Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This question was prompted by a commenter (it was dorkinfo) in the post about Ryan Adams and Mandy Moore. He mentioned that Moore got a pass for doing Saved!
So tell me… in your case, which artist gets a lifetime pass from you, whatever else he/she may do?
I wasn't sure this one would work as an AVQA until it came up in the production meeting last week and it turned out that other people do have these. Weirdly, though, my first thought in that meeting was Michael Moore. I have mixed feelings about him as a filmmaker very similar to what Nathan describes in the first few paragraphs of his column on Canadian Bacon, but I've always mentally given him a free pass because of his stingingly sarcastic open letter to Dr. Laura after her public statements about how homosexuality is clearly an abomination, per the Bible. The sense of angry humor and the precise and superior Biblical knowledge displayed in that letter warms the cockles of my heart—it strikes me as a very Michael Moore kind of attention-grabbing stunt, particularly with its disingenuous tone, but it's actually funny. Then, as I was getting ready to write this, I actually did the research and couldn't find any evidence whatsoever that Moore had written it; apparently my vague memory of him having fessed up after the piece started circulating on the Internet was wrong. So I guess he goes back to being free-passless.
Instead, I'll nominate a few people whose output I'm more positive about. Terry Gilliam will always have a pass from me because of Brazil, no matter how haphazard his mixed-bag movies have been since then. It was the film that taught me to love filmmaking, and I see echoes of it in everything he does, and I feel a profound affection for his work to this day, even when it's The Brothers Grimm and I have no damn idea what he was trying to accomplish. Jim Henson's later work (the Storyteller series, for instance, or later) often struck me as more ambitious and even pretentious than heartfelt, and I couldn't tolerate Muppet Babies, which he created. But he was Jim Henson, ferchrissakes, and the good utterly outweighed any false notes in his career. Finally, if Brad Bird decided tomorrow that his life's goal was to direct a series of films consisting solely of Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey farting at each other and cackling, I'd be awfully sad, but I would accept that he'd earned his retirement from having a soul, by virtue of "Family Dog," his years helping out on The Simpsons, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Critics try to be as objective as possible about art. These three guys are so thoroughly under my skin that I don't even pretend anymore.
The first and foremost name that comes to mind when I hear this question is a guy whose lifetime may not consist of too many more years, though he seems to be as bombastic as ever. It’s very fashionable to hate on Stan Lee these days; he’s long been a self-caricature, he makes pointless fanboy cameos in movies, he’s brought us lots of tripe like “Stripperella” and “Who Wants To Be A Superhero” lately, and the company he turned into a culture-shifting dynamo has been more monster than savior in recent years. He’s also been dogged for decades by accusations—some ludicrous, others not—that he helped Marvel screw some of their greatest creators out of a fair share of the massive profits generated by their characters. But in my eyes, Stanley Martin Lieber could do anything with his (hopefully plentiful) remaining years short of murdering a gang of Girl Scouts and he’d be aces in my book. Although it’s become fashionable, thanks to a reversal of longstanding trends, to give him little credit for his role in the creation of Marvel’s greatest characters, there’s no doubt that eternally resonant figures like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Dr. Strange, and the Silver Surfer sprang largely from his overactive imagination. He’s that rare figure who’s a creative genius as well as an exceptionally canny businessman, and he not only helped turned comics into a legitimate art form, but a highly profitable one at that. So great was his impact that he forced the entire industry to follow his lead—which proved to be a double-edged sword, no doubt, but is a testament to the power of his talent. The bottom line is, he wrote dozens of the greatest superhero stories ever, and as a result, had a major influence in shaping my life, and the lives of thousands of other geeks. He’s a larger-than-life figure who’s earned every indulgence.
At the risk of being predictable, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross have separately and collectively earned a lifetime pass from me for four amazing seasons of Mr. Show. I have such incredibly fond memories of Mr. Show that nothing could possibly diminish them. Not Scary Movie 2. Not Alvin And The Chipmunks. Not even Let's Go To Prison. I understand the argument that Cross invites more scrutiny than most because of the confrontational nature of his stand-up comedy but I think it's foolish to hold actors to unrealistically high standards. They're people who pretend to be other people in front of cameras, not clergy or politicians or activists.
