I am provoked into writing this by a rerun of Patch Adams on TV. The name had registered as something I’d seen, but I’d forgotten how embarrassingly awful it is, displaying mawkish sentimentality on a sickening level. And I got to thinking: how is it that such films get to be made and, having been made, get to be endlessly recycled on our television screens? You would think that something so ghastly would subside into oblivion, too embarrassed by itself ever to reappear. Except there seems to be an audience for it and other films of its ilk, sadly not only as a secret pleasure on DVD. Patch Adams was nominated for a Golden Globe and had the not inconsiderable box office takings of US$202m in 1998.
I recall someone in a science fiction novel saying with a perfectly straight face that entropy is the tendency of any system to devolve to its lowest level. While Patch Adams is not quite of Razzie standard, I think it deserves honorary status. For me, it’s yet one more symptom proving the Hollywood system is in full devolution mode. Why, then, are such films made? Obviously, the studios and the producers who bankroll them must have faith their products will show a profit. In this case, Williams was a star with drawing power and the script contained the right number of clichés. Remarkably, with a production budget of US$90, their faith was rewarded with a profit. Free market capitalism is a wonderful thing. It assumes that, with all transactions voluntary, customers decide what survives to make money. If a supplier routinely offers a bad product, customers will react as Pavlovian dogs and take their business elsewhere. This will drive out the bad suppliers and favour those that offer good products. There were enough people to make a market for Patch Adams, but not all products are so fortunate. Not all customers are the same.
The point of an average or the more infamous lowest common denominator is that they are distillations from a potentially wide range of values. Famously, when dissolving their business partnership, Robert Owen said to W. Allen, “All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.” So, from one person’s perspective, everyone else is different or strange. Life is something we do on our own. We accumulate experiences that shape our opinions and sensibilities. Some of these experiences may be shared but, when added together, the whole tends to be unique. How unique? The degree of strangeness between people may only by marginal in the main, but it can produce radically different responses to the same stimuli. What I like need not be what you like or we might like the same thing but for completely different reasons. You might find something serious and uplifting, the same might make me laugh, or vice versa.
Why, you might ask, was I watching Patch Adams. Boredom threatened. I had a few minutes on my own. I did not want to start a new book. There was no choice. . . Most of the time, there is no choice. You either go to the cinema to see whatever dross Hollywood has produced, or you stay at home. You switch on the TV and channel-flip until you find something vaguely watchable. In the arts, there is no guarantee that any work will be any good. The latest album, the latest book, the latest film. . . All you can do is hope. A momentum builds up. The most recent offerings from this band, this author or this director have been good. I will try the next. This may not be very rational but, once formed, habits are difficult to break. This inertia is what the marketers rely on. I should wait for the reviews before buying, except whose reviews do you trust when so many websites are involved in marketing? Reviews on major sites like Amazon are gamed.
When it comes to cultural products, there’s a group of people who appoint themselves style leaders. Think fashion and the marketers have programmed the names of the current top designers to pop into our minds. The same applies to most niches. A combination of messages aims to persuade us that this product is the best, better than all the rest. So the mass media manipulates coverage of the “facts” and shapes opinion, telling us that, to belong to the in-crowd, we must all like such-and-such or all do this special thing. No-one questions whether belonging to the in-crowd has any real value. It’s apparently a given that there’s safety in numbers — it’s better to be one of us and not one of them. Yet, curiously, the limited interest in Patch Adams lies in showing one herd’s mentality as cruel and uncaring, while only an eccentric clown can know what is best for all.
People are not the same yet the status of authority figures and the power of peer pressure are forged into a force that drives consensus. So millions are convinced that Robin Williams is entertaining. Similarly, J K Rowling is the greatest children’s author of all time and Dan Brown is the best writer of mystery stories since whoever put pen to parchment and produced the Dead Sea Scrolls with the intention of stirring up religious controversy. I suppose all this makes me a culture snob, born to sneer both at films mired in bathos and at books by authors who cannot write reasonably original content in coherent English. Fortunately, there are some films made for the small audience that thinks. Some authors do rise above the routine. But those capitalists who make the commissioning and contractual decisions prefer content that aims at the lowest common denominator. That gives the work crossover appeal and the chance for mass market success. With all the money flowing from the mass market, there can be subsidies for works that will only sell more modestly. So what all this comes down to is that I’m a parasite, pathetically grateful to the masses that like Patch Adams, J K Rowling, Dan Brown and all the other milk cows of the arts world. Without all you, the industry would never make enough money to be able to subsidise publishing the stuff I like to see, hear and read.