Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Gain from Crap

I still haven't seen Black Swan or True Grit, The Fighter, or --- well, I can't even remember the last non-idiotic film I caught in a movie theater -- but I did watch, at my son's insistence, Gulliver's Travels today. Sigh.

"Irredeemable piece of shit" might be slightly too severe, but Gulliver's Travels was terrible on every level, and while I have no great love for his work, it's best that Jonathan Swift is dead since it means he doesn't have to watch the title of his famous satire abused in this fashion. Before today I would have scoffed at the idea that something could make me want to stop seeing Emily Blunt on a screen, but these 90 minutes showed how easy it is.

I have lost track of what, if anything, gave someone the impression that Jack Black creates funny or otherwise appealing film characters. Jack Black is the new Mike Myers, although with Myers, it's at least possible to cite moments here and there before he was something other than tedious.

But the news isn't all good. There is something to be gained from even the most wretched works of art, and a question posed by Norm Geras concerning the value of the humanities* brings it to the fore, albeit indirectly:

[S]uppose someone says that from reading Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, he or she learned something useful which they then applied to their own marriage(s), that by reading Philip Roth they were helped in thinking about the prospect of death, that after reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy they found it easier to cope with a cruelty they had suffered personally; whereas someone else professes to have had no help at all from reading assorted novels by Anne Tyler, George Eliot, William Maxwell and Anita Brookner, whether in his marriage, or in raising his children, or in coping with her employer, or with a personal misdeed done against her, or with anything. Supposing all this, or some variant of it - are we then to say that the second someone's reading has been a total waste of time?
It won't (say I) be a waste of time if the second someone makes a good-faith effort to gain something from it, and if nothing else, to understand what the work was trying to do and exactly how it failed.

Just as someone might strain to extract meanings, lessons, or resonances from a great work of art, so too might we find valuable things to say about junk like Gulliver's Travels: how it departed from the original by draining it of satire and tacking on a conventional romantic comedy story arc; how it crammed in a few scenes meant to recreate Swift's Brobdingnag but serving only to put Jack Black in a diaper and a dress for a few thin, pointless scenes; how it reveals something deeply wrong with the times in which we live by, inter alia, having a flabby, boasting, cowardly plagiarist come to justice not by social ostracism or legal sanction, but by getting an interesting job and a beautiful girlfriend; and so on.

There are interesting and thoughtful things to say about crap -- whether anything in the above counts as interesting or thoughtful is for the reader to judge -- and these can contribute to the ability to discern it when it appears. This is valuable in a world in which crap keeps being forced into our view, and the study of the humanities makes it possible.

* Consider also this and this from Norm, and this from Martha Nussbaum.


OleDon said...

Just so you will know, your son is smarter than you. Good grief you sound like a New York rag critic! And if you always go to a movie to critique it, you definitely should stop going all together. You are missing the whole point of a movie. And as for the various comments and states of crap, you should be most intimate with, full of.

Dale said...

OleDon, I sincerely hope my son is far smarter than I am, and across all measures and dimensions of smart.

That said, no: Gulliver's Travels is shit, Jack Black is not nearly as funny as someone who keeps landing in the movies he keeps landing in, and while this may not be totally in line with what you're suggesting -- it's not clear -- I take this moment to note that this precious, precious blog proudly and unapologetically enforces Moff's Law.