Time Destroys Everything

First, forgive me.  I'm writing this while my fingers still can move.  I've got King Kahn beaming out the speakers because Nashville Pussy will put me over the edge.  I started out the day reading an article that I knew I had to comment on (and has given me an idea for a book), and I ended it with the woman at Big Pete's giving me a hug and saying, "It looks like you need this."  I didn't tell her what I needed was a shotgun, a gas mask, and a local Wal-Mart because that would just seem ... well ... anti-social.  No.  Instead, I've decided to comment on Mirror's blog and get the irritation out there.  Here I'm going to revisit that topic that seems to cause me problems every time I write about it (and if you recognize the title of this post and the opening picture, I know you know what's coming -- well-cultured, that you are). 

Art versus entertainment.

Some of you are groaning.  Some may have stopped reading.  If you feel like you may be offended, go Google something else now.  This will come with the usual assertions that I'm pretentious, pompous or an asshole, but really I'm just passionate about things and use this forum for that passion.

The 11/28 (my birthday) - 12/4 issue of The Economist features a pensive looking Obama on the cover.  This isn't about him, though.  This is about page 79 and the "Briefing Media" section.  The article is "A world of hits."  The picture is some blue things from Avatar.

In the past I've written (and have spoken about) my theory that a diet of pure entertainment in books, movies and music is not exactly good for you.  I've also stated that sometimes, when I ask people why they like films like that Cameron juggernaut they can only say things like "the special effects are cool" or "it had good explosions."  They can't really talk about what they liked or didn't like.  I may have even said, though I don't remember this, something to the effect that you can't always blame people for their tastes because they haven't always been told what to like (or something like that).

This has caused me some trouble.

The Economist has redeemed me, as has a 1963 study it cites that I had not known of before this morning.

"There has never been so much choice in entertainment," the second paragraph opens, and boy is that true.  In 1999 471 films were released in the USA.  2008 saw 610.  There are more cable channels and bands that can be easily found, too.  YouTube, the article states, has 20 hours of content added every minute.  That's a lot of footage of guys getting hit in the nuts.

"Yet the ever-increasing supply of content tailored to every taste seems not to have dented the appeal of the blockbuster.  Quite the opposite."  Interesting.  Not surprising, but interesting.  As the magazine states, one of the "most influential business books" in the past couple years, The Long Tail, put forth the notion that the "demand for media was moving inexorably from the head of the distribution curve to the tail."  This book, written by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired of all things, argued that the few products that sell a lot (blockbusters) were losing their market share to a great many items that sell modestly.  Anderson, like every other person who cites a change in business climate, gives credit to the Internet for creating this situation.  Amazon, in particular, was cited as "encouraging people to wallow in esoterica."

Business schools debated the wisdom of all this.  People in the media business, however, who can't afford to debate while millions are on the line, say that Anderson and those who think that businesses would be foolish to shy away from the mass market are both right, but both are "missing the real story."

The real story, it seems, is that both the head and tail-end items are doing well.  The in-between stuff, noted in the article as "the stuff that people used to watch or listen to largely because there was little else on," is dying.

Thank God.

Now, this is not anything I've really debated before, and quite honestly, there isn't much there to debate.  It seems that the best of both worlds are represented.  Blockbusters, which can be fun to watch or read, and the more intellectual/artistic, which enrich people both on a personal and cultural level, are both doing okay.  That isn't what sparked my attention, but it does serve as a framework for what is coming.

After a few charts and examination of various media and their demographics (and how those demographics have changed), the article hits the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned, and it vindicates what I've been saying for years now.

Tom Tan and Serguei Netessine from Wharton Business School have analyzed reviews from Netflix.  "They find that blockbusters get better ratings from the people who have watched them than more obscure ones do.  Even the critically loathed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is awarded four stars out of five."  Netflix isn't alone in this.  Quickflix, which is the Australian equivalent of Netflix, produced the same type of data on the movie ratings.  The Economist explains this.

