Monday, February 21, 2011

Who The F*%# Am I To Judge What's A Good Film?!!

Good question.

You've heard it before - "Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one."

So does that mean that nobody has the right to judge a film? Or to judge any art? Yet people do it all the time and certain critics are important in helping us filter out the things we choose not to endure. There are also opinions that help us understand our own work - be they from friends, collaborators, programmers, critics, etc. - and what kind of impact we can expect our work to have in the universe of film.

So, who's opinion matters? And how is a consensus of opinions formed? How is it that Andrei Tarkovsky has made these high fallutin' "art" films and is hailed as a genius while Joe Carbunkle has also made high-fallutin' art films and nobody knows or cares who he is. Not even me and I'm the one who made him up.

And then there are filmmakers who are incredibly popular, but not respected for their cinematic art (I won't name names here). People "love" their films, yet their work is generally considered low on the scale of great cinematic works. And then there are films that seem great by consensus at a specific time in history that do not hold up well over time. It all seems so subjective and random, doesn't it? Perhaps that's true, but it is a mistake to think that is the case.

Filmmaking is a creative discipline. And like all creative disciplines, it is a singular avenue of communication....a language, if you will. Spoken language has certain structural properties that make it a language - morphology, phonetics, syntax, symbolism, phonology, semantics, dialect, etc., etc. Filmmaking has it's own unique structural properties - many of them similar to spoken language - that need to be understood on some level. And that takes time, effort and commitment. There are definitely many people - filmmakers as well as appreciators of film - that understand cinematic language on a purely instinctual level. Just like people who pick up spoken foreign languages very easily, these cinema savants quickly grasp the language of cinema intuitively. And just like there are those who make poetry out of slang or in some way subverting classic language structure, there are filmmakers who make poetry out of bending or completely obliterating cinematic conventions. They may do it consciously or intuitively or some combination of the two (as Jean-Luc Godard seems to do in his films), and have managed to expand the boundaries of cinematic language.

But however you come to an understanding of the language of cinema - studying it, intuitively grasping it and/or completely challenging it - it is absolutely NECESSARY as a basis from which to begin to make a meaningful critical analysis of any particular film - including/especially your own. Please know that I am absolutely NOT saying there is some objective standard by which to judge films, merely that there is a language to be, at least, understood, if not completely mastered - especially, if you aspire to have a meaningful opinion about film. And when I say "meaningful opinion", I'm talking about an articulated perspective that has impact on your work as well as any project with which you are involved or expected to assess critically.

Understanding the language doesn't mean you are tied to it and/or can't learn from someone who doesn't speak it. Any art benefits from fresh perspectives. All art needs artists willing to take risks and successfully explode all of our preconceptions about what that particular artistic endeavor needs to be. Similarly, all art needs critical voices that can come in without any structural prejudices and awaken our ability to appreciate a new piece of work that might fall outside of our bounds of understanding - and therefore expand the boundaries of that particular art/language.

However, just as it's clear when someone is articulate, erudite or in other ways displays a solid mastery of the language they speak, it is very clear when a filmmaker displays mastery of cinematic language (or skillfully and/or entertainingly subverts it). We've all listened with rapt attention to colorful storytellers who can make picking up a carton of eggs sound like an hilariously outlandish adventure while others make picking up a carton of eggs sound like...picking up a carton of eggs. Or worse. You're not even sure what they just told you or why they are telling you what they are telling you. There is indeed some criteria that exists in an understanding of the language of cinema by which we can develop a meaningful critical analysis of films.

At our first Filmmakers Alliance meeting of the year, I outlined a new direction for the organization to the members in attendance (I will detail all of that in a subsequent blog). I described the prototype member: Actively working on a project, creatively ambitious and supportive of other filmmakers (with anything from resources to feedback). Of the three, the one, by far, that created the most confusion/trepidation (based on the glazed-over looks I saw staring back at me) was "creatively ambitious". I said that I wanted filmmakers who aspired to make the best possible film they could make. My mistake. "Best" is a very subjective term and leaves open the fear that when I say it, I'm really telling filmmakers they need to make only films I would like if they want to get my support. There's definitely some measure of truth in that. It's a lot easier for me to offer my time and energy to a project I'm passionate about than one I'm not. But luckily, Filmmakers Alliance is structured in such a way that no single member needs to depend on my support when they have the rest of the community from which to draw support.

