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Critical Predisposition: What Preconceptions Do You Bring Into Movies?

Over the last week, I had the pleasure to visit the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. I saw a lot of films as part of that, and the reviews have been popping up all week. Anyway, they give out an audience award, which gave me occasion to actually score films. Regular readers here know that I am loath to try to objectively rank cinema, as it’s a very subjective medium and I have difficulty reconciling relative grades, but I went along with it. Anyway, they use a four-point scale and, long story short, I found myself using a lot of “3” grades, which is the second-highest rank. This kinda got me thinking: Am I a little too generous to films I really shouldn’t be? How do I approach the cinema? Do I look for things to love? Do I have a pre-disposed bias? Do I want to love films, even if they aren’t especially great?

Me, aged about eight...

There are a couple of things I should probably clarify. A “3” grade on a 1-4 scale covers a mark of around 50-75%. On a secondary school paper, that’s a high D to a middling B. It’s not a superb score. However, I was little bit reluctant to hand out a “4”, simply because that represented “perfection” or close to it – the ideal, or the target, or the goal. So, in my mind, “3” was just short of that “perfection” – rather than being a percentage point, it was “one point below the very best.” It’s also possible that there was just a really good crop of films at the festival – I’d argue there was as well.

However, I look at the films I marked highly and I do question the scores that I gave them. The Tempest, for example, was full of energy – but was also muddled and a little too angry. You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger never really managed to pull everything together in the end, and yet it just about scored a “3” on the scale. They’re both seriously flawed films, but I enjoyed them both nonetheless. So, I wonder, was I not objective? Did I go into the festival with a clear bias?

Have mainstream movies got me under their thumb?

I worry sometimes that I am a little bit too generous in my discussion of films. I can spot serious flaws or holes in them, but I will generally try to balance them out with praise or witty observation. Reading back over some of my reviews, I will try very hard to find something in a film to like, and something to praise, even if I wasn’t sold on the overall project. I can tell that, from an objective standpoint, they are weak or structurally unsound productions, but I do find something to like in them.

Don’t get me wrong, I can be aggressive towards a film like the best of them. I tear strips out of films like The Blind Side or The Ugly Truth. People suggest that I was overly harsh on Morning Glory, and perhaps I was. Earlier this week, I published a piece on What I Love The Most which was more of an unstructured rant than a reasoned and considered review. However, I like to consider these the exception to the rule – I will generally give the film a benefit of the doubt and I will try to appreciate it as best I can.

"Newsflash: Guy Who Runs Movie Blog Likes Films..."

However, I think that I am predisposed to love film. I go into a movie with a sense of optimist and anticipation. I genuinely want to be taken on a magical mystery tour, to see new places and new things, meet new people and play with new ideas. It doesn’t matter if the movie can’t succeed, I think I’ll always appreciate it for trying. I write this blog because I genuinely love film. And when I say I “love” film, I am of course talking about classics like The Godfather, but – you know what? – I’m also talking about trash like Demolition Man.

Perhaps part of it is some form of appreciation that a lot of people put a lot of work in getting a film to screen. From the set designer to the art director to obviously the actors and director and writer, a lot of people worked long and hard in making the final product. Even if it seemed that nobody cared, the odds are that somebody along the way invested something of themselves along the way, and they deserve a little bit of respect in examining their work. I’ll admit that this thought does occur to me from time to time, but I think my predisposition to like cinema comes from something deeper.

I adore a film which tries to make me think – one that challenges or provokes me. However, I also love one that can grab me in a visceral manner and give me a good, hard shake. I love smart dialogue and conversations, but I also like impossible stuntwork. I love insane and highly illogical reveals as much as I love deftly-handled slights of hand. I like films that don’t take me, as an audience member for granted. I’ll always appreciate a noble and ambitious failure like Watchmen more than a bland paint-by-numbers film like Avatar, even if the latter is infinitely smoother in execution.

I watched The Watchmen...

If this means I’m not a “critic”, then so be it. We live in an age of cold cynicism and smug superiority. It’s about being the one guy who doesn’t like the big blockbuster, or the person with the snidest putdown for that big budget flop. After all, there’s been a fairly frequent topic of conversation, one suggesting that we aren’t critical enough, that today’s critics have “softened” too much (especially Roger Ebert). It’s a culture which thrives so strongly on deconstruction that, in some cases, we’ve forgotten what a particular storytelling engine looks like when it’s actually assembled and working. I don’t know, I’m probably wrong – I accept that the best critics out there are able to make rational and logical explanations, but I feel like I try to do that too.

I don’t pretend to be neutral when I plant my bum in that cinema seat. I know I should be – I should throw everything out of my head except the film I’m watching, but I can’t. And, even if I could, I probably wouldn’t. I assume, if you’re reading a blog on film, that you love film too – that you feel that warmth and affection. I realise that it probably undermines me as a critic, but I’ll be entirely honest: I want to love the film I see. I want to suspend my disbelief. I want to belief whatever crazy premise you throw in front of me. I want to make that leap of faith.

I have an eye for film...

And I know that this has a knock-on impact. I’ll always qualify my answers, but when somebody asks me a bout a film, my gut response will be to discuss what I liked – at least in the majority of cases (obvious exceptions apply). Sure Unknown is a hokey, overly-talky, non-sensical action film that barely holds itself together, but it has a decent enough twist and moments of clever self-awareness thrown in.

So, I think I’ve made peace with my bias, and explained the somewhat high average score I gave films during the festival. I am, however, a relatively harsh marker as well – only one film managed to score a “4” (The Adjustment Bureau). But, I suppose, at least I have the self-awareness to concede my predisposition towards film. I hope you can forgive me.

So what do you guys think? Do we ever go into a film completely objective, or do we all start out wanting to love or wanting to hate a particular film?

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4 Responses

  1. I’m in the same boat as you Darren. I give a ridiculous high amount of B’s (which would correspond to your 3’s, more or less). I always looked to be entertained and have a good time at the movies, and certainly not the opposite. 😉

    • Yep. Why would we do it if we didn’t want to enjoy it? Hell, if I ever got paid for this, it’d be my dream job rather than a nine-to-five slog.

  2. Your film “optimism” approach is probably the main reason I read your blog. In many ways, your reviewing style reminds of Tarantino’s: you tend not to separate movies into the suck, ok, and awesome piles. You give balanced, thoughtful takes that fun to read.

    I think the number one reason I hate most critics is that their reviews tend to just summarize the film and only rationalize their own subjective taste. It’s the “I didn’t like it, therefore it’s bad” school of criticism that I hate.

    And Watchmen is awesome, just sayin’. 🙂

    • Thanks, Justin. I can love a film while admitting that it’s flawed, and I can hate a film while admiring it technically.

      And I think comparing me to Tarantino is definitely on the shortlist of most complementary things a person can say to me. There is a man who loves his film.

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