Judging Movies

I’ve been thinking about how I judge movies, and I’ve discovered some big problems. Or potential problems. I’ve never seen anyone talk about how movies are judged outside of the technical aspects… “good” directing, “good” acting, etc.

This post comes about partially because of the argument that reviewers who don’t like a genre should not be able to review a movie from that genre. My old solution, which I have not seen implemented, is for each review to carry at its beginning a brief numerical analysis of the reviewer. Perhaps break the reviewer’s average scores down by genre, to see what he favors. Or some other method that achieves even more accuracy. That way the review can more easily be put in proper relative perspective.

This argument I was addressing implied one truth that I dispute, that all genres are EQUAL. So if a reviewer doesn’t like a genre its the REVIEWER’S fault rather than the genre’s.

This argument has many flaws, but perhaps the biggest is that while it says that all genres are equal, it means all genres currently in existence are equal. The same people who use that argument attack movies outside of existing genres for being “strange”, or in movie reviewers’ cases simply don’t watch them (arthouse movies).

Movie reviewers who are affected by this argument warp their own perspective so that it fits the “ideal” reviewer, who has no genre-bias. Ebert, who is the only reviewer I’m familiar enough with to address, did this, by sometimes saying the movie is “for certain audiences”. That is to say, he doesn’t personally enjoy it, but he still gives it the thumbs up.

The Matrix springs to mind. Its definitely within current genres, so its given Equal standing, but its critically underrated since much of the value of the film lies in its cultural effect. It doesn’t do so well if you give it the cold technical treatment.

Why isn’t there debate over which genre is best? Aren’t there strengths and weaknesses to each genre? Aren’t some genres simply better than others, at least in the particular movies made in the genre?

It would be funny to abuse this… simply create a genre that becomes popular but is truly banal and watch the reviewers give many of those movies “thumbs up”. Oh, wait… something similar has already happened. Its called the Horror Genre. Or the Action Genre.

“Yes, the movie was about watching a piece of shit. But some of the views of that piece of shit were great and the acting was stellar. 9/10! A great movie in the Shitty Genre!”

I would try to judge your posts but unfortunately they don’t fit into any known genre.


What about movies that combine genres? Are they then “worth” more than movies that can be grouped within a single genre?

I will have to say that all reviews, for any kind of entertainment activity, are equal. They are all equally worthless.

Entertainment is a matter of taste and every person is different. Hell, even an individual’s tastes change depending on their mood, their environment, their memories.

There are movies that I hated/loved and changed my mind about them as I grew older. The movies didn’t change. I did. Does that make my opinion (my “review”) from the past any less valid than my opinion from the present? Of course not.

Having an opinion is alright. Expressing that opinion (as a review or whatnot) is an exercise in mental masturbation.

That’s my opinion about reviews. Expressed.

Do we need to put up signs saying, “Don’t debate the Koontz”?

Why did you capitalize the word “equal”?

</me skips all the one liner attempts to be funny>

Koontz has a valid point here. Hargrave, your point of view is mistaken. To properly discuss this issue of aesthetics we need to look at a couple of different things.

First, the matter of subjective v. objective. In laymen’s terms, they are opposites, but in any discussion pertaining to the quality of intangibles (like art) we have to use a more sophisticated definition of objective and subjective. I’m going to use the intersubjective definition of objectivity here. Objective does not mean measurable or provable, it just means that these things exist independent of mental construction. IE: the layman’s objective would say that something like a headache would be subjective… no one can measure your headache. A (better) intersubjective one allows people to say “migraines hurt”. “I like bacon” is subjective, but “getting your hand cought in farm machinery is terrible” is objective. Very few people would disagree that mangling your hand is good or bad based only on your opinion of farm accidents.

Secondly, the word “great” which I use to denote a work that is head and shoulders above the vast majority of the art form. Citizen Kane is a great film; Equilibrium is a good film. A film can be entertaining and good without being great. Greatness is a quality that is hard to define, but like pornography I know it when I see it. It does, however, take some practice to be able to tell the difference between entertaining and great. This, in a sense, is what Ebert does (while secondarily providing a measure of its entertainment value). Not everyone is a good judge of art, since it takes more than simply opinion to determine.

