Is good art really never depressing?

Is good art really never depressing?

Steven: Hey Scott, I know you’re as excited as I am about the return of Breaking Bad on Sunday. Actually, you’re probably more excited than me. It’s not that I don’t love the show—I’ll gladly lend my voice to the chorus proclaiming Breaking Bad to be one of the finest shows on television. Along with being a masterfully suspenseful crime drama, Breaking Bad deals with troubling, real-life subject matter in frank, no-holds-barred fashion: the fragility of life and family, the potential for evil lurking inside good people, the possibility that humanity is a ruthless me-first game with no rules or order. 

Breaking Bad is brilliantly written, expertly directed, and superbly acted. It can also, for those same reasons, be the opposite of an enjoyable viewing experience. Don’t get me wrong. I look forward to every episode. But I’ve found that I’m sometimes better off watching only one episode of Breaking Bad in a single sitting (at least during the first two seasons). I’ve ruined several precious days of my life because my wife and I decided to watch multiple episodes at one time, only to venture back into the world with headspaces sent spinning by all-too-realistic depictions of cancer, marital strife, addiction, and drug deals gone wrong. 

In other words, Breaking Bad is depressing, often unrelentingly so. I think that changed a bit with season three, which you’ve said is one of the best seasons ever for any show, and I’m inclined to agree. A big reason why season three is by far my favorite is that it’s easily the most bearable, with the focus squarely on Walt’s drug business rather than his cancer. (This might be a personal bias: I’ve never known a meth dealer, while I’ve had multiple family members face a cancer diagnosis. Cancer is frightening in a personal, relatable way for me, while the drug stuff is just lurid and entertainingly pulpy.)

As good as Breaking Bad is, I can’t say I’ve always, or even frequently, “liked” watching it. And I’d never forcefully recommend it to those who’d rather turn off their brains and relax after a long day. (Of the many adjectives you could use to describe Breaking Bad, “relaxing” is not one of them.) I’m reminded of the old Roger Ebert line about how “all bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.” I happen to regard Roger Ebert as something of a patron saint; I grew up reading him, and credit him with teaching me how to do my job. But this is one Ebert lesson I have trouble buying. A good movie can’t be depressing? That’s a critic’s argument, and it’s plainly refuted by human experience. 

I know what Ebert is trying to do here. As a professional appreciator of the cinematic form, he wants to convince his readers that all kinds of films are worth experiencing, including (and especially) the tough stuff. He believes, as do I, that good art is edifying, and ultimately worth any short-term damage inflicted on one’s mood or psyche. He’s also asserting that there’s nothing worse than a bad film—or a film that was never intended to be good. I agree with that, too.

But c’mon, Rog! Good art is frequently depressing; that’s often part of what makes it good—those intense, uncomfortable feelings it’s able to provoke. This is the art that can change the way you look at the world, or explore parts of your brain that you’d just as well leave alone. But I also get why people might not want to turn to entertainment in order to do that. As critics, we absorb art all day in the hopes that something will make us feel, even if that feeling is painful. Regular people, however, sometimes turn to art in order to feel better, and not be reminded of the nagging problems they constantly wrestle with.

Scott, I know you agree with Ebert’s “good movies can’t be depressing” sentiment. Does great entertainment like Breaking Bad honestly never depress you?

Scott: Does great entertainment like Breaking Bad never depress me? Honestly, it doesn’t. I agree 100 percent with Ebert on this one, though I acknowledge that many feel otherwise. As a critic, the enemy to me is mediocrity—and not the mediocre that results from good elements mingling with bad, but “intentional mediocrity,” to quote a recent A.O. Scott tweet. What depresses me are aesthetic crimes more than what actually happens in a story. I come to the movies hoping for an emotional experience—or at times a challenge to convention—and it scarcely matters to me if that experience makes me laugh, cry, feel frightened, or reveals something truly awful or ugly about human nature. Does this mean I’m all smiles after seeing Schindler’s List, like Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley giddily walking out of Platoon in the Herman’s Hermits montage in The Naked Gun? No. But I’m moved and edified by watching a great filmmaker at work, and I’m all too happy to revisit the film to luxuriate in the acting, the writing, the cinematography, and the bold choices that make the film special. This does not mean myself or Ebert are emotionally detached from the darkest of dark stories—quite the contrary, I think being a cinephile enhances your sensitivity to what great films can do—but there’s a pleasure in witnessing great art that transcends subject matter. 

