Following up on my point of the Emperor’s New Groove, we’ve seen what I opined to be the height of a story which could have been one big pandering mess and yet became one of the most honest, hilarious tales of all time. Here are some other examples to illustrate what it means to be ‘genuine’ in works.
I realise belatedly that there’s a term for this sort of honesty, of believing in what you’re doing, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how ridiculous the premise: kayfabe, the spirit of pro-wrestling.
I’m sure we’re pretty familiar. For the young with the haziest recollections, it’s the high-flying stunts and the outrageous pacing of the fights as the gladiators are knocked down and get back up and again. Later on, it’s the actual writing as the wrestlers treat it all as deathly serious vendettas.
Calling back what I described last week, the pro-wrestler’s spirit is kin to the sincerity of The Emperor’s New Groove, though nobody said it was executed gracefully. But it is neither trying to be something it’s not, nor is it disbelieving its own illusions even as it mocks them.
Sure, the announcer might point out “Why does the ref keep letting this happen?!” or “Who keeps hiding these chairs under the ring?!”, but to my knowledge, never do they say “You’d have to be an idiot to love this, WINK!” or “And folks, I think we all learned a poignant lesson about the nature of human frailty and identity.”
Pictured above: Yes, even when this happens.
So with that refresher summary of what kayfabe and honest storytelling are like, I’ll be fleshing out what this means with some examples for your amusement!
High School Musicals
While I may not be a huge fan of High School Musical or the trend it represented, there is one thing I will never deny: It, too, is supremely honest about itself. It treats its world and characters as fully formed, and completely believes in its musicals moving the plot and characters forward. No matter how ridiculous it seems that everyone just rolls with it when an entire baseball game turns into a Bollywood dance number or when some random crazy kid is singing and dancing angrily through a golf course.
Pictured above: Character development. And unfortunate hand choreography.
Think about it: The production of HSM and things in its genre alone require quite a bit of effort, and belief in that effort. You have to not just write a story, but work out songs, AND get people to sing their hearts out for it. THEN, you need to couple writing that treats its characters as sincere rather than a list of traits, and THEN cast actors able to convince us that they have personalities and feelings. ANY of these components could have been played for laughs or a paycheck (the way Dragon Ball Evolution was, in the creator’s words for which he apologised), but they successfully put together a production where you can believe these guys AND that the world around them will go Bollywood at the drop of a hat without missing a beat.
Some might balk at how overexposed it was, think it’s overrated. But at the heart of it, more than the assorted ‘original movies’ put out by Disney, I realised something: High School Musical was made much like any other Disney movie. You have the premise, the characters, and songs and art crafted to fit that story, even if it’s in dance choreography and not animation.
So whatever you might feel about this franchise, whether you think it’s charming or full of bad show tunes for teenaged drama, I find it very hard to deny its honesty. It may be comparatively pop music, but it’s also some darn good theatre.
Also, it has Ashley Tisdale in it, who went on to voice Candace in Phineas and Ferb, and she is the best part of the franchise.
Ahh, now here’s where things get interesting. See, what most nerds tend to do is preach at you about what is NOT a certain thing. That a thing is bad, and you should feel bad for liking it. And what better target than Michael Bay movies, things that make people feel smart for disliking them? Certainly, you could say the movies are objectively bad, oversaturated with mayhem and explosions while rendering plot and characters flat, sacrificing drama and the like for cheap thrills, scantily clad females, chaotic CGI, and juvenile humour. With all that, surely, SURELY Michael Bay movies are nothing but dishonest pandering to the lowest common denominator?
Pictured above: Just an ordinary BBQ day for Michael Bay.
And yet, somehow, they are also…honest? Whaaaaaat?
See, here’s the thing. No matter how nightmarish it may be to work with Michael Bay, no matter how OBJECTIVELY bad his movies are in the field of storytelling, there’s one thing that is overlooked: In all this, Bay is being true to himself.
In all these things, especially if you read or listen to behind the scenes materials, Bay is clearly a kid in a candy store, filled with awe and wonder at what cataclysm he can unleash on-screen. And like any kid given a thousand bucks, he’s going to buy ALL the junk food and ALL the videogames, things which have no actual nutritional or educational value for him, but which he’s going to ENJOY like there’s no tomorrow. So while there’s a degree of marketing to our baser instincts, I also truly believe that Bay is genuine and baring his soul to us. His adolescent, explosion-filled, fanservice-providing soul.
That doesn’t make his movies GOOD, of course. Things like personal taste and objective quality still apply. But a Bay movie about explosions, car chases, and hilariously bad 2-dimensional villains just feels a lot more genuine than if he had tried to create a movie about emergent AI, the nature of identity, whether a soul exists, or whathaveyou.
But What Does This Mean For US?
Simple, dear title: it’s up to us, and at the same time, it isn’t.
It’s indeed up to US what we deem honest, because at the end of the day, WE’RE the ones who decide if a work speaks to us or not.
But at the same time, the honesty of the CREATOR is not up to us. Hell, the honesty of a work doesn’t even depend on if it’s GOOD or not.
You could make some sort of critically acclaimed best-seller baiting Oscars and awards with all the buzz themes and elements (like say a Young Adult on a Journey Of Sexual Identity dealing with a landscape of White Privilege and Social Justice against the forces of Big Business and Oppressive Regimes), and it’d feel fake as hell to me for those reasons even if it was fully sincere on your part. You see how complex it gets: It has the ingredients people like, it might even be your truth, and that’s all that should matter to you just as it doesn’t matter to me.
And on the other side of that coin, you could make an utterly horrendous movie. Poor production, poor plotting, poor everything. But as long as it’s true to you, that’s what matters in all its cheesy, cringey, so-bad-it’s-good B-movie goodness. And some people might love it for that, while others may still shun it like the plague for its objective badness.
There isn’t really a hard or fast answer to any of this, and that’s OK. Because the one answer I will absolutely, confidently give is this: It’s up to each of us. Because what we think doesn’t matter to them, and what they think doesn’t matter to us.