The Myth of Objective Film Criticism

Anton Ego in Pixar’s “Ratatouille”

by Michael Neelsen

What makes a good film? What makes a bad film? Is there an objective way of determining the aesthetic, emotional, or social merits of a given movie? I won’t pretend these are new questions – they’ve been asked for as long as cinema has existed, and many people have come up with many different answers (even amongst your humble ATA bloggers!).

My answer is a resounding no. Cinema is art, and art is subjective. What may be one of the best films I’ve ever seen could be considered worthless crap by others (The Fountain). What I may think is one of the most awful loads of bull ever dished out to movie-going audiences may be thought of as an inviting escape into fantasy for others (Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen). And that is okay. We should have different opinions. That’s what makes this fun. Even film critic Roger Ebert told ATA blogger Joe Pudas in his interview that film criticism “has to be first person subjective. It’s not a science, it’s an art.”

However, there are those who believe that there is no debate over whether or not a particular movie is good or bad, just over whether or not you liked it. For example, “There is no debate over whether or not The Godfather is a good film. It is a good film. Whether or not you liked it is your opinion.”

But isn’t the concept of “good” subjective? And if that’s true, what is the purpose of film criticism to begin with? What can a film critic offer to the world besides one more opinion? Perhaps nothing. Or, perhaps a film critic can offer a particularly educated and unique perspective, delving deeper into analyzing the film than your average Joe. Or maybe a critic is literally there just to provoke us all with polarizing opinions that keep us all debating movies forever.

Now let’s take this to the next level. If you buy into the concept that there is no such thing as an objectively good film, how do you feel about awards? More specifically, the Academy Awards? Does winning an Oscar mean anything beyond simply that at that given moment you were “most liked” by Hollywood’s elite? When Crash wins Best Picture, should we all pencil in our books that it truly was the best movie of 2005? I think most of you will agree with me that we should not, unless we agree with the Academy’s opinion.

As a filmmaker, I always used to dream of one day hearing my name called by some megastar and ascending the steps at the Academy Awards to accept my Oscar in front of the nation. I’d fantasized a dozen different speeches, I’m sure. If you ever wanted to make movies, you’ve had this same fantasy many times, discussed it with friends and family, made countless promises to people that you would not forget to thank them on national television, etc.

But why should we yearn for such a thing? Why strive for it? It’s completely out of your control and means nothing if you win it. It doesn’t even guarantee more work or funding for your next project.

What about top ten lists? All film geeks construct them. We spend hours, upon hours tallied up over years building lists of what we feel are the Top Ten Best Movies of All Time. But they’re never the same. And isn’t that the point? We want our friends to have different lists so we can read them, scoff, and scream in their face, “What the crud is Total Recall doing on your list?” But why are we always surprised when our friends have lists that we don’t agree with? And if we’re not surprised, and we know all along that we will never reach a consensus on which ten films truly are the best of all time, what’s the point of constructing the list to begin with?

This may all seem rather elementary, but the problem is that too many people have actually bought into the idea that film criticism can be objective. When Paul Thomas Anderson first walked into a film class, he heard the instructor say, “If you’re here to make the next Terminator 2, you may as well leave now.” PTA left immediately, because he was just as disgusted by that comment as I hope you are right now. Terminator 2 is a badass movie. Why the hell is Potemkin considered to be better? Because it’s harder to watch, and if you make it through you feel like you accomplished something?

The only thing you can possibly objectively rate about a movie is whether or not it works. Does the filmmaker harness the power of cinema? Did he establish the characters well? Did he transition between acts gracefully? Is the cinematography allowing us to see what we need to? Does the plot make sense given the world the filmmakers have established? If these things fall into place, the film isn’t good… it works. At the risk of citing a painfully obvious example, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will works like a charm. It completely paints Hitler as a national and world hero/savior. But is it a good movie?

And if a film doesn’t really work, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. In Superman, our caped hero flies around the globe at a speed that actually reverses the direction of the earth’s rotation, turning back time. Then, when he’s saved everyone, he goes really fast in the other direction, reversing the rotation of the earth again, supposedly bringing time back up to where it started. Yeah… no. That can’t happen. Reversing the rotation of the earth doesn’t send you backwards or forwards through time. This doesn’t work. But many would still consider Superman a classic. Others may not.

Here’s the deal: There is no objective way to watch movies. Never will be. There is no such thing as a good film or a bad film. There is no such thing as a Top Ten Best Films list, only a Top Ten Favorite Films list, meaning nobody ever has any ground to be offended by someone else’s list, because it’s not claiming authority over you in its title. The concept of awarding a Best Picture award is ludicrous, and the award would inherently mean more to the recipient if it were instead called the “We Like You” award.

