Lowering the Bar

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…. πŸ™‚

14 thoughts on “Lowering the Bar

  1. tess

    Talk about lowering the bar? Just take a flight anywhere in the U.S. Assuming the flight isn’t cancelled. Assuming it isn’t delayed for hours. Few things have deteriorated as much over the past few years as the experience of flying.

    So I hope your flight to Baltimore was a good one!

  2. Wilfred Bereswill

    Robert, great, thought provoking concept. Are we really lowering the bar are diluting it with variations and new bars.

    First, I will look you up at B’con, but I’ll be rushing to a panel of my own on Thursday afternoon. I will catch up to you during the weekend. And, Tess, I hope you enjoy my hometown while at the Big Read this weekend here in St. Louis. I wish I could be two places at once.

    First off, I’m an Engineer. Not a literary arts major. A few weeks ago, I had to read a book for something I was preparing for. After a few pages my head was swimming. Given a choice, I would have tossed in on the “never to be read” pile. Wasn’t my cup of tea although the critics loved it. I asked myself why.

    A large part of my job is reading complex laws and regulations, case studies, permit conditions, etc, all in order to determine their impact on my employer. As a lawyer, Dusty knows the kinds of things I’m referring to.

    For me, when I pick up something for pleasure I want light, simple, easy, entertaining. A whole different bar than my book assignment should have been measured against. And I realize I wasn’t qualified to be a critic for that book.

    I understand your message here and in many cases you’re right on. But we live in a complex society with many different bars to be measured against. There is a place for Star Wars and a place for Swawshank Redemption and Godfather II. They just need to be measured under different bars. In simple terms, they are what they are.

  3. Victor Gischler

    Hamlet also borrowed from previous works. Man, that Shakespeare. What a hack. If you think the original Star Wars lowered the bar, then I would argue the newer Star Wars films dropped the bar down a well so deep you can’t even hear the splash.

  4. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Browne, boy does this one resonate with me. As a teacher, I see EVERY DAY the lowering of standards for the general public. Understand, though, that as one bar falls another must rise. In the case of education, the bar of expectations for students is lowered only in that the bar of duties/expectations of teachers is raised.

    Consider: what degree of personal responsibility would you say was expected of you in school? We are not even ALLOWED to hold students to that standard anymore, because we might harm their delicate sensibilities or their inner child. Fun fact: most students think it’s as bogus as the teachers do, but none of us can convince the bureaucrats (right and left, neither has it right) and the parents that they aren’t helping their child pass High School. All they are doing is setting their child up for failure when college and/or the working world slaps them in the face with reality.

    And I agree with the points you make about the media. When they can completely gloss over the fact that our housing markets and wall street were tied together for the first time since the Great Depression because someone who isn’t even in office right now supposedly thought it’d be a good idea to remove the safeguards preventing it, I’m not sure the Fairness Doctrine could stand a chance anyway. Although, the one who IS in office hasn’t done a damn thing to fix the problem…not that Congress has helped matters, but I’m not sure he’s even capable of fixing the lunacy his predecessor created.

    Anyway, since you mention politics, I’ll say this: I haven’t seen one person run for office in the last 20 years (including the current WAR HERO and the CHRIST FIGURE) who wasn’t all fluff and bluster on the outside, and empty partisan stubbornness on the inside. Neither of these two lying hacks is going to have any more of a positive influence than the lying hacks that preceeded them.

    But I agree that the books getting churned out are still pretty good! πŸ™‚

  5. pari

    Rob,I agree 100 percent.

    We seem to have thrown out the demand for creative, intellectual and physical excellence in favor of ease.

    I think it also has to do with the clutter of our lives. We’re too distracted to be willing to sit and think deeply about a work of art, a movie, music or a book. We want things fast and are willing to sacrifice quite a bit to get them that way.

    —-I hope to see you at BCon.

  6. j.t. ellison

    I loved Star Wars! Still do. I guess I had zero expectation and was pleasantly surprised.

    Since we don’t do politics here at Murderati I’m staying away from that.

    I am not quite as cynical as Rob. I think there are wonderful parts of being an American, of our freedoms, our arts community, the publishing and movie industries. We could live in a land where the government tell us what we can and can’t write, watch, think or see. That would be something to get upset about.

    But I also don’t let other people tell me what I should think, and our media has devolved into interpretive response rather than journalism. That’s dangerous — there are no checks to the balances anymore. The only thing we can do is shut them off and go find out for ourselves, and I’d encourage more people to do that. Taking a talking head’s word as gospel and spewing it out is irresponsible. The discourse is overwhelmingly negative. We’ve turned into a country of gotchas trying to demean our opposition. And that’s truly sad.

  7. Fiona

    Have a great time in Charm City. I used to live there and wish I could be there for the ‘con.

    I have stopped watching local news stations and last year quit watching network & cable news. I canceled my subscription to a weekly news magazine.

    Now I listen to NPR & MPR, read the BBC website and scan 3 or 4 newspapers online.

    I watch the debates on CSPAN and turn it off as soon as the debate (loose tern IMHO) is over.

    Lowering the bar is a very kind expression of where we are for reporting.

