Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cinematic Greatness

Russell Blackford's followed up his question about Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese with a more direct discussion of cinematic greatness and whether it is objective or subjective. His claim is that it is subjective, not objective. I have a problem with that. My response (awaiting moderation on Russell's blog) is more or less as follows:

There's a movie by Alejandro Jodorowsky called "El Topo." I don't much care for it, but I'm willing to say that it's a very good film--maybe not great, but very good. Yet, very few people have ever seen it, and I don't expect many would want to sit through it. I doubt many would like it. There's another Jodorowsky film that I absolutely love, and I think everybody should see, called "The Holy Mountain." This is a great film. One of the greatest. But I doubt most people would be able to sit through it. Few would like it.

If I reject that there's some objective sense of cinematic greatness, then how could I make sense of what I've written about Jodorowsky's films?

If I say that cinematic greatness is subjective, then how could I say a film I don't like, and which most people wouldn't like, is very good? Obviously I'm appealing to some standard which I adhere to, and yet which is not based on my tastes or anybody else's. So either I'm talking nonsense, or I'm appealing to an objective notion of greatness. If you say it's nonsense either way, then I think there's something wrong with your analysis. Because what I've said about Jodorowsky's films seems to make perfect sense, and I can even analyze it rationally.

I recognize artistic achievement in Jodorowsky's work. I recognize the vision, technique and effort that went into it. I recognize it's distinction as a work of art. Part of that distinction is that it is not easy to watch. It's not light entertainment. It's not conventional story-telling. It's not something most people want. But that's all intentional. Its success has nothing to do with how many people like it.

We can objectively define the success of a work of art in terms of intentions and results of the work. That's a plausible and objective way of approaching the topic. It doesn't mean people should like Jodorowsky. It doesn't even mean everybody should see it (though, as I said, I do think everybody should see "The Holy Mountain"). People interested in experimental cinematic technique and/or subversively religious symbolism should watch Jodorowsky. That's based on fact, it's the source of his greatness, and it doesn't mean anybody should actually like his work. Similarly, I think Allen's greater than Scorsese, but I wouldn't fault anybody for preferring Scorsese over Allen. Liking a director and recognizing their greatness are two different things.

What distinguishes artistic appreciation from, say, personal taste or moral judgments, is that it evaluates the work in terms of how well it brings about intended effects in its intended audience. With personal taste, we're just talking about how something affects us individually, and regardless of how it was intended to affect us. With moral judgments, we might be talking about how something affects our entire community, or the species, or all living beings, etc., and intended effects may or may not be relevant. Since art has intended effects for an intended audience, and we can speak objectively about these matters, we can evaluate the greatness of art in objective terms.