by Rob Gregory Browne
WARNING: I’m about to mention politics here, but I do so only to illustrate a point, and am not endorsing or denouncing any particular political philosophy, candidate or party. I will also be mentioning a couple of movies that people around the world love, so hopefully you won’t get upset in that regard, either.
I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately. For several years now, in fact.
But the build-up to last Thursday’s Vice Presidential debate really brought something home for me. I noticed in news story after news story that the party representing one of the candidates seemed to be going out of its way to lower our expectations about the candidate’s upcoming performance. Thanks to a spate of less than stellar media events, it seemed that if she could prove that she could walk and chew gum at the same time, she would succeed in proving that she was somehow worthy of office.
It seems to me that this expectations game is not very healthy. It is indicative, I think, of how far we’ve come in lowering the bar — not just for political candidates, but for nearly every aspect of our lives in this country. We have become a society that celebrates mediocrity. The more you skew toward the middle-to-lower end of the spectrum, the better your chances at success in the marketplace. The decline has been steady but sure, and I think the quality of our lives has deteriorated because of it.
There are several exceptions to this, of course. There always will be, thank God. But lately, those exceptions, I think, are fewer and farther between, and dim in comparison to the exceptions of the past.
I grew up during the seventies. Spent my teen years going to the movies and seeing masterpieces of the era like The Godfather II, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, and Five Easy Pieces, to name just a few. It seemed that during those years, there were many, many examples of fine filmmaking from some of our greatest writers and directors.
Then, along came Star Wars.
When I saw the trailer for the movie, I was, like everyone else, very excited. The special effects were so amazing that I thought, wow, this is going to be one helluva movie. On opening day, I waited in line for close to an hour. And when the movie started, I was thrilled. Saw things I’d never seen before. Just the sight of that Death Star alone was mesmerizing.
But something was wrong. The story itself was really nothing special. The acting, for the most part, was decent but not spectacular. The direction was pedestrian. And some of the dialog was downright laughable.
It was a fun movie, no question about it, but nothing special. And I walked out of the theater somewhat disappointed, thinking it would never recoup its cost.
Yet, to my surprise, within weeks, Star Wars had turned into a phenomenon and is now revered as something of a masterpiece. Many people who grew up without seeing the true masterpieces of the cinema, seem to think that Star Wars is some kind of benchmark that filmmakers — of popcorn fiction, at least — should strive for.
But no matter how much you may love the movie, let’s face it: Star Wars is a decent entertainment but not a great one. It borrows too heavily from better work — particularly Japanese films — and shows little innovation other than the spectacular (at the time) special effects.
In my opinion, Star Wars almost single-handedly lowered the bar for movies. After its surprise success (along with the much better Jaws), we saw Hollywood fall victim to a blockbuster mentality that produced a bunch of big budget "high concept" epics that were all fluff and no substance. A mentality that continues to plague Hollywood even now.
This year, The Dark Knight is being hailed as a dark masterpiece. But in comparison to what? The Fantastic Four? As much fun and as well-executed as The Dark Knight is — and believe me, I enjoyed it — it is not an exercise in cinematic subtlety and is nowhere near the artistic revelation that people say it is.
But then, in comparison to everything else around it, maybe it is. Again, that lowering of the bar, our lowered expectations about what’s coming out of Hollywood these days, makes The Dark Knight’s intelligent — if obvious –storytelling a rarity.
If we look at music, who are the big acts of today? I’m not even sure anymore, because I lost interest in the mainstream music scene several years ago with the advent of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. The corporate music industry has become all gloss and no substance. Even stuff we considered fluff back in my day is true artistry in comparison.
When Mylie Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers and American Idol contestants are the best we have to offer the world, I think we’re in serious trouble. I don’t see any Mick Jaggers anymore. Or Lennon/McCartneys. I don’t see any innovation of any kind. All I see are a bunch of posers who somehow have managed to strike a chord, perhaps only because we’re so hungry for something slightly better than average that we welcome these posers with open arms.
Again, there are exceptions — even among American Idol contestants — but for the most part, the mainstream music industry, like the movies, is mired in mediocrity.
The book industry seems to have fared better in this regard, although I’m sure we can all point to novelists we consider less than stellar who are hugely successful. I personally have opened several books that did not compel me to read past the first paragraph or so and some that were, by any measuring stick, just plain bad. And while I’d love to put my own work in the above-average category, I make no such claims and will leave that to others to judge.
But I have to wonder if the successful books of today are as good as the successful books of a decade ago. Or several decades ago.
I suppose you could argue that this all comes down to a matter of taste, that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, but what if this gradual lowering of the bar has affected that taste? If we are bombarded day in and day out by below average fare, it seems we have no choice but to find something in the mess that we can actually tolerate and, as a result, we celebrate it as if it’s the second coming.
In keeping with my statement that I think this has affected several aspects of our lives, why don’t we talk about food? The McDonaldization of the world has certainly made me wonder about what we put in our stomachs. I mean, anyone who has eaten a homemade burger with all the trimmings knows full well that the fast food version is, at best, a piss-poor substitute. Yet we flock to these food chains like lemmings.
Despite all the advancements in medicine, the quality of our health care experience has declined. There was a time when you could spend a few minutes talking to your friendly general practitioner and he or she actually knew who you were. Might even call you by your first name.
Now it seems that we’re nothing more than cattle being herded in and out of the doctor’s office (if you can get an appointment), given a quick diagnosis that often requires another visit or a second opinion because the doctor didn’t give us enough quality time to actually get it right the first time around.
And then, of course, there’s the news. The days of the thoughtful and balanced news anchoring of, say, Walter Cronkite and the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein has been replaced by howling partisan hacks who spew nothing but talking points, purveyors of propaganda rather than substance. These people don’t just wallow in shallow mediocrity, they celebrate it. And the now defunct Fairness Doctrine is nothing more than a quaint term they once heard in high school.
If I sound frustrated, I am. All the things I’ve talked about here used to be magic to me. But the magic is long gone.
I’m sure to some of you, I sound like an elitist, or the grumpy old fart who is caught up in the past, when everything was "better." And maybe that’s true.
But while I love the advancements in technology that make our lives easier and, in many ways, more interesting, I’ve found that despite the fact that we have many more choices when it comes to entertainment, food and political discourse, the quality of those choices is merely a shadow of what it was in the past, and we’re now forced to settle for less.
Call me old. Call me a cynical curmudgeon. But that’s just the way I see it.
By the way, I’m on a plane headed to Baltimore right now and hope to see you at Bouchercon. I’ll be on a panel about Criminal Masterminds on Thursday afternoon. Hope you’ll stop by to hear me complain…. 🙂