values/quality/good or bad

From: Michael Betancourt (email suppressed)
Date: Sun Jul 02 2006 - 10:33:06 PDT

I'm breaking this off from "labels" as its own thread.

I have a feeling that a discussion of values is overdue, and quite possibly
very necessary. (Don't ask me how--that I think will become apparent as the
discussion happens.)

My own sense of this issue--what makes an "experimental/whatever you call
it" movie good or bad--is much like the proverbial "I know it when I see
it," which isn't really very helpful to any discussion. I want to make that
clear at the outset simply because there is so much difficulty with talking
about the issue of "values" (i.e. good/bad).

There's a few other things that I want to clarify, too. I'm not interested
in the question if something's "art" or not. Answering that question is
utterly and completely separate than what makes something good or bad--the
criteria for good/bad (values) are not the same as the criteria for what is
art. And in all truth, I care less about whether something is art, then in
what the reasons are for its being "good art".
My suspicion that this is such a difficult question to answer is the way
this question has been used as a way to argue against any change,
experiment, anything new, etc. --in other words, too often the question of
values presumes its own answer and is instead a talk about why some a priori
set of values are better than whatever is happening now. This is a common
tactic (in the US at least) familiar from every attack on "contemporary art"
going back at least as far as the 1912 Armory show in NY. I can appreciate
why this is a hard question that often gets answered by debating "what is

I also think we can all admit that values are relative, both culturally and
historically. Perhaps they are even arbitrary--which is fine, it doesn't
change the fact that they exist and are being used to make judgements and
evaluations of both current work and determining the choices about what and
who to include in the historical "canon" (which is also a different issue
than what the values are.)

But the question of "quality" remains implicit in so many arguments about
medium, that it is something we _should_ talk about even if it isn't
something we want to discuss. "Values" is very much a repressed issue.

And, just to keep us on track a little, I don't want to talk about
commercial, Hollywood-type cinema. talking about that kind of movie will
provoke a debate about its applicability to "experimental" work: whether it
is the same or different isn't really a concern--that's actually an entirely
different issue--which is why I don't want to address it right now.

I have no idea where to start with this, so I'm just going to ask the
question: What are those qualities that make a movie good (or bad)?

These are just some scattered thoughts, but they may provide a starting
point, and are in no particular order:
(and I admit I'm mostly talking about works with a specific duration, not
loops or continuous installation-type things)
--it needs to hold my interest long enough to make its point (whatever that
--once it makes its point it needs to be over
--I prefer work that isn't obviously derived from (or imitating) some
well-known, famous artist
--whatever it does technically should be appropriate for what it's about (
i.e. what it means)
--I like to get the sense while I'm watching it that there is some type of
structuring happening, even if I don't instantly know what it is
--it should mean something (be interpretable as having some kind of content)
and I should be able to get that from the movie (even if it requires a
background and foreknowledge of its subject)
--I prefer works that aren't obvious (i.e. lots of presets that do most of
the "work" in creating the movie) in how it uses technology (this mostly
applies to digital work, but its also true with traditional analog media
like video or film)
--I am always looking to be surprised by a movie, (whether it happens or not
is a different question)

I'm sure that's enough to get the discussion started. (If not the lynch

Michael Betancourt
Des Moines, IA USA
the avant-garde film & video blog

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