Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Hitting a guy with glasses

In the immortal words of TS Eliot: Well, fuck.

I was sitting here pondering whether to write my next entry on Avatar or on the antics of finding a job, when this friend of mine sends me an e-bitchslap to inform me that the Nostalgia Critic has published a Top 11 Villian Songs. (I’m not sure what the fuck a ‘villian’ is, the urban dictionary goes for two definitions and I’m guessing Doug adhered to the Kejardon version), but the reason why this was brought to my attention is that the list features – at number 5 – the song ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ by Ursula. Given the ubiquitous international popularity of my blog, it’s clear that that guy with glasses was influenced in his work by my list of Top Ten Disney Songs, which features PUS at the top #1 spot, nay even lifted the whole work verbatim! Well, normally I’m happy to let the repercussions of my prestige spread forth without interference, but this occurrence brought back to the surface a question which numerous people have asked me now: why in the name of hell didn’t I include any songs from The Lion King in my Top Ten Disney Songs list? I mean, Scar’s song Be prepared even makes the third place of Doug’s list, and that’s one of the most anonymous in the film. How could they not make it in mine??

(By the way, the German version of this song is the creepiest shit I’ve ever seen in my life, though I’ll admit I almost died laughing when he roared IDIOTEN like a Sturmtruppen commando who finds his men have lost a tank over a poker game).

Back to the LK question, I’d like to answer it now because I think it’s important – not because the Lion King is important per se, I mean, but because it highlights some relevant questions on what criticism is, how it works and why it exists. And it’s somewhat of a challenge to the Nostalgia Critic, I guess, and he deserves this for having shop-lifted my ideas. So here goes, bitch. Shield yourself.

I’ll admit that TLK featured in my options for the songs to put on, not through Hakuna Matata, which possibly ranks first in the list of ‘Most overrated Disney songs of all time’ (I might have broken a heart or two here, but ‘Bare Necessities’ from the Jungle Book did that specific trick before and did it much better). Rather I was rubbing my chin over the Circle of Life song. Take a second to listen to the music and look at the video. It’s impossible not to be seduced by this piece – it’s such a beautiful rendition of the African landscapes and fauna. It’s innovative for its time in the realistic rather than cartoony rendition, and the music is lovely – a wonderfully harmonic interplay between chorus and lead voices, efficiently sustained by an orchestral background which is potent but essential. Excellent in many ways.

So why no spot in the list?

Well, the problem with the song is not the music, but the message. The entire LK film strives to draw a connection between established power and natural law – the highly repressive Old World ideology that says the King has been chosen by God and the monarchy is a divine institution. In this sense, the opening song is the most raw and explicit sequence of the entire movie – after the panoramic views over the African animals, the frame flies into and towards a massive stone phallus. The lion is symbolically standing at the peak of the stone, and all the animals bow to the big flagging dick. This is the message of the phallus, in its most elementary and total iteration – everything bows towards me, I am the master of all things, nature is there to serve me, etc. It goes back to the rhetorical statement in Iron Man, ‘Peace is the man with the biggest stick’ (which folds over to become, ‘Peace is the man with the biggest dick’). And the notion that nature follows and bends to all of this is bullshit. The song only stages a representation of privilege for the sake of privilege – aka, a power fantasy.

In fact, the song is so unapologetic in surrendering to the seductive power of the privileged signifier (which is Lacan’s expression for the phallus), and so in-your-face when presenting the Apollonian symbols of rigidity which support it (the stone, the straight line, the lion, the sunray, the direct zooming frame), that I cannot in all honesty call it a ‘good’ song – not because it’s badly executed, but because it is irresponsible. It is an insult to nature, not a representation of it (much less an accurate one) – because it shows nature as a mere function of our own personal fantasy (flexibly, as a power fantasy, not an exclusively masculine one). Nature is here to serve me, aye!!!! I am the king!!!!! (and fuck off).

