On Mediocrity, Storytelling, and Getting It

Did you read this thing I posted on my tumblelog? I may be wholly foolish to even write this out loud, this call for perspective on the subject of mediocre stories, but it just sort of fell out of my head onto the page this way, and I’m not afraid to be wrong for a little while if it’ll help me be right in the future.

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comments ( 2 )

  • ReplyTrilly Chatterjee 14 Jun 2010

    Not foolish, but perhaps you live in a more intense bubble of Hollywood-centric criticism than I. I am guilty as anyone of looking at the current showings at my local cinema and wondering “how in hell did they green light *this* utter drek?” But those are the months I don’t go to the cinema. Same with TV, except the disappointment is nightly.

    But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the good stuff for its rarity. If everything *was* good stuff, after a while we’d just raise the bar to reflect this, searching for ever finer, more subtle bases (basises?) on which to make distinctions or issue criticism.

    I certainly don’t disagree. Mediocrity has a place. The word itself is a highly subjective in its appraisal – perhaps we could call it ‘sub-excellence’ (too PC?). But further to that, there’s a whole spectrum of quality out there. One might even suggest that there are countless spectra based on what the individual look for in an entertaining story.

    Sometimes I want a strong emotional core and lots of subtle, well-orchestrated character-driven moments. Sometimes I just want the big robot to punch a man in the face (spitting teeth – awesome). The success or failure of a movie’s story, for me, hinges on what I feel it was *trying* to achieve. But I, like everyone else, know pretty much nothing about a particular film director’s intentions beyond actually seeing the movie, so my view of its success is pretty much wholly invented.

    This is something I often fail to understand about criticism in general, and the ostensibly comparative ratings-based stuff particularly – its essentially just the critics opinion, so why give it so much prominence? You can take or leave it based on your (more often than not sketchy) impression of the critic’s taste, but you’re never going to know until you *watch* the thing, are you?

    For example, did you read the Lindy West SATC2 review in the online Seattle Times? Loved it, but it didn’t give me much food for thought that I hadn’t intuited by the very fact of the film’s existence. I read some of her other reviews retrospectively, and compared them with my own impressions – not significantly similar/dissimilar, on the whole just more entertainingly expressed.

    Its only when you get to aggregated reviews like Metacritic that numerical reviews make any kind of sense, and they haven’t been around as long as those fabled five stars, have they?

    You will stop me if I’m asiding, won’t you? :)

  • ReplyWill Hindmarch 17 Jun 2010

    That’s a good aside, though, Trilly. How we choose to register and react to critics’ opinions varies as much as the critics’ opinions do, don’t they? The place of criticism can be one of camaraderie or commiseration, or it can actually be a source of legitimate information, once we know enough about the critic to properly parse his or her biases and nuances. I, for example, feel comfortable understanding what Ebert means when he gives three stars to the weekend’s newest escapist adventure, and how those three stars are relative to what the picture was trying to achieve. Not every three-star picture is aiming for cultural resonance and a charged emotional reactor at its core; as you say, some are about dudes getting punched. But I feel like I grok Ebert enough to get what he’s saying, even when he’s sometimes not saying it directly.

    Reviews are a whole other thing, though. I won’t go into the frankness and self-awareness that I think is necessary in a good review, and let’s not get into the potential death of the critic as an occupation just now. It’s too much.

    As you say, a movie’s aspirations are part of the equation when we judge its success. I think The Rocketeer and Raiders of the Lost Ark both accomplish exactly what they’re out to accomplish, and I love them both, but I’m not sure I could argue that, for example, The Rocketeer is Great Cinema in the way that Raiders is because of how it influenced how other movies were made and altered audience expectations and made careers. Even still, those definitions of greatness aren’t something that I’d say every piece of Great Cinema has to overcome to win the title (for whatever the title is worth); they’re arguments, not metrics.

    And yet I love The Rocketeer, even though I might file it under mediocrity in the part of my brain that is a film snob. I think it’s a fine example of a story that hits what it’s aiming at, and that there is no shame in aiming at a target broader or less profound than, say, Shakespearean grandeur.

    I’m also not going to prescribe that people necessarily read up on a movie before they see it, though I will say that gambling with your ticket purchase based solely on the quality of a trailer is some kind of crap shoot. But for some people, that slot-machine-style gamble is part of the fun of a night at the cinema, and that’s fine. I don’t have the spare cash to do that, so I use things like reviews to help me decide whether I should bet my $20 on, say, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (even though it’s set in medieval England and has swords in it, which means some part of me will like it), or not. (I didn’t.) I try to make informed purchases at the box office.

    What I do feel comfortable prescribing, though, is this: People should learn things about who made their favorite movies, at least, so that they can support the people who craft what they like and make informed purchases in the future. Making decisions based on information as gross as “Hollywood made this” isn’t much better than throwing the dice. Movies can go wrong for a lot of reasons, and they can go right due to forces that are sometimes difficult to control. I encourage folks to at least be curious enough about their entertainment to ask, “Who is it that broke my heart this afternoon?” or “Who is it that swept me away?”

    I also think it’s worthwhile, for would-be creators, to understand why movies as products sometimes do not attain, or even aspire to attain, the same goals for movies as, dare I say it?, art.

    Sometimes a movie is just about a boy, a girl, and a jet pack. Nothing wrong with that.