Episode 232: Are You Not Edged?

The Overthinkers tackle the avant-garde in art.

Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather overthink the avant-garde in art.


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Further Reading

17 Comments on “Episode 232: Are You Not Edged?”

  1. Chris #

    Leonard Maltin’s better than most (all?) review of Playing For Keeps reminds me of his noted 2 and 1/2 star review of Laserblast. This is notable because Laserblast ended up being shown on MST3K, where Mike and the Bots got plenty of material from Maltin’s review. Of course, Maltin himself ended up showing up on the episode where they show Gorgo, because that’s how Leonard Maltin rolls. As his inability to succeed at the Leonard Maltin Game always reminds us, he is but a man with feet of clay.


  2. Dr_Demento #

    Quick Hits:
    1. Perhaps you were looking for the term “Ode” when referring to particularly gushy poetry?
    2. When the question on who replaced the Irish under the “hated” cats gory, I immediately shook my fist and cursed the Poles, as any ethnically white Irish-most-definitely-American would.
    3. Speaking of Murderball, you really need to get around to grading Clichemaggedon. I have been meaning to leave a voice mail about it for ages, but it turns out the only thing slower than you answer voice mails is me sending them. Bonus points for remembering why Murderball prompted this message.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      Thanks for the reminder. We’ve had some internal planning discussion today, and we’ve scheduled the Clichemageddon post.


    • Tulse #

      “Perhaps you were looking for the term “Ode” when referring to particularly gushy poetry?”

      I’d vote for “panegyric”.


      • fenzel OTI Staff #

        THERE IT IS!!

        “Panegyric” was definitely the word I was looking for. Thanks!


  3. JosephFM #

    Perhaps the problem with this podcast is that “popular culture” and “avant-garde” are sort of mutually exclusive categories? That is, that something becoming popular negates its avant-garde-ness, because popularity connotes at least some degree of broad cultural acceptance, even if that is only in a niche. This toes back to the discussion a couple of weeks ago of hipsters. “I liked [thing x] before [thing x] was popular” is specifically a claim to have been part of an avant-garde.

    While Fred is annoying, I do think that was one of the best points of this episode: that to some degree internet-based video media has been innovative in a way that’s characteristic of an avant-garde, though again I think its time as truly avant-garde has passed.

    It’s a tough question, though, because it’s not like popular culture is bereft of innovation – look at something like Adventure Time, a cartoon that is bizarre in a traditional way on the surface (in its use of absurdity-based humor rooted in, say Tex Avery) but which actually contains totally unique narrative and tonal shifts if you watch it over time and realize its goofy lightheartedness is built on a foundation of apocalyptic existential horror.

    I think the Don Quixote of behavior-metrics driven media actually does exist, and while I’m tempted to suck up and say it’s actually this podcast my honest answer would actually be the Know Your Meme video series – in that it aims to be popularly distributed in the exact same manner as its subjects. What disqualifies Overthinking It for this role is that y’all talk about so much other interesting stuff!

    Also, unrelated but Farscape is one of my favorite TV shows of all time so I hope Fenzel enjoys it.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      Wait, we’re incapable of becoming popular because we’re interesting?


      • JosephFM #

        No, you’re incapable of becoming as popular because you’re actual people and the podcast is really shaped above all by what you, the podcasters, want to discuss, and not on blatant, crass trend-hopping.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      To make an attempt to attack the point I was trying and failing to make on the podcast, here are three different axes I’ve experienced on which lie both avante garde and popular art:

      1. The axis of aspiration — Do you, as the artist, think and feel that what you are making is new and daring?

      2. The axis of technique — Where do the tools you have used to make your work come from, and what is their formal and functional relationship to tradition?

      3. The axis of readership — To what degree does your work disrupt the artistic culture of both your immediate audience and all audiences?

      What I wanted to say about the Twilight Zone, Farscape and about some other pop culture properties was they have a lot of axis #2 going on — the techniques that are used to make the show, both in art and in craft, are more aligned toward disruptive ends than we might think because of the ostensible purposes and roles of the show relative to their audience.