Back when our editors were kicking around the idea for the Inventory “Not Again: 24 Films Too Painful To Watch Twice,” I remember playing my role as Official A.V. Club Idea Skeptic by objecting to the premise, which I worried would make us look like philistines. (Thank goodness I was overruled, because it became one of our most popular Inventories ever.) Not only had I seen most of the films on that list more than once—Audition, Safe, Dancer In The Dark, Straw Dogs, The Seventh Continent, et al.—but I also owned the majority of them on DVD, where I could revisit them at my leisure. For me, writing entries for that Inventory was an exercise in cognitive dissonance: I had to imagine myself to be the sort of person who wouldn’t want to see a film again, simply because the story was depressing, the style was assaultive, or some combination of the two. When it came time to record an Inventory video on the subject, my selection was Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, a rape-revenge story told in reverse that uses every conceivable stylistic trick to sicken its audience, from a swirling camera (with accompanying sound) that churns the stomach to a nine-minute, single-shot rape scene that gained instant notoriety—or infamy, depending on who you ask. And yet in that video, I said, “I would rather sit through Irréversible 100 times than The Bounty Hunter or The Ugly Truth twice.”

Granted, I was being more than a little hyperbolic there, but I’d honestly rather see Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel descend into the strobe-lit fetishistic hell of “Le Rectum” than witness the tortured machinations that leave Katherine Heigl wearing a pair of remote-controlled vibrating panties during a company dinner in The Ugly Truth. To me, that’s infinitely more depressing. As someone who reviews films for a living—and thus doesn’t have the luxury to be selective about the things I see—I have to deal with the agonizing drudgery of commercial product like Green Lantern or Monte Carlo or Water For Elephants, which are all so calculated and impersonal that they lack even the courtesy to fail in a compelling way. These are the films that haunt me and corrode my soul, and any week in which they’re broken up by something like Aurora—an extremely difficult three-hour Romanian deconstruction of a killer’s oft-mundane actions—is a happy one for me. 

All that said, I’m surprised Breaking Bad has proven so difficult for you, though you’re certainly not the only one. And goodness knows, that show confronts you with some heavy material, not least of which is an antihero in Bryan Cranston’s Walter White who enters the drug business for a sympathetic reason—to raise money fast for his family before he succumbs to terminal cancer—and winds up losing himself completely. (In a way, this makes him a sadder case than a Tony Soprano, who doesn’t start from the same semi-noble place.) But here’s why I find your one-at-a-time tentativeness so curious: After every episode of this show, my first thought tends to be, “HOLY SHIT! WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?!” Breaking Bad, particularly in seasons two and three, is an absolutely relentless piece of suspense storytelling. And the fact that it unfolds novelistically, with each episode building on the previous one, makes it a show that I’m inclined to consume like a bag of Doritos—spicy Doritos maybe, Doritos that leave behind a little heartburn, Doritos that make me think about the everyman’s capacity for evil, but addictive nonetheless. Had you made the same claim about a show like Treme—which, between joyous musical segments and other more affirmative statements about humanity, forces the viewer to confront some bitter truths—I’d be more understanding, simply because its slice-of-life approach isn’t nearly so propulsive. But Breaking Bad? I can’t identify. 

Is this a critic thing, Steve? You say that Ebert’s statement is “plainly refuted by human experience.” Maybe so, but I’d guess that people who have a hard time dealing with depressing subject matter in movies likely don’t seek out such experiences in the first place. Since you’re our music editor, is there an equivalent in the music world? Are you just as wary to spend too much time in the depressing-but-excellent headspace evoked by great music as great filmmakers? 

Steven: Hey Scott, before I tackle that music question, I feel like I need to re-state my feelings about Breaking Bad, since you seem to be painting me with a rather wussy-looking brush. Let me type this in all-caps so there’s no misunderstanding: I LOVE BREAKING BAD! I THINK IT’S A GREAT SHOW! Of course the storytelling is propulsive—the whole reason this show has bummed me out at times is because I couldn’t watch just one episode

Also, I’m not “wary” of depressing music at all. Just as many of my favorite films—Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, There Will Be Bloodare total downers, lots of my favorite music has acted as a soundtrack for the darker periods of my life. But here’s the thing: If somebody were to ask me if Sun Kil Moon or Fred Neil or Here, My Dear are depressing, I would say, yes, of course they are. That’s what’s great about them. To me, “depressing” is not necessarily a negative adjective in relation to art. Would you say the same?

I think the core of our disagreement rests on this question. Because for some reason, you (and Roger Ebert) stubbornly insist that great art can’t make you feel bad, while I’d argue that great art sometimes is supposed to make you feel bad, and that’s totally okay. 

I haven’t seen Irréversible—it’s in my Netflix queue waiting for when I’m in the mood for a nine-minute rape scene—but from how it’s been described, it seems that it’s been purposefully constructed to shake an audience to its core. It’s a painful experience that ultimately justifies itself (or so I’m told), but why argue that there’s no pain involved at all? Doesn’t that ultimately diminish the power of the film, which hurts only because (I presume) it’s so well-made? This circles back to Breaking Bad, which is one of the best shows on television precisely because it lingers in your soul for hours or even days after you watch it. 

