WHEN IS GOOD GREAT?

Posted: August 26, 2013 by mwerntz in Uncategorized

Kevin and I had this conversation a few weeks ago over text, and I’m just now getting around to writing it up. Not much has substantially changed, I don’t think, in that I haven’t seen any truly excellent films since then which would alter my thinking on this. Thanks, The Management.

What is it about a movie that makes it more than simply a technical work of art? What is it about a movie that lodges itself in your soul and mind that only happens for a select few films? This is truly one of the perennial arguments in art, namely, what makes a good piece of art great, and I doubt what I’m going to put forward here will resolve this. But, in terms of a 5 point ranking system–with 1 being a complete dog and 5 being the apex of film-dom—what makes a 5 a 5?

In a nutshell: any film can be a really good film; most films, if they hit all the notes right, can be at least a 4. Directors in the heart of their craft can hit an absolute home run on the technical side of things, with pacing, casting, sound, score, script, editing, acting, and so forth. There’s millions of details that go into the creation of an amazing film, of which having a good story is only one. Case in point: the distance between Casablanca and Johnny Dangerously is the distance between the Earth and the moon, for reasons compounded by the fact that Michael Keaton should never, ever, ever play a gangster–not even in a comedy. If it were simply the fact that the latter didn’t have the right screenwriter, or had Michael Keaton instead of Humphrey Bogart, that’d be fine enough. But then you’d have to explain to me how the recently released Paranoia managed to cast both Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman–two actors I would pay to watch wash dishes–and still get such terrible reviews.

No, acting is not enough. Having all the technical skills is not enough to go from good to great. Johnny Dangerously is a cheap shot, so let me take a little more controversial pick to make my point: Tree of Life. On all technical counts, Tree of Life is a masterpiece–the shot selection, the casting, the script, the cinematography. But when I showed this film to my students, the room broke in half between those who thought it was truly a great film, and those who appreciated the artistry, but could seriously care less. What is it about a film that enables it to simultaneously be recognized as a technical work of genius (a solid, recognizable 4), but yet for some, it breaks into that elusive 5 category?

I can think off-hand of maybe a handful of films that I’ve seen which qualify for this elusive “5” ranking. I’ve seen many “4”s, many really good films; this weekend’s The World’s End was a really good 4–solid script, great casting, funny, and Nick Frost in MMA-style action sequences. But whereas the 4s and 5s both share the same technical credibility (script, shot selection, etc.), the 5, I think, does something inside the viewer which can’t be accounted for by technical perfection. The 5 finds a way to lodge itself in your thinking and your fears and your loves so that you can’t think or fear or love without this film now and forever more being a part of your acting. When I read the Psalms now, I can’t read them without seeing Jessica Chastain weeping or washing clothes. When I consider future job prospects, I think of Brad Pitt’s piano sitting aimlessly in the corner, the witness to hard career choices.

This is what makes even discussing the difference between the good and the great both productive and frustrating: they have so much in common. The good and the great both travel the same lines of excellence, have marked the same seams of technical quality. But at some point, the great finds a way to not simply do something in front of the viewer (the good), but to do something inside of the viewer. And so, in the theater when I first saw Malick’s work, I saw in rapture after the credits rolled while the guy in front of me said “What was that?”

There’s no accounting for why this is. I can’t explain why this movie grabbed hold of me and throttled my imagination and sense of wonder, but did nothing for the row in front of me. The 5, while having some objective merits, is in some ways extremely subjective, in that its observable excellence did something ultimately beyond observation. What we as those who care about film is to listen to those who have encountered a 5 try to put it into words, that perhaps we too may see a 5 when all we saw before was excellence.

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