The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Culture Kept In Its Coffin: How The Netflix Model Buries Our Media History

Classic anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena could get a new lease on life if released serially in the present day... but Netflix and its many competitors aren't in the business of preserving or selling art. What do we lose when our media history becomes #Content?

It wasn't just what I noticed when I had a higher rez video, though it was PARTLY that for sure. For example, I realized, watching that first duel between Utena Tenjou and trash boy Saionji, that the sky of the dueling arena looks a lot like a painted set. That's the kind of thing you pick up on in HD, I guess: the subtleties of textures stand out more. Nozomi Entertainment's youtube upload of this high quality version of classic lesbian anime Revolutionary Girl Utena didn't exactly transform my understanding of the series, but it did enhance the subtlety, making the textures of the themes and symbolism and character moments more tangible.

It wasn't what I noticed with the higher resolution, though. It was the experience of Nozomi, which already youtube-hosts the whole series in lower resolution, premiering the series in HD, scheduling it like it was a brand new production, counting down to the date of its airing. They didn't just dump the whole series at once, but gave us that one exciting taste with the promise of more. It was the promise of experiencing Utena as a serial experience, and more than that a communal one. A whole bunch of people were gonna see this show unfold, week after week, for the first time. That's what really got me excited and engaged: the feeling that it was the beginning of something great.

And then it turned out they were just uploading that one episode, cause the rest is on Funimation in HD already, and this was just, like, an advertisement for that I guess.


Like I wasn't that surprised let's be honest. I had this sense of foreboding when I couldn't find anything on Nozomi's website touting the plan. Was this, I asked myself, just sort of invented in the minds of a few fan sites? Yeah. It was. In fact, thinking back I guess it stood out to me that this might be a misapprehension, because it was so implausible. Nozomi releasing a legacy series from two decades ago, episode by episode, week by week? Building the hype of an original broadcast by deliberately spacing out the viewers' encounters with it? Instead of just dumping the whole thing on some big aggregate website and calling it a day and letting people sorta find their way to it via algorithm in this very disinterested way?

Absurd. That's not how Netflix does it!

And everyone wants to be god damn Netflix.   

God I'm so tired of Netflix. You ever get tired of Netflix? I'm so tired of their whole release model where entire seasons of things just sort of unceremoniously get dumped onto the internet abruptly. The internet is not something that you just dump something on! But no, old shows, new shows, it's all the same. If Netflix has the rights to it, it's gonna dump it.

You know who else is tired of this? Sarah Zedig.

Her video on Netflix's broken release model does a great job of breaking down the way new shows are treated as ephemeral fast food. This is weird considering the site's deranged bloated venture capital driven budgets. You'd think with all that money they'd try to make the experience last, make their shows into cultural phenomena! But, no, they come out in one big lump and then dissipate into the cultural aether again. It's content (derogatory) and you're a consumer swallowing it down and moving on. Sarah summarizes this real succinctly:

Temporal Distance Creates Psychological Presence

It's a pretty established aspect of serial storytelling. Parceling content out over days, weeks, or months means generating a whole discursive ecosystem around that content. Fan theories, speculation, casting rumors, and maybe above all else a shared unified reaction to whatever content just dropped. You don't get the awkward thing Sarah points out where the conversation isn't so much about whatever big bezoar of content Netflix has just expelled from its gut, but about whether your conversational partner has digested the same amount of it you have, since otherwise god help you one of you may encounter 

S P O I L E R S.

When you temporally divide a story up to promote that kind of serial audience, though, you can get big dramatic social events. Like, there was this incident where a character in the newspaper comic The Gumps died tragically before her fiancĂ© could get out of jail, right? And all this played out despite the real world governor of Mississippi offering the fictional fiancĂ© a pardon. That tragic chain of events prompted a DELUGE of protests from readers, and outpourings of grief. There's an incredible photo of Gumps author Sidney Smith literally swimming in the mountain of letters people sent in. The serial format and the buildup to that moment created a lasting experience! Temporal distance created psychological presence.

