Thinking Cinematically: The people’s prerogative

CinemaIt is a difficult thing to love a popular art form, especially film. It means that one must accept that there is an assumption of equality of opinion amongst the public in relation to the form in which you have chosen to invest yourself. That is to say, most people feel qualified to watch a film and give their opinion of its quality.

By saying this, I do not wish to imply that people do not have a right to their own opinion. There is no doubt that people should feel comfortable expressing their views, especially within a medium whose target audience is (at least within the mainstream) the broader public. But what I am saying is that there is an assumption in the modern age that the opinions of each individual must be considered objectively equal, and that cinema’s status as the most accessible and publicly digested form makes it more susceptible to such a reading.

On the one hand, this would seem to make sense. When an individual says ‘I like this film’, it is an overtly true statement.  When an individual says ‘the films that I like are good films’, there is no doubt that this is a subjectively true statement. But if we move away from these subjective statements alone and place multiple alternate and contradictory statements next to each other, a problem arises that negates the logic that has worked thus far. For example if a historian, a film academic, and a member of the general public go to a see an old WWII film, they may respond like this:

Member of Public: This film is very good. It has great cinematography and excellent acting.

Historian: This film is very bad. It ignores key aspects of history for the sake of the story, and is riddled with historical inaccuracies.

Film academic:  The film itself is beautifully crafted, and all performances are exceptional,but there are some problematic elements here. While the film shows a willingness to misrepresent historical circumstances, contemporary audiences should be more wary of the regressive gender and racial politics at play.

Here we see that the member of the public is responding positively to the core visceral strength of the film itself. The historian, being the most invested and qualified to judge the film on its historical merits, defines the movie’s quality on these terms and elects to view the film negatively. The film academic acknowledges the quality of the craftsmanship, the historical inaccuracies (the film academic will almost certainly ensure that they have at least a cursory understanding of the historical background to the film before responding), but displays a far greater concern with the ideology of the film. All three have qualitative judgements they have placed on the movie, but all three are not equal. The member of the public may be able to advise if a film is entertaining, the historian is best qualified to assess it on grounds of historical accuracy, and the film academic, while probably less knowledgeable about the historical elements of the film, is concerned with an overarching assessment of the film from all angles.

In other words, the value ascribed to the opinions of each individual, on any given subject, cannot necessarily be considered objectively equal – one must take into account the knowledge and quality of argument that that individual brings to the table. To reject such a proposition is to demonstrate today’s rather narcissistic cult of the individual (the relatively small price we pay for democracy). One would presume that the MD knows more about medicine; the plumber knows more about plumbing; and that the historian knows more about history than the average individual. Of course, one can already hear the immediate response – that these are professions that require very specific skills. The general public would most likely even acknowledge that in arts like painting, literature and sculpture there is a kind of coding or higher-mode of understanding that one might require specific skills to fully understand. But not in cinema, why?

As a teenager I once got into a rather aggressive drunken conversation with a heavily tattooed bikie in a rundown pub just around the corner from where I lived. I was trying to explain to him that the movie Pearl Harbour was not just an appalling piece of cinema, but also an abominable misrepresentation of history. His argument was simple enough, one driven by the modern individual’s absolute acceptance of capitalism as a qualitatively defining force: “If it’s bad, why has it made so much money?”

You’ll have to excuse me for separating this man’s opinions from the adjectives upon which he heavily relied, but I think you get the point. For him, popularity and profit were the markers of success and therefore of quality. This is a sentiment implicit in the modern western mode of thinking – one driven by concepts of capitalism and the rights of the individual. For the majority of people, films are not objects to be assessed based upon their examination/representation/questioning of gender, race, politics, history or any other ideological mode – they are images to be digested without critique for the sake of entertainment.

I’m not saying things should be any different. All I’m saying is that it is a difficult thing to love a popular art form, especially film. It means that one must accept that there is an assumption of equality of opinion amongst the public in relation to the form in which you have chosen to invest yourself.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

59 thoughts on “Thinking Cinematically: The people’s prerogative

  1. Great point, echoing my own musings. With the ‘wealth’, let’s call it euphemistically, of opinion available, I have at times questioned why I write a movie blog. I always come back to the idea that I often have a unique perspective, and attempt to offer my views in a way which minimizes the repetition of existing film criticism.

  2. Hi. First off – thanks for following. :]
    Really enjoyed this post and will definitely have a mooch through your blog.
    My friends call me a film snob – and I love it!
    Kermode’s a genius.

