Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Cinematic Taste

The best (indeed, the only) good negative review of The Village I've found is at "Gnostical Turpitude," here. It has some of the ponderous, sulky silliness virtually all critical reviews of the movie have had, but makes some valid points (most of them are the obvious points, but some of them more subtle).

I have been thinking about movie reviews, and about what I like or don't like in movie reviewing. Here are some very rough preliminary thoughts - aphorisms toward a theory of Cinematic Taste.

1. It is stupid to criticize a movie simply because the basic story idea is silly, stupid, ridiculous, or trite. Take the silliest, stupidest, tritest, and most ridiculous story idea you can think of, and it could potentially make a good movie. The sillier, stupider, triter, and more ridiculous it is, the harder it might be to make a good movie from it - but good movies can be, and sometimes have been, made from worse. It's the application that needs to be considered.

2. People who review movies should try to cultivate the perspective of an impartial spectator in addition to their own perspective. That is, they need to do the hard work of trying to recognize what in their response to the movie was a matter of personal quirk and temperament, and what is something shared in common with people who are not exact clones of themselves. It can be helpful to know your own personal, quirky gut response, but if you are claiming, implicitly or explicitly, to be giving more than a description of your own gut response to the movie, you need to be able to do more than this. You need to try to see how someone might have great sympathies for a movie you hate, or how they might hate a movie you love. This is extremely difficult to do. Difficulty is not an excuse for not at least trying.

3. Plot twists do not need to be clever. As I've said before, plot in a movie is one of its least important elements. A plot twist just needs to move the whole spectacle forward. If it is clever, great. If it's not, read #1. If you still have doubts, see if you have the impudence to say Euripides doesn't know what he's doing since he has Medea ride off in the Chariot of the Sun. If you do, you have bad taste, and shouldn't review movies. Euripides' plot twists may be a weakness in his art; his art is still magnificent.

4. Very many purportedly aesthetic evaluations are really moral evaluations. Moral evaluation of movies is perfectly reasonable; but don't fool yourself about what you are doing. For instance, when I talk about "ponderous, sulky silliness," this is a moral criticism. It is a very, very weak moral criticism; but it is still a moral criticism. Words like silly, frivolous, cheap, simplistic, and clever usually involve an implicit moral evaluation; they suggest a failure to fulfill one's intellectual and social responsibilities properly. They are, whatever anyone might label them, moral evaluations, for much the same reason Aristotle and Aquinas both (rightly) considered boorishness to be a moral vice. It is only because they are moral evaluations that they add anything to the discussion. (It would be possible to use most of these words in ways that do not involve moral evaluation - e.g., you could describe a deliberately silly movie as 'silly', simply as a description - but this is the exception, not the rule.)

5. I suggest that we should follow in the case of movies the suggestion C. S. Lewis makes about literature in An Experiment in Criticism. When it all comes down, the people who are the best judges of books are those who simply love reading, in and for itself, and the books that are best are chiefly those books that these people commonly enjoy reading over and over and over again (e.g., Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice). This is limited, since a book's not being commonly read and re-read by these people doesn't necessarily mean it's not one of the best. Austen's Lady Susan, for instance, is probably the most brilliant epistolary novel ever written, and could well be one of Greats; but it's not commonly read and re-read for the simple reason that it's not commonly read in the first place. But it is true that my judgment about Lady Susan's high quality can never be as sure as my judgment about Pride and Prejudice, because it is harder to find confirmation. Still, I enjoy reading simply in and for itself, and I love Lady Susan, and read and re-read it. Not as much as Pride and Prejudice, to be sure, but quite a bit. It could be that this is purely a personal quirk; but, then again, it might not be. The parallels with movies should be fairly clear.

6. The fact that a lot of people like a movie doesn't mean it's a bad movie. The fact that a lot of people with bad taste like a movie doesn't mean it's a bad movie. Most people who hear Pachelbel's Canon or Beethoven's Für Elise like them. Most people who can manage to read Great Expectations like it. The parallel with movies should be clear. Some good works need an acquired taste or special skills. Some are easily accessible by almost everyone. But whatever work is in question, there is no one with worse taste than a snob, someone who looks down his nose at other people. If you doubt this, read #2 again.

7. You need to distinguish weaknesses from real faults. I find (when it comes to philosophy texts, for instance) that people have difficult doing this. All real faults are weaknesses; some weaknesses are not real faults, just failures to be absolutely perfect. It is no more necessary that a great movie or novel be utterly flawless than that someone presenting an argument must think of every possible objection that anyone from any point of view might at any point in time propose. Even good Homer nods; and it is stupid to demand that he never do it.

8. Keep in mind that no one is more susceptible to a legitimate tu quoque argument than someone engaged in literary, artistic, or any other form of criticism. Tailor your review accordingly.

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