My recent posts on how I choose what fiction to read and what’s going on with the publishing industry share a theme: perverse incentives. (Indeed, it seems that a lot of my writing is about perverse incentives, but more about that another time.) The intellectual/political monoculture of the modern university leads to an intellectual/political monoculture in the major media companies, and when you combine that with the many ways the internet has disrupted the economic models of all the arts, you get a general environment in which interesting, imaginative work is not just resisted, it’s virtually prohibited. All the incentives of everyone involved are aligned against it.

Thus the thesis of this essay by James Poniewozik: “We have entered the golden age of Mid TV”: 

Above all, Mid is easy. It’s not dumb easy — it shows evidence that its writers have read books. But the story beats are familiar. Plot points and themes are repeated. You don’t have to immerse yourself single-mindedly the way you might have with, say, “The Wire.” It is prestige TV that you can fold laundry to. 

Or you could listen to a Sally Rooney novel on Audible while chopping the veggies. Same, basically. This is what I think about almost everything from current big-studio Hollywood movies to new literary fiction to music by Taylor Swift or Beyoncé: it’s … okay. It doesn’t offend.

But wouldn’t it be nice to have something better? Wouldn’t it be cool to be surprised? Crevecoeur famously described early America as a land characterized by “a pleasing uniformity of decent competence.” But after a while the competence isn’t all that pleasing. As Wittgenstein famously wrote in the Philosophical Investigations: “We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” I wrote an essay about this.

Of course I think about this stuff all the time

The good news is that these production-line periods tend to produce a reaction: Romantic poetry was one such; punk rock another; the Nouvelle Vague in French movies yet another. Indeed, so was Wittgenstein’s philosophy. But the bad news is that today our manorial technocracy makes the project of finding cracks in the walls more difficult than it has ever been. So I’ll be watching the rough ground to see who turns up there, but in the meantime, here’s how I make my decisions about watching movies: 

  • If someone I love wants me to go to a movie with them, I do. 
  • Otherwise, I don’t watch movies produced and/or distributed by the big studios. (I had been leaning in this direction for a while, but I didn’t make it a guideline until three or four years ago.) I just don’t, for the same reason that I don’t read novels by people who live in Brooklyn: it’s not a good bet. The chance of encountering something excellent, or even interestingly flawed, is too remote. Not impossible — I really enjoyed Dune, for instance, and Oppenheimer, both of which I watched with my son — but remote. 
  • I don’t subscribe to Netflix, or HBO, or Amazon Prime. (I do have Apple TV as part of my Apple subscription, but I primarily use it to rent movies. I did try watching For All Mankind and Masters of the Air, but both of them were too … Mid for me.) The only service I subscribe to is the Criterion Channel, because it allows me to watch (a) classic movies, (b) independent movies, and (c) foreign movies. All of which are much better bets than anything the current big studios make. 
  • I never hesitate to watch a favorite movie again when that’s where my whim takes me. In fact, I watch movies from my Blu-Ray/DVD collection more often than I stream anything.