Friday, July 06, 2007

nostalgia and the arts

I saw Transformers this week and it has been interesting to mull over how loyalties formed in our younger years carry over into aesthetic allegiances. For me Transformers is a reminder that my aesthetics have changed. The shift is hardly perceptible in any given year but becomes very pronounced across a decade. I have gotten to the point where I'd rather watch a bad movie in good company than watch a great movie by myself.

And Michael Bay's Transformers is not exactly a "great" movie. And certainly neither was the original animated Transformers movie from the 1989s that I honestly couldn't finish watching when I tried watching it in my early 20s. When I was a kid I really, really, really wanted to see the movie but I couldn't figure out a way to see it when I was 12 and friends who saw it said that it was disappointing. I actually WANTED Optimus Prime to die. That might make me seem like a craven jerk among 1980s kids but that's what I wanted.

See, apparently unlike a few other kids I knew Optimus Prime didn't embody the best ideals of my childhood. I thought he was too squeaky clean, too perfect. He was so indestructible in the cartoons on TV my stepdad once asked why he even needed a bodyguard since he could apparently beat the bad guys all by himself. It was a curious question that nagged me at the back of my mind for the times I watched the show. Perhaps my stepdad simply burst the bubble of suspended disbelief.

Curiously, perhaps, what I hoped the cartoon would have that it never really had was moral ambiguity. Perhaps I was an unusual 12 year old boy, or perhaps I just had no idea where my kindred spirits were, those other 12-year-old boys who wanted the Decepticons to win once in a while so that there'd be some meaning to the victory of the good guys. That was my problem with the show, I guess, why I stopped being interested in Transformers. There was no real challenge for the good guys in battling the bad guys. The bad guys had plans so hair-brained it wouldn't have taken much to beat them.

I mean, how often did Megatron say "We attack ... at sunrise!" Now for those of you who remember Optimus Prime he's the kind of guy where if he was a guy would get up at 6 in the morning, eat his Wheaties, and go run around the track for thirty minutes just to warm up and great the bright sunshine before it even showed up yet. When Optimus Prime said "I have a plan" it was basically a signal for a jump cut. We weren't going to actually HEAR him explain the plan. My brother once said that when Optimus Prime says "Even the wisest of men and machines make mistakes." you might was well through in a parenthetical "even me" to just butter the toast already.

So when I heard that this kind of self-regarding Optimus Prime who didn't need any help, might actually die in the Transformers movie I looked forward to it. Well, at least I did ten years later when I was in my twenties. The battle was really basically a draw. And after a few seasons of cartoons on TV where Megatron's fusion cannon did diddley squat I was baffled that in the movie Megatron's gun, which did nothing more than create slivers of rising smoke on Ironhide's shoulder, can suddenly kill Autobots with one blast.

Where was this new and improved fusion cannon hiding for years? Behind FCC regulations? Why was it by 2005, per the setting of the movie, that the Decepticons somehow gained the upper hand decisively, so decisively that the Autobots had to abandon Cybertron and live on a moon base? No, really! What exactly were Megatron and the Decepticons doing right for season after season that they suddenly just managed to take over Cybertron? Did all the Autobots leave? It seemed like there were three Autobots to every two Decepticons anyway, so that MIGHT have made some sense. But it all seemed so spectacularly contrived that I think even as a 12-year-old I would have found it puzzling.

I mean, in comic book geek terms this is what you'd call a spectacular ret-con. Retroactive continuity on this grand a scale goes so far as to question beg the entire TV run that preceded the movie. Now you can probably tell, if you've read this geeky rant this far, that I was the kind of kid where instead of cheering the new-found elements of realism where even heroes can die I'd be skulking about the sorry excuse to sell more toys. In fact hearing that Optimus Prime got killed and that he was replaced with Rodimus Prime just began to fill me with a curious and sort of dreadful late childhood feeling that if I had gotten what I wanted, if I had gone and actually seen the Transformers movie in theaters as a kid, that I would have felt like I was conned.

Cartoons designed to sell toys is all right, if the cartoons are decently watchable and the toys are actually fun to play with. The combination of action figure, vehicle, and robot with the premise of a backstory explaining their reasons for fighting, that was a brilliant marketing idea.
But to contend that the cartoon and the movie that followed were or are better than a Michael Bay film ... sorry, guys, I just don't quite see it. In fact I'd have to say in hindsight, in terms of what I felt at the time, and in terms of how I feel now, Transformers as a pop culture phenomenon was cool for the time but it doesn't stick with me. If it sticks for other people that's cool. I guess I offer some heartfelt sympathy to anyone who thinks Bay slagged his or her childhood pop culture high water mark. George Lucas irrevocably destroyed the mystique of the Star Wars franchise for me with those prequels ... though I confess that by my mid twenties even the appeal of Star Wars was starting to fade for me. I've got the movies, the original theatrical cuts since Lucas finally consented to make those available.

But for the inner 12-year old I had long shifted my interests back to stuff I thought I had given up, comic book characters. The Batman cartoons from the 90s impressed me. They became my talisman, sort of, for the kind of cartoon I WISH I had been able to see as a kid. So my 20s were a sort of renaissance of comic book and cartoon appreciation. I didn't just have the cartoons that were practically the only game in town. I had options. I had access to anime, to well-done superhero cartoons, superhero cartoons slightly better than the average episode of Spiderman and his Amazing Friends.

I think it was Lewis who once, so it's said, stated that there are books that are worth reading at age 7 that are even more worth reading at 70. Or something like that. Whether or not C. S. Lewis said it or wrote it somewhat immaterial to me because I think that whoever said it might not go so far as to say that 70-year old men have even more reason to watch Transformers than 7-year-old boys. For some, though, I'm sure that's true. Maybe if I live to be 70 years old I'll enjoy Transformers cartoons as much as I did when I was 11 or 12. Maybe not.

I suppose that there may be some mechanism in the brain and soul that allows us to love hearing the same music over and over again, hear the same stories over and over again. I suppose at some level that is what the function of myth might be or of history, too. If so then I'd have to say that Transformers is so light to me and far from my heart that I can go watch Michael Bay's movie and feel that it is basically at the same artistic level as the original stuff. If others feel differently that's fine, too.

But I'm afraid I have never been able to completely get on the Optimus Prime bandwagon because he seemed simultaneously too perfect and oddly remote. Even Superman has more powers of empathy, depending on what version you're reading. There's a sense in which Optmius Prime and Superman seem like different versions of the same character, with Prime being the lesser entry in terms of pop cultural significance. It's as though an American culture of kids that thought it was a little too cool and sophisticated to keep rooting for Superman after Superman 3 turned to Optimus Prime.

I guess the trouble with nostalgia in the arts is that nostalgia is not the same as history. Ecclesiastes warns us, "Don't ask yourself, 'where are the older days that were better than these?' because it is not wise to ask such questions." I know there is a temptation for us to decide that people will go from bad to worse, just as the Bible says, but the Bible also warns us against nostalgia. I guess I'm still a Didion fan because even if I do believe God's eye is on the sparrow I don't think the old days were all that glorious.