In the following talk, Tim and Matt discuss a concept that’s been floating around their conversation for a while: “the worst greatest thing.” Matt gives his bands takes, Tim gives his movies takes, and both weigh in on novelists. What follows is a lightly edited conversation in lieu of a podcast. Happy reading, all.
Tim: It’s time for another one of our long conversations about vague things. This one has been brought on because I’m suddenly worried about the audio driver on my computer. How’s stuff, Matt?
Matt: Oh good, the audio driver is dying. I’m listening to Queens of the Stone Age, have some iced chai, and there’s a gorgeous yellow lab over yonder, so I’m basically in my quintessential state.
Tim: I just watched Straw Dogs, otherwise known as “the other extraviolence movie of 1971,” so I am not. But we carry on!
Today we are chatting about a topic that I’m calling “The Worst Greatest Thing,” which is something I’ve been bouncing around my brain for a few months now but which I think Matt does a better job of explaining succinctly than I do.
Matt: I do a better job at succinct? If my professors could see me now!
Here’s the idea. When we ask what’s the best of or at something answers always vary. What we’re interested in today is, basically, what’s the last thing on a given list of possible bests that still works. Put differently, if I asked a question for best X and got 5 different answers, we could then rank those answers and talk about whatever ends up fifth – that is, the worst possible best. Or least best, if you prefer.
Tim: My mental image of this is of someone saying, “[name of movie/book/album] is the best of all time,” and then everyone sort of goes, “Yeah” and then nods and maybe they bicker about it, but it stops short of being laughed out of the room. Once people snort their milk or get angry or something, it no longer qualifies.
Matt: The classic milk snorting test. When you first mentioned it I thought immediately of the interminable “Best Beatle” question. It’s not a bad example, though. I find people will generally accept, McCartney, Lennon, or Harrison as an answer even if they’re gearing up to tell you why one is better. Say Ringo, though, and the laughing begins.
Tim: Gentle readers: watching Matt try to figure out a way to phrase the idea of milk reappearing through someone’s nose or mouth without making it sound weird is pretty great.
I think we probably have to start with this whole canonicity bit again, right? I feel like most of our conversations, even the ones about like, proper ways to make sauce for pasta, start with canonicity and what it practically is and why we have it and why we keep returning to it.
Matt: All conversations are about canonicity, it seems. Which makes sense the further I get in life. It’s about power of choice and cultural influence. What are we saying here that’s different, though? Something beyond the general ‘canons are illuminating to a point but never actually fully representative or complete’?
Tim: I think a lot of the conversation about cruel slow-motion laughter plays in here. I think different people have different canons they refer back to, obviously, and for that reason if I went to one of those awful GenX people and told them that Vertigo was the greatest movie ever made, I would probably have to towel off a great deal of dairy and then lower my blood pressure while they all oozed about Die Hard or something. It also cuts the other way…if you find one of those Sight and Sound adherents, which I happen to be, then a movie like the ‘59 Imitation of Life has to be in the conversation because it’s on the list…even if it’s not particularly hot-button right now. I suppose I’m wondering who our little canon is for.
Matt: It’s amusing that I’m the one who can’t figure out the milk analogy and am also lactose intolerant.
To be overly blunt, our little canon is initially for us since it’s reflective of us. Which doesn’t mean I think this is simply an exercise in solipsism, not at all. Rather, there are people (GenXers or otherwise) who won’t pick up any of what we’re laying down. If I’m to generalize, it feels like the dividing line between who will and won’t dig this exercise comes down to who feels they understand themselves more by asking about what “best” even means or could mean and those who understand themselves more by whatever they think is the best, respectively. Did that make any sense?
Tim: That was very generous. I no longer feel like I have to kick out all the Gen Xers from this discussion any longer.
[Editor: Baby Boomers still fair game]
So here’s my plan, vague as it is…I’m going to throw some English-language bands at Matt. He will presumably throw some movies at me. Then we’ll throw some novelists at each other. I think my goal is to get right on top of that line between “eh, you do you” and “eh, here’s some nosemilk.” Sound okay?
Tim: I hate you.
Matt: Let’s do it!
Tim: I’m going to start with a pair of softballs, even though I feel like I know your opinions on these two pretty well. Already. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Matt: I’d accept either as an answer to “best rock band,” maybe not “best musical artist,” but I lean Stones. Rock music isn’t the same without either, but it’s especially not the same without the Beatles. The real difference, though, is that pop isn’t the same without the Beatles, which is why I’d entertain them for Best Artist but probably not the Stones.
Now, I lean Stones basically because they’re better at blues rock. I dig the older, sweaty, swaggering stuff and that’s what The Rolling Stones exude. That said, I could never come up with an argument for why The Beatles isn’t a viable answer. All of which is to say, to me The Stones are a better best rock band, but in general I’d say The Beatles are tops and Stones are second.
Tim: We’ll do one more softball and then I’ll branch out a little – The Beach Boys.
Matt: Where they fit in the grand scheme? Pet Sounds might be the best album from any of the three on the table right now. The real problem comes with people actually agreeing on a genre for The Beach Boys. To my mind, they’re probably a top 10 artist, massively influential on American music, but, unfortunately, usually an also-ran with The Stones and, especially, The Beatles.
Tim: All right, how about Wilson Phillips? (That’s a joke.) (The more I think about it I’m less convinced it’s a joke, but nah.)
Matt: Don’t make me wax about “Hold On”
Tim: Bridesmaids was last night’s entertainment, so they’re in my mind right now. Not mentioned in Bridesmaids: Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Matt: I’m listening to “Hold On” now. Damnit.
Lynyrd Skynyrd! God do I have thoughts. Hang on while I find their first album to play.
Tim: While he does that, I cheated slightly and Googled some “best bands” stuff and I’m fooling around with some possibilities that seem a little pungent to me.
Matt: I’m so excited. I’m also jamming now. Going to ask for permission here, can I clear up some Skynyrd stereotypes right quick?
Tim: I’d say that would be fair.
Matt: It’ll help this warm take, hopefully. So, they aren’t the backward southern swamp folk that their reputation makes them out to be. At least the original lineup wasn’t. Half the band died in a plane crash in the 70s, they went on hiatus for like 15 years and then came back as a glorified cover band. That’s a bit mean, and they have made new music since the new lineup, but the stereotypes stem, primarily anymore, from the newer lineup being basically a walking meme of the South. The version of the band from the first three albums is clever, progressive, and can freaking rock. “Saturday Night Special” advocates stricter gun laws, “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” grapples with racial and musical appropriation, “Sweet Home Alabama” is sarcastic about the whole true southerner thing. I’m really saying give Skynyrd another chance, because the music is so good and not what you think.
Let’s break down some categories and see how they work as a best.
Tim: I want to say right now that I had no idea Matt had this many opinions about Skynyrd.
Matt: Sorry everyone.
Tim: I’m just saying this wasn’t a planned bit or anything. This just happened.
Matt: Can confirm, I just sprung this on Tim. Skynyrd hate is one of my bugaboos.
Some list options in no particular order: Best southern rock album, best southern rock band, best american rock band, best band.
Pronounced Leh-Nerd-Skin-Nerd is the best southern rock album. “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Free Bird,” and “Simple Man” are all here. And my favorite track isn’t even one of those four, that belongs to “I Ain’t the One.”
Here’s where I incite Allman Brothers fans. Skynyrd is the best southern rock band. I know what I’m about to ask is not actually a great metric, but it’s illuminating. Name, oh, five Allman Brothers singles that the general public knows. I just named four on one album for Skynyrd that I can easily imagine some random person in this coffee shop having heard even if they don’t know them. Allman Brothers has a Grateful Dead thing for me, incredibly talented and influential to musicians, but that’s not all that matters.
