Would we care if they weren’t so pretty? I’ve asked myself this questions quite often lately in relation to certain films and film characters. Would I still like this movie so much if the lead actress wasn’t so beautiful? Would the film manage to keep my attention? Would my eyes still be peeled to the screen? Would I care about what happened to this character if she (or he) wasn’t so good-looking? Would I have seemed out and watched the film in the first place? Tough questions to answer, but let’s try to investigate this topic a little further.
On the surface almost nobody wants to admit that they can be conditioned or give much importance to how a person looks. However it’s a fact that good-looking people tend to be more successful in life. Let’s skip specifics. Statistics show for example that tall people have a higher income and similar stuff like that. I’m sure it’s something that has to do with having “good genes” and all that science talk I know nothing about. What’s important here is that whether we like to admit it or not looks matter. Continue reading
Cinema is a very subjective experience. Every film is perceived differently by every person that watches it. We all bring our own personal baggage into the movie going experience, whether we realize it, want it or don’t want it is irrelevant. Films speak to us differently in different stages of our lives, based on the experiences we’ve had, people we’ve met, stories we’ve heard and other, new movies we’ve seen. I can watch a film today and completely hate it, then revisit it in a couple of years and fall in love with it or the opposite. All this is to say that there isn’t and there can’t be a universal meter to measure what a good film is, but then there’s film critics.
Am I a film critic? I’d prefer to see myself as a commentator, because I don’t have a formal training, but for the sake of this post let’s say I’m a critic. I’m the bad guy. I’m the guy that tells you the movie you’ve been pumped for years is total shallow shit. I’m the guy that you love to hate, because I over-analyze stuff, while you just want to be entertained. Good, now that you know who I am, let’s move on. Should my opinion influence the way you think and view movies? Yes, otherwise why am I doing this. Am I allowed to voice my negative feelings? Yes, but if I’m smart I’ll try to be constructive in my criticisms. Are my favorite movies the best movies? No, because I am not an absolute. The only time my favorite movies coincide with the best movies is for myself, nobody else in the world will have exactly the same tastes as I do, because we’re all different, remember?
What about aggregates of critics’ opinions like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic or IMDb? Here’s where it gets tricky. People tend to believe that the majority is right. I mean they have to be, don’t they? We live in a complex world, where we try to simplify things as often as we can. The sites I just mentioned are great, I check them multiple times every week, even daily sometimes, but they’re not infallible. Humans are imperfect, so a human’s creation can only be flawed. The masses are not always right, but elites aren’t either. These sites (and I might add lists like AFI and the prestigious Sight & Sound Top 50 ) are just what most critics believe, don’t get me wrong most of the times these people know what they’re talking about, but even they can be wrong.
Tastes vary over time. A film might be so ahead of its time that critics aren’t prepared yet to understand it and appreciate it. That’s how cult followings are born. A film might also be just viewed as bad on a technical level or for its non-conformist opinions or social commentary. That’s an example of the mainstream labeling a film as “bad”. Once a film is considered “rotten”, the minority that really enjoys it, usually doesn’t feel it is socially acceptable to admit they liked or even loved the movie. Those people are usually very insecure. They use films to brand themselves. It makes sense. The “image” a film has is going to rub off on the people championing it, in marketing we call it the “halo effect”. So it makes sense to have only critically acclaimed films in your Top-whatever list.
Since we’ve established that there isn’t an absolute authority that has the right or knowledge to conclusively decide for everyone which movies are good, bad or in-between, there shouldn’t be “guilty pleasures”. Everyone should be free to like everything, but most feel that they aren’t, now why is that? Easy, we don’t really believe that. We do think a critic’s opinion, an expert’s opinion, the opinion from our own social circle or other opinion leaders is more or as important as our own. I’m not saying other people’s opinions are worthless, but at the very least they’re all as valid as our own. Once we accept that, we won’t have to over-justify our own tastes, when they differ from the mainstream. Then again I have a certain tendency to dislike or at least be suspicious of everything “too” mainstream, and this contrarian attitude is ‘dangerous’ and stupid as well. I’m working on trying to change that about myself.
Maybe this whole discourse is too theoretical, dry and boring so I’ll give you a concrete example of what I mean. I am a fan of the auteur theory and so I try to watch movies in the context of the director’s catalogue. Being someone who enjoys watching the films of Gregg Araki and other auteurs that are considered mediocre or bad, I feel that I have to defend my opinions a lot and I like doing that. Now even with what’s considered his worst work, I still find something to like, because I see his stylistic trademarks, the actors he loves working with and his specific tone and atmosphere. That’s why I champion the auteur theory and watch movies that way. If you’re really into a director I think your favorite films of his will be his most personal, maybe even self-indulgent ones, but definitely the ones that speak to you, that you feel were “made for you”. So I can say in good conscience, with no guilt or shame that I like all of his films, even his poorly rated works like The Doom Generation or Kaboom.
So my point is: Defend your favorite films. If you enjoy re-watching a film quite often or regularly and you don’t have the guts to admit it’s one of your favorites, but prefer to put a film you’ve seen once in your list just because it’s considered “better” by someone else that isn’t you, what kind of film goer are you? To me a favorite film is one I enjoy revisiting, one that makes me feel great every time I watch it, one that is good to me and maybe no one else. Maybe you don’t recognize yourself in anything I just said and you use the term “guilty pleasure” as a shortcut, because people immediately know what you mean or you don’t know a better catch phrase to explain your feelings towards a film. To me the term clearly doesn’t make much sense. A better use would be if it were used in the context of say enjoying films that are morally appalling.
