Baumann and Burch Conversations, #1: Perfection

In the following talk, Tim and Matt think about what it means for some text to be “perfect.” In lieu of an actual podcast, we type our way through Carl Theodor Dreyer, Prince, Arrested Development, Anton Chekhov, and more. You can find Matt’s work, including an upcoming Top 50 albums of 2017 project, here.

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Tim: Hello!

Matt: Yarp!

T: …that’s “pray” spelled backwards. Unforeseen religious references in Edgar Wright’s work, I see.

M: Narp would be “pran,” which is so close to an unforeseen Louisiana reference

T: Eat Yarp Love.

So today we’re thinking about the idea of perfection and what that has to do with the pop culture we do and don’t do.

M: PERFECT DOES NOT MEAN BEST

T: Speaking of ground rules – here’s a sense of what they mean. I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I was watching Topsy-Turvy into the ground, which is, incidentally, a perfect movie. Forgive me for self-quoting:

 

“Some movies are perfect in the grammatical, Latin sense. Casablanca is a perfect movie. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a perfect movie. So are The Leopard, Ordet, and The Thin Red Line… These movies accomplish: at the end, each one of those films is done. Regardless of how torturous or arduous or infamous the production and post-production, the movie itself is perfect. It has told the story and nothing is missing, needs to be added to, or has to be altered. A perfect movie is not necessarily flawless, nor should it automatically be placed at the apex of achievement by critics.”

 

M: I like how we already poked at one of those movies earlier.

T: Casablanca?

M: Thin Red Line.

T: Ah, yiz. Yeah, that one is definitely the one out of my above list that probably would get the most feedback.

M: Which might be a good way into criteria, insomuch as we have set standards.

T: I think the idea of self-contained doneness, without needing or even wanting to add or subtract from them, is important to what a “perfect” movie or song might be. The grammatical perfect, that sense of already finished, is what stands out to me personally. What about “perfect” speaks to you? What am I missing?

M: This Gavin DeGraw song, obviously (Ed. note – we’re in a grocery store right now playing “I Don’t Wanna Be” over the speakers)…..that covers the big criterion, I think. There’s a certain je ne sais quois too, I think. I can think of songs that are immaculately crafted and perfect in some technical sense, but don’t have much feeling behind them…or I don’t feel much investment in them, perhaps.

T: The emotional aspect is probably the hardest part of this to pin down! When I think about the six movies up there, all six of them actually end with a similar emotion which is really hard to put into words. It’s not unhappiness, even though all of them excepting Ordet end with some sad event. Perhaps there’s a sense of exhaustion or wonder that has to do with it. At the end of Thin Red Line there’s some fatigue, and the same is true with Topsy-Turvy. I think ineffability is part of perfection, and I think that helps me when we consider the qualification that we wouldn’t change much. One doesn’t bring a bricklayer to the ethereal.

M: I agree, perfection leaves you a bit confused or in awe. To name perfection totally would be to ruin the concept, because it is a feeling. For me anyway, I won’t tie you to that sense if you don’t want. I like what you’re saying about an unnameable feeling; I’m not sure my sense of perfection with songs even has a consistent feeling, though. A perfect song leaves me in some mood, but it need not be the same one. I don’t want to drag transcendence into this, but I kinda do. More than the sum of parts, in a way. For example, two songs I would argue for are “Landslide” and “Come On Eileen” – I’m left feeling differently at the end of each, but they both have a similar effect on me, if that makes sense.

T: I think effect is big. That leads into another qualification that I think matters, which is the sense of doneness. Perfect things tend not to be rare or like, even medium. (Nom? Nom.) I don’t know that I have a good way of talking about that with a rubric, but when they end, they end really well. I can’t think of a perfect movie or novel that ends weakly.

M: If I immediately start thinking of changes or problems at the end, it’s not perfect.

T: You should be left there to handle it for a second. Not that I think The Grapes of Wrath is a perfect novel by any stretch, but the way Laurie Metcalf wants to sit and deal with it in the opening minutes of Lady Bird is kind of where I am with the endings of perfect stuff.

M: Love that analogy, hate that novel.

T: It’s a good novel. Don’t throw yourself out of the car.

M: I am the turtle.

T: So we have so far…ineffable qualities throughout, a sense of completion or doneness, would not change anything about it. Anything else? This is definitely really broad as it stands.

M: Gavin DeGrawness.

T: Nothing from the ground is good enough.