It magazine cites a paper from 1963 by William McPhee titled "Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour."  (I will be reading this ASAP.)  McPhee "noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type."  The article continues by asserting "many other studies have since reached the same conclusion."

For example, the magazine states that a lot of people who read bestsellers do not read much other fiction.  "By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot."  (I'll add my own example here.  Years ago I had a friend who read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy.  In fact, that's all he read.  He was a very smart guy, and though we differed on some stuff politically, he still wanted to know more about what exactly my politics were.  He asked for some book and author recommendations.  I gave him my usual suspects of Chomsky, Cockburn, Berkman, Herman and so on.  He borrowed some from the library and tried to read them.  The thing was, he couldn't understand them.  He wasn't dumb, but he couldn't follow the writing or the ideas.  "They aren't like the books I read," he said.)

The Economist hits its stride from here.  "That means," the article continues, "that the least popular books [the obscure ones] are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better.  An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown.  He almost certainly liked it."  Interesting, indeed.  "As a media product moves from the pool of frequent consumers into the ocean of occasional consumers, the prevailing attitude to it -- what Hollywood folk call word of mouth -- can become less critical.  The hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill."

The special effects were cool.

I like the explosions.

It's rad.

It's a fun read.

I guess the only question now, and I'm stating this semi-sarcastically, is: Did the audience start out slow, or has it been dumbed down by the steady stream of nonsense?

Granted, that was written to get a response, but it is a serious question.   Is it a nature or nurture issue?  This is fascinating.

The problem for the business of art and entertainment is: What business model should be used?  Business leaders see that the "tail" and "head" both do well, but if the "head" isn't the hit it is expected to be, it quickly becomes a middle-of-the-road dud, and an expensive one at that. 

One thing Hollywood knows is that films based on known properties are better bets than stars.  "That is why, in August, Disney agreed to pay $4 billion for Marvel Entertainment."  Yep. 

The rest of the article goes on to explain how businesses are tackling all of this, which I won't get into.  (Go read it if you want to know all that.  It is interesting, but of little importance to this posting.)  The fact that a magazine with a circulation of over 1.3 million copies a week stated so perfectly what I had been saying for years filled my heart with joy.

Believe me, with all the shit I've taken over saying these things, I'll take victories wherever I can get them.

I wanted to stay home today to write this and start doing some research (and with the day I had, I should have).  I suspect I may get some angry e-mails or comments (most likely e-mails), but before you do that, think about maybe telling me why I'm wrong.  Don't do the usual personal attacks.  Explain where I may be off base here.  I want to know.  Don't make it personal about yourself (the article wasn't geared toward any one individual, but instead dealt with the masses, so you should do the same).  Feel free to use yourself in an example, but don't defend your love of Twilight.   Tell me where all of this is wrong.

Until next time ...  


Outlander Creative, Inc. said...

I Sir totally agree with you. I could add more but my writing pales in comparison.

Nikki said...

I'm not to the end yet, but I want to comment on the book issue. I personally read both best-sellers (Dan Brown, James Rollins, Dean Koontz) and lesser-known authors, fiction and non-fiction, yadda yadda yadda. I think there is truth to the part about those who read only best-sellers think that every one of them is fantastic because they have lower standards. Look at the sales for, your example, The Lost Symbol. People who only read authors on the best-seller list thought that book was freaken awesome. However, it was not. It was horrible. That's not just my opinion (as well as the opinion of others who read as voraciously as I do), it's pretty much a logical fact. The book was so full of holes, predictability, and just little things that don't make sense, even in the world of fiction. But so many people overlooked this simply because it was by Dan Brown. This sucks because it tells Brown, previously a pretty good writer, that he no longer has to even try. Or worse, he could have thought it was great and since no one is telling him otherwise (at least as far as sales are concerned), he'll continue to think it was great, never learning from his mistakes.

Every writer has to continue to learn and evolve. Once you reach that plateau where it becomes cake to crank out a novel in under a year, you really need to evaluate the quality of your writing. Dean Koontz is a fine example of this. I used to love his books. They weren't brilliant works of art, but they were entertaining and interesting. Then he started cranking those suckers out two a year, and the quality went down. Of course, he's still a best-seller, but only in name, not in quality.