And if you disagree with this post – you’re freakin’ WRONG. 😉

 

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  • Don’t forget to thank me. And cast me. Because we both know I’m the most talented and clever person you know.

  • Thanks! This makes me feel less bad about being a cynical such-and-such when it comes to reviews, and about disliking ‘good’ films and revelling in some ‘bad’ ones.

    It also explains why I greatly enjoyed The Blind Side, even though every single one of my critical faculties assures me that it is a giant, mushy pile of horse trollope.

  • Agreed, 100%. The idea that any film is just objectively bad is bloody stupid.

  • Peter Downey

    But aren’t we trying to be objective? In The Guardian a year or so back the various TV critics of that newspaper gave their opinions on ‘The most overrated films.’ One of them answering a comment stated “For me a lot of criticism, almost all of it in fact, is subjective.”
    I fail to see how you can refer to a film as being ‘overrated’ and call that subjective. People may disagree with the statement but it is the start of an objective discussion. If you say to me
    “Oh, that film made me laugh from beginning to end.” I’m not going to say ‘No, it didn’t.” The most I’m likely to say is something along the lines of “Really? Oh, well there you go.”
    Further in his piece he had this to say:
    “Mad Men
    wasn’t the great existential drama of our age, exploring the nature of
    identity and our Freudian urges. It was just a meandering soap.”
    That is objective criticism; it is stating that the drama is not what it purports to be.
    And here’s an important point. Artists try to say something, they are not in the business of pure entertainment. No doubt there are films or TV shows or theatre that are concerned only with entertainment. Fair enough but they are the minority I believe. Indeed we acknowledge such films and say
    “It was great fun, though, the sort of thing you won’t to see when you get home after a hard day in the office.”
    I remember watching a debate between Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster on whether it was better for a film to be entertaining or having something to say. Douglas believed it was more important to entertain – I agree. Lancaster said ‘Why not do both?’ I agree even more.
    And if they say they are saying something then it demands objective criticism.
    The problem is not that objectivity is a myth, it’s that it’s so hard to pin down.
    But that is what criticism is trying to do, it’s trying to pin down that most elusive of beasts.
    And I challenge you, Michael, to review your criticisms and to come up with a body of work that does not constantly slide into the realm of object statement.
    For myself, I would not write this or any other piece simply to say it’s my subjective view. That to me would be worthless. It would be crazy. Nearly as crazy as trying to prove that one’s objective opinions are the right ones.

    • Peter Downey

      This led me to your film on Green Bay Packers. Brilliant. And as a Brit really interesting to see those things that are the same and those that are different.

      • Michael Neelsen

        Hey, thanks Peter! I really appreciate it! I’m glad you found your way to it and enjoyed it!

        I’d love to hear what you found to be the same/different as a citizen from across the Atlantic. Jared and I are big EPL fans (LFC for me, TOT for Jared), so we too have enjoyed learning how Brits like yourself enjoy sports!

        – Michael

        • Peter Downey

          Hi Michael, well the first thing I noticed that was different was the importance put on ‘cold weather’ players. so much so that there are statistics on this. Now, I don’t know whether this is a thing that concerns all sports in the US – a particularly American concern or that it is particular to the game of American football. Also the way you support your team around the stadium is different with various fan groups putting up tents or from out of the back of their car (in the winter too?) for drinking and barbecues. It’s very different here. Though the watching of games in bars seems to be the same. And the distances between your rivals – it’s such a distance. This of course reflects the size of your country. Manchester United’s big rivals are about 30 miles away (Liverpool.)
          But the human story is exactly the same. Fans who adore their team unable to appreciate that a player will approach it differently. Of course, some players do play for a team as a fan whilst other players are able to empathize with fans better than I think Brett Favre did.

          But behind it all, is the politics. It’s a world where the onlooker just doesn’t know what is really happening. Some accept and others spin the story to fit their own subjective view – ah! We do indeed go round in circles.
          I assume you mean you are a fan of Liverpool? and Jared a fan of Spurs. I was a fan of Manchester United (being a Manc) but refuse to support them whilst Mourinho is manager. His game face is beyond the pale.

    • Michael Neelsen

      This is a fascinating take, Peter. I’ll bring it up on the podcast next week and we’ll discuss it on the air! 🙂

      • Peter Downey

        That sounds great Michael. How do I get to listen?

      • Peter Downey

        Moved my fingers and opened my eyes and now found where it is. I look forward to listening.