“The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as celebration.”
— George Orwell
I’m fascinated by the tension between what we like and what we value. A few days after Prometheus was released, I shared this post from film producer Keith Calder about the film’s many narrative and logical inconsistencies. It generated a nice comment thread on Facebook about the movie, but it also led to some great tangential observations from some people who, though they agree with all the criticisms of the film’s flaws, still enjoyed the movie for its visuals and sweep. I didn’t disagree with the people who found the images enthralling — the film’s first sequence is that rare acceptable (or at least tolerable) instance of 3-D photography, and some of the sets and set-ups look marvelous — but those things weren’t enough to win me over.
Yet there are things that do win me over, and I’ll often like and enjoy a film even while reflecting upon how ungainly or even nonsensical it might be. I realized that everyone does this, but that we all do it for different reasons. The people who liked Prometheus for its visuals despite the stupidity of its storytelling aren’t dumb; rather, they’re viewers for whom effects and images are powerful things, and they’re willing to ignore a film’s shortcomings if it presents them with the kind of spectacle you can only get at the movies. That’s their default: if all else fails, look for the visuals.
My default is conviction. Other ways to put this would be “sincerity” or “unironic appeal,” though “conviction” works best because it conveys the degree of commitment to telling a certain story in a certain way. If a movie starts to fall apart for me — if the characters are forgettable, the narrative unsound, the choices illogical, the plot laughable — I usually look for an indication of belief in the source material. I want the filmmakers to have their heart in the project. I’m impressed by nice visuals, but I’m won over by soul. Prometheus felt assembled by machine and slapped together by software that had just developed sentience. There was nothing there to connect to on a character or gut level, which left me nothing to retreat to when the film as a whole started to crumble.
We all have different defaults, which is why everyone’s list of personal film favorites doesn’t (can’t?) line up with any kind of collectively assessed canon of the best movies ever made. Sometimes the two are in sync: some of my favorite movies (The Godfather) are usually considered among the greatest of all time, but just as many aren’t.
For example: I’m on record as having enjoyed John Carter. It’s got some good moments, and even a couple of great ones, but the movie stumbles out of the gate with three attempted openings, and the plotting is often needlessly complex for a movie based on an old pulp story aimed at young boys. I suffer no illusions about the film’s place in cinema history. Yet I enjoyed the film because director Andrew Stanton seemed to genuinely care about the universe he was creating and the people who inhabited it, and the film is infused with a pleasing tone of adventure that’s mercifully devoid of sarcasm or snark. It’s a messy, bumpy little movie with a big beating heart. My default is to look for character and story moments that I can connect with even when the rest of the movie isn’t working.
The key to talking about movies with other people isn’t to weigh their tastes against yours, or against what you consider to be a template for quality, but to figure out what everyone’s default is. If you read a critic for long enough, you can figure out what they’re probably going to look for in a movie. At the same time, growing as a critic means finding ways to broaden your horizons, examine your defaults, and think about how your personal desires align or conflict with the good stories you’ve seen. The fact that I so often refer to films as “stories” says a lot about what I value. I love the structure and rhythm of movies, the mix of math and dark magic that pulls together disparate elements to make a finished film, but it’s the heart I keep coming back to.