UCSB Philosophy Blog

Members of the UCSB Department of Philosophy and anyone else are welcome to talk philosophy with us. Bring your own brain.

Monday, April 17, 2006

3rd week from the sun

Hello, people of Earth. I'm back with another minor update. Tomorrow night, the Guerrilla Radio Show, our "seriously awesome" and "awesomely serious" philgrad-run philosophy radio show, will be in full effect discussing the Philosophy of Mind with UCSB's very own Dr. Aaron Zimmerman. Wednesday night at 8pm (contact Luke for more info) the Wittgenstein reading group will meet to discuss section 3 of the Tractatus, which is around 10 pages. I haven't been following the Aristotle group, so you'll have to check one of its standard contacts about that (see the department's activities page). By the way, if you're wondering about the department's other usual reading group, the Santa Barbarians... well, the group's fearless leader (Tony Anderson) is off teaching in the China, so it's on hiatus at the moment.
I've been getting busier each quarter, and it's tough to find time to think of something to say here. But there's a lot of stuff I've been thinking about, so next time I write up some notes about one of them crazy issues, I'll try to remember to post it up here.
But here's a quick question about aesthetics. For those of you who know the movie Roadhouse, it's quite an amazing movie, as pretty much every scene is packed with hilarity, preposterity, and actionacity. It's got more fun and interesting stuff in it than a good deal of movies that win Academy Awards. Here's the question: what's a perspicuous and non-crazy way of describing the sense in which Roadhouse is a good movie? A lot of people want to say that "it's a good bad movie", but this is retarded. It's not both good and bad, at least not in the same sense. And do we even care in this context about any sense in which it's bad? Why shouldn't we be able to give a purely positive characterization of what's good about it? If "bad movie" is an idiomatic non-evaluative expression for a certain kind of movie (i.e., it doesn't necessarily imply that a movie is bad), then what makes something that kind of movie, and what makes a movie of that kind a good movie of that kind? This seems like it should be an easy question, and it seems like we, as philosophers, should be able to figure it out, but I've been frustrated by how reticent a lot of philosophers are to even take the question seriously. So take this as a challenge: explain (in a general way, at least) the sense/way in which Roadhouse (or another such movie) is a good movie. Is it the same sense in which, e.g., Casablanca is good? If so, what else accounts for the difference between the cases? If it's a different sense, then what are the two senses, and what's the relation between the two kinds of good movies? I'm not looking for an ultimate answer here, I'd just like to hear someone's serious response.


  • At 8:34 AM, Blogger Steve Shaner said…

    Interesting observation, especially for me since I never even heard of the movie "roadhouse". I suspect there is no deterministic explanation, but possibly a probabilistic one. I realized this when I took a friend (nonromantic) to a movie that I considered one of the best I had ever seen (The Duellists). He thought it one of the worst he had ever seen. I then read reviews of it in the paper, and found the only two reviews available mirrored our two views (one hated it, one loved it). The box office vote was mixed, but most people who actually saw it liked it (although it wasn't promoted). Anyway, this seems like the common explanation of different strokes for different folks, but I think there is more to be inferred (or hypothesized). Not original either, but I think that aesthetic tastes, especially humor, are represented in humans by a roughly Gaussian distribution. Most people find similar things funny for instance, although there will always be plenty who don't get it at the tails of the distribution. Anyone's place in the distribution will vary depending on the topic, but there will always be a bulge around the average. Additionally, as far as movies like Roadhouse (I presume), there are many well done films that make interesting points well, creatively, interestingly, originally, or in some ways in an entertaining way, and yet the subject matter is not novel enough to be taken seriously. But they are entertaining, and thought provoking perhaps in the sense that they place already understood ideas in a context that is satisfying, or reinforces our convictions. I think a good example is the TV show "2 1/2 men", which is well written and executed, treats common subjects in an entertaining way, but can hardly be called serious or original in content. A lot of cliches that tell the truth as we see it (or for some anyway) in an entertaining way. Meaningless or silly to others who don't see reality that way. Wins points for comedy writing, but not for great insights into human nature. I suppose this doesn't answer your question in a very satisfying way, but its just my own ramblings on the matter.

