Musings on Media Cycles: The Rich And The Distilled

So, why do so many horror films, well . . . turn out not only kind of bad but are really just pseudo-snuff films?

This question came up on Twitter, and I responded with my theory – that when the killers of the slasher genre became stars, franchises, it meant horror turned into a body count factory.  Once the killer is just there to pile up bodies, yet is a star, there's not much to do.  Perhaps the ultimate distillation of this is the FInal Destination series where people who avoid death die creatively at the hands of a kind of "force of fate."

That's a long way from good old Goldzilla or the sympathetic-yet scary Frankenstein or the Wolfman, or the terrifyingly inhuman ghosts of asian cinema – who often had reasons for their issues, even though you'd still die horribly.

A lot of horror that people complain about seems to be a formula, a distillation of some basic elements.

This got me thinking that I actually see this distillation trend in a lot of media.  In the video game arena we've had a burst of retrogames that are very distilled.-down.  "No More Heroes" turned its "side job games" into actual simple retrogames.  There's the Asylum's simple boil-down-and-ride-the-coattails films.  Anime fans speak of series that end up becoming drawn-out fighting games or contests.

It seems we get a lot of distillation in media, a lot of rendering-to-basics.

But the more I think about this trend, I think that it is A) natural, and B) cycular.  In short, the media goes into a cycle of distillation->complexity->distillation, at least in a lot of our modern medias.

A few thing I noticed:
* Horror, as above.  Enough said – in fact, haven't we had enough serial killers and such?
* Anime fantasy.  A recent interest of mine has been that a lot of fantasy anime of the 90's seemed fun and goofy – and now we have strange, complex, and often dark series.
* American fantasy films.  These were, needless to say, not exactly deep (most were b-movies), until Peter Jackson went batshit with Lord of the Rings (let me say I disagree with many of those choices, but man those films were epic).  Let me also insert the underappreciated Ladyhawke.
* Television.  The sitcom has given way to endless reality shows – yet I feel we're seeing also burst of epic television in the form of Sparticus and Game Of Thrones.
* Video games, as noted, seem to have a phase where retro/simple is appreciated, and certainly helped by DLC (and the desire for simpler, smaller, effectively targeted content).
* I see more appreciation for B-movies lately, for simple fare, perhaps enhanced by Netflix and the ease of production.

Thus I feel that, to oversimplify it, there is a strange cycle to media complexity.  The desire for complex and rich entertainment seems to result in a time of narrower/distilled/simplistic entertainment that has the most basic desired elements.  THough I am doubtlessly making this too simple, I think the basic idea stands, having seen it time and again in popular culture.

I think this cycle may be unique to cultures with a widespread media system.  The system does seek to make profits, and thus seeks to find the formula of most-for-the-least.  This results in some epic productions, but also a phase of distilling the most successful elements, which in turn, creates the more simplistic fare.  The simplistic fare reaches its nadir at some point, and more complex fare emerges.

In American animation, we're blessed with some delightful series in the last decade, from The Venture Brothers to the Powerpuff girls, to the new My Little Pony.  But does anyone honestly think American animation would have evolved what it did if Japan's industry hadn't been leading the way – and breathing down their neck?

(Of course fans of Japanese animation over the decades have also found many times to complain too – such as the weird Maid Outburst of a few years ago).

This may be a cycle to watch in your chosen field so you can catch the wave – or be one of the pioneers who is a success because you're at the right place a the right time.

So what cycles have you seen?

Steven Savage