      Take the character of Rygel in Farscape (and keep in mind I’m about halfway through the first season). Ostensibly, he’s a riff on Yoda — a little alien Muppet, except as this blustery interstellar King in Exile figure. But he’s edgier than Yoda, and I think challenges the audience more. There’s a lot of Ubu Roi in him. There’s a lot of deconstruction in him. There’s a complex satirical relationship with “the other,” with post-colonialism, and with hegemonic discourse.

      It’s easy to imagine a sci-fi show that would have _serious problems_ getting an audience to accept something like Rygel. If he’d shown up in the Battlestar Galactica remake, it would have been a travesty. But Farscape makes it work.

      And I think it’s worth noting that part of how Farscape makes it work is it incorporates other techniques and conventions of culturally disruptive performing arts (there’s a lot of genderqueer stuff even early on in the show, especially with “Rhapsody in Blue,” the episode with the Sapphic Delvian soul-rape), so the audience expects to be disoriented.

      So, the audience might consider the show to be popular entertainment, and not really part of the avant garde at all, and the broader set of all audiences might see it that way as well, and the people making the show might be aspiring to make a popular entertainment, but there is a technical relationship with that kind of artistic project that is I think worth noting — and that perhaps can help us better understand where these sort of terms exist and break down in our contemporary culture.


      • JosephFM #

        Right. My mother is a huge Star Trek fan, but she could never get into Farscape because it is, in her words, “too weird”.

        And you haven’t even gotten to the stuff with Scorpius yet! (I won’t spoil, except to say that I’m sure was a major influence on the certain narrative/characterization devices on BSG).


    • Ed #

      Part of the problem with a term like avant-garde is that the perception of it is high brow, intellectual and inaccessible to most people. So at least part of the appeal of avant-garde media for some people is not that it is new and innovative and interesting but simply that they are part of the small, select few who ‘get it’ or who liked it before it stopped being avant-garde (like your hipsters comment).

      I agree that internet media would qualify as avant-garde but many people would not consider it as such because a lot of internet humor is low brow (yes, it’s piss and fart jokes but it’s new and innovative piss and fart jokes, dammit!)


  4. yellojkt #

    As Matt Wrather hinted at, modern musical theater is more avante garde than most other forms of popular culture. Many shows such as Musical: The Musical of Musicals and [name of show] are full-on commentaries on the very nature of the musical. Even Avenue Q (an R-rated homage/parody of children’s television with lessons for adults) and The Producers (a recursive hit Broadway show about the making of an inadvertently popular hit Broadway show) have a certain post-modern sensibility which is taken for granted on The Great White Way but would be considered edgy in other media.

    But perhaps no recent show has exemplified this trend more distinctly and obviously than the original Julie Taymor staging of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. This ground-breaking Brechtian production casts new questions on the very nature of story-telling and narrative. The show had a framing device of a ‘geek chorus’ (as called in the credits) who told, retold, and molded the story elements combining modern super-hero tropes with elements from Greek mythology, making explicit that the open-ended tales of comic books are the modern equivalent of Homeric campfire tales about troubled demi-gods struggling with morality and the responsibilities of great power.

    Furthermore, Arachne, the villain of the second act, was a personification of tangled webs able to infiltrate dreams, literally weaving plots. As an anthropomorphic arachnid, Arachne recalls Anansi of West African and Caribbean lore as a trickster god who is the deity of storytelling but incorporting a certain Gaia earth mother sexuality. Combining the common elements of both Western and African cultures recalls Taymor’s award-winning work with the costuming /puppetry of the stage version of The Lion King.

    The paradigm shifting ambition of this musical is also revealed in the staging and production elements of the show. The sets were deliberately two dimensional and shadowboxed to emphasize the pulp nature of the source material. But the actors with the elaborate wire work and acrobatics break the fourth wall as they fly around the theater, blurring the distinction between stage and audience.
    In one of the more ignored aspects of the show, a costumed parade of super-villains obscures the distinction between evil and high fashion. And any tale which involves masks and secret identities is going to call into question the nature of reality and self.

