How do we value films? When it comes to film review-style criticism this really is the central question. Some would say that the value a film comes down to one thing and one thing only: what can the audience get out of the film. I’d agree with this in part, but I think it’s necessary to note that the audience is not the most important part of the equation. You can’t simply determine the value of a film by examining how many thematic or intellectual or emotional ideas an audience has been able to extract from it. Sparking ideas and conversation is a wonderful thing, but watching a film is not required in order to do that, nor must any film actively attempt such resonance. In the relationship between film and audience it must always be the film that takes precedence. We must evaluate not the conversation the film sparks, but how effectively it speaks to the audience.
Maybe this sounds a little too intellectual for you. Let me break it down for a moment. This piece was inspired by a comment on a forum I read in which someone expressed the notion that we should not judge the quality of a movie, that this sort judgment narrows our ability to understand the meanings of a movie. Instead, we should only be asking questions of the film along the lines of, “What does this mean?” Our answers to that question create value.
I can’t really disagree with the idea that part of the value of a film is found in the answers we come up with for what a film means or what it’s saying. But I would argue that focusing only on this aspect of film appreciation is both a narrow way of understanding films as well as a poor prioritization of the relationship between a work of art and its audience.
First, the narrowness. How can this idea of asking questions without judgment be narrow? Well, quite simply because it assumes that all films must be able to create deeper meaning. It ignores, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film which may have a couple of interesting ideas but whose artistic success is more related to the intangible elicitation of visceral emotion. Sure, I could ask a question of Raiders‘ meaning in any given scene, but that completely ignores a whole level on which the film operates. It’s narrow.
As to the poor prioritization of the relationship between film and audience, this is where we get into what I like to call “bullshit”. The truth is, if all value comes from the audience asking a question and then using elements of a film as a tool to answer that question then the film becomes nothing more than words brainstormed on a whiteboard. Effectively the film has as much value as a man on the street spitting out random sentences that can be construed to have personal significance by passers by. Maybe there is a value in this, but it is hardly worth the effort of creating art, or especially making a film. It also leads to the simple fact that when taken to the logical end, this approach does not actually find intellectual value in the film film at all, but in the ability of the audience to intellectualize, or, as I said, to bullshit.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look at a heavily sarcastic conversation I had in a chat room recently about Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol:
Corey: according to the /Film people, MI4 is an incredibly deep film about subverting the inevitable failures in humanity
My Junior to Take: no
My Junior to Take: it’s a Howard Hawks movie
My Junior to Take: TEAMWORK
Corey: JUNIOR, YOU FUCKING GENIUS!
My Junior to Take: i am pretty smart
My Junior to Take: just give me a credit whenever you steal my idea
Corey: It’s a film about how teamwork, and ultimately organized society, allows humanity to circumvent or subvert those inevitable failures and turn them into progress and betterment and potential salvation of the spirit
My Junior to Take: yeah
My Junior to Take: a Howard Hawks movie
Corey: take, for example, the scene in which Cruise jumps through the window and doesnt aim right and almost falls, but he is caught by not one, but two other people, and their teamwork not only rescues Cruise, but allows their mission to move forward
Corey: and really, when you think about it, the mission, with its flatness in construction, is the perfect metaphor for the steady progress of humanity through organizing in mutually beneficial groups
Corey: furthermore, the fact that the characters all have emotional attachments highlights that human connection is not only beneficial for utilitarian purposes, but also for the advancement of the human spirit
Mx. Bondo: Julian Simon
Mx. Bondo: he’s an economist that took on all these doomsayers about population growth (or environmental catastrophe and the like) and basically said, human ingenuity will find a way
Corey: right, and MI4 is human ingenuity in a bottle, showing how that ingenuity surpasses even the technological tools we create for ourselves
See, that’s bullshit. I mean, really, to an extent the movie does explore these ideas, but it doesn’t explore them with much depth, nor is the exploration particularly good. So it’s not the film that’s genius. The only thing you might call brilliant is my ability to come up with enlightened-sounding intellectual bullshit. But again, that’s a film that really does have something slightly deeper going on, so I guess it could be argued that my bullshit is not bullshit at all. Maybe we should try it with another film?
I present to you, the thematic brilliance of Michael Bay’s The Rock:
Corey: would you rather we talk about the brilliant resonance of The Rock?23:44
Mx. Bondo: I would
GothamCity151: The only thing resonant about that is the idea of fucking the prom queen.
Mx. Bondo: post-9/11 relevance!
Mx. Bondo: I don’t even know who the prom queen was because I didn’t go to prom
GothamCity151: Same here.
Corey: fucking the prom queen is basically the ultimate purpose of life on this planet
GothamCity151: It makes you a winner.
Mx. Bondo: I would have fucked Nic Cage’s hot Catholic, pigtailed fiancee though
Mx. Bondo: like a gentleman
Mx. Bondo: and a winner
Corey: its a pure expressing of the animal need to procreate and the human need to find that procreation satisfying beyond its strict utilitarian purpose of having a continuing line
GothamCity151: I don’t think procreation was on the mind in that line.
Corey: GC, what is it to really be “a winner”?
Corey: and it doesnt matter if its on the mind
GothamCity151: Well you have to be a total freaking rock star from Mars to be a winner.
Corey: desire for sex is brought about by the innate human need to procreate, but as with many things human we have come to value certain ideas of good sex over the purity of continuing a blood line
Corey: The Rock brings these themes to mind subtly, without dwelling, leaving such profundity to the audience to experience on a deep, subconscious level
Corey: such is the brilliance of Michael Bay
TriJunior: it’s all subtext, which, in a way, is the only possible text
GothamCity151: Brilliance and Michael Bay should never be mentioned in the same sentence.
