How to Judge Movies
I’ve seen many movies. I’ve seen too many movies. It is impossible for me to justify how much time I’ve spent watching them. It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at something. Well, I don’t think I’m quite there but I’m close enough to claim some authority on the subject of film. For today’s purpose I will write on the subject of judging the quality of a movie: a topic I have pondered much.
Do you believe movies, or any form of art, can be judged objectively? Can two people with entirely different tastes watch the same film and agree upon the value of its content and structure? Or are they entirely at the mercy of their individual interpretations, feelings, and opinions? Could it be both?
When I watch a movie many things occur inside of my head. I become a part of the viewing experience and allow myself to be subject to the unfolding drama. Perhaps I am deeply moved, or maybe I am irritated. One or more characters might resonate with me, and I feel connected. Inversely, I may not feel any connection to either the story or the characters. The movie does nothing to reach me, and I walk away unaffected. All of these reactions have to do with my personal experience with the film. This is one of two ways that we can judge a movie, and this is likely the way that most people judge them.
The second type of judgement is more detached and objective. Objectivity is best exemplified, in my opinion, in math. 2+2=4 no matter what any crackpot philosopher says. When you plug a concrete value into a concrete equation you get a concrete result. If I challenged the answer of 4 in the equation of 2+2 I would be either a fool, an intelligent fool, or a brilliant fool. No quantity of words and abstract explanations could change the answer. It is accepted as truth. So can a film be objectively good, even if I don’t particularly enjoy it?
An artist is an intentional and purposeful being. Even those artists who say they are making something strange and undefinable operate due to some knowable motivation. Consider the Terrence Malick film, Tree of Life. I have heard that even he doesn’t have the words or knowledge to describe what it all means. And one could argue that any good piece of art can’t be easily defined. Even so, he understood that to make a movie he needed a plot and some characters. He needed a setting and some themes. It is clear in watching that grace and truth are themes, as well as life and death. The conclusions of the film are abstract, but it doesn’t take away from the necessary and concrete pieces that all stories must contain. You must have character, plot, setting, theme, and a structure that serves them all. Tree of Life was nominated for best picture because it can be judged along the same lines as The Artist. They are very different in content and effect, but the academy understood that both were masterfully constructed by artists who understand the core makeup of a good film. Movies must follow the rules of good storytelling, and for that reason they can be judged objectively.
Think of a house. It has been designed by a master architect. The woodwork has been crafted by a master carpenter. The plumbing has been installed by a master plumber. This house is designed to stand and function properly. It serves the purpose of a house. No one intentionally builds a house to have leaky pipes. Now, you might love this house. You think the layout suits your tastes and needs. The color scheme is fantastic. The tiled bathroom seems to call out your name. Then again, you might not like this house at all. It’s too big, or too small. Maybe you don’t like the neighbors. The house is well-built, but it just doesn’t feel right for you. It is the same with a movie. It could be well put together, following the crucial building blocks of a good story, but you don’t find yourself captivated by it. You don’t want to spend much time living inside of it because it doesn’t speak to you. Of course another scenario might be that the movie isn’t well put together, like a house that’s falling apart, but you find some special charm about it that makes you want to stay a while. A movie can be objectively bad, but subjectively satisfying. Face/Off and Independence Day come to mind for me.
I hope this has cleared things up for you. This is how I judge movies; on two levels. I think it allows for much freedom, to like a bad film and to dislike a good one. It also distinguishes between the realms of the heart and the mind without putting up a wall between them. So whether a movie touches your heart, your mind, or both, take some time to admire the fine craftsmanship.