March 10, 2008

Escapism

Sometimes there are things I know I'm going to write about, but I have to wait for them to congeal inside my head before I can pour them out. I've been feeling this one back there for a while, but it isn't coming together. Nonetheless, I'm going to write about it now, just because it's bothering me. So be aware that this isn't going to be as good as I really wish it would be.

Escapist entertainment has a long and rich history. What occurred to me was that when we judge escapist entertainment to decide if we like it, there are two dimensions.

First, how good is it at transporting us to another place, another situation? The ideal is that we completely lose awareness of ourselves and are, at least for a while, totally immersed in the place the writer(s) wish(es) to take us. This is the "Oh, my God, I suddenly realized that my muscles are all stiff and my bladder is full and it's 4 in the morning because I've been reading this book without moving for six hours" effect. We'll call this one "transport".

Second, is it taking us to a place we want to be? We'll call this one "destination".

For any given person, the overall desirability of any given piece of escapist entertainment will be the product of of a mental "transport" score (basically as a percentage) and a mental "destination" score. The "best" entertainment will score high on both scales, which is to say that it is very good at taking us to a place we very much want to be.

This is critical: it's the product, not the sum.

And now we get to the point: generally speaking, there won't be a lot of disagreement about the transport score for any given series. Most of the heated arguments will be about the destination -- and the reason the arguments get heated is that the desirability of the destination is largely subjective.

What you get is instances where most members of the audience like the destination, instances where few like it, and in the most controversial cases you have maybe half the audience that are entranced with the destination and half who hate it. That's where the most heated arguments happen.

Some examples: Noir is one of the best series I've ever seen. It's one of the few series I've given four stars to. I stand by that evaluation, but over the years I've come to realize that it was very effective at transporting me, but it took me to a place I didn't want to be. That's why, on my "future series" list, like Noir is a reason why I'm not interested in a series. I don't rewatch Noir. I'm very glad I watched it, but I don't ever want to watch another series like it.

I'm willing to give Maria-sama ga Miteru the benefit of the doubt and assume that it's very good at transport. I haven't seen any of it, however, and have no intention of ever watching any of it, because that's a destination I have no interest in.

What got me thinking about this was that I was contrasting Planetes and Tenchi Muyo: GXP in my mind, to try to figure out why TMGXP has so captivated me, whereas Planetes left me entirely cold. I finally decided that the reason was that Planetes was taking me to a place I wasn't interested in going.

It's near future, and about people living and working in low earth orbit, using equipment which is at least a plausible extrapolation of current technology. There are a lot of people out there who are obsessed with this particular thing. These are the people who joined the L5 Society back in the day, and spent their spare time trying to design cheap launch systems and orbital colonies.

I was never very fascinated by that, and these days I'm not fascinated with it at all. So I'm willing to give Planetes the benefit of the doubt and assume that it's extremely good at transport. Problem is, the destination is one I'm not interested in. 100% transport multiplied by 0% destination is 0% good, and that's why the series leaves me cold.

Tenchi Muyo: GXP probably isn't as good at transport as Planetes, but for me at least the destination is far, far more desirable. It's arguably fantasy rather than science fiction. But it's light-hearted, and it gives me a protagonist I like, and there are lots of pretty girls, and the visuals are much more interesting to me (and not just the pretty girls), and it's a place I like to visit, a place I'd like to go to. So even if it isn't technically as good of storytelling (which is to say, its transport score is lower) the drastically more desirable destination is, for me, more than enough to make it a lot more fun. 80% transport multiplied by 90% destination is 72% good, which beats 0% good.

And that's why I got six episodes into Planetes and stopped watching, but I've watched Tenchi Muyo: GXP all the way through at least five times now.

I think this is part of why random unsolicited recommendations are so worthless. The person provides what they think is the final score, but usually doesn't take into account the subjectivity of the destination component of that score. The young woman who kept nagging me to watch Ghost in the Shell: Stand-alone Complex kept saying how good it was -- but the reason I wasn't interested was because the show destination wasn't a place I wanted to be taken.

There are people who love vampire stories. They love to be taken to dark places, spooky places. They like being made to vicariously feel fear and horror. I don't like those things. There are people who love shoujo-ai stories, too, and they're the ones who love Maria-sama ga Miteru. I don't, and I won't be watching it.

I think that on a subliminal level I was always aware of this dichotomy, the bifurcated nature of evaluation of a show, because I've always tried in my reviews to present enough information about it to allow my readers to decide if they might like a show even when I did not. I try to provide a representative variety of frame grabs, because the graphic design is obviously part of the "transport" evaluation. I also try to describe the show enough to make it so someone else can get a pretty good idea of the destination, albeit without revealing spoilers. And I've been told more than once by readers that they've read reviews of series I didn't like, and decided they might like them anyway, and given them a try and did like them.

Which is good, because I know that my opinions are not universally held. I'm not the arbiter of all good taste. (God knows.)

