Popularity is Amoral

Many authorities seem to believe that if something is popular, it is therefore low quality. This is particularly true when it comes to works of fiction.

This is nonsense. There are plenty of popular works of fiction which are also good.

Inception. Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. (Both the books and the films.)

Likewise, there is plenty of tripe out there which is enormously popular.

Twilight. (Both the books and the films.) Fifty Shades of Grey. (Ditto.) Most Adam Sandler movies.

The exact opposite of these two parallels are also true.

There are works of artistic genius mostly ignored by audiences (Twelve Years a SlaveLincolnHugo) and equally obscure works of utter hackwork (Dylan Dog: Dead of NightRepo Men).

In the end, popularity (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. It’s amoral, like money. (See 1 Timothy 6:10).

The only thing that matters is why something is popular.

The Dark Knight was popular not just because it was good (that’s what made it memorable) but because it had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

Similarly, the Twilight movies were popular not because they were good (they weren’t), but because they had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

The principle of popularity being amoral can be seen everywhere. The films put out by Marvel Studios are generally mediocre aesthetically, but people do go to see them.

The late Roger Ebert said as much in his review of the 2011 Thor movie:

“Thor” is failure as a movie, but a success as marketing, an illustration of the ancient carnival tactic of telling the rubes anything to get them into the tent.

On the other side of the coin, Marvel’s Netflix properties, such as Daredevil and Luke Cage, are both television masterpieces and smash hits with audiences.

As I discussed a few months ago, more genuinely good artistic endeavors would be financially successful if one or both of the following were true:

  • If people had more disposable income.
  • If more artists had an entrepreneurial mindset.

The political economy of the arts and entertainment industry, it is definitely more feasible at this moment for artists to hustle up and market the heck out of their art rather than to wait around for a more forgiving economy.

Until then, rest assured that popularity neither certifies a film as good nor condemns it as bad.

It just is.

Note: I realize that in a past postArt Needs More Entrepreneurs (Part 2/2)“, I stated that popularity “generally” denotes quality, in that there must be a good reason for many people to pay for something. I now realize, in keeping with the subject of this post,  that this reasoning is crude, if not without merit. I intend to expand on this point in a future post.

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We Cannot Trust Modern Depictions of the Past. Watch Old Movies Instead.

When it was announced in May that ABC’s Agent Carter would be cancelled, I wondered if it would have succeeded if it had been kinder in its depiction of the Greatest Generation.

The male denizens of 1940s America in Captain America: The First Avenger were heroic stalwarts willing to fight and die for a noble cause.

By contrast, nearly every male character in Agent Carter is a portly desk-jockey with no regard for women. It would almost be caricature, except that the show takes itself completely seriously.

But even a brief examination of a few movies actually made in that era demonstrate a far different world. Women are respected by men as equals, being strong characters in their own right, and are often in positions of authority themselves.

Francis Schaeffer wrote that all art reflects the worldview of the artist. Logically, classic films depicting noble treatment of women in contemporary times are in line with a worldview that endorses such behavior in reality.

In a time when modern period pieces pull out all the stops to remind us just how stupid and backward our ancestors were, a more accurate picture of the past can be found in classic films.

In the 45 minute televised installment that was the pilot episode of Agent Carter, the eponymous heroine, played by Haylie Atwell, struts about post-World War II New York City as a secret agent.

The show takes every opportunity to remind us that all men are fat, lazy, sexist pigs, except for the subservient Jarvis (James D’Arcy).

One handicapped colleague who does stick up for Carter is immediately chastised by our heroine for thinking that she couldn’t fight her own battles. One wonders how exactly Carter wants men to behave.

Another fellow chews out a waitress, stating that the Nazis who put him in a POW camp gave him better food. I found myself contemplating how that rotund gentleman would ever have been accepted for military service.

Agent Carter isn’t the only modern TV show to follow this trend. A Christmas special for the popular BBC drama Sherlock re-imagines the show in Victorian London.

Once again, nearly all male characters are unrivaled sexists. In this take on the 1890s, Women are treated as mere chattel. The episode’s antagonists are a bizarre cult of suffragettes whose murders Holmes justifies in his concluding summation of the mystery.

Contrast this rubbish to the 1957 film Desk Set, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.

With a tight script and a fun plot by today’s standards, this romantic comedy depicts women working in the offices of a large media corporation on a level equal to that of men and critical to the organization’s function.

In fact, the main conflict within that film isn’t the typical feminist cliche of women being hampered and discriminated against due to their sex. Rather, the conflict arises from the introduction of new technology into the workplace.

