They say we should judge a film on its own terms, in the context it was created. But what if its own terms suck? What if a film achieved everything it set out to achieve (at least, we think it did) but everything it set out to achieve was stupid? Is it still a “great” film just because it achieved its goals? Even if its goals were pathetic? I don’t think it is.
Why? Because it be illogical to argue that something is flawed because it didn’t employ techniques and technologies that simply didn’t exist yet. Artistic accomplishment doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with technological advancement (Sunrise isn’t in IMAX 3-D, either), you could try, I guess, to make a case against it solely on the fact that it’s obsolete tech, but technology and art are surrounded by completely different ethe, and therefore have developed completely different vocabularies and teleologies, so now we’d be talking about something other than what we’ve been talking about.
The key to me is what the question is:
LIST YOUR FAVORITE MOVIES?
LIST THE GREATEST MOVIES?
LIST YOUR FAVORITE MOVIES OF THE YEAR.
LIST THE BEST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
If they ask for favorites then it will have to be personal.
But then comes the next dilemma.
If they ask greatest then when I choose Citizen Kane or Vertigo am I just parroting what all other critics believe? I think likability has to be a factor. For instance, I guess The Searchers is considered a great movie. For the life of me I can’t figure out why. So I am not going to put it on my greatest list.
Next would be the end of the year list. I am pretty sure that most lists at year end are ‘favorites’ and not ‘best’ because what the heck is best anyway?
“Nobody would say that because everyone knows that the iphone is 1000 times better than the phone from 1900.”
No, that’s a totally valid criticism…
I mean, a phone made in 1900 would need to be physically attached to a wall to make any and all calls, while an iPhone only need be reattached to a wall after every 8 or so phone calls it makes…
So basically we have to evaluate a work of art within the context that it was created. Maybe it was really good in the context that it was created. That doesn’t necessarily make it any good in today’s context though.
“I mean, a phone made in 1900 would need to be physically attached to a wall to make any and all calls, while an iPhone only need be reattached to a wall after every 8 or so phone calls it makes…”
“So basically we have to evaluate a work of art within the context that it was created.”
Well, we don’t have to, Westley, but, generally speaking, people with a serious interest in film as art are not going to be terribly receptive to the premise that old movies are not very good because they’re, um, old and stuff. Any more than people interested in literature would take seriously the notion that Homer is no good because he wasn’t writing Gravity’s Rainbow.
Why? Because it be illogical to argue that something is flawed because it didn’t employ techniques and technologies that simply didn’t exist yet.
But technology, by the same token, has a value. Having sound, color, and other modern trappings is a quantifiable thing. It’s not everything, it’s even necessarily a “deal breaker” as I think it is possible to be an all time great without these trappings, but it is a very severe handicap nevertheless.
I mean, imagine someone saying “man computers really sucked 20 years ago”. By todays standards, this is obviously true. Not to say some computers were not “important” 20 years ago (in some kind of historical and/or necessary progressive sense) , but something being “important” is not the same as something being actually good.
I watch a film like Citizen Kane and I can recognize the historical importance of such a film, it does not win me over emotionally. I don’t care about the characters, I don’t “feel” anything.
Now is this because:
My person life experience?
How many films I’ve seen?
My personal tolerance for b/w?
How much I’ve read/cared to read about the film?
How much I appreciate Orson Wells as a actor/director?
Do I think Kuala’s would add an interesting element to the film?
… and a million other factors, some logical, some completely ridiculous, some subjective, some unique, some typical that all fuse together to form one persons opinion. Why sit there and parse yourself and say “Well… I really like Teresa Wright like an ABNORMAL amount so maybe my highly held opinion of Shadow of a doubt is less objectively valid.” That makes no sense to me whatsoever. How can I know that? Maybe my opinion of Teresa Wright is actually accurate, and everyone else undervalues her. Why sit there and second guess every thought and every reaction you have?
Why say… "Well I grew up in middle america, so I really like / can relate personally to midwest settings, Lynch for example. That is just my little pet personal “kuala” preference though so I should really table that, keep it separate from my critical interpretation of films." … Except that that affect is part of the film. There is a “mood” to the settings of Lynch’s films that I think anyone can appreciate, regardless if you grew up in actual middle America.
And how is that not the mark of the true all time greats, they hit notes and strum chords that we thought were little “pet kuala preferences”, turns out through film we discover they just might be great and profound universal truths.
Re: technology and film.
Not all advances are equal. Imagine Sunrise in 3D.
What do phones and computers have to do with art, by the way?
This isn’t like saying Rembrandt isn’t a great artist because he wasn’t a photographer. It’s like saying Rembrandt isn’t a great artist because he isn’t Steve Jobs.
It has nothing to do with the works being theoretically discussed. I mean people understand how absurd it is to compare a cell phone to a visionary work of art, right?
“Not all advances are equal. Imagine Sunrise in 3D.”
Even worse, imagine it in 3D on a 3.5 inch cellphone LCD screen…
generally speaking, people with a serious interest in film as art are not going to be terribly receptive to the premise that old movies are not very good because they’re, um, old and stuff.
