Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's Got Quality

About a week ago, I took my cousins, age 11 and 7, to the movies. At their request, we saw Daddy Day Camp.

Yes, I actually paid money to go see the film Daddy Day Camp. I paid money for more than one person to see Daddy Day Camp. I sat through Daddy Day Camp with two little boys who expected me to be laughing on a regular basis because a fat white guy farted in a tent.

In the movie, Cuba Gooding Jr. and his friend, now the successful managers of "Daddy Day Care," start a day camp through a series of stupid mishaps and childhood rivalries. Cuba Gooding Jr.'s military father was strict and unpleasant about Cuba Gooding Jr.'s childhood rivalries, so Cuba Gooding Jr. intends to be a soft, sensitive, loving daddy for his son Ben. All the kids at day camp want to be managed by Cuba Gooding Jr.'s military dad in the inter-camp tournament, because he treats them like soldiers, but Cuba Gooding Jr. wants to protect his son. Eventually we learn that everybody's a little bit right and if everybody's a little bit right we're all happy about it.

As a movie, speaking as someone who likes movies and is currently finding an addictive transcendence in watching every episode of Six Feet Under, it kind of hurt all over. It was hard to think of any non-commercial purpose for it to be put into the world.


My cousins, without going into too much detail, are the children of my cousin who died in May (the latter was, in fact, my first cousin once removed; the former are thus my second cousins) and are having a difficult time living with their confused, angry, widowed father. The elder child in particular has an intense conflicted relationship with him, and also has a desperate need for a male figure to look up to. There is a sequence in the movie where Cuba Gooding Jr.'s father makes a motivational speech to the kids before the big inter-camp competition the following day, inspiring them to be good soldiers, tough, working as a team, a platoon that supports each other but to play tough, play to win. We soon discover that Cuba Gooding Jr.'s son has gone missing, and soon enough find him up a tree in the woods. (He likes to climb trees.) At this point, Cuba Gooding Jr. makes a speech about how he wants these kids to grow up into kind, thoughtful people who treat other people well. My eleven-year-old cousin, who had been making loud commentary throughout the movie about how funny certain things were, said thoughtfully to me, "Charlie [Cuba Gooding Jr.] and his father both made really good speeches." When I dropped him and his brother at home, he hugged his father. Not that I live there or have even been a uniquely close family member, but it was the first time I had ever borne witness to such an event in eleven years of knowing the kid.

Which leaves me with the question, who the fuck am I to say that it was a bad movie, if it was able to effect my cousin this way? I mean, certainly I don't mean to imply that Daddy Day Camp is capable of solving eleven years of a painfully fraught relationship, but the vague traces of reality in the movie's world spoke to my cousin. It offered him something he needed about father-son relationships, about masculinity, something that he, as a serious thinker, was clearly taking the time to think about. Just because I know and think more about art, why does that make me the ultimate arbiter of quality?

Or I guess the question is, what is quality? Since we so often hear "quality over quantity," is quality the element of art that cannot be quantified? Which I say as if there's only one such element, which clause in itself shows me that quality and quantity can't always be separated in such a clean fashion. Quality clearly involves standards; the question is, are those standards completely subjective? I'd hate to believe that, since it almost negates the prospect of communal, shared experience. But by the same token, I'm not sure I want to feel compelled to like Daddy Day Camp just because it meant something to my cousin. My cousin's experience means something to me, because I love him, but I didn't have any profound shared experience with the movie itself, I had it with my cousin and my knowledge of him and his life. But don't I then have to respect something about what the movie puts out, if it effected a mind I respect? I don't really want to have to do that either.

I suppose this is a question I'll be struggling with all my life, in one form or another. But it's one I wouldn't mind input on. Does anyone have a clear view of what quality is? If so, how did you come by it?


At 3:36 PM, Blogger HelsBells said...

I think we all struggle with what quality is. Unfortunately, I can't answer your question, especially in the arena of art. Because it's so intangible, because it's so emotional. Thank you for making me think about this!

At 9:32 AM, Blogger tyromaven said...

The first thing I'm thinking of in response is that there's a use for qualities, as different textures and aspects of an object/situation/person. One thing can have many qualities simultaneously-- the qualities of humor, or of poignancy, or visual beauty--and from there perhaps we can assess whether that texture is a useful one.

I'm big into the local qualities of art rather than some enduring assessment that divides creation into two categories for the ages and in all contexts. Different things are useful in different ways at different times. Sometimes I want a pair of quality shoes that will last, waterproof and comfortable, through all weather for years. Sometimes I need shoes that have the qualities of being lightweight, smart-looking, and cheap.

Just sayin'.
love, r.

At 1:29 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

Hmm... looks like an impasse to me. Maybe it's time for transcension.

"Man's quest for knowledge is an expanding series whose limit is infinity, but philosophy seeks to attain that limit at one blow, by a short circuit providing the certainty of complete and inalterable truth. Science meanwhile advances at its gradual pace, often slowing to a crawl, and for periods it even walks in place, but eventually it reaches the various ultimate trenches dug by philosophical thought, and, quite heedless of the fact that it is not supposed to be able to cross those final barriers to the intellect, goes right on." - Stanislaw Lem, "His Master's Voice", translated by Michael Kandel (Henry's dad)

I don't buy the distinction here between science and philosophy, and anyway "science" certainly can't solve anything close to most of the pressing social or personal issues we've got, but nevertheless I think the quote is a good one. I guess the point is philosophical questions don't always have answers. Here, the question is "what is quality?" and calling it either subjective or objective brings you to damnation of some sort. I've read your post over and over, and what it makes me feel is that quality is either an illusion or a very, very advanced topic. I feel like a lot of people who claim that they look for objective quality are just doing it in order to say they accomplished something by finding it -- but I think feeling like you need to say you've accomplished something universal and communicable is the real fallacy here. We don't have to keep up with the workaholics, I wager. We just have to protect our own psyches. It's probably better to ask about appeal -- individual appeal, ensemble appeal, mob appeal, mass appeal. I guess this sounds like the theory of total subjectivity all over again, but I don't really want it to, because it seems like the fact of how exactly someone (or some multi-person group) likes something can be pretty hard and fast. I don't think this idea came to me through "science", now -- but maybe in private the equivalent of science here is revelation.

