On Popular Entertainment: The Missing Ingredient

Thursday , 14, December 2017 16 Comments

When diagnosing the illness that pervades modern mainstream entertainment in the US, most armchair oncologists point to symptoms of the disease.  Consumers recognize the wealth of titles that present all the shine and appearance of timeless classics, but have all the weight and import of ephemeral bits of fluff.  Somehow, the increased volume of offerings has not translated into an increased number of profoundly appealing and thought-provoking stories.  Why is it that a feeling of loss predominates whenever one sits down in a dark theater or browses the stacks at the book store or switches on network television?

After all, the Hollywood that gave us Ghostbusters (1984) is the same Hollywood that gave us Ghostbusters 2016)The Hollywood that gave us Ben-Hur (1959) also gave us Ben-Hur (2016).  The same publishing industry that gave us the genius of a Tolkein gave us the degeneracy of a Steven King.  The same network that gave us The Simpsons (1989-1994) also gave us The Simpsons (pretty much every year since).  Even the world of comic book publishing has not escaped the strange subtraction by addition that afflicts its big brothers.  This is not to say that quality entertainment cannot be found today, even within the mainstream, nor that everything was so much better “back in my day”.  This new millennium has seen its moments of transcendence, to be sure, but even those not dialed in as tight as those who regularly read the blog posts at successful independent publishing houses have started to notice the rising tide of sentiment in the public that something is missing.

The source of that feeling feels just out of reach, because like all lies of omission, there isn’t any one thing that the cultural sleuth can point to and say, “Ah ha!”  It leaves no blank space in the dust or footprint in the sand, because the missing ingredient has no substance in and of itself, it merely informs the process of creation, and finds expression in the actors and characters and situations represented.  To make matters worse, this missing ingredient can be papered over like a hole the dry-wall or – more appropriately – over a missing structural support column.  And while the building may stand with that critical node missing for a while, the stress load placed on the rest of the building will eventually bring the whole thing collapsing down.

Enough with the metaphors, you want answers.

The missing ingredient…

…is wisdom.

And not just on the part of the people who make these films – can there be any doubt as to the wisdom possessed by men who select actresses based more on their abilities in-bed rather than on-screen?  Give some thought to the last few movies you’ve seen or books you’ve read.  They may have been smart.  They may have been clever.  They may have touched on deeper themes.  But how much wisdom did they possess, and how much wisdom did they pass along?

Probably not much when you think about it.

With great wisdom comes great curmudgeonry

To nudge a slowly toppling IP giant along its path to ruin, let’s look at the Star Wars franchise.  The original trilogy touched on a number of deep issues: the primacy of human action and virtue over cold, calculated technology, the importance of familial bonds over political ties, even the rudiments of Game.  In his attempts to recreate the old serials he had grown up watching, George Lucas couldn’t help by draw on and illustrate the cultural wisdom of his forebears.  The most recent offerings have core themes of…remember that one time in A New Hope?  Set aside how JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson used modern technology to improve the look of Star Wars, and one begins to appreciate how their story choices create empty shells of films that share more with the prequels than the originals.  The modern takes on Star Wars are pretty, and they can be a lot of fun, but they don’t bring anything to the table but pretty pictures, fast action, and cheap gags.  They are far closer in spirit to The Transformers than they are to the original trilogy.

 

One can also see how forgoing wisdom in favor of cleverness comes at a high price when comparing contemporary works.  The theme of mankind’s struggle to stave off civilizational collapse runs throughout the course of Johann Kalsi’s Corrosion.  Swept up in events beyond any one man’s control, the protagonists exercise caution and judgement, and the cultures most apt to recover from the galactic tragedy of algodecay are those built along traditional and timeless knowledge.  The result is a profound warning of the relative costs of prevention and cure.  Contrast that depth with the shallowness of John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, whose characters are faddish caricatures prone to profanity, petty banter, witty snark unburdened by heavy literary concepts like verisimilitude and the logical consequences of their actions.  Lacking Corrosion’s foundational themes, Scalzi’s work reads as hollow and empty as its characters.

Marvel Comics has turned its back on Peter Parker’s “with great power comes great responsibility” and turned instead toward an “everybody gets a trophy” philosophy.  The results are stories with characters who all speak with the same voice, heroes who face no inner or outer struggles, and villains with all the depth of ant’s footprint.

As Kalsi himself reminds us, the crumbling of the old need not cause a season of despair.  The death of the old media provides the opportunity for the birth of the new, and everyone has a role to play in the healing process our culture is experiencing.  Better yet, the general public has begun to turn its back on the shallow emptiness as well.  The consumer revolt in video games, heavy metal, and comic books continues to roil and demand more and better of the producers.  Even a touchstone example of empty-calorie film-making like the aforementioned Transformers provides a sign of hope.  The most recent entry in the series grossed just half of its budget domestically – were it not for the overseas market, the film would have tanked at the box office.  The American people still enjoy their spectacle, but they need increasingly demand the fireworks serve something greater than spectacle itself.

