Mediocrity is climbing molehills without sweating. ~ Icelandic proverb
As I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, I’m reading Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire book The Strain. It’s kind of pulpy fun, but it is no great shakes. And that’s okay. Recently I’ve found that things are divided into two categories: The Best Thing Ever and The Worst Thing Ever. There’s no middle ground. No room for a wide spectrum of quality. When you read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song you put it into one of those two boxes and then bash it or shout its merits from the rooftop. But is that really the best way to talk about art on the internet? Isn’t there some stuff that’s just okay?
Let’s get this straight first, though. There are some things that are just that awesome. Magnolia, my number 1 movie of all time, is super awesome. The National’s High Violet is super awesome. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is super awesome. Awesome things exist. So do crappy things. I really hate Idiocracy. I really hate Logicomix. But most things aren’t awesome, and most things aren’t crappy. Most things are pretty mediocre. Most things have good parts and bad parts and middling parts that mesh into a fine, gray, blobby blob. These things are worthy of conversation. They let us know where artists go right and where they go wrong, often in the same scene or song or whatever. They provide a case study in mediocrity, show us the ways they can be great and the pitfalls that sit waiting for us to fall into them.
I watched a few movies over the past weekend. Outside of Black Narcissus, none of them were very good. Dreamcatcher, based on one of Stephen King’s lesser books, has a few tense moments and some pretty good performances but the movie is mired in silly dialogue and sillier aliens. It doesn’t work very well as a film, but there’s something to learn from it. I, for example, learned that what might work on the page as quirky dialogue that has developed among friends over many years doesn’t work when real people have to say dumb phrases over and over again. Cujo, too, is a movie full of great moments that suffers from a bad ending. The final attack on the mother by the rabid dog is super intense and scary. However, the ending kind of leaves you with a bad taste. The book ends with the kid dying, and it is bleak as hell. But that works. The kid shouldn’t survive such an ordeal. In the movie he seems like he dies, but he gasps for another breath right when you think he’s toast. Ugh.
See? There’s room for the stuff that’s just ok. Not all art works as it is supposed to. If it was easy to create great art we’d have nothing to judge it against. Everything would meld together into one big boring mess. The bad stuff serves to tell us what to avoid and how to do it. The mediocre stuff fills the space between those great and crappy works. They are like our lives. In general, every day is kinda mediocre. There are bad days and great days, but most end up as a mix of the two. You spill coffee on your shirt, you find some money in a coat pocket. You have a good meal, you have a boring meal. You watch a good movie, you watch a bad movie. Or, you watch a mediocre movie, because most of them are just that. Mediocrity is our lives, our norm. It’s the way we’re able to distinguish good from bad, by knowing what’s in between.