  8. Becky Lejeune

    Yes! Someone else is saying it. We do celebrate mediocrity. It has its place, don’t get me wrong. In the book industry, the desperation to recreate crazy success stories like Dan Brown’s (Da Vinci was really fun but by no means literary genius) drives publishers to kick out a multitude of wannabe titles in hopes that they will sell equally well. Some are good and some are not.

    I guess my biggest fear is that in this mess, really great books are being overlooked lieu of some not so great books (that still may be fun, brainless beach reads) because they are not of the right subject matter at the right time.

    I also feel bad because I am part of the problem. I jump on the theme bandwagon. One comes out and I like it and I buy the others, so I am part of the market that the publishers are trying to satisfy. But I want really great books to read, too!

  9. Miri

    This whole post strikes me as so true, I can’t even say.

    And when Mr. Nantz pointed out that most students hate the new standards as much as (intelligent) teachers do, he’s absolutely right. We think it’s trash. Seriously, only inputting homework grades when they improve the student’s average, like what’s happening in Dallas? What do they think they’re doing? Helping? Not so much.

    I think I might have a different perspective on this than a lot of posters here (not that I’m calling anyone old!), but it’s one that lines up; I feel like as part of the Eye Candy generation (I’ve given up on letters – what are we on now, generation Z^2?) I’ve missed out on something. I’m already spoiled on movies–all the special effects I’ve seen in my lifetime make the older classics just seem dim for me, even if from a sheer storytelling perspective they’re far superior. It’s related to the phenomenon of seeing something for the first time–once you’ve experienced it once, with the full impact and surprise, you’ll never be able to see it the same way again. And that’s a loss.

    Maybe that’s why I’ve gravitated toward books. The English language might be butchered every day by peers with cell phones, but people who care about it–writers–will still use it well. I’m able to enjoy Shakespeare just as much as Rowling (if on a slightly different level–what can I say, I like being made to turn page after page as much as the next kid), because while new styles are always changing and evolving, the medium itself is a constant.

    Anyway, great post, Mr. Browne.

    Good luck with your flight.

  10. Allison Brennan

    1) Politicians. After working in the state capitol for 13 years, I’ve seen a lot of great men and women come into the building. They either leave pretty quickly because they aren’t willing to sell their soul, or they became jaded and just vote their conscience and don’t accomplish much of anything, or they join the pack of wheelers and dealers who give up to gain and it doesn’t matter WHAT they give up or WHAT they gain as long as they “accomplish” something. This is true for both major political parties.

    2) Lowering of standards. My kids go to private school. I have a strong say in their education. I expect them to be challenged, punished when they screw up, encouraged, supported, and TAUGHT not only the core subjects, but right from wrong, high ethics, and basic human and American values. I commend teachers who do it right–and there are many–and I abhor teachers who screw up kids. My fourth grade teacher gave me the world; my fifth grade teacher took it away.

    3) STAR WARS. I was eight when I saw that movie in the theater. It changed my life, very much like reading THE STAND when I was 13. So, Rob didn’t love it. I didn’t think it lowered the standards at all. It was imaginative. It speaks to possibilities, the future. It was visually different from what came before it. Sure, it’s the same story told over and over and over — but it grabbed me. Maybe because I was eight? Who knows? My husband never loved Star Wars like I did. He loved JAWS. I didn’t. I found JAWS, while suspenseful and I could appreciate the irony and the storytelling, dragging in places.

    4) Music. Don’t even get me started. I thought Rock-n-roll would never die. Unfortunately, there’s very little good rock being created today. So my iPod is filled with songs from the 50s, 60s and 70s, with a few choice bands from the 80s and 90s. There’s a couple new “rock-ish” type artists out there that have potential, but it’s definitely a new era for music, and it’s not a good one. πŸ™

    I tend to look on the positive side of everything. I really didn’t like the three “new” Star Wars movies for more reasons than I have space to articulate. But I did find elements I liked in all of them. And I liked the young Obi Wan πŸ™‚

  11. Andrew Prentice

    Rob, I saw Star Wars in my formative years and it is my favourite, and most watched movie of all time. You allude to older “classics” but I sincerely believe movie likes can be generational. I loved Casablanca but loathed Gone With The Wind. A matter of taste, possibly. However, I cannot agree that Star Wars “lowered the bar”. No movie that has proved to be so enduring, that put a fresh spin on a classic tale, that captivated 3 generations of fans, can possibly have done so by being mediocre.

  12. Jolie

    Honestly, I think you’re not looking hard enough. It’s not entirely your fault; it’s part of the changes in how people experience the world. My generation has no trouble looking past the “celebration of mediocrity” to find great art, partly because we have grown up in the age of technology. Traditional media focuses on the mainstream, while the internet is a smorgasbord of subcultures. But the internet isn’t the only place to explore artistic niches. You just have to seek out the good stuff instead of expecting it to come to you.

    In music, for example, if you turn on the radio you’re going to find a lot of crap. Dig around online, or explore local music scenes, or pick up an alternative newspaper, and you’ll find the real treasures. I live in an area of the Bible Belt that most people would assume has no variety of culture, but anyone who picks up the alternative weekly newspaper will see bright light shined on an assortment of dance, music, theater, film, food, visual art, and community events.

    Curmudgeons expect great art to show up right in front of them and wave a big flag, and if it doesn’t, it must not exist. Don’t be fooled! The good stuff is out there, thriving, and it has a substantial audience. As long as there are smart, creative people, there will be good art.


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