Tim: I dunno that I’d call myself an “Allman Brothers diehard,” but I definitely listen to way more of them than Skynyrd. Your verdict is that you would not lactose-laugh Lyrnyrd Skynyrd out, then?
Matt: Correct. I’m being a smidge hyperbolic to make the case for Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers are a great band. Ultimately I’m building to I wouldn’t lactose-laugh Skynyrd out of a conversation about best American rock bands, but probably wouldn’t go further than that.
Tim: I have come up with a more structured way to do this, partially because I have a hard time judging this blind. I have come up with a few matrices of three bands…
Matt: Would it be easier to ask a “Best X” question and then run through the options until we hit the Worst Best?
Tim: It’s more like that. So here’s my first matrix: ZZ Top, R.E.M., Blues Traveler. Do any of them strike you as obviously milky? (We’ll ignore that there is a lot of unintentional hilarity here.)
Matt: What’s my guiding question? What am I judging their bestness at?
Tim: You’re in the cafeteria, someone says “I think ZZ Top might reasonably be called the greatest band ever formed.” What do you say?
Matt: The stakes are high! As much as it pains me, I can say right away I can’t abide Blues Traveler if the question for them is the same.
Tim: Okay, that’s good. I was hoping we would get there.
Matt: I can only be so weird. I can also say fairly quickly I would hear out an argument for R.E.M. in that context. You’ve hit on the tricky one for me. And I don’t know that I could not snort at a ZZ Top suggestion. That hurts me, but I can’t imagine ever thinking them as the best.
Tim: Let’s start here: if R.E.M. gets a “Well, go on” from you, what are you waiting to be convinced on? Is it how many good songs deep there are per album? Is it the number of great albums generally? Is it influence? Is it peak or longevity? I realize I said “let’s start here” and then threw several enormous ideas at you.
Matt: Having started, let’s begin. Depth and longevity are precisely why I’m listening in the first place. R.E.M. had a stupid peak run, about 10 albums long. All of which are overflowing with great songs. I think I’d be waiting to hear more on influence, and even more specifically, I think, lasting influence. R.E.M. is the head honcho of 80s and 90s college rock, and, as many know, had a big influence on Nirvana. I think everyone likes R.E.M. but I’d have to hear more on why they endure in ways similar to the Beatles or Stones.
Tim: I am suddenly glad that I started with Beatles/Stones, because I feel like there’s kind of a gap between them and everyone else. Not a chasm, but a gap big enough to sort of problematize saying anyone else is in consideration for the top spot. And whether that’s the popular consensus or not is something we might consider.
Matt: Yeah, anytime the question of “best band ever” happens it starts with Beatles/Stones. They are the barometer.
Tim: I have two more matrices if you want them.
Matt: You know I do.
Tim: Here’s an accidentally W-themed one: Wings, Weezer, and the Wu-Tang Clan. Any of these stand out to you as “I’m listening” or “I’m laughing” material?
Matt: As best band ever, I’m laughing at Wings first, then Weezer a few seconds later, and I’ll listen to Wu-Tang Clan for the sheer audacity of it but probably laugh in the end. Although, when you say Wu-Tang do you mean only the group albums or does this include their extended universe of solo releases?
Tim: I think it has to be the former, or otherwise there’s a case to be made that Wings is in contention for “best band ever.”
Matt: Good point. I still wouldn’t listen to Wings, but good point. I’m definitely laughing off Wu-Tang then, but not until I listen a bit because of that person’s chutzpah. Like, I just wouldn’t be expecting Wu-Tang in the same way is what I mean. It raises an interesting question besides though, are there any hip-hop artists that wouldn’t get laughed off in the conversation?
Tim: I think we’re about to see how deep your Outkast devotion goes.
Matt: I’d listen, intently so. I’d listen to cases for Outkast, Biggie, and I don’t know after that. Nas’ catalogue isn’t deep enough even if Illmatic still kills. I’m not big on 2Pac but I guess I would have to hear that one out.
Tim: Offhand, I’m way more likely to listen to the Biggie argument than the 2Pac argument.
Matt: Me too. But I get that people love 2Pac and would hear that out of respect, I suppose, even if I’d never agree. I really want to say Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but I’m hesitant. Run D.M.C. probably deserves a listen, but I’m probably out on that one. Eric B. and Rakim fit into the Nas dilemma for me as well.
Tim: I have one more matrix and then a question that I hope will sort of round this off. Though I do think we could probably spend hours just running out groups of three and seeing where that goes, which is appealing to me, but there’s a limit to how long I think we can reasonably carry on.
Matt: People would stop reading.
Tim: I’m going to try to get my money’s worth out of this one: Kiss, Johnny Cash, Talking Heads.
Matt: That is so not where I thought that was going. I’ll give Kiss this, they actually cared to tour in and focus on fans in rural and forgotten areas in terms of where concerts happen. But no, laughing right away. And wow these other two are perplexing me more than I expected.
Okay, I’d listen to an argument for Johnny Cash. I think one has to. Country and rock take influence from him, he has several timeless songs, and his persona is firmly situated in popular consciousness (even if the whole prison thing was fabricated). Cash belongs in the conversation.
And now we see how far my abiding love of Talking Heads actually goes.
Tim: My gut reaction, a gut which is less trained than yours, says that by depth and longevity Johnny Cash is definitely worth the listen. And Talking Heads probably not? But I’m curious.
Matt: Yeah, Cash is there. I mostly felt bad because I forgot about him when we started this. I’ll start with Talking Heads probably don’t belong. But I’m very tempted. Which probably means they’re a good case study for, to borrow March Madness lingo, the “first four out” demographic.
Tim: Oh, hey, that’s on brand.
Matt: Talking Heads have the albums and songs, both quantity and quality. Of course, they only lasted about 15 years, so it’s not as extensive as an R.E.M. or the Stones. By the same token, I don’t know that there’s a bad Talking Heads album. Plus, they were one of the keys to ushering in New Wave and, honestly, forging a new direction in American music. R.E.M. and Pixies, I think, only happen after Talking Heads exist (and Blondie). That said, besides when “Burning Down the House” or “Once in a Lifetime” come on, you aren’t hearing many people name Talking Heads as one of their favorite bands (though most people I know do like them). I guess to sum that up, they aren’t in the conversation for me, but they’re tantalizingly close.
Tim: I’m glad we closed with that one. So here’s my question: what are three bands (or maybe as many as five) which you think straddle the line? If Talking Heads count then they count.
Matt: Ooh, that’s good. Yeah, Talking Heads go there. Fleetwood Mac are probably on the line. The Who are near it for me, but I recognize some people would fervently disagree. Here’s one I like the more I think about it: Metallica.
Tim: I thought about Metallica as one to ask, and then I was like, they might be too good for this.
Matt: So you would listen to an argument for them as best ever?
Tim: My heart would say no. My brain would say, “Well, we can hear this out.”
Matt: I think I’m in a similar spot. “Last Four In,” to keep with that. Their 80s output is undeniable. It’s after that that has messed with their reputation a bit.
Tim: If influence matters a lot, then it’s hard to argue with them. I mean, not for like, capital-B “Best,” but enough to put the foot in the door.
Matt: Black Album, for as much flak as it gets, went a long way to making metal a viable commercial genre. That’s after their first four albums basically invented thrash (he said, pissing off Slayer and Megadeth folks)
Now that I’ve said Black Album, I’m reminded of AC/DC.
Tim: Okay, so I was watching this video of people performing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes like they were Mumford outcasts, and one of the songs they did was this very…meandering version of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” which had this brief interlude where the singer started playing “Thunderstruck” on his acoustic guitar, and the woman playing the violin just made this totally back of the nasal passages “uhhhhhhhhhhh” noise in just the right moment, and I died laughing, and now we can talk about AC/DC again.
Matt: The essence of AC/DC is well-timed, hysterical funny noise.
