• Well gosh CM, if I could answer this question in a comment I wouldn’t have had to write so much in the last five years 😏 (Nah, I’m just breakin’ yer balls.)

    What we like it art, methinks, follows the same kind of logic (or lack of logic) as what we like in people: it’s insanely complex and hard to understand but there are some (non-absolute) principles you can find. I still go by Steve Hyden’s rule: make me care. Give me some reason to let you in my life, some way I’m better, something I learn that I wouldn’t have without you. And if you’re going to stay around (I met White Jazz over 20 years ago and we still hang out), you better commit. Whatever you’re doing, you best go all the way with it. (A word I keep coming back to in praising art of all kinds is merciless, the works that have the courage of their convictions.)

    • Conor Malcolm Crockford

      Merciless is a great descriptor – I tried to write in terms of mastery of tone or balance, but I think having the ability to DO something and carry it out is also incredibly important.

      • Sleepaway Camp is, as the saying goes, next-level bonkers but it absolutely goes all the way with that, way past the creators’ talents. It’s one-star Essential Viewing.

        • Conor Malcolm Crockford

          As I said on FB, the infamous shot has implications and horrors that the director probably never intended.

          • That’s another point about art (and people, for that matter): commit to the thing you’re doing and all sorts of unexpected meanings and interpretations will come out of it. Try and force one particular meaning (looking back at you, Against the Day) and you’ll strangle the life out of it.

          • The Ploughman

            Limitations save the day again. I presume you’ve read the weird solution they came up with for getting that shot. It resulted in an image so much more arresting and strange than they ever could have with created with the full ability to back up their intentions (citation: the entire rest of the movie).

      • Also, if you commit, even if I don’t like you, I can respect you. Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal is clearly a great work, and it has enough friends that I don’t mind not hanging out with it. Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, though? No one wants to go near that loser.

    • But the convictions have to be good, otherwise I’m going to be merciless right back.

      Time Inc put out a “documentary” on some asshole soldier who was all “I saw 9/11 in class when I was 15, and I wanted to be part of the first wave of Tripp’s to go over seas and fight.” Then his platoon got ambushed, and so he became an artist honoring all the other assholes like him. THEN it goes on to try to exonerate George W Bush because he paints portraits of the soldiers who were injured in his war fuckup!

      Credit where credit’s due, this documentary lives and commits suicide by the strength of its convictions. And, if I actually believed in its belief system, I might, you know, have some sympathy. I thought the guy was kind of hot at the very beginning, but he was downgraded to grotesque by the end purely on his seemingly uninterrogated belief structure.

      Plus, I was a bit resentful that these assholes, who are probably the type of Trump’s Country assholes who have a hard on for the wall, would include a line in the chorus of their country song about loving Corona. Do they know that Corona is in Mexico? I don’t like Corona that much, but if you’re gonna support the Wall, you shouldn’t get to drink Mexico’s cerveza.

      • Yes it is, and the most merciless works of art I know have gotten me to do just that. Art, when it works, expands your world. I might not have this right, but didn’t you write a piece here at one point about art you like but disagree with?

        • Yeah, but that was before I saw this…

          In all seriousness, I’m ranting about that doc because I just saw it last night. It’s a finely produced piece that fits in with most other fluffy profiles. But, it’s a paper thin dodge to get us to stop thinking about the Iraq War as a negative, or even as a thing.

          There are also films like that one shitty guys reuniting in a cabin movie where they get all neurotic and either rapey or violent or both…that stood by its convictions in a merciless fashion but also isn’t considered good anything. You have to be on the artist’s side at least in part.

          • I should have been clearer about what I mean by “merciless,” my apologies. By merciless, I don’t mean simply repeating one point of view and going LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU to everything else; I mean following that idea to its limits and seeing the consequences, no matter what. (Probably the reason I’m drawn so much to drama is that it’s all about following the consequences.) Straw Dogs is merciless; Death Wish is not. The documentary you saw sounds like the opposite of merciless–like you said, it’s targeted to those who already agree with its belief system.

            Thing is, I probably agree with your last sentence; what art has done for me is put me in touch with aspects of myself that I hadn’t seen before. I’m on the side, “at least in part,” of some artists that I didn’t want to be. White Jazz is one example, and that was hard enough to write about. I’ll get to Straw Dogs eventually.

