Saturday, January 28, 2012

Good vs. Great

Aesthetic judgments are a matter of opinion. We know this. Everyone has different likes and dislikes. Any given TV show, or song, or movie will appeal to some people and not to others. No one’s opinion is “right” or “wrong.”

We also know that some things, objectively speaking, suck.

And when something bad is put next to something good, it’s really easy to tell which is which. Like when the Wizards play the Thunder. Or when Catwoman is on a double-bill with Iron Man. Or when it’s Domino’s vs. Pizza Hut. I think we even take some comfort in seeing something bad getting trounced by something good, because a contest that features such a wide qualitative disparity between its competitors removes any possibly of having an opinion, thereby relieving us of our self-doubt. (If an opinion is neither ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ how do I know if I’m right?) It transforms anxious theory into calming fact. The Wizards losing by 30 is as reassuring as “1+1=2.”

Good vs. Great is a little different. This is a contest I find utterly fascinating. I love finding clear examples of this distinction. It’s somewhat hard to do because you have to be careful not to let opinion take over. It has to be as clear as Bad vs. Good. This isn’t a matter of thinking Pulp Fiction is good but Kill Bill is great. I’m talking about something so definitive that you can dismiss anyone who has a dissenting opinion as off his rocker. (Like the 10% of critics who think Catwoman is a good movie.)

Caveat lector: Witnessing instances of Good vs. Great doesn’t bring the relief that witnessing Bad vs. Good does. In fact, it can make one downright uneasy. Maybe there’s more tension involved because the contest is more even; the loser will be good—something we were so happy to see beat up on the Bad. But I think there’s something else going on. I think that after a while, a kind of awful realization sets in: The gulf that separates Good from Great is as wide as—or possibly wider than—the one between Good and Bad. And that kind of blows our minds a little. I know it does mine, at least.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of my examples of Good vs. Great…

Donovan vs. Bob Dylan

This is from the documentary Don’t Look Back. Dylan is touring in England and he meets the guy everyone is comparing him to, the singer-songwriter Donovan. Donovan picks up a guitar and plays a little something for everyone (but really for Dylan), a song called “To Sing For You” which had nice lyrics like “When the night has left you cold and feeling sad / I will show you that it cannot be so bad.” It was nice song, a “good song,” as Dylan put it. Then Dylan takes the guitar and plays “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” which had lines like “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun / Crying like a fire in the sun.” Yeah. Dylan, with a smug smile, knew the score, and so did Donovan, if his completely demoralized look at the end was any indication.

Andy Roddick vs. Roger Federer (2009 Wimbledon Finals)

Roddick was a really really good player who was never quite able to be as good as Federer—a tennis genius. Never was this clearer than in the ’09 Wimbledon Finals, which was an epic 5-setter. If you watch the whole match, you’ll see that Roddick played the absolute best tennis of his life…and it still wasn’t enough.

Pre-Bananafish Salinger vs. Post-Bananafish Salinger

Not only is this an example of Good vs. Great, it’s one of the biggest mysteries of American literature. Before 1948, J.D. Salinger was a short story writer who wrote forgettable stories for slicks like Collier’s and Cosmopolitan. Then, after rejecting his stuff for years, The New Yorker publishes what is widely regarded as one of the best short stories of all time by anybody, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” From that point on, Salinger is on fire, writing a canonical novel and highly regarded shorter works. Everything he writes for the next 16 years is collected in books that are still in print today and generally regarded as masterpieces. Quite the transformation.

Timbaland’s Slushpile of Beats vs. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”

This is a scene from Fade to Black, a documentary about the making of Jay-Z’s The Black Album. The movie shows Jay going around to all his producers, listening to their beats and picking the ones he wants to use. Most of Timbaland’s material doesn’t seem to impress Hove too much. Then Timbaland plays literally one second of the beat that will eventually be used on the single “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” Jay’s ears prick up immediately and in a flash he knows that the beat is something that the others weren’t: Great. His instantaneous recognition of the stand-out beat reminds me of a quote attributed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

The Dark Knight vs. Heath Ledger’s Joker

The Dark Knight is a pretty amazing movie. Everything about it is top-notch: the production design, the music, the look…not to mention the wonderful cast. But whenever Heath Ledger appears on the screen, everything around him seems woefully inadequate. Not only does his performance reach a level that the other actors can’t touch, but every other aspect of the movie suffers in comparison. Is he the best thing about the movie? Not exactly. He is better than the movie. You get the feeling that while the movie would be nothing without him, he doesn’t need the movie. The performance is so good, it can exist independently and not suffer from the movie’s absence. After all, when the Joker shows up, the rest of it turns into a guy wearing a rubber suit playing pretend with a crew shooting Chicago for a make-believe city. That is to say: just plain silly.

Or, at best, merely Good.


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