Essay : There is No Such Thing as Mindless Entertainment
Today's post doesn't have much to do with cosmic horror in itself, but it has been on my mind for some time and I believe it will appeal to genre fiction enthusiasts in general. So please bear with me. My friend Heath Lowrance was hosting a Facebook conversation about the concept of mindless entertainment last month and the overall reaction to his initial statement baffled me. The majority of people are really defensive of their mindless entertainment. They feel entitled to their right not to think outside of business hours. Fair enough. Others have been condemning it, saying it shouldn't exist and sure shit shouldn't be championed by audiences.
Here's a revelation for you: there is no such thing as mindless entertainment.
It is the proper of art to express ideas and no matter how accessible or pleasant they might be, they are still everywhere in movies, television, video games, books and wherever you're seeking entertainment, really. Even the barest, most straightforward narratives have a message:
- The hyperviolent Rambo series was originally based on a David Morrell novel that criticized the lack of support for war veterans transitioning back to normal life became a strange and fascinating response to the Reagan years' foreign politics paranoia. The third installment legendarily pitted John Rambo and Talibans against evil communists who kidnapped Colonel Trautman.
- The Twighlight Saga, which is widely perceived to be substanceless by audiences, has a perverse message for young women: finding a husband and having his child is their highest calling. This is made even worse by the abusive relationship author Stephenie Meyers' protagonist Bella Swan fosters with her self-obsessed dipshit vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen.
- Zombies are another interesting case. Depending on what movie, television show, video game or book they appear in, they can mean different things. They are sometimes metaphors for mindless consumerism. Other iterations symbolize ignorance and the fear of "the other". Sometimes they are just convenient, soulless antagonists that justify their own graphic killings. After all, it's OK to kill someone who's already dead, right?
- The majority of slasher movies are conservative cautionary tales which advocate a disciplined and virginal lifestyle for teenagers. Cosmic horror (this month's theme on the blog) explores the boundaries of human knowledge. It ponders whether or not the pursuit for ultimate knowledge is virtuous or not. How much can human being learn about the mysteries of the universe before putting themselves in trouble. Anyway, you get my drift.
I've watched a Michael Bay movie called 13 Hours last weekend. Bay is widely recognized to be the master of senseless explosions and style-over-substance cinema but was it mindless? Absolutely not. Sure, it depicted the real 2012 Benghazi attack and while I thought it was ridiculously sexy at times (James Dale doing tire flips in underwear!) and that it turned Arabic people into glorified gun-wielding zombies, it did a decent job at portraying the terrifying and hopeless nature of the event. The real message of the movie though was the following: real Americans are warriors. Bureaucrats are inefficient cowards who endanger lives instead of saving them because they're removed from the field. They don't know what the fuck is going on. Bay almost accuses David Costabile's character (conveniently named Bob) of murdering the U.S ambassador since he deliberately delayed the rescue mission not to give away the location of a secret annex to the U.S compound. Not sure if any of this is true, but it does make 13 Hours a very Bush-era movie that openly criticize military bureaucracy.
I can go on for days, beautiful people. There are ideas to every narrative because the proper of telling a story is to illustrate an idea. So whenever you decided to "turn your brain off" and enjoy "mindless entertainment," it's a choice you make. The choice being turning your brain off because there is no such thing as mindless entertainment. I'm not saying people who desire to turn their brain off are evil or stupid in any way. I'm personally incapable of doing that, but I can understand someone's reasons to do so. There is nothing wrong with choosing to entertain yourself with fiction that carries ideas you already agree with or understand perfectly. I don't see a problem with wanting to be comforted in your beliefs. I might not seek this through my entertainment, but I'm as guilty of seeking comfort as anybody else. I believe we are wired to do so.
My point is the following: I was on a radio panel with my esteemed colleagues Keith Rawson and Renee Pickup a couple months ago and Keith openly expressed his dissatisfaction with mainstream entertainment and stated that we should demand more as audiences and while my initial point of view on Keith's point was cynical, I can't disagree. We SHOULD demand more from our mainstream entertainment. I don't think there is anything wrong with watching zombie slaughter on television and explosions-happy action movies in theater. This is not a plea for you guys to start reading Jonathan Franzen or watch Rainer Werner Fassbinder movies. Do I believe it's healthy to watch "highbrow" material to seek new ideas and put your mainstream entertainment in perspective? Sure, but you can be a smart audience without doing that. Just don't turn your freakin' brain off, whatever you're reading/watching.
Don't turn your brain off no matter how comforting the experience is. The ideas are there. The bullshit is there. There are people working in entertainment who are betting on you turning your brain off to sell you recycled, unoriginal ideas and these people are keeping new and daring storytellers from being financed because you're buying old and unoriginal ideas and in this market-based economy, it is being identified as : "what the people want." Think about it, guys. We have bought the same exact Star Wars movie than the 1977 one last Christmas and everybody (self included) celebrated it. And judging from our reaction, this is far from being over. Disney is going to sell us our own Star Wars obsession for the foreseeable future.
Before I leave you guys, I want to invite you to visit Wisecrack, a YouTube channel that produces some inspiring material in that regard. I've discovered them this summer and they made me want to step my game up. Watch their videos, they will make you NOT want to turn your brain off whenever you're watching television/watching movies/playing video games/reading books! And don't forget: there is no such thing as mindless entertainment.