ve met who either makes or studies or just appreciates art—professors, scholars, critics, artists, audience members—has done so because she or he has loved doing so.
So what exactly are you arguing, and who are you arguing against?
You wrote that we’re all taught that “serious” art is good. I’m not really sure what you mean by “serious” here, but I gather from the general context that you mean dramatic or tragic works, works without any humor or jokes in them. I’ve already noted that I think it’s wrong to think those works aren’t entertaining in their own ways. But in any case, this seems a false dichotomy, because I for one was never taught that great art consisted only of such works. Instead, I was taught that drama and tragedy are two modes of art, and that comedy is the third mode, and entirely their equal. And even beyond that, even dramatic and tragic works often contain humor. For instance, I recently watched (for the fourth time) Aleksei German’s SF film Hard to Be a God, which is ultimately a tragedy. But it’s also fairly absurdist, and it contains a great deal of humor. To be sure, that humor is mainly gallows humor, or black comedy—not the kind of stuff you belly-laugh at—but it’s still humor, and it’s still the kind of stuff that one appreciates, and that makes wry comments about the nature of being a human on this planet. And that film has been widely celebrated by critics, and considered one of the better films of the past few years. I haven’t heard anyone anywhere claim that it would be better if it didn’t contain its humor.
Other celebrated filmmakers of our time (and here I check my file of films I’ve seen in the past few years) include Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Shane Black, Dan Gilroy, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Richard Linklater, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Martin McDonagh, George Miller, Ruben Östlund, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, Adam Wingard, and Edgar Wright—all of whom have made recent films that feature substantial amounts of comedy (of all types), and that were hailed by critics and audiences as some of the finest films in the land—and this is hardly a definitive list. And this is just one medium (film) out of many.
And returning to the main topic at hand, Scott Pilgrim: it was very ill-received by critics and audiences and scholars. Simply glancing at its Wikipedia page, I see that it was lauded by the AV Club, the Harvey Awards, IGN, the Joe Shuster Awards, Publishers Weekly, Wizard magazine, and the Eisner Awards (which are arguably the most prestigious awards in comics).
So who has claimed that art needs to be “serious”? Whose arguments are you railing against? Because I must confess I’ve never encountered anyone arguing anything of that sort.
I guess my straw-man / the guy I’m pitching against is the aforementioned David Foster Wallace (or at least – to try to be totally fair – the idea of David Foster Wallace?). I mean: as I’ve always understood him – from reading the stuff he wrote (fiction and non-fiction) and talking with friends about him – he’s always kind of represented a “serious artist stance against entertainment” (“entertainment” said with a sneer and a condensing glance downwards – like how people say “chav” (wait do people still say chav? Or did Owen Jones kill that dead?)).
So you don’t have to go to all the trouble of clicking the link let me just quote some of the bits that support the point I’m trying to make:
“I think that if there is a sort of sadness for people under 45, it has something to do with pleasure, and achievement, and entertainment—like a sort of emptiness at the heart of what they thought was going on,” says Segel as Wallace, in the trailer. For most of his career, Wallace suggested that art ought to be difficult, that pleasure is suspect, and that entertainment is compromised. Art, Wallace told Lipsky, is a sort of superfood that “requires you to work.” (Italics his.) Entertainment is candy whose “chief job is to make you so riveted by it that you can’t tear your eyes away, so the advertisers can advertise.”
In fact. Actually. That bit is perfect. So I’ll just leave it at that (and also because the article itself – which is good – goes on to muddy the waters a bit and starts to lean towards the same thing I’m trying to do: you know – what’s wrong with entertainment? What’s wrong with reassurance? But then I guess I’m going further to positively declare that entertainment is superior to anti-entertainment art).
But then – hmmm: I think you’re right that actually maybe what I should do first is define “entertainment” and “entertaining.”
Watch this space.
