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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Reflecting on PONIES The Anthology

I was going to write an entire article about all the depressing problems with TV Tropes. It was going to be an amazingly complex analysis, full of critical theory and stern reprimands against a toxic anti-discourse culture.

And then a good friend of mine sent me PONIES The Anthology II.

And I realized that, frankly, I wasn't nearly as interested in my critique of TV Tropes as I was in this silly movie-length collection of clips. It was actually an enormous relief to be away from the sturm und drang of my analysis.

But, being who I am, I had to wonder: what makes this video style so compelling?

Well, first let me give you the video, and then let me give you a bit of a history lesson. Here's PONIES The Anthology I and II:

And here's the video that the creators declared, borrowing a line from the anime Cowboy Bebop, would "become a new genre itself":

You know, looking back on AMV Hell 1, the video that helped to launch a whole genre of immitators, you can see how crude it is. There's some really good jokes, but it's an experimental work, and it doesn't always hold together.

That video came out of the AMV culture--the Anime Music Video creator culture that video sites like Youtube enabled midway through the Aughties. The idea was to take footage from a show and pair it with audio--the goal was to create a music video that related the show's original footage. Here's an example that is often cited as a classic due to its high production values and its blending of song and show:

See how it blends the two media together for a powerful, emotional effect? It's got style, it's got class, it's got serious emotional weight.

AMV Hell tossed all that garbage out the window.

Instead of attempting to find a "serious" emotional commentary in the space between sound and video, the creators of AMV Hell wanted to find humor--whether ironic, pitch black, wordplay-inspired, or just straight up absurdist. And what's more, they put together not one complete AMV but a bunch of fragmentary clips. This meant that the videos had to last only as long as the gag. The commedy was scattershot, rapid, often even of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it pace. A lot of the jokes weren't even dependent upon the shows themselves--although knowing the shows usually made the gags better.

In fact, it had more in common with the other creator subculture given a stage by Youtube: the Youtube Poop genre. These videos used clips of various cartoons and games to piece together absurd, bizarre narratives. The humor, like AMV Hell's, was chaotic, often nonsensical, and could jump from razor sharp wit to pure Dadaist anti-art in literally seconds. These creators shared useful source clips back and forth and tried to find ways to cleverly distort and pervert the original content (So, a character intoning "Snooping as usual, I see!" is clipped to "PINGAS!"--juvenile, perhaps, but pretty funny if you're not expecting it.)

From there, the genre became more refined, the jokes got better, the videos got more self-reflexive and sly, and the fans began to create their own spinoffs in other media--hence PONIES The Anthology.

But none of this explains just why these videos are compelling to me. It often--especially when you're talking about the spiritual successor genre of Youtube Poop--seems like Dumb Internet Humor, the kind of random phrases spammed by /b/tards and people who absorb their culture from a distance.

Well, let me see if I can break down the reasons. I think, if I can beg your tolerance for a moment for what is probably a rather smarmy statement, I think it revolves around Delight.


I talk a lot about analysis here, and how Fanfiction can act as a critical lens that recontextualizes works. I've said similar things about the power of remixes. I don't think that's going to be new to longtime readers--those articles have been fairly popular, and I've returned to the idea repeatedly.

Simply put, reframing a work forces the reexamination of that work.

What I've left out previously is that this reframing, this reexamination, doesn't have to be deadly serious. It can be downright hilarious, in fact. But there's no fundamental difference between the act of recontextualizing Harry Potter by making Draco Malfoy one of the "good guys," and the act of recontextualizing My Little Pony by putting the Imperial March to a clip of Princess Celestia walking cheerfully between kneeling subjects.

One is a serious critical commentary on the nature of the characters and their world.

One is a humorous critical commentary on the nature of the characters and their world.

The only difference is between the words "Serious" and "Humorous." The act, the effect, is the same.

Interestingly, the simplest form of that in these videos is the recontextualization of something figurative to something literal. So, the song "I Wanna Rock" is paired with footage of Rarity obsessing over Tom, her boulder, and Twilight's groan of "Oh Fluttershy, not you too!" is paired to music from U2.

This suggests an interesting conclusion to me: wordplay, punning, this kind of wit... perhaps it is simply the most simplified form of critical analysis. It would certainly explain the Deconstructionist obsession with wordplay.

