Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Is Self-Indulgence Necessarily Detrimental to a Piece of Art and/or Entertainment?

The following is a conversation I had with a good friend of mine regarding the merits of self-indulgence in art. I think we both brought up some good points, and thought I'd share it with the rest of the world.

Basil: I am envious of people who use the thing they are good at to do other things they have no business with.
Basil: Such as the Penny Arcade guys getting to make a video game.
Jeffrey: I've heard that their game isn't half bad.
Basil: I tried the demo.
Basil: The gameplay was not awful.
Basil: But the writing definitely was.
Jeffrey: And that's supposedly their biggest strong point; writing.
Basil: Well, they didn't design the gameplay.
Basil: Just wrote the story, or whatever.
Jeffrey: Right. And you'd think they would have been good at that part.
Jeffrey: But maybe not so much. I don't know. I've never played it.
Basil: You can download the demo.
Basil: Wooo.
Jeffrey: I'm too lazy to.
Basil: You might not hate it as much as I do.
Jeffrey: I don't like RPGs much to begin with.
Basil: Since you don't have as much against phony romanticizing of the '20s-'40s.
Jeffrey: Yeah. The setting sounded appealing to me.
Jeffrey: I mean what's wrong with phony romanticizing about times past?
Basil: It's tired, and a little pointless -- maybe it'd bother me less if they didn't cast themselves in it.
Basil: Or at least their invented avatars that are much better looking than themselves.
Jeffrey: A lot of my fave works of art are phony notions of settings. like Indiana Jones, or Sin City, and other things of that ilk.
Jeffrey: Most genre work doesn't strive for a realistic setting.
Basil: Maybe so.
Basil: But a lot of it used to take place the same time it was being made.
Jeffrey: Not the two I just mentioned.
Jeffrey: Or The Iron Giant.
Basil: Raymond Chandler didn't write any civil war detective stories.
Jeffrey: So? He's just one guy.
Jeffrey: I just said Indiana Jones, The Iron Giant, and Sin City, all great works of art (OK, maybe not Sin City), are romanticized pulpy period pieces.
Jeffrey: It's a good genre.
Basil: Well, ignoring sin city.
Basil: Those two take place in that time period for a reason.
Basil: Penny Arcade? I mean I guess it does.
Basil: If "we think it would be cool" is a reason.
Jeffrey: As long as there are funny jokes regarding the setting, then that's as good a reason as any.
Basil: As good a reason as thematically it couldn't take place any other time period and make sense?
Jeffrey: No. But it doesn't hurt to place it in this time period.
Jeffrey: Even if it doesn't add to the story, how does it in any way detract?
Basil: Because it's trying too hard and is distracting? How is it a good thing to make any decision based solely on the fact that you, the writer, wants to?
Jeffrey: I don't understand why that's a bad thing. I don't get this argument about "trying to hard."
Basil: Self-indulgence is always a bad thing.
Jeffrey: How so?
Basil: Uh, by its very definition?
Jeffrey: That's circular logic.
Jeffrey: Why is self-indulgence bad?
Basil: Not really, the definition of self-indulgence is that it is doing for yourself without regard to its effect on others? It implies a lack of self-control and self-awareness, which is detrimental to any work of entertainment or art.
Jeffrey: I don't think it's necessarily detrimental to make something personal.
Basil: Personal does not equal self-indulgent.
Jeffrey: I recall you talking about how all art is an expression of the artist.
Jeffrey: So all art is self-indulgent. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
Basil: Personal does not equal self-indulgent.
Basil: Art without self-critique is not art.
Jeffrey: I don't understand the difference. I mean all artist put things in their art that they like. Like Guillermo Del Toro with things in jars and creatures with sharp teeth.
Basil: Yeah, but it's not the same to do something just to do it.
Jeffrey: I really don't understand the difference. The Penny Arcade guys love the 20s time period, so they wanted to express that by making their game take place in such a setting. I don't see anything wrong with that.
Basil: You're biased because you like 20s time period stuff.
Jeffrey: Maybe. But I also just don't understand what's wrong with them doing it this way.
Basil: Because it adds nothing to the story -- it's the same as if all the girls in the game were inexplicably naked and no one ever mentioned it or called attention to it -- they were just naked because the Penny Arcade guys like naked cel-shaded ladies.
Basil: Or everybody had giant erect penises for noses.