So, I was not offended when someone came up to me after the meeting and politely asked "Who the f*%#are you to judge what's a good film and what's not?" I calmly responded by acknowledging that critical analysis of films is ALWAYS a subjective endeavor and therefore I'm only qualified to judge what is a good film from my own limited perspective. But I then added that I've worked hard to make sure that perspective is as informed as possible....That I've made a life's work out of understanding the language of cinema. I acknowledged I'm still no expert, nor cinematic poet, but I'm not just a hobbyist, either. He seemed to step back a bit and reflect on that comment, then suddenly looked very puzzled and asked, with sweet sincerity, "How the f*%# does somebody do THAT?" (meaning, how does someone come to understand the language of cinema)....

Here's what I would have told him if I had the time (I actually told him I had to wrap up the meeting and we'd talk more another time): Every great filmmaker and film critic has one thing in common: a powerful, articulate (sometimes wildly creative) grasp of cinematic language. And it is developed in three primary ways (aside from, perhaps, going back to a really good film school):

1. Aggressively pursue an appreciation of the broad spectrum of art: Novels, paintings, photography, poetry, sculpture, theater, architecture and more. This helps develop the much larger, all-encompassing language of art and informs an understanding of cinema in a myriad of ways.

There is another key art form to understand that some peeps simply seem to have an amazing facility for: story-telling. Story-telling is indeed an art and it has been practiced and gained recognition as such through such programs as "This American Life" and organizations like The Moth as well as numerous story-telling projects around the country. Story-telling is an essential aspect of cinema language if you are doing anything beyond the most esoteric, "experiential" art film, but an argument can be made that even those films adhere to a certain kind of story-telling structure.

2. Repeated and massive exposure to great cinema. Again, I use the subjective term "great". I simply mean cinema that is considered great by consensus. Doesn't mean you have to consider it great, you simply have to understand why so many others consider it great. And there are clear "reasons" why films are considered great. Expose yourself to them constantly. Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were film critics for Cahiers Du Cinema, analyzing and writing about dozens and dozens of films before making their own. Martin Scorcese is virtually a cinema historian. Orson Welles watched "Stagecoach" a reported 39 times before devising a visual strategy for "Citizen Kane". All great filmmakers that I know of, have a profound passion for great cinema and all dig very deep to understand what makes great cinema.

3. Compare and Contrast. You can do this without judgement. Simply acknowledge the similarities and differences between works of art. Between one novel and the next. One painting and the next. Between one film, of course, and the next. Between a film and novel...or a painting. Between a sculpture and a novel. See the connections betweens and influences on all works of great (there's that word, again) art and how other works (maybe not so great) stand against them. Most importantly, ask yourself how does your work stand against other works of art. And certainly, films that you admire.

Why is understanding the language of cinema and developing a facility for critical analysis important if you don't plan on being a film critic? For your own filmmaking, of course. To hold your work to your own highest possible standard so that you can create the best possible films. Understanding cinema language and being able to understand what makes a film great - or even good - does not guarantee you will make great films. I've seen many filmmakers, who can speak at length and quite insightfully about great films, go on to make really shitty films. Making that understanding of cinema language intuitive and integrated into the creative process is not automatic and often very challenging. But having that understanding is nonetheless a prerequisite of great filmmaking, based on the history of great filmmaking. You may be asking, "Why do I need to make a great film? Why can't I just make a "fun" film?" Okay. Make a fun film. But why not aspire to make a great fun film? Or, at least, the best possible fun film you can make. My unofficial research indicates that the better a film is, the more it gives back to the filmmaker. There are exceptions, of course. But I'd pretty much wager it all on that conclusion.

Of course, there are exceptions to nearly everything I say, but too many filmmakers consider themselves a product of the exception rather than the rule....until they finish their film and watch it fall flat in the world. You may also be asking yourself if the language of cinema is still relevant given the emergence of new technology projects - 3D, webisodes, virtual reality, transmedia and more. In the glut of product created by those rushing to explore these new modalities of media creation, the projects that will stand out will be no different than the ones that stand out in good old-fashioned cinema - compelling stories, uniquely and compellingly told artfully utilizing what's distinctive about the medium of choice. But despite what many filmmakers want to believe, these things aren't learned by osmosis. It takes energy, effort, ambition and desire....and more. That's why truly great films are rare. But in striving to make something truly great, you may at least make something far better than you ever imagined.

Who the f*%# am I to judge what's a good film?! Nobody special. Just an asshole with an opinion who cares enough to try to understand the difference between a great film and the rest. If you are making and/or watching films, I hope you are one of those assholes, too.


  1. Excellently-said. Nothing radical stated here, just a good solid point that so many miss.

  2. Great post dude!! Had a great discussion about film critics a while back on facebook with some friends of mine. This will be a great addition to the forum.