M: Well done. We talked about size or complication earlier. That’s not the best name for what I mean, but a sense of there not being too much going on, which opens the door for more loose ends or clashes of styles/ideas. This is related to completeness and doneness, but different I think. Maybe not, I’m talking myself in circles.

T: To me that’s the most difficult aspect. Simplicity is important, but at the same time I’m not sure that it needs to be absolutely straight arrow. (Not that you’re saying that, obviously.) I don’t think it needs to be Bresson or Tarkovsky to be a perfect movie, and actually out of all my examples, the only one which I think of as being more or less straightforward without any major detours is Ali. The Thin Red Line and Topsy-Turvy are full to the brim. The Leopard is sprawling. Ordet is relatively focused, I guess, but less so than Ali. Even Casablanca goes on a little mission for that Bulgarian couple which they honestly could have cut from the movie, but like, you could never cut that from the movie. The ancillary pieces have to be part of the same form as the major structure, I think. Maybe there’s a dollop of form follows function that I think has to belong there. It doesn’t matter if you build your bank to look like a jewel box as long it all belongs together. Certainly those scenes in Casablanca show a changing, emotionally charged Rick post-Ilsa’s return.

M: There’s a certain cohesion. Something sprawling or long or with multiple layers risks running afoul of that more easily than something shorter. Not that that’s a steadfast rule, as you say. Maybe it’s a sense of coherence or identity in a way. I’m actually thinking of clocks (because I’m David Hume now) in that there’s so much going on with the gears but it’s all necessary and fits together.

T: Och, David Huuuuume. From Scuhlund. He’s so rehtionel. You know nothing, David Huuuuume.

Sorry.

Yeah, I agree with the coherence thing. I don’t know that it squares with all the poststructuralism I swallowed at university, but as far as this goes I think that matters. Before you go off on a tangent while I buy bacon, let me just throw out there that pace matters. Go ahead. I’ll be back.

M: As a rabid poststructuralist, it works! The whole point of poststructuralism, in relation to this, is that we make perfection and completeness ourselves. Perfection didn’t die with poststructuralism; Platonic Perfection, that which exists in a vacuum, died.

I digress, and move to a different era in literature. Sherwood Anderson writes in “Death in the Woods,” “A thing so complete has its own beauty,” and I’m buying into that sentiment here. Perfection isn’t a moral thing, its a sense of wholeness and coherence and totality of self/vision that speaks to us beyond a purely technical level.

Also yes, pace does matter. Wonky pacing or structure ruins perfection real quick. Connections and allusions still exist (poststructuralism!), but the text throwing itself out of whack doesn’t bode well.

T: Bacon is expensive.

M: Is it from a long pig?

T: Man, it had better not be, or Whole Foods is going to be in a heap of trouble. And pace definitely matters. Personally I find myself preferring a more measured pace, where things build on each other without hurrying and yet without lagging. I think in a movie this is where it is so easy to lose your perfection like jellybeans falling out of a suitcase. A lot of movies don’t have the requisite timing.

M: And, to be clear, there’s not an exact structure either of us is looking for. Or I’m not, anyway.

T: There aren’t archetypes for this, precisely, but there are elements I look at and say, “Ah, yes, as it was in x movie, that’s promising.” But no, there’s not a formula.

M: Precisely. Nothing exists on its own, but things reach perfection from different roads.

T: Speaking of different roads, we may need to get on them momentarily. As Chaucer says: “Whan bacon hem priketh in hir corages, thanne longen folke to go on refrigerages.” I will accept being fired for this one.

M: They call him Mr. Pig.

T: When we return from this brief interlude—just imagine this a podcast and we’re talking about MeUndies or something—we’ll start working with some more specific examples and think about what makes individual texts elicit this reaction from us of “That’s perfect.” Anyway, MeUndies are made from a blend even softer than cotton…

And we’re back!

When we left off, before you bought oodles of soft, soft briefs, we came up with the following qualifications for what’s “perfect.”

  1. Self-contained doneness – within the story, it feels like it’s over when it’s over
  2. Emotional je ne sais quoi – left with a powerful and complex feeling
  3. Wouldn’t change it – no need to add or subtract
  4. Cohesion – consistent and connected style/vision/ideas, with a “form follows function” sensibility
  5. Pace – is appropriately sequenced and timed

 

T: And I guess the fact that something is good helps in being perfect, but I’m not really sure how it could do those five things and fail to be good.

M: I’m thinking of the source of many problems people have with SF or fantasy texts now, which is that they betray the rules of their universe in some way. Every movie or song gets you to buy into its world and needs to stay consistent with that to be perfect, or break it in ways that feel earned and natural.

