The Age of Mediocrity

I have not been to the movies in quite some time. This fact stems not just from the reality of my life as the parent of a child who is too young to sit through a movie with us (and this will presumably change in a year or so, at least where Disney movies are concerned). It stems from the fact that, quite honestly, the majority of movie previews that I see on television provokes a response not much more enthusiastic than “eh.” When did this happen? It cannot be that I am becoming a stick in the mud in my advancing years, since I have also heard this complaint from several different quarters. It is that, over the last few years, most of the movies whose worthiness Hollywood studios try desperately to convince us of have been either pointless altogether, or firmly in the “eh” zone.

Sure, the 3-D landmark Avatar was a visual triumph, and it was fun to watch and it had a few compelling moments; but the only thing the storyline could lay claim to was a large recycle bin of other people’s ideas. Which we had already either seen or read before. Many. Many. Times. The last time I can remember going to a movie and having my socks blown off and my head put into an alternate state for days was when Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King came out and my husband and I went to see it on opening day at 10 am. The situation is not helped by the fact that I am less than excited to spend now over $10 per ticket going to the theater if the odds of my being underwhelmed are greater than 50/50. Yet I used to adore going to the movies, and my husband and I (before the arrival of our unforgettable progeny) could usually find several per year to which we flocked with great anticipation. But now the idea of truly enjoying that many movies at the theater in any given year seems draped in nostalgia.

As I write this, I am able to see, near my TV, the cover of the box set of Bogart-and-Bacall films, which features a picture of a famous scene from their first movie, To Have and Have Not. In those days, you could go to a movie for 25 cents and have a pretty good shot of seeing something amazing. Casablanca. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Treasure of the Sierra Madre. On the Waterfront. A Streetcar Named Desire. Key Largo. It Happened One Night. Rebel Without a Cause. Sure, they made bad movies back then too, but from where I’m standing, an awful lot of classics came out of that period. Fast-forward just a little in time to the 1970s and you still get All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, Star Wars,  and those two movies by whose mindblowing standard others fear to be judged: The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. The latter is surely one of the greatest artistic achievements to emerge from the film industry. But the last five years or so, we too often get boilerplate action flicks and cookie-cutter romantic “dramedies.”

What does this have to do with anything? It seems to me that the wave of mediocrity in film making is just nestled amidst a much larger wave of even greater mediocrity in our society. Marvelous little one-off shops with delightful inventory are being replaced with mega stores whose inventory is often banal. You can still find treasures in those mega stores, but not as easily. This in turn brings me to “quality” of manufacturing. In an age where most products for sale are made in China or similar places with the cheapest materials possible, we’re saying “they don’t make ’em like they used to” a lot more these days, when holes form and threads unravel in our clothes often before we’ve stopped thinking of them as new. Things that used to be constructed in solid wood are now particle board that splits along seams, bends, and/or collapses. Electronics, which you’d think would come with some durability for the price, often abandon this world for the next with a little too much abandon.

Sure, there are still great books being written and sold, but stores are also full of shelves and shelves of drivel for which “mediocre” is a word of praise; yet they are somehow published. Pop music, in my opinion, has hit new lows over the last ten years. Those in the pop industry are no longer even required to possess a decent singing voice, since studio albums are now often doctored with AutoTune and live renditions are often atrocious. Even with the studio versions, mediocrity of content seems accepted fare. Yes, there are some real counterexamples, but the industry seems content with predictable plain potatoes. Small restaurants still exist, thank goodness; but they are being threatened by mega chains that too often churn out not delightful meals for a night’s getaway, but bland, mediocre fare that tastes as if it could have been shipped in from out of state.

There are many truly motivated, intelligent, hardworking college students out there, and they deserve respect for their effort. But it must be acknowledged that many others in the college populace, which long ago represented the shining motivated of our society, now do as little as possible as badly as possible to receive what should be a C, but is too often an A in an era of undergraduate grade inflation. Mere completion of an assignment, regardless of quality, can be regarded by the student as deserving of a high grade. This is not just the students’ fault; this sorry state of affairs is fostered by the new cultural environment that advocates merely “the college experience.”

I am not in general a negative person, and I dislike complaining. But I do think that a little perfectionism, a little drive, a little striving to make something as good as you can make it or to do something as well as you can do it, a little pride in one’s craft, does our species credit and makes us happy. And makes others happy as well. God has given us more intellectual and creative capabilities, and more potential, than any other species on this beautiful, volatile planet of ours. Let us not squander our gifts. Mediocrity does not become us.

© Elizabeth Keck

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