Jun 12, 2023
A reflection on the discourse around film and art.
I was bored while watching a movie. Does that mean it’s bad? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a while. A curiosity sparked by the reactions that friends and family members give to films I show that are on the weirder, “arthouse” end of the spectrum. Although these films tend to be revered by cinephiles and movie critics, they just as frequently alienate the average viewer. They leave them with shock at the praise they seem to be garnering and with the feeling that they have been cheated. Terms like “pretentious,” “overrated” and “artsy fartsy” are commonly thrown around when a viewer deems these kinds of films overly confusing or abstract. But is there any credit to this and, most importantly, can we say any film is good or bad for certain?
First, I want to take a look at the term “overrated.” For many it has been a way to express that a film is not as good as most people make it out to be. They “just don’t get the hype.” Now, there is nothing wrong with going against what the majority thinks. It’s important for the overall discourse about film and art to have differing opinions and perspectives. However, the word overrated, to me, is a lazy, arrogant way to dismiss a film because a) it shows a refusal to understand what the side on the majority deems so worthy of praise and b) it implies that you know better than everyone else and therefore you have the “superior” take. Admittedly, we've all used this term at some point but I think it only serves to escalate the toxicity and elitism that is already present in the discourse about art.
This is not to say that a film is automatically good because it is critically acclaimed. The point is that films are not intrinsically good nor bad. There are obviously some “rules” and parameters that have been accepted over the years as to what makes something good or bad: we look at how well a film is shot, does the story captivate us, does it have something to say, can we follow the events properly or not, is the vision consistent and so on and so on. But even these are very highly debatable criteria and when films actively get out of their way to break the rules, the debate gets even more complicated. What to some is a sign of incompetence from the makers, to others it’s a brilliant, deliberate choice that enhances their appreciation. How many people find the films by Andrei Tarkovsky unbearable to watch due to how slow and strange they are? Many. And yet he is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the history of the medium.
When people say they “liked” a movie, they usually mean they enjoyed it. As well as when they don’t like a film, they’re often implying that they were bored while watching it. Which is fine. We all react differently to the same film, sometimes we enjoy them more, others less so. However, the problem arrives when we use that initial reaction to a movie as an argument for it being “good” or “bad”. Why? Because how much you “like” or “dislike” a movie is tied to a myriad of factors that are independent from the movie itself. Below are just some of the influences that have nothing to do with the production itself:
Your expectations going in.
Your viewing habits and experience.
Your mood and state of mind.
Your culture and personal views.
Format and location.
With all these in mind it sounds almost ridiculous to make statements about the quality of a movie based on your immediate experience of it. However, that is the most common argument used against films that are slow, weird or abstract. It’s not a wise attitude to dismiss a film based on that initial gut feeling. A film being boring for you is not as much a criticism as it is a reaction, unless you can point out what things the film does wrong in order to make you feel that way. For productive discourse (if we choose to engage in it), we need to understand where exactly we feel the filmmaker failed, what barriers can be circumvented or consider what pitfalls could be avoided in future endeavors. And if you can’t, if you don’t understand what exactly is wrong with the film or why it makes you feel that way, the best thing to do is to engage in proper discourse. Read about it, discuss with others who can articulate their enjoyment, maybe try watching it again with a different frame of mind. You might still not enjoy it but you may find something to appreciate along the way. Or, at the very least you have made a dedicated effort to expanding your perspective. Otherwise, you risk dismissing everything that went into that particular film in a way that is neither constructive nor interesting.
The discourse around film and art in general can be very frustrating. Everybody wants to be right all the time and disagreement brings hostility rather than a renewed sense of appreciation from both sides. In the world of social media, wanting a more productive and empathetic way to discuss films and art is a lot to ask for. Anonymity encourages confrontation without heed of consequence, which, in turn breeds polarization. People become more inclined to defend their “camp” rather than see the art piece for what it is: an object. An object that exists to encourage individual opinion lays fertile soil for empathetic conversations and hopes to spark enlightening relationships. I think that if we could acknowledge that we are all just as clueless as the guy next to us we would realize that films, beyond all the technicalities and fancy theory, are not a MacGuffin to fight over, but a collective mystery that will always remain unsolved.