I’m not saying that old movies can’t be very good. But there are certain things about old movies that really aren’t very good because they are old. The special effects of old films aren’t very good compared to the special effects now. If one was to make a list of films with the best special effects I think it would be kind of wrong to include any films more than a decade old; (and No, just because some special effects from the past were highly innovative at the time of their inception, or historically important, doesn’t make them better than today’s special effects from a technological perspective). There are some things about today’s movies that really are “greater” than the movies of the past.
Why do you consider one personal preference to be on such a higher critical level while the other is mere personal idiosyncracy and not critically justifiable (even though really they’re both equally personal and based on projecting your own expectations onto the film)?
As I mentioned earlier, I think this is key—and I should say vexing—question and at the heart of the debate. I also mentioned my uncertainty with having a satisfactory answer. With that in mind, here are some of my thoughts on the matter:
Characterization is primarily a more compelling critical criteria—relating to Sunrise—because in Sunrise the characters are vital to the success of the film—given the nature of the film. The film is basically a melodrama, so if the viewer doesn’t believe or care about the characters, the drama, and ultimately the film, fails.
I don’t think we can say the same thing about sound (relating to dialogue and ambient sounds). Indeed, I think the film functions in a way that compensates for the lack of sound. Here, I’m thinking of the nature of acting and even the use of visuals to compensate for the lack of acting. So filmmakers don’t make the film in a way that relies on hearing the dialogue or the ambient sounds. This is partly the reason a distaste for silent films seem more like a personal preference, more than weightier aethetic criterion. (If we can make a case for why silence or sound in cinema is a critical quality for aesthetic excellence, I’d be open to changing my mind. So let’s hear one if you know it.)
Having said that, let me point out that while “good characters” may carry more critical weight than the presence or absence of “sound,” in the “hierarchy of reasons” it’s not near the top. Why? Well, because this criterion is only relevant if the quality of characterization is crucial to the film in question. Clearly, some films don’t attempt characterization or rely on characters in a conventionally dramatic way. Should we critically judge these films based on the quality of characterization? No, I don’t think so.
How do we know that?
Here’s my answer. In the hierarchy of reasons, there is one principle that is near the top, if not at the very top. And that principle is this: we have to judge a film based on the terms and conditions it sets for itself; what it’s really about and what it’s trying to do. If we believe that the film has succeeded at these things, then we conclude that the film is good. If we believe the film has succeeded in an extraordinary fashion, then we conclude that the film is great.
Why is this one of the most important principles for judging art? Two reasons off the top of my head:
1. I understand art to be the creative manipulation of a medium to express ideas and feelings. If that’s correct, then the principle seems to match-up well this definition. An artwork wants to express something. We may not care for the content or the expression because of personal preferences, but those factors shouldn’t unduly influence our judgment. How can we judge an artwork for something it’s not attempting? (Note: My feeling is that we can also evaluate the content—i.e., what the artwork expresses—but that’s another can of worms for another thread. I tried to touch on this in the thread, “When Content Makes or Breaks a Film.”)
2. Can we think of a great film that violates this principle? Are there any exceptions to this principles? We can think of great films that don’t necessarily disply great technical excellence, and that indicates the criteria isn’t essential. If all great films must adhere to this principle—no exceptions—then doesn’t that speak to the importance of the principle?
I want to touch on what determines how well a film has succeeded or not. Here we look to general standards of excellence—criteria like technical excellence, originality/innovation, influence, wholeness, profundity of feeling or ideas, timelessness, universality, etc.—and maybe other things, which I haven’t mentioned.
Now why are these criteria given more weight than more personal and idiosyncratic criteria? Well, I would really like to hear people like Jirin, Matt and Jerry respond to this (if they agree with this point), but I’ll toss off a few ideas:
1. Do these qualities seem to be a hallmark of greatness? Do subtitles, koalas, sound, etc. seem to be hallmarks of greatness? Would applying these idiosyncratic criteria to all films seem appropriate? What about the standards of excellence I mentioned? I’d say no the first, yes to the second (well, this isn’t entirely correct given the most important principle, but it’s close enough). That still doesn’t really answer the question, though. Nevertheless, I assume you would agree that the personal criteria wouldn’t be appropriate to apply to all films, while applying the general standards of excellence would be a lot more appropriate. I would say that almost everyone would agree with this—as long as we make clear what we’re talking about—that we’re talking about a critical evaluation of art, and not expression of which films we personally love or hate.
2. We would have to evaluate each criterion separately and I haven’t really done that. But I’ll say something about technical excellence. Technical excellence is a criterion that ranks high given the nature of art. If art is, at its essence, the creative manipulation of a medium to express ideas and feelings, then the “manipulation of a medium” is an important part of what makes art, art, imo. Technical excellence speaks to the manipulation part.
Don’t forget Smell-O-Vision.
Not sure I follow most of that, Axel.
Silent films, by not having to focus on characters speaking as much, allowed a director to focus to a greater extent on expression through visuals, for example, and b&w gives you a whole different range of tonal values, dynamics, and textures, so you’re talking about a whole different set of expressive possibilities in silent films vs. color, so going to color is really nothing like a new a computer with a faster processor, more RAM, and a bigger hard drive . . . anymore than a painter going from tempera to oil would be.
“The special effects of old films aren’t very good compared to the special effects now. If one was to make a list of films with the best special effects I think it would be kind of wrong to include any films more than a decade old”
I don’t agree with that (unless we’re meaning specifically digital FX now are better than digital effects then), but, yes I don’t have a problem with the notion that some “new” things in cinema are better than some “old” things, or at least having certain things that we have now as options (DV for example, or, going back a bit further, long lenses such as those used to great effect by Kurosawa and Antonioni, among others) but didn’t have before leaves us better off because they offer filmmakers a greater array of expressive possibilities. On the other hand, the value of these things all depends on how effectively they are used.
But you’re the one proposing a hierarchy of reasons, you tell me how it’s different.
I don’t really think Carney’s criteria is substantively different from the fight choreography. Both are more expressions of preference than general standards of excellence, imo. (Btw, you’re not saying that there isn’t a hierarchy of reasons, are you?)
My upbringing?My person life experience?How many films I’ve seen?My personal tolerance for b/w?How much I’ve read/cared to read about the film?How much I appreciate Orson Wells as a actor/director?
*Do I think Kuala’s would add an interesting element to the film?
… and a million other factors, some logical, some completely ridiculous, some subjective, some unique, some typical that all fuse together to form one persons opinion. Why sit there and parse yourself…
1. If you want to identify and know—for yourself—whether the film is really great or not;
2. If you value great film and not merely care about films you like and don’t like;
3. If you don’t like the idea that you think a film is great, but later find out that you were completely wrong;
These are some of my reasons for caring about this. I admit that when the day comes that I lose interest in art and great movies, I’m really not going to care about this process, either. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything terribly wrong with this approach, too.
Why say… “Well I grew up in middle america, so I really like / can relate personally to midwest settings, Lynch for example. That is just my little pet personal “kuala” preference though so I should really table that, keep it separate from my critical interpretation of films.” … Except that that affect is part of the film. There is a “mood” to the settings of Lynch’s films that I think anyone can appreciate, regardless if you grew up in actual middle America.
This is an example of the value of using an intersubjective process. If the film only “works” on a small group (e.g., those from the American midwest), that does speak so well about the film’s greatness. But if it speaks to wider range of people, this indicates that the film might be great. Why? Universality is a hallmark of greatness. It doesn’t definitively “prove” the film is great, but it is one indicator.
The film might have pet koala preferences, but if people who don’t have these preferences also consider the film great, then that indicates that the film has meets some general standards of excellence.
Falderal said, I mean people understand how absurd it is to compare a cell phone to a visionary work of art, right?
Stridency aside, I think Falderal has a valid point. This is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Advances in technology lead to material benefits (but not without some material, social and cultural costs as well, I might point out). But I don’t think that applies to art, except for maybe a few exceptions. Generally speaking, the quality of the art doesn’t depend on the tools or even the material being used. Is music made with synthesizers superior to music made with pianos? Ironically, some jazz fans believe the oppposite! (But I don’t agree with them.) The quality of music doesn’t depend on the instruments, imo. People have preferences of course, but these preferences don’t determine whether the art is good or not.
“you’re not saying that there isn’t a hierarchy of reasons, are you?”
Everything is based on personal experiences. A collection of personal experiences becomes a cultural context. A cultural context becomes a vocabulary for describing films. So there’s your intersubjective field. We could probably make some general observations about what sort of things come up more often than others, and from this we might sort of get an idea of how to construct an argument that might have a little weight with other people who are interested in the same stuff. But there’s always going to be a healthy amount of conflict, argument, dissention, and revision involved because it’s a process of continually competing descriptions and redescriptions. So you’re never really going to have a stable hierarchy to serve as a rubric.
and isn’t this what keeps it interesting? that another point of view or a hundred others can be just as valid as your own? or the way your opinions can change based on age or experience and make u see something seemingly familiar in a completely different way? one of the marks of a great work of art imo
So you’re never really going to have a stable hierarchy to serve as a rubric.
Then do you think it’s worth having relatively hard (stable) views on what are good things to value in art like Carney does? Or should we stop after eliminating the values that are clearly ridiculous?
To those such as Westley who are saying that an artwork judged on its own terms which has a poetic totality is not necessarily good because you may feel that its content is “stupid” or “out of touch with today’s world” or “morally reprehensible” or whatever, we need to consider that we are merely working from the fundamentals in what makes an artwork an artwork. All artworks have an aesthetic form of some kind, and good artworks elicit poetic feelings in how they are formed as a whole, whatever the medium, but not all artworks have the same kind of content. And so if we pick and choose the kind of content we like as being a prerequisite for good art then we are severely limiting ourselves in our appreciation, which is not only a letdown for ourselves but is also grossly disrespectful to those talented artists who have worked very hard to create good art. Focusing on the content alone without considering how it has been aesthetically formed to create a poetic totality which resonates with the human psyche will only lead us around in circles chasing our tails and getting us nowhere.
Also, let’s not forget that “taste” is something which can potentially be nurtured and developed to the point where your personal tastes match up with what you feel is “good art”, which is something that I personally strive for. Thus, what I “like” and what I feel is “good art” is more or less the same, with the occasional exception.
Jazz: The quality of music doesn’t depend on the instruments, imo.
The style of music ought to match the type of instrumentation I think. For instance, some of Chopin’s compositions for the piano specifically notate the use of the pedal for acoustic purposes, and this adds to the overall aesthetic power of the music. Play the same compositions on a synthesiser with no pedal and much of the “goodness” of the composition will be lost.
1. If you want to identify and know—for yourself—whether the film is really great or not;
^ You can never know this, at the end of the day it is between you and the abyss.
2. If you value great film and not merely care about films you like and don’t like;
Like Flani said, taste is something that you can craft, and I definitely agree… so assuming you’ve “done the work”, your taste should more or less line up with what you feel is “good art”, with the occasional exception.
3. If you don’t like the idea that you think a film is great, but later find out that you were completely wrong;
^ This is possible not matter how “smart” you are no matter how many films you’ve seen and no matter how many brilliant film critics you poll. Though I do feel like this is at the heart of the issue Jazz, but my question to would be this… is it really so horrible to be “wrong” in the eyes of other people?
Everything is based on personal experiences. A collection of personal experiences becomes a cultural context. A cultural context becomes a vocabulary for describing films. So there’s your intersubjective field.
Oh, when you say “reasons” you’re automatically excluding the reasons that are essentially personal preferences. I considered those reasons as well when speaking about the hiearchy of reasons.
But there’s always going to be a healthy amount of conflict, argument, dissention, and revision involved because it’s a process of continually competing descriptions and redescriptions.
I agree (I think.) What you’re talking about, though, is a range of responses that are, in a sense, valid. I may strongly disagree with some of reading, while thinking that it falls within the boundaries of acceptability. This goes back to my example of having several legitimate interpretations—i.e., A1, A2, A3 and A4. I may think A1 is the “correct” interpretation; I might be OK with A2, but I think A1 is slightly stronger; A3 may be weak, but I think it’s plausible; A4 may be really weak, but I can’t rule it out completely. You may favor A3, and think A1 isn’t very strong. But we both believe that all the answers are somewhat reasonable and fall within the acceptable boundaries.
Outside of these boundaries are the off-the-wall or inappropriate readings—e.g., Bambi is about the Kennedy assassination; or rationale like all silent films are bad, etc.
I think the rubric or process can be relatively stable, but the judgments that come out it may not be. People can have a variety of responses—all of them valid to a degree.
The style of music ought to match the type of instrumentation I think.
Ultimately, I think it’s how the musician uses the instrument—even for something like playing Chopin with a synth.
As in absolute, objective certainty, you’re right—but that’s a moot point anyway. But I believe you can confidently identify a great artwork for yourself. Could you be wrong? Sure. But that’s the nature of the beast.
Good art, maybe. Great art? I don’t think so—not a perfect match, anyway. I’ve seen a bunch of films, but I don’t think think my tastes are in perfect alignment. There’s overlap, but there are still differences.
Dude, this has nothing to do with other people. If I really believed that Days of Heaven was a great film and later I realized that my basis for thinking this was a false one, I’d feel stupid—even if no one knew about this.
But you’re right.You can’t eliminate the being wrong. But let me say this: if you evaluate films with an awareness to the things that can interfere with critical judgments, you can really reduce the number of times you’re wrong.
^ Replace “interfere” in that sentence with “aid” and you have my perspective. Why all this struggle with yourself and second guessing, all that conflict? “Is my perspective really genuine or am I being clouded by who I am as an individual?”
These things you think are “clouding” your judgement are the very thing that make your opinion interesting and uniquely you. So you have a “soft spot” for what you estimate to be well done action sequences. This isn’t something you should try to sweep under the rug in shame when you are evaluating a film. It’s possible that you overvalue sweet action sequences, but then again… it’s possible you value them the perfect amount. Why be afraid to trust your instincts, if you feel you are witnessing something special as you watch a scene from The Incredibles, chances are you probably are. Not everything needs to be explained or rationalized or beaten down into analytical submission and shoved writhing under the microscope.
If a critic saw Citizen Kane and loved it to death because he too happened to have a sled when he was a child that he was very fond of, is he to dismiss or lessen his opinion because his reasons for feeling a passion about the film are “personal” not objective? I say no, because the film is trying to appeal to the “child” in all of us who had that one special toy that we cherished so dearly. Say I had a toy such as this and say this concept speaks to me on a very personal level, in fact you could go so far as to say I have a “personal preference” for themes of this kind. Am I wrong to involve this element in my critical analysis of Citizen Kane?
Again, I recommend embracing these “flaws” in your perspective, rather than looking to stamp them out so you better match whatever “objective” taste you think you are supposed to have. But that’s just me.
I feel like I’ve posted essentially the same post over and over again in this thread, so clearly a case of “agree to disagree, different strokes, live and let live, one man’s BS is another man’s Shakespeare”, ect, ect.
So, this is more about formalized articulation of “reasons” than actual appreciation? If there is to be some sort of examination of hierarchical values, shouldn’t that begin with the person who prefers a good action flick to great art? If one could eliminate the conflict between the so called personal preference and the art and appreciate the art to the point where it became preferable to an action flick, then the “problem” is rendered moot.
As it is, the suggestion seems to be that if someone unschooled in the rhetoric of art appreciation loved, say, Last Year at Marienbad, but couldn’t articulate a reason why that feel within the “acceptable” intersubjective criteria, their appreciation would be meaningless, whereas someone who could wield those intersubjective criteria to claim John Carter to be “great” that would be meaningful? I mean you say that it isn’t about there being a “right” answer, so these alleged intersubjective criteria could be used to support pretty much any film, which ends up making just pushing the subjectivity up a level.
This is even more the case when the claim is that one doesn’t want to more fully engage with great art lest one ruin one’s appreciation for something they believe isn’t great art, which is kinda like saying I don’t want to get into a relationship lest I ruin my taste for crack whores.
Before worrying about the reasons other people have for liking what they do, which all are going to have roughly the same elements of discrimination involved to the level of their knowledge and experience, as that is basically how taste works, perhaps it might be more useful to think of what it is that one expects from an artwork at all in terms of how they experience it. If the work isn’t providing a more meaningful personal experience than a work alleged to be not art, then the appreciation of art itself might be in question.
The other side of that is that so many of these allegedly “personal” preferences are shared by many as we aren’t as unique as we often seem to think. The Incredibles, for example, raked in over 600 million dollars and was loved by critics, so the “personal” preference seems decidedly not so, especially when compared to these art films which are claimed as non-personal preferences even though they are watched by few and appreciated by fewer still.
I get the feeling that a big part of the issue is in differentiating one’s taste from the guy who likes American Graffiti for the way it represents car culture, (which is what the movie is about in part so why that is a problem isn’t entirely clear, especially if one makes the reasonable assumption that he doesn’t like all car movies equally, so discrimination is still being exercised; discrimination which takes the form of the intersubjective criteria since that is how it works) and signalling some commonality with those who talk about “art” more seriously, which means valuing it in itself on the one hand, and acts to shape taste on the other as Bordwell can speak of appreciating Inception for its narrative innovation, a “taste” as personal as loving cars. Bordwell appreciates the form, car guy the content and both like the movie they are talking about.
It isn’t the criteria that matter, not directly, it is the appreciation, the “felt” experience of the work. A good critic can share the way they appreciated a work to perhaps help someone who didn’t better appreciate it, but that sharing needn’t take a specific form, it just has to address the experience of the film and transmit that experience in a way others can appreciate. Most critics don’t give a damn about art because they don’t understand it all that well. Relying on intersubjective criteria isn’t going to improve their understanding and it isn’t going to allow them to experience the work more fully nor share that experience with others, so the only gain is in a sort of politicians rhetoric where lip service is given to values one is supposed to believe while enacting legislation favoring an entirely different set of beliefs.
There is no problem with liking action movies, some are even worth celebrating, some< according to me, worth celebrating more than alleged “art” movies. Hell, W.H. Auden loved reading detective stories, he even wrote an essay about why and how he appreciated them and what made them “work”, but when he finished reading one he was done with it, set it aside, didn’t confuse the experience with a more lasting one, and, most importantly, sought to examine it to determine what it was he was appreciating at all. The trick isn’t to segregate the films into different groups but to come to a better understanding of what one appreciates in all films and to constantly work to refine one’s own taste, not worry about rankings or whether other people are liking something for the “right” kind of reasons or not. Appreciation itself is the reward, and that needs to be “felt”. Articulation is nice and when done well can shape the experience of art for others creating a wider appreciation and eventually perhaps a consensus among those with similar interests, and that is as close to intersubjective “proof” of value as you’re going to get. But we can’t discount the experiences of those who either can’t articulate their reasons for appreciating a work or who lack the knowledge, interest or experience of art to be able to “see” what others of us find so meaningful. The way to better the social position of art isn’t to set it off to one side where people can nod at for being great before running off to see Iron Man 3 or whatever, its to celebrate its beauty as a movie and suggest the pleasures that can be had from it, pleasures just as real and “personal” as any other film.
I swore I wouldn’t get into this again, and now I’m sorry I have as it is keeping me from what I would rather be writing, but I couldn’t help but respond to things which just seem so wrong and unnecessary to me. I don’t mind how anyone goes about watching and judging films, that’s their business, but so much of this conversation feels like it is going against art itself and either roping it off into some separate pen from the pleasurable movies or on the other side in denying any need for personal effort at all in appreciation. Both attitudes bother me so I occasionally have to vent. I have, and now I’m going to try and let this go again, so feel free not to respond as this is more for my own needs than anything else.
^ I 100% agree with Greg’s statements, put it much better than the nonsense I’ve been spouting.
It isn’t the criteria that matter, not directly, it is the appreciation, the “felt” experience of the work.
Right. Start with your feeling, then move onto exploring how your feeling was elicited.
Well, first of all, I just want to say again that I think we’re all actually further away in the manner in which we are expressing the way we appreciate films than we probably are in the way that we actually go about appreciating films, so a lot of the disagreement is simply rhetorical.
“Oh, when you say “reasons” you’re automatically excluding the reasons that are essentially personal preferences. I considered those reasons as well when speaking about the hiearchy of reasons.”