Also: I want to try to give a good answer to Ilia about stuff not being a metaphor and just being a fun thing in itself. I mean: I feel like I haven’t been good so far at trying to describe what I mean. But yeah – just to start small and build up from there: the thing with Matthew Patel turning into coins: I mean – that’s not a metaphor for anything (at least I don’t think it is?). But maybe it’s goes back to that quote from Bryan Lee O’Malley I used at the start – “His world would be like our world, only way better.”? Like: it’s fun and entertaining and pleasurable just because it’s remaking the world into something new and cool and better? Maybe metaphors don’t have anything to do with it… Instead it’s just a glimpse of a world that has a different set of rules and rhymes and rhythms: and yeah – wow – maybe that means that Scott Pilgrim is peddling the same pleasures as science-fiction (is Scott Pilgrim science fiction? hmmmm): I mean – it’s very much a strange new world…
I think that Scott Pilgrim is readable in light of something Wittgenstein said:
“If the problems of Science were solved tomorrow the problems of Life would be completely untouched” (Tractatus Logico Philosophicus)
What O’Malley does really well is solve at a stroke the adolescent power-fantasy ‘problems’ by virtue of the ‘our world but better’ conceit. Immature people tend to think that if they could fly, fight, teleport, fire lasers and so on then all their problems would be solved. This is essentially what Science has been providing us with since the Enlightenment, or at least what its advances have seemed to gesture towards. However, Scott’s problems are all the same, irrespective of his superpowers! Every twenty-something I’ve ever met has overly-complicated romantic relationships which they pepper with problems entirely of their own making. Technology/Science/Superpowers solve *nothing*.
Partly the brilliance of this is how mundane the Science Hero powers actually are made to sound. Brooks Peck (science fiction journalist, curator of http://www.empmuseum.org/) talks about what he calls ‘Iceberging’. The principle is that Icebergs exist largely under water, so when you see a little peak at the top it implies a massive structure underneath. When a writer Icerbergs properly in their world-building they add tiny details which imply a very deep structure which in all probability they have never actually bothered to map out. William Gibson is good at this. (A digression is that George Lucas’s undoing was trying to map out the structure he implied in Star Wars, a master class in Iceberging, but which didn’t actually make any sense.)
The Iceberging of the setting in Scott Pilgrim is amazing. Early on Scott says he wishes he could roll into a ball like Sonic and Ramona says,
‘I knew a guy who could do that; he said it wasn’t so great.’
Later when Matthew Patel arrives to fight Scott it is Kim, who has spent the whole story telling Scott he is pathetic who says ‘doesn’t he know Scott’s the best fighter in the district?’ You can be pathetic but also have superpowers, is the message.
These elements of Iceberging deliberately raise massive questions which O’Malley never explains. There is no ‘Lightning hit a batch of chemicals’ or ‘Some people are born with the X chromosome’. It is this that allows the Science-Powers to be regarded as something not particularly impressive, like being good at hacky-sack or beer pong. It is something that ‘(isn’t) so great’ as you think it’s going to be.
I am reminded of Louis C.K.’s routine about WiFi on planes: within about thirty seconds of finding out it exists the person next to him is cursing it for being too slow. C.K.’s take is (I paraphrase) ‘We live in an age of WONDERS and all we can do is whine like a spoiled baby’. This is, of course, exactly what Scott Pilgrim spends most of his time doing. I feel that by removing the ‘If I was Iron Man then I would not have these problems’ option from somebody in their early twenties the real solution to the problems of life is left as the only available option: grow the fuck up. This is why, like another excellent piece of graphic fiction (Promethea by Alan Moore), Scott Pilgrim has the honour of being a comic book which makes you doubt whether or not comic books should occupy a grown adult at all, inasmuch (and only inasmuch) as they represent a clinging to childhood and the fantasy of simple answers to existential crises.
On a slightly different note, and without picking a side, Joel is certainly not the first to raise concerns about the place of humourists in our society. Observe:
‘Humorists have been scared out of the business by the touchiness now prevailing in every section of the community. Wherever you look, on every shoulder there is a chip, in every eye a cold glitter warning you that, if you know what is good for you, not to start anything.’
“If the problems of Science were solved tomorrow the problems of Life would be completely untouched” (Tractatus Logico Philosophicus)
That’s also something mentioned in an Iain Banks Culture (?) novel, where an agent is undercover in a more primitive culture, telling stories about a magic happy land.
