Graeme Robertson on why film quality is subjective…
It’s a wonderful job being a film critic. Being able to watch films and write about them all hours of the day and night, discussing them with your fellow critics and generally have a merry old time talking about how wonderful it is to be a film critic.
Although when we disagree on something that’s when the fights start, with critics climbing into the steel cages ready to defend the honour of the films that they proclaim to be the best against the wretched scum who think otherwise.
Or something a bit less dramatic than that, like a polite discussion or a particularly stern talk over a pint or two.
Recently my Flickering colleague Samuel Brace penned an article (which you should all read by the way) in which he argued that with regards to films, “Quality is very much objective. And a film is either good or it is not.”
Throughout his article, he made the argument that while we as individuals may like or dislike a particular film; we shouldn’t deny that a film is good or bad.
For example, he argued that while someone may like Batman v Superman, they shouldn’t go around thinking to themselves that it’s a “good” film because of its various flaws and shortcomings. Whereas with a film like La La Land, he argued that although someone might not enjoy it, one shouldn’t go around thinking it’s a “bad” film because of its numerous qualities that unquestionably make it a “good” film.
After reading this article you can guarantee that I was fuming, ready to strap on my leotard and hop into the ring ready to do battle with my new nemesis. Or what actually happened is that I simply disagreed with his premise after reading and this is my polite reply to his opinions. Please don’t beat me up Mr Brace.
There is a myriad of factors that determine whether a film is “good” or “bad”, and while we may admire the cinematography or acting of a film, I feel that those are not the factors that ultimately decide its quality in the eyes of a viewer. Let’s look at this by way of a few examples.
Let’s start with Steven Spielberg’s 2011 war drama War Horse, a fairly popular film that won praise from critics and was nominated for numerous Oscars including Best Picture. When I asked people who had seen it if it was any good, I was regularly told that it was a good film with some even going further to proclaim it as phenomenal or amazing and how they hoped it would win Best Picture.
Yet despite this high praise, I found that I utterly loathed War Horse and maintain that it is one of the worst films that Spielberg has ever made. Sure, it’s a well-made film with some good qualities to it, but these strong points were not enough to prevent it from being an overall “bad” film in my view. I simply just didn’t like it.
The same goes for Spielberg’s iconic E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, a film that people adore and constantly talk about how heartwarming it is or how it made them cry at the end, with the film regularly being hailed as one of the best films of all time. Yet, despite the regular love and praise it gets, I utterly despise E.T. with a passion and find it to be a sappy overly sentimental piss puddle of a film.
Sure it has moments and I’ll admit the acting is quite good, but I still despise the film overall. Again, I feel that its good points are not enough to prevent from being a “bad” film in my view. It’s a film about a Space Jesus who looks like a turd monster for Christ sakes, why do you people love it so much?
For our final example, let’s look quickly at Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly anticipated follow-up to Drive. I loved Drive; I consider it to be one of the best films of the 2010s thus far and it’s one of my favourite films. Yet despite this love, I found Only God Forgives to be a visually beautiful, but extremely disappointing film featuring Ryan Gosling giving one of his worst performances. Not an entirely awful film, but nothing really worth praising besides the visuals and Kristen Scott Thomas’s venomous performance, but overall I found it severely lacking in quality.
A film can have all the good qualities it likes whether it is good acting, cinematography or music and if I feel a film has any of these qualities I will point them out when I talk about them. However, if I find that the overall experience is not an enjoyable one then that film is not a “good” film, and the three I mentioned above are not “good” films in my view.
There could be people, who feel, that despite it being showered with near constant praise and likely to dominate the upcoming Oscars that La La Land is the worst film they’ve ever seen and will thus deem it as a “bad” film, because they might not regard its “good” qualities as such, or they simply didn’t enjoy the overall experience of it.
There are many films that are highly praised by critics that I myself like, such as Goodfellas or Citizen Kane to name but two. Yet, I’ve also made no secret of my love for films that have been widely panned by mainstream critics as “bad” like End of Days or Troll 2.
I consider these films to be “good” because by the time the credits rolled because I enjoyed the overall experience of them, regardless of whether not they are well made or critically acclaimed. While I’m more inclined to seek out a film that’s well made and well acted, I’m happy to watch a film that many might consider “so bad they’re good” (just to make this debate even more convoluted) or a dumb 80s action film, if I have a good time watching it.
In a slightly tangential, but still relevant topic, let’s quickly look at the views of critics and what the importance of their opinions in determining a film’s quality.
It’s the job of critics to inform readers as to whether WE think a film is “good” or “bad” and whether our readers should spend their time and money watching said film. But we critics are not Moses descending from the mountain with our reviews carved into stone tablets, never to be questioned.
We’re just people with opinions who are lucky enough to be able to write about them on the internet, our readers might wish to use our reviews to guide them to films that they might like, but shouldn’t blindly accept our word as gospel and accept that film is objectively “good” because we say it is.
If someone thinks a film is “bad” then to them that film is “bad” – the only thing that should change that view is the passage of time. Just look at recent critical re-evaluations of films like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate which was originally derided as “one of the worst films ever made” yet now celebrated as an ill-judged masterpiece, or look at the gradual decline in critical praise for an Oscar winning film like American Beauty, or other once acclaimed Oscar-winning films.
These two films and others that have undergone similar appraisals show that popular opinions as to what is “good” and what is “bad” are always changing and never set in stone, and to think otherwise would be foolish.
You may adore a film the critics despise and you may adore a film the critics despise, and our views might very well change over the years, but in the end, it’s our own opinions that matter most when determining whether or not a film is “good” or “bad”.
The argument I’ve been trying, and probably failing to make with this overlong and incoherent ramble is that film quality IS subjective.
We as individuals make the final decisions on a film’s quality, and a film is good because we say it is.
What do you think though dear readers? Are films truly subjective or do you think that I’m an idiot and side with my colleague’s view that films are objective? Let us know in the comments, I’d love to hear what you all have to say…