In Praise of Average 

Why it matters to recognize stuff that's just OK

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For this particular piece of writing, I have a modest, perhaps counter-intuitive, yet not-easily-accomplished goal in mind: If at the end of it, you're able to think, "yeah, that was fine," I may have done my job.

This notion was inspired most recently—though far from exclusively—by the critical response to George Miller's post-apocalyptic action spectacle Mad Max: Fury Road. Even more specifically, it was inspired by a Twitter comment from a colleague—Village Voice film editor Alan Scherstuhl—who noted "after Fury Road, our national reserves of critical hyperbole are at an all time low."

Now, I happened to be among the many who thought Fury Road was a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking, but I knew where Scherstuhl was coming from. For several days after the earliest press screenings, critics seemed to have been engaged in a contest for who could express their reaction to the film in the most eye-catching terms. "Awe-inspiring," "masterpiece" and "the Sistine Chapel of action filmmaking," were among just a few of the descriptors—and that's not counting the creative soul who announced that Fury Road "will make you shit your dick."

I'm not necessarily doubting the integrity or the sincerity of the writers in question regarding this particular movie—admittedly, in large part, because I happen to agree with all of them (maybe not quite so much with the guy who came up with the biologically impossible last one). But it's easy to understand if people don't know how to react to such raves, because we've started to treat them so frivolously. In an age where only the most breathlessly extreme responses get any attention, we're losing the ability to recognize either true greatness or true awfulness. And by extension, we're losing the ability to comprehend the concept of "average."

In statistical terms, that would be considered an absurdity. Line up any random number of creative works, in any given medium, and you should respond more or less along a normal curve: A few things might strike you as terrible, a few things as exceptional, but the majority should fall somewhere between "pretty good" and "not so hot," with a majority of that sub-section falling squarely in the "meh" range. Even accounting for self-selection bias, the existence of absolute perfection or jaw-dropping incompetence should be rarities.

But somewhere along the line, we have lost the ability to view things with any sense of modulated response. The noisy clutter of the online world steers our eyes away from thoughtful, measured commentary and toward headlines that grab onto our lizard-brains. It's not enough that someone responded to a politician's questionable policy statements with a great rebuttal; we need to know that so-and-so "destroyed" Sen. Jerkface. Or, we'll be informed that a particularly sad viral video will make your sadness-feels explode (or perhaps make you "shit your tear ducts").

We've seen the effect of this phenomenon all over the world of film criticism. Plenty of writers have noted the inability of certain genre-movie fanboys to handle any negative reaction to their favorite movies, resulting in online harassment of anyone who dares question the awesomeness of the cinematic universe du jour. But that's only one subcategory of the problem. Because it's understood that any pan of a generally beloved new movie will get attention, there's an incentive for a writer who wants attention to throw out an overstated contrarian takedown. And even setting aside the bad-faith assumption that such writers are being dishonest about their strong dislike, any discussion about a movie generally becomes a war between factions standing at opposite sides of a broad No Man's Land. The Army of It-Rules is going to be sending volleys of superlatives in the direction of the Army of It-Sucks, and vice-versa, and anyone standing in the "guys, it was fine" center is destined to get pummeled by both of them.

It's a brutal, depressing scenario, since—as cable news has proven over and over again—there's no economic incentive to talk about anything except as Greatest Thing Ever or Harbinger of the End of All That is Good and True. But critics need to aim for something better, and that starts with recognizing the value of the point at the top of the normal curve. We all might have a different definition of what "average" is, but it exists for all of us, and it matters as a baseline for recognizing truly exceptional works of art—even if it's "just" popular art. And by extension, it matters as a baseline for understanding the things in life that are truly consequential, as opposed to the stuff that someone is trying to convince you is earth-shattering, when it's barely earth-nudging. Writing about mediocrity is hard—far less rewarding than writing about greatness and less amusing than writing about awfulness—but it's important work. We can teach people that it's OK to think something is just OK.

An emotional life lived exclusively at the endorphin-fueled fringes of Orwellian two-minutes hate and orgasmic flawlessness is a recipe for an unhealthy understanding of the world. Most of everything is just OK: a movie, a political decision, the writing you might find in any given publication. And that's ... well, that's fine.

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