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The Lore of Averages; (Un)fair to Middling

No era, no civilization, no society has ever had a premium on mediocrity.  It has always been with us—or one must assume this is so, since by its very nature, mediocrity doesn’t rise high enough, or offer reason enough, to survive the test of memory over time immemorial.

Recent history, however, is rife with mediocrity. In the two hundred years plus of our republic, we’ve had more than our fair share of second-rate presidents and inexplicably popular performers, inept writers and clumsy artists, inane pundits and muddled thinkers.

A relatively recent comic highlight in the history of American mediocrity was Richard Nixon’s nomination of G. Harrold Carswell, a jurist universally judged as mediocre, to the Supreme Court.

In Carswell’s defense, Senator Roman Hruska, no slouch in the second-rate department himself, was quoted as saying, “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers, and they are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?”

Comic, yes, but queasily prescient, too.  While the middling and mediocre have always been with us, the genuine sea change in our time is our social, critical and cultural reaction to the average, the acceptable, the unexceptional.

As noted, we might want to credit Senator Hruska for an unintentional prescience here.

When I was a kid, I got the joke in “The Worst From MAD.”  I understood the album title “An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer” was a gag.   As I grew older, I thought of this as irony, and congratulated myself for this frequently elusive adult understanding.

That said, as an actual adult, I came to identify and recognize these and other similar highlights of my experience as grandiose narcissism wearing the beard of false modesty, expressed in comic terms, certainly, but really now—who’s kidding who?

These days, the declarations “BEST!” and “WORST!” are tossed around like hacky sacks and hand grenades, often by over aged, under socialized brats, prats and twats, unaware of, or maybe indifferently resistant to, their arrested adolescence—and all too often applied to work that is neither particularly good, nor, for that matter, memorably bad—just our old pal, mediocre.

The intensity with which the average, the workmanlike, the merely sturdy, is regarded, analyzed, criticized, and argued over often leaves me agape.

“This is the best (fill in at your leisure) I’ve ever seen!”

“I can’t believe how they’ve ruined (fill in at your leisure) forever!”

All this presumes, of course, that (fill in at your leisure) is intrinsically wonderful, or at the very least worthy of admiration for its very existence in and of itself—not to mention possessed of some value making critical analysis a worthwhile pursuit.

Welcome to the zeitgeist, and its weird and occasionally creepy uncles, fan service and relativism.

And just to be clear, it’s not as if shit being mistaken for, or at the very least misidentified, as Shinola, is a new phenomenon.  Hence, the shit/Shinola paradigm of course.

There have always been, in entertainment, successful careers that are beyond human understanding.  Google Le Petomane, as an example.  Joe Penner, as another.   Ruby Keeler, for god’s sake.  And just speaking on my own behalf, Red Skelton is an inexplicable taste that I’ve never acquired.  And God bless.

And of course, with the modern voyeuristic fascination with narcissistic halfwits who are the living incarnation of the Dunning Kruger effect, that longstanding tradition of pointless what the fuckery is alive and well.

So yes, of course, the mediocre have always been with us.

Rather, what I’m going on about here is the passion, the enthusiasm, the venom, the loathing directed at material that really is often no more than manufactured time devouring filler, the entertainment equivalent of macaroni and cheese—specifically, the blue and yellow box variety, not any of that artisanal stuff, which is often pretty damned good, but is still macaroni and cheese, if you catch my drift.

in this regard, when Martin Scorsese made his earnest and casually dismissive remark about superhero movies not being cinema, the white heat of outrage generated by this perfectly reasonable statement from a man who is both a serious historian of film and a contributor of enormous merit to film’s history, a man who had earned the right to his opinion, was more revealing about the audience than that audience might have been aware.

It boiled down to, you should pardon the expression, “Fuck that guy and his OK Boomer, know it all elitist bullshit.”

It might be worth noting he didn’t say they were bad movies, which, of course, they frequently are, but that they weren’t “…cinema.”  By which he meant, it seems to me, that they lack nuance, narrative subtlety, and three-dimensional characterization not to mention themes that might occasionally go over the head of a willfully ignorant and frequently sullen fourteen-year-old of any sex or gender identity.

This seems perfectly reasonable to me.  Not to say, but say it I will, right on the money.

Face it.  For what it’s worth, the superhero movie owes more to the time honored eleven o’clock number based structure of musical comedy, the phony theatricality of professional wrestling, and the gesture based drama of Kabuki than it does to the sort of filmmaking that existed only a few decades ago.

These movies, much like the comic books on which they’re based, are a series of tropes, of grace notes specific to the familiar armature that defines the logic of such material.  Not for nothing do these movies all seem to end with a twenty minute long computer assisted slugfest, the superhero equivalent of the musical comedy’s penultimate song and dance number before all the wants and wishes are granted.

These movies can be beautiful, frequently astonishing in technical craft, even occasionally, if not often enough to my mind, funny, but lack anything of what might be identified as actual human reaction, depth or experience they aren’t on any par even close to more formidable films, even those of what are now considered old fashioned and willfully forgotten genres.

But you couldn’t tell that from the response to Scorsese, or, for that matter, the response to the material he dismisses in general from outraged fans of that material.

