Quality vs Preference

Well I never!

Let me just say I am aghast, no, several ghasts at so many of your treasonous cinematic ways.

It’s like that time a few years ago when I played that April Fools joke where I shamefully admitted to having promoted Crocs in exchange for cash and prizes (do I LOOK like a mommieblogger? Do I talk about gluten-free cupcakes, knitting or fabric with owls on them? No, I do not.) and a whole bunch of people were calling for my head, offering themselves as my editorial replacement.

Treacherous harpies.

Of course there are classic films I don’t enjoy.

I adore Vivien Leigh but I’d be fine without sitting through another viewing of Gone with the Wind, and although I won’t say neither love nor money could make me sit through Lawrence of Arabia again, it would take large quantities of both to get me to watch Omar Sharif ride in from the horizon on his camel, no matter how cinematically important that scene remains.


(like this, but for about five minutes)

These are not bad films.

It’s the rare piece of pop culture that stays relevant 50 years (as in the case of Lawrence of Arabia, released in 1962) or nearly 75 years.

It’s amazing so many of them still are.

1939 brought us GwtW, The Wizard of Oz, Of Mice and Men, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, The Women, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Gunga Din, Stagecoach and a whole bunch of other classics that lend credence to the idea that it’s been all downhill in tinseltown since the clock struck 1940.

Ideals, tastes and conventions, not to mention technology, have changed dramatically since Greta giggled, so it’s important to appreciate film (or music or, I don’t know, body shape) on their own merits and not how well they compare to modern tastes, no matter how deeply or subtly engrained those tastes are.

Take, for example, the top musical hits from the same year.

You’ve got plenty of Glenn Miller, Bessie Smith singing “God Bless America”, a doubtlessly timeless ditty called “The Adventures of Piccolo Pete” and a personal favorite of mine, “Little Brown Jug” (it is a Plumcake family tradition to bounce wee children on one’s knees and sing Little Brown Jug, dipping them dramatically during the “we fell in!” line).

You can’t really fault Glenn Miller or Bessie Smith even if they’re not your preferred genres, but for my imaginary money, the only song that sounds as fresh and painful today as it must have then is Billie Holiday’s haunting “Strange Fruit”.

It reminds me of a brutal breakup when I was 26.

Uh, the over-easy rejection of classic films, not the horrifying epidemic of lynching of the thirties and forties, although I once had to gently tell my sweet but occasionally oblivious voice teacher that even though he was doing an all Billie Holiday tribute, as a middle-aged white man from East Texas with a twang thicker than day old grits, he didn’t exactly have the cultural pedigree to get away with singing that particular song.

Anyhoodle.

Back when I was 26, my long-term fella dumped me HARD for an East German amnesiac who couldn’t remember her name.

I’m not EVEN making that up.

Although he’d always been all about my big girl body, and his new strudel had all the svelte daintiness normally associated with a brain-damaged East German shot-put champion (I’m just guessing about the shot-put part, but the rest is dead on) he told me

“Just because you don’t hate your size doesn’t mean your size is okay.”

I was, for one of the very few times in my life, speechless. How could someone so smart be so wrong wrong wrongitty wrong?

It was then I realized –because I’m not very bright and hadn’t figured it out sooner– that some people really did decide on a person or object’s value and virtue based on whether they liked it or not.

What a crippling way to live.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t empirically rotten films or people out there, and there’s a whole conversation to be led by someone much more erudite than I about the joys of good taste and whether the enjoyment of quality craftsmanship is better or purer than the pleasure derived from “ooh, shiny thing go boom!” and whether, from a pleasure aspect, having good taste is more of a blessing or a curse.

Oh, and the next person who dares to say The Searchers is a bad film, when it is fairly and universally acknowledged as one of the best American films ever made, gets a one way trip to the woodshed behind Villa Plumcake and will be treated to a lengthy lecture on its cultural import, visual beauty and merciless examination of racism and the attitudes about Native American genocide. You don’t have to like it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not great.

14 Responses to “Quality vs Preference”

  1. AnthroK8 March 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    I… I… He said that? What a hateful thing to say to a person. (Also, do I smell rationalization of some kind going on there, or is that guy really and truly that irredeemable?)

    Taste is a funny thing. I am kind of a fan of the era/location in which Lawrence of Arabia is set, history and culture speaking-wise. But I also can do without the culturally and cinematically significant movie, too. For it is slooooow.

    But I really like the also quite slow The Third Man. (Plinka plinka pliiiink, a-plinka plink… I never knew Vienna before the war…

    And I could happily watch a slide show of all the pretty-pretty things in Cleopatra, but not so much the movie itself.

    Speaking of which, did you see this article?

    http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/lost-hollywood-jewelry-trove-uncovered/
    Love of old movies is funny that way.

  2. AnthroK8 March 12, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    PS!!!! I also love The Searchers. So good.

  3. Violet March 12, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    Thank you for the ‘Strange Fruit’ clip again. After the first time, I save it to hear only when I am alone and not have to explain goosebumps.

    I often get confused between ‘Quality’ and ‘Preference’ in terms of art. Because I have been thinking about it in terms of paintings for a long while. Is great art something that evokes a feeling in you and connects to you emotionally, or something that is technically brilliant and imaginative, but lack emotional appeal?

    Shouldn’t something ‘classic’ (in the sense ‘enduring’) be able to do both across the ages?

    Of course, there should be a qualifier on ‘you’ since we are all products of our conditioning.

  4. harri p. March 12, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    I don’t need to sit through “A Clockwork Orange” again, but no one can deny it’s a great movie. I do love 2001 and will see it over and over.

