Because fans should be critical, too

Of Circles and Squares: Musings on the Video Reviews, DiMartino and Konietzko, and the Creative Process

The Korranalysis videos will be on hiatus until I can secure a new editing software (hopefully within the next week) and learn the software well enough to actually maintain and improve the quality of the editing in the reviews. This will be good for me because I get to revise the next two parts and make sure they’re the best they can be before I even attempt to record and edit.

So far, I’m quite happy with the reception of these video reviews, especially after the extraordinary mediocrity of the first part. The criticisms of that video—including the more harsh ones that were probably all from that deplorable Something Awful website—were extremely helpful in shaping the quality of the rest of the videos. I wish part one was just as good as the others (considering it’s the very first video, and thus the deal breaker for future ones). Maybe I’ll go back and completely re-do it.

But at the moment, this hiatus is much needed not only to find the necessary resources to finish them, but also to take a good clean break. As much as I love the video essay format, making these videos is not fun. I have a new found respect for Internet reviewers like the Nostalgia Critic, Red Letter Media/Mr. Plinkett, and Jontron (whose style I’ve most certainly ripped off the most). It’s extremely difficult presenting a concise, well-informed opinion and making it entertaining. I think I’m getting better at it, but there are too many times when I’m sitting there and wondering what the Hell I’m doing this for. Why am I wasting so much time and effort on a series of long, nit-picky videos dedicated to tearing down a series that most people don’t have a problem with anyway?

These thoughts arose again while listening to creators Michael Dante DiMartino’s and Bryan Konietzko’s separate appearances on the Big Pull Podcast. I listened in vain to get their thoughts on the fans’ reactions to their show, particularly to the ending. Since these weren’t solo interviews—each podcast has about three or four guests at a time—the focus was never solely on Korra or Avatar (probably for the better, as the overall conversations were pretty interesting).

Sadly, it never got around to discussing that controversial ending, probably because everyone involved actually liked Korra. Frankly, I always get the impression that the appraisal for Korra is more for the show’s social and cultural impact (STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER FTW!!!) rather than for the actual content, which is problematic at best.

What I was not expecting from listening to these podcasts—particularly Konietzko’s appearance—was to sympathize with them. As grueling as these reviews are to do, my efforts are miniscule compared to the yearly struggles of DiMartino and Konietzko to produce a single episode of either Avatar or Korra. Couple that with the ever-present balancing act of appeasing the studio that funds the show and satisfying their own artistic needs, and you’ve got a classic case of compromise in Hollywood.

And yet, in principle, we’re each experiencing the same obstacles that come with the creative process, which is more “process” than “creative.” It’s best summarized in this interview with director David Fincher, when asked what the most creative part of directing was:

“Thinking. It’s thinking the thing up, designing all the sets, and it’s rehearsals, and then the creative process is fuckin’ over. Then it’s just war, it’s just literally, How do we get through this day? It’s 99 percent politics and 1 percent inspiration.

I’ve had days of shooting where I went, Wow, that’s what it is, that’s what it’s like to be making a movie. Everything’s clicking, people are asking questions, and the clock’s ticking, but you feel like you’re making progress. But most of the time it isn’t that. Most of the time it’s, How do you support the initial intent of what it is you set out to do, and not undercut that by getting pissed off and letting your attention get away on that? It’s priority management. It’s problem solving. Oftentimes you walk away from a scene going, Wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be. Often. But it’s also knowing that you don’t have to get it exactly the way you see it.”

I know where Fincher’s coming from, and I know where DiMartino and Konietzko are coming from. For Konietzko, the complications that come with making television animation are taxing to the point that the joke around their office is, “When are we doing the Circle and Square show, where the Circle hangs out with the Square and they just chill?” And yet, I especially understand him and DiMartino when they say, “It’s nobody’s fault but ours.”

But it should still be noted just how different our working conditions are. In their case, they’re literally managing hundreds upon hundreds of people to create their show. (As opposed to these reviews of mine, where it’s just the “two” of us.) Let’s not forget the pressure from the studio to turn out something profitable. (No one asked me to do these reviews.) And on top of everything, these two have already established themselves with a series that is beloved by so many people around the world. (My first video stinks.)

So in essence: I’m taking months at a time to create a video essay tearing apart something that took years of hardship to produce. (And, as if to add insult to injury, I’m using the fruits of their labor—that is, footage from the actual show—to support my cause.) Is that fair? In a cosmic sense, I suppose not. Then again, if there’s a single word the cosmos has continually refused to acknowledged, it’s “fair.”

