There’s a Neil Gaiman quote that gets passed around in which he exhorts the reader to make good art. What I’ve been thinking lately is that the word ‘good’ needs to be stripped out of there. The first thing is that the meaning of the word ‘good’ will ebb and flow for an individual over their entire lifetime, let alone for an entire group of people, let alone for the entire world. Secondly, I’ve enjoyed too much art that was incompetently made, or tasteless, or was outsider art, or was corporate-mandated art. In my “Garbage In, Diamonds Out” article, beloved Soluter Jroberts548 remarked that even bad movies tend to have a performance or a setting or a prop or theme or mood or something worthwhile, and he’s right. Just because something isn’t good today doesn’t mean it won’t be good tomorrow, even if in a revised format. Perhaps the bad art you’re making today is merely the rough draft for a better work down the road; perhaps people just aren’t ready for it yet, but their kids are gonna love it. The creation of art is a net positive that adds something wonderful to the world. Even my scourge, the MCU, has moments and ideas and shots that are interesting.
What really challenges this view for me is the filmography of Coleman Francis and the music of John Hinckley Jr.
Coleman Francis is an independent filmmaker who died in obscurity in 1977 and would have stayed there had his work not been rediscovered and revived by Mystery Science Theater 3000. His films are notable not just for being incompetent and cheap, but in a very idiosyncratic way. He rarely uses establishing shots, his films rely heavily on narration that has a very odd, very simplistic sentence structure (“Flag on the moon. How did it get there?”), and his stories have an incredibly bleak tone to them in which people commit and receive horrible, pointless violence. What puzzles me is that many individual elements of his films strongly resemble elements of my faves. The banal, inhuman conversations between his characters reminds me of the awkward dialogue in the works of David Lynch, with the infamous obsession with coffee very obviously drawing comparisons with Twin Peaks. The bleak atmosphere makes me think of both the violence of Sam Peckinpah and the antinatalism of Thomas Ligotti. What really bakes my noodle is how much the bizarre, frequently mocked dialogue and narration reminds me of Bob Dylan lyrics. He has a lot of turns of phrase that are weird but actually sound kind of cool; Red Zone Cuba ends with a narrator suddenly appearing to say “Griffin. Ran all the way to hell with a penny and a broken cigarette.” (“And he just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette.”).
Obviously the big thing that separates Francis from these artists is craft. He doesn’t take a measure of control over his films and he doesn’t actively accede control either (I think of Martin Scorsese allowing Ray Liotta to come up with the “Copacabana” shot in Goodfellas as an example of what I mean). The climactic shot of The Beast of Yucca Flats came about because a rabbit came on the set and Tor Johnson petted it, and it doesn’t really add to the theme or emotion of the movie. It’s strange to me that this is what makes people treat these movies as war crimes committed by a diseased mind – Kevin Murphy of MST3k compares Francis’s worldview as presented in these movies to the serial killer David Berkowitz. If he’d committed to making thrillers, people would consider his views quirky; ironically, if he’d committed to making horror movies, we’d probably not remember him at all – I suspect that, much like other infamous American director Ed Wood, he simply had the bad luck not to find a film community that would appreciate his particular views and interests and encourage them, developing his skills via osmosis and feedback.
But does that really make Coleman Francis and his output evil? The films do have the distinction of creating great art via three classic MST3k episodes. It feels cheeky to say that a movie justifies its existence by being so bad that it creates great jokes at its expense, but it’s also true, and I’ve enjoyed mocking too many bad or mediocre movies and shows to act like I’m above that. I’m also fascinated by them in themselves for being a presentation of a depressed man’s worldview. One of the things that puts me off comparing Francis to a serial killer is that, by all accounts, he never used violence on anyone other than himself; I sympathise with someone clearly suffering terribly with none of the tools I have today to relieve the pressure. The inane obsessions with simple sensations as a way of connecting to other people, the lack of any real cause-and-effect, the casual violence, and even the nonsensical narration; I recognise all these as patterns of a chemical imbalance in the brain and no ability to make sense of them. It’s not artful, but I can’t bring myself to call it evil.
Conversely, I am deeply unsettled by the work of John Hinckley Jr. After being released from prison and allowed access to computers and the internet, Hinckley has been steadily recording music, eventually releasing some original music with a full band. What strikes me about the music is how banal it is. I read that Hinckley was a failed poet and musician before he got the idea that Jodie Foster might be impressed by him shooting Ronald Reagan, and listening to the music he’s had thirty-odd years of free time to develop, I think I can see why. Its one strength is the same as its many weaknesses – it sounds exactly like every other country song from before 1970. If this appeals, it’s because they don’t really record music like this anymore; my favourite part of Hinckley’s sound is his reedy, nasally voice that hasn’t been completely varnished of any individual character by industry standards or good taste. Otherwise, the songs are composed of many cliches that don’t bring themselves together into an interesting gestalt. The fact that Hinckley stalked a teenage girl and killed one guy in the process of shooting several isn’t an overriding factor here, but it does make me think “Is this good enough for me not to care that he committed horrible crimes?” to which the answer is “no”.
The creation of art is a morally good act because it brings a spark of divinity in the world. It doesn’t undo evil things a person does – John Lennon is still a wifebeating scumbag – but it does definitively add something. These works challenge me because the question of what they add, if anything, is difficult to see. The most common argument for censorship is that there are certain works of art which add evil into the world; at its most extreme, this is people wanting to force their taste on the world, let alone their personal sense of right and wrong. Gun to my head, I couldn’t say that the body of work of either man is bad enough in itself to demand censorship, but at the same time, neither is good enough to demand elevation either. I suppose this implies a work needs a certain amount of divinity to be considered worth it?