The Death of Excellence – or its Dawn?

A couple weeks ago I had an interesting conversation, in which someone claimed that nowadays people seem unable to produce ‘brilliant’ movies. He said that the closest the past few years got to ‘excellence’ was Inception, but that it ultimately failed in achieving that too. And this got me thinking.Now, it is undeniable that there have been big changes in the entertainment industry over the last few decades. There have been enormous technological advancements, not only in film but also in other media, like video games. Especially in the case of video games the rapid development tends to be a little scary. In most academic papers, I can’t even properly use sources from only a few years ago because they’re already outdated – something that is absolutely no problem in other types of media. (It’s actually quite cute sometimes, reading books about computer games from twenty years ago – but of course it’s important to read such texts as well to properly contextualise the development and nature of the medium.)

But back to the matter at hand: Wouldn’t all those advances rather speak in favour of ‘excellence’, or whatever we might call it? Not necessarily; but I don’t quite agree that there is no spirit for ‘excellence’ anymore. In that conversation, the prime example for a film that people immediately, back then and today, were all excited about was Pulp Fiction. While definitely a fascinating narrative concept and certainly a good film, though, I’m not sure if everyone nowadays – especially the very new generation of consumers – would still consider it as such, if it didn’t already have the framework of a ‘cult text’ in our cultural consciousness. But why is that, then? Why do people seem to feel that there is less ‘excellence’, less ‘originality’ nowadays?

I think the reasons for that are manifold. With all the technical possibilities available to producers these days, constantly enhancing realism and immersion especially with the introduction of 3D technologies, there definitely seems to be a tendency towards emphasising form rather than content. And that, truly, is a shame. In fact, I’m quite conflicted about 3D movies; I enjoy them occasionally, but I think that only few types of movies are really made for that technology – it’s really best employed with animated films in my opinion. Still, I can detect some sort of progress, and maybe, slowly, people are starting to learn how to combine such technologies with good storytelling – instead of just focusing on pretty pictures and impressive effects. The same goes for the variety of explosions and action and dragged-out combat scenes, with which you often can’t help but wonder ‘Was that really necessary, or were you just showing off here?’ It’s an exciting time to learn and develop films and other types of media, and the possibilities are amazing. People just need to learn how to use them properly.

Another ‘problem’ (or is it, really?) is this techno-savvy consumer culture that we live in. I believe that nowadays, it takes a lot more to truly, and universally, impress people – simply because we are bombarded with special effects everywhere we go, and we’re just used to seeing much more. (Which of course doesn’t mean that this new generation cannot enjoy the classics anymore, or that they’re any less awesome because of that.) Plus, the general output – the sheer quantity of things coming out the whole time – is sometimes quite overwhelming, and it gets difficult to pick the Good from the Bad and the Ugly. Furthermore, our culture becomes much more transmedial, a concept that fascinates me and that I tend to pursue in my academic research as well. In its essence, ‘transmedia storytelling’ is defined by Henry Jenkins, basically the guru in that field, as

a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. […] Most often, transmedia stories are based not on individual characters or specific plots but rather complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories. This process of world-building encourages an encyclopedic impulse in both readers and writers. (Read more on Jenkins’s blog)

So maybe one single text – be it film or video game, or anything else really – does not feel absolutely excellent anymore because we are so used to looking at the bigger picture, at all the paratexts surrounding it, at the franchise as a whole, at the way that this work relates to other similar works. In such a culture, it is hard to truly stand out, and after a while, there is fairly little that hasn’t been tried before, making a truly unique and unprecedented narrative structure fairly difficult to achieve (unlike back then, when Pulp Fiction came out). And while it is not an absolute necessity, I still think that the really good movies still very much benefit from being watched on the big screen. But realistically, how many movies do you actually see in the cinema? (I don’t count here. I have an amazing subscription to our cinema, and I normally go once a week. So clearly, I’m also a little biased in that respect.)

But that doesn’t mean that things can’t be great anymore, and that they can’t leave an enormous impression on people. I think there is great potential for excellence, a new kind of excellence, and people are just learning to explore and pursue that properly.

What do you think? Is there still excellence possible in today’s entertainment industry, or has everything become a blend of pretty much the same things? Has there been a movie or game recently that has really blown your mind, that you would consider ‘excellent’?

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