T: That speaks to 4, I’d say.

M: I think so, but I felt like I talked my way into a better analogy.

T: The court notes the improved analogy.

M: Are we back to notarizing these things?

T: THUD

M: Perfect. Shall we move to examples?

T: I think that’d be spiffing. Where do we want to begin? Movies? Music? Books? Maybe books are a good place to start because we haven’t talked about those yet.

M: HOO BOY. What do you have in mind for a perfect book? I feel like I have a hard time judging that one.

T: Tell you what, I think novels, because they are so full, tend to be more perfect when they’re shorter. Like, topping out around 350 pages. The English Patient might be a candidate, but it is really at the edge of how much can happen in a novel while still being perfect. And yet I think Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, just to name a couple, might have sections of their novels which are perfect. Which is its own issue that I’ve accidentally opened up, good for me.

M: “The Grand Inquisitor” is perfect. I’ll abide no argument to the contrary. I’ve been thinking about the Russians, actually (no one is surprised, I know). Brothers Karamazov is just so good, but there’s no way it’s perfect as a whole.

T: There are elements of Anna Karenina which head that way, but there’s just a lot to digest. I will say the text of a play would, for this reason, speak to some level of perfection. Chekhov’s a good place to start here.

M: I found my in for Vonnegut, but go ahead with Chekhov.

T: You’re a wag, Vassily Vassilyich. I think The Sea Gull has a shot at it, and so does The Three Sisters. And part of what makes them feel perfect to me is of course our #2, but our #4 as well. Both of them use what’s offstage, or at least primarily offstage, as major thrusts in the actual text. Like Natalya, for example, in Three Sisters, who is clearly shtupping the unseen Protopopov and actively pushing the sisters out of their house so her kids will fill up more space. No one yells about it. It just happens while the sisters are sort of watching it happen or dreaming about Moscow or having their own affairs. There’s something special that happens there, and it builds on itself to create this stunning emotional explosion at the end. While I’m here, I also think Anita Brookner has a couple novels which might border on perfect for similar reasons.

M: I’m slowly talking myself into Slaughterhouse-Five being perfect, but I’m not there yet. The first chapter absolutely is. Really what I’m here for is “Harrison Bergeron.”

T: Short stories are winners here for sure. It’s the reason Flannery O’Connor’s short stories might reach this benchmark, but I wouldn’t say her novels do.

M: Nah, her short stories are much better for this. (thinks long and hard about “Revelation”)

Anywho, Vonnegut, for me, is the ultimate in deceptively simple writer. “Harrison Bergeron” is an easy story to understand and follow, yet I can offer like four different readings of it right away. Two plot threads (three if we follow the meta one while reading), all of which operate concentrically, and the end hits me with about three different emotions….

T: While you’re doing that – real quick, just want to note that separate readings of a perfect thing are fair game, obviously. We are orthodox enough poststructuralists for that.

M: Absolutely. I don’t think that detracts at all. Completeness doesn’t mean hermetically sealed.

T: I understand “hermetically sealed,” yet it really sounds like a Star Trek command. “Geordi! I need you to hermetically seal Main Engineering before the warp core breaches!”

Sorry.

M: Which is actually in the original draft of “Harrison Bergeron.” To finish this one, it’s a story with a clear path, a consistent world/vision, the requisite emotional impact, and ideally paced. Short stories win here because they tend not to overstay their welcome in any one place.

T: I’m going to throw down a gauntlet: this is the reason individual episodes of television can be perfect, but I really don’t think it’s possible to have a perfect season of TV.

I’m watching Matt think about that one.

M: I’m trying to make a case for something just for the sake of it, but I’m struggling. I think I agree.

T: Season 1 of The Wire, maybe, but like, you have to really believe in it. Maybe the third season of Breaking Bad. Mad Men doesn’t have it. The Simpsons and The Sopranos are probably out, just because for the former there are a lot of episodes and the latter because those are tonally uneven, just sort of ill-fitting sometimes.

M: The Wire came to mind. I’m out on Breaking Bad and agree with the other two of the big four. You’re probably right about The Simpsons having too many each season to make it work, but season 5 is so, so close. Now watch my face as I think about season 3 of Archer

T: The funny thing is I think there are probably more perfect episodes of TV than there are perfect movies, just because they come in large numbers.

M: We had a similar conversation earlier when I said there can’t be a perfect album (I’m trying real hard for there to be), so I have to agree on principle.