    I have not seen the show since it has been stripped of all the intellectually interesting embellishments of Julie Taymor and turned into a family spectacle akin to Mary Poppins which shows on the other side of 42nd Street, also featuring a frequently airborne protagonist. Julie Taymor’s original staging which was much ridiculed for pretension and incoherence was really a fantastic and fantastical metamusical about the nature of storytelling which with its proscenium-breaking and actor-injuring Cirque du Soliel-esque theatrics literally went over the heads of its audience.


    • Lee OTI Staff #

      I saw the original Taymor version too, and I agree, it did all of the things you describe above, but I wouldn’t go so far as to praise it for doing those things. I thought the show was, frankly, a hot mess and utterly unsatisfying as a piece of musical theater.

      I’m all for the occasional work of art that uses alienation, avante garde staging, etc., to say interesting things about the nature of art itself. But not at the expense of telling a coherent story that establishes an emotional connection between the characters and the audience. At least not when I’m expecting to get a coherent story and emotional connection with the characters, which I absolutely am when plunking down lots of cash to see a Broadway show.

      I could say a lot more about this show, but I need to get back to work. Just wanted to get a quick response in sooner rather than later.

      I should also direct folks to the podcast and article we did on this topic around the time that I saw it, in case people missed them the first time around:




      • yellojkt #

        Your original OTI podcast discussion is what made me think of S-M:TOtD as avante garde theater and I left a comment on your follow-up post way back when, where I called the show “a noble failure.”

        I would say that it was an epic failure along the lines of Heaven’s Gate in that the discrepancy between ambition and execution was so great. However, the comparison fails because while HG (and the less artistically-aimed other benchmark of failure, Ishtar) was a box-office failure, Spidey is still eking out decent if not record setting numbers. It’s no Wicked or even Lion King and sunk costs ensure it will never be profitable, but it has an audience.

        What is interesting and pertinent to the avante garde discussion is that it reached its current form by discarding everything that was edgy or challenging from Taymor’s vision and turning it into a standard family spectacle, ironically reversing all the modifications the Geek Chorus made in the original staging. Or at least so I assume based on press reports. I will probably never see the current incarnation because I doubt there is anything else to see of interest.

        Glen Berger, the book writer for the show, will write a book on the experience. No word on how tell-all it will be.


        • Lee OTI Staff #

          I’m more inclined to agree with calling it a “noble failure,” but not entirely so. I’m not really sure that something as ambitious and avant-garde as what Taymor wanted to do could ever make for a satisfying piece of musical theater. The superhero story was a trap: it tempted her with the prospect of making a grand statement about the nature of storytelling and myth, but also imposed a set of expectations and limitations that were ultimately, in my opinion, incompatible with the scope of Taymor’s vision.

          Anyway, thanks for tipping me off to the existence of the book. I do hope it’s an honest, or at least plausible, account of what happened during the making of this truly unique cultural artifact.


  5. An Inside Joke #

    I feel part of the lack of Avante Garde in current popular culture might lie in the fact that current pop culture is heavily self-referential. In the podcast, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not a technique is truly “new,” as in something that hasn’t already been done a lot in the medium.

    I’m reminded a bit of The Artist (a movie I admittedly haven’t seen). I feel that a silent movie, in this day and age, is disruptive to modern audiences who expect movies with spoken dialog, but a silent movie is not new. It is the oldness of the style that makes it disruptive. I’m not trying to argue that The Artist is an Avante Garde movie, but I feel that there must be some examples of similar pieces of pop culture that don’t do anything new per se, but that do something that nobody else is doing at this time.


  6. cat #

    The Sarah Michelle Gellar movie is called Simply Irresistible. I don’t remember a Jennifer Aniston movie where she cooked but I vaguely remember a Catherine Zeta Jones movie called No Reservations that sounds similar.


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