This past week, I happened to watch two diametrically different films that brought the same question to mind: "Is it art, or is it crap?" I'm fairly certain about one, but still torn about the other.
I tend to channel-surf on Friday evenings rather than going straight for whatever DVD box set I'm currently obsessing over. Last night I happened to catch Saw IV right as it was starting, so I decided to watch it. I adored the first Saw flick, "Jigsaw" is without a doubt one of the most interesting Bad Dudes ever invented and the whole movie just had that crazy caffeinated indie feel to it. I was less-than-overwhelmed by the subsequent films although Saw II still has a piece of my heart for the awesome set pieces. Saw III was simply terrible and I had the feeling that Saw IV would be similarly terrible, but I figured I owed it to myself to give it a shot. By the end, I was convinced that Saw III and Saw IV had pretty much destroyed the character of Jigsaw (and there's a Saw V in the works, ungungung...) by burying him under a ludicrous backstory and relying on the dumbest of all plot twists AGAIN! I'm sorry, but if you're any kind of horror film fan, you will have figured things out by the second half hour. But one thing still shines through all four films. The musical score. "Jigsaw's Theme" is a jewel, it's something to be treasured and held up as a paragon of musical achievement because no matter who you are or how you feel about horror films in general or the Saw films specifically, that piece of music is fantastic and evokes a strong emotional response. While the original Saw film is art and the musical score is art, the rest is just crap.
Last Tuesday, while we were at Blockbuster picking out our weekly movie, Zen Master had me choose between two films that he was equally interested in, the Jean-Claude Van Damme flick in which he plays himself, or a flick I'd never heard of entitled Extreme Movie. Since I'd just seen the Bruce Campbell flick in which he plays himself and Extreme Movie starred Frankie Muniz, Michael Cera and Matthew Lillard, I chose it. Extreme Movie was shot in 2005 but released in 2008 following Michael Cera's peerless performances in the films Juno and Superbad. It is a collection of shorts about various teen sexcapades surrounding a central unifying story. In tone and temperament, it strongly resembles Woody Allen's 1972 film Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask). Extreme Movie does max out on tasteless a lot of the time, but I found myself agog at several points due to the sheer breadth and depth of that tastelessness. The flick spoke to me several times, I was moved beyond words due to the amazing and beautifully done musical score (I do have a thing for great music). The entire experience of Extreme Movie brought me back to similarly over-the-top flicks like Monty Python's Meaning Of Life and The South Park Movie--Bigger, Longer and Uncut, both of which were difficult to watch at times but were artistically compelling because many of the scenes in those movies had never been done before and both had great music. While I could very happily not have seen the young lady use her cell phone (set to vibrate) for an unsavory purpose, I don't think I would want to unsee or unhear Matthew Lillard's questionable "sex tips", or poor Frankie Muniz being subjected to his virginal girlfriend's desire to "take things to the next level" or even the only Silent Porn Film ever made, starring Abraham Lincoln, because those scenes were utterly unique, perfectly done and can never be done again. And that's where the question "is it art or is it crap" comes in. I'd like to completely buy into Extreme Movie being art, I might be able to respect myself in the morning if I could justify every second of the film artistically, but I can't. The score was art, certain scenes were art, but the film as a whole I can't honestly recommend to anyone because my enjoyment of it was subjective.
Some amazingly terrible flicks have been given the "art" stamp merely because they broke technological or emotional barriers. While Extreme Movie could be classified as art because and only because it managed to shine some light on taboo behaviors in an entirely unique manner, Saw IV does not get such a pass because in the end, it wasn't at all unique.