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Diminishing Returns (or Killing the Sacred Cow) Part I

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Amidst the genuine laughs and all-around good times I remember about my theater viewing experience of Borat, I remember feeling an uneasy twinge in my gullet.  Yes, this was about the zenith of Sasha Baron-Cohen’s stable of Da Ali G Show characters- Borat brought to life in a zeitgeist-tapping powerhouse that did the show, and the character of Borat himself, justice.  It was about as good a comedy that came out that year.

So what was this feeling of uneasiness?

I think you could sense at the time that while what was up on the screen was undeniably a quality product, maybe even touching greatness, that everything that followed would be weaker, if not sub-par. I’m not even talking about how obnoxious the just-now-subsiding Borat impressions were (“Verry Niiice!”)- as a culture, we have been used to that since we were swept away by Billy Crystal’s “You look Mah-velous.”

No, it was simpler than that.  Borat represented the peak, the end-all.  It blew its wad, and there was nowhere to go but down after that. There was literally nothing left for Sasha Baron-Cohen to do.  America loved it once, but there was no more blood to tap from that rock.

This happens all the time.  A movie franchise, a series of books, or a band somehow discovers what I call a “One and Done” formula.   They figure out exactly what the audience wants, the product they create is huge, but at the same time pretty much dilutes what was special about the product in the first place.   Everything that follows is weaker than what preceded it.

The following are some examples of this phenomenon, when an artist (or group of artists) create something that is both the best thing and then, inevitably, the worst thing for their art.  Part II will appear tomorrow.

Silence of the Lambs (both the book series and the movie)-

Silence of the Lambs is rightfully remembered as a classic, both in book and movie form.  A sequel to Red Dragon (or Manhunter, as the original movie was called), it expanded the universe of FBI profilers and serial killers, with the character of Hannibal Lecter working as the lynchpin, albeit in a supporting capacity.  It was scary, intense, and just about perfect. Of course, after the movie won a zillion Oscars, and Anthony Hopkins created one of the most enduring and popular characters in movie history, America wanted more Hannibal Lecter.  And in their attempt to shift the focus on to Lecter, the character was diminished.  Yes, we saw a whole lot more of him in Hannibal, Red Dragon, and Hannibal Rising, but he was never as scary, menacing, or as cool as he was in his first two outings.

Nightmare on Elm Street 3:  Dream Warriors

Speaking of scary characters who have been diminished over time… ah, Freddy. The original Nightmare on Elm Street was a truly creepy, if not outright scary, entry in the horror canon.   After the gay-themed Elm Street 2, they decided to increase the mythic qualities of the their villain by giving him a bigger budget, an elaborate back story, and lots and lots of one-liners. The results were fantastic- #3 is the only Elm Street movie that can be discussed as a possible “best,” other than the first one. Catching a whiff that America loved them some funny Krueger, each movie after it upped the comedy quotient and actor Robert Englund’s presence (his name would appear above the credits in subsequent entries).  While this didn’t hurt the financial situation of the series (#4 was a huge hit, and admittedly pretty good), it DID change the mission statement of what Freddy was all about.

Van Halen’s 1984:

Or, Eddie Van Halen discovers keyboards.  Up until that point, Van Halen was defined by guitar-virtuosity, front-man showmanship, and catchy hard rock magic. Then came “Jump.”  In 1984, it sounded like nothing VH had done before, and was fairly unique in terms of what was on the radio at the time. It became a HUGE hit, playing endlessly on both the radio and MTV.  The thing was, “Jump” (and “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher,” and “I’ll Wait”) were a bit more poppy and keyboard-driven than what had come before.  Granted, it was refreshing, new, and undeniably great, but you got the sense that this was where Van Halen was now heading. Sadly, the next few years gave us a bunch of Sammy Hagar-fronted Van Halen, and generic hits such as “Right Now” and “Dreams,” both of which can claim “Jump” as a forbearer.

Metallica’s Black Album:

Pretty much the same situation as Van Halen’s 1984– the band finds a successful commercial formula that appeals to the masses but alienates their core fan base.  We can now enjoy “Enter Sandman” forever, but the cost to the band’s integrity was fairly pricy.

More tomorrow!


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