Hold on though, I hear you interject, what the everloving fuck is a "Gump"? If it was so impactful why haven't I heard of it? Well, time dilutes all fandoms, and I guess the fandom for a newspaper comic just can't hold on after a LITERAL CENTURY. That's right, I wasn't playin
g when I said this was a WELL ESTABLISHED PRINCIPLE. All this fandom nonsense happened in the 1920s! None of it is new! (Go read Jared Gardner's "Projections" if you don't believe me!)

That's new serial stories, though. I'm talking about one that came out in the 90s, one that already had its chance at serial stardom. What, did I want a show only a little bit younger than I am to have a second chance, a renaissance of week to week theories and predictions and reactions and fan art and analysis?

Well... yeah I guess I kinda did! Or at least for a hot minute I imagined what that would be like and got excited for it. And some of that excitement was admittedly a little self serving: I immediately started imagining a weekly podcast for example where I and others could talk about each new episode in a way that'd maybe unlock them for new viewers without giving too much away. But it's not just that I'm lamenting the chance to be part of the mobile village of #contentcreation that follows serial media around like the villages that followed premodern armies.

It's also that the rhythms of a serial release are built deeply into Revolutionary Girl Utena. It's a show built on repetition that makes a lot of sense week to week, but which can feel a bit monotonous if you're bingeing the show. (For goodness sake we're calling how we watch shows on Netflix "bingeing" and somehow convincing ourselves that it's a good experience that we're enjoying!) Ikuhara's tendency to reuse sequences like the transformation sequence as Utena ascends the staircase leading to the duelist arena is a way into the show in serial form, and imo a bit repetitive if you're trying to watch like 6 episodes in a row, a barrier to enjoyment

I guess I worry that many aspects of the show come across as technical flaws when binged. They're not flaws, they're just particular aesthetic choices that give you a pattern to return to week by week, points of stability in a show that can otherwise be honestly a little overwhelming in how much it throws at the audience. But the overwhelming bits get compounded in binge format, and the repetitive bits get annoying, and above all else the whole thing loses that essential discussion AROUND the art that comes from those week by week fan reactions. Utena is such a dense series that it really demands time to contemplate and a community of people to contemplate it with. Realizing the painted set texture of the duel arena is one thing; being able to actually TELL people about it is quite another. That conversation is much harder to achieve under the Netflix model.

In one way, winding up in this position with media feels a little odd to me--just a feeling of, wait how did we get here to this place that seems really kind of miserable? The one big promise of Netflix was that we'd have a perpetual dvd rental store so vast it could give us everything. Leaving aside how unrealistic that was, I think it also runs into the problem of video stores that Sarah points out in her video: the kind of overwhelming choice paralysis that comes from that broad a set of options. The model assumes everyone already knows what they want to watch and just wants to consume in kind of a passive way, something to kill time. That's fine but it means that a whole lot of history gets either shown in a less flattering light or just not shown at all.

Part of me feels like there must be some value in a more active curation and even a treatment of older works like Utena as something to be shown in a contextualized rerun format. Like, Turner Classic Movies, but for old anime. I'm sure there's plenty of reasons to be mad at Turner, but you know, they did make an effort to explain what the hell you were watching and why the hell you'd want to watch it, and a similar release for a show like Utena could potentially revitalize the fandom in the present day.

But there's a nagging part of my brain that thinks there's probably a damn good reason no one's really doing this. This demand for greater curation and contextualization makes sense if Netflix and Crunchyroll and Disney Plus and Hulu and Zombocom and HBO Maxx and HGTVnext and Pornhub and eXistenZ and the Criterion Collection's website and Quibi and every other of the like 50 streaming networks are selling you art. But... maybe they're not selling art, maybe the point isn't to make art or provide a valued experience, maybe it's to become a content monopoly, a one stop shop for an entire product that just buys out all the competition and then can set prices arbitrarily. Netflix is the We Work or Uber or Amazon of tv streaming.

Except they didn't and couldn't secure a monopoly, because Disney could always take their ball and go home the second it looked more profitable to simply run their own branded theater effectively (and it was always going to eventually reach that point, which is why studios couldn't run their own theaters according to anti-trust law, but Covid probably pushed us past the point of no return on THAT principle too). In response the companies seem now to act more like predatory banks and financial speculators bundling together mortgage-backed securities, disguising the lack of quality in their offerings with the sheer quantity of stuff they can shovel onto their platforms in big annual releases. So now we have to subscribe to one of like 50 services each offering just a few things worth watching and oh whoops did we accidentally just recreate cable tv??? Well that blows!

