Monday, June 4, 2012

Western Media versus Eastern: Spectacle versus Implication.

I'd had this idea for a rant in the back of my mind for months now, and every time I decided it wasn't worth mentioning, something new that I watched or read would remind me that it's still relevant.  It's bloody everywhere, as pervasive as media itself.

It's the fact that mass-marketed American entertainment wouldn't know what subtlety is if it was a frying pan that'd just hit them in the face with that delightful metallic ring-ing-ing sound.

This has been going on for some time.  The triumph of reality tv, where its cast blatantly turn to the dang camera and TELL YOU WHAT THEY'RE FEELING, where narrators analyze every action for you.  The corresponding demise of the soap opera, which, if not a genre to my taste, at least held intricate plot lines and complex character development within its grasp.  There's no room for inward-focused character development in American games, tv shows, books.  It's all about the Spectacle.

This is what Fox built its success on.  Quick, easy, obvious laughs, thrills, flirts, grossouts.  You like sexy women, right?  Have some cleavage.  You like action, right?  Cue guns with infinite ammo and explosions.  Don't like either of those things?  Maybe you'd prefer some other kind of entertainment - and we'll offer any topic you like, as long as you don't mind it being jammed down your throat.

Everything that happens is viscerally, viciously external.  Everything must be explained, described, clear cause and effect with immediate payoff in terms of desired audience reaction.  And in that specialty, the area I think of as Spectacle, America really does quite well.  We throw countless dollars into amazing special effects, love high-emotion overacting, embrace the sheer lack of subtlety in torture subgenre horror and the equivalent in lowbrow comedy with equal adoration.  We want it in our face and we want it now, just like fast food.

It's not all bad, of course.  Spectacle has led to the creation of some truly amazing things purely for the sake of seeing if they could be done.  It has painted vistas in front of our eyes that our imaginations could barely bear to encompass.  I, too, get a thrill out of practically feeling the kinetic force involves in hilariously murdering monsters in Duke Nukem Forever or Diablo 3.  I fell in love with the madness of space damaging the very level architecture of Dead Space and the zombies - excuse me, necromorphs - that simply annihilated every trace of human life without mercy.  I adore how South Park and Futurama take every possible premise to their obvious and blatantly ridiculous conclusions without fear of going too far.  Our capacity to express the absurd has never been greater.

And yet, through it all, there's something I miss.  Spectacle is the meat of almost any story, but do we want to eat hamburgers every day for the rest of our lives?  And it's something so simple and yet so meaningful that whenever I see it - almost inevitably in something from Korea or Japan - there's something in me that twinges with longing.  That something is what I call Implication.

Simply put, Implication is the ability for a story to write about nothing happening.  Not just nothing without purpose, but a nothing that is very deliberately put there so the audience would be rewarded later.  Not now.  Later.  Who knows how much later?  You'll know when you get there.

It's buried in the idea of things being more than they seem, of not carefully explaining every little motive and rationale, of leaving dark areas in the world that the light of the audience's eyes don't touch.  It's implicit in games like Thief, and was lost in the transition from Diablo 1 and 2 to Diablo 3.  The unseen.  The unstated.  That moment that is not explained, that doesn't seem to have a purpose, but leaves you wondering.

And mass American entertainment just cannot freaking do it.  To use Implication means that you can't reward the audience right NOW, and instant gratification is one of the cornerstones of our society.  There's a moment, for example, in Casshern Sins (viewable on Cartoon Network) that is simply full of a lull.  No background music, no obvious action, just... a pause between two characters in which the world holds its breath.  And you can't help but wonder what they're thinking, because the show isn't going to tell you.  That kind of scene simply cannot happen in an American tv show, especially not an American cartoon.  Even our blatant attempts at mimicking anime miss the subtlety of presentation, that crucial willingness to Imply instead of State.

I think Implication means so much to me because I'm a very reserved and 'inner world' person.  I don't like to have to SAY things, let alone DO them.  I would much prefer people to pick up on minute cues and leave it at that.  But that's not very American, is it?

It's not that Asian cinema, comics or cartoons lack room for Spectacle.  They can be as blatantly in your face and exploitative as anything you could hope for from the West.  It's just that they also have room for Implication, too.

I rather wonder if America ever had it to begin with.  We're not exactly a subtle country.  In many ways, I think we're still like cowboys, desperately latching onto externalities to help us forget that there's an internal aspect to everything and everyone.  Passivity, contemplation, uncertainty... are these not signs of weakness to most Americans?  Are we not still looking for Indians to fight so we don't have to look straight at the sorrows that lie within our own souls?  Anything is better than being still.

Except some of us LIKE being still, for whatever weird reason that may be.