Objective Evaluation of Film: The Deadest of Dead Horses
I don’t want to write this essay, but there seems to be an inexhaustible well of interest and controversy when it comes to establishing objective standards for evaluating film. Regardless of whether it is possible to establish such standards the more important question is why establish them in the first place? If Billy goes to see Fight Club and enjoys it but finds that others do not, for some reason this bothers Billy. Is it that Billy now doubts his judgement? Is he frustrated that other people don’t share his view? Is it that Billy wants company? Why does Billy care what other people think?
I suspect that what Billy wants is for his experience to be validated by having others share it. The desire to share experiences is a positive one. In fact It is a major reason why films are made in the first place. Its also the motivation for writing this essay. As a society we not only want but need shared experiences to bind us and help us understand each other. However the impetus to control these social interactions can only subvert and hamper genuine exchanges.
Finding people who will share your taste in film is part of the experience of cinema. Finding critics who you respect, listening to people’s different reactions, and seeing if the film is popular, not only contributes to a larger sense of how art functions, but it is a facet of how we construct our own individual identities. People identify themselves as “horror fans” or “Harry Potter nerds.” People dress up to look like the Frank N Furter or try to emulate gangsters. Its an endlessly diverse and chaotic pool of stimuli and responses.
There are those who have a natural aversion to chaos. It unnerves them. They prefer order but do not fully realize the implications of reaching that order. Order requires rules, rules require policing, and the whole system requires deference to authority. A desire for objectivity is a desire for authority. If we are using experiments to test a new drug we must do everything possible to practice objectivity. We must construct elaborate and unbreakable rules so that we can have accurate results. Whether or not Gladiator is a great film does not necessitate such standards.
In critiquing any work of art it is useful to understand what the artist’s intentions were. It is not the only way to evaluate a work but determining whether or not an artist accomplishes the goals they set for themselves allows us to see them on their own terms. Did they accomplish what they set out to do? You can’t use the same set of cinematic standards to evaluate the camera work in a John Waters film and an Ingmar Bergman film. What sort of standard will accommodate both Ishirō Honda and Akira Kurosawa?
Its not a matter of reserving judgement. I thought Gladiator was awful and if someone wants to know why, I will explain my assessment to them, but I will not try to convince them that they shouldn’t like it, or that it is objectively bad. We can even argue about it without taking the position that one of us is right or wrong. We can just exchange points and learn from each other’s analyses. Imagine if there was a right way or a wrong way to view films. What would we do with David Lynch?
Its all very similar to arguments of genre. Again, why have such arguments? Is Stalker a science fiction film? What is gained by labeling it as such? What is lost is an open and spontaneous interaction with it. Let Stalker define itself and the terms on which it is to be evaluated. The fact that Tarkovsky’s goals in Stalker were different from George Lucas’ in Star Wars means that they needn’t be compared to each other. If you want to label them both science fiction you can but they have almost nothing in common. You can’t measure them with the same ruler because the intentions behind their creation were completely different.
As is the case with the law it is best to err in favor of freedom. When in doubt do not create structures to legislate the answer. It is better to allow some chaos and disagreement than to force consensus through standards falsely propped up by the label objectivity. The Truth is a very dangerous concept and is often used as a weapon to establish dominance. People are attracted to confidence and are made uneasy by doubt. Even if doubt is a sign of intellectual maturity.
I will say that currently all of this has been turned on its head by the Trump administration where so much doubt has been sown that Trump is able to do or say anything in a fog of chaos he helps to create and maintain. Pathological narcissists not withstanding it is the confident possessors of truth that are the most destructive, not the doubtful questioners who seek insight but never claim to possess the static, absolute Truth.