Here's the thing though. I'm not explaining all this to argue that actually the studios and networks should reconsider how they do things cause they're leaving money on the table. I don't know if they are, maybe they aren't, maybe I'm right, who cares. Arguments about profitability are for nerd pedants. I do not want Disney or Netflix or whoever to release their products in a way I find moderately more fulfilling and they find moderately more profitable, I want them to be razed to the ground. We are not collaborators we are literally class enemies. No, the reason I'm explaining all this is cause I'm cranky and sometimes I want to just explain why a thing sucks, ok?

And as an art historian I gotta say it sure FEELS like something about the infinite rental store of the web sucks. It feels like it sucks all the life and context out of history, doing as little as possible to extract value from something that seemingly has only marginal worth to the ideas landlords that own its rights, but is still viciously guarded from ever, ever entering back into the Commons, in our lifetime if ever.

Which is weird to discuss in the context of Utena cause that's sorta the whole second season right? Hell it's a big vibe for the show overall. Space and time are convoluted in Ohtori Academy. Characters that try and fail to revolutionize the world are just sort of used up and forgotten, disappearing from reality. The past is a useful resource in the form of traumas and regrets and shocking quantities of sacrificed souls... but those sacrificed souls in particular don't actually matter as anything other than raw material, and when they're used up they're just tossed unceremoniously in the incinerator. In fact the entire second season is sometimes treated this way by the fans simply cause it feels like a weird deviation from the main plot that's literally forgotten by the main characters after its hauntological chief villain is also used up and discarded.

I don't think it's pointless, though. It introduces a core aspect of Utena: that the ultimate enemy is a whole damn pyramid scheme of exploitation. Utena has to fight her way through a whole ascending scale of failed femininities, even more prominently failed masculinities, and arguably even failed modernities. The characters that embody those ideals get progressively better and better at manipulating the people around them and, consequently, the fluid and psychographic space and time of Ohtori. It seems notable that the first season introduces a bunch of teens who manipulate and use each other to get whatever abstract idea they're questing after, and the second season introduces a character acting more like a trauma factory, using the souls of dead duelists and the toxic relationships of the living to basically manufacture soldiers. The dead souls he uses are indistinguishable raw material, and their bodies are dispassionately jettisoned into an incinerator the minute the artificial warriors they power cease to be useful.

And we could be talking about this together RIGHT NOW with a whole bunch of you having just gotten to this point and encountered Mikage and his dead duelists for the FIRST TIME, if the default treatment of anything old wasn't this shovelware attitude!

That's how it is under capitalism, though, I guess. Utena doesn't grapple directly with capital but it certainly expresses the effects of capitalist modernity on our ability to remember shit. Capital is always selling us the next new thing, the next revolution. But of course capital wants to maintain its own status quo! So there has to be a continued erasure of the page, a forgetting of our own history.

It's easy to market each new thing as a revolution of the world when history is a palimpsest.

Let's not get carried away though! When I'm talking about radical remembrance vs capitalist erasure I'm not talking about like... an "underrated" 80s sitcom, I'm talking about stuff like queer or labor history. And even then it's important to remember the people behind the history, not just the good tv shows they may have created or struggled to create or whatever. I just feel compelled to point this out because it's really not going to destroy the prospect of revolution to have Netflixification of classic tv, and conversely it won't move the revolution forward if Nozomi DID put Utena out an episode at a time on Youtube.

Hell even if they did I'm not sure people would be ready for it! One downside of being as radical and challenging as Utena is that it still can be distressingly avant garde and shocking in its content! Certainly, Neon Genesis Evangelion had to be toned down for a modern release, leading to the incredibly memeable translation of extreme teen gay angel Kaworu telling protagonist Shinji not "I love you" but [deep breath] "You are worthy of my grace", a line so laughably bad that all the queer Eva fans I know now say it to their partners as a form of ironic endearment. Similarly, apparently these streaming networks have started simply cutting out "objectionable" scenes of one form or another without, like, mentioning it. Fixing the Netflixification of older media, releasing things serially again, does not solve the problem of how idea landlords obscure and rewrite our past to suit their present.

