History of the Doldrums

In Norton Juster’s classic book, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the protagonist, Milo, finds himself stranded in a land called The Doldrums. This dark and dreary area is inhabited by the Lethargians, tiny creatures that exist for the sole purpose of being lazy.  Milo finds that the only way out of this melancholy area is to simply think. It doesn’t matter what about, or how hard, but simply that the traveler thinks at all.

Here there be dragons…

Today’s entertainment industry is somewhat like Juster’s Doldrums. Innovation is increasingly difficult to come by, original ideas are canned for not being commercially safe, and every film, book, and videogame feels just a little too familiar. The only way to escape the stagnation of creative thought is to do some critical thinking, and in the process, recognize what is so similar to what has come before. Usually, in the process of thinking too hard about what we’re seeing, we realize that it’s quite silly indeed, and this can often be amusing.

I’ve always enjoyed cracking wise at the expense of entertainment media. Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Statler and Waldorf, Joe Bob Briggs – all music to my ears. Many years ago, I grabbed a group of friends and decided to try my own hand at riffing on some of the giants of awful cinema, such as Laser Mission, Pocket Ninjas, and The House That Screamed. They were veritable orchards of unintentional humor. It wasn’t until we subjected ourselves to an entry in Albert Pyun’s Urban Trilogy that we felt as though we had crossed some kind of line – a motion picture line that man was not meant to cross. Wrecking Crew, as it was called, was not a film in any sense of the word. It was a collection of moving pictures and synchronous sound, yes, but it was not cinema as human beings know it. It was the first picture that we had to turn off and stop watching, because we, a group of guys who regularly ate up bottom-of-the-barrel cinematic fare, had finally met our match. How was this possible?

The experience illustrated something to me that I would not fully understand until a few years later. I came to the conclusion that the entertainment value of products is circular, relative to how “objectively” good or bad they are. Picture them on a circle, like so.

We’ll use film as an example. Let’s start at the very top of the circle. At the top sit all the Citizen Kane’s of the entertainment world. These are the quality releases, the A-list films, the ones that everyone loves and that Ebert and Roeper rave about. As the film gets worse and worse, it travels clockwise around the circle. Its critical reputation falls. For example, if Plan Nine From Outer Space were to go on the circle, it would start at the top and travel around the circle clockwise until it came back up to the top a second time.

This is how the circle reconciled my experience of watching Wrecking Crew. Plan Nine is the type of movie that’s often referred to as being “so bad that it’s good.” It has completed one revolution on the circle and made its way back to the top, which is a space it shares with all the best and most enjoyable films of cinema. Now, if Plan Nine went around the circle one time, Wrecking Crew went around about one and a half times. It was at the absolute bottom.

That’s why it was so boring that us poor gents had to shut it off. Wrecking Crew was not so bad that it was good. It was terrible – even worse than Plan Nine – but as bad as it was, it wasn’t bad enough. That could only make sense through the entertainment circle.

But if awful film could be enjoyable, could awful videogames, awful books, and awful music also be enjoyable in their own laughable, pitiable right? Suddenly, everything became game for a peanut gallery. Nothing was sacred anymore.

This broadened the very idea of what entertainment meant to me. Products that were meant to be appreciated one way could end up being lauded for completely different reasons. Entertainment, ultimately, comes down to whatever the individual takes away from the experience. When it comes to critically evaluating something, it often falls to deciding whether or not it was the good, the bad, or the ugly. But much more interesting to me was what lay between those three extremes, and for every insightful thing I could come up with to say about why Manos: The Hands of Fate is a fantastic experience, someone else could come up with as many different ones as to why it isn’t.

The greatest movie of the century… hands down.

The film is terrible. It entertained me. It did not entertain someone else. The Godfather is an excellent film. It did not entertain me. It entertained someone else.

At this point, the reasons become more interesting than the film itself. So, the Doldrums really is about just that – the reasons. Critical darlings can satisfy on many levels, but they don’t always satisfy the human craving for entertainment. Ultimately, what exactly will fulfill that craving is determined on an individual level.

We have to entertain ourselves, because if we don’t, then no one will.