  3. The disparity of opinion between the specialist and the common occurs in all creation. Writing is certainly filled with people over-thinking small details: authors focusing on the exact shade of puce a gut is, when all the readers care about is there has been a brutal incident; fans of the original comic series complaining because the relaunch features a hero with hair that is hay coloured instead of straw coloured. While the opinions of specialists are valid, I always try to remember that there are many more common people than specialists in a field and that we are all ignorant of most things.

    The difference between grossing because a work is good and grossing because people have been to see it makes me think of the phenomena of post-payment that has flourished with the expansion of the internet: a product offered for free with a link asking people to donate what they feel it was worth. It would be interesting to see if this produced more or less profit than selling at a fixed price in advance.

    • All true. The overall entertainment quality of a film is to be decided by the public – but I suppose this isn’t really an area with which I’m particularly focused. The fact that cinema is a popular form means it is influenced and an influencer of public sentiment. Therefore it is an artifact of its relative cultural situation and allows an imperfect window into “how things were” at the time.

      In this sense, I suppose I’m more interested in drawing a distinction here between a popular entertainment reading and a deeper cultural analysis, which is not rendered any less valuable or insightful by the public’s lack of interest.

  4. Agreed, though I’m a bit rusty on my philosophy of aesthetics 🙂 My instinct would be to say that a critic cannot argue in the sphere of the pure aesthetic experience itself (in the Kantian sense) because that is supposed to be universal (and yet intimate); but he can definitely talk with a lot more authority on the socio-cultural context in which an art form evolves, its place in it, artists’ intentions, etc. All of which are extremely interesting and valuable, but also take a subordinate role, in my view at least, to the pure aesthetic response (to film or anything else really – music, painting, photography,…) which should be the standard by which individuals judge a piece, ultimately.
    I am not sure how trained the ‘aesthetics’ receptors can be. I think in terms of music, culture definitely plays a role (we get used to certain leitmotivs and musical structures)… these kinds of debates get interesting at the margins don’t they. Especially with artforms like film which are so steeped in popular culture and take on a complex expression (not just one static frame like a painting). Eh, just musing out loud, off to check out your blog 😀

    • All true. Although, personally I would regard the social and political subtexts of a film (and the way in which the film is received) as being equally if not more important in terms of analysis as the aesthetic – precisely because this is a popular art form with the capacity to influence and be influenced by public sentiment and cultural conditions (deliberately or otherwise). But once again, it’s all subjective 🙂

      Enjoy 🙂

  5. A bit too tired to contribute something cogent, but might be worth looking into Hume’s Of The Standard of Taste and the philosophical critique of it, on this topic
    “#23. Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.”

    Thanks for an interesting read 🙂

      • I like Hume 😀 I also like this blog, will spend some time perusing it later today because I know nothing of Australian cinema and it seems a good place to start 🙂
        (but I have reservations about the idea of the Critic – which Hume hints at as well:
        “But where there is such a diversity in the internal frame or external situation as is entirely blameless on both sides, and leaves no room to give one the preference above the other; in that case a certain degree of diversity in judgment is unavoidable, and we seek in vain for a standard, by which we can reconcile the contrary sentiments.”
        Difficult to imagine a perfect ‘critic’ if Hume can’t define a Standard of Taste which the perfect critic should reflect 🙂 )

        • Great – there are at least a few pieces on Australian cinema littered throughout my blog 🙂

          I agree, to a degree. A critique cannot be considered ‘the truth’ in any objective sense. But having said that, there are strong critical arguments and there are weak ones.

  6. Here’s a re-posted thought from someone who regularly contributes on my blog.
    ‘Saw your heads up about Curnow in your post about following a blog, even more films to add to my list to watch; although his list is a little more populist and I’ve seen many of them; his take on things is where his real magic shows through.’ (eddy winkow – wikos.wordpress.com)
    Spreading the curnblog word! Pete.

  7. They say, cinema is the seventh art…doesn’t know who decided of the order…:) and yes it is sometimes difficult to ‘assess’ or critic a film, I guess in that manner, it does share the same aspect with painting, photoghaphy and other arts….everybody does find or not, what they like, appreciate or cannot stand, art is a field where no clear line are defined, I guess it is up to everybody to make his own appreciation of it, I know that I found some movies, highly praised by critics, boring to death, while other movies, while lacking many things that make a good movie, I did found fun to watch, depends also of the mood of the moment…but I would find the world quite boring without art…cinema, painting, photography, music and all…

  8. This can also lead to awkward discussions with friends, co-workers, etc. who are not into cinema. People like to talk about movies, so it’s sometimes hard to avoid. But if you say something about a quality film you can feel like some kind of elitist freak. And (at least in the U.S.) don’t even think about mentioning a foreign film unless you’re ready to demonstrate that it has an acceptable amount of explosions and gratuitous sex–preferably, people getting blown up while having sex.