More and more, that desire for deeper meaning finds expression in the works of independent creators, and finds the audience that has been starved of wisdom for so long.  Castalia House continues to produce projects that present insight into the human condition, such as the planned continuation of the late-great Jerry Pournelle series There Will be War.  Superversives Press has planned a long string of anthologies that delve into the sacred and profane mysteries of everything from love to leadership to masculinity.  The steady drip has turned into a torrent, and those with the wisdom to see the signs can recognize that future looks better all the time.

You have a role to play in bringing that better future to fruition.  To paraphrase Jordan Peterson, if you want to help clean up the culture, start by picking up your own room.  If you want to see more stories rooted in timeless wisdom, start turning your back on the alternatives.  Appreciate films like Gladiator, with its focus on justice for Maximus’ family, and seek out classics like A Man for All Seasons, rather than the latest comedy based upon a complete inversion of the hope and meaning of Christmas.  Recommend books to your friends filled with characters who speak like grown adults rather than snarky teens, books like The Heretics of St. Posentti and Tales of the Once and Future King.  Branch out from the intellectual properties of your youth and take a risk on an author you’ve never heard of before.  Even if that new author is worse than the old, if you register your distaste informally via social media or more formally via review sites, you can warn others away from it.  By such small steps, you can add to the collective wisdom of the West.

And ours is a culture that needs all the additional wisdom it can get.

16 Comments
  • JD Cowan says:

    Excellent post!

    Modern entertainment is indeed very hollow and meaningless. Hollywood is dying for many reasons, but that it the key one. They believe in nothing so they have nothing to say.

    Without a reason, there’s no reason.

  • Xaver Basora says:

    Jon,
    Well thought out post. Can I refer to a slogan of ours? Regress harder!
    For example, I’m re reading Tirant lo Blanc and I’m savouring it as older, hopefully wiser, adult. I eventually would like to read other chivalry novels.

    I advocate reading the canon as well as the ‘pulp fiction’ of the Middle and early modern ages. Our predecessors faced the same question as we do and their insights are just as sound and legitimate as ours. The canon might even help us recuperate both prudence and wisdom and make a better culture

    xavier

  • Nicholas Archer says:

    It’s funny the author mentioned Stephen King and Tolkien. Just on Monday when I was at the Brantford Writer’s Circle I was talking with a young man around my age (mid-20s) and he mentioned how he only reads Stephen King and The Song of Ice and Fire Series. When I suggested he read the Horror Stories by Robert E Howard (I’ve been listening to audio versions) he scuffed and said no because Howard was a close friend of H. P. Lovecraft and he found Lovecraft’s Stories to be too long, overly descriptive, and not very scary. Later when I called George Martin a “Wannabe-Tolkien” and his series “A nihilistic version of Lord of the Rings” he became offended and said, Tolkien sucked and that at least Martin’s work was based on History, though he admitted it was very loosely based.

    1) I was surprised by his hostility to older authors as most people seem to be indifferent, though everyone I know love Tolkien and LOTR.

    2) About the Article: Do the Pulps really have deeper meaning in their pages? Most of the comments I hear about them are they are fun amoral kick-ass adventure stories.

    3) P.S. It occurred to me that Howard does feature a lot of Pro-Christian or Pro-Religion elements in his Stories especially his Horror Stories. Is that what’s being referred to?

    • Andy says:

      2: Depends on the author? Howard’s a good example in that he had some stories where he was clearly just trying to make a sale and stuck to a formula (Conan’s wandering somewhere, meets a damsel in distress, some monster to fight, Conan wins, rides off with girl FIN), but then he has his stories like Red Nails or Beyond the Black River in which he’s actually trying to say something about how he perceives civilization. Regardless, though, his stories as a whole reveal a lot about himself if you know how to interpret them. Like if you understand something about West Texas, especially back in his time (not that it’s really changed much), things really start clicking into place.

      • Terry Sanders says:

        And even in the formula stories there’s subtext.

        Conan actually thinks the damsel is worth rescuing, and the monster is worth killing. And not just so he can live to f*** another day. “Amoral” doesn”t really apply (though the morals are somewhat looser a lot of the time).

        Imagine a Conan that lets the monster eat the girl so it’ll be distracted when he goes in for the backstab. Or makes a deal with the monster, “You let us go and I’ll help you get past the wall of that town over there. Aren’t a hundred souls to devour better than two?”

