What Does It Mean to Say a Film Is Good?
THOUGHTS ON JUDGMENT
1. Is culture merely an attempt to keep us from thinking about our death? That’s the thesis of The Denial of Death, the book that Woody Allen is a big fan of in Manhattan. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the book’s hypothesis: “The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism.” Think about it. Aren’t most pop stories, whether told in film, video games, TV, music, about a hero’s fight to survive and overcome forces that want the hero dead? The hero almost always triumphs over death. If there is a death in the story, we only know it because we ourselves have survived to hear it. We survive, they don’t. Stories rarely leave us dwelling on the question of our mortality, wondering what it’s all about. Death in pop stories is usually something that happens to other people.
2. One of the most common things we say about a work of art is something like this: “Boy, is that good,” or conversely, “I can’t believe how bad it is.” Does anyone really know what “good” or “bad” in this context really means? Excellent! Awesome! First-rate! Superlative! etc. What the hell do any of these words really mean? We all know, right? We use them all the time. No one ever asks us, “Good? What does that mean?” Or, if someone did ask, unpleasant thoughts about the person would start swirling about in our heads. Or are we just pretending that we know what they mean? Perhaps this is why we also hear this so often: “I can’t believe you thought that X was good! Your taste is terrible!” Obviously, what Person X’s “good” is not necessarily Person Y’s “good.”
3. Therefore, my proposition is this: Let’s define “good” to mean a work of art, that is, a film, a book, a song, that keeps us from thinking about our death. So, when I say, “That film was excellent,” what I really mean is that while watching it the thought of my mortality did not cross my mind once. Now, no one will need to pretend that the word “good” means the same to everyone because it really will mean the same to everyone. Four stars? Thumbs up? Gotcha! I know exactly what you mean!
4. Of course, there are some who will differentiate between entertainment, which they will agree aims to deny death, and art, which they say falls under a different set of rules. However, there are far more people who do not make this distinction, and boxoffice results, for example, reflect this group’s evenhanded approach to movies. It would appear that my proposal has, in fact, already been adopted by the majority.