Basil: Sure it might be funny, but so what?
Jeffrey: What you just described might just be the coolest game ever.
Basil: You're just stubborn.
Jeffrey: I could say the same of you.
Basil: Cheap laughs are cheap laughs.
Basil: Worthless in the scheme of things.
Jeffrey: How do you measure worth in art?
Basil: Well, if you're talking art, then it should give you a stronger appreciation/understanding/feeling about whatever it's trying to do.
Basil: If you're talking entertainment, then it shouldn't suck.
Jeffrey: Art is pretty much subjective by definition.
Basil: And cheap laughs suck -- and just throwing shit in there cause you feel like it sucks.
Jeffrey: I disagree.
Jeffrey: Hideo Kojima was famous for just throwing in all kinds of weird shit in his games. Like that guard in MGS2 who's taking a leak while you scale the ledge beneath him.
Jeffrey: You may not like the joke, but I don't think it detracts at all.
Jeffrey: I just think your definition of art sounds too clinical. .
Jeffrey: Art is about expression, which is very personal and very subjective. You could make something that maybe reaches a wider audience by restricting whatever personal flourishes you choose to imbue upon your work, but then you're just holding back and it might not express what you really want it to.
Basil: By that definition art would like 99% of the time be worthless to anyone but the artist.
Basil: How is that art?
Jeffrey: Guys like Hideo Kojima and Spike Lee tend to throw everything at the wall in order to see what sticks. I'd say their stuff would be better with some tighter editing, but then it would no longer be a Hideo Kojima or Spike Lee joint.
Jeffrey: I think that often when an artist is honest enough, it will find an audience of like-minded individuals.
Basil: Well, I think you're lying to yourself if you think that Hideo Kojima and Spike Lee do not do any self-editing.
Jeffrey: Oh, they do some, I'm sure. But their stuff is still very indulgent, and I don't feel like that's a bad thing in any way.
Basil: And I don't understand why.
Basil: 25th Hour is by far the best Spike Lee movie I've seen.
Basil: And it is the most focused.
Jeffrey: Focus can be good. But just because something is unfocused doesn't mean it's necessarily terrible.
Basil: Yeah, but it often means it's not as good as it could be.
Jeffrey: Sometimes these little flaws and personal tangents can be endearing.
Basil: I agree that messy can sometimes be great, and leave you with more to think about -- but I completely disagree that this means we should encourage self-indulgence... or accept it when it is detrimental, which i think is very often.
Basil: I think there are about 45 minutes of scenes that you could cut out of Magnolia, and it would be a way better movie.
Jeffrey: I haven't played the Penny Arcade game, so I can't say how related or unrelated the setting is to the rest of the game, but setting creates atmosphere, and from what I gather, it's some kind of cartoony HP Lovecraft spoof/noir kinda thing. That seems to fit the 20s era just fine.
Jeffrey: Probably even better than when they placed Reanimator in modern times.
Jeffrey: I liked Reanimator, but felt like the setting was at odds with the grand guignol gallows humor of the tale. A 30s era Bride of Frankenstein setting seems like it would have been more appropriate
Basil: I don't know, I definitely feel like then stuff like the head going down on the girl would've felt at odds... and eye-brow raising.
Jeffrey: It's been awhile since I've seen Reanimator, so maybe that's not the best example.
Jeffrey: But wasn't the Penny Arcade game pretty much what i just described, and thus fitting with the setting?
Basil: The choice was still made via, "okay I wanna do this cause it'll be cool" -- like how what's it called, that Japanese movie with zombies and samurai swords and explosions in the woods -- sounded way cooler than it ended up being.
Basil: And why Army of Darkness is the worst of the evil dead movies.
Jeffrey: But still awesome!
Basil: I've only seen it once.
Basil: But I remember it being pretty boring.
Jeffrey: and Versus is the film you're talking about.
Basil: Yes
Jeffrey: Versus was pretty boring.
Jeffrey: But not due to the idea. Someday, someone will make a great zombie and samurai swords in the woods movie.
Basil: It's doubtful.

After that we kind of went off topic and started discussing whether Devil May Cry 4 was trying to be taken seriously or not (I thought it was, he didn't), so this seemed like as good a place as any to wrap up the debate. I'm curious what other people think on this matter.
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