That aside, I think this is the first thing that appeals to me about these videos: it makes me see the material in a totally new way. That's the first aspect of the delight inherent in this work: the delight of something familiar becoming new.


It's legitimately amazing to see some of what these creators put together. Have you watched the second Anthology video yet?


Then you know that it ends with an extended parody of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Including original animation that is, speaking as someone who has done animation, really freaking impressive animation for a fan project like this.

With pitch-perfect parodies of the source materials.


That's really, really impressive. And it's all being done by hobbyists--people who love their shows, and want to do something creative in response.

Listen, as an Art Historian, as a Literary Theorist, I CONSTANTLY have to justify to people why frivolous things of beauty are important. And you know what? Here's a culture that doesn't question the utility of art. They're just that compelled to create. I absolutely abhor the attitude that the computer generation is a generation of lazy consumers, and these sorts of projects are the reason why.

It would be easy to dismiss these efforts as frivolous, but between a frivolous art and no art at all, isn't it better to be a bit frivolous? No, even if the content is humorous and absurd, there's nothing frivolous about this. There's nothing more profoudn than people coming together across the wode expanse of the Net, united by just two things: their love of media, and their desire to Make Something New.

I think perhaps it's a mark of our overacclimation to net culture that prevents us from realizing what a wonder such collaborations are. If I might preach for a moment, we should all feel delight that such a world is ours.


I'm cheating now, because I touched on this before in the previous entry, but I want to elaborate on something I think is important:

These aren't lone creators. They are a community.

Nothing shows that more than PONIES II and AMV Hell 5. The first is dedicated to fideo creator Magnus, the latter to Dio (the movie is even subtitled Dedicated to Dio, and the opening video plays a fantastic triple pun, equating the creator Dio, the metal mmusician Dio, and an anime character Dio). Both video artists died of cancer. Both communities responded by honoring their memory, and the Anthology creators responded by creating a cancer charity.

That's really, really cool.

Shared Experience

I think there's a common perception that reference humor is either lazy or elitist. This is often true, I'm not going to deny that. T.S. Eliot is showing off his brilliance just as much as The Big Bang Theory is showing off its low opinion of its audience's intelligence.

But I don't think this is inherent. In fact, I think obscure jokes can sometimes be the most unifying. Think about it: why do you laugh at an obscure joke, because you're happy that other people don't get it?

Or because you're happy that you do?

You're not happy because you're excluding others, unless you're a complete creep; you're happy because you're included. It's even better when the joke is one you've repeatedly missed before. It took me a second watch to catch the U2 joke, for example. And I also missed the parody versions of Shepard Fairey and Banksy street artworks that first time through. But I loved the gags when I saw them, because I knew I could appreciate the humor.

I would argue that this is actually the opposite of elitist. Those of us who make bizarre jokes that only we understand make those jokes not to feel superior--that's just the sad consolation prize that we buck ourselves up with. What we live for--what really makes us giddy, and fills us with delight--is if someone else Gets It. Because then a sly private joke becomes a shared experience. Humor is contageous, and there's a special joy in knowing that someone, even someone far removed across Cyberspace, shares your disease.

This, I think, really gets to the heart of the matter. All of this is about shared experience--whether its shared aesthetic appreciation, shared senses of humor, shared support and respect, or shared commentary on works that are mutually understood and appreciated. These videos are dependent upon knowing the source material, sure. So, I guess they're exclusive in a way. But they're also great at bringing newcomers into the fold--I can't tell you how many bands and shows I've discovered via AMV Hell's movies--and they're only as exclusive as the viewer makes them. At their core, these videos are about sharing a simple joy:

The delight of laughter.

And that was a whole lot more fun to write than an article about why TV Tropes sucks. You can follow me on Google+ at or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.


  1. You misspelled profound, and you had an "m" too many in musician.

  2. One important bit to note is that the early AMV Hells (1-4) were created by a lot of the same community that was heavily involved in Anthology 1 and 2. You notice the similarities because its largely the same micro-culture behind both projects.

    Also important to note, is that as the general quality level of AMV Hell projects dropped off, fewer talented creators wanted to associate themselves with it. Broaden the appeal, and you dilute the pool. Only time will tell if Anthology follows the same road.


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