His listener asks if everyone was really happy all the time in this magical utopia and he points out that of course people still have their own problems, no amount of perfect surroundings can fix that.
On the other hand some problems of life ARE fixed by science. Fewer people lose children, much lower death rates for everyone, my mum would probably have lost her arm to infection last week, instead she got a week of IV antibiotics. Much less violence, better public health. If money troubles cause most?/lots of? divorces, then fixing that will remove a LOT of problems of life. The latter is more of ‘fairness’ thing than a science thing. Both help massively with the problems of life.
And if we are free of the bottom lot of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, then we have more time and energy to spend on the top levels. More time and energy to devote to dealing with Life’s problems (listening properly will help). And happier people are more likely to help other people.
So no life’s problems wouldn’t, aren’t, untouched by better science [systems, ideas] they are helped hugely.
Maybe in our world Scott wouldn’t have grown up till his 30s.
LOL. Rob – I tip my hat to you man: you started with a Wittgenstein name-drop and then totally made it work. That’s some good stuff.
Also yes – a thousand times yes to Iceberging! I mean – wow. That is amazing: I mean – I don’t just want to make it seem like I’m heaping praise upon you (because come on – no one wants that): but yeah – I feel like so far with all the stuff that I’ve been writing I’ve kinda been struggling with manage to articulate properly what Scott Pilgrim is and why I love him so: and gosh – this is going to sound super dopey – but as much as I’ve been praising it’s virtues for the past – what? – several years I don’t think I properly understood until reading what you wrote…
I mean: part of it I think is because of Spaced (come on: you know all know what Spaced is right?) yes yes: Edgar Wright and he made the Scott Pilgrim movie (which – for thematic reasons I’m hoping we leave the discussion of until we get to Vol 2 and Lucas Lee) – but man: part of the reason (and I don’t think I’m wrong about this – but I might be?) that Edgar Wright got into Scott Pilgrim in the first place is because people told him that there was this comic called Scott Pilgrim and it was really like Spaced (I mean – I could google it: but don’t think I can be bothered…) and oh god yeah: I’m pretty sure that when I first read Scott Pilgrim I was all like to people I knew: “oh yeah – it’s really really like Spaced: check it out check it out.” And yeah – they seem like they’re the same thing: twentysomethings slowly trying to grow up and make their way in the world and living in a semi-fantasy world created by references to popular culture at large: films, tv, etc.
Only reading Rob’s email I realised that while with Spaced when they do their movie homages and references (oh my god – so much references): it was (mostly) kept at arms length; in that – well – these were (kinda) normal people living in a normal world who sometimes did things that were a little bit different (like having slow motion commotions etc): but it’s still basically obeying the laws of our world – you know? And reading Scott Pilgrim I guess I kinda thought it was the same. It’s still our world and then sometimes it’s a little bit hyper-stylized: but that’s only really for the sake of the jokes…. But yeah – but no: it’s not really like that at all. Instead – well: it’s the difference between old (good) Simpsons and new (rubbish) Simpsons isn’t it? Old Simpsons is set in a world that’s like ours where reality will only break for a few seconds for the sake of a good joke: and new Simpsons is well – obviously I don’t watch new Simpsons because it’s terrible – but you know: plastic reality with just crazy things happening for no reason (an example would be useful at this point obviously – but like I said: I don’t watch new Simpsons and neither should you).
I mean yeah: it’s kinda a diss to say that Scott Pilgrim is like new Simpsons but I think the thing that makes it different is that it’s based on rules: namely and mainly video game rules. Subspace highways and punching people so hard that they turn into coins. And man – I feel a little red-faced that I didn’t really notice it until now: but maybe a part of that is because the Iceberging is just so damn slick. It’s like if Star Wars didn’t start with “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” and instead it was just – oh yeah – right. The blonde kid has to rescue the princess (and wow – that would be kinda amazing if it didn’t have that at the start: because yeah – how differently would people have interpreted it? I mean – I don’t think it would have made that much difference to me: but I kinda feel that maybe some people would have bugged out a little. “Why do they have swords made of light? Is that a moon or a space station? What kind of reality is this?” But then I guess the point I’m trying to make is that as long as the story is good – reality doesn’t matter).
