Often I find that the language in which I write is riddled with irritating idiosyncrasies that serve as most thorny impediments to clear expression. Largely I find the umbrage I take with language comes when I try to translate adjectives into their appropriate noun forms or some similar semantic legerdemain.
Unfortunately, connotation stemming from a history of use has often made it such that what etymology permits, standard use does not. The most recent, and relevant example involves the word “decent”. It will shock no reader to learn that if someone refers to a piece of art as “decent”, they generally mean that it is pleasing enough, just above average. There is a distinctly positive color to the word and few synonyms communicate the head shaking, casual endorsement of “decent.”
However, “decency” means, almost strictly, the other meaning of “decent”: that of moral rectitude. Do then decent films possess the quality of “decentness”, a word that I can only imagine a rube uttering? Instead, for the remainder of this review I will employ the neologism “decentitude” to elevate my prose above the substandard quality to which “decentness” and the exigencies of connotation bind me.
However, this lengthy prologue was not simply to fill space with linguistic caterwauling. Rather, the lengths to which I had to go to crystallize the quality of being better than mediocre, of fulfilling good taste but not pushing it further, seem to indicate that largely such a distinction is alien to modern audiences.
I struggle to think of the last time I felt I had the liberty to admit that a film or book or otherwise was decent, in a fully rich way and not just as slang for a reception of indifference. Does new art bear some onus to always innovate and push farther that it can never be just decent, it can never just surfeit current standards but must either make new ones or fail miserably? Such thoughts remind me of a quote Sufjan Stevens (somewhat) recently said, “Sometimes I worry that the ever-increasing trend toward excessive innovation has pushed the art and music world into a slapstick exhibition of dog breeding, generating increasingly newer, more contemporary fashions…”
Only the Valiant is a film that wants very little and in its surrender to near-reaching it achieves decentitude with flying colors. The movie centers around an army Captain Richard Lance (Peck) assigned to a unit stationed at the borders of the frontier, guarding from Indian aggression. However, his superior officer orders him to undertake a suicide mission only to change orders a few days later to substitute him for another officer, Lieutenant Holloway.
After Holloway is killed, as everyone had suspected he would be, sentiment in the army camp turns against Lance, the troops assuming that he had escaped duty through craven petitions to the superior officer. Seeking to redeem himself in both the eyes of his men and the woman he loves, Lance takes on an equally suicidal operation attempting to stay off an enormous band of Apaches with only seven soldiers. Valor ensues.
There is nothing particularly novel about this plot, Indians are presented like bestial devils, the dialogue is terse and uninspiring, and there are no notable cinematographic moments. In a word, the film is forgettable. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For the roughly hour and a half running time the viewer will doubtlessly be entertained and there is nothing intellectually or aesthetically straining to drive audiences away. Gregory Peck, forever a bastion of irreproachable virtue, delivers a wonderful archetypal performance and the rest of the almost entirely character-actor cast is quite enjoyable in their stock roles.
Only the Valiant very much recalls a different cinematic climate in which movies could be made purely for entertainment without being schlocky blockbusters, an ethos all but disintegrated by the auteurist mentality that every film created must be stamped as a director’s vision. One can hardly imagine Valiant ever being greenlit today—what will the pop culture rags hone in on to generate viral buzz, how will it ever win Cannes?
The parade of bloated silver screen epics and mind-numbingly introspective and slow “indie” films seems to suggest that new films should take a note from Valiant. However, is a return to decentitude even possible, necessary though it may be? Whereas the cinema used to operate on audience’s regularity, paying nickels every week to see the latest mobster piece, the latest Western, movies today are funded by billion dollar opening weekend flashes in the pan while viewers otherwise stay home.
It seems as if economic stresses have somewhat permanently polarized the filmic quality spectrum such that a movie either “changes the way we watch films” or brilliantly implodes under the pyrotechnic misdirection of our Uwe Bolls. Decentitude may be all but lost.