Basically, movies, music, etc can be judged both objectively and subjectively. For a musical performance, there are many objective criteria we use. Rhythm, playing the right notes, using correct chords, playing in tune. These all are objective measures. Then we have the subjective ones, such as the beauty of the melody, etc. A drunken sailor singing “The old grey mare” out of tune and with no rhythm is not going to be considered a great piece of music, even if Sean Hargrave says “This is my favorite piece of music, ever, it’s the best thing I have ever heard”. While not claiming that Sean has no right to his own opinion, his opinion can be wrong. In this case, he would be wrong that “old grey mare” is a great song. He should instead say he found it personally entertaining. So in rating a film, we can look at teachncal objective measures (The camera angles match the message, the movie is in focus, etc), artistic objective measures (the film makes sense, the characters seem to behave naturally, the actors are convincing), and the subjective measures (How much one likes the actors, how the story resonates).

Now, this is a difficult process. I think that there is some calculus we could have to measurably demonstrate a work’s value, but that calculus is so far beyond the current scope of our knowledge that it is unobtainable. Thus we must do our best to judge both the subjective and objective merits of a film or painting. Some people, like Ebert, are much better at this than others who say things like “The thrill ride of the summer”. Rottentomatoes gives us a sort of consensus view of the merit of a movie.

So, in short, one can like a movie but not consider it a great film. One can dislike a movie and it is still great. Greatness is not entertainment, nor vice versa. To give you a final example, Steve Vai is a great guitarist. He is proficient as hell, and gets things right. However, his music is rarely entertaining or “catchy”… most of the pleasure comes from hearing a guy who has mastered an instrument. On the other side of the coin is Biz Markie’s “Just a friend”. The song is undeniably entertaining and catchy, but few people will point to it as an example of brilliance in music.

Koontz: You are wrong, however, about genres being treated as equal. In a sense they are… a movie is a movie. But even Ebert rates films differently based on genre. A 4 star action film is a really good action film. A film that reaches toward greatness and falls a little short might get 3.5 stars, but it might still be a much better film. In short, Ebert is saying “This is really good… for a fantasy film”. The Matrix is entertaining, but as an example of the art form, it is nothing special. Its “cultural effect” (I don’t think it had much of one) is not something to be considered when judging the movie as an artistic endeavor.

I don’t think we need a more technical and numerical analysis… we are not advanced enough to break things down so easily. Find a reviewer you generally agree with or go by consensus, either way you will likely disagree once in a while.

As an aside, people don’t judge movies, they criticise them. “Judgement” has a strange, forboding connotation - as if you’re writing your personal criticism of a given film into stone, where it will remain unchanged for all eternity. Criticism is something much more fluid, which is why films and film-makers can go through a critical re-evalutation years or decades after they stop creating motion pictures. Criticism, by it’s very nature, can change over time.

Note that the fine art of film criticism is essentially dead in America, or at the very least ain’t feeling too hot. Most of what passes for criticism is actually a straightforward review of a given movie to answer one simple question: “Is this movie the price of a ticket’s worth of entertainment?” By reducing the subtleties of criticism into a yes/no - or, more to the point, thumbs-up or thumbs-down - is only a service to those of whom only relate to film as a commodity. Which, as it would appear, is approximately 98% of the English-speaking world.

Bitterman’s right, though: find a critic you like and go from there. For me, it’s not so much whether I agree with a given critic so much as I understands his reasoning behind his criticism. (Incidentally, this is what bothers me about Ebert so much: he’s fickle to the point of being arbitrary. I may think Michael Medved is a fucking idiot, but I’m almost guaranteed to like something if he hates it, which is a fairly useful trait.)

Why did you capitalize the word “equal”?[/quote]

Its referencing “all genres being equal” and the current genre/non-current genre division, and I wanted to continue that emphasis.

It’s truly terrifying how few people understand this concept. Bravo, great post.