Saturday, September 30, 2017

After School Specials and How They Differ from Story

Don't get me wrong: My Brother's Husband is a very good manga.

It tackles the appearance on the doorstep of a Japanese brother's Canadian husband. The brother, Yachi, takes in the man, Mike, who becomes part of the household (which includes Yachi's daughter, Kana). The manga utilizes a slice-of-life approach--vignettes strung together--as Mike and Yachi and Kana get to know each other. Issues are raised, mostly by the innocent Kana, regarding gay marriage and gays in Japan.

I was predisposed to enjoy the manga, since I am a fan of slice-of-life and a huge fan of What Did You Eat Yesterday? the ongoing slice-of-life saga of a gay couple living and working near a large city.

I want to emphasize again: My Brother's Husband is quite good. Not overly heavy-handed, it is thoughtful, amusing, well-paced with strong characters.

And it reminded me of an After-School Special.

Which immediately made me wonder: What is the difference between an After-School Special and story?

It isn't the happy ending or lack thereof. In the world of yaoi and gay romance, Maurice, What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Brokeback Mountain, and The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian are not after-school specials.

The first has a happy--if elliptical--ending. The second is not aiming for a happy or unhappy ending but rather, the everyday, non-melodramatic life of a middle-class couple. The third has what could be termed a tragic ending although I don't think that is completely accurate. "Inevitable" may be more accurate (but perhaps not: see below). The Ruin of a Rake is pure sweet romance and although it is arguable less "realistic"  than Brokeback Mountain, it does what it is supposed to do within its genre.

The last point is important: all these works, including My Brother's Husband, do what they are supposed to do. (There is a place for After-School Specials in the world.)

It isn't the "realism" or lack thereof. The application of "realism" in criticism bothers me since it is so indeterminate a quality. So many times, critics use "realistic" to mean "depressing," a point that Forster gleefully makes in his own analysis of Maurice.

Yet of the above creations, the non-depressing and non-angsty What Did You Eat Yesterday? is likely the most realistic, precisely because it deals with the troubles, concerns, oddities, amusements, and annoyances of everyday life. Bad things do happen to people. More common is milk expiring, taxes being due, and people aging.

In fact, in many ways, everyday life is also the point of Brokeback Mountain. The death is not the inevitable element (and totally surprised me since I had the mistaken impression that the movie ended with the cowboys meeting up again years later in their 80s). What is inevitable is the pain of constant separation. Would Jack have gone off with the other guy? Temporarily, possibly. In a world of impressive stoicism and restraint, he requires somewhat more daily affection than Ennis (although even that characterization is unfair to Ennis). But he would always have come back. The stolen weeks away are the reality; the end simply reinforces the theme.

And The Ruin of the Rake is more plausible than it appears on the surface; it ends as all good romances are supposed to (everyone happy and fulfilled) yet doesn't fall victim to any huge pits of disbelief, such as making the servants so devoted that they can be completely trusted (kudos to Cat Sebastian for this comprehension). The characters are realistic, their psychology proving quite interesting.

It isn't the theme (per se). All these works have a theme or underlying vision of some kind. All art does, even when the vision is lacking.

The difference between an After-School Special and a story is... I couldn't completely put the difference into words until I watched Brokeback Mountain. I knew about the film in a "cultural phenomenon" way and half-expected to encounter an After-School Special. Until I saw that the director was Ang Lee. Okay, I apologize to the entire film industry for not knowing this, but I didn't. It was the first of many readjustments I made regarding the film.

I came away thinking, That was not about identifying the bad people! 

And it isn't. Prejudice, social injustice, and social inequalities exist in the movie. But the prejudice and injustice and inequalities are not the point. The story surrounding the characters is the point.

The best explanation here is that in non-After-School-Specials, the characters live inside the world as themselves, not as symbols that can be neatly pulled out of it for instructional purposes. With story, we  watch people function, thrive, diminish, rage, fight, compromise within the context of their lives and understanding. In a Brokeback Mountain interview, McMurtry and Ossana state that they wanted each character to reside within his or her viewpoint, even Aguirre. The women are not the bad guys either; their pain and disbelief are entirely comprehensible. (And good grief is that film well-cast!)

The characters dictate the plot; any failings in any of these works are usually due to characters not behaving organically. Artistic successes and failures take place within the characters' worlds. I, the reader/viewer, can leave. They can't.

Rocky Horror is more concerned with story than message.
In an After-School Special, the characters seem to reside outside the text/story. They dip into it to prove points and have conversations about important topics. But they are separable from the point or the topic, residing in both story and commentary.

"I want to use you to make people aware of things," one imagines the author saying. In an After-School Special, the characters acquiesce. In a non-After School Special or story, the characters don't even hear the invitation.

Like with Rent and Rocky Horror Picture Show, I prefer the latter to the former.