16 December, 2011

In Defense of Mediocrity

I saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows last night. It was entertaining, with plenty of twists and turns and complicated scheming and Holmes deducing nonsense from the scantiest of clues.

After I got home, I went and read A. O. Scott's review in the New York Times. He didn't like it much; his main complaint seemed to be that Robert Downey Jr. didn't look like he was having enough fun. Well, there's no accounting for taste.

That got me thinking about the role of mediocre entertainment. No matter what, not all produced entertainment can be of the highest caliber, not even if we put Michael Bay to death and gave all the money spent on his films instead to Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, and Terrence Malick. For one thing, humans can grow accustomed to anything. Take films; if all you ever watch are the greatest, most revered films, it'll probably get to be a bit stale. Seeing something less than stellar once in a while confirms the quality of the better films, to give you a basis for comparison.

But it's more basic than that. Every meal you eat cannot be filet mignon and white asparagus tips. (Well, it can if you're the 1%.) But even if it was, the sameness of it would grow tedious after a while. We need food to nourish our bodies, and we need entertainment to nourish our minds. Sometimes a good solid grilled cheese sandwich of a movie is just the thing called for, between the lobster and caviar.

This is not meant to defend deliberate decisions toward mediocrity. Artists should always aim high, and never say "I know this could be better, but, meh." ("I know this could be better, but I don't know how, and anyway I'm on a deadline" is an acceptable excuse.) But not even great artists always succeed. Picasso has plenty of paintings that no one gives a rat's ass about; Hitchcock and Bergman and Spielberg and Scorsese have all made bad films. This doesn't mean those attempts should be ignored; the mediocre output of great artists can help inform our understanding of their great works, and even keep us entertained, even if we know it wasn't their best effort.

I wonder some times if film critics in particular are too harsh on some films. If a film intends to be a mindless escape, should it be criticized for that? Should we discourage directors, through the mechanism of critical analysis, from making anything but the most sublime, profound statements? Is a movie bad because it doesn't aim for greatness, even if it captures the zeitgeist and influences culture?

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