And in that sense maybe this is a thing that matters politically. I was all set to end this on a light tone saying well you know it's unfortunate for fandom and there's not any good fixes but it's not the end of the world...

And then I happened upon the art of Antonio Lopez. Lopez was a fashion artist in New York in the 70s and 80s, an astonishing talent who died young of complications from AIDS, and he stood out to me because... ah, how to put this...

His art is obviously Jojo's Bizarre Adventure characters??

Suddenly, looking through his work, things that I had sensed all snapped into place. Of course Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, long running and deeply strange shonen manga, has a queer affect and aesthetic... so much of its style and swagger is influenced by a queer art and fashion scene!

Just as Utena and Anthy don't spend their whole series in a committed explicitly lesbian relationship, I don't know that you could say JJBA is "canonically queer" in some really narrow diegetic wiki-friendly way. Nonetheless, the manga and anime have a profoundly queer gaze. They treat bodies less as things that move naturalistically through a space, and more as things to be posed and admired. Their stylization speaks to a queer phenomenology of the body that isn't limited by anything as shallow as mere gender--its protagonists and antagonists are meant to be stared at, they are covered in textures and hung in the picture frame evocatively and drenched in succulent anti-naturalistic color.

It wasn't until I saw Antonio Lopez's amazing works of art that I understood this though, this particular gaze and why it spoke to me on an unconscious level even as I was frustratingly unable to express why. I couldn't say what made the use of Savage Garden in Diamond Is Unbreakable's incredibly mesmerizing ending so viscerally affecting to me, why it seemed so clearly correct, why it seemed so queerly correct. The history, until I made the connection to our cultural history, wasn't tangible to me, because JJBA is cut off from history, fragmented in fandom culture away from these sources which are, in our still flat and colorless and homophobic culture, suppressed in the cultural memory.

That history is there though waiting to be rediscovered. It is the homoeroticism of the dueling tradition in early modernity, the deep homosociality of military officers of the fin de siecle, that saturates the teen drama of Utena. It is the queer-tease of the schoolgirl lesbian trope, subverted into real love in Utena and Yuri Kuma Arashi. It is the dead BL love interest subversively resurrected in Sarazanmai. It is Antonio Lopez's queer gaze transforming the bodies of Hirohiko Araki's shonen protagonists. These media histories are not over, they still speak to our present condition, when we dig them out from the piles and piles of #content dumped on Netflix and its many imitators as so much fucking cultural ballast. Hell if even the Gumps in 1920 have something to say to us about contemporary fandom culture, seriality, and ongoing engagement, surely an anime from the 90s deserves another shot!

So, maybe the Netflix release model and the simple disregard underlying it does matter in the sense that it's one aspect of a wider battle capital wages against our understanding that:

The world wasn't always the way it was now.

The world could be different again.

In many ways, the world may have been better, more vibrant, more radical, more survivable than now.

There are different ways of being in the world than just what is most easy to sell to contemporary audiences.

The solution to that isn't something you can lobby Netflix or Disney Plus to change though. You can just try your best to set up alternatives, build friendships with people willing to meet media on these terms. Maybe you could start viewing parties! I've had some luck with that. And my roommate just suggested a plugin for the Homestuck Desktop App that would timelock posts, so a bunch of people could experience it as a serial release, I can imagine doing similar things for other media. If you can just revisit this art in a way that contextualizes it rather than-- what's that? 

A felony charge for streaming copyrighted material you say? 

Bipartisan support?

TEN YEARS of jail time?

Ah. Well.

I understand.

Your path has been laid out before you. Your only choice is to revolutionize the world.

This Has Been

Culture Kept In Its Coffin

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1 comment:

  1. Have you consider the possibility that even if Utena were re-released serially as you wanted it still wouldn't garner that much more discussion than it already has because it's old and anime fans more like to focus on the shiny new and currently on shows these days?


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