  9. James, thanks for all the comments and constructive stuff on my blog posts. Always welcome, but especially from you! I am the Luke to your Yoda. (But I don’t really like ‘Star Wars’ though, it’s just ‘The Hidden Fortress’ as Sci-Fi, or so they say…)

    • Haha. Although the Orwellian reference may confuse the fact that I believe in the egalitarian right to present an argument. It’s simply the quality of the argument that is relative.

  10. This article reminded me of my most recent movie review. Speaking for myself, in the past few years, I never had the attitude that I can say what’s a “good movie” and what isn’t. I speak for myself, and I let my readers see if they agree with me – though they usually won’t know, unless they see the movie themselves. When I write a movie review, my main concern is to write something of interest to the reader, which hopefully entertains them (to an extent). My main mission is to make people laugh, even though I can’t do that with all of my movie reviews. I don’t really try to get the reader to agree with what I’m saying, because most movie fans hate the movies I really love. I mean, I consider Cannibal Holocaust to be a fantastic movie – and there aren’t many people who will agree with that statement!

    That said, this was a great article, and you put into words some concepts that have been stewing in my brain for the past couple of years.

    • Hey hey,

      Agreed. I don’t think that people should agree with me – but I do think that arguments are more valuable than opinions (the latter are frequently formed without the former) and that the quality of an argument defines the value of the opinion.

      This is, after all, the basis of the empirical system upon which we have based civilization.

      By the way – awesome blog name!!!

  11. I was interviewing a respected food critic just last week, and I was comparing notes with him about the difference between casual Internet critics and published critics (I used to be a professional film critic). We agreed that it’s really based on experience and knowledge. He’s run restaurants and written about them for over 2 decades, which gives him just a bit more credibility than someone who was angry enough after an unsatisfying meal to rant on the Internet.

    But these days, it seems people don’t care about experience anymore. They just respect the opinions of someone who’s either had a hit single, or a YouTube pseudo-celeb with an impressive cleavage.

  12. Very interesting point! I believe that it’s important to distinguish between film-fans and film-scholars (at whatever level). The criteria used by the two categories will always be different, and develop into different opinions. From my non-scholar friends, I don’t expect more than subjective responses to a film: I liked it, I hated it, etc. Some go a little further and say: I liked it because…., or I hated it because…..
    But they all agree in me seeing ‘way too much’ in what is just an entertainment (social context, historical context, production values, textual analysis, ideological position, Lacan, Derrida etc etc).
    I’m entertained by films, by I also like analyzing them. Moreover, I do the same with television: trying to argue how important even rubbish television programs can be on the basis of the social mirrors they are, well…I’ve sort of given up on it, except in academic circles (and even there, there are hierarchies to fight against!)
    Thanks for your post!

  13. I found this post to be well thought out. You make a very good argument concerning how people perceive various art forms. (Funny though that some of my favorite movies are absolute garbage … I guess it’s good that I recognize that.) Writers have many of the same issues when it comes to critiques; people that just don’t like it coming to the conclusion that the writer’s work is poor quality.

    Keep up the good work … now I need to go back and dig through your archives …

    • Thanks – all very true.

      I like some questionable stuff too, but you’re right, as long as you are aware of why you are responding positively that’s the main thing.

  14. This is a great debate! Film is very subjective and it’s something that everyone has an opinion on – and rightly so. We all watch films for different reasons but it becomes very interesting when we go beyond simple like or dislike and, instead, try to understand the reasons why we feel this way in an effort to label films ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Should a film be considered successful just because it’s entertaining? Or should a ‘successful’ film deliver much more than this? Mention ‘quality’ and a can of worms is unleashed, raising issues about film snobbery, accessibility and audience alienation. Can a superficial blockbuster that captures the imagination of a vast audience be considered ‘better’ than a well-rounded picture that’s applauded my a much smaller one? And who decides?

    This debate becomes even more interesting when we think about whose film views we actually listen to. Robbie Collins of The Telegraph wrote an interesting piece over the weekend ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-blog/9810807/Who-cares-what-Twitter-critics-think.html ) about the difference between popular opinion and criticism, highlighting the need for reader trust and the importance of placing a film in its cultural context. Even so, cinema-goers are likely to have a preferred publication that’s aimed at an entirely different market, and with a varying circulation, to those sitting beside them. While our favoured professional critics can be trusted to point us in the ‘right’ direction, even critics do not always agree.

