Madeline’s Madeline: Is “Art” Inherently Good?


Art has an implied statement of purpose. It doesn’t matter if the emotion is laughter, sadness, or anger, it’s supposed to make you feel. Art can be judged by how successfully it accomplished this goal. Since art is subjective, it’s harder for me to separate the good from bad when the work of art in question is static. I can look at sculpture or painting and think it’s good solely for aesthetics but this is a flawed system. What’s aesthetically pleasing to me isn’t the same for others. Maybe the artist was going for minimalistic but minimalism isn’t my thing. Does this make it bad simply because I don’t like it?

Fluid works of art are easier for me to judge. Movies and TV shows aren’t suspended in time. They have room to flourish and take on a new context, for better or worse. Plus, there’s a clear(er) definition of what makes a movie good or bad. It’s easy to spot a bad director, actor, or cinematographer, etc. What makes judging these fluid works of art a difficult task is their implied statement or purpose. Comedies, action, horror, and sci-fi are typically considered low-brow. No matter how good a movie from these genres are, they can only be so good because they aren’t “serious” works of art. Dramas are typically considered high brow.

I don’t subscribe to these standards.

One of my favorite movies of 2018 is Mission Impossible: Fallout and I couldn’t possibly tell you the plot. I do know that it marks off every goal of its mission statement. It delivers a high level of action and leaves you entertained.

To quote a college professor, my line of criticism aligns with this: There’s good art and there’s bad art. There’s good “trash” and there’s bad “trash”.

I’m all for high-brow art that’s unafraid to buck conventions but I can’t give something points just for swinging for the fences especially if the result is a foul ball.

At the 20th Sidewalk Film Festival, I had a chance to see Madeline’s Madeline. I was pretty excited because a lot of the most respectable voices in the film world have had nothing but praise for this movie. Josephine Decker is being lauded as an auteur who has made one of the most daring films of the 21st Century. Seriously, that quote is right on the poster. With praise like this, of course I was in. As quickly as I was in, I was right back out. Dislike isn’t a strong enough word for my feelings towards this movie. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such a strong reaction to a movie I loved or hated. Not only do I think Madeline’s Madeline isn’t very good, it made me question how we view art that lies beyond the margins.

The main question I asked myself: Is “art” inherently good?

Before an attempt is even made to answer this question, let’s talk about the movie itself. Madeline’s Madeline is about a teenager girl who is under the thumbs of both her manipulative mother and the equally manipulative leader of her experimental theater troupe. Her mother manipulates out of love and frustration and with the theater it’s because of passion and potential. Madeline’s mental illness causes trouble at home and it pours into her theater life. Evangeline, the director of the troupe, uses Madeline’s pain and weaves it into the art. In this case, life imitates the art because the lines are blurred and Madeline’s two separate worlds are entangled.

The film reflects the manic state of Madeline’s mind. It opens with a weird sequence of a hazy face whispering “It’s all just a metaphor. You are the cat”. Madeline sees the world through the eyes of the cat. It’s a warm-up for her theater class. Madeline becomes the cat and we, the audience, become Madeline. Through Decker’s lens, Madeline’s world becomes blurry and so does the viewing experience for the audience. Scenes are often edited to have one frame out-of-order. The pace of this movie moves frantically but no real destination is ever in place. From a standpoint of pure filmmaking, this movie is indeed as good as it gets.

So, back to that question, is art inherently good?

That answer has to be no. Even with the hot camera panning around an entire room, running along the beach as a sea turtle, or a point-of-view shot from within a mask, this movie simply isn’t good. Take a single frame of this movie and it’s beautiful. Put all of those frames together and it’s just beautiful imagery with no real destination. Since it’s a movie, it doesn’t get to remain static. It has an extra factor to consider: Entertainment. For what it’s worth, I get enjoyment out of the small nuances of filmmaking. Seeing Daniel Woodcock drive through the woods in Phantom Thread gave me joy but I was also pleased with the execution of a good story. Madeline’s Madeline shows Decker’s dexterity but the perfect blend of good story/good storytelling was missing.

And yes, I hear you. Yes, you, growing increasingly strident with your disagreement. Madeline’s Madeline, ironically, is a film that’s loosely based on its own creation. It’s a filmmaker’s film through and through. So someone such as myself who has never had to immerse himself in the art and come out with tangible could never relate. I’ve never had endure great pain to create something beautiful.

Well yes and no. I’ve had a lyre thrown at my head for not memorizing my sheet music so that’s a start. [Note: I had it memorized the next day, I assure you.] I’m as interested in what goes behind the curtain as the art itself. Madeline’s doesn’t care about putting a show on stage because it thinks what goes on behind the curtain is the show. But really, there are some merits to that counter-argument. It’s a film for creatives, especially those in theater or film. Niche films shouldn’t lose points for only speaking to a certain demographic but it is quite detrimental to be so niche that only a few will be able to appreciate it. Also, outside of this, I saw this film with two other people who can appreciate art from all different worlds. Considering they left early into the movie, I think I can speak for them when I say this movie didn’t connect with them either. Now, we’re at my final point. Connection. No matter what this film was trying to say, it failed to do so. Moonlight isn’t a story for my demographic but it still spoke to me. Phantom Thread is pure art but it still spoke to me. So, this movie being solely about experimentation and caring more about the process of the experiment rather than the result seems quite arrogant to me. It seems as though it doesn’t even care whether or not it connects with you.

In closing, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong for liking this movie. As stated above, I’m sure it has its merits within certain circles. There just isn’t very much meat left on the bone for us outside of that circle. I respect this movie for swinging for the fences but it absolutely struck out.

Remember: It’s all just a metaphor.

[P.S. Helena Howard is a future star. I’d be remiss not to mention that. This movie is still objectively horrible though.]


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