As noted above, if the material in question addresses, caresses and services your closely held personal issues, the sort of stuff to inspire you if fanfiction was your thing, your mind is blown.  It’s the best.

If, however, this stuff veers from your personal wish dream relationship with material you should have long outgrown, surely within a year or two of this side of puberty, the outrage is huge.  It’s the worst.

And of course, there’s the near immediate gotcha leap to relativism from the better read and informed cadre of enthusiasts, best exemplified in this case by the frequent fan plaint of “What about westerns?”  aren’t they just as trope based?

Well yes.  Frequently.

But westerns are also, certainly in the better or best examples of this longstanding genre, occasionally possessed of that nuance, that narrative subtlety, that three-dimensional characterization, those themes that might occasionally go over the head of a fourteen year old.

In addition to this, for much of the twentieth century, the manner in which the mythology of the American west was portrayed, and the sociopolitical scrim and filter through which the equally mythologized figures of that time were presented and understood, provided a glimpse into the way the country and the culture felt and thought about itself at the various turning points in that tumultuous century, the first era in which a popular culture was so universally and democratically available to anyone who chose to experience it.

In each decade, the western film represented a frequently blurry mirror of self-reflection and self-examination, if not self-awareness, offering an occasionally subtle, often far from subtle perspective in its representation of what it was understood to be an American in that America now.

Of course, if it’s the run of the mill cowboy picture, or oaters, as the Daily Variety (in)famously dubbed them, you’re talking about, those low budget quickies were mostly aimed at a Saturday matinee children’s audience, and your whataboutist argument comes around and bites you on the ass—like a cow pony’s horseshoe!—unless, of course, those poverty row efforts represent your idea of genre excellence.

And naturally, under the discussed circumstances, maybe they do just that.

So, for me, it’s the wild overpraise, in tandem with the toxic vitriol, aimed at material that is at best sturdy and middling, at worst pandering and self-referential, that dismays.  Whatever might be potentially if not universally identified as recognizable standards of excellence are murdered in their sleep by the presumption of the imprimatur granted in calling “favorite” “best,” and “unsatisfactory,” “worst.”

The investment of time and energy in praising on one hand, and attacking on the other, workmanlike entertainment product all too often functionally unworthy of actual critical examination, derives, it seems to me, from the mistaking of the successful pandering to fan service for anything actually resembling and possessing the sort of qualities that Scorsese found absent.

And just to potentially complicate the issue, and potentially confuse the fuck out of the fatuously resentful, nobody has any right or say in giving a fuck what you like.  Whatever indifference, occasionally bordering on contempt I may have for the material under discussion, I don’t need you to agree with me.  We all have those lapses in taste, those gaps in good judgment, that admit to our heart of hearts what must be acknowledged as pointless crap.

In full disclosure, I spent much of my boyhood enthralled by those kid’s Saturday matinee shoot ‘em up cheapies on our dinky little black and white television set…and nowadays, I will occasionally indulge in the nostalgia of seventy minutes spent in the company of Johnny Mack Brown or Wild Bill Elliott and their saddle pals.

There is pleasure here.  But none of that pleasure goes any distance to making those shitty little Gower Gulch horse operas any better than the dreck they are, nostalgia or yestalgia notwithstanding.

And, despite the fact that I am deeply hip to what goes into making them, I love hot dogs.  From dirty water dogs to Curry wurst, I’m first in line.  I love them, I readily admit unconditionally, but I know all too well that there’s nothing good about them.  Nothing.

Somewhere, somehow, someone out there is going to take issue with this, and insist that such and such hot dog is the best.*

Sure.

Maybe.

But it’s still a fucking hot dog.

It’s that subjective acknowledgment, or rather the refusal to acknowledge subjectively, that just because we dig it doesn’t make it good, that’s at issue for me here.  The need to defend one’s taste for the love of perfectly middling albeit entertaining nonsense by granting it some sort of nonexistent gold medal, or, for that matter, identifying such stuff as the gateway drug to the apocalypse, diminishes the actual value of genuine excellence, actual transcendence.

All this is true, of course, in regard to comic books, too.  Proprietary fandom and its evil twin, Toxic fandom, rampage through the mainstream corridor of an industry and a readership long infantilized by the long-dismissed Comics Code Authority, which, despite its death, left behind an enterprise hobbled by its primary source material, namely costumed crusaders, now slathered with gravitas mistaken for enormity.  Consider the sad fact of an ambitious talent, who has to squeeze that ambition through the strainer of those restraints, like it or not.

This is, of course, only one of the reasons I looked elsewhere for subject material in my own work, a decision that put me outside the frontier fort of institutionalized comics fandom, for better, and for worse.  Having finally come to terms with that decision, I am glad and grateful I saw no other option at the time.

And finally, what is genuine excellence?  Fucked if I know.  What is true excrescence?  Easier to identify, certainly, but still.  Either way, it’s completely subjective, of course.  I do know one thing for certain.  Considering the nature of all that stuff that’s blowing so many of your minds, in either direction, “BEST!” or “WORST!”?

You might need to get out a bit more.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin…a Prince.

*Entre nous, it’s a Nathan’s Famous, in 1959.  Trust me on this.

 

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