T: I was going to ask about the album thing again to see if you’d come up with anything else. Do you think a concept album has an easier time hitting that mark than a normal one?

M: I’m torn. I love concept albums, way more than what their critical cache is these days. It’s this weird thing where the concept actually gives the album more chances to betray itself, but it also engenders a certain potential level of cohesive success that non-concept albums don’t have. Also begs the question of narrative concept or stylistic concept – does it need a full story or can the concept stem from what an album presents stylistically – but that’s a rabbit hole I probably shouldn’t go down just yet.

T: I’m inclined to say plot, because otherwise I’m going to sit here and make an argument for Welcome Interstate Managers as a concept album on the basis of Americana cultural pastiche, and for heaven’s sake don’t make me or even allow me to do that. Also, don’t do that yourself either. I just thought of that.

M: I’d be right on that train with you. But yeah, I think that’s the right ground rule to set. Most concept albums come from prog-rock though, and I’m going to have a lot of people coming at me if I start saying prog rock albums are perfect.

T: That sounds about right. So far our conclusions, without a whole bunch of evidence in any direction…TV seasons and albums are almost impossible to make perfect, although individual episodes and songs can attain that. Also shorter novels, written plays, and short stories have a better shot at perfection than longer novels.

M: Sounds about right. As an attempt at “evidence” I’ll ruminate on Led Zeppelin IV right quick, which is the closest thing, for me, to a perfect album. Side A is unimpeachable. Side B has “When the Levee Breaks,” which might secretly be a top 3 Zeppelin song, and three other awesome tracks that I’m pretty sure most listeners could do without one of and feel fine. “Going to California” and “Misty Mountain Hop” are gentler affair, comparatively, and thus potentially a distraction for some, and “Four Sticks” is a four minute drum solo which, well I probably don’t need to say much about that. Every song is impressive, and they all add to the album’s vibe – which, and I forget who said this, some critic described as Zeppelin knowing when you feel like you wield the hammer of the gods and when you get the shaft – and it’s eight songs by Zeppelin at their peak. That’s a pinnacle of songwriting, but maybe it’s not all necessary.

 

I guess what I’m saying is something might could be changed, even if I can make a case for it meeting the other criteria.

T: That’s a good rundown, I think. And honestly I’m not exactly swimming in perfect albums. Or, ha ha, in perfect musicals either. I think I can say categorically that those don’t exist. Even Les Miz and Chess and Miss Saigon have dead spots. I do think it’s possible to have a perfect act, because Chess has a perfect second act or at least darn close to it, but whatever.

M: Is this your way of torturing me without saying ABBA has a perfect album?

T: WATERLOO! COULDN’T ESCAPE IF I WANTED TO!

M: I really can’t.

T: WHOA-OOH-OH-OOH-OH! KNOWING MY FATE IS TO BE WITH YOU! Eurovision isn’t perfect, incidentally. What else do we need to discuss?

M: Karma: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5iZE6-a9jU

T: Dear reader: do not click on that.

M: I think we need to discuss this, and I’m shocked it didn’t occur to us before. Is Russian Winnie the Pooh perfect?

T: In all seriousness, which I’m not sure is possible when we discuss him, I’ve never watched all of it at once.

M: I have. It’s beautiful.

Want to offer a perfect movie?

T: Sort of?

I’m going to link here to the Sight and Sound list from 2012, which is their most recent and which is the gold standard for this kind of thing: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time

We just had a moment thinking about Arrested Development. I’m going to talk about this real quick and Matt’s going to do a little dive on that.

The most recent Sight and Sound poll has their top 10 like so:

 

  • Vertigo
  • Citizen Kane
  • Tokyo Story
  • The Rules of the Game
  • Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
  • 2001
  • The Searchers
  • Man with a Movie Camera
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc
  • 8 ½

 

And out of that list, I would say that Tokyo Story and The Passion of Joan of Arc have a shot at perfect. Amusingly enough, Dreyer and Ozu are speaking the same language. But I think what I want to talk about a little is this idea that if something is too invested in our cultural imagery, it’s hard for it not to be fraught with us. Does that makes sense?

M: So, like, too much investment in our cultural imagery makes something less likely to be perfect?

