Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when it’s there.
–Nicodemus (The Secret of NIMH)
Sturgeon’s law dictates that 90% of everything is crap. A lot of my blog posts have attempted to dumpster-dive through the refuse of pop-culture in order to find some redeeming value in what most consider nostalgic cheese (aka crap). However, I am ultimately a believer in the rarity and fragility of greatness. I also believe, as any good snob does, that recognizing greatness requires a minimum amount of good taste, something that is also in rare supply these days.
Out of what constitutes mainstream entertainment, the majority of it is, if not crap, simply “adequate” entertainment. The general public, as fickle as they may seem, tends to be contented by a narrow range of well-hewn storylines as long as it’s accompanied by a requisite amount of star-power and spectacle. Even that, though, is no guarantee, as evidenced by the current Mummy reboot tanking in the box office.
What really motivated me to write this blog post is noting how creations of quality are often misperceived by the public. The public wants to see greatness in terms of the cult of personality or brand affinity. But no matter how great a director is, he can produce crap. However great a studio can be, they can produce crap.
It’s almost impossible to have a flawless track-record. Even someone like Stanley Kubrick produced a film nobody’s really ever heard of and even I have never seen (Barry Lyndon). There is also an open debate as to whether Pixar’s glory days are over thanks to sequelitis, despite the fact Ed Catmull released a book praising its corporate culture as the key to sustainable success. (It’s a book I was reading a while back and still have to finish).
Then you have the curious case of Don Bluth. Despite an amazing start in the form of Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, and Secret of NIMH he got bogged down in increasingly “meh” efforts like Thumbelina. And need I mention George Lucas and the prequels? How about The Beatles? Magical Mystery Tour was less than perfect and Let it Be was a trainwreck. Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door had serious problems.
True greatness can not be created through formula. Even in the best of circumstances with the best people, it can fail to materialize.
I am now watching with perverse curiosity the stormclouds surrounding Star Trek Discovery, something that got its start as a dream-team of people from all corners of Trek. On paper it should create something amazing, and yet it seems like it will be a too-many-cooks situation. I will write much more on that topic when the show debuts.
How about the current Star Wars franchise and the firing of the Lego guys and bringing Ron Howard in to try to save the Han Solo picture? Why is it that Disney with its seemingly unlimited resources can’t simply buy quality with a blank-check? It just doesn’t work that way.
Greatness is not simply the end product of a individual talent, effort, money, and time. No matter how much methodology you apply to produce greatness, in the end there is an element of perfect timing, serendipity, or luck involved. What makes these works special is that they could only happen when they happened and can never be reproduced again, even with all the original participants.
My own feeling about it is that beyond dumb luck, the people involved need to have the skills in their craft, the sheer energy and drive to work hard, an idea they really want to convey through their art, and a true love and belief in what they’re doing. If any of these things falter, you don’t have art anymore, just commerce. But this is why greatness tends to happen when people are still young, idealistic, and hungry.
Most everything popular, ultimately resting on the commerce end of the scale, grabs our attention briefly and then shuffles off to the bargain basement and disappears from our collective consciousness. Only a few exceptional moments of creation wind up standing the test of time, continuing to mystify us.