  • At 11:55 AM, Blogger Luke Manning said…

    Thanks for the comment, Steve. You mentioned some stuff that I think is worth chewing on a bit (especially the stuff I mention at the end), and some stuff that I think is kind of irrelevant to the question. I don't doubt there is a wide (and perhaps "normal") distribution of opinions about almost any work of art, but that doesn't bear on any serious aesthetic views (e.g., "a movie is good if it is liked by everyone" is too naive a view to be taken seriously). You raise a couple of interesting points though. The first is about reviews. It's exceedingly rare that I can take a movie review at face value, because so few movie critics (amateur or professional) are reliably informative about the kinds of things I look for. So I don't feel like I can take the sheer numbers of positive and negative reviews into account when judging a movie. I guess this boils down to my view that there's more to aesthetic evaluation than gaging a brute psychological reaction in the viewer to a work. Specifically, I think people can be wrong in their evaluations, and not only by failing to adequately state what they felt.
    The second point is more relevant to my original question, and I'll quote you: "there are many well done films that make interesting points well, creatively, interestingly, originally, or in some ways in an entertaining way, and yet the subject matter is not novel enough to be taken seriously. But they are entertaining, and thought provoking perhaps in the sense that they place already understood ideas in a context that is satisfying, or reinforces our convictions."
    This is sort of what I wanted people to think about. What's good about the best of "low culture" (if we can call it that)? I tried not to bias things too much when I wrote the question, but Roadhouse (for those of you who haven't seen it) is a B-movie, with some pretty boneheaded dialogue, cheesy acting, implausible situations, etc. I don't know if (or how) those features of it contribute to our evaluation of it (as good, but quite different from, e.g., Casablanca), or if I've even adequately described *any* features of it. You gave some suggestions about particular features of a film that might contribute to our evaluation. On the good side, a film can make interesting points, and it can do this well, creatively, interestingly, or in a way that's original, entertaining, satisfying, or that reinforces our convictions; also, it may employ ideas we already understand. On the bad side, a film may not be novel enough to be taken seriously.
    Some of these good and bad points don't come to much, I think. To say that a film is interesting doesn't seem to say anything other than that it's good. To say that it's satisfying or entertaining suggest slightly more (to me), e.g., satisfaction involves some need on our part, and perhaps we could find some specific needs satisfied by a film; entertainment suggests occupation of our minds, not necessarily by something we would find good in more than a time-killing way.
    Some of the points apply to some but not all cases. Originality/novelty is often a characteristic of good works, but some of the best works in any artistic medium don't originate anything but simply perfect it. The recent Batman film (Batman Begins) was far less "original" than Tim Burton's Batman films (which were revisionary about a lot of things), but I think the fact that it did a better job of portraying what's cool about Batman makes it a better movie. That may not be the best example, but it should be pretty obvious that although originality is often part of a good work, it's not what *makes* it good. Something could just as easily be *bad* in an original way.
    I don't know what you (or anybody else) mean by "creativity", unless it's originality. And I don't think that the employment of ideas we already understand is a necessary condition for a good movie, unless the condition is so weak that it would be satisfied by any movie (e.g., we *understand* the words that the actors are using). If we set the threshold any higher than that, we're going to rule out films that take any effort to understand. But surely some of the best films don't pander to the audience, so a strong condition of understandability can't be necessary for a good film. Similarly for reinforcing our convictions: this may be one kind of satisfaction, but it's surely not going to be present in all cases, since many films are good in part because they question commonly-held beliefs. This criterion seems to conflict with "thought-provoking" (as does the previous one). So although there are probably cases where what's good about a film may be at least partly indicated by reference to its understandability or amenability to our ideology, this doesn't seem like a good criterion for what, in general, makes the best of low culture good (in a way different from the best of high culture).

