Lately there have been a few items swimming in my head that make me consider what makes a work “good” or great, or if that sort of template even works as a quantifier of art sometimes. I was voted Most Opinionated in high school (hold in your laughter) and I’ve been known by friends and family as super critical of what I watch, read, and play, and I’m sure a lot of you Solute types have been called the same. Personally I like to think of myself as…discerning. But it’s still good to think about what exactly I mean, what I signify, when I say a book I’m reading is great, a show I watch is good, and a film I see is “something completely different”.
Here’s an example: I’m currently in the midst of Rome season one, and I’m quite enjoying it. It has good performances (Ciarin Hinds as Caesar is just a machine of pure ownage – “He was a CONSUL of Rome!”), some really impressive sets courtesy of a network sure it can do anything, and refreshingly the writing favors depiction over judgment of Roman values and customs. But something doesn’t quite work all the time here – part of it I suspect is the condensing of history into 12 hours, but also how the series favors soapy plotting in the subplots compared to the drama of the politics. I flatly don’t care about whose baby is whose or who was committing adultery when we have Pompey quietly reckoning with his losses or Servillia knowing she may never see her son again but remaining behind anyway. The different tones just don’t mesh as well for me as the show believes they do. All that being said, I’m still having a damned fun time, and like the heart on the scale the virtues outweigh the flaws. Rome is good, if not great: there is no mastery, only value.
Now White Jazz is objectively great – it took me a bit to truly see what Ellroy was going for but damned if he hasn’t ruined most other novels for me (I wanted to throw White Teeth against the wall of my room after being spoiled by such fucked up glory). It’s a seething, whacked out book, like a surreal sculpture that threatens to topple under the weight of the hubris but never does, and this is the important thing, that Ellroy has control even if Dave Klein does not. There is no sense that the novel is about to collapse under its own pretensions or go off the rails. Everything is plotted and planned, there is an equilibrium at work. And this isn’t to say that all great art functions this way at all (for one Jazz is a novel where most art is collaboration and play, multiple people creating a whole out of many) but I believe that this is one example. White Jazz is Apollonian and Dionysian influences in balance, mastered yet lunatic.
…Then there’s Sleepaway Camp. I can’t in good conscience call this movie bad. It’s entertaining, unintentionally hilarious, nasty, disgusting (this movie is pretty into eleven year old boobs) and then, just when you’ve concluded that this is a silly film, deeply, elementally disturbing. The final shot makes the laughter spasm and die in your fucking throat forever. Sleepaway Camp is its own rough beast – too much at work to dismiss easily as another dumb slasher (even if it is a dumb slasher). I didn’t give it a rating on Letterboxd because I just didn’t know how to reduce it to a number – some art and pop culture can’t be pinned down like that and shouldn’t be. The movie is the best argument ever made against the star system.
What makes a text “good” or “bad” to you? Does that even mean anything? Or can we just find virtue even in the shittiest of books and films, according to our own metrics?