Okay, so I’ll admit that I have a friend whose taste in movies I tend to side-eye a bit. He manages to be the only person I know who both knows as much about movies as I do and shows interest in Alec Baldwin-as-Trump-as-Thomas Wayne. That said, I push that down and try to Let People Like Things, because I’ve always tried to live up to the old Dissolve mission statement that there is no High and Low Art, and that no artform is inherently superior to another. Which is not to say that I don’t think movies can just be bad, mind you, but it means I try not to dismiss anything as not as good as something else just because of what it is and what it’s trying to be.
The problem may in part be that we view art as inherently frivolous in the first place. It isn’t, mind you. Art serves a lot of purposes and always has. It’s Roger’s Empathy Machine. It’s a tool of extelligence, a term coined by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen to mean all the Stuff we use to pass down our knowledge of how the world works and how to get by in it. They also refer to it as part of the “make-a-human kit,” and it’s that, too. (Actually, The Science of Discworld II: The Globe has quite a lot to say about the importance of art in making humans human and also has an entertaining Discworld story woven into it.) We need art, and we’ve made art for tens of thousands of years, but we have a hard time justifying that need to ourselves. Art isn’t as immediately obvious in its importance as, say, hammers.
So we rank our art. If we must have art, well, obviously the important art is the important art—it’s recursive like that. It’s the stuff you have to work at. Not the stuff that’s for everyone; if it’s for everyone, how important can it be? Which, I don’t think I have to explain, is awfully elitist. The stuff that an average person uses to unwind after a hard day of needed work is all very well in its place, but it just isn’t as valuable as a fifty-year-old French movie about a donkey.
Mind you, I like Au Hasard Balthazar. But you see, I saw it because Roger Ebert suggested I ought. And Roger himself was a champion of “low art.” I once read someone complaining that Werner Herzog had sullied himself by dedicating Encounters at the End of the World to Roger, presumably, the person said, because Werner was trying to suck up to American audiences in some way. (Obviously, this was not a person who knew much about Werner.) And had it patiently explained to them that Roger had been Werner’s American champion since the ’70s. Because yes, Werner and Russ Meyer and Ava DuVernay and Zhang Yimou and all sorts of other people were all championed by Roger so long as he liked their movies.
And Bergman. And I’ll tell you something about Bergman, his Sommaren mid Monika is apparently supposed to have jump started the Swedish soft core porn industry. Smiles of a Summer Night is a sex farce, and it was made just two years before The Seventh Seal—which is itself funnier than people realize. Honestly, Thor wouldn’t be too terribly out of place in Bergman’s repertoire. A young man has a hard time dealing with the expectations of his father, so he goes to a small town and falls in love. There is a wise elder and a wisecracking “servant.” And, okay, a magic hammer. But that isn’t too far afield from some of his other films, really; a few were tinged with fantasy.
Is Logan as valuable as the work of Ozu? The only correct answer is “Who cares?” Because it doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter. No one is asking you to choose. If you’re in the mood for Floating Weeds, watch Floating Weeds. If you’re in the mood for Logan, watch Logan. You can, I think, see the influences of classic film on Logan, and certainly you can discuss what those specific films are. (I suspect that Shane might be one of them, you guys.) But it’s not as though everyone’s list is going to be the same, and it’s not as though everyone list is the same every time. I have never in my life done a top-ten list, because it wouldn’t be the same the next time I did it. It’s all a matter of mood from one minute to the next.
Because of my irritation on the subject, I’ve been compared to Elon Musk fanboys. I’ve been told that I am needlessly defending billion-dollar corporations. (Both of these from Tom Cruise apologists, I’m pretty sure, too.) Certainly I’ve been told that I’m incapable of seeing the flaws in superhero movies and that I grade them on a curve.
I will note, then, that I have not yet given any superhero movie a perfect score on my Letterboxd account; Black Panther got the highest, marked down in part because I’m tired of Daddy Issues and in part because I thought the fight scenes went on a bit too long, cool as they often were. Yeah, I probably rank superhero movies a bit higher than other people do—because I like superhero movies. Just like I probably rank horror movies a bit lower than a lot of my friends do, because I don’t like horror movies. It’s not grading on a curve. It’s having personal preferences. Which I am allowed to do.
It is also true that “four and a half stars” is not anything more than “this is how I felt about this movie in the moment I watched it.” Can I say that Vertigo and Galaxy Quest and Stonewall Uprising are all of the exact quality level? No. Frankly, I’m not sure why I voted Boyhood that high, because I don’t really remember liking it all that much. Maybe I was trying to balance out the fact that I’ve never really liked Ethan Hawke.
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