A few months ago I ranted (and quite eloquently so, if I do say so myself) about the several problems inherent in the May 2022 release of Top Gun: Maverick. From the plot to the characters to the fundamentally wrong story, I lambasted the whole entire project as being misguided and off-the-mark.
(I’m not the only one. Here’s “Everything wrong with Maverick in 23 minutes”.)
At the same time, I also wrote this:
Now – with all of that said – you’re probably going to think I’m about to say that Maverick shouldn’t have been made. That it was a waste of time and money. That it isn’t art. That it’s ridiculous, and nobody should go see it.
Unfortunately, if you bet like that, I’m taking your money. Because, in fact, while it may be terrible art, it is still art. And in the next installment, I’m going to tell you why I’m ecstatic that Maverick exists.
So, true to my word, here’s the complementary article – that while Maverick was bad, I’m still stoked that humanity made it. Here’s why.
Movies Are Art
And art is beautiful.
Because art is the fullest expression of our humanity. As a species, we have advanced technologically and societally to the point where we no longer need to spend 95% of our waking hours on food cultivation (whether from hunting or gathering) and 95% of the remaining time on procreation. Way back when, like 50,000 years ago, there was no art, because there just wasn’t time for it. Who can make a sculpture when your fingers are bloody, or missing, from the thirteen hours you spent at the stone quarry? Who has energy to sing a song when you’re out of breath all day from chasing an antelope until it collapses and you drag it for six hours back to the hut to be processed? Who has mental capacity to think about something new when all you can do is shiver because the snow came so early that it froze everything and now all you can imagine is that you and your tribe are going to die very, very soon and very, very painfully?
Now, though, and by “now” I mean about the last five thousand years or so, we have become so damn efficient at what we do when we’re just getting by that we actually have enough time to spend it doing something else. And whatever we do in the excess time is, in fact, make art. Scott McCloud makes a great presentation of this in chapter 7 of Understanding Comics, and I encourage anyone to check it out.
Whether you’re writing novels, playing in the garage band, assembling radio-controlled drones and racing them in the Tuesday night league, or participating in Twitch streams of Magic: the Gathering, all of these are, by the definition that I support, artistic endeavors, because they are beyond the boundaries traditionally recognized of survival and reproduction.
The fact that we can make art means we have achieved.
We have arrived. We are there. We have overcome the persistent, perpetual barriers to survival and procreation that have plagued and continue to plague every other species in this planet’s existence. Barriers like drought, unpredictable hurricanes or tornadoes or typhoons, flooding, excess or insufficient snowfall, earthquakes and landslides, excessive predation, insufficient food supply without ready alternatives, and so on. In the past (again, before maybe five or ten thousand years ago), virtually any of those would have been catastrophic enough to wipe out a whole tribe without warning.
But now, those problems are essentially solved. We have wonderful modern creations like vaccines, hydroponic farms, interstate and international travel, and indoor plumbing. INDOOR PLUBMING! Do you know how magical it is that you can have a healthy poop and never actually have to see it again? Amazing.
Sure, we have problems. Of course we’re dramatically altering our climate by our actions, and you’d be a motherloving idiot to think that our children and grandchildren aren’t going to be paying for our sins and those of the three generations immediately before us.
But the fact is, we now can do things like predict when the next famine is going to come, where the water supply is going to be sufficient or insufficient, what the hurricane season is going to be like, and how long all of these disruptions will last. More importantly, because we can see these challenges coming, we have learned to prepare for them. Remember the story of Joseph in the Bible? Yeah, he made the people of Egypt set aside their extra grain for years before the famine came, despite lots of skepticism and vitriol at the fact that he was depriving the people at the time. When he was proven right, the society flourished because all their neighbors, who were suffering for lack of foresight, came begging.
That kind of opportunity to save for the future only comes about when there’s an actual excess available to store for later. And that excess production capacity means that we not only can save for the future, at some point we’ll realize that we’ve probably saved enough that any more will just be wasting, and it’s time to turn our attentions elsewhere. Such as producing art.
It’s no surprise then that the growth of art, culture, and civilization are directly coincident with the improvement of humanity’s sustainability and resilience against the threats of external forces aligned against us.
So, yes, I’m proud of humanity. I’m proud of how far we’ve come. I am proud that the last thirty thousand generations have sacrificed and worked so hard to provide our recent generations the opportunity that arises from abundant production, so that we can spend however many thousands of our hours scripting, shooting, editing, and distributing artistic endeavors like Top Gun: Maverick. I’m proud of the achievement that humanity has made in overcoming the sustainability gap that so many before us had to suffer through.
And for that work and sacrifice I thank them immensely. I believe our artistic endeavors justify and validate the hard work that they have offered up. And so (paraphrasing a well-known phrase), while I may disagree with the premise and execution of making this particular movie, I am emphatically supportive of the efforts to do so.
Art Creates Community
Community means to have things “in common”, or shared. We share place, and foods, and time, often religion, and most especially values. Just look at how much alignment there is about how great this movie is, despite the small minority who dissent.