GothamCity151: Aside from the one I just wrote.
Corey: GC, why not?
GothamCity151: It is because the two do not match each other.
Corey: clearly that isnt the case
Corey: the car chase in The Rock features perhaps Bay’s most brilliant melding of action and theme in his entire career
GothamCity151: If that’s the case, Fro, that is very sad.
TriJunior: it’s about destruction and what it means to be a man
TriJunior: which is, ultimately, destructive
Corey: as one car chases another through the streets of San Francisco we are left to dwell on the very nature of mans pursuits
Corey: for what are we doing in life aside from chasing?
Corey: chasing our dreams, our goals, the neighbours
TriJunior: a giant hummer
TriJunior: in more ways than one
Corey: and along the way we may reach that which we chase, but the destruction we leave behind in our wake must be taken into account
Corey: we must ask the worth of our goals in the face of the chaos that follows our actions
Mx. Bondo: the prom queen
Mx. Bondo: is who I chase
GothamCity151: Even false pretentiousness bothers me. This is strange.
Corey: the exploding streetcar is not just an exploding streetcar. as it flies through the air it comes to represent the broken dreams, the sad reality of the chase made real
Corey: that’s right, i just turned a crazy ridiculous Michael Bay car chase into a rumination on the human condition
Corey: Bay is clearly brilliant
If that isn’t bullshit then I don’t know what is.
This highlights not only the potential for pretentious bullshit in the audience, but it also shows that if the audience is the most important part of the film-audience relationship then the quality of the film makes no difference because anybody can come up with a deep interpretation about anything. I could break down that chase scene from The Rock and show in detail how it can relate to themes about the meaning of life, but that doesn’t mean those themes are at all explored by the film, nor does it raise the value of the film beyond the very bullshit being made of it.
Backtracking to Mission Impossible 4 for a moment, we find a film that actually does explore some deeper themes. I would even say that the exploration of those deeper themes enhances my appreciation of the film and raises the quality of it in my eyes. But even still, the themes are only minimally explored, and in the end they have very little to do with my overall enjoyment of the film. Those themes are there, and they spoke to me to a certain extent, but do you know what spoke to me even more? Having my stomach churn as Tom Cruise nearly falls off the tallest building in the world in the magnificent IMAX format. If I’m doing an honest analysis of the of the film then it is not about what I can potentially interpret based on random elements within the film, rather I’m looking for how the film did what it did and why that caused me to have a certain reaction.
As an audience member, I am important in the relationship insofar as the art on screen must be seen by someone to have any real value. If a film screens in a forest and there’s nobody there to see it, does it actually exist? Does it actually matter? The answer is no. Films—any work of art—require an audience. They are made to elicit a response. What sort of response is doesn’t matter, and the value derived comes from the achievement of that response. A film having elicited a reaction, even a strong reaction doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. A film is only good if the viewer appreciated the reaction elicited from them for whatever reason.
Even if the intellectualizing that occurs after watching a film isn’t bullshit, the conversation provoked is not what we’re evaluating. I am extremely pro-conversation. I think it’s pretty clear that I often love talking about the films I watch as much or more than I do actually watching them. The two are not the same thing. If the ability of a film to be a springboard to conversation were the most important thing then X-Men: First Class, a film I despise, would technically be the best film I’ve seen all year.
Conversation about a film can enhance appreciation. A Serious Man is a good example of this personally. I saw the film, and though I really enjoyed it, I had a hard time piecing together what the film was trying to say. There were so many ideas in it and they weren’t fully connecting. By discussing the film with others and postulating on the thematic ideas of the film, I began to settle in on what I felt the film was saying. Sometimes a film isn’t just about what is going on in the moment, a la Raiders, but is also trying to leave you with a nugget, and sometimes that nugget is meant to be unwrapped after some thought. A Serious Man is such a film. On top of this, re-watching the film, after having thoughts pointed out to me by others in my mind, revealed new layers of appreciation. I was able noticed things that the film was doing that I might not have noticed on my own and then tried to understand what they might have meant, if anything. It managed to speak to me on a deeper level more effectively because I knew what to look for.
This is different, say, from latching onto one element and using it as a basis for ideas that are completely my own. If I wanted I could say that the incoherent action in The Dark Knight is wonderful because I like to see it as an expression of the incoherence at the core of human fear. It sounds nice, but it is something I am applying to the film, not something the film is actually telling me through its own elements, and if it was then it did a shitty job of it.
Effectiveness is really at the heart of all this. Mission Impossible has things to say about technology, but does it say those things effectively or powerfully? Furthermore, is the action effectively rendered? Am I effectively entertained, or moved? Is it effectively thought provoking? These are all subjective value judgments, but they are honest value judgments. They take a look at what the film does and how effectively it is conveyed to the viewer. The conversation afterward is just an additive; it doesn’t mean the film was effective, or good.
If I say that a film is good or bad it is understood that my reaction is subjective. Interesting film criticism explores how and why films succeed or fail on that subjective level. In the end it’s all about the film, not the audience. The audience has a relationship with the film, but it’s the film we are exploring, not the audience. Questions of what an audience brings to a film are fascinating, but only to the extent that they shape perspective on how the film is doing what it sets out to do. Coming up with intelligent things to say that are thematically related to The Rock doesn’t make The Rock a thematically intelligent film, nor does it make it a good film. No, it’s the exciting action, likable characters and propulsive pace, the effectiveness of its construction that make The Rock good. Of course, that’s just my opinion, but at least I don’t need to bullshit or do intellectual backflips post-mortem to justify it.