Tim: Were I not married I might have fallen in love. You should meet her.
Matt: Clearly I have a thing for musicians. AC/DC isn’t the best band ever.
Tim: Glad we got that out of the way quickly.
Matt: But they do make one wonder how much popularity matters. Those dudes are still big. And they have great songs. But no, not the best. Would not entertain. Here’s one for both of us: Would we entertain Rush?
Tim: Okay, so something I think about a lot is if something is the best, how much of it needs to be taken out. It’s essentially nitpicking, shaving off very minute hairs sticking out, whatever. I worry about this because I wonder if I’m nitpicking too much, and then I’m like, if it’s the Best, then shouldn’t reduce my nitpicking? And my question is, does the Ayn Rand Memorial Lyrics business knock them out?
Matt: I should say I got here out of a want to have a prog band make the cut. Thought about Yes real hard.
Tim: I thought about asking about them too! Also thought they were probably too good.
Matt: I’d put Yes in. And Cream. I don’t know what to do with King Crimson. Genesis might be on the line for me. Rush though! To be fair, they have walked back the Ayn Rand stuff, but 2112 looms large.
Tim: Not least because 2112 kicks butt.
Matt: Absolutely. Musically Rush slays. My gut says if I’ve ever had the reaction “stop talking and just play” they probably aren’t the best. Maybe that situates them on the line then?
Tim: Not to sound like a middle-schooler, but I think the Rand and some of the insane stuff like 2112 is basically coming from the same place.
Matt: 2112 is some of the Rand stuff. That’s where it started in earnest.
Tim: That’s what I mean…like, I feel like it’s hard to separate the music from the politics, but the music here is exceptional. “The Trees” has never given me that problem…I can separate the music from the politics, which, boy, those are dumb. I feel like we’re leaning on a conversation for later.
Matt: A timely one, actually, about art and artists’ convictions and actions.
Tim: I like the early Protestants for several reasons, but their inclination to just destroy stuff sort of appeals to me. Whatever.
Matt: Dear reader, putting on 2112 at the exact moment that Tim typed “I like the early Protestants” is the highlight of my week.
Tim: WE ARE THE PRIESTS/OF THE TEMPLES/OF JESUS
Matt: I actually think we might have talked me into Rush as a band on the line. I know a few people who would actually say they’re the best. I can’t get there, but I’d hear it out.
There’s a not small part of me that wants to do some crafting now and make an actual spectrum for this.
Tim: …as opposed to what we’ve been doing?
Matt: Not at all. As supplement. Just physically graphing out where we’ve put the various bands and maybe adding a few. It wouldn’t make any sense without this conversation.
Tim: In the spirit of the First Napkin. (I reference the, ah, “A-Hole Spectrum,” which, we started weird.)
Matt: Long may it live.
Tim: Shall we change the subject? (I like the graphing idea.)
Matt: Want I should throw you some matrices as well with the question of “Best Movie Ever” in mind? Or are your whims different?
Tim: I was thinking you should start with a baseline (which, happily enough for your example, also started with three). Then matrices sound good.
While he’s thinking about stuff, I want to make the point that the qualifications are obviously different, because “depth” and “longevity” don’t necessarily carry over very neatly for this. And yet…they do. Depth in particular for me implies that the entire movie works…if it’s got too much mess that needs to be swept aside, then it doesn’t really shine anymore. (Really, in the spirit of this conversation, we should be talking about directors, but there really are only fifteen or so right answers to that question…in no particular order: Welles, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Bresson, Eisenstein, John Ford, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Lean, Fellini, Godard, Spielberg, Scorsese, Kurosawa, Ozu. My foot may go into my mouth here.)
Matt: I’m positive my foot went in my mouth above, so you’re in good company. With the Beatles/Stones thing in mind, I’m going to name some movies I know you rank highly and then sort of work down to the line. That’s the theory anyway, that track with what you’re thinking?
Tim: Sounds good.
Matt: 2001, Vertigo, and The Searchers.
[Editor: 2112 still bangs.]
Tim: Vertigo is, as of 2012, holding down the top spot in Sight and Sound’s decennial poll. Citizen Kane might be the shorthand version of “greatest movie ever,” but Vertigo is definitely the one in vogue right now. If I were not a contrarian at heart, I would probably outright call 2001 the greatest English-language movie ever. And The Searchers is probably the greatest Western ever made. All three of them have a reputation for a little bit of coldness; none of them are read as particularly snuggly or easy to love. (Go on Reddit for ten minutes, and while none of the people on r/movies have heard of The Searchers, they know they’re turned off by Vertigo.) The more I watch them the more sure I am that each of them has this clear beating heart, and I’m definitely drawn in by each one on an emotional level. Add in strong acting, some of the most recognizable/legendary visuals in cinema, and some absolutely absurd innovation in each, and we’re talking three of the greatest movies ever made without a doubt. This goes without even mentioning the whole influence bit, because each of them bent their genres in totally different directions. (Matt has chosen, incidentally, my #2, #3, and #6 best American movies from my project last summer…clever girl.) Verdict: would listen and maybe even agree with any of the three.
Matt: Let’s get some non-English language films in.
Tim: You tease.
Matt: Always. 8 ½, Seven Samurai, and The Seventh Seal.
Tim: The joke here is that “they aren’t in English, they’re in math!”
Matt: Universal language my ass.
Tim: So there are definitely a lot of people who would name one of those three the greatest film of all time. The one that I think has the best argument is Seven Samurai, which just about every action film ever made owes some kind of debt to, and which is a blast besides. Aside from being beautifully made (and it really is gorgeous), that’s a movie which has everything. It has a remarkable eye on its society, brilliant acting performances, family drama, personal drama, psychological drama, rousing action sequences, young love, a reasonably nuanced take on good and evil. And it never feels crowded, is always a great watch. The problem I have with saying that 8 ½ or The Seventh Seal is the greatest movie of all time is that I’m not sure either one of those is best movie from either of those directors. (I’m sort of out of the mainstream here, but I’d go with La Dolce Vita or Amarcord for Fellini.)
Matt: So would you hear out an argument for La Dolce Vita or Amarcord two as best ever?
Tim: I don’t think I would? La Dolce Vita is right on the line for me, but I don’t know that I would credit it. If someone told me Cries and Whispers or Fanny and Alexander was the best movie ever made, I would probably listen to that conversation. But The Seventh Seal I wouldn’t.
Matt: 8 ½? The natural conclusion is that you wouldn’t name it best, but would you laugh at a suggestion that it is?
Tim: I wouldn’t. That one’s sort of on the line for me too. I think there are some moments in the back half that are kind of messy, on the whole, even though I think the ending is incredible.
Matt: I mentioned Tarkovsky earlier and then took him away. I confess to not know his movies well enough, but, in an effort to give some shine to non-English directors, does he have any movies you would hear an argument for?
Tim: …almost any of them, weirdly enough? Definitely Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and Stalker. I dunno that one ponies up for Solaris or The Sacrifice or something like that, but those first three are basically unique.
Matt: Do you have more you want to say here or do you want a weird set?
Tim: Real quick: we have not said Citizen Kane yet, which is really something. The Rules of the Game or Grand Illusion are both in the conversation; Au hasard Balthazar is too, I think. I’m also a big Dreyer stan, so for me Day of Wrath and Ordet are slam dunk choices. Weird set!
Matt: I thought a couple of those were clearly in the conversation so I didn’t bother. Sort of like Dylan and Bowie didn’t come up in the music section, but they’re definitely great choices.
Tim: Ah. This is very fair. (Also, lol for just tossing Kane out there like a ton of bricks.)
Matt: I mean, obviously people will say Kane. It sort of is the ton of bricks in this conversation.
Tim: Much agree.