All this to say that we should all try to be more honest (myself included) about what we like and don’t like, even if it’s not socially acceptable. Our favorites lists would be more interesting, less conventional maybe, but more eclectic. We’d all feel better about ourselves and realize that other people have weird and not necessarily “safe” tastes as well. Those tastes are there regardless of whether you admit them or not and for as risky as they might be, they make you unique and special.
I hear a lot of talk about “large scale”, big movies, HUGE stakes, as opposed to small films. Usually by that people mean big budget vs. art house, Hollywood vs. independent and so on. With the advent of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and the decreasing cost of better and more realistic digital effects, studio tent-poles have become animated pictures with some humans here and there. Is it about the humans anymore? I don’t know. It seems to me, it’s all about extreme spectacle, in terms of “how much can we destroy?”. What I’ve noticed is that people tend to confuse the “size” of the film with the meaning of the story.
Hollywood studio films have always been about size: The bigger the better. Big A-list stars, big productions, huge sets (or green screens) and even long runtimes – Is that automatically a bad thing? Of course not. I’m trying to say indies are better than corporate products or anything like that, although my vocabulary certainly betrays some bias! There are good films in both camps, that’s not even worthy of discussion we all should know that by now. Yes, there’s also good films from every country and every decade of cinema. Moving on, the “problem” I’ve noticed is that people tend to mistake the commercial stature of a picture or the amount of CGI related destruction involved with its greatness in terms of themes.
Superhero films are all the rage these days, they’re everywhere it’s only a matter of time before people will be sick of them and wonder how they almost exclusively enjoyed consuming those for the past decade or so. Okay, it seems to be a long-term trend, but I hope people will get tired of those comic book adaptations and stop taking them so seriously already: It’s ridiculous. Anyway, the real issue is that these people tend to see “smaller” independent films as irrelevant or uninteresting, because they are not “big”. Okay, maybe an art house film won’t show you a metropolis get invaded by aliens or destroyed by whatever cartoony malevolent force, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be big, just maybe in other ways. Blockbusters are about big explosions and action set pieces. If you asked people who like them what they are about thematically they probably could tell you, but that’s not what most of them are interested in.
Movies are about entertainment, they are considered the most “accessible” art form (although that’s debatable) and I’m not saying a film that is “just” entertaining is bad or has no right to exist. To me however a “good” film, one that I would consider to be on my favorites list, should have something more than that, something deeper. I don’t feel like any of these summer blockbusters are that deep. Mostly whatever message they have is watered down, diluted and tailor fit for the masses. Everyone can see it, it’s that obvious, oh and don’t forget people abroad have to “get it” as well, because now American films have to appeal to China and Russia and Brazil and all those great new markets, so the simplification is taken to a whole new level.
Aside from that, most of these gigantic, bombastic movies forget that one of the most important thing are the characters: The human element. People need to be able to connect to the film otherwise they won’t feel anything. A shortcut to that are character archetypes and a very “emotional” orchestral score. That’s fine and well if you like being manipulated, but it’s also empty and shallow. More interesting to me are character pieces, films about a single human beings life. To me a film about the human experience and human nature is the biggest possible in terms of emotions, feelings and themes. There is no need for those characters to save humanity or similar silly and unrealistic plot devices to discuss life. A Werner Herzog documentary on death row will affect me more deeply and inspire me to think more than any Avengers film, besides also having a more cinematic feel and aesthetic.
You can agree or disagree, but it’s the same basic idea of journalism. Reports about millions of deaths are sadly irrelevant to us, but if you show a single human being or a family and their tragedy or loss we are suddenly able to relate and understand. That is precisely why people are dissatisfied with how some films portray the destruction of entire cities. Aside from the unrealistic fact that not many people die, most of those people are faceless. Oh, and remember we are talking about PG-13 films, which honestly every time I see that rating for an action film I will just assume it’s going to be unrealistic, because if buildings were to collapse on people in real life they would fucking die.
So if you want a movie that is genuinely big you have to earn it, and the way to do it is by “scaling down”. Make it about the superhero, make it introspective, but most of all be honest. If a city is destroyed people die, deal with it. It might not be pretty to look at, but you’re the one that wanted to destroy cities, so now face your consequences. It seems to me people are afraid of dealing with real emotion and so they hide behind preposterous conceits and spandex.
Again, this whole discourse may sound like me taking a dump on blockbusters, but I’m actually not opposed to them. I do enjoy some of those movies, especially the ones from action auteurs such as Bay, Snyder or Emmerich because if anything they distinguish themselves visually. What I dislike are generic looking rip-offs of those directors that somehow, for whatever absurd reason, have the feeling they’re better. It is regrettable that what cinema has come to these days is sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots, but that’s the way things are. It’s all about brand loyalty, and certainly there’s a similar aspect in the auteur world as well, because films are “risky” goods for costumers who don’t know what they’re going to get, but I feel that some movie goers could benefit from expanding their horizons a little bit.
I hear a lot of complaints from mainstream movie goers that there aren’t many good movies coming out lately, but of course if you only watch a certain type of movies you’re going to run out of stuff to watch pretty soon. Try and watching films you wouldn’t normally watch and who knows they might surprise you and don’t give me any of that large-scale bullshit.