January 4, 2011

So What Is Entertainment, Anyway?

There's a scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake & Elwood crisscross the Illinois countryside drumming up folks to come see their big ballroom show.  As Elwood ends one of his numerous run throughs of his pitch, Jake has him add, "that's a lot of entertainment . . . for two dollars."  Nobody ever accused Jake & Elwood of not being entertaining.

But what about George Lucas?

Seems like an odd question, doesn't it?  But in an old blog post that I just read for the first time the other day, John Scalzi argues that Lucas's most beloved child, the Star Wars saga, isn't actually entertainment.  Lucas wasn't interested in actually engaging with an audience, Scalzi says, but instead was wrapped up in the construction of a mythos that he cared about.  If the audience didn't buy in, too bad.  As a result, the further the series went on (although Scalzi seems to regard none of the films too highly) the worse things got as Lucas spent more and more time on the Imperial history lesson and less on, you know, characterization, plot, and other things that make for "entertainment."

That argument strikes me as odd, because it seems to conflate "entertainment" with "good."  Scalzi makes a pretty good case for why Lucas lost the plot along the way, but that merely makes the later films bad entertainment, not something other than entertainment.  It's just so counter intuitive that someone could see a series of mass market, highly successful, and well loved films as being anything other than entertainment.  We're not talking about a novel that Lucas wrote in secret and never showed anyone, but somehow leaked out after his death.  We're talking commercial grade pop culture here.  What is that if not entertainment?  It certainly meets the dictionary definition:
1: the act of entertaining

2a archaic : maintenance, provision
b obsolete : employment
3a : amusement or diversion provided especially by performers
b : something diverting or engaging: as (1) : a public performance (2) : a usually light comic or adventure novel
It all reminds me of the huge dust up Roger Ebert caused last year when he claimed that video games weren't "art."  In the discsussions of that issue, it became clear that when most people use to the word "art," what they really meant was "art that is good."  Bad art was defined away as something not really artistic at all.  It's the same phenomenon I've seen play out over and over again in Net discussions about progressive rock, where someone (usually genre newbies - I went through it, too), conflate "prog" with "good" and non-prog with "bad."

But that can't be right.  Surely whether something is "art" or "entertainment" or "prog" is separate from whether it's good or bad (i.e., whether you like it or not).  After all, as Theodore Sturgeon famously pointed out, 90% of everything is crap. 

Moreover, any producer of entertainments can have multiple motives in making a movie or writing a novel.  Perhaps they care so much about the mythos and world building that they want maximum audience engagement, i.e "entertainment", in order to forge that bond.  Whether such duplicity is "successful," whatever that may mean, would vary from work to work.

Again, I'm not denying the end point of what Scalzi says about Lucas's movies.  He disappeared up his own ass in the prequels (others have pointed out how trying to explain how The Force worked was a really bad idea).  The same danger is present outside the realm of sci-fi & fantasy, after all.  Look at bio pics.  They usually get so bogged down in covering all the historical bases of their subject - aka, building the mythos - that the result is dull, boring, and without any real narrative focus.  It doesn't make them something other than entertainment, tho'.  Just means they suck. 

IMHO, of course.

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