    But you've got a few criteria I haven't yet mentioned that I think come closest to the mark, although they leave much to be said. You say a film can make interesting points well, or be thought-provoking. I take it that making interesting points and being thought-provoking are pretty much the same, so I'll discuss those first before analyzing "well". I'm not sure what you have in mind by saying that a film makes interesting points. If this means that some character explicitly draws a moral from the events of the film, then I don't see the value in that. If a film can "make a point" without explicitly stating it for the viewer, then the criterion is a little more plausible, but there are still a couple ways this could go. The more literal interpretation is that the film (or film-maker, or whatever) is really trying to express a view on some issue, and the film indicates that directly or indirectly. A more permissive interpretation allows that the film-makers might not have had a particular point in mind, but when we watch the film, it is "impressed on us" so as to provoke us to think about some issue. I find the former interpretation implausible as a general criterion, because I tend to think that the creator of a work of art needn't have explicit or easily expressible intentions for their work in order for it to be worthy of contemplation by the audience (since aesthetic appreciation is *not* simply "divining" the intentions of the artist). In other words, a film can be thought-provoking in ways the creators didn't intend. I think the second interpretation captures this possibility, and it does seem to be a genuine criterion of good works that they can be thought-provoking (though not necessarily in some highbrow way). However, I'm not always quite convinced of this, as some people seem to view movie-watching in a totally different way from how I do (e.g., as a relaxing social activity), and I'm not sure whether to take what they're doing as involving art in any essential way (and thus falling within the scope of aesthetics)
    Finally, as to doing something well, this is a core aspect of what makes a film good: whatever it does that's worth our attention, it should do it well. There are some things that Roadhouse (and other examples of low culture) does very well (it has excellent pacing, for example), and there are other things it does poorly (as drama, it's crappy). But saying that a good movie must do something *well* isn't saying much we don't already know. Are there specific sorts of things it must do well? What is it to do things well in general, and what is it to do particular things well? I think those are probably fruitful kinds of questions to ask if we want to figure something about about aesthetics.
    Alright, so if you read through that, it was probably pretty exhausting and more thorough of a reply than you expected. But hey, I want some answers, and we're not going to get them by just sitting on our collective duff. Ok, well maybe we can sit around, but we won't be *just* sitting. :) Anyway, thanks again for your post!

  • At 8:39 PM, Blogger Josh said…

    Interesting question, Luke. I have a bit I want to say about aesthetics in a post of my own. So I will reserve (most of) that for later, once it's cooked up, and limit my comments here.

    In short, I tend toward the view that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I don't know much about the philosophy of aesthetics, but I have thought quite a bit about this stuff. So, I don't know that there's a good way at all to describe why Roadhouse, for example, is "a good movie." On my view though, that's okay.

    However, setting that aside, I do think there may be a way to attempt to articulate why I liked it, which may not be rational, may not be why you like or anyone else likes it, and may not be the reason it is "good" in any objective sense.

    So here goes... Basically, I think I like it for the reasons I like most humorous art: it's satirical. To be honest, the term "satire" is a bit difficult to define for me. But I seem to know it when I see it. And I'm actually waivering on whether Roadhouse is satirical. But, if it is, then that may explain why I enjoyed it. But, if it's satirical, then we cannot take it at face value, because I think satire requires the creator(s) intending it to be such. That is, I don't know if Roadhouse can be a satire if it was intended to be a serious B movie. Perhaps that's exactly why I'm unsure whether it's satire. I think Roadhouse was supposed to be serious, but we watched it as a joke. I don't know if that's satire proper, but that seems to be why it's funny. It's like watching a show in a foreign language that is clearly intended to be dramatic, but imagining that they're saying really crazy/funny things: it wasn't intended to be that way, but we as viewers are interpreting it in a funny way.

    I don't know if that is even close to the reason why you like Roadhouse, Luke. But I think it's close to why I enjoyed watching it. At the very least I think we both enjoy it because it's humorous. That is surely an unsatisfyingly oversimplified explanation, but I think it is (at least for me) better than searching for it's "goodness" in creativity, thought-provoking-ness, messages, questioning of common views, etc.

  • At 8:55 AM, Blogger Luke Manning said…

    Wait, Josh, is the value of a humorous work of art in the eye of the beholder, or does it depend on the intentions of the artist? Traditionally, these are thought to exclude one another. I tend to think that the value of any work of art is a product of what the viewer brings and the objective properties of the work (which generally does not include the intentions of the artist, although these are sometimes infomative as to what the interesting properties of the work are). But unless you're willing to buy into that kind of view, you're going to have to retract something.


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