Friday, April 14, 2017

Mindless Entertainment

Today's entry in this week’s entirely Benoit Lelieve-inspired series focuses on “mindless entertainment.” It’s in quotes because the thesis of Ben’s post is there is no such thing as mindless entertainment unless we will it to be so. I might have disagreed with that, but not after reading his essay.

To his primary point, it makes sense to say no one is going to spend months or years of their lives and possibly millions of dollars creating something without thought, and any thought the creator put into the project is there for the taking. Whether the audience chooses to do anything with it is entirely up to them.

Saying creators put thought into their projects says dick about the depth of said thought. Most mainstream entertainment seems to make a point not to make the audience think too hard, often by making it relatively easy for the average viewer/reader/listener to pretend deeper ideas aren’t there. Benoit’s choice of the Rambo movies was spot on, as they have much more going on, especially in the original, than most viewers care to pick up on.

The “mindless entertainment” argument often turns on whether people should demand more. This is a common topic of arguments, usually one-sided, because people who are at least relatively happy with the status quo aren’t the ones bitching about it. Those who are most unhappy are the more artistically minded themselves: writers and film students and musicians and whoever else looks at the creative process from the production side. Seems those on our side are always upset about the quality of what’s out there. How mind-numbing it is—different from mindless—and how our entertainment should be better. I used to do it myself on a regular basis.

Guess what? The people who control what gets into the mainstream don’t give a shit. Nor should they. We’re outliers. We occupy a niche market that serves is pretty well, all things considered. One has to know where to look, but modern technology makes it possible for us to find our favorites and never have to leave the house. (True, we should do what we can to support independent booksellers, but that’s a different discussion.)

There are some things we oddballs need to make peace with. One is that there’s lots of room in entertainment between “mindless” and “challenging” and that’s the way the world wants it. People work hard. They have a lot going on. They’re tired physically, mentally, and emotionally. They want to laugh along with the Barones and the Connors and those Seinfeld assholes because they have relatable problems and it’s nice to see those problems have humor in them if looked at the right way. (Full disclosure: I liked all three of those shows a lot.) They’re happy with Law and Order and CSI because they’d like to go to bed feeling like they saw a serious problem solved that will make everyone a little safer, how realistic the shows are be damned. Just because you or I won’t watch them doesn’t make the others wrong.  

We outliers have to take some responsibility for the appeal of simplistic entertainment. I didn’t read fiction for years after getting out of school because people who knew what was best for me decided much of the fiction I should read in junior high and high school was deadly dreary stuff for a kid growing up in a working class Western Pennsylvania town. Much of it was great literature, too, but I wasn’t ready for it. I wonder how many kids grew into adults who wanted nothing to do with books, fine movies, and classical music because well-meaning people wanted to “expose” them to such things crammed them down the kids’ throats until they gagged on it. Making them look for the symbols and themes of a book and never once mentioning how much they should just let the story sweep them up, to take away from it as much as they wanted.

Maybe sitting in the back yard on a warm day with a cold drink letting the breeze play over you qualifies as mindless entertainment. But anything you feel like discussing later engaged the mind on some level. Some engagement is deeper and more detailed. There’s room—and need—for both.

Life is hard and it’s short. Be happy, at whatever level of intellectual engagement you choose.

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