“TIE Fighter” (the short movie) and the pitfalls of nostalgia

Ok, put down the pitchforks for a moment, just read this.

The short movie, “TIE Fighter”, drawn/animated by Paul Johnson, is pretty damn good. Frentic, has badass music, AND the animation is pretty good (makes me envious, even…then again, it’s proof that independent animation projects DO work out, so fingers crossed). But the stated intentions of this project, and the results thereof, give me pause (from the description on Youtube):

What if there was an Empire-focussed short Star Wars animation, drawn with the crazy detail and shading of classic 80s anime that’s all but vanished from Japan nowadays? Well, I tried my best. Apologies in advance for not living up to Venus Wars standards.

You’re probably thinking, “What’s so offensive about that?” Well, it’s not offensive per say (well, ok, offensive if you find the word “crazy” to be ableist. Understandable). If their intent was to imitate the likes of the movie adaptation of “Akira” and the TV adaptation of “City Hunter”, then…admirable job. Thing is, when it comes to imitating a work, an era, or one’s idea of a work/era (we’ll get to that last part in a few moments), one has to wonder…in the age of Netflix, BitTorrent and, well, The Internet, is imitating the past really worth it? One can get the texture “right”, be a world-class impersonator of one’s favorite celebrity, and the like…but you would still just be a Simulacrum at best. Which I guess is no problem for the consumer…until they discover the actual work/era you imitate. Maybe. There’s probably someone out there who thinks “Disturbia” is better than “Rear Window” (you have every permission to give that person…a long talking to).

Anyway, there’s a book that sorta matches my point on this: “Retromania” by Simon Reynolds. Now, I disagree with him on some things, like how he describes Flying Lotus as “unlistenable” (fucking seriously). Not to mention his flippish attitude towards those who like to plunge into history (Though I see their point about how one can indulge the past to the point of valuing it at the expense of the present…to the point where it BECOMES the present). His viewpoint on this matter can be summed up by him writing (and I’m paraphrasing), “History needs a dustbin”. In other words, he writes that we consume so much of history, even the stuff “meant” to be forgotten, that history is approaching a point of being almost meaningless.

Now, that premise…I have a complicated relationship with it, to say the least. First of all, whose history are we talking about? The history of people like Reynolds, who in “Retromania” describes the Sex Pistols as rebellious and wild because they refused to participate in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (disregarding the fact that they were a publicity stunt from the get go)? The history of the very establishment Reynolds and other critics tear down? Or is History sullied the moment the masses have anything to do with it, in the form of Wikipedia-style websites like TV Tropes (…fuck, if TV Tropes is the case, maybe he has a point)? The very concept of History has a load of problems, but those problems are multiplied the moment anyone tries to define what it actually is, and I think “Retromania” suffers for it when Reynolds tries to be an arbiter of taste while warning us of the dearth of innovation that comes from worshiping the past.

At the same time, I think innovation is an important thing to strive for. Not for it’s own sake, but BECAUSE we live in a time where so much of the past (or curated versions of it) are available to people. See, imitation of the past was a person’s way of making a mark in a world where the march of time was even more brutal (in a sense) than it is now. Obvious examples are moviemakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarintino, whose moviemaking styles can be seen as that of eager prospectors digging up the doldrums of the past while everyone else goes for the shinier stuff. That can be good…to a point. Not just because such moviemaking ends up embracing everything about the past, whether it’s “good” or not, but because given the very nature of art there is no possible way for one to multiply the exact same kind of intimacy a creator has with what they imitate.

It was once said that a movie is actually a thousand movies playing in each viewer’s head (paraphrasing, here. At this moment I can’t recall who said such a thing). What to movie critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is a perceptive and wicked encapsulation of 1950s middle class society is to another just a movie where James Stewart plays peeking tom. Plus, one has to factor in the number of people who will agree with, contest, or mull on those very interpretations. Some will call “Rear Window”, “overrated” because of X, or “dull” because of X, or “just ok” because of X. As a moviemaker, you can point a gun to someone’s head and make them watch it (don’t do that), but there’s no way you can make them think and feel the same way you do about a movie…not unless you’re really, really good.

That right there is the big issue with trying to imitate artistic works, and a pitfall the short movie “TIE Fighter” falls into in spite of the creator’s efforts and enthusiasm (“enthusiastic” is the only way I can describe someone finishing this work independently after 4 goddamn years). Sure their work kind of gets the look of 1980s Anime right, but to really get it right the creators would had to have done animation with Cel Painting. In an expensive, sweaty animation studio. While being paid jack shit. However much I admire the effort and the result, it’s not the SAME as what it sought to emulate. It never could be the same. If anything, no matter how long this project took to get completed, the creators actually took the easiest way out. They could’ve just as easily tried to pitch this to Disney/LucasArts and watch them try to make it happen with their near-limitless power…before they pull the plug on the project due to self-imposed “budget issues” or because the V.P. of Sales woke up with a rock in their left Oxford.

To emulate or imitate is to always lose, no matter the effort. Haven’t you learned anything from “The Talented Mr. Ripley”? Or does your “vintage-style” self only admire the movie adaptation for the costume design? If you watch “Mad Men” and the only thing that comes to your head is “Nice clothes”, or “Men were so suave back in the day, I want to be like that”, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re trying to make the goriest and most offensive movie imaginable, guess what? “Cannibal Holocaust” has you beat by decades. Think you can make your “Baby Boomer” parent(s) shut the hell up about how doomed “your generation” is if you watch a Charlie Brown movie with them? Tough shit, because they won’t stop. They’ll never stop. Because people who have had their time in the sun will always be resentful of others who do. Resentment towards the present is what keeps one together as the wheels of time grind them to dust, and however much you co-opt another’s lived past…it still isn’t the same. And they’ll just be pissed off at you for singing, “Imagine” or “Cry, Cry, Cry” all wrong.

If you’re trying to live up to the past, you’re too late.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.