Mediocre masterpieces

The importance of subpar movies and their impact on our society

“National Treasure” is a masterpiece. “Clue” is, too. I love “Night at the Museum” and “The Proposal” just as much as I love “Citizen Kane,” “Goodfellas” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
Movies like these are considered subpar and cheesy, meant for a certain lowbrow general audience and not worthy of praise, awards or recognition. They are guilty pleasures, the pop culture equivalent of junk food, only just above “The Bachelor” in terms of intellectual value. To an extent, this is all true. There is a certain finesse in Robert Towne’s script for “Chinatown” that Scott Rosenberg’s “Con Air” lacks, a particular auteur’s lens in “Cabaret” that “Grease” cannot quite match. But does this mean that the latter films are not worth watching? The answer is absolutely, unequivocally no.
In late 2019, which now seems like several decades ago, director Martin Scorsese got in some hot water online about comments he made about Marvel movies in an interview with IndieWire.
“Honestly, the closest I can think [of Marvel movies], as well made as they are…is theme parks,” Scorsese said. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Scorsese’s comments reflect a rising sentiment in the world of American pop culture, a slightly-snobbish aversion to big, pre-packaged blockbuster movies. Some of the complaints associated with this belief are valid: franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe do take up valuable screening space in theaters, sacrificing screenings of culturally or artistically important films that often draw in smaller audiences. They also all tend to follow the same story structure, generating a feeling of stagnant mediocrity rather than innovation in the world of film.
Perhaps most importantly, a massive franchise will eventually have its tentacles in everything. You will be hard-pressed to find a successful person in Hollywood who is not eventually snatched up by a superhero movie.
Regardless, these films make people (especially our opinion editor) happy. They are a comfort — and that alone makes them valuable.
My favorite movie is Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out.” A few years ago, I would never have admitted to a blockbuster being my all-time favorite film. I probably would have said something edgy like “American Psycho,” or something artistic and gritty like “Nightcrawler.” While it is true that these are fantastic films, we need to be honest with ourselves — laying claim to a particular film functions as a signal to others. You pick something difficult and artistic if you want to demonstrate that you, yourself, are difficult and artistic.
I am through with that life. I like “Knives Out” because it is funny. I like it because it is a well-made, compelling mystery with a great set, amazing cast and excellent knitwear. I like it because it makes me happy. Most importantly, it is a film born out of joy. Rian Johnson’s only aim in writing and producing the film was to entertain himself. After the turmoil of Star Wars Episode VIII, which he helmed, he needed to let loose and create something to soothe his soul. “Knives Out” was the result.
When I first saw it in theaters, I was gearing up for my first finals week. I was stressed out of my mind. After two hours with “Knives Out,” I was demonstrably less grouchy and — dare I say — a bit inspired.
There is a Japanese term for a type of media similar to this. It is “iyashikei,” which roughly means “healing” and refers to certain films and television shows — usually animated — which are purposefully peaceful and calming.
I believe that, in America, we need to make room in our culture for a similar vein. Our version of “iyashikei,” of course, is more of the melodramatic, starring-Nicholas-Cage variety. We prefer rip-roaring action, slapstick comedy and musical numbers over peace and calm.
It is undoubtedly true that our culture has a very specific purpose for this type of media. It is a simple fact of life: when I am sad, I will reach for “Mamma Mia” before I reach for “Network.” In a time of distress, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan attempting to sing ABBA on a beautiful Greek island will always be more helpful than Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway masterfully earning Academy Awards.
Franz Kafka once wrote, “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?”
There has never been a quote that I have fundamentally agreed and disagreed with more. He is right: we should engage with media that tears out our still-beating hearts and leaves us floored. It is that feeling you get when you finish reading “The Book Thief” or “The Bluest Eye,” that cloudy emotion that fills your brain when you leave the theater after seeing “Get Out” or “Once.”
But sometimes, for the sake of our sanity, we need to stop getting hit on the head and instead be overwhelmed with the sheer joy of humans making things for the sake of making things. Sometimes we need to watch cheesy outer-space violence for two hours — I’m looking at you, “Star Wars” — and allow our minds to sink into a warm bath rather than a tub of nails. There is, and should always be, room for both.