    >>>I often get confused between ‘Quality’ and ‘Preference’ in terms of art. Because I have been thinking about it in terms of paintings for a long while. Is great art something that evokes a feeling in you and connects to you emotionally, or something that is technically brilliant and imaginative, but lack emotional appeal?

    It depends. Are you educated and intelligent enough to appreciate great art? I was just reading about people’s comfort reading the other day, and someone mentioned that theirs was Jennifer Crusie, and I thought to myself, “Dummy.” Because once you’ve experienced enough greatness, trash doesn’t engage you on any level.

  5. Lisa from SoCal March 12, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    I’m halfway tempted to say I hated the Searchers just to see if I couldn’t get Plumcake to give her lecture because I’m interested in what she’d say. Unfortunately, it’s a great film and I can’t be THAT disingenuous.

    Myself, I don’t really need to see Blue Velvet again. Ditto La Strada.

  6. Lisa from SoCal March 12, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Or a Clockwork Orange. Ech.

  7. wildflower March 12, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    Wow. My jaw literally fell open at your quote. I hope you said something along the lines of, “Just because you don’t hate your stupidity doesn’t mean your stupidity is okay.” Or “dimwittedness” or “complete and utter cluelessness” or “outright meanness”.

    Jeezus! I want to slap that dude!

  8. Ellen W. March 12, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    I get what you all mean about quality vs. preference (which I usually think of as “enjoyment”). I am very, very sensitive. I *feel* whatever is going on onscreen. Which means that sometimes, the better the movie is the less I’m able to enjoy it. If I watch a tragic movie it’ll depress me for days. Not just sad, like Shadowlands is sad, tragic like Stalingrad tragic. So, no Doctor Zhivago for me.

    Secondly, harri P. by definition “comfort” items are not specifically about expanding your mind or straining your body. Highly intelligent people can, and do, enjoy a breadth of experiences. It’s like saying that apple slices with peanut butter is less worthy of being eaten than a challenging piece of sashimi because it is so very childish and pedestrian.

  9. Debs March 12, 2012 at 11:32 pm #

    Yes, I feel the pain too. So I’ve seen “Clockwork Orange,” and “Zulu” and “Bridge on the River Kwai” and don’t want to again. I agree that we should recognize and appreciate “art’ even if it is not enjoyable. That’s why I’ve dragged my poor Hubby to the Impressionists and Picasso etc. at the San Francisco art museums even though he doesn’t like them.

    That said, I don’t need to re-see Orson Welles or Ingmar Bergman. I’ll take entertainment value. I still can’t get through “The Master and Margarita.”

  10. Liz March 13, 2012 at 3:19 am #

    I can see your point, but you can’t detach “quality” from “whether or not people actually enjoy it”. The whole point of making a film is that people will enjoy watching it.

    There really is no other point to the exercise. I have to ask, though: who decides what is and is not a great film, if not personal preferences?

  11. Lisa from SoCal March 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Ah, Liz, what a question! What a question! Movies run the gamut from art to entertainment, like most things. A great movie, just like a great book, can tell us something true about ourselves–the conditions of humanity–and it can do so in a way that is immensely, painfully beautiful. Film classes, just like literature classes, if they are taught, well can help you recognize the different aspects of film that really bring them up a notch. But you needn’t take a class–watching a critical mass of great movies, paying attention–all those things will help you begin to notice the differences between films that have a lot to say (and that say so beautifully) from those that are simple entertainment. Storytelling has many functions other than to entertain. But it helps in these discussions if you can parse the different components of movie-making from story to script to art to costumes to cinematography.

    Unlike harri p, I don’t mind dipping into light entertainment. For me it’s like food. There’s junk food and good food. The point is to know the difference. I read a Jennifer Cruise book, and it was fine. Blew a Sunday afternoon on it; the prose wasn’t half bad, and terrible prose writing is what turns me off for popular books. A light story won’t. Love me some Elvis movies. Does a movie have a guy in a big, foam-rubber suit in it? Mothra? Totally on it.

    The many aspects of storytelling and movie production in this discussion rather highlight how movies can be great in one aspect and weak in another aspect at the same time. 2001 is a prime example of a rather weak story that is, simply, beautifully shot. It’s a feast for eyes, and it’s a bit like going to a museum to look at paintings. And that’s one reason why it’s so slow. My husband wanted to rent it and I discouraged him; instead, a screening of the 72 mm was being held up in Hollywood on the big screen, and after seeing it there, he “got” why it’s a big deal. That’s how that movie wants to be seen–not on your TV screen in the living room. Lawrence of Arabia is similar (David Lean and Kubrick are both a particular type of director.)

    Movies are difficult for empathetic people, and the better the movie is, the more emotionally wrenching it can be.

  12. Thea March 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    @AnthroK8 – Thank you so much for the link to the Hollywood Jewelry article. I may have to start a fantasy jewelry league, or plan a heist.

    Re: classics, Can’t take anything by Kurosawa – I know “The Seven Samarai” inspired “The Magnificent Seven” but his stuff just doesn’t inspire me.

  13. ChloeMireille March 13, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    Lisa from SoCal made an amazing point in her third paragraph. Some movies are great because they are a feast for the eyes rather than the brain. That’s why James Cameron did so well with Titanic and Avatar. Both were obscenely thin on plot, but damn if they weren’t pretty to look at.

  14. Lisa from SoCal March 14, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    If you do want to start parsing movies and noticing how their little bits combine into a much greater whole, the Criterion Collection has a feature called “Currents” which explains why they choose the movies they choose for inclusion into their collection: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts