Samuel Brace argues that quality isn’t subjective…
Many things in life are up for debate. Many things can be interpreted and argued over. Everyone is different; everyone is a product of their own environment, dictated to by their personal tastes. Things like our favourite foods, favourite actors, favourite sports, books, music and yes, films, are all a personal matter. What each one of us loves is indeed subjective. What is not subjective however is quality. Quality is very much objective. And film is either good or it is not.
La La Land is a film that is lauded, and rightly so. It is a film with extraordinary cinematography, great performances, expert direction and an excellent score. These things are true. These things cannot be disproved. You can measure them against a scale of good and not good. You can of course not like any of these things and of course you can rightly not like the film itself. That’s fine; no one can dictate your feelings to you, but what you can’t do is let your feelings obfuscate the facts.
Certain things are not subjective and quality is one of them. I for one had quite a few issues with La La Land; I really enjoyed it and can easily say that the film is a good one, demonstrably so. But certain elements of the story rubbed me the wrong way, my sensibilities were here at play. But that didn’t cloud my objective view of the movie.
I can’t argue that Ryan Gosling gave a bad performance in La La Land, because he didn’t. You might not enjoy him in the film but he was very good in it. I can’t say that Damien Chazelle isn’t very good at what he does, because he is. Again, you can not like his directional style but there is a provable quality here, provable against direction in films that is not of the same merit. You don’t have to like his work but you have to admit he did a good job.
It is so easy to let our feelings and tastes take precedent. It can be at times incredibly difficult to separate what we subjectively dislike from what is objectively good. But it is important to try, because you don’t get to say something is bad when something is obviously and demonstrably not.
Usain Bolt is an excellent sprinter. This is a fact. You cannot argue with it. You can dislike Usain Bolt but you can’t become captive to your feelings and say he sucks. It’s just not true. His quality is not subjective. Birds are very good at flying. This is something that is true. You could have some weird aversion to birds but you can’t say that they stink in this department. Their aerial prowess is not up for debate. And the quality contained in film, in the medium of cinema, is equally clear, when something is good; we can know it, we can see it, and we can hear it.
I like many films that are not good. I dislike many films that are objectively great. I have my own tastes and that is fine, but I try – to varying success – to think about the differences between quality and feelings. For example, I am not particularly fond of Tom Hanks as an actor. I’m really not. His style and energy is just not for me. These are gripes that are mine. This is my problem. I couldn’t possibly argue that he is bad at his job however. He isn’t. He’s not the greatest actor ever, but he is certainly a very good one. There, that was easy, wasn’t it?
It also works in the other direction. Someone could love Batman v Superman. Their dream may have been to see their two favourite superheroes battle it out on the big screen. They may have enjoyed its bombastic nature and the spectacle of action on display, all the nods, winks and nudges towards their favourite mythology, but that person would also have to admit that the film is not The Shawshank Redemption. They would have to admit that the story was overtly obtuse, the CGI was poorly done, the characters were thinly drawn, the plot lacked substance and the direction was messy. These things are all true. Batman v Superman is not a good film. That doesn’t mean you can’t like it.
The old adage; to each his own, is one that is pertinent here. It’s an important sentiment. No one need care what films each other enjoy. But what one can’t do is perpetuate a fallacy. I can’t say Gone with the Wind is a bad film because I don’t enjoy it, and someone can’t say Suicide Squad is a great film, even if they love it. Certain things in this world are true and other things are equally false.
When people propagate misinformation there are negative results. No one benefits from it. No one benefits from you saying the Transformers franchise is better than The Godfather trilogy. It isn’t. You are lying to yourself for no reason at all. No one cares if you like Transformers more than The Godfather, but people do care when you lie about the quality of each.
No one benefits from you saying The Hobbit movies were just as good as The Lord of the Rings movies. This is provably false and does nothing for no one. Telling Peter Jackson that he did just a good a job with The Battle of the Five Armies as he did with The Return of the King, will only result in you getting more films with the quality of the former and less of the quality of the latter. If you like Bilbo’s story more than Frodo’s, for some subjective reason such as it resonates with you on a personal level – or you just like Martin Freeman a lot – that’s cool, great, good for you. I don’t care. No one cares. It’s great that you like something but don’t lie to me, yourself or anyone else and claim quality where it doesn’t exist.
We can all go to the cinema and enjoy the hell out of the latest Marvel movies. If that’s what you like, if that is what you enjoy, then that is wonderful. It is. What we can’t do is claim mainstream studio movies are as good as they once were. This helps no one and it achieves nothing. The laptop I am typing this on is very good at transferring my thoughts from my mind to a digital page. It does this very well, but I can also admit that I wish my laptop was a different colour. The internet is doing an excellent job right now at bringing my words in front of your eyes. You might not like the words that you are reading, or that the internet has facilitated this sharing of ideas, but you can’t argue that it’s not doing a wonderful job at doing so.
Some movies you will like and some movies you will not. But we should all try to be a little better at thinking if the reason we are criticising something is because it’s bad or just because we didn’t enjoy it. These things are not mutually exclusive. Quality isn’t subjective, and a film is either good or it is not.