Wednesday, January 14, 2015

There's No "U" in Enjoyment

When it comes to arts and entertainment, creators have one clear goal: to make the content enjoyable to the most people. This is not to say, however, that art is meaningless. Far from it. Without getting philosophical, art--be it music, literature, cinema, et cetera--exists to fulfill a need for personal pleasure. There are a huge number of qualifications that lead to this enjoyment, to be sure, but suffice it to say that it is human nature to pursue what makes us happy. Therefore, if successful art relies on making us happy, it is the musician’s or writer’s or director’s role to know what we enjoy and recreate it to make the most people happy. If only it were that easy. Despite the sound of it, I promise this will not be getting too philosophical.

As it comes down to it, making art that the most people enjoy is difficult. A film might amaze hundreds of audiences, but no film is going to satisfy every person’s desire. Or maybe a book only piques ten people’s interest, but for those people, the book is life-changing. Obviously, while artists set out to please audiences, not everyone can make it happen. And there is no surefire rule of thumb for reaching people; instead, it is a trial and error until something becomes popular. I do not have any answers either, but I have come to a (very) general theory that defines, in part, what is enjoyable to me.

Perhaps this theory is only true for me, but it might also apply to more people. I suspect this is the case. The test is totally subjective, so I really cannot be wrong. Try it yourself to see if you agree. A second disclaimer, despite the sound of it, I promise this will not be getting too scientific.

Imagine a graph where the horizontal line represents how “good” something is from worst on the left to best at the right, while the vertical line is how much you “like” the thing from least (bottom) to most (top). Again, extremely general and totally subjective, so you can’t argue with me. Begin by plotting your examples, such as movies, books, games, or albums. These are what I’m using, obviously. 

As you get going, some conclusions are made apparent immediately. Qualitatively speaking, I think The Godfather is one of the best movies ever made; it just so happens to be one of my favorites, as well, so it goes at the top-right. Same goes for Pulp Fiction: somewhere near the top-right. As you plot the graph, you can see the obvious correlation: higher quality means higher enjoyment. Discounting a few outliers, it is a fairly straight line towards the upper right corner of the graph.

Towards the middle of the graph, we see more objects of average quality toward the bottom third of the graph. This is the largest part of my graph, where a lot of “three-stars” go. For example, this where to find a lot of the stock, summer action movies, most albums by Weezer, and the Call of Duty series. Unfortunately, there are so many items in this list because high-quality, high-enjoyment items are usually few and far between. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with all three-star entertainment (or anything wrong with me for doing a lot of it). They are fine uses of time and, I think, serve as a great comparison for when you really find something excellent. There is my endorsement for three-stars: a good foundation for some even better entertainment, but ultimately boring and not lasting.

At the left side of the graph, however, some interesting happenings begin to occur. Low quality starts to tick upward in enjoyment a bit, then a bit more, until we reach levels of enjoyment rivalling the right side. Maybe this is just my chart, but I suspect not. Finally, we can see the phenomena: something that is so bad, it’s good. I mean, how else do films like The Room and Plan 9 From Outer Space become immortalized? Fans adore so-called B-movies or read hundreds of “trashy” novels in a year. In the end, my graph comes to look like a big, wide “U” with highs on both ends and a long, low middle.

Sure, there are going to be some problems here and there. This is where we develop terms like “overrated” and “underrated.” I can respect that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a high-quality film, but I don’t particularly enjoy it. I always get a kick out of James Bond novels even though I know they are not terribly well written. Conversely, I think there is nothing redeeming about the second Caddyshack film. 

Of course, so much more goes into enjoying something, like where you were when you read this book, the people you were with when you watched this movie for the first time, or how you heard this album at the right time (also known as nostalgia). But this is just a general theory that generally explains how I like certain things, which maybe explains more about myself. Science is way more accepting of general theories anyway, right? Therefore, art of spectacular quality or of spectacularly bad quality are highly enjoyable. Meanwhile, middling quality is typically bland, forgettable, and represents my least favorite forms of entertainment.

This is why I don’t like The Police.