        Any story, no matter how formulaic, is going to have *some* moral assumptions behind it. Deeper meaning, if you will. It’s just a question of how central to the story they are. A tale doesn’t have to be *about* morals to have them.

    • deuce says:

      “2) About the Article: Do the Pulps really have deeper meaning in their pages? Most of the comments I hear about them are they are fun amoral kick-ass adventure stories.”

      Nicholas, you’ve been stopping by here for over a year. From then ’til now, your questions make it sound like you’ve hardly read any pulp fiction. You’ve admitted that you’re only now reading Howard. You DO realize that much of the fiction of Burroughs, Merritt, Mundy, Howard, Lovecraft, Max Brand/Frederick Faust etc is free online, right? Try reading up and then asking questions, perhaps? Your queries are starting to get repetitive. Jeffro, in his posts here and in his book, APPENDIX N, addressed many points of the “Christianity/spirituality in the pulps” issue. You’ve been stopping by here long enough to know that. Quit reading “comments” and start reading pulp tales. They won’t bite.

      Project Gutenberg has thousands of pulp tales online for free. However, I prefer Roy Glashan’s site:

      http://freeread.com.au/@rglibrary/authors.html

      Hope that helps. Enjoy! 😀

      • Nicholas Archer says:

        Deuce, a few things:

        1) Despite being a Millenial, I am terrible when it comes to using the interwebs.

        2) Until a year ago I was not involved in any way with the Writer or Reader Communities. Heck, I was never part of a Book Club nor did I ever follow an Author.

        3) Until recently I haven’t heard of most of the Writers often mentioned nor have I read any of the books. Heck, I’ve never heard of any of the Writers from Castalia House or Superversive until a year ago…except that guy who wrote Monster Hunters.

        4) I’m genuinely trying to understand but I am not as well versed or as High Context as most of you so I have to ask a lot of questions, yes sometimes repetitively though that might be due to my…condition. I don’t want to talk about it.

        The point is please be patient as I try to catch up. Plus if someone who is trying to engage with Superversive and PulpRev is having a hard time following the Posts from time to time, imagine what the average un-engaged person will feel like.

        • A year and a half ago I was unfamiliar with fiction from the pulp era. I downloaded a bunch of issues from the Internet Archive and started reading. Links to some of them posted here:

          https://plus.google.com/collection/QJ_8BE

        • Douglas Cole says:

          Nicholas:

          Suggestion? Start a blog, free on blogspot or the platform of your choice. Read a short story each week, and write about it. It needn’t be literal, salable prose. Just write, note commonalities for other stories, etc.

          But read, and write. Link your posts where they can be found. You’ll get a lot of commentary. Some may be harsh, some will open your eyes, and some will leave you reaching for the next story with new insights.

          But do the “work.” And I use quotes for work because when I started reading the original Conan series . . . I kept reading. And reading. And then read the Robert Jordan stories of Conan, and found them sadly wanting and it was obvious where.

          I will admit I still need to plow into Lovecraft. My first attempt didn’t go far.

  • Nathan says:

    I have noticed that wisdom has dropped from the common lexicon. Probably before the rise of the geek culture, but certainly during it. The pop culture reference-fests that modern entertainment have become reward the “I am smart because I recognize that” mentality that is prevalent. And it also leads into many of the snowflake characters and Mary Sues who can do amazing things just because they read it in a book once. Somehow the practical knowledge–or wisdom–needed to put theory into practice never becomes an issue…

    • deuce says:

      Excellent points, Nathan.

    • JD Cowan says:

      That’s a sort of laziness that also comes from the writer winking at the audience inherent in post-modernism.

      “We both understand this is stupid, get it? You and me? We’re intelligent!”

      It’s a disrespect of both the self and the audience that pervades so much of entertainment now.

      There’s nothing below the surface except the shallow end of the pool.

    • deuce says:

      “And it also leads into many of the snowflake characters and Mary Sues who can do amazing things just because they read it in a book once.”

      Paging Harry Potter!

  • Rolf says:

    Never thought anything I wrote would be mentioned in the same sentence with “The once and future king.” A strange universe I inhabit.

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Oh, and yes – a lot of the older stuff is still around *because it has something deeper to offer*. As a teacher, I enjoy getting to recommend things to my students from time to time that is new to them, but older than me. Nicolas- Check out Conan, and ER Burroughs.

  • Alex says:

    This is one of your most powerful posts, Jon. Excellent.

    There is almost a war on wisdom. It’s as if many people of all stripes and persuasions in American think they have reached the end point of human intellect and understanding and don’t even care to dig any deeper. It’s a trend that I hope will be reversed in time as younger generations search for deeper meaning in all aspects of life.

    The luster is starting to wear off of the chrome that’s been covering everything. Now we can see the rust beneath.

    Or something. I’m not a metallurgist.

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