T: More or less. Citizen Kane is just so profoundly wrapped up in our consciousness that it’s really difficult to separate it from ourselves as a culture. That may not have been true in 1941, but it’s definitely true now. It’s also worth noting that Kane, Sunrise, 2001, and Man with a Movie Camera are all there because of how innovative they are, which is not typically a way, I don’t think, to be more perfect. They aren’t clunky, precisely, but not all of them cohere within themselves. Take Kane again—does old Kane grunting around Xanadu work cohesively with the search back in time that the journalist does? Or does the gubernatorial campaign align well with the boy being taken away from his mother and his sled? I dunno. I know that’s a great movie because it uses a previously unusual narrative structure and previously underutilized technique to previously unheard of effect. But it’s not perfect.

M: XANADU! COULDN’T ESCAPE IF I WANTED TO!

But really, this is interesting. Can anything innovative to that degree be perfect? It seems like there’s too many kinks to work out, so to speak, in being a forerunner. Or we have the weight of subsequent responses/entries into the genre to pit against the innovator? So we can’t think of 2001 without thinking about Blade Runner, in some sense?

T: See, my issue with 2001 is the Louis XVI scene, which is a misstep from where I’m sitting. I don’t know that there’s necessarily conflict for perfection within other texts. Like, The Last Picture Show would not be any more or less perfect if Kane didn’t exist. The problem is that Kane is in us as people, not in Bogdanovich or Friedkin. And that takes away from the #4 qualifier, which breaks apart the cohesion of a text because it’s not just a movie anymore.

I also want to call attention to The Rules of the Game and The Searchers, which are sensational pictures and which also have production or political details which are…deep breath…a little problematic? And which tickle my mind in such a way that I can’t quite give them perfect. That may not be fair, and I’d be willing to be told so.

M: To move back one step, just for clarification, to the sled-campaign connection in Citizen Kane, you’re saying those don’t really work on a textual level but the audience fills in enough of a gap by being intimately familiar with what connections could exist there that the movie coheres with a little extra input, as it were?

T: It’s two different things for me. I think it’s fair to say that the movie’s innovation is what carries it, or heck, if you wanted to tell me that Kane as a complex character is interesting enough to carry the movie, I’ll buy that too. I think Kane has come to stand in as a synonym for “Great Movie,” and has come to mean more than itself. For example, if you look at the American New Wave, most of those guys say the movie that made them want to direct was Citizen Kane. There’s “Rosebud,” which is a major cultural touchstone. I think the more pressing issue with Kane is that it lacks a certain interiority anymore because it has become part of an American myth, like Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter. I feel like I’m not doing this idea justice.

M: I was on board until the very end, I think. I might still be, but a question for you. Can something perfect become not perfect?

T: I think so! A text is bound to change, or we are bound to change it.

M: I’m on board. Transitory perfection is something I can get behind. Because it is a cultural thing.

T: Mais oui, señor.

M: Which I think also informs something we mentioned at the outset. Perfect does not (necessarily) mean best. Perfection is situated in context, but some text could still be better, even if it’s messier by these standards. Which is okay.

T: The example I come back to, and which I used in that Topsy-Turvy post, was that Casablanca is perfect but I’m pretty sure Apocalypse Now, which is the country dirt road of war movies, is better.

M: Si, monsieur.

T: Did you come up with an answer about the first season of Arrested Development?

M: Let’s spitball! So, I’m looking at the episode list. This is the real test of the “too many episodes per season” problem but unlike, say, Seinfeld, which definitely has perfect episodes, Arrested Development is so intricately crafted and paced that it could certainly reach those standards. Any small moment could be vital later on. Side plots like Kitty or Maggie seem like potentially unnecessary diversions at first, but become important and vital to the whole. You take those away and parts of the season fall apart. So it’s beyond the recurring jokes and consistent story, which many sitcoms reject to some degree, to the point of I don’t know what comes out of season 1 that makes the show better and, importantly, not messier. Obviously the feeling here is mostly humor, but I’m also left in awe of how smart the season is and what it pulls off – especially the layers it keeps peeling back that work so well together. I think I might think season 1 is perfect, Tim. Am I wrong?

T: …am I allowed to think that devoting this many episodes to “Hermano” is sort of a whiff?

M: I forgot about that plot. Umm, probably not, but I also feel like I could argue that fits in similar ways as, say, Kitty.

T: I just think Kitty is funny and Hermano isn’t…

M: It’s definitely less entertaining than Judy Greer strutting around like a maniac.

T: That would be my counter, I guess, that I don’t really buy that as a strong subplot. And that’s what makes it so hard to have a perfect season of television, because all it takes is one B- joke, no matter how impressive the sell is, and whoosh.

