Between one thing and another — book edits, lingering illness, other things I don't want to go on about in public — some more thoughts came together to clarify why homogenous entertainments are individually good but collectively bad.
Earlier in the week, I threw the dice and watched The Equalizer, knowing full well it has about as much to do with the TV series (which I loved, unabashedly) as 21 Jump Street had to do with its own eponymous predecessor. It wasn't a bad movie — let's face it, nothing with Denzel Washington in it is ever totally awful — and it was possible to even convince yourself it was a "good" one. It invested a certain amount of time and attention into its characters; it paced itself well; and it only allowed itself to become ridiculous after we had enough invested in it that we wouldn't feel foolish for still sticking with it after that point. A sly tactic.
But it was a hamburger. A good hamburger, but a hamburger all the same — one produced by a system that assumes the hamburger is the culmination of all it can do.
I have enjoyed a lot of the movies and books and things that I think are, taken together, a sign of bad things going on. What they add up to is what makes it more difficult for me to enjoy them in the long run, because I know they're not just those things in themselves; they're symptoms of bigger problems about how the art we're stuck with (and all entertainment is art whether we like it or not) is energizing by itself but collectively debilitating. Mainly, these things are symptoms of how people try to make a negative attribute — homogeneity — into a positive one.
Entertainment industries — themselves all variants of the arts, again whether they like it or not — are all obsessed with the idea of making homogeneous formulas out of their products, the better to fatten profit margins and decrease risk. The problem is, a book or a movie isn't a hamburger or a steak. People may value a Big Mac for being consistent between one McDonald's or another, but that's not why stories or creative experiences are valuable. Nothing important or interesting about a film, book, play, record, or what have you, is what it has in common with other things. The fact that one great work of anything is nothing like another great work of anything is a big part of what makes them great. They're striking out in entirely different directions to be great.
That goes back into why so much of what comes out of Hollywood now just falls flat: it's fashioned out of the same ideas of what could be considered exciting, engaging, sympathetic, thought-provoking, etc. It's not true diversity in filmmaking to give us a comic book movie that's inspired by 70s spy thrillers as opposed to 80s buddy-cop action comedy. The more you assume imitation of some kind is the sincerest form of success — that the best movies are the ones that remind us most of the last good time we had at the movies — the harder it is to do anything interesting at all.
I'm fully aware that any experiment can fail, and not all defiances of commercial standards result in things even I want to subject myself to. I'm not in the business of replacing The Equalizer 2014 with The Wedding Trough or Eraserhead. I'm trying to see if there's a way to imagine a landscape in which these things are all flourishing side by side, and not at each others' expenses, and where each learns the proper lessons from the other. I hold out hope that it's not too much to hope for.
Also, keep in mind who I'm saying all this stuff for: the current and future generation of creators. They're part of the audience, too — and if all they have to feed on from the media pool is yesterday's warmed-over leftovers, they're going to wonder why they're hungry all the time.