July 21, 2016

Dramatic conservation

A common charge leveled by the cultural right against popular mass media is that its essentially dissolute nature is corrupting the moral fiber of the nation. There is certainly no lack of kindling to toss onto that fire, but it is hardly true across the board.

Police procedurals like Blue Bloods (Tom Selleck as a Rudy Giuliani-style police commissioner and devout Catholic) and Bones (David Boreanaz as a by-the-book FBI agent who's a reasonably observant Catholic) and Murdoch Mysteries (Yannick Bisson as yet another practicing Catholic) cast conservative characters in a favorable light.

When in doubt, make your cop Catholic.

And, of course, then there's the not-entirely lapsed Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on The X-Files. Her conservatism is more of an empirical nature, but in that domain, compared to Mulder, she's definitely conservative.

Ironically, the very nature of these shows means they must necessarily exaggerate the extent and prevalence of criminality, especially in middle-class society. This was just as true of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

Such generalizations hardly stop at the water's edge. Thanks to Hollywood, the average Japanese assumes the average American to be both more religious and more libertine, and the U.S. more crime-ridden, than in reality. The media messages traveling east across the Pacific presents an even narrower slice of the media pie and an even more distorted view of the cultures that produce it.

Japanese police procedures represent real crime rates about as well as British police procedures. More cinematic mayhem per week in Tokyo (or London) than in the entire country. (Though Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia refreshingly features hardly any murders in the entire series.)

Making things worse, perception-wise, most of the contemporary live-action Japanese movies that dominate the Hulu and Netflix catalogs reflect what U.S. distributors can license inexpensively in niche genres that have a build-in audience. Nothing close to a representational sample.

On this score, Studio Ghibli is perhaps the best well-known (to the non-otaku public) indicator about the tastes of the Japanese public in general (especially titles like Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart). Aside from anime feature films, very few "family-friendly" live-action Japanese movies ever make it to the U.S.

As a result, Peter Payne notes the common conclusion that "Judging from all those hentai anime and games the Japanese love, they must be the most perverted people on the planet, leading sex lives that would amaze us all, right?"

Long answer short: nope. Not even close.

Japan is a more conservative country than the U.S. Unlike in the west, the common culture has subsumed most of the historically "religious" practices and values, to the extent that there is no clear bifurcation between the two. It's not the "religious right" influencing modern culture as much as the past influencing the present. And nobody's rebelling much.

One of Faulkner's best-known lines is even more true about Japan: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Further complicating things is the gap between honne and tatemae, or between true (inner) intent and the outer display of behavior. This isn't considered less hypocrisy than a reflexive social necessity.

What is easily interpreted as a reflection of pervasive moral laxity in popular media is only tenuously—and often not at all—tied to individual, personal behavior. It's entertainment. Even there, storytelling conventions in manga and anime often "normalize" more conservative behavior than what exists in Japanese society (like the whole "first kiss" business).

Americanizing a hugely popular series like Kimi ni Todoke would only work if set in the 1950s or perhaps Utah County. Though I also think that built-in reticence (without the attendant religious moralizing) is a big part of the appeal among the American audience.

As I've argue before, a thread of conservatism (or rather, conservationism) makes for better stories. And I mean this more in the naturalistic sense: conserving stuff that's existed for a long time for a reason. The Japanese in particular are huge believers in Chesterton's fence: don't go changing things unless you've got a really good reason.

And probably not even then.

Let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate [is blocking] a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

When it comes to narrative fiction, an old gate that can be swung open without a second thought (or a brand new gate that's padlocked just because) makes for poor dramatic conflict. Some resistance, a little rust in the hinges, makes the task a lot more interesting.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
7/25/2016 2:24 PM   
One year, my high school hauled a bunch of us students to a town meeting (see local government in action!). During the meeting, a Glenville policeman of many years mentioned that he had never needed to pull his weapon.

I was SHOCKED--not because the police had weapons (which never bothered me much) but because they weren't being used. Okay, so teens are weird. The weirder thing was, all I had to do was look around me or read the newspaper to know that the police-criminal shooting rate in the town where I grew up was nothing out of nothing.

Barney Miller is, in fact, far more accurate than Law & Order (and the detectives on early Law & Order don't drawn their weapons all that much).

Popular culture reflects real life, but I would agree that there's a lot of equivocation on what "reality" is being reflected. Or demanded. I'm sure that there were far, far, far fewer cases of "fairies stealing people" (that is, people running off without telling anyone) in Medieval Times than folktales imply, but I'm also sure that those stories alleviated the grind of plowing-planting-harvesting-plowing-planting-harvesting. "Tell us another one!" Regarding Little Red Riding Hood, a wolf did ravage the French countryside for several years in the 1600s, but it killed massively fewer people than it frightened.

The Detection Club, to which Agatha Christie and Chesterton belonged, knew very well that murder as a plot device was more interesting than other types of crime. They also knew the rules. The Mystery demands certain actions occur in order for the Mystery to be a Mystery. It was later earnest writers who bought into the idea that killing off five or more people in a single book (having BAD stuff happen) was somehow "real life." The original detective writers knew better.

But then the original writers--like Homer with his Odysseus--knew the power of metaphor: we learn about human nature from literature as we watch people respond naturally to adventure, crime, and the fantastic. The accuracy of the human response is what matters, not the accuracy of the actual adventure or crime or fantasy.