I had watched the movie but didn’t really know about Scott Pilgrim until I met Joel. I think it’s fair to say, he praises this comic whenever the chance arises.
So I finally read Vol 1 and a few things become clear to me. firstly, I better understand why Joel writes and speaks in the manner he does. I would love to have a time machine (for various reasons) but I would actually use it to find out how he spoke and wrote before Scott Pilgrim came into his life 🙂
From the first few pages in, I realised that the movie doesn’t do the material justice (although it tries). This word has been overused in this discussion but that’s for a good reason…the story is slick! The way the characters are introduce to the reader, the way the plot progresses, and the little jokes and casual mention (and use) of special abilities (I am also liked the iceberging description Rob used). When Ramona mentions her use of Subspace travel, Scott asks what it is, then just accepts it’s a reasonable explanation for his “obsession” with her.
The book manages to keep things almost mundane with a “just hanging out” vibe while making you laugh with subtle jokes, and references to powers without you ever feeling like anything out of the ordinary is occurring. It’s a “boy meets girl” story with a ton of the unusual thrown in for good measure…only it’s done so well it doesn’t take emphasis away from the relationships the characters develop. It helps that I like almost every character introduced for different reasons. Wallace is a smart ass, Knives is sweet, and the way Stacey is just cool calm and collected (except when Wallace is stealing her boyfriends).
It could just be that I like that kind of humour, or maybe Joel has been using subliminal brainwashing on me but I really like Scott Pilgrim and will definitely read the rest of the volumes. I think one of it’s greatest strengths is that it is easy to relate to. It’s very easy to imagine ourselves in that reality and if you’re a teenager reading this for the first time (even if you’re not), that is very appealing.
I have a question for those that read it in black and white and have also read it again in colour. Did the colour add anything or did it take away anything?
Re: The star wars reference – Joel I think Star Wars would need to preface with the “…galaxy far far away…” bit because it’s so different from our reality. They are on a different technological level, interact with other planets, and of course there’s the force. Although I think Scott Pilgrim could have the force and it wouldn’t really change the story too much…especially if nobody tried to explain it (smh Lucas). Star Wars Scott Pilgrim Crossover? I don’t know if that would be a great thing or an awful thing…but I’d be willing to find out 😀
In my head Scott Pilgrim was always in colour anyway. I mean – there are some books out there that really make you feel the weight of blackness on the white of the page (am thinking in particular Black Hole by Charles Burns) but yeah – Scott Pilgrim is so weightless and – well – slick (it really is the best word to describe it) the addition of the colour doesn’t really add all that much… I mean: as a 2000AD kid I’m a big believer in the power of a good black and white comic: and have been known to cry out in disgust if a book comes out in a re-coloured format with no real reason; especially if the black and white adds to the atmosphere and stuff (am kinda thinking of Judge Dredd here: even tho – yeah obviously there are loads and loads and loads of really cool Dredd comics in colour: there’s also the early stuff that really makes the most of the black and white-ness. So. Erm. Yeah.
So yeah – the colour doesn’t really do that much for Scott Pilgrim.But I guess if pushed I would go for the colour version because – well – colour is nice isn’t it? But it doesn’t do all that much in terms of telling the story or anything. Unlike say – I dunno: Powers? Or something like that? (All that green room stuff).
But maybe this is all just a very long way of saying it doesn’t really matter? I mean – the colour is like a bowl of sweets if you’re watching a really cool film. Yeah – it’s nice to have: but the film is so cool – it doesn’t really matter all that much?
Also: I did a LOL at the idea of Scott Pilgrim changing the way I write and speak. I mean – who knows? You might be right. But if I had to guess what piece of popular culture most effected my brain – then I’d have to go with Spaced: I mean – that show basically changed the whole way I see world (or maybe rather it was more: “Oh my god – someone else sees the world the same way as me!” but whatever: point is kinda still the same). I like it. I think it’s good.