Matt: Weird set! Toy Story, Mad Max: Fury Road, and, in honor of a recent Ringer podcast that I think is wrong, The Social Network.
Tim: I didn’t listen to that one, but I did see like, one of those slightly pictorial slideshows with words underneath they do. There was not a single good take from what I saw! It was almost impressive! Anyway, it’s a no for all of them.
Matt: Any of them close(ish)?
Tim: I didn’t laugh when I read Toy Story or Mad Max, so that’s something. The Social Network is just definitely out for me. The greatest movie ever made just doesn’t have Aaron Sorkin involved. But more seriously, it lacks the punch that you’d need to measure up. I think Mad Max has that kind of energy, it has the visuals, it has the story that works enough to get by. I think the movie slows down unnecessarily when they find Charlize Theron’s homeland and they decide to ride off on motorcycles for a minute. It’s not a problem, really, and it works in the long run, but it’s a corner the movie can’t uncorner itself from neatly. Toy Story is kind of a tempting choice, but I’m not sure it’s beautiful enough? That sounds terrible considering how groundbreaking it is, but them’s the breaks.
Matt: Hang on. Do you mean aesthetically or emotionally?
Tim: The aesthetics, yeah. I don’t know that you could say that it measures up to something by Malick or Bergman or Coppola.
Matt: That’s akin to me saying an artist from the 60s wouldn’t belong in the conversation because recording technology wasn’t as good as now. And you picked three other directors who didn’t work with animation.
Tim: I dunno that I buy the analogy. A cleaner one is to say that one could eliminate a movie from the ‘20s because the transfer isn’t as good as the transfer from the ‘90s or something, but there are lots of ‘20s movies that are definitely in the running for “Best movie ever.” This will also sound bad, but I’m really not sure there’s an animated movie that could be the best movie ever. Part of that is just the number of animated movies compared to the number of non-animated ones, but I think we have yet to meet an animated movie that measures up to some of the best ever made.
Matt: That was my next question. Related, not even Wall-E? But first, I still find your analogy to be skirting the animation part. They’re different recording technologies, so you’re basically saying the animation isn’t as beautiful as a live movie or that Toy Story isn’t as beautiful as should have been expected from an animated movie in 1995.
Tim: It’s not as beautiful as it has to be to be the best movie of all time. Spirited Away is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen this year, probably top five. And Toy Story looks great! But it doesn’t look great enough for the big spot. Looks perfectly great enough to be one of the best animated movies ever, but it doesn’t live with a movie shot by Sven Nykvist or Gordon Willis or someone like that.
Matt: I have Toy Story below the “worst best” line too, but we’re at an impasse here. I’m tempted to call you Plato.
Tim: …this discussion has brought out the claws.
Matt: Not claws, I’m not upset. It brought out the philosopher always near the surface in me.
Tim: Plato’s disbelieving friend? : p
Matt: Behold the Socratic dialogue, friends!
So now that we’ve dipped fairly well below the line, let me throw out some new options to fill out this scatterplot. Apocalypse Now, Mulholland Drive, and Rashomon.
Tim: Rashomon is below my line, partly because I think Seven Samurai is better and partly because I don’t think of it as a specially powerful movie. It’s thought-provoking and original (not like the story is original, but for film it definitely is) and it’s made super well. But it’s definitely more academic than affecting. Mulholland Drive is very tempting, but it’s also below my line.
Matt: Sorry, real quick. Can we say Mulholland Drive is The Talking Heads of this section? I want very badly for the Davids to be together.
Tim: Mulholland Drive might be more Next Four Out than First Four Out (not literally, clearly), but tell you what, that’s a movie that’s totally indelible. It’s David Lynch, so not everything hits all the time, but there are so many parts which are just stunning. I love that performance of “Crying” in Spanish, which is a double or triple performance. The Bum leaves me numb. I just don’t know that it’s at Ordet or Vertigo level for sheer power, to choose two movies that are so unlike Mulholland Drive.
Apocalypse Now is at that level though, and I like that you’ve chosen this one because I think there are lots of people who would kick that out of contention entirely for the Brando portions of the movie, which I grant are tedious depending on whatever mood I’m in. But for me this is Coppola’s best movie. It’s so much more gripping and emotional than either of the first two Godfather movies, and the best scene of Apocalypse Now (the helicopter attack on the village) is probably as good as any other scene ever made. I think the Brando scenes add to the general confusion that surrounds the movie’s characters, and the scene where Martin Sheen comes out of the mist and slaughters him is chilling. I know a lot of people differ and that’s okay with me. (I’m the same guy who prefers the Redux and thinks the Playboy bunnies and the French plantation are great, so I guess that says a lot about me.)
Matt: I can’t say for myself that Apocalypse Now is the best Coppola film (but I’m not the point in this section), it’s certainly in the conversation to me though. Most people would laugh it off?
Tim: Would they?
Matt: I’m asking. You said that above, so I guess I’m wondering why.
Tim: Oh, that thing I said. I think there’s a group of people who would, and if they did it would be almost entirely about the Brando thing. And if they had actually gotten Jack Nicholson for that part, I don’t think it would even be controversial that Apocalypse Now outstrips The Godfather. But no, I wouldn’t say most people would. Offhand, I think The Godfather is only about five spots up from Apocalypse Now on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, and I know it’s higher on the latest Sight and Sound list.
Do you have a final weird set? I think that would tie us both at three.
Matt: As I cut it down on the fly, totally. There Will Be Blood, Pulp Fiction, and Cloud Atlas.
And by Cloud Atlas I mean Tokyo Story (don’t hurt my feelings by talking about CA)
Tim: Tokyo Story might genuinely be the greatest movie ever made, full stop. I don’t think I’d put it there, but that’s a movie which doesn’t have any flaws.
Matt: My ignorance shows here, I didn’t know that. Should I pick a different one then?
Tim: If you want to, you could. I might be slightly more bearish than the average guy on Tokyo Story, but that’s a good ‘un.
Matt: Here’s two just because. Metropolis and Thin Red Line.
Tim:Oh, good. (This is Matt punishing me for tossing Talking Heads at him earlier.)
Tim: I don’t think Metropolis is, nor do I think Pulp Fiction is. Metropolis is also closer to being on my line than Pulp Fiction, which I’m not sure is even super close. Pulp Fiction relies an awful lot on its screenplay, and you’re probably saying, “Well, shouldn’t it?” And it’s a great screenplay. It’s as good as we’ve heard in many years. What Pulp Fiction kind of reminds me of is those competitive cooking shows where the chefs all make duos, and the judges say, “Well, a duo is more risky because if one part doesn’t work, then the entire thing falls in on itself.” Pulp Fiction is a duo (the first part and the last part are the same thing, honestly), and I’ll go ahead and say I think the Bruce Willis section is probably too off kilter to pass muster for “Best ever.” For Metropolis, I’m having the same problem I was having with Fellini earlier…I’m not sure it’s better than M, and by that “logic” it can’t be the greatest ever made if it’s not Lang’s best. (M is around my line, but probably a little below it.)
Matt: I’m very excited for the next two.
Tim: The Thin Red Line isn’t the best movie ever made. I don’t think you could say that, partly because, funnily enough, it kind of has a similar issue to the end of Apocalypse Now. It reaches a kind of natural climax and then pushes on for another half hour or so of great movie but not necessarily best movie. It keeps creeping up higher on my list of great American movies, and someday when I redo my Top 100 it’s going to be comically high, but I can’t in good conscience send it above something like Vertigo.
Matt: But, if I said The Thin Red Line is the best movie ever made, would you spit-take your milk at me?
Tim: I wouldn’t. That’s so weird to say. And here’s the thing about “best” that we’ve kind of circled around without ever having hit on the head, but “best” implies it’s kind of old, right? Especially when we’re talking about mediums like “bands/performing artists” or “movies,” which have an entire 20th Century behind them.
