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…
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.
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.