M: It’s definitely not as strong as something like Buster being neither seen nor heard for, like, three episodes (which is actually probably a C-joke), but it does have a function in the overall thing. It’s not as strong, but it’s also not superfluous, I don’t think. That’s what I love so much about this season, it’s a giant nesting doll that feels contained and whole and structured.

T: But the execution is A+ for that Buster being neither seen nor heard joke. And if you’re a sitcom, goodness knows a great deal of your jokes are going to some C-level joke that you just have to pull off.

M: Can we agree the cast is perfect?

T: The cast is perfect. Oh, dude, this is the season with Annyong. Definitely not a perfect season.

M: I don’t know about that. The payoff for that is such a long vision that I’m not ready to concede that. And, like the Hermano thing, it shows us something vital about understanding a character (Buster) so it’s not wasted or even really, technically, tangential.

T: I think my issue with it is that it isn’t even tangential. But we seem to disagree about the fundamentals of this one. I have a question.

M: Shoot.

T: I dunno that I’ve convinced you that Citizen Kane is imperfect largely because of its cultural audience, but here’s an offshoot…is there anything which is blockbuster popular or bestseller popular which is also perfect?

M: Cool Runnings

T: Next!

M: I’m pretty much on board with Citizen Kane being imperfect. I mean, I don’t have an argument for it being otherwise so I’d say I totally agree. I also haven’t truly convinced myself that season 1 of Arrested Development is perfect, but I’m close. I have to contort stuff to make it so though, so I’m still leaning toward it being impossible for a TV season to be perfect. I am, however, still toying with how dangerous the cultural audience reasoning might be going forward. Seems like that could undermine a lot of stuff.

T: Broadly speaking, I agree. I also think that Citizen Kane is shorthand for “great movie” in such a way that it has a grip on us in the way that 99.9% of every movie ever made just doesn’t. Or can’t, even.

M: Fair. Here’s a corollary question to your previous one. Can something singular be perfect?

T: From a movie perfection, I look at that question as something like “Can the sole work of a single director be perfect?”

M: Hold up. I mean more can something with such unique cultural capital (Citizen Kane) be perfect? Maybe this isn’t a good question.

T: I guess so? Do you have a different example?

M: Not an example so much as wondering if everything that novel, let’s say instead, becomes so ingrained that it can’t be perfect.

T: Mmmmm. That makes more sense to me.

M: So, like, I’m thinking about songs I would consider perfect and I don’t know that any of them have that much of an influence. Prince, of course, is going to test this theory. But no one can be Prince in the ways that Citizen Kane keeps coming back in newer generations. So maybe my question is bunk on those grounds.

T: I suppose if we’re talking about what happens within the industry versus what people outside of it, i.e. regular consumers, would say. Like, Ordet is 24th in that latest Sight and Sound poll, and Dreyer’s work has an enormous influence on people like Scorsese and Schrader and heaven knows how many other directors. I’d say there’s even some Dreyer in Paul Thomas Anderson. I think Ordet (and Day of Wrath and maybe The Passion of Joan of Arc) is a basically perfect film, and it appears in these later movies. But I’m not personally drowning in people who have seen or heard of the movie. Not like it’s obscure or anything! Still, Ordet isn’t Citizen Kane.

M: Yeah, I guess my query isn’t a solid rule so much as the question “can something get too big for this conversation.” Let’s pit Prince and Michael Jackson against each other, like everyone in the 80s did, and see what happens. I don’t think MJ has a perfect song. “When Doves Cry” absolutely is. Thoughts?

T: I’m more anti-Jacko than anything else. For me, his songs universally violate Rule #3. I have no use for most of his breathy whoops. Not for like, enjoyment, but for the purposes of this discussion, yeah, imperfect.

M: Is “When Doves Cry” perfect for you?

T: Probably not? I don’t know that my reasoning is as obvious, though let’s say if there was a Rule it violates, it’s probably #2. I don’t know that I’m as there at the end of it as I’d need to be for me to call it perfect. Though that’s the most subjective out of all these subjective rules.

M: That songs knock me over every time. That he made a killer dance song with no bass still astounds me. I was mostly curious because he does his usual moaning and screaming stuff but that doesn’t seem to stand out to you like MJ’s.

T: MJ’s is more like a verbal tic that I have no use for…Prince seems more reasoned? I might be reading the guys themselves into that one.

M: That’s my reasoning – Prince’s stuff fits the feeling of the songs – I just wasn’t sure if you were there or not. That’s part of my argument for “When Doves Cry,” too, it has a definite feeling whereas most MJ songs just feel like, well, him doing the same stuff with a different melody.