Take another film, Deadline – U.S.A. This 1952 film starring Humphrey Bogart shows multiple women not only in positions of power and influence, but almost universally in a positive light.

It features the owner of the newspaper which Bogart’s character runs, an elderly matron. She herself summarizes the problem with many female characters in fiction today, complaining that girls in her day are “all gall and no guts.” There’s also a career woman, a tough reporter and a respected member of the newspaper staff.

Regarding the Sherlock Christmas special, I recall a 1954 American Sherlock Holmes TV serial. In one episode, an English lord’s wife takes the blame for a murder apparently committed by her husband.

This particular husband, however, is not an oafish pig. Rather, he’s a man in a position of power suddenly put in an impossible situation.

Holmes deduces that the murder was actually committed by the lord’s secretary, the wife having taken the blame in order to keep her husband free of scandal in the midst of sensitive diplomatic wrangling.

Both Holmes and the husband commend the woman for her moral courage. In fact, all of the men do so, except for the weaselly secretary, who is arrested for his crime.

This is a very different take on Sherlock Holmes than we have recently seen.

My brief survey of a few obscure films and television programs is hardly comprehensive in nature, but perhaps you’ve heard of this one: Miracle on 34th Street.

This hugely popular film featuring a female lead in a position of authority (Maureen O’Hara) was critically acclaimed when it was first released in 1947. Surely the homogeneously misogynistic world of Agent Carter wouldn’t stand for such a thing!

Unless, of course, our television programs have been lying to us.

I have long since resolved not to watch much television in general, or even movies. Modern period pieces are almost always suspect in either medium.

But I will be happy to watch any film made prior to the 1970s. I daresay that people living in those times had a much better perspective on what the world was like in their era than we do today.

Image: Scene from Deadline – U.S.A. – Source: HamptonRoads.com

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Art Needs More Entrepreneurs (Part 1/2)

In this day and age, we are said to live in the Golden Age of Television. We’re watching more TV more often and more enthusiastically than ever before. On lunch break you’re more likely to chat with your coworker about the latest season of Orange is the New Black than the last thing you saw at the nearest movie theater.

Indeed, television is going through a renaissance, what with the dawn of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime which allow us to stream innumerable hours of TV, old and new, into our homes and onto our screens. These new platforms also allow for the production of original content which, appropriately enough, is refreshingly original.

But while TV is doing fine, can the same be said of other art forms? I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie in the theater that wasn’t an adaptation, let alone a good movie. Going to the movies is also quite pricey, so regularly going to see any movies in the theater other than the latest Marvel flick is not something I’m interested in.

Comics are a growing area of interest in terms of aesthetic quality. They have been for a long time. Indeed, new advances in technology have allowed fans of older issues like myself to catch up without accumulating a pile of back-issues. Comic book art (penciling) is better and more original than ever before.

However, that’s where the innovation ends. Chuck Dixon lamented on a Goodreads blog post that quality of writing has gone out the window, even as penciling continues to improve. I can’t say I disagree with Mr. Dixon, whose run on Robin is my primary area of interest at the moment. I am happily reading through his work on that title at present, which dates back to the mid-1990s. Thank goodness for Comixology.

There are plenty of good new novels to read, I’m sure. But the most popular ones seem to serve merely as fodder for distended, big-budget movie franchises, often of dubious quality. The books themselves are hit-or-miss, ranging from spectacularly good (The Book Thief) to hilariously awful (Twilight).

I’ve dabbled in the theatre, and have found the typical production put on by my local community theater to be wanting. The last play of theirs I went to see was an obscenely pretentious melodrama where every other line had the characters bursting into song.

A glance at the program told me that this was almost literally the case, with a brief, expletive-laden exchange between two characters being listed as one of the musical numbers, even though no actual song was sung in that instance. A college theatre class, and the plays we were instructed to watch and study, were all it took to solidify my suspicion that most modern theatre is a pompous exercise in pointless vulgarity.

However, I do love a good play, such as the production of Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Carol that this same theatre put on last Christmas. I still remember an occasion where my father and I went to see Max McLean’s Screwtape downtown when it was on tour in Seattle a few years ago. I eagerly await the arrival of West Side Story and 1776 in the mail from Netflix.

So, we see that all art, from TV to comics to theatre, is having its ups and downs. But what is the common factor that could inaugurate a golden age not just for television, but for all art?

The answer is entrepreneurs and freer markets. We’ll talk more about that next time.

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