I watched Cop Out at the weekend, and I have to admit it was just about okay. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t consistently funny. It had moments of wit, but they were separated by pointless and boring scenes. It had a talented cast, but didn’t do anything with them. I wouldn’t describe it as a bad film, but I wouldn’t advise you to rent it (or otherwise seek it out). However, there was a stronger and more bitter taste in the air. There was something especially disappointing about the film, because of its director. Cop Out was a Kevin Smith film, and it actually felt a bit worse than it arguably should have because I knew the director was capable of so much more. Am I the only one who tends to be more disappointed by an average film from a talented filmmaker than perhaps even a bad film from an untalented director?
I know the argument that you should leave your preconceptions at the door when you view a film. You should view each film in a vacuum and make sense of it by reference to itself. However, people simply don’t do that. Roger Ebert himself accepts that even the most rudimentary appraisals of a film are relative measurements. Not even in an abstract “there must be bad films in order for there to be good films” sort of way, but in a practical “how does this rank against the other movies like it” sort of way?
The star ratings are relative, not absolute. If a director is clearly trying to make a particular kind of movie, and his audiences are looking for a particular kind of movie, part of my job is judging how close he came to achieving his purpose.
So people watching The Expendables will inevitably want to know how it measures against Die Hard or the other great action movies. It makes sense as an argument.
Why shouldn’t a director’s other work be game for discussion? I mean, I think that coming into a film aware of the filmmaker’s previous efforts offers a more holistic approach to the movie. It allows you to spot particular themes and ideas that are developed over the course of a lifetime, but also to judge the evolution of a director’s style. For a very select few individuals, it becomes almost like an extended conversation – the personality behind the words remains the same even as the topic may drift. This obviously isn’t always the case, but you can spot the work of particular directors from a great distance. You probably could have figured out that Christopher Nolan gave us Inception if the titlecards went missing, might have suspecting Stanley Kubrick was behind The Shining had he used a pseudonym and identified David Fincher’s fingerprints all over The Social Network.
Hell, in some cases, the presence of a strong director can make what might otherwise have been a generic film inherently interesting. Divid Fincher’s The Game might have been an okay but unmemorable high concept thriller if it wasn’t for the way it provided a microcosm of the director’s perspective on the world. Many of Martin Scorsese’s less impressive films become far more interesting when viewed in the context of his wider tapestry of work.
But should we really take these external factors into account? A good film is a good film. Even if Francis Ford Coppola had retired after making The Godfather, it would be a classic. Equally, a mediocre film is a mediocre film. Audiences probably don’t care about Gangs of New York in “a wider context” or any nonsense like that. Although I should probably state that I actually quite enjoyed Gangs of New York, but that’s beside the point. Surely regular movie-goers, rather than bloggers and movie nerds such as myself, only really want to know if a film is good or bad. Is it worth their time or not?
That said, I’m willing to admit that I’m not the most populist writer out there. I don’t use star ratings, for example, because I’m not really too comfortable with them – perhaps I don’t feel I’ve earned them or I dread the consistency they demand (if you want to really quickly get my feelings on a film, read the opening paragraph and the closing paragraph). I freely admit that I try to make this blog relatively accessible, but I write mainly for my own interest. It’s mainly like a nerdy little diary that the whole world can read.
And I, personally, find a huge sting when a director that I know is capable of so much more delivers a movie which is just about okay. It’s like that “could have done better” note at the bottom of your homework – it somehow feels more disappointing that a person you know has this tremendous talent has done something that was “just okay”. It’s not even the suggestion that the skilled director is just twiddling their thumbs – the quirks of the studio system mean that the director could lose their own body weight in sweat and some executive would still cut the film down to mediocrity. There’s not any blame assigned with the observation – it not “should have tried harder”.
It’s just a gut feeling that is quite hard to shake, no matter how you try. Almost as if your inner child has been a bit disappointed. Not enough to cry, and not enough to give on an idol, but enough make you feel a little sad.