Matt: That’s something I’ve been thinking about since we stopped talking about music, actually. Everyone we mentioned was old, and I’ve been thinking of any “contemporary” acts I would hear out for best ever. I have a few in mind, but it’s hard without the analytic distance.
Tim: The distance is so important! This is a thing I get really antsy about…we all assume that we can pick the best of something right away, and every time it’s two decades on and everyone’s like, “Wow, what were those morons from the past thinking?” I got into a fight with someone on Reddit about the meaning of the word “masterpiece” a couple months ago, and there were a lot of people on that thread who were basically like, “Well, if I think it’s great then it’s a masterpiece,” and I was saying that “Masterpiece means that it’s the best of someone’s work or the best of some recognizable category, so you kind of have to wait on it to know.” I really think with movies that you have to wait a while to know. So that’s why I don’t want to snort milk out my nose for The Thin Red Line or There Will Be Blood, but I really think it’s too early to know. But look, if you told me that in the year 2045 Mike Trout was the greatest baseball player of all time and There Will Be Blood was like, third in the 2042 Sight and Sound poll, I would believe both. They seem similarly likely propositions.
Matt: Just to toss in another example, what if in the 2040s sometime a publication also said Radiohead is a top 10 band of all time? I think I buy that.
Tim: I didn’t ask you about Radiohead because I kind of assumed they were a top-10 band of all time already. So yes.
Matt: They’re a band I would absolutely hear an argument for here and now. I would just have to think about top 10, but they’re close if not in it. The ones I’m really flirting with are Spoon, Sleater-Kinney, and The National.
Tim: If we’d gotten to a fifth matrix or something, it would have been Arcade Fire, The National, and The White Stripes.
Matt: Rapid fire! No, maybe not right now but probably in the future, no but close(ish).
Tim: There’s definitely a “Call no man happy until he is dead” thing for “best whatever” discussions, and I think that makes me Herodotus or whoever said that and not Plato.
Matt: Herodotus :p I, of course, am probably acting the post-structuralist in this sucker.
Tim: In my real life I swear I’m not this Ancient Greek.
Matt: I’m just as French as you think.
Tim: How many bands did you put on your line? Three?
Matt: Honestly, there’s probably a lot hovering around and only a few (that we mentioned) absolutely locked in.
Tim: I’m shootin’ for symmetry.
Matt: Ah, let’s see here. Just Above: R.E.M., Metallica, Fleetwood Mac / Just Below: Talking Heads, The National, ZZ Top. I’m retrofitting a bit, but I think the conversation more or less confirms this quick list. Those aren’t all off the line to the same degree, I hasten to add, but they’re in proximity to it.
Tim: I’m going to throw out three movies that are right on my line, I think, or at least close enough to it to give a sense of what would work. (I think The Thin Red Line and There Will Be Blood would plop themselves there if this were 2030.) Lawrence of Arabia is there…Casablanca is there…Cries and Whispers is there. What all three of these have in common is that I really think that the experience of watching them is incredibly important, which sounds obvious because these are movies, but I think it’s also very easy to say, “Oh, The Rules of the Game does all of these interesting things with editing and camerawork and an ensemble cast and social critique and the edge of World War II” and then forget that it’s an actual movie somewhere. Each of the movies I’ve mentioned has less going on in the way Rules of the Game has something going on, but they are eminently watchable. Cries and Whispers is a movie that is terrifying and moving and lives in your head for days. Casablanca is enormous fun and totally intoxicating, even if it’s a relatively simple movie in terms of how it was made. (Not bad: simple.) And Lawrence of Arabia is, to me, the Rush of movies, and I would like your input here about something which has always troubled me about this movie.
Tim: So Lawrence of Arabia has Anthony Quinn playing an Arab, and it has Alec Guinness playing an Arab. And neither one of them is in the ridiculous blackface that, say, Hugh Griffith was in three years earlier for Ben-Hur, but you can tell. I want to know about whether that immediately takes a movie off the best picture ever made peg. (This is as big a reason for me, by the way, that Lawrence of Arabia is on my line.) (Also, this is major problem with The Searchers, where the major Native American character is played by a guy born in Germany.)
Matt: Rush is the right comparison point there. Although it’s getting more complicated for me the more I think about music, because so many of the classic rock bands are misogynists. It certainly hurts the standing. I can’t imagine calling Lawrence of Arabia the best ever precisely because of its racial misfirings.
Tim: I do want to say that I think a lot of the Lawrence racism talk is sort of misplaced? Or misdirected, maybe, is a better word. The end of the movie is about how the white savior is a total failure, believing arrogantly that he could make the Arabs like Englishmen without whatever the native sins of the English are, and of course he fails utterly in that task: the best thing he did for them was get them guns, which I dunno, doesn’t seem particularly savior-ish to me.
Matt: Some Americans might disagree at this point. I digress, Lawrence of Arabia certainly isn’t the worst offender, and not totally backward. But white people playing Arabs is still, if I’m being as generous as possible, awkward. (I’m not actually this generous about it, but for the sake)
Tim: It’s so bad! And like, part of me wants to say “Oh, this is the time and people were so stupid about this and it’s something we have to swallow” and then you watch A Passage to India, another Lean-Guinness joint, and Alec Guinness is playing Godbole and doing total brownface in 1984. It’s absolutely absurd, and it turns every scene he’s in into a trainwreck.
Matt: Yeah, there are degrees of badness, for lack of a better word right now, but that doesn’t excuse what something like Lawrence of Arabia is doing. I don’t mean that to sound like you’re disagreeing with me, I don’t think we are.
Tim: No, it’s absolutely wrong. And like, the thing that I don’t get about Lawrence is that Omar Sharif is in that movie and he’s brilliant, and I sit there for four hours and yell something along the lines of, “What, you don’t think there’s like, five other guys as good as Omar Sharif you could have gotten for this?” I think where this discussion usually runs aground—again, not that I think either of us has done this—is the tacit belief that modern movies are somehow less racist than they were fifty or more years ago.
Matt: Cloud Atlas (I’m absolutely shoehorning this in) has yellowface. I love the movie, but man those moments are terrible. Came out in 2012, so we can’t say we live in a totally enlightened age. One wonders though, or I do anyway, how much something like Lawrence of Arabia influences not just movie production, but representation. It didn’t trust non-white people in some major roles. If that’s part of its legacy, can we ethically consider it the best?
Tim: I don’t think that’s its own legacy, though, because it implies that it was a forerunner. D.W. Griffith was making epics with people in grotesque racial costume back in the 1910s, which is why I haven’t been making the case for something like Broken Blossoms or The Birth of a Nation (among other reasons).
Matt: I didn’t mean to imply Lawrence is responsible for that phenomenon. It’s not. So not capital-L legacy so much as that’s part of an influential movie which, in itself, probably helped the trend continue. Did that make sense? Not that Lawrence of Arabia is patient zero of white people playing non-white characters, but that that aspect is inextricable from talking about it.
Tim: I just think the vast majority of movies have their equivalents. Pulp Fiction has the n-word in Tarantino’s mouth like it’s chewing gum for no particular reason. 2001 is a profoundly white movie for something which supposedly has such humanistic concerns. We haven’t mentioned women at all.
Matt: Right. The ethics question was genuine, not an attempt to foist a vision on to you.
Where is that line?
Tim: I agree entirely that it’s a problem. I don’t think you are SJWing me or being extra woke or anything…I guess I have a hard time finding the line, because I can’t think of a movie which couldn’t do better somehow. My sort of unconvincing answer is that I think of assessing something as primarily a question of adding up what’s good as opposed to subtracting what’s bad.
Matt: But sometimes things are bad enough that they subtract, right?
