In praise of mediocrity

 

 
During my long stint in the video-stores trenches I had an opportunity to examine the great mysteries of existence. I often pondered such profound existential queries as, “What is the thought process that leads to someone choosing to rent The Air Up There?”
 
Actually The Air Up There led to one of my all-time favorite video clerk moments, when a customer earnestly inquired if we had that new release, Lots of Laughs. When I replied as non-sarcastically as humanly possible that I didn’t think we carried a movie called Lots of Laughs the customer took me to the new release wall and pointed to The Air Up There, a film whose cover blurb reads, “Lots of Laughs!”
 
While working at Blockbuster and later Four Star Video Heaven, I often found myself wondering why people rented movies they knew deep down were not going to be any damned good. It’s not like these were movies that promised the world, then disappointed; for the most part they were films that promised next to nothing and delivered even less. Many was a time I had to suppress the urge to shake a customer by the lapels and angrily inquire why, for the love of God, they were renting, I dunno, Major Payne when there were thousands of preferable options at their fingertips. Yes, video store employees are constantly judging you by what you rent. This is part of what makes Netflix so great. Computers are incapable of judging you and your bizarre compulsion to watch Meet The Spartans.
 
But as I get older I increasingly realize why people watch movies they know will not be any damned good. Great art generally challenges audiences. It makes demands. It upsets and provokes and confronts injustices we often would rather not contemplate after a long day at work. That is why I sometimes find myself thinking, “You know I’m in the mood for? A mediocre movie. Something’s not too good, not too bad but safely and comfortably somewhere smack dab in the middle.”
 
Sometimes I’ll watch a movie I suspect will be mediocre because I’m interested in seeing how it will steer an intriguing premise into a thoroughly average direction. That was the case with a recent mediocrity I sort of enjoyed called Finishing The Game, a perfectly alright comedy about the search to find an actor to replace Bruce Lee in The Game Of Death. Great premise, undistinguished execution. It was more or less exactly what I expected. It was no undiscovered gem but it was worth seventy-five minutes of my time. Besides, it’s not like I was going to be curing brain Cancer otherwise.
 
There’s something lulling and soothing about genre mediocrities, movies that immerse us in the comforting, familiar realm of clichés and conventions. I would much rather see a mediocre movie in a favorite genre like the Hollywood satire (a genre rife with mediocrities and sub-mediocrities and precious few masterpieces) or the neo-noir than a pretty good dour art house drama.
 
My affection for mediocre movies doesn’t extend to mediocre television. I never regret seeing a movie or reading a book, no matter how god-awful. Every film I see or book I read adds to my frame of reference and understanding of the world. Watching a mediocre neo-noir like Novocaine for example invites audiences to consider it within the context of classic noir and contemporary noir as well as Steve Martin’s career.
 
I am similarly attracted to movies filmed in Chicago or places I’ve been to. I didn’t much care for Wanted but I got a little kick from thinking, “Wow, that was filmed three blocks from our old office.”
 
But watching a rerun of, say, Mr. Belvedere, tells me nothing about the world except perhaps that all episodes of mediocre sitcoms are the same. Sitcoms invite passive viewing; laugh tracks helpfully do much of the audience’s thinking for it; there’s no need to determine for yourself whether something is funny when the robotic cackling of phantom viewers screams that everything is hilarious.
 
I deeply regret the hundreds of hours I wasted watching Full House, Saved By The Bell and, yes, Mr. Belvedere.
 
As a seventeen-year-old I wondered why people regularly flocked to stuff that didn’t even have potential to be good but I’ve come to understand that people have lots of different reasons to seek out certain movies. Artistic merit is just one of them. Sometimes it’s not even a particularly important consideration.
 

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