Saturday, April 15, 2006

I'm Smarter Than You Are: Pop Goes Perfection

The other day, while sitting on the toilet, reading Stranger in a Strange Land, I had an interesting thought.

This happens rather a lot. I do some of my best reading and thinking on the john. And I know I'm not alone in this; I have a sneaking suspicion that anytime a writer says in an interview he gets a lot of his ideas in the shower, he's bowdlerizing the fact that he came up with his latest novel while pinching out a good three-wiper.

The rest of the entry won't be this gross, I swear.

Anyway, the thought I had during this adventure in solid waste disposal was: "This is a damn near perfect novel."

And, because I'm the sort of person who does things like this, I immediately thought, "Now what did I mean by that?"

I had to do some serious thinking about this one. "Perfection" isn't a thing to speak of lightly, especially when it comes to art. Every artist strives for "perfection," and none achieve it. Even the definition I eventually came up with was grading on a curve, a way to set the best of the best apart from the crowd.

But, eventually, I settled on a general idea that served as my definition of perfect. And this is *my* definition; you don't have to agree with it or subscribe to it. I'm just putting it out there because I thought it worth sharing. And anyway, I know I'm right and you're wrong.

Perfect art is art that realizes its fullest potential.

You are no doubt now bitching about that being too vague. Well, tough noogies; any more specific, and I started to exclude some works that I do consider perfect while including ones I think are utter shite. And that certainly won't fly.

I can explain a little bit, though. First of all, you'll note I'm saying the art reaches its fullest potential, not the artists. Few truly great artists ever reach their fullest potential; most of the artists who do plateau at a ridiculously amateurish level. Let me put it this way: most of the authors on have reached their fullest potential.

In fact, artists often hold art back by injecting their ego into it and turning it into little more than masturbation. (That's actually a good alternate definition for perfect art: art that doesn't get in its own way.) This is why there's almost no examples of perfect modern art; it's too concerned with the artist trying to impress people to really speak to generations. Perfect art has to be more than a product of its time; in 200 years, nobody's going to give a fuck about Andy Warhol. It's also why the highest percentage of perfect art is to be found in children's fiction; it's so unconcerned with anything but doing its job that it's free to reach pinnacles very few works written for "adult audiences" (anytime an artist or their patron describes a work as "adult" or "mature," they're trying to impress someone, usually a parent, teacher, or potential sexual conquest) can.

And different works of art have different levels of potential, of course. Let's face it, much as I love the web-headed lug, you can only do so much with a Spider-Man story. But when a Spider-Man story does all it can… wow.

It's hard to describe perfection in terms of technical merit. James Joyce's Ulysses is a perfect novel, but very few of the wave of stream-of-consciousness novels, even the aesthetically beautiful ones, that have followed it are. And there are plenty of technically brilliant works that fall short of perfection for some other flaw. Many of these have just plain vile or unworthy subject matter; it's not very egalitarian of me, but I can't consider perfect any work that is, at heart, repugnant to the human spirit. So that does for Birth of a Nation and the ouvre of Ayn Rand. (Incidentally, is there any more heartbreaking sight than to see a beautiful woman reach into her purse and pull out a copy of Atlas Shrugged?) And some works are so wonderful in their net effect, that technical flaws are rendered irrelevant.

And it goes without saying that a perfect novel is different from a perfect comic book is different from a perfect film is different from a perfect song etc. This is part of why adaptations of perfect works into another medium rarely reach perfection themselves; what made it perfect is lost in the translation, and the new version doesn't always use its own unique properties to make up for it. (This isn't always true, thankfully; The Shawshank Redemption is just as perfect a film as the story that inspired it is a story).

I guess I should give some examples of what I consider to be perfection. If there had been only one Star Wars movie, I'd be obliged to include it, but that story is really broken up over six installments, and there are too many imperfections in the series as a whole to include it. Raiders of the Lost Ark, on the other hand, is a good example of an effectively perfect movie. On the more artsy side… well, let me hold off and hit a few high points from low culture first: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Princess Bride (possibly the most perfect movie ever), Clerks, the first American Pie, the first The Odd Couple, Blazing Saddles, Batman Begins, both versions of The Producers, any of the Mencken/Rice scored Disney films, and everything Pixar has ever done and will ever do. In terms of art the people who visit the Angelika can appreciate, independent and arthouse cinema has much the same problem (I'm disgusted by the trailers for Hard Candy not because of the subject material, but because the filmmakers clearly think it's more than a silly little revenge/snuff piece), but a goodly number of classic films, and even some recent arthouse works, hold up. Hayao Miyazaki bats 1.000 more often than not (I think Princess Mononoke is his best, and Howl's Moving Castle his least good). Yeah, I'll join every film professor ever and say Citizen Kane, and The Magnificent Ambersons would have joined it if the studio had left it alone. I had a chance to see Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Touch of Evil last year, and they both qualify. Adaptation is perfect if you get it. Being John Malkovich, I've never seen, but I'm almost ready to qualify it based on the snippets I have managed to catch. Brick, a recent release I caught just the other week, fits the bill for me.

In books, I mentioned children's lit before, so let's start there. Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw is my archetypal example, right next to Where The Red Fern Grows. Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books may very well constitute a perfect series once complete, as will (more than likely) Harry Potter. The Narnia books are damn close, but there's just a bit too much straw-manning in some of the characters, particularly anytime Lewis steps out of Narnia. (Calormen, as an allegory, frankly turns my stomach, and Eustace Scrubb's parents would be laughable if I didn't know couples like that really existed, mostly in Park Slope.) Big people books have perfection too, of course. Hemingway was right when he put Huckleberry Finn in that category, although wrong in excluding the tail end of the book from his judgment. He himself wrote perfect novels and stories, but none I've actually read. Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men are some of the most perfect works I read in high school. My teacher's opinion to the contrary, not everything William Faulkner turned out was perfect, but The Sound and the Fury was. There's a great amount of perfection to be found in genre fiction if you know where to look. Stranger in a Strange Land doesn't quite make it (the character of Jubal Harshaw is too much of an idealized author stand-in, and some of the fantasies Heinlein acts out with him are downright ridiculous), but Ender's Game, The Caves of Steel, Anansi Boys, and probably 25-30% of the Discworld series do. Peter David wrote the perfect Star Trek novel several times, calling it Imzadi, Q-in-Law, Vendetta, and New Frontier: Cold Wars. The first three Wild Cards books were perfect, the others less so. Stephen King wrote very few perfect novels, but a lot of perfect short stories, and The Dark Tower is probably the most perfect series I've ever read (including the ending, which I love more every time I think of it).

Music… I could be here all day, it's probably the oldest form of art there is, but I'll be brief: Yesterday, Don't Worry Baby, Piano Man, On The Road Again, Johnny Cash's version of Hurt, I Need a Hero (fuck you, time will tell on that one), Paint it Black, the non-disco version of Heard It Through the Grapevine, about 30% of everything Johnny Rivers ever did, American Pie, and most versions of Moon River. I'm not well-versed enough in classical music to judge, but there's bound to be plenty there; I do love that one cello piece Yo-Yo Ma plays in the second season Christmas episode of the West Wing, the one where Josh cuts his hand.

That's a good enough segue to TV, and boy is it near impossible to find an example of a perfect TV series. A goodly number of perfect episodes (like that West Wing one above), but very few series that don't have at least one misfire of an episode. Futurama, I would say, comes closest out of all the series I've followed.

I could get to comics, but this post is getting long in the tooth already, so rather than court imperfection, I'll pick it up next week. I've got plenty to share.

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