Now – this is where things get dangerous for me, because I’m throwing a stone against someone quite a bit more established than I am – but this is the whole reason why a song like ‘Be Prepared,’ much like the Circle of Life, has no place in any top 10 list (or top 11). Doug correctly picked out the Nazi references, but he glosses over the fact that the Nazi demonization, in context, is an extraordinarily hypocritical statement (and this kind of glossing over in turn is hypocritical if you’re calling yourself a critic). Obviously the intent of the producers was that of getting kids to associate Nazi imagery with evil values (‘ooohh, those guys are goose-stepping like Scar’s hyenas, they must be bad!’). But if that was the idea, then why the fuck make a whole film based around asserting that there is a natural order giving legitimacy to the ruling classes, and that any attempt to change the status quo or improve one’s social class will only lead to disaster and ruin? Yes, that’s the instinct that is at the heart of Nazism in the first place – the idea of totalitarianism justified by natural selection. And the representation of which ‘animals’ are the good ones and which the bad is correspondingly – and worryingly – racist. As I wrote in one of my very first posts in this blog, ‘the mightily detestable hyenas are made to look and sound like the marginalia of current times: we have the idiot, the mafia stereotype Frankie guy (presumably Italian, who the fuck knows) and the black woman (who goes like peaches of course with the fact that all the good lions are markedly white, while the only bad one is the darker one; though Scar's traits are more Middle-Eastern than black, plastically). Add the fact that female lions also seem to have a purely supportive and subdued role throughout the whole film’ and the fact that Scar, as well as Arabic, also seems rather effeminate, and bingo! It’s an Aryan wet dream.

And this also begs the question – it’s fine to speak of the circle of life if you’re born the lion, but what do you do if you’re born one of the minorities? What should Madame Bovary do? What should Prometheus, or Iago, or a Franz Kafka do here?

Don’t mistake me – I’m not saying that the film is a Nazi manifesto or that it’s openly Nazi or anything. However, it does cater to the narcissistic kind of ‘I am the chosen one’ instincts which, when couched in the context of social representations and power scenarios (as is manifestly the case with TLK), lead to self-privileging, exclusive-rather-than-inclusive ideologies which are the core of Nazism. It’s hypocritical to condemn Nazism in the song when you’re fomenting its core instincts throughout all the film – and it’s a weakness of Doug’s review of the song that he fails to pick up on this clash.

So my problem with Doug’s inclusion of the song in the list is that he ignores the message in favour of the execution. He justifies the selection by criteria which relate to personal taste – the colour-scheme, the accents of voices, and so on, rather than the congruence and the social meaning of the underlying statement. The actual process of interpretation, which is at the heart of all real criticism, is not there at all. Of course, I understand that the Nostalgia Critic has a slightly different focus than a website like, say, Popmatters. It inscribes itself in the tradition of web-comedians like the Angry Nintendo Nerd, whom he famously cooperated with. But this is not an excuse. Yahtzee Croshaw from Zero Punctuation belongs to the same genre, but his comedy never comes at the expense of a real critical spirit. Some of his readings may be questionable, but he always adds a meditation on what the game is about, and he doesn’t divorce questions of quality from those of the text’s statement – in other words, he acknowledges and exposes the text’s social responsibility, which is exactly what a critic should do. Further, using the tag ‘it’s just comedy’ is a terrible detraction from the power of something like the Nostalgia Critic and from the merits of Doug for discovering and developing it. Criticism outside the established institution of criticism has the potential to be much more effective, precisely because – by being at the borders where different discourses rub flanks – it can speak to so many more people. That’s why it’s important that users of this form of criticism take responsibility for it, like Yahtzee is doing.

The rounds are on you, Doug – not only because I’m too broke to pay for any more beers, but because as long as you’re going to call yourself the Nostalgia Critic, you should take responsibility for your title. Veer more towards Croshaw than towards the AVGN, and give us real interpretation when justifying your statements of merit (you’ve done it at times, so it’s obvious you have the competence). It doesn’t have to come at the expense of the comedy, it just has to be original thinking – showing that a film’s quality depends on more than just the choreography, the colours, the pace and the pyrotechnics. In other words, showing that it depends on more than the obvious. Or, change your name to the Nostalgia Nerd and drop the ‘Critic’ from your title. Either way, be true to what you stand for.

And aaaaaaamen!!!! That’s me preaching from me ivory tower done for the day!! Now go forth and multiply. Onwards ye masses.


Anonymous said...

The theme of the movie wasn't based around the natural order; it was based around life and death. How many times do you see any of the lions killing for food or putting an antelope in its place? I'm pretty sure if not positive that you don't. Hell, it's the "minorities" that ultimately bring down both Mufasa and Scar in the very end. I'm beginning to wonder if you've actually watched the movie within the past year or not.

Anonymous said...

Sorry sir, but you lost me at "the German version is the creepiest shit".
If after more than 60 years you still relate everything German to the Nazis you are indeed a "poor unfortunate soul".
You even compare an angrily yelled insult to a Nazi commando.

Just imagine someone would say "the English language is so creepy, it reminds me of the KKK and slavery". You would laugh at this person, right?

Just my two cents.
Have a nice day!