Hooray For Context!

First: “Why can’t you just enjoy it for what it is?” this has been a common complaint levied at me and other people who get overly analytical about popular entertainment. My father said precisely this when he complained about my comparisons of Avatar to Dances With Wolves. He contended that movies need to be viewed as separate, independent entities. (This was also something I heard a lot from an ex who liked fluffy romantic comedies.)

Second: “All it has going for it is character recognition.” This was a gripe by a member of a book group I go to. He said it in reference to two things. The first was Fables, a comic book series about fairy tale characters in the modern world, and then about the new Star Trek movie. “If you were to present these stories without their popular characters,” he said, “they wouldn’t work.”

In both of the above examples, it seems that people want to experience art or entertainment as singular and unrelated to the cultural context around it. Each thing must be taken on its own merits without prejudice or stereotype, seen on its own terms. This attitude is oddly noble but ultimately impossible to realize.

This attitude of experiencing art and entertainment as singular and context-less is noble because it is open-minded, and wishes to find the potential good of a given work. To attempt to see something without context or connections is often an attempt to see it as something intrinsically good. Or, in the case of my book group companion, it is to demand intrinsic goodness only in a work. In either case, there is a deeply held belief that cultural objects should carry some spark of inherent awesomeness, and that spark must be searched for without prejudice.

To some extent I think that is a good thing, and abandoning prejudices about art and entertainment is often a good idea. However, one cannot really abandon context and really see cultural objects as singular. Ask yourself: Could you have gone into the new Star Trek movie and pushed aside all of your visions and notions regarding Kirk, Spock, the Enterprise, etc.? Could you have seriously said “For the next two hours I will forget all of the reruns I saw as a kid, all of the movies, everything I know about Star Trek“? Unless you have a pathologically selective memory, the answer is probably no.

Good artists and entertainers know this. When they know that an audience will see everything in context of everything else, they will play with that and use that. Star Trek was great because it used audience expectations effectively, exploiting the feeling of recognition and connection to wonderful effect.

Two entirely different examples of artists exploiting context for effect are Psycho and Scream. Both of these movies placed prominent actresses, Vivian Leigh and Drew Barrymore, front and center on their movie posters, precisely where you would expect the main character to be, flanked by supporting casts. In both of these movies, though, the top-billed actresses are killed off before the major action takes place, confounding audience expectations. Would the shock in either of these movies have worked if the audience hadn’t seen the movie posters or didn’t know who the actresses were? No, but they didn’t really have to. Hitchcock and Craven knew what people would be expecting because of ad campaigns and movie conventions, and exploited those expectations for effect.

(Tangentially related: My enjoyment of Inglorious Basterds was greatly hampered by the difference between the movie’s trailer and the film itself. I was expecting lots of fun violence a la Kill Bill, but got a spaghetti western. A pretty good spaghetti western, yes, but I kept waiting for the grand guignol promised by the trailer.)

Embracing context and expectations, though, is wonderful. Instead of seeing a pile of things not judged on their own merit, one sees a grand interrelated network of things. Every action movie is related to every other action movie. Comedies are connected to other comedies, horror flicks to other horror flicks. Cognates, similarities, and variations abound. One can see the same convention tweaked over and over again, sometimes badly, sometimes well. Embracing context means that you like synthesis and variation, you accept that things combine and mutate. One can never really see something “on its own terms,” and I, for one, have no problem with that.

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