By allowing authors like Brown and Koontz to skate by on thin material simply because they are Brown and Koontz, we are providing a disservice to these authors. If you truly respect them as writers, then don’t buy their books when they start producing crap. I wont buy the next Brown book. I’ll borrow it from the library to see if he’s doing better, because I believe in second chances. But if his next book is the same level of crappiness that The Lost Symbol showed, he’ll be delegated to that nostalgic spot on my wish list that Koontz now holds. I add every book by Dean Koontz to my list, but never buy them because I’m just too afraid to give my once-a-favorite author a fourth chance to redeem himself in my eyes. But honestly, I doubt Brown or Koontz care about the opinions of a single girl because there will always be a slew of mindless drones ready to eat them up simply because enough other mindless drones tell them it’s good.

In closing, I'd like to apologize for going off on a rant that had little to do with your post, since you are talking more about movies. I also apologize for my own shoddy writing, as I haven't yet had my second cup of coffee and my son interrupts me every five seconds to "help me beat that giant!!!"

Nikki said...

Oh, and I pretty much, more or less agree with everything else you said. Sorry my last comment was so long. Brevity and I don't get along.

-Doug Brunell "America's Favorite Son" said...

All good comments. I want to stress that I have never advocated totally abandoning "cheap thrills and entertainment." Hell, my own cannibal manuscript, which I hope to hear something on this month, is not some grand work of art. As one of the people who read it said, "It reads like one of those '70s movies where you know bad things will happen to everyone." Exactly my point with it. I just think a steady diet of crap will self-replicate and render a consumer unable to "digest" anything else.

Would anyone trust the restaurant advice of the guy who only eats at Burger King?

I forgot said...

"Explain where I may be off base here. I want to know. " If the premise is the following, which is taken from the general spirit of several posts: "I know the difference between art and entertainment, others do not, and therefore I am entitled to make derisive comments about those who I judge to either not know the difference between art and entertainment or those who enjoy what I deem to be 'mindless' entertainment," then I think you're wrong in a lot of places.

Given the personal nature of your work here, your generally espoused world views, explicit exposition of your ego, and your life, it is difficult not to make a personal response to your posting.

I would suggest, however, that knowing the difference between art and entertainment does not make one special. This is not directed at you, but at anyone who purports to hold that position of "knowing" the difference between art and entertainment. We'll leave the epistemological issues with that statement alone for obvious reasons. Knowing the difference between art and entertainment, if possible, does not come with entitlements regarding the judgment of entertainment or art. I also feel quite strongly that it has little to do with "broader society", although I think that's a relatively pedestrian way to generalize.

Rather, I would suggest that knowing the difference between art and entertainment, and the pursuit of that knowledge, would inculcate within the interested party a sensitivity to people who enjoy art/entertainment of a different variety, and also embue a responsibility to those same people to not tread on their opinions.

I would also suggest that someone so concerned with the difference between art and entertainment, using specifically untrained-critical analysis of either category, would, in the shadow of multiple posts extolling the virtues of NASCAR, console video games, the film genres of horror/macabre/porn and a singular emphasis on one type of political text, would approach the presentation of their opinions on the difference between art and entertainment with more modesty.

In fact, I find the bravado of this post to be revealing of an archetype. Someone who you come across who has read all of Immanuel Kant, but nothing else in philosophy. This person thinks that they know everything about philosophy, and much about the world, because of their extensive Kantian obsession. But the person is neither philosopher, academic, or thinker. I find it characteristic of the type of person who is frustrated that their supra-intelligence has not "paid off" and isolates themselves in what the Economist article calls "esoterica".

I think there are few people who give a shit about the difference between art and entertainment. Few of those who do spend much time in front of a television.

-Doug Brunell "America's Favorite Son" said...

Great comment. (No, that is not sarcasm.) I don't agree with all of it, but that's the kind of thing I like to read.