Tim: I’m with you there. Birth of a Nation is definitely beyond what’s acceptable, or what could ever be considered acceptable. Gone with the Wind is honestly where my line is for racism in movies where I can still work with what’s good in it without totally shutting down. The movie’s politics are racist, its white characters are racist, its depiction of black people are racist, but for all of that it still has Hattie McDaniel, whose character is one of the movie’s moral centers. The book, on the other hand, I can’t even read because the narration is just abominable on that front. (It is bad, friends. I dunno how long it’s been since y’all read it, but it’s bad.)
Matt: I think of Led Zeppelin who I’d argue, more often than not maybe, is the best band ever. They aren’t the most socially progressive band, especially towards women. Add to that Page’s appropriation of black music (which I don’t think is as bad as some other artists, but it’s there) and you have a complex and thorny context beneath truly stunning music. I can’t ignore either, but I’d still offer them as a great option for “best ever.” That’s not to the same degree as Gone with the Wind, maybe, but it’s something I think about.
Tim: I think part of calling something “best ever” is being extremely open and clear about what’s, as bad as this sounds, politically incorrect. And when you work with what might be the best of something, you have to call out the things which are bad and that definitely has to part of its valuation. But I also think there’s a strand of criticism that’s fairly popular which tries to align things to a particular center-left political view of the world and then takes off points if it doesn’t align neatly enough. That’s how you get The Handmaid’s Tale, which got three weeks of “Omigosh so feminist and timely” before everyone was like, “So did racism get eliminated in Gilead or what?” It’s how you get Damian Chazelle making all of these movies about jazz where white people explain jazz to the white audiences they’re intended to reach. It’s how you get Three Billboards and all the hype about making racism just another character flaw for someone to overcome. For heaven’s sake it’s how Crash happens.
This a weak solution, but we’re also not in charge of anything.
Matt: We are not. And I think part of this exercise is asking whomever may be reading to figure out where they land on these questions. To figure out what texts would fall in and out for them, and thus understand what “best” could possibly mean for them. And that requires figuring out the values behind it. Which is to say, I can equally imagine someone accepting or dismissing Lawrence of Arabia from the conversation, which might be a strong indicator that it is on the line.
Tim: That sounds right to me. Also, the time-honored and perhaps obvious addition that as long as we insist on ranking primarily moneymaking enterprises such as “bands” and “movies” which belong to these capitalist systems with histories of racism, sexism, classism, and a number of other prejudices, we’re kind of stuck with the problem. And it’s also important to reach at least equivalent (at least equivalent) representations within those fields so there’s more to work with.
This got preachy real fast. Not like I think we’re wrongheaded!
Matt: Marx has been ringing in my ears for about two pages. I genuinely feel bad about how few women and non-white musicians came up in that section. Some of that is historical suppression, but there’s absolutely no reason only white men could be the best. Which, I think, is an odd way of saying that we are very much caught in a history and system that is racist, sexist, classist, and generally oppressive and need to fight within that.
Tim: Here’s an example: a black man directed what I think is probably the best movie of the 2000s so far and people should throw more money at Steve McQueen to direct things and more people should see his stuff. And we probably should have talked about Chuck Berry and Prince instead of assuming they went without saying.
Matt: And Nina Simone and B.B. King and Hendrix and Joni Mitchell and Sleater-Kinney (National territory for me). The problem is that, in music definitely and movies too I think, the white men get the attention and sometimes it’s hard to find others amongst that. Which also means the line we’re interested in here (worst best) is probably going to be more a matter of sorting through the stereotypical answers – I feel that way with the music, anyway. Bear in mind we haven’t enumerated everything we would accept an argument for as best, there’s definitely diversity there for both of us (which doesn’t make us the wokest of all, there’s still a lot of work to do).
Tim: So much of the problem really is economically based, because the reason Charles Burnett or, I dunno, Barbara Loden aren’t household names is because they weren’t funded at high levels. It’s the reason we look at George Cukor and say, “Oh, he directed these women’s films” like it’s okay that our country doesn’t have someone name-brand like Jane Campion or Chantal Akerman to direct actual women’s films. (Is the American equivalent Sofia Coppola? I guess it has to be, which is good and also bad.) It doesn’t take as much away from Cukor as it does from the system itself, which needs a complete flushing.
Something I do want to throw out there is that I feel strongly that it comes down to people from non-you know the list already backgrounds getting more opportunities, because the answer here is not Spielberg making The Color Purple. (The flipside here is that you have to let Richard Linklater make movies about Texan subcultures ad nauseum, too…call me a centrist but I really think there’s room for Ava DuVernay to make Selma and Linklater to make Everybody Wants Some!!)
Matt: Or Jonathan Demme making Beloved. Which might be a segue into novelists? Because great books, bad movies.
Tim: So the reason I pushed Matt to put this up in our queue above The Decemberists, spoilers, is because Philip Roth just died and I’m very sad and I think there’s a case to be made that he’s the greatest novelist ever and I don’t think I would say that he is, out and out, the best novelist ever.
Matt: My claws would come out if you tried that. (I mean the out and out part, not that I wouldn’t hear a case for him).
Tim: Which, 9,000 words in, basically makes the point I’ve been trying to make about worst greatest stuff.
Matt: We’re highly efficient. Let me ask you, who is the greatest novelist?
Tim: Ugh. Maybe that’s my answer. You know, there are two right answers, I think, and I’m really not sure I believe either with my whole heart.
Matt: (He’s going to say Joyce and Faulkner)
Tim: Half right.
Matt: So close! I don’t actually know which half…
Tim: I didn’t think Faulkner was a “right answer.” Joyce is a “right answer.”
Matt: Woolf? You tease me.
Tim: Would have assumed it was Proust, yeah?
Matt: Proust isn’t a clear cut answer to me, but I’d certainly listen.
Tim: I sort of assumed they were the Beatles and Stones of “greatest novelist.” But you’re in grad school and I am not.
Matt: Appeal to false authority. Proust definitely belongs in the conversation, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t imagine many people saying Proust in response to the question. And, if we’re leaning into my grad schooling, never run across Proust in a class (at any level, now that I think about it). Part of that could be that it’s tough to teach translated texts, but that can’t be the only thing.
Tim: I like that you’ve mentioned Faulkner, already. That makes my heart sing. My honest gut level reaction when you asked me that question was Tolstoy.
Matt: That’s incredible, because I was thinking of Dostoevsky. (Also, you haven’t returned the Faulkner lob with my dude)
Tim: I was going to get to that with my next question, but I do want to lob a very interesting observation in here, which is that we have both chosen the Russian who aligns much more neatly with our own personal beliefs. (I’m not saying you’re an insane Christian.) But like, temperamentally, there is a lot of Dostoevsky I think you’ve internalized, and I know there’s a lot of Tolstoy I’ve internalized. I think we’ve both done a good job of separating favorites from best so far, which is key to the discussion, but I think we have accidentally trod on that mine.
Matt: You’re absolutely right. I’m always super interested when the Dostoevsky or Tolstoy question comes up because everyone is in favor of one or the other while generally respecting both, and I think that does come down to temperament.
Tim: I really want to reiterate that I think you’re more fun to be around than Fyodor.
Here’s the thing with Dickens that I think is important…like the bands, depth and longevity matter. And Dickens has depth and longevity for days.
Matt: I’m saying this without thinking about it quite enough first, but Dickens might have the deepest and longest oeuvre.
Tim: Somewhere Balzac is making French noises.
Matt: Said I didn’t think long enough.
Tim: For novelists I wonder how much the depth matters. I know I just said it was important, but is it more important for a novelist to have a deep catalogue than it is for a band? I would rate Mary Shelley as one of the great novelists of all time off of Frankenstein alone. Or hey, Tolstoy isn’t really known for the number of novels he published. (Not that there aren’t a bunch, but like, there’s four you really have to care about.)
