June 23, 2011

Those Tapes I Made For You

Do me a favor and watch this episode of "Street Fighter". Be forewarned, however, that this is a Saturday morning cartoon based on a video game franchise, so you know what you're in for.

Nonsensical pap, produced on the cheap and aimed squarely at American children--the sequel series to the original Street Fighter movie that no one particularly cared to see. However, search online and you're more likely to find thirty isolated seconds that have since become subject to an internet meme:

And search for "Bison yes" and this little baby will be your first destination:

I don't really think of this reduction as hostile in any sense of the word. Sure, you can't get around the reduction itself, but the blaring, "dramatic" horn section, the bizarro camera movement, and the fact that one recording of "YES!!" was so obviously doubled--this is an ancient Saturday morning distilled to perfection. I think it's a little wonderful, actually, that I can consider this six-second clip as part of a mutual language. There are several points I want to tackle from here, and they all involve ideas removed from their original context. (Appropriate, I suppose, that the now-largely-forgotten episode of "Street Fighter" is entitled "The Medium is the Message.") I've talked about that before, but this video has the odd distinction of simultaneously forging assumptions about the source material and creating something new from those ashes. Maybe I can believe that the rest of the series falls in step with that four seconds. But that's kind of silly, isn't it? I can assume all I want and I won't know until I actually sit down and watch the damned thing. But after that, what am I left with beyond the desire to keep "Yes!! Yes!!" outside of its original narrative boundaries?

One thing to consider is that this is a "widescreen, HD reupload" of the "Yes!! Yes!!" clip. This is a short clip posted by a fan, but it's fair indication that the whole world's going widescreen, baby. Cartoon Network's website has an annoying habit when it comes to posting full episodes of their pre-widescreen cartoons: for shows like "Dexter's Laboratory," they stretch the borders of the image to fit a 16:9 frame, which gives it an awful fish-eye effect. Ironically, Genndy Tartakovsky and his crew already operated by a cinematic sensibility, and stretching the picture becomes a serious problem when the series indulges in one of its many pans and zooms. "Street Fighter" is too flat to entertain such concerns, especially from this infinitesimal scope--and, what's more, the widescreen clip keeps its silliness intact. (Note that the edges of the image have been chopped, rather than stretched.) But it's still not in its original format, and it's still stripped completely bare. Isn't it like "MST3K" in that regard--I'm geared to laugh simply because there are familiar shadows at the bottom of the screen? If we're not looking at the source seriously, should we really concern ourselves with such particulars? Why aren't we looking at it seriously, anyway? Why am I laughing at all?

Now, when I talk about the official mangling of television, I don't want to paint Cartoon Network as some villainous entity. (Indeed, they're not averse to exploring the very nature of their business: J. G. Quintel's "Regular Show" is a keen exploration of how popular culture tends to fracture our worldview.) I just find the reasoning a little difficult to decipher. Individual clips are shown on the website in the correct "standard" format. The Looney Tunes are also shown in their original aspect ratio, though not always in their original form: a few weeks ago I caught Show Biz Bugs on television, and the infamous finale--Daffy guzzles nitro and gasoline, lights a match and performs the trick that he can "only do once"--had been inelegantly chopped out. But I suffered from the same limited perspective growing up--before the advent of YouTube, when was the last time anyone had seen the minstrel show that ended Fresh Hare?

So, obviously, it's not a new problem. But it's easier to argue for the complete visions of Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones, to forgive the unsavory material, because we admire these men as geniuses and we want a more complete understanding of the era. How do we apply that same attitude to a genuine piece of shit? The only reason anyone watches Bedtime for Bonzo anymore is because Ronald Reagan is in it--and the convenient presidential punchline is why it remains in popular thought. And, hey, if that's the way it goes, that's the way it goes. But here's what I want to know--did they ever bother to colorize the movie? We're naturally repelled by the concept of colorization but if they did, I doubt that anyone cared, because the movie is just so goddamn bland. Do it to Casablanca and it's inexcusable. Do it to Bedtime for Bonzo and you'll change the channel faster than you'll complain. Is that right? We lost a couple of Hitchcocks to the flaws of nitrate stock, and we lost a lot of television history to the networks' habit of taping over obsolete broadcasts, but between the masterpieces we must have jettisoned a lot of tone-deaf crap. How far down the totem pole do we have to go before we stop caring? When does culture become a game of breaking-and-entering?

Of course, "value" is a relative term. Everything is preserved now, which I consider more of a blessing than a curse. We may be dealing with a more cacophonous playing field, but beyond the obvious historical value that any sort of record can provide, lame/mediocre properties can inspire great works just like any other. Without Dr. No, there'd be no From Russia with Love. But whenever something, anything, catches my intellectual fancy, I want to know the context. And if that's the case, what do I retain from that journey? On his Twitter page, Matt Prigge just posted a quote from Richard Leacock: "Film is terrible at giving a lot of information, but it's great at giving a feel for a place." I get that feeling, but I'm still picking it apart. Maybe I want to understand it to its logical conclusion.

Sometimes I catch myself watching Tarantino's pictures in piecemeal fashion--not because I don't want to watch the entire thing, but they contain a multitude of different tones and the chapter divisions give them a natural bookmark to revisit. Tarantino is himself a pop plunderer of the highest order, but should I really indulge that desire so often? I mean, that's YouTube for you. (David Lynch would throw a fit, I know.) I guess what I'm asking here is whether a complete picture is always better than a fractured one--whether this concept of a media democracy will sometimes produce long-term benefits, now that everything will be preserved in some form or another. Is it really possible to pick and choose what we take from certain media? Are there any legitimate instances in which more context is unnecessary or distracting?

But now I'm getting into the very nature of mass communication, and hell, you don't need me to tell you that media is changing--I'm just curious as to how it's all going to play out. For me, the best movie news this week is Valve's long-anticipated release of Meet the Medic:

Which is great, y'know, because it touches on the inherent ridiculousness of the character's role on the team--and how we integrate atrocity into popular entertainment. (Not to mention that those final
ÜberCharged moments are made of pure, giddy excitement.) Oh, and by the way, did I mention that "Team Fortress 2" recently introduced an M. Bison hat that makes reference to the meme in question? Culture changes, culture spreads. Welcome to the party.