Guest Post by Joe Newman-Getzler
Recently, I watched a video by movie reviewer The Nostalgia Critic (ne Doug Walker). It was an editorial called “Can a Film Be So Good It’s Bad?” This caught my eye immediately. Naturally, there’s the old adage that a product that isn’t technically well-made but is still enjoyable is “so bad, it’s good.” This can apply to silly songs like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” or infamously poor movies like Troll 2. They aren’t necessarily good, per se, but there’s still an undeniable charm that those who take them at face value might miss. So, how do you reverse that? If a film provides no reasons for complaint, how can you reasonably say you dislike it?
The Critic explains, using films like Cinema Paradisio, The Truman Show, and E.T. as personal examples, that sometimes there are films that he can’t argue are bad, but which are so pristine that it almost provides a disconnect between the film and its audience. It’s not to fault the films’ creators for a good product, but sometimes the combination of a uniformly great film and boatloads of praise is enough to keep him from forming an emotional connection with the movie, which is an important distinction. (For the curious, here’s the video: https://youtu.be/KJhGSRJhWcU).
I was intrigued. I realized that this has actually happened to me more than a few times; that feeling of “I know it was great, I think it’s great…but why am I not inclined to see/hear/read it again?” The most recent time this happened to me was when I was discussing the book All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr with my grandmother. I had read it as a summer reading book and she had read it before I did. Now, just to be clear: All the Light We Cannot See is a terrific book. The characters are interesting and the cliffhangers each chapter ends on make the book’s 530 or so pages go by all the quicker. It won the Pulitzer. So it’s got that going for it.
And yet, when I finished it, I realized I had nothing to say about except, “It’s great.” Suddenly, all that intensity I felt while reading the book was drained from me the moment I put it down. My grandmother said the same thing (besides feeling that some of the character arcs were unfinished), and we had both felt the same way after reading another much-praised book, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. While I was reading it, the travails of Hazel and Augustus were absolutely world-consuming, but when I finished? “It was great. Nothing about it that was bad.”
Therein lies the problem: that lack of an emotional connection Nostalgia Critic pointed out. I’ve read a lot of books that are roughly on par with the two I’ve mentioned, quality-wise, which I could say wholeheartedly I’d read over and over again. Part of why I connect to the things I connect to is because they’re great for very specific reasons. Why is Purple Rain one of my favorite albums? Because of the music’s infectious energy, the fact that it’s an aural carnival where you’re invited and Prince’s slinky charm bursts through on every perfect track. That’s specific, right? So, why is All the Light We Cannot See a good book? Well, the two leads are both very sympathetic for very similar reasons, and the atmosphere is very evocative. It’s easier to be specific about great things I personally enjoy. Works that are “so good, it’s bad” tend to be good for very general reasons, and pinpointing what makes them enjoyable just leads to adjectives that you can apply to any number of other works.
You might say that if a work is “so good, it’s bad,” that makes it overrated, right? You see what everyone else likes, but it doesn’t speak to you personally. Well, that disconnect is definitely a part of it, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. If something’s overrated, that means its significance has been grossly overstated (such as, say, “Hotel California,” to me). With “so good, it’s bad,” you like it while it’s going on and can recollect enjoying it afterwards, but there’s just something that keeps you from going back for more. There’s nothing overblown about its reputation, but somehow that reputation also keeps you from being sucked in.
How does one avoid this? Well, I don’t think you really can. There was a time where I thought things were in black and white. It’s either got to be bad or good, and everyone has to agree that it’s bad or good. When I was a huge Disney buff (a huger buff than I am now, at least), I thought that there was nobody out there who didn’t like Beauty and the Beast. It’s impossible! And yet, the internet proved me wrong quite quickly. Sometimes you wonder if you’re watching the same thing as everyone else, but in the end, everyone has different tastes, and it’s the most minute distinction that separates a fan from a dissenter. So, you’ll never please everybody, and that’s okay.
If anything, being “so good, it’s bad” should almost be an honor. In a way, it’s almost saying that something is too great. The greatness is so overpowering that even people who don’t want to watch or read it again still say it’s fantastic. It’s so good, you’ll be overcome by its goodness.
And isn’t that just the mother of all backhanded compliments?
Joe Newman-Getzler is a rising Senior at York Prep School in New York City. He watches a LOT of YouTube, and occasionally learns something from it.