Matt: I think depth and longevity are more important for bands, but that they can help separate some of the people at the top of the novelist discussion. There’s also the question of comparing a novelist who has a long string of good work with one who has one or two absolute knockouts. That’s a better discussion with novelists than with bands, I think.
Tim: Okay, so here’s an American example: would you rather say David Foster Wallace or John Irving is the greatest of all time? (Obviously the answer for both here is milk.)
Matt: No to both, but Irving. It’s not the best example for me to answer, I have a lot of problems with DFW.
Tim: Not least of which are the issues that we just highlighted. Although the guy’s life is different than the guy’s book.
Matt: Sure. And those are big issues, but I also don’t tend to think his fiction is that good, and we’re talking novelists. Love his nonfiction, can’t do the novels. (Which I know is personal affection getting in the way, but I can’t separate it here.)
Tim: How about English examples…would you rather call Mary Shelley the greatest of all time or, erm, Somerset Maugham?
Matt: Shelley. I didn’t have to think about that for long.
Tim: So you’re willing to go with Frankenstein and six…I don’t know what the right word is here…less tubthumping novels as opposed to Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, and The Razor’s Edge plus seventeen less tubthumping novels.
Matt: Love that tubthumping is getting use. I am. Which doesn’t go against what I wrote a moment ago. Frankenstein is, by far, the most tubthumping of any of the novels just mentioned. Seriously no disrespect to Maugham (I swear I don’t mean that to be patronizing like the phrase usually is), but Shelley is massively important in establishing what a novel even is.
Let’s throw Joyce in. Joyce has Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist (which I’m not big on, but I get it), Dubliners (which, does it count here?), and Finnegan’s Wake (lol). That’s not a lot.
Tim: I’m going to be a pedant and suggest that Dubliners is probably not a novel.
Matt: I would agree. Which is kind of sad since it’s my favorite work of his.
I’m not suggesting he isn’t a good answer to the question, just that great novelists have different hit rates and that depth and longevity can help make distinctions but don’t inherently do so.
Tim: This is fair. Another useful example: F. Scott Fitzgerald has four novels to his credit. He is absolutely someone I’d listen to for “greatest novelist ever.” I think if you are in that camp, you really do need something on the same tier as Frankenstein or Ulysses or Gatsby. It’s sort of like a mastery thing; you only have to prove it once for it to be mostly true. I don’t think novelists are precisely flukey.
Matt: If an author has a text at that level, that tends to absolve a lot of duds or a lack of quantity. To bring this back a little, I think depth and longevity matter for Dickens because he was working at a high level for so long. Are some of his texts better than others? Absolutely, but there’s a bunch of big-time stuff in there.
Tim: I remember saying this for that podcast we did after I published my Top 100 American movies, but you asked about who might be the greatest American director ever, and I said something similar about valuing Robert Altman (or Hitchcock) the same way. Fewer absolute jawdroppers than Kubrick, but there’s a bunch of B+/B material down the line that matters too. Dickens is like that. Heck, Faulkner’s kind of like that.
Matt: Vonnegut too!
Tim: Let’s say that I think Faulkner’s sixth-best novel is Light in August or As I Lay Dying. That’s insane! (Here’s a question to make your brain shrivel: what are Dickens’ and Vonnegut’s sixth-best?)
Matt: No one should hold me indefinitely to these quickly jotted lists, but I’m apparently on Galapagos and Little Dorrit. Which are two lesser known works from both and also very strong texts.
Tim: I think we’ve waded in and gotten used to the water, more or less. Here’s what I want to try. I’ve pulled five novelists in my head, and you should do the same, and we’ll try to find a line around them. Again, I don’t know if this will work, but I like the slightly different way of approaching this.
Matt: So we’re judging if they belong in the conversation for best and (hopefully) finding the line that way, yeah?
Tim: Yarp. I was going to go one at a time, too. Want me to start?
Matt: Go for it.
Tim: E.M. Forster. (Came to mind earlier when I was yelling about Alec Guinness.) Greatest novelist of all time, on the line, or milk?
Matt: Ooh, that’s a good one. Probably line for me, and below it is my gut take. He has Passage to India, Room With a View, and Howard’s End (the strongest to me, I think), but I don’t see myself accepting him over some of the other people we’ve already mentioned.
Tim: I’m in a similar spot, although I’m sort of inclined not to laugh at that one?
Matt: I don’t know that I’m laughing. Maybe just a mild scoff.
Tim: I think I want to know where that person’s head is first so I can become that contrarian.
Matt: Yeah…I can’t picture anyone actually suggesting Forster, but there are worse answers.
Should I throw one out now?
Matt: Salman Rushdie
Tim: Making me consider how strongly I feel about Midnight’s Children. I think he’s closer to the line than Forster for me. But not over, necessarily. There’s definitely not any laughter, but I do think, “Well…”
Matt: I think it comes down to how bullish one is on Midnight’s Children and Satanic Verses.
Tim: I find Satanic Verses to be extraordinarily engaging. Midnight’s Children doesn’t give me that same vibe, but I’m also fairly sure it’s a better novel. The Booker people called it the Best of the Booker forty years in, which definitely feels wrong.
Matt: Still a fascinating group of finalists for that award. I don’t know that any of them were actually right. I think I’m in a similar place with Rushdie. No laughter, they have my attention, but probably just below the line in the end.
Tim: I’m going to interrupt these proceedings and say we forgot to mention Garcia Marquez earlier for “greatest novelist ever,” which is not necessarily the wrong answer.
Matt: We also didn’t mention Toni Morrison, who I might actually say is correct.
Tim: She’s in that zone of “not actually enough of a debate to bring up.”
Matt: I agree. Marquez is there for me too, but not as firmly entrenched but their. I automatically think he’s one of the best.
Tim: Here’s a fun one who wasn’t in my original list, but I thought about her when I mentioned Booker prizes…Eleanor Catton.
Matt: You’re going right for my heart.
Tim: I mean, this is the “how good is that one book” question alongside the Mike Trout/There Will Be Blood principle above.
Matt: I can’t say she’s in the conversation yet. I like her first book (The Rehearsal) too, but it’s no Luminaries. I think part of this might be I know she’s still writing and I want to see what else happens. The Luminaries is incredible, but I think she’s below the line. I would want to be friends with whoever suggested her rather than laugh.
Tim: Okay, that’s the right answer. (The Luminaries is the book I want to experience again for the first time…the most? I think the most.)
Matt: I remember that book just picking up more and more steam and being absolutely riveted.
Tim: Oh good, I see my heart is next on the list.
Matt: I have a few sentimental choices in mind, don’t worry.
Tim: I have to say no. I’m not proud of it. I think he needs more?
Matt: Another book like Never Let Me Go or Remains of the Day and I wouldn’t blink.
Tim: You know, in that sense he reminds me of Hemingway, who I also would say no to, but I think Hemingway needs another Sun Also Rises the way that Ishiguro needs another Never Let Me Go.
Matt: Never Let Me Go is so good. I feel bad about saying no to that, but I think I agree.
Tim: Who knew that talking about books would be so depressing. Okay, next one is J.K. Rowling.
Matt: Hoo boy.
Tim: That’s a joke. Richard Wright. I’m counting Black Boy as a novel, even though it technically is not. If it doesn’t count I’ll pick someone else.
Matt: Well, that’s what I was wondering. If it counts, I’ll listen. If it doesn’t, I don’t think there’s enough.
Tim: Okay, so that was too easy. How about Peter Carey, then?
Matt: Real quick, Wright has a lot of short story stuff too. I don’t think he has enough in way of novels to work here. Which, I don’t like saying that, but here we are.
Carey is interesting. No for me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up canonized (not literally necessarily, but in terms of teaching) down the road.
