O Taste And See

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-07-20 12:00:00 No comments

Matt B has a good insight (well, he has lots of them, this is just the most recent one):

The next time you are repulsed by something, whether it be a work of fiction, a television show, an advertisement, another person’s behavior, anything—immediately ask yourself why. Interrogate your own motivation for that repulsion and find out if you like your reasons for dislike or not. And do the same for any new thing that appears and you instantly decide you are interested in it. Set aside whatever association it has for you, just for a minute, and really interrogate the thing. Is it really that good?

Of all the debts I owe Roger Ebert, one of the greatest is in how he helped instill in me a sense of how to do exactly this. When he came up against something he liked in defiance of others, or even common sense, he went to some length to lay out why (e.g., the original Dawn Of The Dead; his praise of the film has been more than vindicated by time). When he wrinkled his nose, again sometimes in a contrary way (Blue Velvet), he also laid out why. That taught me how to use my own reactions to things as a way to understand what I was really responding to, and how to roll that forward into future experiences.

I know full well I like a lot of things that are dumb, or for which I could make a case but where it's easier to just let the thing remain as-is. I think the Fast & Furious movies are incredibly dumb, but I love every minute of them, in big part because they are also not mean-spirited, and because they are in their own pop-canvas way a kind of modern action-hero mythos. I'd never argue people should prefer them to something more highbrow, or for that matter argue the opposite. I see no reason why I can't let them sit side-by-side on my shelf with the likes of Kurosawa's RAN, in big part because I don't have remotely the same expectations or standards for them. Being as open as I can to every thing as a learning experience has made it easier to do that.

This doesn't mean good movies and bad movies don't exist, and it definitely doesn't mean good and bad creative examples to draw on also don't exist. Absolutely, they do. They just don't exist as some kind of total hierarchy where Shakespeare is at the top and F&F is at the bottom. (What has ever been the point of putting culture into a stack-ranked hierarchy anyway?) There are things we can only go to high culture to get, but the canon is not static either, and we let new things into it over time for good reasons: because we ourselves are changing.

The why of liking these things, again, has for me largely been about learning what I can from what each has to offer. I don't like F&F because all my friends do; if anything, I'm the outlier there. Very little of what I like has been enjoying the network effects of other people also liking it. Such things have been a convenient by-product, not why I get into stuff in the first place.

If I think about it, the reasons I like something tend to fall into one or more of these buckets:

  • It's about some subject I have an existing affinity for, but throws new light on it.
  • It is singular, or as close to singular as is possible.
  • It is uninhibited in its enthusiasm for its material.
  • It fulfills Karlheinz Stockhausen's famous dictum: "I demand two things from a composer: invention, and that he astonish me." (A perspective I may take with me to the end of all things.)

If I dislike something, it's generally because of these conditions:

  • It's boring -- not in the sense that it's slow-moving or "nothing happens", but in the sense that it makes nothing of significance or interest out of its material.
  • It offends my tastes in a transparently self-important way. I didn't enjoy Paolini's Salò, but I was never in doubt about the filmmaker's integrity, ugly as the final results of that integrity were. Most everything Quentin Tarantino has made makes me wanna flee the room -- not because his movies are violent or outwardly referential, but because they exist as nothing but records of the creator's boorish cleverness. There's no there there I can't get elsewhere, and without the cost of the man's ego getting in the way of everything.
  • It feels mean-spirited, again without reward or purpose.
  • It has nothing to offer me that I don't already have, or can't obtain elsewhere with less of an investment.
  • It exists as the product of rank cynicism with no attempt made to disguise or ameliorate that fact.
  • It embodies a worldview I find repellent. Not the same as being about such a worldview, with analytical remove and ironic distance, but the product of such a worldview.
  • It has great potential that it doesn't know how to realize, and so comes off as a waste of effort.

What I have to recognize, above all else, is how all these assessments come in a particular time and place. Many of the things I loved at the age of twenty I'm now indifferent to or actively repelled by, and many of the things that once left me cold now warm me far more than I thought possible. As we move, so does our vision.

* I owe Denise Levertov a debt for the title of this post.

Tags: aesthetics