UPDATE: The multiplicative nature of the final score is the reason why a desirable destination alone isn't enough to make a series worth watching. Girls Bravo doesn't have as desirable a destination for me as TMGXP, but it's a damned sight more desirable for me than Planetes. On the other hand, Girls Bravo is dreadful at transport, and that's why the show is shit.

A "masterpiece" is a show where the transport is superb, and the destination is considered very desirable by a large majority of audience. In other words, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

A "cult movie" or "cult show" is one which has a destination that a small number of people are obsessed with but the majority aren't interested in, or outright despise. (In other words, "Rocky Horror Picture Show".)

I think this explains Miyazaki's films a bit better. Miyazaki is an outstanding story-teller, but his destinations vary all over the map. For me, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro had outstanding destinations, but Castle in the Sky and Nausica of the Valley of the Winds were not so good. Miyazaki's transport score is always extremely high, but his destinations are hit-or-miss.

UPDATE: Mark points out that the word "immersion" is probably a better description of the first factor than my choice of "transport".

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in General Anime at 03:23 PM | Comments (10) | Add Comment
Post contains 1374 words, total size 8 kb.

1

This is why mecha shows don't work for me, if the mechas are the primary concentration of the show. Like LEO space in Planetes, the idea of operating a mecha seizes the imagination of some people, but it doesn't work for me at all. The shows which mechas in them that I've liked (and there have been some: Vandread, Divergence Eve, Sakura Wars) were desirable destinations in spite of the mechas, not because of them.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 10, 2008 03:58 PM (+rSRq)

2 Hmm, Noir actually didn't work for me in terms of transport -- I kept getting distracted by the use of the same background music and that same damn flashback in the first several episodes. I found it so annoying that I didn't get around to watching the rest of the series.

Posted by: ambulatorybird at March 10, 2008 04:52 PM (S9xIl)

3

Interesting perspective as always. 

I think another source of "heated discussions" among fans is that some fans value the transport more than the destination, while others value the destination most.  In those cases, the two camps might end up arguing two entirely subjects about the same show, and end up wondering how the other side "just doesn't get it".

In the case of Noir (which I found via your recommendation), I have watched it several times, even though you rate its rewatch value as low.  Although I wouldn't want to live in the story it tells, I greatly enjoy how they tell that story (though I think they over-did the flashbacks).

This may also explain why I enjoy "grim" stories more than others.  It's not I want to live in the dark and gloomy destination they portray, but rather I enjoy how well they transport me there.

Posted by: Siergen at March 10, 2008 06:18 PM (V4EaH)

4

Some people like the feeling of catharsis. That's why some women and girls like entertainment that makes them sob, and why some people like shows that make them feel spooked.

Escapism is a way of vicariously experiencing things without paying the existential price for them: to be afraid without being in danger; to mourn without having suffered real loss. To face trial and surmount it without actually being in danger or risking anything. To be someone different than who you are. To do things you could never, or would never, really do.

That's part of the basis of the popularity of games like "Grand Theft Auto". How many of us really have it in us to be mass murderers? Apparently damned few -- but if no one gets hurt, and if there's no legal liability, it seems that a lot of people think it's fun to pretend.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 10, 2008 06:32 PM (+rSRq)

5 People always wonder why I loathe horror movies, especially the staple Zombie Apocalypse subgenre.  It's because it's a genre where the destination is not somewhere I want to be, and for the longest time I couldn't genuinely understand how anyone would want to be there.

Now, I guess it's the "companions" rather than the "location" of the destination that makes the trip worthwhile.  The place might suck, but in your imagination you're there with heroes, doing heroic stuff against impossible odds, bleak as it may seem.

Posted by: Civilis at March 11, 2008 05:34 PM (ODZ3Q)

6 Will Smith's I Am Legend is quite different from your usual Zombie Apocalypse flick (in addition to not being animated in the usual sense of the word.)  In particular it didn't have the gratuituous gore typical of the genre.

Posted by: RickC at March 12, 2008 06:50 AM (3vhf8)

7 For some it's the journey, for others the destination, and for still others it's whether you get the window seat.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at March 12, 2008 07:03 AM (PiXy!)

8 Presumably those are the people who would love Popotan instead of having mixed feelings about it, eh?

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 12, 2008 07:54 AM (+rSRq)

9 I've never been able to get into Mecha because whenever I see them I think big fat target. I just can't believe in their viability on a modern battlefield. To much time reading military history and hitting the Milblogs.

Posted by: toadold at December 18, 2008 09:44 PM (zcbXo)

10 I tend to distinguish between Mecha ( aka 'realistic' ) and Super Robot ( aka 'not' ) as far as genres go.  The former tend to make my suspension of disbelief twang.  The latter. . . not so much, given they aren't really supposed to be technology.  They are gods, powered by the passion, willpower ( and/or occasionally angst *coughEvangelioncough* ) of the pilot.

Posted by: metaphysician at December 18, 2008 10:10 PM (h4nEy)

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