That no seemed to quick. I wouldn’t laugh if someone said Carey. For me it comes down to I don’t get much out of True History of the Kelly Gang. Parrot and Olivier and Oscar and Lucinda strike me as good but not triumphant. Jack Maggs, for Dickens related reasons, might be the most fun of the bunch. Lots of good work, but I don’t know that I’d take him for best. We might be on a different page here?
Tim: I picked him mostly because I know you aren’t one of his biggest fans. He’s probably below Rushdie and Ishiguro for me.
Matt: Same. For what it’s worth, I’d probably go Ishiguro, Rushdie, Carey.
Now I am going for your heart. Evelyn Waugh?
Tim: That’s a really solid no. Though I think this is a great time to talk about just how good a book has to be for it to be good enough to get the author lifted over the edge. For me, you have to really believe in Brideshead Revisited as a book which is 90% of Frankenstein, and I don’t. I love it more than I love almost anything, but it just isn’t. The Catholic deathbed bit is the fat Brando of literature.
Matt: When we make novel superlatives “Fat Brando of Literature” is absolutely one. That also felt a bit too quick. Can I ask Kafka?
Tim: Oof! I think my gut answer is “That’s a good answer,” but like, I dunno that I’m in a weird enough mood for it. As an influencer there’s virtually no one like him.
Matt: I don’t know that I could make the case for Kafka, but he’s above the line for me. I’d listen to anyone who wants to make the case. His fingerprints are on so much of 20th and 21st century fiction.
Tim: I sort of don’t buy him as a stylist, though, and maybe because he’s so out there I don’t find myself zeroing in on him. But I’d say yes for the same reasons I’d say yes to Nabokov: he does a brilliant job at one thing, and it’s so brilliant that I’ll overlook deficiencies elsewhere.
Matt: I’m torn on Nabokov. He might be the first one out for me. But I can’t say for sure I wouldn’t react to someone who said him with anything except “okay, you do you.”
Tim: That’s essentially my Kafka reaction. It would be my Camus reaction too, I think.
Matt: I love Camus, but I think he’s a no for me. Did not expect myself to say that…
Tim: That’s interesting for me, as I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Camus lover.
Matt: I don’t know, man. I’d probably respect anyone who wanted to make the case, but I don’t know how long I could follow. Camus and Nabokov are definitely next to my line, just not sure which side.
Tim: Is it your turn or mine? (Unless you want to say more here, because we may be giving short shrift to this idea.)
Matt: I’m not entirely sure. I could say more or throw out another person.
Tim: Spitball a little, I think. I am intrigued by this line of thought but I am having trouble explaining why.
Matt: About why Nabokov and Camus are the line for me?
Nabokov’s writing is gorgeous. But the thing he is good at infuriates me and I fundamentally disagree with his take on art and politics, even if it’s part of his never-ending joke. I don’t actually know that many novelists are writing with Nabokov in mind and not, say, Heller or Pynchon or Burgess. He’s very talented, but his strengths may not outweigh the deficiencies for me.
Tim: I disagree with Nabokov’s worldview too, not strenuously but actively, I think, and I know I agree with Camus far more often.
Matt: I definitely agree with Camus way more. The Stranger is major. The Plague is probably his next best…I’m not sure there’s enough to get him over the hump for me, but I have to think on that for awhile.
Tim: I think my thing about Nabokov is that he is so talented that his prose more or less stands alone for me. Like, the only person whose novels are that beautifully done all the way through is maybe Ondaatje? (I wasn’t going to ask about him.) It is a different experience for me than reading anybody else.
Matt: I was actually expecting you to ask about Ondaatje. I’m saying yes for him, even if I’m alone on the wagon.
Nabokov’s writing is among the best. Especially considering the layers of translation. It doesn’t sweep me up in the same way though because I’m constantly thinking about how much I disagree with him, and not always in a productive way.
Tim: That seems fair. Thus the “you do you” take earlier.
Matt: Yeah. I would never make the case for Nabokov, but I can see why some would want to.
Tim: You know who else has just beautiful prose? Ayn Rand.
Matt: She might be the right answer. Neil Peart can’t be wrong.
Tim: I wish I’d been around to see your reaction to that. You had another person to ask?
Matt: I could run off a bunch, really. But you mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale earlier, so Atwood?
Actually, let me ask another and then I’m probably good. Happy to talk about more from you though. So Atwood and David Mitchell.
Tim: This is going to sound weird, but I think Atwood is like John Irving in that I think just about everything is in the B-range, with one A- standout (A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Handmaid’s Tale), and I’m not sure that’s good enough to be “best novelist ever” material.
Matt: I would listen for Atwood, but that’s because I’m higher on Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake.
Tim: I’m not an enormous Oryx and Crake person, which might be the problem.
Matt: I also dig on Alias Grace. In general I agree she has a lot of good stuff but could be lacking on truly great. There is impressive range to her work though. I think she’s above the line for me though, if close to it.
Tim: David Mitchell is flirting with the Team Ishiguro line, where it’s very tempting but there probably needs to be another Cloud Atlas.
Matt: I’m all in on Team Mitchell, but everyone knew that already.
Tim: This is a classic, perhaps even Platonic, “Let’s ask a neutral observer” moment.
Matt: Do we have one? Cloud Atlas is phenomenal. Bone Clocks and Black Swan Green are great. Number9Dream, Ghostwritten, and Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are his bottom three but could be the best for other writers. I’m not just blowing hot air here, I actually believe that. Not pretending I’m neutral, but I’m exactly the idiot to say Mitchell to someone. So, will you spit milk at me?
Tim: I usually try to reserve my Mitchell takes around you because you have more gusto and experience than I do. But I wouldn’t blow milk out of my nose at you for David Mitchell…it would definitely help if someone else said it to me, though.
Matt: I get that. I wouldn’t expect many people to follow me on this one, but I do think he’ll be in the conversation sooner rather than later.
Tim: I believe he will be. I just looked and he’s not even fifty? There’s a long time yet for him.
Matt: There are great novels left in him.
Anyone else you want to ask about?
Tim: I had two for you that are not like the surprisingly (but also not surprisingly) international late 20th/early 21st Century writers we have been focusing on: Edith Wharton and Gustave Flaubert. (J.M. Coetzee is also in my brain, but we can ignore him if you want.)
Matt: Coetzee might be the toughest one for me here, mostly because of sentimental attachment. Wharton is above the line, I think. I’m not sure I have that particularly thought out, but my immediate reaction was yes.
Flaubert, man. How tubthumping is Madame Bovary?
Tim: It is not a tubthumper. But Madame Bovary has to be in the same sort of category as The Metamorphosis because it is so original and so influential. Also, bless you for putting Wharton up there, because I kind of want to do the same thing.
Matt: Join me! The air is fine. I think Wharton is great. I’m really torn on Flaubert, though. You’re right, Madame Bovary is massively important, which makes him another really good case for “how much weight can one novel pull.” I realize I’m dancing around an answer here, but I honestly don’t know. Kafka has more to me, but I can’t pass Flaubert off without feeling a bit guilty.
What’s stopping you with Wharton?
Tim: My Flaubert reaction is “Yeah, probably, but I don’t have to like it.” Maybe I’m not mentally giving her enough credit for the Ethan Frome/House of Mirth/Age of Innocence triumvirate, though if you asked me about any of those individually I would be very hey sailor.
Matt: That’s a sensible reaction to Flaubert. I think you should just accept Wharton :p
Tim: I think I have. And Coetzee too.
Matt: I agree with Coetzee.
Tim: All right – we have been on this a minute now. Instead of coming up with some brand new author to talk about, would we say Ishiguro is like, the worst greatest novelist?
Matt: I think I would be okay with that.
Tim: You heard it here first, everyone. Kazuo Ishiguro: Nobel Prize laureate, worst greatest novelist.
Matt: Well when you put it that way…