Once more for the cheap seats: I’m not arguing against seeking out feel-bad entertainment experiences. I guess this really boils down to an argument over semantics. Scott, you’re an advocate for lots of great films, and I think you know instinctually that some worthy movies do not find audiences because their subject matter turns people off. So, consciously or not, I sense that you’re downplaying the toughness of these viewing experiences in order to better sell people on giving it a try. I’m not criticizing you for that; I understand your reasoning. But, as I said earlier, asserting that The Ugly Truth is more depressing than Irréversible is a critic’s argument, or the argument of a person who’s more concerned with how a movie is constructed than the thoughts and questions it’s intended to leave with the viewer. 

I bristled when you wrote “people who have a hard time dealing with depressing subject matter in movies likely don’t seek out such experiences in the first place.” Let me turn that around on you, Scott: If you admire a nine-minute rape scene purely for the way it’s shot and acted, aren’t you missing the point just a little bit? Isn’t the audience supposed to have a hard time with a scene like that? If so, what’s wrong with admitting as much? 

In my view, struggling to come to terms with prickly subject matter depicted in a graphic or unsettling way is a big part of what makes difficult art so worthwhile. I watch Breaking Bad because it causes to me empathize with a deeply flawed everyman who’s in the process of losing precious things in his life that I sometimes take for granted. It makes me think about things I don’t particularly enjoy pondering, but I’m grateful for the opportunity, and I appreciate that Breaking Bad takes me to places in myself that most TV programs don’t come close to reaching.

If you really never get depressed by movies—and liken gut-wrenching entertainment with “spicy Doritos”—aren’t you the one who’s missing out on a vital, emotional part of experiences that are intended to send you on a personal journey into the darkest places of your own heart? 

Scott: You ask: “If you admire a nine-minute rape scene purely for the way it’s shot and acted, aren’t you missing the point just a little bit? Isn’t the audience supposed to have a hard time with a scene like that? If so, what’s wrong with admitting as much?”

Of course I’m affected by it. You’d have to be completely dead inside not to be sickened by a scene like that, which director Gaspar Noé has meticulously (and diabolically) designed to hit you right in the solar plexus. (I’m reminded of what John Waters once said about his work: “If someone vomits watching one of my movies, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”) I think perhaps our differences do boil down to semantics: I’m not denying that people have a hard time grappling with the dark emotions that great art like Breaking Bad or Irréversible or American Music Club can conjure. And even as a cold-hearted critic, I’m more than capable of feeling shaken by the things I see; just this week, the superb documentary Project Nim, about the wild and oft-tragic travails of a chimp raised like a human child in the ’70s, took me on an incredible emotional journey. Following the pattern of attachment and abandonment that came to define that animal’s life leads you to sad conclusions about human nature. 

And yet, isn’t it possible to leave a movie like Project Nim feeling both “depressed” by its content and elated by its accomplishment? As critics, you and I paddle through a vast sea of mediocrity every week. We often don’t have the option to be selective about our pop-culture experiences; we want to cover the landscape as thoroughly as we can. On those occasions when I encounter great art, it’s thrilling to me always, regardless of whether it’s a breezy little comedy or a drama that shocks you to the core. If you’re passionate about the things you see, you’re really hoping to experience something—anything—that feels vital and alive. To me, that’s the feeling that ultimately transcends and sustains, and not so much the ugly residue the story itself might leave behind. 

Is this a critic thing? Maybe. But I’m being completely honest when I say that watching an endless stream of mediocrities like The Ugly Truth or The Bounty Hunter is dying the death of a thousand aesthetic paper cuts. Those are the movies that leave you feeling like garbage, because no effort has been made to make the audience feel much of anything other than comfortable. So we can watch in horror and agony as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman destroy people’s lives and further tarnish their withering souls, but there’s a counter emotion to that, which is the pleasure in witnessing some of the most invigorating storytelling in television history. 

And though we haven’t gotten into music, when you say, “lots of my favorite music has acted as a soundtrack for the darker periods of my life,” aren’t you confessing a point of view similar to my own? You’re clearly willing to marinate in depressing music, no matter the darkness it evokes, because it offers you an aesthetic gratification that keeps you listening. Why should it be any different for depressing TV or film? While it’s true that some films, like Irréversible, are too deliberately off-putting to merit comparison with something like The Smiths, I’d argue that the likes of There Will Be Blood or Zodiac offer as much pleasure as any piece of pure escapist entertainment, because the filmmaking itself is so sublime. 

“All bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.” The only way I’d modify that statement is to say that the depressing bad movies are the ones that don’t have the vision to fail spectacularly. My reaction to Breaking Bad is that it’s complicated, “depressing” content relieved by dazzling aesthetics. What depresses me is artlessness. Know the real enemy.