Because fans should be critical, too

Archive for July, 2013

Announcement: Remember That “The Puppetmaster” I Never Finished?

Well, I just finished it today. Consider it an unofficial response to Doug Walker’s vlog on the episode (which I haven’t seen yet) as well as a long overdue tribute to one of the masterpieces of Avatar: the Last Airbender.

– Marshall Turner


Announcement: Regarding Part Four of the “Korra” Video Review

After toiling away, writing the script, getting my arguments perfected, throwing out said arguments in the eve of new information and viewpoints, revising and recording as I go, and basically fighting off all non-creative/productive obstacles (mostly family related), Part Four is finally making some sort of progress.

However, instead of creating one large part four video, I’ve found that the best way to release it will be in segments (nine in total). Each segment will cover one topic. The first will dissect whether Korra qualifies as a “strong female character.” (Spoiler Alert: She doesn’t.) That segment will be up next week.

Essentially, this entire project will be done before Book Two of The Legend of Korra is released in September. I want to apology for the delay, and also thank you all for your patience. Whether I’m too late or this effort is futile (the enthusiasm for Book Two certainly drives the latter point home), the Korranalysis will be finished!

– Marshall Turner

Immediate Thoughts on the “Korra: Book Two” Trailer

I’ve watched this trailer twice, and each time has left me with an unbearable sense of emptiness.

It wasn’t necessarily what I was seeing that made me so depressed. In fact, what I saw looked amazing. The sheer scope and beauty of the imagery made me momentarily forget that this was a preview for television animation. Hell, it almost justified co-creator/art director Bryan Konietzko’s response to accusations of white-washing, which mostly consisted of his explaining the challenges of his job as opposed to addressing the race issue head-on. Almost.

No, it wasn’t the imagery in and of itself. Rather, it was the tone and manner in which those images were presented that did me in. For the life of me, I don’t understand why the trailer had to be so damn somber. I mean, yes, every single trailer these guys have put together has been rather somber. But here’s the thing: the somberness of Avatar/Korra trailers has never been particularly exciting. And isn’t the point of a trailer to excite you for the impeding release of the proposed feature? Something that leaves you wondering things like: “I sure can’t wait to hear that line in context!” “That’s a funny/cool/bizarre image; I’ll have to see the film/show to find out what that’s about!” “This is an interesting concept! I want to see where they go with this!”

Essentially, the ideal trailer creates a kind of mystery that at once: 1) is ambiguous; and 2) perfectly conveys the tone of the work. Here are two of the most perfect trailers in the history of cinema: Dr. Strangelove and Alien.

Unfortunately, the Book Two trailer for Korra is all ambiguity, no tone or mystery. Sure, there’s the occasional image that makes you wonder what they’re getting at–I was particularly intrigued by the occasional flat background that, I know now, are the backdrop for the back story of the very first Avatar–but the overall presentation is more off-putting than inviting. If the entire series is as pleasant as this funeral march of a trailer, then I don’t want to see it.

It doesn’t help that the Track Team’s soundtrack is absolutely tuneless. Typically, they make up for their lack of melody-making skills with atmospherics, but this time they blew it. It’s beyond me whether the music was supposed to convey any mood besides “unfinished.” They’d have been better off just getting the rights for a Brian Eno track to set the trailer to. At least Eno’s tracks can provoke an emotional response of any kind.

But I’m getting sidetracked. So far, these are all just technical nitpicks that avoid the real issue: it appears that Book Two (and beyond) will be devoted to exploring the inner workings and mythology of the Avatar universe more deeply than was allowed before. And the obvious question to this is: so what?

More to the point: why I should care that the creators are exploring the minutiae of their fantasy world when–as Book One sadly proved–they weren’t even capable of deeply exploring (let alone recognizing) the underlying social theme of the single situation in their own story? (That is, of course, the issue of privilege as it pertains to Benders and Non-Benders.) Hell, they couldn’t even develop the characters in an adequate fashion.

Fantasy–any form of storytelling, really, but most especially fantasy–is only worthwhile when its emotional/intellectual core is somehow connected to the real world (and not strictly in a political sense, mind you). Sadly, Korra fails this simply prerequisite because the handling of its central conflict completely misses the point that it initially appeared to be implying.