Let me put it this way: one very important thing being an artist has taught me is that the amount of labor put into a piece is relative. Certainly it can be appreciated and respected, but if the project in question doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, then it has failed. In the case of film and animation—commercial, experimental, it doesn’t matter—the purpose is to communicate a worthwhile experience to the audience.

And that’s where the key failure of Korra lies. In spite of the wonderful animation, some emotionally resonant moments, and a revolutionary focus on a female action hero, the experience was ultimately not worth it. Most of the thematic and dramatic elements in play cancel each other out so drastically that by the time it’s over, you feel as if you’ve just wasted a great deal of time getting invested over nothing. And you DO NOT waste the audience’s time!

This is why I’m extremely reluctant to watch Book Two. Despite the inclusion of some of the better writers from Avatar (including Josh Hamilton and Tim Hedrick) and the chance to see certain favorite characters again (Lin Bei Fong, Tenzin, Bolin, and Asami), there’s nothing to get me too excited after Book One’s disastrous conclusion. There was no character growth or any genuine exploration of the heavy themes and grey areas that Book One raised, so why should I expect that to change? And they’ll be making forty more episodes of this show? I honestly can’t see things getting any better for this series. As far as I’m concerned, it’s over.

And while I’m on that subject, let me state right now: I have no plans to watch and/or review Book Two and beyond of Korra. After the Korranalysis is good and done, I might do a little something on Avatar, but that’s it. It’s been almost a year of bitching about this show. I’m done. I’m moving on.

P.S. If the time link doesn’t work, start the video at 7:44.

P.P.S. Guess what? Our great pal John O’Bryan was the latest guest on the Big Pull. And he’s written a neat book on weapons in history! And he’s a pretty swell guy! Check it out if you can!

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12 responses

  1. Michienoama

    I heard that the dvd of the first book of Korra will be released on July 9th with creator and cast commentaries. Do you think their opinions on how the story turned out will be worth writing about at this point, even though your Korranalysis is almost done?

    May 1, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    • Oh, yeah…I nearly forgot about that…

      Well, in that case (and in the case of the “Art of Korra” book, which I will definitely be getting) I’ll write something on it when I get a hold of it. I sincerely hope the commentaries on the Korra DVD are more interesting than the ones on the Avatar DVD.

      May 1, 2013 at 6:25 pm

  2. Ian

    Marshall a few things.

    While I disagree on your stance on Korra I appreciate you going through the trouble to make these. Also being an artist my self I see what they are going through

    next: PLEASE finish your avatar written reviews. like the puppetmaster and the boiling rock or any other reviews you feel need re done.

    finally: after you finish avatar. I have a suggestion on what you should review next. Cowboy bebop. Now HOLD ON! I know that show is really overrated and loved by many but think there is a TON of stuff you can talk about in that show and things if you wanted you could compare to avatar. Also I think that it would make it easier on you to review it because there is only 26 episodes plus a movie.

    keep up the great work

    please reply

    May 1, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    • Don’t worry, I will definitely finish all my written reviews. Likely, I’ve been considering revising all of them for the sake of professionalism. That might even involve watching the entire series again, which I wouldn’t mind at all (except for certain episodes).

      I honestly don’t know what I’ll review next, and I’m not even sure how committed I’d be to another animated series (although I’ve really been itching to dig into the original Neon Genesis Evangelion). I’ll have to take Cowboy Bebop into consideration, because it is one of my favorites, and it’s got yet another wonderful Steve Blum performance.

      May 1, 2013 at 6:41 pm

  3. Michienoama

    I’m not sure how the DVD commentary will go, but I did find an online commentary regarding the last episode and it’s caused some controversy-http://owldee.tumblr.com/post/28768967529/savagelee-macabremachinations
    What are your thoughts?

    May 2, 2013 at 8:15 am

  4. Amonymous

    I doubt you’ll be able to refrain from watching book 2. I’m almost certain that curiosity will get the better of you, especially with the the sheer amount of time and effort that you’ve invested in this show

    May 10, 2013 at 2:48 am

    • You’re probably right, but in the meantime, I’m just praying that the grand return of Arrested Development isn’t disappointing like Korra was.

      May 13, 2013 at 9:01 pm

  5. Michienoama

    Speaking of the whole “Strong female character” thing, isn’t it sad that for such a show, it routinely fails the Bechdel Test?

    May 26, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    • Amonymous

      I think the bechel test is only a good indicator, when there is a significant amount of dialogue between female characters. In the case of LOK there was not a significant amount of dialogue between female characters (although i do remember Lin’s interrogation of Korra rather vividly). Also apart from episode 5, i can’t really remember any episodes that failed the bechel test.

