Exploring the Great Empathy Machine: Blog 2 – Subjectivity in Criticism
Have you ever watched a film that hit every note perfectly or changed the way you viewed cinema but left you feeling a little numb to it? Equally, have you ever seen a film that was misjudged or nonsensical but made you cry like a little baby?
I guess we all have.
Cinema is a strange old thing.
As an academic of film studies and a critic of sorts, I often find I’m caught in two minds regarding what constitutes a great film within my own mind. So much of my reception of a movie comes from my own tastes, themselves dictated by my background, my every viewing influenced at least in part by what’s going on in my life at the time or even the mood I’m in when I sit down to watch whatever it is I choose to consume. Therefore, like many a cinephile, I call on historic precedence as a means through which to judge whatever it is I’m watching in the fairest manner possible, trusting the fact that if the movie I’m witnessing looks, feels or is constructed like something else, I can judge it accordingly; my understanding of the language of cinema always being the starting point to any such an analysis; the altering of usual genre-specific, story-specific and filmmaking-specific tropes and languages often being an indicator as to where a filmmaker has surpassed expectations or offered something new (or not recently witnessed) in their work. This isn’t even to mention how cultural significance can play a large role in the critique of a movie – Get Out and Annihilation being examples of how this can benefit the reception of a film – but isn’t this a result of any critics’ environment just as their mood is, only more cultural and therefore grandiose in scope? Take this year’s Oscars for example: the anti-Trump, left wing critic circle was more likely to board the pro-love, positivity train of The Shape of Water, than the pro-Trump, right wing critic circle, which seemed more often to prefer the individualism on offer in the modern Western Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. By no means were these allegiances exclusive, but the discourse existed nonetheless.
The lesson here is that film is subjective. Full-stop.
In my own work as a critic, a role in which I hold the responsibility of remaining as objective as possible – judging art from the least personal space I can afford myself – I still remain tied to everything that has come before those few hours in which I’ll witness any given film. As such, there are movies I rate to be higher than others despite enjoying them on a visceral level much less.
Take my selection of the Top 10 Films of 2017, for example.
In the list (which is based on UK release dates and didn’t include my 2017 favourite Call Me By Your Name as I hadn’t had the opportunity to see it by the article’s release date), I placed Wind River at number 10 despite having a more enjoyable experience watching the film than I did watching Get Out, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight and Dunkirk, all of which rank higher in the top 10 list, with the latter of the four movies reaching as high as number 4 in my selection of films of the year. For whatever reason, Wind River just hit me on the right day at the right time, and my experience of watching it in a cinema – the outside world encouraged to leave my thoughts – as opposed to on a smaller screen as was the case with three of the four films mentioned above, meant that I was able to immerse myself in such a way that was clearly needed at the time, and as such I found more value in the Taylor Sheridan movie than I did in its four Oscar-nominated counterparts.
Clearly, in judging the films side by side and understanding the cultural significance and artistic exploits of each piece, I chose to rank Wind River in the most fragile spot on the list, below each of the films I found to be less compelling upon first glance. Had I seen Call Me By Your Name in 2017, Wind River – the film I’ve most wanted to re-watch out of all the films not placed in the top 5 – wouldn’t have been listed at all, owing mostly to the sensible movie critic within me that understood the quality of other films to be incredibly high despite not connecting with me so greatly.
Comparatively, there was not a point in which I even considered ranking Blade Runner 2049 in my top 10 list because I simply didn’t connect with what I felt to be a laborious story that missed the magic of some of Villeneuve’s earlier work – and, indeed, the original release – yet my good friend and fellow The Film Magazine writer Jason Lithgo ranked the movie as his number 1 film of the year.
Within two viable selections for the top releases of 2017, each of which featured many of the same films, we still disagreed so strongly on Blade Runner 2049 that it was included on Jason’s list at number 1 and yet didn’t even feature on mine, with Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! similarly reaching as high as number 3 on my chart despite not breaking Jason’s top 10.
These are, of course, just the opinions of two people, but they illustrate the difference in opinion that can occur regarding any given film at any given time, even when those two people are of similar ages, backgrounds, political allegiances and levels of experience within the study of film.
So, why the rant about subjectivity in film criticism?
The answer to this is two-fold…
The first is that the increased diversity amongst film critics as a result of the internet and social media platforms can be a positive as regards growing a consensus around the idea of quality within the art form as it ensures that a more rich canvas from which to draw sociopolitical viewpoints and cultural readings is wider than ever before, though it of course remains problematic.
The second is that we should simply stop trying to live up to the expectations of pretentious peers or indeed our own ideas of ourselves and embrace what we like as what we like without shame. We’re allowed to like bad movies and still understand what makes a great movie – Citizen Kane is arguably the greatest movie of all time from a technical standpoint, hitting almost every element of the filmmaking process out of the park and rewriting the rules of the medium, yet it doesn’t have to be the favourite of every film scholar, critic, filmmaker and fan. The mere idea of such is simply ludicrous.
As a masters graduate in film theory and related studies, I can honestly claim that I’ve been as heavily influenced to get into this field of study by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as I have by The Thin Red Line, and that my enjoyment of Ice Age is somehow comparable to my enjoyment of Alien. My very own 50 Favourite Films of All Time list on my Letterboxd account is forever changing, often as the result of a change in mood or a developed understanding of the films I’ve long appreciated.
In my time, I’ve had emotional connections with movies I know aren’t “good” like Game Over, Man or have grown a level of fondness towards films like What If? and Garden State, despite each being problematic in its portrayal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that has been the subject of much controversy in recent years. Even as a person who should supposedly know better, there’s something in these films, just like there is in many a more typically well considered film like a You Were Never Really Here or a Badlands that grabs me and keeps me hooked, allowing me to take all I know into my experience and learn about the world, or simply experience it from a different point of view for a few hours.
All of that told, I do still hold the somewhat contrasting view that the more movies a film critic or fan watches, and the more often they engage with said movies critically, the more value their opinions can hold because of how such opinions are coming from a greater base of knowledge, which in of itself is the foundation for sophisticated commentary. While this remains problematic, especially in terms of the film industry which has been pushed forward by white males for the majority of its history, the fact remains that if someone understands a reference to a classic filmmaker’s work or the way in which a contemporary filmmaker has taken a classic trope and turned it on its head, there will be more value in the sharing of that opinion (for educational purposes if nothing else).
The point here is that nothing in film is sacred and nor should it be the case in film criticism, and especially film fandom. Even those with the most knowledge are projecting their opinions from a very personal space and the knowledge base from which these opinions are formed is largely made up from a history of capitalist, western, often male-led filmmaking, and as such holds room to be challenged and/or disposed of. Bear this in mind the next time you read a review you agree or disagree with, and pay especially close attention to the fact that largely white, middle-aged, American males contribute to the average score of a movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Instead, find critics you feel you can relate to. Let these critics challenge your opinions, enlighten your viewing experience and help to develop your love for this great art form.
I’m really interested to know of your so-called “guilty pleasures” and would love to hear you outline the “classics” you never enjoyed or the bad films you watch over and over again, so state them loud and proud in the comments! I’ll look to answer to as many to as many as possible!
Read Exploring the Great Empathy Machine: Blog 001 – An Introduction here.