There are a lot of artists who I'll always respect regardless of how crappy their latest work turns out (Stephen King comes readily to mind), but there aren't nearly as many people who have impressed me so much that I find myself actively unwilling to accept anything they've done could be actually bad. Stanley Kubrick, for one; but then, given the few number of films he actually made, you could make a reasonable case that Kubrick never made a bad movie, which renders the question basically moot. So how about the Coen brothers? Again, a remarkably solid body of work, and it's possible to find defenders for even the weakest things they've done. But speaking personally, I consider The Ladykillers to be a piece of crap, one which, apart from a brilliant lead turn by Tom Hanks and some decent acting in the rest of the cast, is largely a waste. Here's the thing, though: I own the movie, and I've watched it three or four times, not because I find it at all rewarding, but because, given how awesome the Coens normally are, part of me just can't accept the idea that they could put out some so pointlessly lazy and unfunny. I think a lifetime pass for me isn't just always digging someone no matter how bad they get; it's being so taken in by what they've achieved that failing or tripping up seems like a violation of some sort of natural law. Like the sun rising in the west, or rain falling up, or cats and dogs living together. A remake of a dark British comedy that drowns in its own bad slapstick and emptiness? Unpossible! And yet I keep hoping I'm wrong, which is why I'll probably watch it again sometime soon.
When I was a teenager, the original cast of Saturday Night Live meant everything to me. They symbolized all the entertainment that I was denied—the good stuff, the things meant for adults, the stuff that was just a little dangerous but still accessible. The show was already on its second generation of performers by the time I got ahold of it; I only was able to watch during sleepovers at my best friend Cheryl's house, thanks to her more permissive mother. But the two of us idolized the original cast. They represented a kind of mass-market friendly sophistication with a whiff of anarchy, but in the context of performance. They didn't keep it to themselves. Their palpable glee in acting crazy wasn't self-indulgent, it was aimed at us, to make us laugh. Us, the NBC late-night audience, the grown-ups sad enough to have nothing else to do on a Saturday night, and the kids sneaking a peek at the forbidden fruit. And for inviting me into that world, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd get a lifetime pass from me. (Bill Murray doesn't need one, even though he was easily my favorite at the time.) It doesn't matter how much they coast on their early accomplishments. It doesn't matter how many cash-ins or unfunny cameos or desperate attempts to win back the audience's love they perpetrate. They welcomed me to comedy—to performance. Nothing they have done or ever will do can diminish that gift.
Martin Scorsese, baby. Maybe it's because I've seen so many interviews with Scorsese and read so much that he's written about film history and his own personal connection to the multitude of world cinema, but I tend to trust that even when Scorsese doesn't make great films, he'll always make films that are worth my time. In fact, sometimes it's just as exciting to watch a Scorsese film that misses the mark, because that usually means he's stretching himself, and trying to synthesize his diverse influences into something unique. I also find Scorsese's films reward re-watching more than almost any other directors', because so much of his work is about rhythm and momentum, and holding the viewer rapt for minutes on end. I can re-watch sequences from Scorsese's movies the way I'd listen to certain songs over and over. And any artist who can create on that level is an artist I'll trust for life.
Part of what inspired us to answer this particular question this week was Nathan sorta dissing Mike Epps, and me saying that he can do whatever he wants after that one hilarious scene in Next Friday that always makes me laugh. (See this AVQ&A for details!) But I don't actually believe that about Mike Epps—he's made mostly crap. In fact, I'm not sure anybody gets a free pass in the sense that I'll forgive anything they do, but I am willing to forget. So I can still be excited about anything that Steven Soderbergh does, despite the fact that Ocean's Twelve is unforgivably awful and The Good German was just so-so. He's still the brain that somehow made The Limey and Schizopolis and even Ocean's Eleven. Next up: The Girlfriend Experience. Even if it's bad, it'll probably still be pretty good (just like sex and pizza).
Like a lot of my A.V. Club brethren, I'm pretty generous with the lifetime passes. Robert Pollard can keep putting out 27 unlistenable albums a year for the next several decades and it won't change the fact that he also made Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and a half-dozen other records I love like family members. And, yes, The Rolling Stones haven't made a classic record in 30 years, but who cares after they made a million of them in the '60s and '70s? My list of lifetime passes goes on as long as my list of favorite artists, because pretty much everyone starts to suck at some point, and you learn to just edit that stuff out of your mind. So, instead of reeling off a bunch of names, I'll go with someone who probably deserves my pass the least: John Travolta. Travolta has made approximately 142 horrible, horrible films, including some of the worst movies ever made. (Battlefield Earth and Wild Hogs come immediately to mind, but there's also Perfect, Staying Alive, and Shit: The Movie. Okay, I made that last one up.) But Travolta also gave absolutely perfect performances in four movies: Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction, Blow Out, and Get Shorty, which I love far more than I hate any of the garbage he's done. (I'll also cop to enjoying less reputable Travolta fare like Welcome Back, Kotter, Grease, Face-Off, and, um, Phenomenon.) So, go off and make that Wild Hogs sequel so you can buy another jet, John. I'll still love you.