      May 27, 2013 at 4:33 am

  6. Michienoama

    Korra never really talks to Asami apart episode 7, Jinora and Ikki never talk to Korra about anything other than Mako, Pema still sees Lin as a romantic threat rather than an individual in episode ten. Even if there were some random exchanges between two given women over something besides a man (like Korra being turned away by a grumpy old woman in the first episode over food), there were no deep female relationships throughout the entire series, since there are more male main characters to begin with, and the main female characters are all rivals over men (Korra and Asami, Lin and Pema). In fact, most of the women’s beings revolve around men: Pema is Tenzin’s wife, Lin is Tenzin’s ex-gf, Tarrlock’s mom doesn’t have a name as she was just there to have Tarrlock and Amon, Asami is introduced as Mako’s rich gf and even after some attempted depth in episode 7, she is still just there to be an obstacle to “Makorra.” I’d blame Bryke, since they wrote these characters, and this season in general, without peer review from both Ehazs, who were the head writers of the original series. It was Aaron Ehasz who suggested to Bryke that Toph be a girl, though Bryke originally wanted her to be a boy (a romantic interest for Katara and a love rival to Aang, thus ensuring Katara’s status as the Smurfette). Azula was also supposed to be a boy in Bryke’s first draft of ATLA, suggesting that without peer review, Bryke naturally gravitate towards a sausage fest.

    May 27, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    • JMR

      Yeah. The Bechdel test still works because that very lack of meaningful interaction between female characters is itself worrying.

      Speaking of the first draft of ATLA… I bought the Art Book for the original series some time ago. It’s a wonderful insight into the production of the show, but one thing really stood out to me as I was thumbing through it.

      The whole thing is basically Bryke constantly admitting that just about all of the show’s best ideas weren’t theirs. Just off the top of my head:

      – Toph and Azula, as mentioned above, were boys. Toph was even supposed to kick off, you guessed it, a cheesy teen love triangle between Aang, Toph, and Katara.

      – Uncle Iroh was evil and intentionally sabotaging Zuko’s training.

      – Speaking of Zuko, the original pitch didn’t have him at all. He was suggested to Bryke as a character by one of the Nick Executives, of all people.

      – All bending was Tai Chi. Sifu Kisu, the show’s martial arts adviser, was the one who suggested having unique styles for each bending discipline.

      It was one of the things that had me kind of uneasy going into Korra. It seemed that while Bryke had a good handle on broad concepts and major ideas (“It’s a world of mystical elemental kung fu!”), the nitty gritty tended to escape them (“And it’ll ALL be Tai Chi!”). It’s a problem that I think carried over into their writing of Korra. So many of the overarching ideas of Korra are good, but when it came down to the execution it tended to suffer.

      May 29, 2013 at 1:06 am

      • Korra most definitely does not pass the Bechdel Test. Off the top of my head, I can think of one instance of meaningful girl-to-girl chit chat (Korra and Asami getting to know each other in episode seven), and while that entire sequence is hardly a shiny example of clever writing, at least it passed.

        JMR, I’ve also noticed that in the Art of Avatar book (I’ve also noticed that M. Night Shyamalan wrote the foreword, something I cannot accept as anything but studio politics), and it really emphasizes why collaboration is so important, especially in animation. When the risk of expression getting lost in the mechanical process of production is as great as it is in animation (or filmmaking in general), any and every idea that makes the final product feel alive and unique–while still adhering to the director’s vision–is essential to its success. And if such a wealth of ideas can’t be provided by the creators themselves (and it usually can’t), then the input of every other person involved with the production must be taken into account. I think director Brad Bird put it best that any idea should be susceptible to criticism, because a truly good idea can withstand it.

        I am also very, very glad you brought up Zuko. I’ve been meaning to write an article on this, because it’s always struck me as ironic that the catalyst for the best and most human character in the series came from a studio executive (or “hippie,” as John K. likes to call them). Eric Coleman (the executive and the one responsible for approving Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko’s pitch) deserves a fucking medal of honor (tee hee) for this major contribution for the series.

        This ultimately reveals one of the strengths and weaknesses of Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko as artists. They are both very talented and capable individuals (I hesitate to call them “geniuses”), but a little adversity is necessary to get the best out of them (much like Lennon and McCartney’s friendly rivalry generated the best music from either songwriter). Without an Aaron Ehasz or any other writer there to provide an outside critical eye, bad ideas are allowed equal footing with good ideas, and the end result is less than satisfactory. (The nearly endless proclamations of their “genius” in the wake of Avatar also didn’t help, but they’re lucky that time was on their side: had it not been for the “strong female character” aspect and technical perfection, I honestly believe The Legend of Korra would have been their Heaven’s Gate.)

        May 29, 2013 at 11:49 pm

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