Through all this rambling, I suppose what I’m really trying to say is I no longer trust creators Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino anymore. Despite the inclusive of more writers and directors (presumably to make the production process, rather than the creative process, easier), I can only see Book Two and beyond as a self-indulgent purgatory for everyone involved. Considering this was a trailer made specifically for Comic Con, where only the most dedicated fans go, I can only hyperbolically suspect that the rest of Korra will be an exclusionary circle jerk in which all the participants wear urban sombreros. Unless the writing is actually much better and less contradictory, I have no hope for Book Two.

That said, if I do end up watching Book Two, it will be strictly for the blog and as a critic. I hate watching something strict as a critic (this is one reason I’ve never discussed those boring Avatar comic books in an actual post).

EDIT: I want to make something clear: it’s not the trailer in and of itself that depressed me. It was the accumulative effect of the trailer and its exclusive nature, my disappointment in Book One, and a fear that Book Two would be more of the same for the next few years. That said, I did overreact; it was pretty foolish of me to get so emotional over a trailer, even if it wasn’t a particularly good one.

Also, last night, I was inspired to re-edit the Book Two trailer and set it to other music. I can’t say it’s any better than the trailer was as presented at Comic Con (there are lots of technical issues), but I had fun making it.

Doug Walker On: “Tales of Ba Sing Se” and “Appa’s Lost Days”

Hey, Doug Walker’s brother, Rob, joined in for a few vlogs! This was wonderful news to me, since I may like Rob a lot more than Doug (and it’s probably just because of their natural relationship: as the older brother, Rob doesn’t appear to be trying as hard as Doug does at times).

More importantly, though, Rob’s perspective on Avatar: the Last Airbender differs from Doug’s for one good reason: he’s already seen the entire series, so his consensus on what constitutes a good and bad episode and the meaning of it all in the big picture is complete. This makes for some very intriguing insights…as well as a more solid basis for disagreement (but as I said before, that’s probably just a testament to Avatar‘s greatness).

For example, in Rob’s eyes, “Tales of Ba Sing Se” (which is his favorite episode of the series) greatly affirms that Uncle Iroh is the heart of the entire story: he is the thread that ties everything together; he is the reason Zuko ultimately does right by himself and the world; his everlasting kindness and passion rubs off on everyone in one way or another (unless they’re beyond redemption, like Azula); and, most significantly of all, he’s the only adult in the main cast, and one of the few adults in the entire show that’s not incompetent and/or not evil. (And it could partly be a generational thing: all the “good” adults are in their gray-hair days.)

Now, everyone here knows that I’d place Zuko a little higher on my “heart-of-the-story” list, but only by a margin. In fact, Rob has actually convinced me of Iroh’s central importance to the series (an importance he shares, I believe, with Katara). It’s probably because I’m much closer to Zuko’s age than Iroh’s, and can completely sympathize with Zuko’s conflicted journey to adulthood. (Of course, I don’t have an Uncle Iroh-type figure to set me straight, but then how many people do? Zuko’s one lucky guy.) Perhaps when I am a little older, have found my place in life, and have actually attempted to make a positive contribution to this world of ours, I’ll understand and appreciate Iroh a lot more than I already do.

Unfortunately, no matter what I say or do, I am an awful human being. I don’t think Iroh’s tale is the best in the episode, nor did I cry/get misty-eyed when he made the shrine for his son, nor did I feel anything specifically over Mako’s death. To be honest, I always found the little tribute to Mako at the end of Iroh’s story to be, however sincere, a little tacky in this context. “In Honor of Mako” just makes it seem like they planned for Mako to die for this episode to work. They seriously should have put that after the end credits, or maybe right before.

And just to prove I’m a terrible human being, this tribute to the death of voice-actor Mike Pataki (voice of George Liquor among other things) actually got a tear out of me. (You’d have to have watched the Ren & Stimpy episode “Man’s Best Friend” to understand the significance of that oar in Ren’s hand.)

But anyway, I’ve always found Momo’s tale the most moving of the six stories in the episode, and it may largely be due to my own personal neurosis.