Actually what I mean is that “reasons” can only be arranged hierarchically once there’s an external standard to refer to, and bear in mind that even this hierarchy is just based on a roughly-hewn, normalized consensus of received ideas. What you SHOULDN’T do (and this is jut my opinion here), Jazz, is approach this consensus as gospel. What you might do, though, is think of yourself as having a dialectical relationship to film culture’s existent vocabulary. You should learn enough about film so that you understand and can appreciate what’s going on and perhaps can express these sorts of things to others (which I assume most of us here are to some degree), but that doesn’t mean that one has to—or even ought to—adopt this as “the way” the experience, evaluate, and talk about films.
“but so much of this conversation feels like it is going against art itself and either roping it off into some separate pen from the pleasurable movies or on the other side in denying any need for personal effort at all in appreciation. Both attitudes bother me”
I agree that it’s hard to argue that a consensus criteria for greatness is, in the grand scheme, more important than individual criteria for greatness.
But the problem is, we’re having the conversation about greatness. By defining the very term of ‘Greatness’ as something we discuss with other people, we’re making the assumption that there is a concept of ‘Greatness’ which is determined only by factors that we can communicate with each other. This idea of ‘Intersubjectivity’, that a film should be judged on its own terms, I don’t see it as a value judgment that one set of standards is more important than other ones. I see it as the premise of any conversation about ‘Greatness’ that we enter into.
It is true that if you’re trying to determine the ‘Greatest films of all time’, you can’t just ask whether the film met it’s goals, you have to ask about the quality of the goals as well. For instance, no piece of entertainment meets its goals better than Sesame Street, but it’s hard to call it the greatest television show of all time. But on the other hand, if you said it wasn’t a great show because it doesn’t make deep profound ruminations on the human condition, that’d be just plain silly. It’s best to say, it’s great at doing the sort of things I don’t care for. In the case of Sunrise, I’d argue one of the major goals of the film is to create characters and situations identifiable to everybody (A motive contained in the title of the film: A Song Of Two Humans). So judging it based on whether it achieved those goals of believable, identifiable, universal characters is more reasonable than judging it based on not having color and sound. (And frankly, Sunrise communicates more with body language than most films do with dialog).
So, if you’re having a ‘Greatest’ conversation with four year olds, maybe Sesame Street enters the conversation, because it excels at the common ground you have with four year olds. If you’re having it with non-cinephile buddies your common ground is probably strength of narrative. If you’re having it with film students you determine greatness based on quality of editing, and if you’re having it here you focus more on what the film means intellectually, touching on other formal elements of cinematography.
Determining what constitutes greatness is all about finding the common ground between all involved in the discussion.
we have to judge a film based on the terms and conditions it sets for itself; what it’s really about and what it’s trying to do. If we believe that the film has succeeded at these things, then we conclude that the film is good. If we believe the film has succeeded in an extraordinary fashion, then we conclude that the film is great.
Yes, except as I’ve stated before, the problem with judging a film based on what it’s trying to achieve is that you simply cannot know what it’s trying to achieve. You can judge based on what you think it’s trying to achieve, but what you think it’s trying to achieve and what somebody else thinks it’s trying to achieve is going to be different. So when people can’t even agree on what a film is trying to say and achieve then it’s pretty impossible to have an objective critical evaluation.
general standards of excellence—criteria like technical excellence, originality/innovation, influence, wholeness, profundity of feeling or ideas, timelessness, universality, etc.—and maybe other things, which I haven’t mentioned.
Those might be your standards of excellence, or maybe even the majority’s standards of excellence, but they’re not everybody’s standards of excellence. Also, those standards are so broad and general that everyone who watches the film is going to have a different opinion on whether or not the film has actually met those standards. What I might think is a technically excellent film somebody else might think is a technically bad film. A film that I think has profound feelings or ideas somebody else might think has no feelings and banal ideas. Who gets to decide what the “correct” opinion is? You?
Do these qualities seem to be a hallmark of greatness? Do subtitles, koalas, sound, etc. seem to be hallmarks of greatness?
Haven’t you ever heard the expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”? Greatness is also in the eye of the beholder. You’re acting like there is some sort of scientific formula for “greatness” when there isn’t. Maybe you don’t think the presence of koalas is a hallmark of greatness, but maybe some people do. You might not agree with that standard, but you simply don’t get to tell people what “greatness” is because greatness is not something that you can objectively determine. “Greatness” is in the eye of the beholder, and completely subjective. You don’t go around telling people that their favorite cereal is the wrong favorite cereal, do you?
I would say that almost everyone would agree with this—as long as we make clear what we’re talking about—that we’re talking about a critical evaluation of art, and not expression of which films we personally love or hate.
Your standards of “critical evaluation” are just as meaningless to most people as personal individual standards are to you. Do you think that movie lovers care whether or not a film has lived up to your arbitrary standards of excellence? No, they don’t. What movie lovers care about is whether or not a film has met their own personal standards of excellence. Most people want to see a film that makes them feel something. Generally, people feel more when a film touches them on a deeply personal level. Most people don’t go into a film to coldly evaluate it by some arbitrary critical standards as if they were evaluating a scientific specimen with a check-off list.
