The Good

largew%20godfather%2021w.jpgI've been dealing lately with the larger issues that attend criticism, like why people see bad movies or why it's important to value honesty in stories. These posts are largely born of a desire to constantly wrestle with and come to an understanding of my relationship with quality in film, and what it means to wrestle with it, and what it means to want to wrestle with it, and so on. Basically, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I feel about how I feel. I do it because I respect the work, and the art. Just as examining the motives behind intentionally seeing a bad movie led me to think about what's worth seeing in the first place, thinking about what makes a film worthwhile (e.g. emotional and narrative honesty) led me to realize what I've known for years: There is such a thing as an objective good in art and film. I wrote a paper about the subject for a philosophy course in college, and my convictions have only grown stronger with time. To pretend otherwise is a disservice to myself, and and all readers, and the film itself. It's not at all wrong to respond to what moves you (keeping in mind, for now, that it's a good idea to think about what moves you and what you want to move you, etc.). A large part of art and film's appeal is the way it strikes an individual viewer. This is often tied to what's happening in the viewer's life at the time, whether it's an old man jarred to vivid recollection by a war film or a young woman moved to tears by a movie reflecting the inexpressible longing that comes with growing up. There is nothing at all wrong with these reactions, and everything right with them: Movies are weird because we view them in groups but react to them in our own ways, often reaching wildly different emotional outcomes than the people sitting next to us. And that's wonderful. But if left unchecked, the relativistic thinking that welcomes different reactions to a film from different viewers can replace the notion that films can actually be rightly called good or bad, and that's a dark road to walk. If your favorite movie is Son-in-Law and mine is The Godfather: Part II, you can reasonably be said to have forfeited your claim on intellectual rigor at the expense of following the basest instincts of your gut, refusing to ask what you respond to and why, and devaluing art for the sake of cheap reflex. There are endless shades of nuance to be had in spirited film debate, but there are certain definable points past which a person can be said to be wrong or right. And it has to be this way. Yes, a lot of movies are made to be disposable commercial products for their parent studios, but the artists involved are often doing their best to make a good work. And why? What does that even mean? Where does that effort come from, and more importantly, toward what is it striving? These men and women, these writers and directors and actors and everyone; they aren't just walking in front of a camera and reciting lines, or arbitrarily filming a scene and then stopping. They are working to create something honest and smart and emotive, something that strikes the heart in the best way. They are working to make art, and when they succeed, it's because they've created something identifiable as good, and not because the crowd dictates it but because the crowd recognizes in the art a reflection of the timeless aspects of goodness and quality that are in the best art. These creators labor to make something true, and when they do, it's something to see. How could anyone ever hope to argue that there is no ultimate ideal of goodness? How could anyone ever hope to ignore the work and beauty and balance in a great work of art? There is composition and framing and color and writing and speech and tone and bodies and movement and music and presentation and on and on, these aspects that have histories and rules that are never better than in those works that unite them all and create something so much greater than the sum of their shaking parts. Twain was wrong when he said that learning to pilot a steamboat diminished his awe of the Mississippi; to know what it takes to write a story, evoke an emotion with color — these are things that highlight and enhance the experience, give it life and wing. To study the depths of the river and begin to grasp its might, and to then learn how to navigate it? That's what it is to know magic and work art, and immersing yourself in those things is the only way to begin to appreciate what's before you. It's just movies, some people say. A lot of people say. And for those some, or lot, that's all they'll ever be. But these stories have creators, and the best of these stories reach for and realize moments of truth and power and quality, of overwhelming Goodness. To pretend they don't — or worse, to say it's all the same — is ignorance.