> David Foster Wallace
I do think it would help if you could point to something Wallace actually said, rather than the New Republic quoting an actor who’s portraying him in a trailer. Because I’d love to see it, and we could really look at it and get into it. And forever it’s worth, David Foster Wallace was a professor of mine (I got my Master’s degree in Creative Writing at Illinois State University), and I never once got the impression that he was anti-entertainment—anti-fun, anti-comedy—in any way. I dothink he was deeply opposed to entertainment that was mindless and artless—hack work geared toward the lowest common denominator, as in super-shallow banal shit that people can just passively wallow in. But…aren’t you opposed to that kind of garbage, too? I mean, I don’t hear you arguing that people should go watch Pixels, or Paul Blart Mall Cop. And didn’t you write, earlier in this thread, that:
“I prefer art that pushes me further – that shows me more things – that goes into new places and reflects the world back to me in a way that I’ve never thought of / felt before.”So how do you reconcile that statement with your argument that art should be entertaining?
I don’t think you really have any argument with David Foster Wallace. Because it seems to me there’s really no opposition between “challenging art” and “entertaining art.” Being pushed further, to new places and new realizations—being challenged and provoked—is entertaining. Games and puzzles and sports are forms of entertainment, and people engage in them because they enjoy being challenged. It’s not fun to do a crossword puzzle that’s so impossibly difficult that you can’t figure out a single clue, but it’s also not fun to do one that’s so easy you can do it with your brain turned off. Similarly, a good game or sporting event is usually one where the contestants are evenly matched, and you don’t know who’s going to win—one that goes down to the wire, and pushes everyone to try their very best. And a common complaint in games is “stop letting me win!” People want to earn their victory, or it’s hollow. (Cheaters are reviled for that very reason.)
I don’t think art is fundamentally different in this regard. It’s often enjoyable to be confused or confronted by something different or weird, then figure it out. Isn’t this the basic concept behind murder mysteries? Isn’t this the basic concept behind suspense, dying to know how a plot resolves? One way I’ve heard “fun” defined is that it involves proceeding from a negative state to a positive one, usually by figuring something out—under one’s own power. Indeed, it seems to me that games and sports and art are, among other things, temporary training grounds, where we play around with being challenged and confused, and figuring things out. The evolutionary and cultural benefits for that seem obvious to me. (I’m not saying that’s all that art is, or all games and sports are, but I do think it’s one aspect of them, and why we value them.)
This applies even to supposedly “highbrow” things like 1960s European art films. I remember the first time I watched Federico Fellin’s 8½ (1963). It found it confusing and difficult to follow—it was one of the first foreign films I’d seen, and I wasn’t an experienced film viewer at the time. (I’d seen maybe 100 films tops, nearly all of them Hollywood films made in the 1980s and early 90s. But I still enjoyed it, for its energy and its humor and also because it was unfamiliar, something different than the films I’d already seen. I watched it a few more times, and gradually I learned how to make sense of it—it’s hardly an impossible film to follow—and that process was a very pleasurable experience. Since then, I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times, and it’s become one of my all-time favorite films. I saw it again a few years ago, projected, and that was one of the most pleasurable filmgoing experiences I’ve had. I was in tears by the end, deeply moved and uplifted. And countless people seem to agree with this: it’s one of the most famous and most beloved films ever made, highly ranked both by professional critics in polls like the Sight & Sound poll (currently #10), but also #199 in the IMDb Top 200 (a very populist list). And when I saw the film projected, the theater was packed, maybe even sold-out, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. The atmosphere was festive, people laughed at the film’s comedy (it’s a very comedic film), and when the lights went up, everyone seemed elated. And Quentin Tarantino paid homage to it in Pulp Fiction, and Woody Allen paid homage to it in Stardust Memories, and R.E.M. made a music video inspired by the movie’s opening, and Terry Gilliam made a video about how much he loved the film:
“One of the things I try to use movies for is a way of not ever growing up, to always maintain a child’s view of the world. I don’t care what movie I make; it’s trying to see the world with a sense of awe and amazement and surprise, and to show the rest of the world how amazing the world is. Because most films don’t do that. And I think Fellini always did that.”