First off I should say that I just don’t have the time to read all seven pages of this post, so forgive me if any of this is redundant.
Jazz, I hear what your saying but there are a couple of things I find to be wrong with complaint. The first, and most important is this idea of intersubjectivity. I really don’t think it exist in art. Yes there are works that find a wide and varied audience but is this really a criteria for art? I mean, Michael Bay’s films are successful all over the world but does that indicate that it’s of higher value? Or that they are some how connecting these cultures through intersubjectivity? I can’t see how you could ever really determine that without polling everyone. Even with successful ‘art’ films or any film really, there are discrepancies between why people like it. For example, one of my favorite movies is 2001: A Space Odyssy; I love it because I think it’s one of the finest uses of the cinematic language ever created. Some one else might love it because it’s trippy. Their passion may appear the same but upon closer examination, they’re are many differences. Who are we do declare our reasons for liking a film to be those which define it as great? Isn’t what is truly great about film (or any art) that it CAN’T be quantified? Intersubjectivity implies a sameness of thought, but art is at it’s most powerful when a diversification of thought results. This brings me to the other problem I have, which is this idea of ‘greatness.’ I see others have also questioned this and I think it’s valid. The argument that a film should be based on what it is trying to do is an important one. On a micro level Westly is correct, you can never know exactly what a film/filmmaker has set out to achieve. On the macro level though, there is a expectation that can be expected that is simple enough to understand. Genre. All films fall into a genre (some more than others and some into multiple genres), and by looking at genre tropes we can determine, to a fair extent what a film is attempting, and should proceed from there in determining whether it is a quality piece or not.
I do not wish to come of as someone who is ‘ganging up’ on you Jazz. I’ve read many of your post and appreciate your opinion. I feel like what your really sick of, and what this post should really be about (and again sorry if some already brought this up) is fandom, which I define as blind reverence for something based on sentiment, nostalgia, ect, blah, whatever. This is where I really get fumed, when I see people with no critical capacity at all, trying to tell me how great something is. I don’t care if people like something I don’t but when their defense of it is, "Dude, it’s Nolan, you have to like it,’ I want to wretch. This can go for popular films to art films to cult films. If there is one thing that I got from studying film in an academic setting, it’s that a little detachment goes a long way.
FWIW, you’re oversimplifying my position. Personal preferences, experiences, associations, etc. can aid in appreciating a film, but they can sometimes interfere as well. Or do you really think that they always aid in understanding and appreciating a film?
This isn’t something you should try to sweep under the rug in shame when you are evaluating a film. It’s possible that you overvalue sweet action sequences, but then again… it’s possible you value them the perfect amount. Why be afraid to trust your instincts, if you feel you are witnessing something special as you watch a scene from The Incredibles, chances are you probably are.
First of all, I’m not ashamed of liking action sequences. Second, how do I know if one is overvaluing that particular characteristic? Imo, we know if we consider the film great—if not all-time great—primarily because of that attribute. I don’t believe this quality—alone—can elevate a film to that level. Just like the presence of cool cars isn’t the basis for a film’s greatness, or a type of story or genre of the film, etc. Films aren’t good, great or greatest based on these attributes, imo. But we all have these preferences that are so strong that we tend to think that films are great if they have these attributes or just mediocre if they don’t. Films with these favorite qualities evoke that sensation. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about such films and enjoying them fully. I wish I had more of these experiences! But I just don’t believe films that match-up with your personal preferences are automatically good or great. They could be—and they often feel like they are great, which is my concern—but that’s not necessarily true.
If a critic saw Citizen Kane and loved it to death because he too happened to have a sled when he was a child that he was very fond of, is he to dismiss or lessen his opinion because his reasons for feeling a passion about the film are “personal” not objective?
He shouldn’t feel bad for enjoying the film for this reason. However, he shouldn’t declare that the film is great—let alone one of the all-time greatest films—because of this one attribute. If that’s the only thing that makes the film great, then I don’t think he can call the film great. If he wants to call favorite film, a film that is special to him—based on this reason—that’s completely fine. I just don’t think greatness is completely relativistic concept.
You mean, the actual way we experience and appreciate the films are much different from the way we’re communicating these ideas on the forum? If so, I agree with that. I have told Greg that I bet much of our disagreements and misunderstandings (and I don’t think we fully understand each other) could be resolved in an hour or two if we could have a face-to-face conversation. I think that might be true with other people. Btw, I just happened to listen to an NPR program about a guy who studies ways to improve office productivity and morale. He said that solving really complex problems with other people via email or texting is so much less efficient than a face-to-face conversation. What would take hours and hours via email and texting could take far less time in a face-to-face discussion. I really think that applies to this topic as well.
What you might do, though, is think of yourself as having a dialectical relationship to film culture’s existent vocabulary. You should learn enough about film so that you understand and can appreciate what’s going on and perhaps can express these sorts of things to others (which I assume most of us here are to some degree), but that doesn’t mean that one has to—or even ought to—adopt this as “the way” the experience, evaluate, and talk about films.
Well, I think this is what I do, but apparently you don’t think so or at least I’m not giving you that impression.
