Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Standards

While looking through Netflix recently, I looked at some of the movies the site recommended. One of the recommendations was The Deer Hunter. I remember liking it a lot when I saw it my freshman year in college, but I really can't be sure any more if I would still like the movies I liked back then. For instance, I really liked Rain Man when it came out, but when I saw clips recently, I was shocked at how much the movie didn't stand the test of time. It was ham-fisted and sentimental.

I guess this change in my tastes is a good thing. I don't believe 36-year-olds like me should like all the same movies we liked when we were teenagers. When we watched a stupid movie, we didn't have the experience to say, "I've seen this story a thousand times." With experience comes better taste. Here is an analogy.

If I saw a gymnast perform on the uneven bars, and I was asked to give her a score, I would give her a ten. I have no idea what to look for, and the routine looks hard, so I'll reward her with that ten. What do I know? Then, let's say the next gymnast performs and does a worse job than the first. I give her a...7. Sure, whatever. Then, let's say the third gymnast performs and blows both of the previous two out of the water. I look back and realize I shouldn't have given the first gymnast a 10. Experience has given me two things: 1) more information to use for judging; 2) more information that sheds light on previous judgments. Then, imagine how refined my scoring system would be if I saw thousands of routines over the ensuing years. I would have a great deal of information with which to make judgments, and I would be able to make distinctions that few people can make.

This is how life should be. For instance, once you have seen "When Harry Met Sally," you should look back and realize that all the previous chick flicks you saw were pretty lame compared to this one, and that most of the ones you will see will also probably pale in comparison. This is what art appreciation is, and this is what great critics do.

Criticism has gotten a bad rap recently. It is often a badge of pride for people to loudly proclaim that they ignore movie critics, or that they like all the movies the critics hate. This seems to me to be not only a form of anti-intellectualism (the same impulse that made us call the "A" students "nerds"), but it also robs people of the pleasure of art.

Criticism's goal is not to have logic trump what we like. Great criticism weds the head and the heart. Its aim is not to denigrate art, its aim is to help us "love wisely what we before loved well," as Margaret Fuller put it.

According to critic Alfred Kazin, to appreciate art on should begin "by noticing his intuitive reactions and building up from them." Another illustration of the equation [Reaction + Thought = Art appreciation] came from possibly the greatest movie critic of all time, Pauline Kael, who said that "the only...intelligent way to experience movies was to combine one's deepest emotional reactions...with a probing analysis of them." She added that the best movie critic was the person "who is aware of what is well done and what badly done in a movie, who can accept some things in it and reject others, who uses all his senses in reacting, not just his emotional vulnerabilities." That may be the best defense of criticism I have seen. We should all be critics, taking our first reaction and thinking about it, molding it as we consider and gain new information, possibly rejecting our initial, visceral reaction after thinking about it for a while. Isn't that the aim of great art, to provoke consideration of the deeper things in life? In the end, too, criticism IS art appreciation, and both of them, at their core, are really about having standards.

That's one reason I love American Idol, especially the first few weeks of each round. The terrible singers who audition have rarely if ever been told how terrible they are. My assumption is that friends, relatives, or lovers don't have the courage to say, "Honey, though you may have many other talents, you don't have the talent for singing." So this person goes through life believing he/she is wonderful. Then, American Idol performs a valuable public service by telling these people that the world has standards and you aren't meeting them. Idol is the perfect antidote to a world that tells everyone they're special, and that we all can be anyone we want to be.


We should always be growing, always be gathering information about the world and our place in it, and we should be adjusting our world view accordingly. One of the signs that we are still growing is the ability to look back at something we liked when we were younger and say, "What was I thinking?" We do that all the time with fashion--we see a picture of ourselves, with our Flock of Seagulls hairdos or parachute pants and, rightly, blush. We sometimes even do that with politicians and political parties--can we officially now count on one hand the number of people who are still staunch Bush/Republican supporters?

Thus, being rational, we grow up, we change, we gather new information and we come to a new decision. This is called being an adult, a human being. Then why is this considered waffling when a politician does it? I would find it refreshing if a pol could say, "I have looked at new information, I have had the benefit of X years of experience, and I can now say I was wrong."

We all could benefit from saying something like this more often.

1 comment:

MC said...

I totally agree with your post. For me, I think it is my sense of humor that has changed the most. The movies that I thought were funny, seem abysmal to me and it's expected that the things that made a 15 old boy laugh don't make a 38 year old laugh.

But, RE: The Deer Hunter, I haven't seen it in a while either, but more recently than you (lets say within the last 10 years) and it held up pretty well, great acting and a compelling story. However, the same cannot be said of Porky's or Goin' South. I recently saw Pretty In Pink, and it's much worse than I remember, a bit cloying and sentimental-but it still has a great soundtrack.