I can say I’ve sometimes seen people argue stuff like “European art films and great works of art aren’t fun and enjoyable and entertaining; people like them just to put on airs.” And my experience is that this kind of argument always comes from people who don’t actually watch those films, or who maybe saw one of them somewhere, and didn’t like it, and dismissed all the others out of hand. I have a relative, for instance, who hated reading Shakespeare in high school, and who maintains to this day that no one out there genuinely enjoys Shakespeare, but are simply pretending to like the man’s poems and plays in order to appear smart. And I think it’s pretty obvious that my relative, who shall not be named, is a great fool (at least in this regard). And it’s also obvious that they’re arguing out of ignorance—they read a play or two once in high school and have never looked at them again. They know next-to-nothing about Shakespeare, and don’t know what they’re saying.
I’ve found, more often than not, that the great works of art that endure are deeply entertaining. And of course I can imagineparticular viewers not enjoying them (like my relative not enjoying Shakespeare), but usually that’s because they aren’t interested, or because they have a bad experience that turns them off to further experiences. And that usually has to do with not having the context needed to understand or follow what’s going on. (Art always requires contextual knowledge—even very mainstream art.) My mother, for instance, has little interest in movies, and she isn’t interested in watching European movies from the 60s no matter how much fun others find them. I tried showing her 8½ once, and she fell asleep. (She also fell asleep when I showed her Amelie.) But that’s not because 8½ isn’t a delight of a movie—she just isn’t interested in watching it, and she isn’t interested in learning more about Fellini or why he made 8½, etc. She’s not even interested in watching Christopher Nolan films! And she isn’t interested in reading Scott Pilgrim, either. She doesn’t like comics. (She did enjoy the movie, though.) Meanwhile, my sister once asked me why I liked Mark Rothko paintings, and Abstract Expressionism in general. She didn’t know anything about that kind of work, and said she didn’t get what people saw in it. So we went to a museum (the Art Institute of Chicago), and we looked at some modern paintings, from Impressionism through post-Impressionism to Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, and I told her some of what I know about the history of painting, and what I thought the artists of those pieces were doing, and why I liked them. And now she enjoys going to museums and looking at paintings. I can’t say whether she likes Abstract Expressionism or Rothko, but she’s come to like Impressionism a lot. Not too long ago, for Christmas, she bought the family passes to an Impressionism exhibit at her local museum; it was her idea for us all to go. (And I’m not trying to take credit for this—obviously she had some interest, because otherwise she wouldn’t have asked me about the paintings in the first place.)
“Viewing the film again, I expected to have a cerebral experience, to see a film more fun to talk about than to watch. What I was not prepared for was the voluptuous quality of Marienbad, its command of tone and mood, its hypnotic way of drawing us into its puzzle, its austere visual beauty. Yes, it involves a story that remains a mystery, even to the characters themselves. But one would not want to know the answer to this mystery. Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade.”
I previously said that I thought that maybe I should try and define “entertainment” and “entertaining” but unfortunately I wasn’t struck by anything from the blue – but I think that there is a distinction (and an important distinction) to be made between “challenging art” and “entertaining art.”
Just to get my disclaimers out of the way from the start – yes: I totally get that they can be the same thing. In the same way that you can have round things and red things and sometimes you can get round things which are also red: but I also think that there is a very big difference between them too: although how you perceive that difference will depend on the person (please don’t nobody say “maybe it’s like all subjective and stuff” – because – well – I’m hoping the point I’m trying to make is slightly more subtle than that? Maybe?): I mean – let’s imagine a person called – I dunno – Mr Difficult? Who really likes artworks that are difficult and challenging and require a bit of work to unlock. I mean – that’s cool. That’s the stuff Mr Difficult likes and there probably a whole bunch of social, psychological and whatever reasons why that is the case. But then – aha – there’s also Mr Easy – who thinks that all of this difficult and challenging stuff isn’t what it’s all about: and instead just wants well – something a little more direct.