I've been feeling lately that the "moral subjectivity" everyone seems to be afraid of these days is actually a sort of culture-wide take on cynicism. In other words, I've been feeling that pop-cultural cynicism is deeply offensive to a lot of people (as I think it should be), but what's latched onto as offensive isn't the disparagement inherent in the cynicism of the pop-cultural artifacts; instead, people interpret their own offense to be at the idea that "they don't actually *believe* in anything", since I suppose it's quite the hornet's nest to hate the idea of *hating* per se. But I think they do believe in something -- they believe in cynicism, or even nihilism, going back as I am now (I guess) to that completely awful "Welcome to the Dollhouse" movie, which is probably the place where I first caught myself in this exact trap -- "where are Todd Solondz's *morals*??".

But -- I don't think it's actually possible to not have a belief system. Even people who've reached a philosophically enlightened state of continually wavering unstable beliefs that adapt to life circumstances as they come (I bet those people really do exist) will have to have some set of immediate philosophical reactions or other to the things that come up in day-to-day life, and those, even if implicitly, have to constitute some kind of belief system. It probably works for communities and societies just as well as it does for humans, too -- and it seems like, plenty of times, none of the politicians have any idea how they're being used to determine the society's own, individual preferences. And now I'll attempt to state that the conclusion that follows is that real moral subjectivism -- that is, the attitude aligned with moral subjectivity -- is just the (ontological) respect for all points of view, whether held by individuals or collectives. Or possibly -- the laws of the universe govern atoms, not ideas.

For practical purposes I guess this is really pretty equivalent to Tyromaven's point, heh... like, the idea of a judgment of something as good or bad (or somewhere in between) really only being able to be a preliminary, rough, rudimentary judgment. The "local qualities" are really where it's at, and also probably more objective than what someone decides they value. Deconstructing notions of valuation, your own and others', is probably pretty wise at this point. It's amazing how cheesy pop culture's core values are even when they're trying to be as tough as they can -- I'd say even most of the deeply cynical views behind pop culture are incredibly cheesy (God knows "Welcome to the Dollhouse"'s is). And there's always a ring of truth in the cheesiness, even as it counteracts the divinity that you or I might look for in art (which is probably all in all a pretty big but still local quality) -- I'm talking about your movie here that you talk about in the post. I've been so comforted in the recent weeks by thinking of everything as atoms, really -- I love the incredible freedom that comes with it, to define my own values.

Maybe the search for a perfect work of art is like the search for a perfect romantic partner, actually -- no one person (I believe, at least) can possibly live up to all the hype that the society throws at the idea of a soul-mate. Maybe the most we can say is that the best works of art are the ones that are densest with meaning, and that do the most in the least space. That's quantity *as* quality, of course, and I know *that* was a huge thing philosophically for me for a long, long time. I guess we'll say that the years since then have polished it to a reflective sheen? But even so, the more levels and types of meaning we discover, the more we have to continually reevaluate even *that* definition, which is the closest I think I can come to objectivity in defining quality. It could be that the criterion of manipulation that we've talked about, though, is some sort of complexity threshold: a work of art creates a philosophical world, and we feel manipulated or not depending on whether this philosophical world, in the areas it covers, is smaller or larger than our own. G.K. Chesterton's so-called classic novel "The Man Who Was Thursday", about a group of people who become pretty much saint-like in their resistance to anarchism, I think is a good case in point here -- it might have been incredibly mind-expanding when it was written, I don't doubt, but now it just seems laughably manipulative.

This is probably an enormous edifice of philosophy that I'm just beginning to hack out here -- I figured I'd record it while the ideas are still fresh, but I must be terribly sleepy so there have got to be a huge number of things I'm forgetting. I'd really like to actually talk about this.


At 4:45 PM, Blogger tyromaven said...

'what it makes me feel is that quality is either an illusion or a very, very advanced topic.'

thank you for this, L.

I think the distinction of very, very advanced topics is going to quickly become useful for me.

also, the Lem quote synchronizes with a book sitting on my shelf I should obviously read given how much I like the quote.

I think if you take science as method, as experimental testing, the slow accumulation and repiecing of the puzzle rather than as the technological race its been turned into as a commodity, then I think science is precisely revelation. Lots and lots of small revelations trying to band together for some meaning and traction.

so, cheers!

At 12:12 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

yes! that's the missing piece i couldn't remember when i was writing up my big thing up there. science as revelation: science as lots of tiny revelations, each revelation being a part of the overall scientific process -- and then as a converse, any revelation being a small little kernel of science. the thing about revelations being, i mean, that when they come, they don't have to be at all what you suspect -- which is actually i think what the power of science is that Lem is trying to talk about, just the idea that our knowledge of the universe can leap beyond human limitations, just by the universe coming out and *showing* us.

thank *you*.

(oh... and which book is it, by the by? i've read Solaris, Cyberiad, and His Master's Voice, and i'm slowly making my way through his "epic" right now, Fiasco....)


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