A thought that I can never seem to escape from is how many of my absolute faves are deeply influenced by garbage. Quentin Tarantino, James Ellroy, HP Lovecraft, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, Community, Futurama; artists or works whose scaffolding is in some significant way complete trash that would otherwise have vanished into the aether (or at least out of my interest). I remember once reading a guy break down the differences between camp, kitsch, and trash; his idea was that camp is deliberate cultivation of absurdity, kitsch is absurdity arrived at naively (what other people would define as ‘low camp’), and trash is absurdity arrived at through apathy. In retrospect, it was the kind of attempt to differentiate between high and low art that any Soluter (and thus any reasonable, intelligent, and very good-looking person) would dismiss as pretentious and boring (this guy argued that Watchmen was kitsch because it had a character with superpowers). But I’ve found the basic definitions useful to explain what I think the motivations of the storytellers were, and I can’t deny that they’re useful for explaining my emotional reaction to a work – not just something like NCIS, which is absolute kitsch to me in that I feel contemptuous of and superior to it, but something like Gears Of War, where I feel attracted to a work despite not being able to find or explain what that quality is.
As a wannabe writer hoping to rip off some utter trash and bring out its best qualities, perhaps I’m just trying to find some justification for doing what I was already gonna do. But I do notice some recurring themes in these faves. The chief one is how many of them draw on works outside genre trash. Lovecraft, NGE, and MGS all combine trash with a distinctive and highly personal philosophy. Ellroy and MGS combine trash with a deep knowledge of real-world history and procedures. Lovecraft, Tarantino, and Community all draw on both high and low culture with absolute glee (it’s less obvious reading Lovecraft’s fiction but his essay “Supernatural Horror In Literature” shows his deep knowledge of a range of subjects and his willingness to explore trash to find treasure). Mass Effect has a more limited scope than those three – it draws on all different kinds of science fiction, which I would consider trashy in aim even if it includes Star Trek and Alien, neither of which I consider trash – but it compensates for that by working in as much real-world science as it can in order to build a plausible world. Futurama reconstitutes trash into comedic setpieces. The obvious conclusion is that trash is not the be-all and end-all of the headspace of these works; unlike true trash, they have more on their minds than just trash. But I can’t help but look at it the other way – it’s not just that Not Being Complete Trash made this works better, it’s that Being At Least A Little Trash also made them better.
Most people who enjoy trash say that the thing they enjoy about it is that it isn’t realistic. People like characters doing cool things more than they like people not doing cool things. The thing about fantastic genre elements is that they’re equally fictional to everybody; one can project meaning onto a giant robot the same way they can the Fireman. Trash elements can act as shorthand to deliver a specific and less accessible concept or image to a wider audience. But outside that, I find thinking of it this way makes me feel less contemptuous towards specific examples of kitsch and trash. I already tend to appreciate kitsch and trash items more when someone I like likes them and makes something interesting out of them, whether that’s criticism or art. Indeed, one of the reasons I’m particularly contemptuous of the MCU is that even the conversation around it is boring and that the interesting art produced in response feels like a dartboard filled with darts. Every joke or observation you can make about the MCU has been done – and done to death – and every new work from the MCU only tends to be a new variation on the same few observations. But who knows what budding artist will use pieces of NCIS to build a Great work in the future?
I think of this in a broader political context, too. I see people complaining about bad art that was publicly funded; no trans person can ever hope to be as annoying as someone who identifies as a taxpayer, because they tend to be wildly outraged that not every piece of art was personally catered to them. A healthy art scene contains experimental works that risk being offputting to find new ways of expressing oneself – new methods, new symbols – even if those ways are only new to the artist themselves. I also think it goes the other way; that a healthy art scene has absolute middle-of-the-road lowest-common-denominator garbage that artists can use to practice their art and build a reputation and connections before moving onto to bigger and better things. Almost every Australian actor that Americans have heard of tended to work on Australian soaps before breaking out in Hollywood – both Heath Ledger and Chris Hemsworth worked on Home And Away before making it in Hollywood, and Kylie Minogue was on Neighbours before becoming a pop star. Trash is the scaffolding to the work you love, in ways that are both easy and impossible to draw lines to – and in ways that are impossible to predict.
Are all those terrible Saturday Night Live skits and It’s Pat and The Love Guru and The Master Of Disguise worth it for MacGruber and Wayne’s World and The Blues Brothers? Are Law & Order and That 80’s Show worth it for Always Sunny? Is Cobra worth it for Metal Gear Solid? I’m starting to think the answer is yes. I might not like or understand every individual piece of art, but the creation of art is inherently a good thing, and trash is an inherently good thing because it enables the creation of more art, whether that’s in terms of actual production companies created to churn out trash (requiring input of cast and crew) or the symbols and archetypes that simplify creation. Right now, I live in an area that does not have a healthy film scene, which is to say it’s not producing film or television at a consistent rate. We have some great works and some terrible works, some highbrow and some lowbrow, but we have no system of trash. I’m also not a healthy artist, having created some artworks but in a spluttering, inconsistent way; I’m finding that not just tapping into old trash but creating new trash makes the process simpler, more enjoyable, and more likely to produce actual entertainment. Who knows where that will take us?