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On mediocrity past and present

Jonathan Rosenbaum begins his latest Cinema Scope Global Discoveries on DVD column with a "confession" that I find myself sympathetic to:

Since retiring from my job as a weekly reviewer in early 2008, I've been discovering that I usually prefer watching mediocre films of the past (chiefly from the '30s through the '70s) to watching mediocre films of the present--unlike some of my former readers, who assume that I've stopped writing about movies simply because I no longer aid the studio airheads in implementing their latest ad campaigns. I no longer train most of my attention on contemporary industry releases, as I was obliged to do for the preceding 20 years, because, in keeping with Raymond Durgnat's apt observation that dated films sometimes have more to teach us than "timeless" classics, I'm looking for stuff I can chew on. (Try to imagine what literary criticism would be like if most or all of its practitioners decided that 2010 publications currently on sale at K-Mart comprised the bulk of all the literature ever published that was worthy of our close attention.)

Mediocre goods from the past, when seen from today's perspectives, automatically take on a certain interest by telling us things we might not have already known about our own previous times and histories--whereas the assumed value of mediocrities of the present is predicated largely on the fact that they have far less to impart, either about ourselves or about our times, precisely because they're so contemporary. In short, what's apparently so attractive about being up-to-date is being able to fade into the woodwork and lose one's identity rather than maintain a certain distance and detachment from both. Whereas the lessons of the past nearly always tell us something about the present.

Having also done my time as a deadline-driven newspaper reviewer (for dailies and weeklies), I feel that I've seen enough mediocrity (and worse) to last me a lifetime, but I know what he means. (I'm ambivalent, because I'm also in sympathy with my friend who recently turned 50 and said she feels she doesn't have enough time left to see "anything but masterpieces" from here on out!) The mediocrity you don't know -- from another time, another place -- stands a good chance of being more intriguing and enlightening than the all-too-familiar mediocrity that surrounds us just now. (Old fish: "How's the water today?" Young fish: "What's water?" Interpret that as you will. Or not. Maybe it's irrelevant.)

The Internet reinforces this unhealthy disproportionate emphasis on the new and the now -- in criticism and in distribution and exhibition -- as if anything that happened 48 hours ago is irrelevant. (At the same time, the Internet is an infinitely expanding Borgesian library, a massive historical database at your fingertips.) What does it say about a movie if the only things that make it worth writing about are the date of its theatrical release and the climax of its advertising campaign?

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