Saturday, 06 October 2007

Redeeming the Cliché

And so it is that I’ve experienced my second foray into the world of anime, as, much to the contemptuous impatience of my sister the anime expert, I have passed through the Painted Glass and enjoyed Blood+, a series which enjoys said sister’s arched derision and contempt. Much of this has to do with the unabashed angst of the series. Among her gripes is one which amused me; apparently the beautiful delicate heroine who eats a lot but never gains weight is a cliché abundant in anime…who knew?

The angst doesn’t really bother me. Blood+ is styled much in the tradition of the science fiction gothic, and I always find that once I can identify a grand aesthetic tradition to which a story is paying homage to I don’t mind clichés, as long as the style is done well. I find that this is generally true for the postmodern audience well-versed in the lore of aesthetic traditions. Take Kill Bill, for instance. Much of the movie’s cleverness inhered in the demand for a certain ironic stance towards the over-the-top violence and deliberately bad dialogue. To appreciate it, we had to be aware that one, the lameness was on purpose, and two, that the purpose had to do with a salute to a style of 1970s kung-fu revenge narrative that either once had been great, or which had anyway cultivated a genre-specific audience with a rich stylistic structure. Kill Bill would never have commanded the critical respect it did if we hadn’t been aware of the contract it made with an outdated aesthetic. That awareness demands sophistication and so we read the lameness not for what it exhibits but for what knowledge (of a tradition) it demands. Same is true for Mary-Jane’s line in the recent Spiderman movies, “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” Consider the cheese of that for a second, and then consider that it was comic-book canon that Mary-Jane used that line. Kirsten Dunst therefore had to say it at least once in the movie, and that idea of a salute made to the rich tradition of the Spiderman comics elicited delight in audiences because it signified a certain subtlety specific to pop-culture know-how. In other words we enjoyed it not because we liked it but because we recognized it.

I think, really, that a lot of these ‘homage’ trends signify in a way, a certain longing for the cliché. If something is old (read by us as outdated) or too well recognized (cliché), there is a certain pressure to let it go, despite what value we still find in it. The contract of recognition, or homage, redeems what we have lost, restoring to it if not its old meaning then a kind of artificial glamour on which we skate delicately careful to avoid losing our ironic retrospection or academic distance.

Blood+, for me I think, skated on the latter. Once I had identified the genre, and knew to expect haunted pasts, tall-dark-and-handsomes, and narrative manipulations designed to simultaneously characterize the heroine as violently strong and hopelessly vulnerable, I could allow them to slide. I knew they had been done before.