I’ve always found in fiction that death, whether effective or not, provides a sort of narrative certainty that pretty much alleviates any tension regarding that particular character. Certainly the effect the dead characters has on the living ones can be a wonderful sort of drama, but since they no longer exist (except as a corpse), they’re essentially no longer a factor in what goes on.

But what if the character didn’t die? What if the way things played out make it appear that they died, but we can’t be certain? Actually take death completely out of the equation: what if the character just straight up disappears and is no longer seen for the duration of the narrative? How can you know if they’re dead? How can you know if they’re alive? If they’re alive, you should be making an effort to help them, but if they’re dead…shouldn’t you still make an effort to know that for sure? And what if they’re alive and suffering? What if they’re alive and well-off? What if they’re well-off because you’re not around? The possibilities are simply endless: it’s like Schrodinger’s cat, only the box is your own perception.

In Momo’s case, the chance to be reconnected with Appa is severed when material that could potentially lead to his whereabouts (a piece of his fur) only results in a dead end. Sure, the foot print means that he was there at one point (and probably recently), but he’s not there now. Can you imagine the frustration and heartbreak to have must someone by that much?

Yes, Momo’s story is corny. Yes, his freeing the cougars that subsequently become his friends is borderline cliché. Yes, I’m biased because the story takes place on an overcast day.

But it’s never boring, it’s always entertaining, and in the end, its emotional outcome supercedes its corniness anyway. That’s a tough feat to accomplish, even tougher than paying tribute to a voice actor who actually died. I’m not saying Iroh’s story and Mako’s tribute are less sincere or moving. I’m simply saying that it took a lot more thought and creativity to pull off making Momo’s tale just as—if not more—heartbreaking (and with an animal, no less). That’s a winner in my book.

Well, if non shedding tears over a dead voice actor doesn’t make me a terrible person, then not finding this PSA on animal cruelty entertaining in the slightest should certainly knock me down a few pegs on the humanity scale.

And when I say I didn’t find it entertaining, I’m not saying, “I wasn’t entertained, but the experience was moving and enlightening,” as I would with a John Cassavetes film. No, I mean I found “Appa’s Lost Days” boring. And it’s boring because Appa is a boring character. In fiction, you can’t just show a character getting abused for twenty-minutes and expect me to be sympathize with it; you have to show me who the character is, how this affects it, and why it matters.

I know why Appa matters to Aang and the rest of the kids, which is why I found “The Desert” to be such a powerful episode. But I have no idea what matters to Appa. Actually, that’s not true: I know Aang matters to Appa because they’d be together for so long. Maybe, as one commenter pointed out a while ago, that’s probably the problem: Appa’s entire existence is so dependent on Aang that when left to his own devices, he literally has nothing to do. In that sense, he’s little more than a lumbering plot device, taking the characters from point A to B, sometimes contributing a story element (like when he bites Long Feng in “Lake Laogai”).

There’s honestly not a lot I can say to Doug and Rob’s commentary. I found the episode boring on a basic visceral level, so how could I even begin to acknowledge any clever subtexts? I did enjoy their discussion on animal abuse and the Guru. I found Rob’s belief that this episode was the payoff to justify Aang’s shitty behavior in “The Desert” very interesting, even if I disagree. The way he puts it, Appa’s pain justifies Aang’s anger. But what if Appa had actually been well-off until re-uniting with Aang? How could Aang have known? He couldn’t, and that’s where a lot of the anger comes from. (And I will pull the “kid card” on this: from my perspective, Aang so rarely feels like an actual kid in this series that when he finally does, it’s wonderful to witness, even if it is pretty reckless.)

And that’s that.

P.S. I hear Rob has started watching The Legend of Korra. Oh, boy…

“Art Is Hard!” Bryan K. Says…

Can somebody toss this man a Pulitzer Peace Prize for insight of the century?

Now I’ll admit that it’s more than a little unfair to isolate a three-word exclamation out of it’s extremely large context, but this stood out above and beyond anything stated in the entire post (yes, even more than a long-awaited opinion on M. Night Shyamalan’s disastrous adaptation of his and Michael Dante DiMartino’s original show). It’s really a testament to either Konietzko’s obliviousness or his egotism that his response to a whitewashing concern is a colossal rant on the intricacies of color theory.