          • Son of Griff

            My current literary and cinematic preferences don’t necessarily conform to my political or moral beliefs, but what attracts me to them is their commitment to challenging the assumption that the only truth lies with said beliefs. I find my own individuality shaped by the tension between what I value and what I enjoy participating in on a cultural level.

          • Maybe we’re not so much defined by our beliefs as defined by our contradictions; as a wise man said, we are all problematic. Art and our response to art is a good and relatively painless way to find out about them.

          • Son of Griff

            Perhaps this is why I have such a strong response to Peckinpah, as he seems to wrestle with his own ambivalent relationship to norms of masculine behavior in an increasingly personal fashion from RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY through BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA

          • Babalugats

            Death Wish isn’t merciless if you think it’s about a man doing what needs to be done to clean up the streets. But it is merciless if you think it’s a story about a man losing his mind and his soul in the aftermath of a trama.

          • Point taken. I probably could have picked a better (i.e. worse) example of a revenge drama here.

          • Babalugats

            Maybe you meant this version


          • Well, now I do.

  • ZoeZ

    I will second/third “make me care,” and add “care yourself,” because nothing kills the value of a work faster for me than the sense that the creator either didn’t give a damn about it or was too cool to get emotionally involved in it. That’s the merit of Sleepaway Camp and The Room–messy wrecks though they are, they have the strength and weirdness of real passion, that makes them good in the way that something like Sharknado, constantly winking at the audience did you get it did you get my joke do you get that this is a bad movie, can’t be, even though it’s technically more competent.

  • Son of Griff

    To expand on @disqus_wallflower:disqus’s second point, If a great work of art is going to hang around, it must provide a certain relevance to how you personally evolve. The filmmaker’s I love, particularly Kubrick and Hitchcock, create the illusion that they possess an uncanny ability to reveal new aspects of their personality in light of ever changing perspectives that I’ve acquired over the years on film and life in general. Their best works change with you, appearing as though you are in conversation with them for the first time.

    This can also apply to some not very good works. In reviewing THE BREAKFAST CLUB here I discovered that elements of Hughes’ filmmaking process, and its relationship to genre history, resonated with me more than I had anticipated after a 30 plus year separation. The film is still ideologically problematic, but far more complex than I was able to appreciate when I was in my 20s.

  • Babalugats

    I’ve tried to get away from using good/bad in favor of describing a more specific reaction. The movie is fun, or insightful, or fast paced, or beautiful. I would like to be able to perfectly describe my experience with a movie in such a way that somebody with polar opposite taste could read it and agree completely. But usually I end up falling back into same general vagueness.

    I think it’s important to remember the context in which you’re discussing a film. If you want to see more movies that are good in the way Sleepaway Camp is good, I can recommend some, and if you want to see more movies that are good in the way LA Confidential is good, I can recommend some of those too. If we’re trying to guess if a director’s follow up is worth seeing, it helps to have a sense of how intentional the first film was. But beyond that, quality isn’t really the important thing. It doesn’t matter if the film was good or bad. It only matters if your experience with it was. It matters what you’ve taken away from it.

    • The Ploughman

      I think it was you and I (or maybe @pico) that had the conversation about bad one-word reviews from friends. “Cute,” was the one in question that day, in a category that includes “weird” and to a lesser degree “interesting.” I’m somewhat interested in “good” or “bad” but I’m way more interested in why those things. I think it’s good practice for discourse on (supposedly) “serious” issues in the world. Rather than checking if somebody lines up on the right side, be able to ask (and answer) why?

      Of course, there are limits to this as @Julius Kassendorf:disqus points out.

      • pico

        Not me, but I agree!

  • pico

    So one of the reasons I have an instinctive reaction against “what makes something good/bad” arguments is that they’re so often historical/contextual: that is, the things we recognize as universal goods or bads don’t seem to hold up in other periods and contexts, but we project outwardly from our own as if these are universals. A good example of this is how, as 18th century readers, we’d all know Sterne as the author of one masterpiece (A Sentimental Journey) and one failed lark (Tristram Shandy), and it took a few generations for the pendulum to swing on that completely. Or how the virtues that sustained Antigone through generations of classical admirers are not the virtues that sustain Antigone through generations of contemporary readers. Or how creators of various canons ignore or devalue works by non-Western creators for “lacking” what they assume must be universal qualities, failing to consider that those works were incubated and received under different expectations.

