That je ne sais quoi

In Mad Men, a television show that I would not say I like but still totally fascinates me, a recurring theme is the idea that things either ARE, or they AREN’T, the notion that some stuff just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi to make it what it is supposed to be. An example that recurs is the state of the Draper marriage, which to all surface appearances looks like the perfect idealized union of the 1960s, but in reality is fundamentally and fatally flawed within. Another example is when the advertising client Pepsi requests a shot-by-shot imitation of Ann-Margret singing Bye Bye Birdie, and the resulting imitation seems to have all the details of the original but for some reason none of the charm. It is, in keeping with the cynical attitude of the series, a rather bleak view, giving the implication that such things are immune to effort, growth, or development to become what they are trying to be. But even if you do reject the notion, as I do, that things can never improve or become what they are striving to be with effort or practice, there is still the ineffable factor to be considered that makes somethings different from other things. There is often something that we cannot quite put our finger on, sometimes an unquantifiable quality that can influence how we see, view, or experience a given thing.

I find this concept to be relevant when critiquing or even just experiencing art. Because art is to such a large degree subjective, despite the presence of rules of thumb that provide guidelines for what sort of artistic expression tends to be the most effective or moving, there will always be the matter of what appeals to individual taste and what does not. Or sometimes there can even be an unnameable reason why people like something even though it is qualitatively similar to something they dislike. If you have a piece of art that works, it almost does not matter what rules it breaks. The rules exist to help us figure out what works, but they are the means to the end of creating a reaction in the audience. If that reaction is caused anyway, adherence to rules is ancillary. There are many pieces of art that do not seem to conform to what we consider to be objectively good, but still managed to be good because they for whatever reason work on the audience.

When your primary medium is drama, as mine is, this can be especially present. A piece of drama is meant to be experienced beyond simply what the dramatist rights on the page. If a piece “plays well,” it often creates quite a different effect on the audience than when simply experiencing it through reading it and applying conventional literary assessment. Sometimes the difference is quantifiable, but sometimes it is very hard to pin down what is making the difference. And often it is completely subjective, a total matter of taste.

In interpretive pieces, like plays and screenplays, which require collaboration between numerous other artists in order to be fully realized, the other contributors may be that additional factor. Plenty of times, a dramatic work is rescued by the presence of a talented or charismatic actor, or a weak actor sinks even a good script. But even what makes a good or likable actor is hard to pin down. Generally we like people who are pretty and expressive. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we each can see meaning in different things depending on our perspective. Sometimes we bring our own baggage to things, where an emotional response in us drives us to bring our own meaning that’s not necessarily being offered by the “text.” Betty Draper, to continue with the Mad Men example, reminds me of a lot of personal issues, so even though the actress is generally considered to be on the flat side, I find her compelling and fascinating even when perhaps objectively she is not. By contrast, I find Scarlett Johansson so wooden that any character played by her is immediately contaminated in my eyes, whereas plenty of other people don’t have nearly so much problem with her.

It’s tough to nail down things that can vary from person to person. I just know we can’t rely on hoping the audience will pick up the slack in our work, because we can never precisely predict what will speak to people and what won’t.

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