This movie has created a shared sense of community that had been in decline for years before the COVID-19 pandemic, and was virtually disintegrated during those two years of “isolation”, whether self-imposed or state-imposed.
Compare streaming a movie at home or renting a DVD/Blu-Ray and watching with your family. Sure, you’re seeing the same scenes in the same order. But you’re not experiencing the same thing that the rest of the audience is.
In contrast, whether you’re at a theater for film, watching a stage play or musical, or listening to the symphony, you’re experiencing it in communion with hundreds or thousands of your fellow homo sapiens. In addition, if you’re at a live performance, there’s the artists who have to look you in the eye (figuratively) and perform. They are there with you, creating with you, experiencing with you, and you have that shared, common, communal understanding of time, place, emotion, and sensibility.
Watching Maverick in theaters brought back that sense that there is something, many things, out beyond the barriers of our own living room. When you’re at home you have so many other distractions – the cat jumps on your lap, the Tinder notification goes off, the peanut butter jar is calling your name. Each of these breaks your concentration and, by extension, your experience of the story. You get out of the flow state, that resonant parallelism that comes from doing the same thing as others are at the same time that they are doing it.
That parallelism seems to satisfy some kind of ingrained need within humans to be around other humans.
Remember, humanity is a communal species. We are not polar bears, who do their own thing and spend loads and loads of time alone. We are more akin to lions, where we do some of our own thing, but the greater majority of time and energy is spent with others. Live artistic performances are one of the greatest ways that humans have developed to execute on that inclination.
And we need it! See above, where we have become so efficient at food production and sustenance that we no longer depend on the assistance of others just to get through the winter. We used to, and so our epigenetics have instilled within us a bio-logical pressure to seek out other humans and share our experiences with them as they share with us. It’s almost as if there is an internal spring which is continually creating a desire to be around others that, if we don’t give vent to that desire, builds up a pressure within each of us that is only released when we actually get near others and perform some kind of activity at the same time.
Why else do so many people congregate at music festivals? It’s not for the music, or the sex, both of which can be easily had at home. It’s because of the community, the shared experience, that is created when they come together.
And so, coming as it did after about two years of constrained options to relieve that pressure for community, Top Gun: Maverick became something of a perfect opportunity to allow a large portion of humanity to finally get back to that community, that “bigger-than-just-me” feel that we had been missing for so long, even if we didn’t have the words to express our deficiency.
I’m Excited We Have a Culture That Allows My Dissent
There are several places where movies are made, but they must conform to the “party lines”, if you will. The most prominent example will be China, where the endings of popular Hollywood movies are changed in order to produce a different message.
According to posts and screenshots from the movie shared on Weibo, a platform similar to Twitter, censors tacked on an addendum in which Wild Knuckles, a main character in the heist film, was caught by police and served 20 years in jail.https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/chinese-censors-change-ending-latest-minions-movie-rcna44345
And that’s not the only one. Imagine any book published, movie produced, or play performed in any totalitarian regime (North Korea, Azerbaijan, and Venezuela come to mind) that is critical of the government. Wouldn’t happen. Or, imagine that the movie which sings the government’s praises is criticized and called “terrible”, as I’m doing here. That, too, might go unpunished for, oh, say about three minutes. And then I’d be removed from the breeding pool and offered a Darwin Award for my troubles.
Having no freedom to make what you wish to make, to tell the story you wish to tell, must be incredibly depressing. Even more, having your story changed to fit some external narrative must feel like you’ve been corrupted, or commandeered, or somehow conscripted into sending a message that you didn’t intend.
It must feel like choking on your own opinion. You just want so badly to say something, and then someone else comes along and dictates what you must say, and totally perverts your artistic integrity.
The same holds for opinion about stories published and the messages therein. We (in the free world), much more than in any totalitarian society, have the opportunity to express our dissents without fear of reprisal.
We are not living in Orwell’s 1984, and I hope we never get there.
In that world, people are no longer masters of their own body, either via actions or speech. They are monitored, controlled, and re-educated for acting against the official lines. You think anyone there would be allowed to make a review calling Maverick “terrible”? Me neither.
We live in a world (in the general “west”), where I can express my thoughts freely. I am allowed to be one of the very small minority (fewer than 2% of the ratings on IMDB are 5 or lower) of viewers who think Maverick is a poor movie.
And the fact that I can do so, that I can write an essay titled “Top Gun: Maverick is terrible,” and this follow-up, without fear of reprise, without fear of losing some kind of social credit that I need simply in order to survive, is another level of amazing.
This is along the lines of the excess production we have created, mentioned in my first point above. We have created such a wondrous place that I hope we never, ever, ever forget or take for granted the freedoms and opportunities we have.
This is a wonderful world. Let us live like it is.
So, there you have it. I’m excited that we the have the capacity to make art, I’m happy that we can share it with others, and I’m thrilled that we don’t all have to have the same viewpoint. Maverick helped illuminate all of these, and gave me the framework to codify my thoughts on the subject.
For all of that, I’m grateful. In fact, you might say, I’m ecstatic that Maverick exists.