I’m not saying I necessarily disagree with the sentimental. Of course “art is hard!” As an aspiring animator, I know all too well the trials that Mr. Konietzko and Mr. DiMartino go through. And if merely generating moving images weren’t enough, their hardships are multiplied by 100 because they choose to produce high quality work within the stifling limitations of television animation. Certainly they’ve worked their asses off, and it shows in the final product: The Legend of Korra is quite possibly the most beautiful and professional-looking animated show I’ve ever seen in my life. So much so that I can almost sympathize with Mr. Konietzko on the general fandom: after all the blood, sweat, tears and years he sacrificed for this show, this is the thanks he gets? Why can’t the fandom appreciate the incredible amount of work that goes into this show?

Well, that’s the thing about the creative process: for the most part, no one cares.

The average audience member—despite being slightly more savvy about film production these days—does not care about the extreme labors that go into the making of even their favorite films. It’s not out of spite, that’s just not what they’re interested in. When watching a film, they’re not marveling over the pristine crystal-clear quality of the latest HD camera or the intricate art direction as values in and of themselves.

Instead, their response boils down to: 1) does this film affect me? 2) do I like the way it affects me? (And, if they’re particularly inquisitive: 3) why?)

The most successful art has always been able to shape its tangible features to provide a psychological experience for the audience. The least successful art merely displays tangible features that provides little more than mere skill, if that. (Naturally, this can get pretty subjective. I once had a friend who was flabbergasted that I couldn’t see the heavenly beauty of David Gilmour’s guitar playing, while I was equally astonished that the simplistic genius of the Rolling Stones failed to move him.)

You can be a filmmaker whose movie has the latest state-of-the art special effects; you can be a guitarist who can play one-hundred notes a second; you can be an Oxford-educated writer who just finished a first novel. These are all worthy, skillful, personal accomplishments. But if nothing you do can generate a positive emotional/intellectual response from your respective audience, then you have failed. (“Positive” in the loosest sense. Grave of the Fireflies generated a positive response from me, but I’m never going to watch that film again.)

What’s so fascinating about Korra is that it’s a state-of-the-art marvel that manages to generate the most negative emotional response possible. It’s a work of art whose skillfully handled tangible features (ex. The animation, the music, the colors, etc.) are at the service of an ideological mess of a script. The result is a Rorshach Test of a show: you see what you want to see, not necessarily what is there.

Let’s use the finale as an example. When Korra gets her Bending back from Aang, most people were joyful to the point of tears. Certainly, the show aimed for that effect, and if you want to see this as a happy, well-earned ending, it works that way. But probe a little deeper, and you’re bound to have a few questions.

For instance, how is it that the most powerful person in the world—who happened to be a woman—got her power taken away from by a man, and then has it given back to her by another man? Why wasn’t she allowed to build herself back up into a better person and then find her own way to get back her powers? Why didn’t we ever get a true moment where Korra put her head up and decided to deal with her current situation directly? Why did the solution to her problem literally have to come to her instead of her seeking it out for herself?

There’s not a single adequate answer to any of these questions, which indicates either carelessness or negligence. In spite of Mr. Konietzko’s self-proclaimed reputation as a jerk, I highly doubt he and Mr. DiMartino would be this thoughtless on purpose. In fact, my knee-jerk reaction to his color theory rant was, “Good Golly, no wonder they didn’t have time to fix the scripts! They were too busy making sure the dimples on every character’s butt was the right skin tone!”

So, yes, Mr. Konietzko. Art is hard. Even within the confines of the entertainment industry, it is an essentially thankless endeavor that satisfies an urge that most people couldn’t possibly understand; your attempts to educate them on the creative and physically struggles can only do so much to answer the question of why you even bother. As an audience member, I am indifferent to your trails. As a fellow artist, I have no use for your whiny, self-righteous ignorance.

As Werner Herzog once said, “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”

Better yet, as you once said, regarding you and Mr. DiMartino, “We have no one to blame but ourselves.”

Deal with it!

P.S. In regards to the image that started this whole mess, I saw it when it was first posted, and I figured the washed-out colors were the result of either the lighting situation in the scene or the quality of the camera phone. As a person of color (God, I hate that term…), I found the concern genuine, but the reaction overblown. I’m not even sure Mr. Konietzko and Mr. DiMartino truly understand the power they have right now…