T: He’s not a #3 violator for me, for sure.

M: “Landslide”?

T: “Landslide” is a stronger contender for me. I think that song lives within itself in a way that’s really effective. Strong, strong lyrics. I’ve always enjoyed Stevie more when she’s quieter, and that song doesn’t ask her to pound out the noise.

M: The only thing I would even hear in terms of possible violations is that Stevie pushes it too much at the end, so we’re on the same page, but I don’t think she does. I think the rise and then final break in her vocals seals it all up.

T: Whether or not the point is to break there, the break is part of what makes the song. Which is big for me to say! Because I’ve never been Mr. “I Need to Hear Everyone Feel the Song Like They’re Adele.”

M: Adele is the exemplum of big, loud emotion that overwhelms more than empathizes. Like, I never feel with Adele. I feel with “Landslide.”

T: That’s a good way to put it. One wants to be able to burrow up next to it. Grandeur on its own is rarely a good way to make something perfect. Which is a kettle of fish I just found. See?

M: It’s tied to our musings about length/size/scope, I think. In the ways that novels can derail themselves in more ways than short stories, something with that much grandeur can fail more easily than something more intimate, I think.

T: I have a good counterexample plus rationale in my aforementioned list. The Leopard is all about grandeur, the old guard of Sicilian nobility, but it works because the title character, played by Burt Lancaster, spends the last half-hour or so being profoundly vulnerable. He sees the future, and he understands it has more to do with Garibaldi’s new Italy than the Italy he and his ancestors came of age and held power in. This is a genuinely magisterial personage who is humble and human in cinema’s most powerful waltz. Ditto this a little bit for Thin Red Line, which uses Miranda Otto to tremendous effect, anchoring the soldiers in their pasts, outside a little bit of Guadalcanal.

M: I’m not saying grandeur is a non-starter, just that it’s harder to make work. Pomp without humanity is vacuous. I think The Leopard speaks to that, or so it seems.

T: I agree very much. There has to be some level of counterpoint to make that function.

M: That’s why the emotional criterion is so important to me, and I referenced this earlier. Something technically beautifully, or grand in scope so that it overwhelms, isn’t enough. Perfection is craft and feeling (cue Black Swan references).

T: It’s funny, but high school me would have definitely found more perfection in technical prowess or that profound bigness. As I get older, I start to definitely feel like there’s more room for feeling. Without that there’s a great emptiness.

M: Cloud Atlas. Which, to be clear, I won’t say is perfect (necessarily), but that story is so powerful to me because I feel so much while moving through an incredibly complicated and nuanced structure. It’s profound in scale and mood, but the former alone starts to feel empty.

T: Those of you with Cloud Atlas on your bingo cards can mark that off.

M: Oooohh, that’s a bingo!

T: Those of you with a Tarantino quote on your bingo cards can mark that off too.

So here’s where I want to pare this down a little bit. What are ten perfect…things…any genre you can think of? Which we haven’t mentioned already! And then we need to choose one and talk about why we think that exemplifies perfection, especially within that medium. Sound good?

M: Wanna go 9 and 9 and then save our 1 for a big finish?

T: What did the octogenarian pirate say?

M: Aye matey (speak it and it works)

T: We’re deciding that we’re both picking a Simpsons episode just because, which will not affect our count.

My Simpsons episode is: “$pringfield (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling)”. Few Simpsons one-liners quite match “I’m Idaho!” for sheer gusto, and there’s something really and truly dark—not in a cute early David Fincher way, but genuinely scary—about what happens when Marge not only chooses something instead of her family, but chooses something she seems unable to unchoose. It’s what Sepinwall talks about when he says the people behind The Simpsons were able to flip between drama and comedy.

M: In a turn from what I’ve been saying at the table, “Last Exit to Springfield.” The idiot Homer pulls the wool over Burns (unbeknownst to the former, of course). This episode is the perfect illustration of the emotional core to The Simpsons. Homer is foolish, but he loves his family. The Simpsons skewers American life, but it also shows what’s perfectly imperfect about the nuclear family and a community. No one topples the plutocrat Burns here, but small victories mean a lot.

T: I can’t hear you over DENTAL PLAN.

M: LISA NEEDS BRACES

T: DENTAL PLAN

M: LISA NEEDS BRACES

T: Seriously, when Twitter was good and you had to manually retweet everything, this was something you just did when it came across your timeline. I miss 2010 Twitter.