    For me, it’s the equality of opinion amongst general cinema-goers that makes talking about the movies so appealing, and a difference of opinion between the critics certainly spices up my enjoyment of reading the press. After-all, what would us bloggers be doing without all of this film chat?

    Great post!

  15. Reblogged this on Analyze this and commented:
    Last week, I was arguing with some friends who kept insisting Argo was one of the best films of 2012. I disagreed, because I felt a good film should have dealt with Iranian characters more deeply, and provided an insight into the mindsets of both sides involved in the stand-off (Iran and America). My friends thought I was taking the film too seriously, and that Argo does qualify as a great film because it’s a taut thriller and a complete entertainer.

    This blog sums up my feelings on why such difference of opinion arises on films. Different people seek and see different things in films, and hence people’s own perceptions and experiences color their review of films. Do read if you’re a cinephile!

  16. There are three different standards by which a film (or other work of art) may be judged, personal, artistic, and philosophical.

    The personal is obviously subjective–either I liked it or I did not.

    The artistic is objective–there are techniques that are either mastered or they are not. If a film is out of focus or the sound is not synced, it’s a poorly made film from a perspective of the craft, no matter its other virtues. There is some disagreement over the use of anti-style in art–is use of a hand held camera an artistic choice or a mistake?–but in general most filmgoers will agree on the basics.

    The question of whether philosophy is objective or subjective is one that sharply divides modern culture. Personally, I believe that it is objective, that ethical standards are absolute and not dependent upon the observer’s perspective, and in this I find myself standing against the academic mainstream.

    • No argument here. Although, personally I think that a complete assessment of a work of art depends upon an assessment of all three criteria at once.

      I tend to think that I am more of the ‘subjective’ school of thought, although for practical purposes I think a society should probably function on the assumption of ‘objective’ truths.

      • I agree that all three are important, but I also think it’s important to distinguish between them. I happen to have a weakness for American International pictures, but I am not going to try to present a case that “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant” is in any way a good movie.

        • Hehe. Agreed. But I would suggest that in that case, ironic appreciation provides a mode of arguing that something is good in a way that is almost inverse to the normal use of the term.

          Having said that, if I review a film that I find enjoyable, I would still consider it a duty to highlight any kind of problematic ideological elements. I enjoy Evil Dead, but I could not ignore the nasty and gratuitous ‘plant’ scene in a review. Or I could argue that ‘Boondock Saints’ is great fun, but ultimately ideologically fascistic. To not mention this would be a real miss.

  17. Hi There!

    First of all, thank you for following my blog, I let myself gladly followed by bloggers writing articles such as above!
    Cinematography is one of my soul’s physiological elements, with a special (empty for the moment) chapter hidden amongst my own blog’s categories…
    Your kind visit reminds me of the soooooo many reviews I have (well at least mentally) written all over the half of century of my own life’s documentary:-)
    I have thoroughly enjoyed both the style and the content(s), and therefore decided to gladly follow you, too:-)

    Take care

    Rom

  18. Really interesting read! I think everyone is entitled to an opinion as to whether they enjoyed the film, and logic would likely dictate that if they enjoyed it then it is a good film to them. There are so many variables at play – what you want to get out of it, whether you like that director’s/actor’s work, even what kind of mood you’re in when you watch it. I accept that there’s an equality of opinion over whether someone enjoyed it, but not whether I will also enjoy it. I’ve enjoyed plenty of films that are considered bad and that I can see are technically awful.

    Your Pearl Harbour argument is a very interesting one and it’s brought up in length in Mark Kermode’s The Good, The Bad, and the Multiplex. Just because it made loads of money, it doesn’t mean people liked it; it just means people paid to see it. I’d have wanted to punch that guy, although I’m not one to anger a drunk biker 🙂

  19. What an excellent blog: agree with every word. Last week, I got into an argument with some friends wherein I said Argo isn’t a great film as widely believed, but they thought it was. Eventually it came down to what each of us saw in the film: I was bothered by the underdeveloped characters and historical inaccuracies, but they argued (effectively) that it succeeded as a thriller and an entertainer.

    My 2 cents: some of us see movies as an art-form and maybe not just entertainers. In such as case, expectations from the film go up: one expects intellectual satisfaction from an art-form, not just entertainment.

  20. An interesting read that makes a number of good points. And you are right – everyone does have an opinion which makes us all think we are film critics (to some extent).
    I’ve never considered myself as a critic, just an opinionated person who just wants his voice heard 🙂
    Keep up the good work.

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