I mean – I love talking about this kind of stuff and I’m lucky that I have a few friends who are into talking about it too – and one of them (hi Mazin!) has made some of the same points that you have Adam. Comparing art to a type of game or a crossword puzzle (maybe you guys are reading the same books or something?): and this desire to want to have something that will challenge you and that you can hopefully get to the point where you can unlock it or complete it or win it or whatever. Now – there’s nothing wrong with that way of approaching art: but it’s only a particular approach and there other approaches and other ways to enjoy things and understand them: and (important this): there are pieces of art that need to be treated in a different way… and oh my god: Scott Pilgrim is the perfect example.
Now: I totally get that yeah – Rob’s iceberging thing from before and how it relates to Scott Pilgrim is a really good example of how there was totally a thing that I didn’t get but like now I do – which would show: oh yeah: look – cool – levels. Complexity and unlocking things and whatever: but man – that stuff is kind of by-the-by: it’s like taking apart a watch and learning how it works (which is a whole fun thing to do with art and whatever: wait – why did this make me cry or feel this way or whatever): but the surface level effect of the thing is just the experience of it: and like has been said already – Scott Pilgrim is slick slick slick and (for my money at least) is one of the least challenging pieces of art/entertainment/comics out there. I mean – I just pick it up and it’s like it’s reading itself. It’s all so effortless and easy. Everything just bounces and clicks and hits like a pinball machine playing itself. And well yeah – I guess that hits the nail on the head perfectly as to why I love it so. It’s entertaining art that is in no way challenging. It’s just a pure adrenaline shot to the heart.
I mean – come on: they’ve got like synchronized dance moves and everything!
But then – hey Joel – if it’s all just different boats for different folks (that’s a phrase right?): then what are you arguing against (am I arguing against something?). Well yeah – I guess the point I’m trying to make is that Scott Pilgrim and the type of “pure entertainment” / “non challenging” art that it represents is something that isn’t celebrated and instead what happens to someone that gets sucked into the world of being – well – addicted to books and films and comics and art and whatever: is that well yeah – all the “higher” stuff – the “challenging” stuff is the stuff that’s worthwhile and that once you’ve watched enough films and read enough books then you’ll understand too.
And for me (my experience) well yeah – it’s not that. I mean – because of my habit (I think more people should talk about watching art as an addiction): I have also watched a lot of films (too many probably): Adam – I think that probably you’ve seen more than me: but I think we’re kind of in the same space of: “hey – maybe you guys should go and play outside for a bit? It’s a lovely sunny day!” which is why I feel like I want to say: well yeah – there is a lot of the stuff that is supposingly really like smart and good for you and well – I just don’t think that’s true. Or rather (to put it in context with what you said):
I can say I’ve sometimes seen people argue stuff like “European art films and great works of art aren’t fun and enjoyable and entertaining; people like them just to put on airs.” And my experience is that this kind of argument always comes from people who don’t actually watch those films, or who maybe saw one of them somewhere, and didn’t like it, and dismissed all the others out of hand.
– I mean: I (hopefully) say this in the nicest possible way and in the hope for having an interesting discussion and in the hope of understanding the world better and understanding art better and understanding ourselves better: but yeah – I’m making the argument that the highbrow stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and yeah – “putting on airs” is a little harsh: but well – I think that the reason why people like that stuff (and I do think they like it – I don’t think there’s being disingenuous about that): but I think rather it’s tied up with things like self-image and cultural conditioning. I mean – the highbrown European art film stuff reads as smart and clever and people want to be smart and clever and stuff – and ok: if you want to do that – then that’s cool. Only: I don’t think it’s as smart and clever as you think it is and (oooh) actually – there is stuff like Scott Pilgrim: that is way better.
But then – I guess I’m just saying it’s better because it’s delivering an experience that I find valuable. Something slick and cool and everything else.
I tried to watch Last Year at Marienbad a few years ago and only got about 15 minutes in before I gave up. I mean – it seemed like next level pretentious (of course thanks to your recommendation I’m kinda tempted to try watching it again…).
But saying that – well yeah: Citizen Kane is properly fantastic wicked, awesome and entertaining (even if it doesn’t have any boobs).
Impressions from the above exchange: Joel thinks people who like 1960s European art films are suffering from false consciousness which is preventing them from realising that the really good stuff is actually millennial romcom videogame-referencing manga.