At first, I was going to sit this one out—for the life of me, I couldn't think of a single person or music group about which this was true. But this morning, on my way to work, I had a revelation: "The Stone" by Dave Matthews Band came on, and you know what? I didn't skip it. At the risk of exposing myself to EXTREME backlash in the comments, I'm willing to give the ol' DMB a lifetime pass. To this day, I think Live At Luther College is an amazing album—it’s the live acoustic one he did with Tim Reynolds, for the uninitiated—and I got my kicks out of Before These Crowded Streets and The Lillywhite Sessions (the unreleased version of Busted Stuff) when I was younger. DM himself is a really good musician; it's a freakin' shame frat parties across this great globe have overplayed "Ants Marching" and "Satellite" to the point where I get a visceral reaction once those first notes are played. Plus, the last few albums, though I haven't heard them all in their entirety, have seemed bland, predictable, and pretentious. (Next up: June's Big Whiskey And The GrooGrux King… stupidest album title ever?) But despite all that, I still get plenty of enjoyment out of most of the older stuff—and as a journalist, I'll never use the band as a modifier to demonstrate how lame something is. That's what Hannah Montana is for.
I can't really do "lifetime pass" in the sense it's probably meant; there's no one I love so much that if they do crap for years on end I feel continuously charitable. Most musicians fall off the curb sooner or later, so even though David Bowie's great (and Heathen remains incredibly underrated) I can't really claim to spend much time thinking about him lately. Beck's perpetually teetering on the edge; the one person I have to give props to in that department is Damon Albarn, who's remained shockingly essential for a really long time now. Just as Blur fell apart on arguably their best album and Albarn was releasing unreleasable demos, he picked himself back up with not just Gorillaz (which I can take or leave) but The Good, The Bad & The Queen, who were actually the best supergroup ever. He also has the impeccable looks of Dorian Gray. I envy him very much.
Film-wise, a lot of people I thought were untouchable have offed themselves (I'm looking at you, David Lynch), but Werner Herzog continues to make movies that are just as exciting as the equally rough-hewn films he made 30 years ago. I'd also like to pipe up for Claude Chabrol, who gets a lot of lip-service tributes for his time in the New Wave but has had nearly every movie he's made since slagged for being "too slow" or whatever when he's actually conducting fascinatingly perverse experiments in withholding narrative information. I mean, I know that sounds like no fun whatsoever, but I dig it.
Has anyone said this yet? I give a lifetime pass to Keanu Reeves. I enjoy The Matrix and Speed and whatever else well enough without caring too much about the individual actors in them, and I fully realize that most of his filmography is simply awful… but I guess I decided after seeing him in Thumbsucker that the guy probably has more depth and intelligence than he gets credit for. I felt vindicated one year later with A Scanner Darkly, which I also highly enjoyed. I don't really have a lot of proof behind the cultured-Keanu assertion other than those two movies, but I think his roles are extremely varied. He's really been in every kind of movie imaginable: dumb comedy, thriller, sports, action, drama, sci-fi, family-friendly, romance, Shakespeare. And I respect him for never really getting too pigeonholed (even if the movies themselves weren't all that great). I think it's a shame he so often comes off a bit moron, because I strongly suspect he's not.
I used to have a hard time sticking by artists once the work started to dip until I had a conversation on the subject with our own Scott Tobias. We were talking about Ron Shelton, who'd just followed the disappointing Dark Blue with the even less interesting Hollywood Homicide. I found myself wondering whether or not he was really a talent of note until Scott pointed out that he did Bull Durham. And that's a pretty tough argument to counter. Since then I've become pretty liberal with my lifetime passes. And as the years roll by it's become pretty clear to me that everyone lets you down eventually but nobody deserves to be written off for good. Look at Bob Dylan: You never know who has a Time Out Of Mind in their back pocket. So I guess I don't have a single answer here, just the suggestion that it's best not to lose perspective about how rare truly great art is and how tough it is to top, or even duplicate a masterpiece. Love mastermind Arthur Lee may not have turned out of anything of note for decades—personal problems didn't help—but the man made Forever Changes. Have you listened to Forever Changes lately? It's fucking amazing.
I feel inclined to give lifetime passes to heroes who are past their primes yet still plugging away, because people with short-term memories tend to forget that their contemporary missteps should never overshadow a career’s worth of triumphs. Several candidates leap to mind: Neil Young, who appears to need a lot of progression legislation to pass before he makes another good album, or John Carpenter, who lost his touch in the ’90s after turning out some of the most entertaining genre fare (Halloween, The Thing, Assault On Precinct 13, Big Trouble In Little China, They Live, et al.) of the two previous decades. But let’s never forget the contributions Albert Brooks has made to film comedy, quite apart from the innovative deconstruction of his stand-up routines. His first four films as writer-director—the prescient mock-documentary Real Life, the caustic anti-romantic comedy Modern Romance, the yuppified hippie road movie Lost In America, and the ebullient Defending Your Life—are more than enough to forgive his descent into less ornery fare like The Muse or Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World. I still contend that the latter is misunderstood and underrated, but then, you know, the guy’s got a lifetime pass from me.