What’s Better: Quality Or Memorability?

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

Here’s a question for you all; what’s more important in art, quality or memorability?

Now you might be thinking, “well, that’s obvious. Quality. It’s always better to make good work than bad.” And, for the most part, I agree with you. If you’re painting, acting, writing, dancing, or whatever medium it is that you express yourself through, is bad, people will be less inclined to pay you for it, and you’ll die drunk and penniless. (Not really, but still).

At the same time, however, quality is a very difficult thing to measure art by. First of all, quality is completely subjective. What one person likes, another person might hate. And just because something was liked or disliked upon its initial release doesn’t mean that people won’t change their minds on it over time. Blade Runner, The Shining, Fight Club and John Carpenter’s The Thing were all critically despised when they first came out, but now, all these years later, are hailed as some of the best movies ever made. Meanwhile, films like Juno, Forrest Gump, and The Last Samurai, which were all critically-acclaimed when they first hit theaters, have faced considerable backlash due to their problematic subject matter. And even if a work has managed to maintain its acclaim, that doesn’t mean people will necessarily respond to it. Let me give you an example. Last year’s The Post is a film that, by all technical standards–acting, editing, music, cinematography–is quite good, but audiences have not taken to, and, as a result, the film has struggled at the box office. Why, though? In terms of quality, it’s very good. Why aren’t people flocking to it? Could it be the fact that, despite all its technical achievements, the film isn’t memorable? Maybe.

See, we might not think about it, but memorability is a very powerful thing. It’s what enables works of art to survive after their creators have passed on. It’s what allowed Starry Night, the product of a penniless Dutch painter who never made a cent off of art in his lifetime, to become one of the most beloved works in human history. And it’s what enabled The Room, a film that everyone agrees is one of the worst, if not the worst, movies ever made, to become an immensely popular, global phenomenon. I’d actually like to talk about The Room. It came out in 2003, and in the 15 years since then, it’s had books written about it, films made detailing its creation, and God only knows how many midnight screenings of it. You know what other films came out in 2003? Open Range, American Splendor, Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World, and a live-action version of Peter Pan. Now despite the fact that, by all objective standards–acting, writing, production design–each of these films is better than The Room, not a one of them has had a book written about them, a film made documenting their creation, or a fan revival/midnight screening. Hell, you all probably didn’t even remember that they were films. Why, though? Why does one bad film have so much more staying power than four other, considerably better ones? Memorability, that’s why. In art, memorability is key.

Now, before I go on, I would just like to clarify that I don’t think memorability is all that matters in art. If it were, quality wouldn’t be taken into consideration at all, and people would just make whatever sick, shocking thing they thought would get them attention. Fortunately, we, as humans, have some sense of taste, and we know not to instantly gravitate towards the weirdest, grossest thing we see. Usually. But still, memorability does matter. It’s what gets artists noticed, and, very often, what gives them a career. For what is an artistic style, really, other than an artist creating a memorable look or feel? Countless filmmakers, like John Woo, Edgar Wright, Michael Mann and Wes Anderson have become successful, precisely because they have memorable, distinct styles. But it would be wrong to say that their style is the only thing that made them popular. Yes, their work is beloved because of its distinct look, sound and feel, but also because it is of relatively high quality. The acting in their films, particularly in those of Mann and Wright, tends to be better. The writing as well. So is the cinematography, editing, music and production design. These people are competent craftsman, who also have distinct, stylistic quirks that separate them from the fray.

So, in the end, I don’t think one is more important than the other. Artists should always strive to make high quality work, but, at the same time, to try to distinguish themselves with unique looks, sounds, and tones. Sometimes quality wins out over memorability. Sometimes memorability overtakes quality. Either way, you need them both, and, in certain cases, they come together to make stuff that is truly special.


They Live (1988)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

When the cops destroy his shantytown, drifter John Nada decides to get out of LA. So he packs up his bindle, dons a pair of sunglasses he found, and sets off. As he walks, however, he starts to realize that something is wrong. Whenever he has the glasses on, he is able to see the world differently. Billboard advertisements become blank slates with simple commands like “obey” and “consume” written on them. And more disturbing than that, some people no longer look like people. They look like hideous alien monsters. Realizing that the Earth has been infiltrated, and that no one will believe him, Nada does what any sane, rational person would do; steal a shot gun and go on a killing spree. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with his alien overlords, who send hordes of minions after him. Can Nada evade them? Can he help others see the truth? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

They Live is a goofy, didactic mess, with huge plot holes, and some questionable acting. And I kind of love it. Not in a “so bad it’s good” sort of way. In a, “this is original, stylish and funny” sort of way. When I first watched it, I really didn’t know what to think. I certainly appreciated its creativity, and anti-consumerist message. But I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. The acting is subdued, the pace is slow, and the world the movie creates feels grounded and believable. And yet, there are tons of moments where characters will say ridiculous, campy lines, and the violence will get so over the top that you can’t help but laugh. But, after a while, even that odd dichotomy develops a certain charm, and it gets to a point where you just start thinking, “wow! This is nothing like I’ve ever seen before.” The movie is also really exciting. It’s got some great shootouts in it, like the final one in a TV studio, where Nada and Keith David are trying to disrupt the alien’s signal. This scene actually reminded me of another film; John Woo’s Hard Boiled. In that flick, Tony Leung and Chow Yun-Fat are trapped in a hospital, and they have to fight their way out. And so they just forge ahead, mowing down wave after wave of bad guys. They Live’s climax is almost identical in terms of its staging and cinematography, and the fact that it involves two guys moving between levels of a building. I wonder if Hard-Boiled, which was made four years after They Live came out, was in any way influenced by the latter. Either way, both films are awesome, and definitely worth watching.

That said, I whole-heartedly acknowledge that They Live has flaws. Some of the acting, particularly of the female lead, is wooden, and there are quite a few plot holes, also with regards to her character. She undergoes several, unexplained changes in-between scenes, and the movie never tries to justify how or why she shows up at convenient times. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, looking to learn how to write good dialogue, and create stories that make sense, maybe go watch something else. But if you want to watch something campy, creative and politically subversive, give this flick a look. I guarantee you’ll have a good time.