M: I’M IDAHO

T: Time to bend our Wookiees and share our nine additions. I’m just going to drop them here:

 

  • Providence, by Anita Brookner
  • “On My Own,” from Les Miserables
  • Fargo, dir. Joel Coen
  • Equus, by Peter Shaffer
  • “You Have to Be There,” from Kristina from Duvemala
  • The Wages of Fear, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
  • Mad Men S2E11, “The Jet Set”
  • Stalker, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
  • “Thunder Road,” by Bruce Springsteen

M: Bruce!

T: I really thought about that one. Came down to “Rosalita” or “Thunder Road,” and there’s a longing in “Thunder Road” that speaks to me more than the out-and-out goofy joy.

M: So mine. I’m focusing on some newer songs as a way of saying the new can be just as good as the old.

T: That’s very fair-minded of you.

M:

  • “No Halo,” by Sorority Noise
  • “Never Been Wrong,” by Waxahatchee
  • “Aquemini,” by Outkast
  • Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje
  • Futurama S5E16, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”
  • Scrubs S3E14, “My Screw Up”
  • “No One Knows,” by Queens of the Stone Age
  • “I Turn My Camera On,” by Spoon
  • “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” by Joy Division

T: These are very idiosyncratic lists.

M: Which is to say we’re the same as ever, how are you, readers?

T: Not like all of these are bold choices or anything. I think several of mine are like, pretty dull. But perfection is in the eye of the beholder. What’s your exemplar?

M: I’m guessing people will just be surprised I didn’t pull Cloud Atlas out here. Exemplar is “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog. I don’t know what to say beyond this song is absolutely gorgeous and perfectly crafted and like angels singing from on high. That wiry, looping guitar riff that carries the entire opening and first verse lends the perfect sense of claustrophobia for the catharsis of the chorus. Even so, the song knows to build incrementally, with the full grungy break down coming after Vedder and Cornell start puzzling their vocals together. (Also yeah, it has Cornell, may he live forever in my eardrums.) The song resets a bit, with a more sweeping feel, to go through some more chorus work, before breaking down once and for all. Lyrically, it’s a song about longing and entrapment and class and the music works perfectly with those themes. Cornell wailing takes it home, I’m legitimately in awe of his vocal work here.

T: Anything with Cornell certainly has a leg up. That was a rare, rare voice. I’ve got David Lean’s Brief Encounter, go figure.

M: We’re kind of predictable, but I don’t think we’re wrong.

T: I genuinely believe that Brief Encounter is the only romance originating in the past, uh, four hundred years which stands up to the old mythic stuff. And I guess this is something of an answer to our Citizen Kane Conundrum from earlier on, because Brief Encounter does live in people’s brains in much the same way. And I still think it’s essentially perfect. It really boils down to one choice for me, almost certainly necessitated by the censors, and that’s the fact that Laura and Alec never do a bit of the old “How’s your father?” There’s nothing more for Laura to take back of this affair than a few weeks of memories and guilt and a strong hand on her shoulder. It’s too wonderful.

M: Both of ours end in not idyllic, but earned places. Nothing feels resolved, perse, at the end of “Hunger Strike,” but that makes the ending stronger. It feels like a breakthrough in its own way, not simply a bow. Am I reading that as true for Brief Encounter as well?

T: The way that Laura’s husband seems to know that she’s strayed (“Thank you for coming back to us”) is likewise essential, I think. It emphasizes what she’s done and also muddles the sense that she’s done something rewarding for her; she can’t just go back to her life.

M: Yeah, I mean in the sense that neither feels the need to “fix” everything so it ends entirely pleasantly. The endings are a sign of something new without wiping away what just happened.

T: I agree very much with that.

M: Cool. Then we are on the same page, I just needed to reword.

T: Any last thinks on this one? This is sort of new ground for us, I’d say.
M: I love this genre for us. As for the particular subject, it’s a fascinating hermeneutic to me. Something different from asking “what’s best” or “what’s most important.” Obviously those questions speak to individual values as well, but I like the ones this question of perfection speaks to. I like even more that it’s not a replicable formula. Like, I could tell someone reasonably well what things go into a text that I will consider among the best. What goes in perfect ones, I’m not so sure, the text needs to speak to me.

T: We have a very arbitrary set of standards for perfection, for sure. But it definitely means there’s not a right answer. There’s always a right answer for “What’s best/important?” There’s more humanity in perfection than in straight-up quality. That’s my takeaway.

M: I agree, and I like that. (And it’s also deeply poststructuralist of us, which of course delights me.)

T: …yay for feels.

M: Hey, Tim. Call Mr. Plow.

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