Problem there is that art (as Joel has admitted) has different uses for people. Joel privileges the immediate sensory impact it has over (for example) the puzzle-solving aspect. But there’s precious little that can be offered as a justification for why everyone should have that preference. So until Joel comes up with something that can silence all the dissenters, his false consciousness argument falls apart. He should therefore accept that there’s nothing false about the consciousness of puzzle-solving art-lovers.
To extend that thought a bit. Sometimes I think that good critics are those that have an awareness of the different uses of art, and moreover the different intentions certain films / books / whatever have, the different audiences they are made for, and adjust their judgements accordingly. So not all films are held up to the ‘standard’ of 60s European art films for example. You judge a film in relation to other films like it. Then again, there’s only so much negative capability a critic can have – ultimately they do have their own preferences which will shape which films they select as faves of the year and so on.
Wheeling back to Scott Pilgrim, I am a puzzle-solver so as slick as vol 1 undoubtedly is I find it difficult to love it in the way Joel does. There’s more puzzle-solving in later volumes, which is why I think they are better even tho they are in some respects less slick.
Yes. Everyone should like the things they like. And yes everyone’s tastes are different. And yes: be a world child form a circle. Always yes.
But (but!) at this moment in time I’d argue that it feels like (I feel like) or it seems – that all tastes are not treated equal and we’re still living under the illusion that the highbrow challenging European black and white stuff is set at the default (in lots of peoples heads) that it’s “good” that it’s the “real stuff” while – as you so put it so well Ilia the “millennial romcom videogame-referencing manga” is – how should I say this – not as respected? A bit – hahaha – come on: it’s a bit lowbrow isn’t it?
I’m not claiming anyone here is saying that – but I do think that’s how it’s thought of in the culture at large: or rather – how most people have been lead to think about this stuff. And yeah basically: I want to be at the forefront of saying: “Hey everyone! Come on! This stuff is really really good!”
It’s like – well: with The Sandman. When that first appeared – it was a little: oh. You like the kids book that’s about the king of Dreams? Good for you! Let me know when you grow up a little… Or – hey: Buffy. Which was dismissed as fluff and is now being treated with a more critical respect and etc (although maybe this is confusing my point a little: because the last thing I want is for Scott Pilgrim to get all respectable = yuk!).
Everyone has their tastes. But not all tastes are currently treated as equal – and so: to get there – it feels like some tastes need to be taken down just a little. Not to say that it’s wrong. But to say – hey: what you think is not the default. But is instead: one option amongst many.
Does that make more sense? (I hope so).
In China at the moment, so the connection is a bit spotty, which is why I’ve been unable to reply until now.
On art – I think we’re trying to moot the idea that art is entirely subjective, which I don’t think it is, so much. I think that art is a facet of culture, but not all culture is art. It’s difficult because the word “art” has three meanings – mastery of a skill or trade, where technique is the defining arbiter of worth; craft as a form of personal expression that is entirely subjective; and capital A Art, which is something entirely different, and represents the vanguard of human cultural thinking.
For the latter, beyond the modern, arbitrary, capitalistic definition of Art as “tat for rich people”, where worth is measured by the market by means of peer approval (by established artists or the art world itself) and dealer approval, I think it has capitalistic value because “high” art compared with “low” art has a higher novel information content. People may scoff at the readymade’s, but they were a part of trying to deal with industrialisation.
That is, it defines or reflect the zeitgest either through technique or concept. “High” art shows us something we haven’t seen before, or something we have seen before in a different way, and, as such, it defines the apex of culture at that point in time. “Art” is always at the forefront of human cultural thinking (distinct from, but influenced by, or an extrapolation of academic, technological or scientific thinking). I think the origin of that information lies in the connection between the authors intent, their unintended, subconcious cultural programming, and that of society and the viewer’s understanding.
If the product of all creative endeavour is seen as a form of nourishment, TMNT et al. are sugary snacks enjoyed for their aesthetic flavour or transitory diversion (sugar rush), only with little nutritional value, and something like Fellini may be like broccoli – an acquired taste that may require effort to ingest, but a better overall source of nourishment.