I really don’t think the approach I’m speaking about is the way—and I’ve said this several times. It’s one way. The other way is just liking or disliking films strictly based on your preferences—ignoring what the film wanted to do, etc. Or there’s also Greg’s way (or my understanding of his approach), which is to find any aspect of the film that is interesting and meaningful and get excited about that feature. I think that’s valid way, too, but it’s not something I can do.
Just to be clear—this is NOT what I’m arguing! I’m saying they’re not NECESSARILY the same. If we drew two circles, one representing “consensus criteria” and the other representing “individual criteria” the two circle would overlap in the middle—looking like the mastercard logo. That’s the way I see the two ways of appreciating and evaluating films. I honestly don’t see one being better than the other. However, if I want to know if I film is great—in an intesubjective sense—then “individual criteria” is not going to be as significant. In those evaluations and discussions, the personal criteria will be secondary. Does this mean I’m ashamed of my personal criteria? Does it mean that I’m inappropriately denigrating myself? Not at all!
This idea of ‘Intersubjectivity’, that a film should be judged on its own terms, I don’t see it as a value judgment that one set of standards is more important than other ones. I see it as the premise of any conversation about ‘Greatness’ that we enter into.
Right. If I want to talk about greatness, then the intersubjective process comes into play. If I’m not interested in greatness, then the process doesn’t come into play—it’s irrelevant. And there are times when I’m not interested in evaluating the film in an intersubjective way. I enjoyed the film so much, I don’t care about the quality of the film. Or I might not want to evaluated the film in an intersubjective film because I hated the film. That’s totally fine. But I don’t speak to whether these films are great or terrible. I say I don’t have an opinion about those films, except to say that I really liked or disliked them.
It is true that if you’re trying to determine the ‘Greatest films of all time’, you can’t just ask whether the film met it’s goals, you have to ask about the quality of the goals as well.
I do think think the quality of the goals and the quality of the content are valid questions. But I don’t want to address that in this thread because I think those are difficult matters on their own. I planned to start a thread on that topic, but…we’ll see.
I really think you’re exaggerating the difficulty of determining what a film is trying to achieve, as well as the degree of disagreement about this. If what you’re saying is true (or what you seem to be saying), then I don’t think we would be able to understand films or talk about them with other people in any meaningful way. As an experiment, let’s pick a film and try to see if we can know what a film is trying to do or not. What do you say?
1. A part of me feels that you’re advocating for a relativistic position because a) you just don’t like the notion that some opinions are more valid than others; b) you don’t like the implications of this notion—i.e., you think someone like me is going to chide people and tell them what they should believe. As for “b,” all I can say is that I don’t support that approach—and I don’t think my position necessarily leads to it.
As for “a,” I would say that if all opinions are equal—which is what you essentially seem to be advocating—then I find the implications hard to accept. This would mean that greatness is purely relative—that the individual alone is sovereign over these matters. There is really no such thing as talent or genius—as the approach would render these attributes meaningless. And I think there really would almost no point in talking on this site—at least I wouldn’t find it very interesting. It would be liking talking about our favorite ice flavors. 99% of the people may think chocolate and vanilla are the best flavors, but if I disagree and say that pistachio almond is the best, what does this mean? It means nothing because there’s the concept of “greatest” is essentially meaningless—at least in the context of a discussion. But I don’t think art or movies are like that. A part of me believes that, deep down, you agree with me, But if you don’t, if you truly believe that all opinions are entirely relative, then I believe we’re at an impasse, and we should just move on to other topics.
2. The general standards are broad and people will have different judgments about each. That’s the nature of the beast. The value is that we have a common set of standards that are appropriate to the endeavor—i.e., evaluating the artistic quality of a film. You sound as if disagreement is a major flaw. It’s not, it’s the nature of evaluating art. Remember, the goal is not objective answers. That’s not possible.
Your standards of “critical evaluation” are just as meaningless to most people as personal individual standards are to you. Do you think that movie lovers care whether or not a film has lived up to your arbitrary standards of excellence? No, they don’t. What movie lovers care about is whether or not a film has met their own personal standards of excellence.
Once again, personal standards are NOT meaningless to me. They’re just NOT EXACTLY THE SAME as these general standards of excellence. Using general standards of excellence is different way of evaluating a film—and it’s a way to determine greatness.
Now, I don’t think think the average moviegoer cares about greatness in this sense—so these standards of excellence mean very little. That’s fine. But then they’re really not evaluating films in the way I’m talking about—they don’t really care about the greatness that I’m referring to. Again, that’s totally fine, too. But in addition to experiencing films by my personal standards, I am also interested in evaluating films in an intersubjective way. Or as Matt might say, I am interested in using film culture’s existent vocabulary and dialoguing with the historical narrative of art. In other words, greatness, in the way I’m thinking of it, stems from our understanding and ideas about art that have come from philosophers and artists through time. And I’m interested in these things.
Now, while i don’t think the average moviegoer is not interested in this question (and I really hope you’re not thinking I’m being condescending because I really don’t mean to be. It’s not different if someone isn’t interested in sports or collecting stamps.), I don’t know if I can say the same for movie lovers or cinephiles—especially the regulars on this forum.