    Now, it may be true that the modern era, particularly in the internet age, is better prepared to dip into a whole history of aesthetic preferences and pick-and-choose and draw broader conclusions in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to as 18th century readers, for example. But what will the next generation after us say, or a few generations after that? Will they look back at us and say “Of course [something we in 2018 consider a masterpiece] didn’t last, because it lacked the central virtue of Great Art, which is [something we in 2018 hadn’t considered or don’t consider a necessary quality],” and look on us with condescending pity (which I’m sure they will anyway, but for other reasons).

    Of course, the challenge here is not falling into total relativism: can we imagine a context in which we collectively ditch Willy Shakespeare for, I dunno, the collected works of Uwe Boll? And even if a context somehow develops where that’s the case, might we consider that context itself wrong? (I’d vote yes, but who makes that call?) I don’t have any good answers here. I used the word “alchemy” yesterday to describe that ineffable something when a piece seems to “work” in ways that others don’t, but I also said that’s a critical cheat, because it means not having to pin down the qualities that make it so. I have no idea where to go from there. And I think that gray muddle is the space where Art thrives, because it has the opportunity to challenge our expectations.*

    (* And look, here we go again: there are whole aesthetic contexts in which “challenging expectations” is not a virtue, like in medieval or popular art, where the virtue may be meeting existing expectations in the purest or most ideal way, and unconventional art is chucked into the wastebin for future generations to rescue and reinterpret.)

    • NAILED IT. My problem with any kind of social criticism is that there are a lot of societies, and they keep changing; if you’re with it, they’ll change what “it” is, and then what “it” is will be strange and confusing to you. The one thing I can trust and explore is my own reaction, and I should be as merciless in exploring that as the art I love. To steal Elliott Carter’s line, I find that keeps me busy enough.

      On that second paragraph: have you read Glenn Gould’s essay “Strauss and the Electronic Future”? It was one of his really prescient essays about technology: Gould noted that Richard Strauss was a composer who didn’t get his due because he didn’t fit into the historical progression, and he felt that Strauss would be better appreciated in a time like ours, when the works of all periods were equally accessible.

      • pico

        I haven’t, but I’ll go dig it up: thanks!

        Two things drove me to this. The first was all the times someone would say Great Art Requires X, and then I’d do a mental catalog of all the art I loved that most emphatically did not do X. Books without strong characters! Movies without clear points of view! Music that made no effort to connect with me! I found I was doing this a lot, which might be a consequence of, as Miller says in Repo Man, being “into weirdness”. I like some weird stuff. I particularly like stuff that challenges my notions of what I’m supposed to like and respect. (Which, in itself, is a function of living in a modern/post-modern context.)

        The second was a deep-dive into pre-19th century art and aesthetics (not by choice, but by grad school curriculum) and the challenge of completely reassessing what I thought I understood about the development of modern ideas about Great Art. The usual rules don’t apply, and it’s hard to navigate (instinctively, I mean. It’s an easy thing to “learn” intellectual, but not to feel.)

        Consequence of that is that I’m frequently unmoored and can’t contribute anything positive: all my half-baked ideas are negative, like how you can’t say x, y, or z about Art.

        • “Great Art Requires X” helps in several ways, just as long as we understand that none of them are yes/no decisions. It’s the old idea that there’s a difference between breaking a rule to a work’s profit and simply following the rule badly. (Creators who don’t bother to learn the rules often think they’re doing the former and wind up doing the latter.) If you’re gonna follow the rules, know why they’re there and learn the discipline (The Shield); if you’re going to break them, then you need to have a new set of rules in place to follow (Elliott Carter, John Cage).

          • pico

            I think my only minor disagreement is that “rule” here is more of a “contemporary and culturally accepted norm”, which is why following them is helpful, not following them can cause problems, and breaking them purposefully isn’t really a transgression. But otherwise, yeah, and those are good examples.

  • The Ploughman

    So many great answers to spend time on here, I’ll just quickly say the two things that I’m coming to define as the only consistently necessary qualities for a good movie are 1) a point of view and 2) thematic consistency.

  • The Voice of A Gnu Generation

    To your last question, “can we find virtue in even the shittiest of books and films, according to our own metrics?” the answer is yes.

    The term “guilty pleasure” is thrown around, but I think you shouldn’t feel guilty about liking something (unless it involves peanut butter and a dog) even if very few other people like that thing too. If it made you feel some emotion, whether it be joy, anger, fear, etc. than that work of art made a connection, which is what I think we’re all looking for when we watch a movie, or read a book or listen to an album.