Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Theory of Film Criticism (aka “I Like Good Movies”)

I was having a conversation with my good friend Rick O. about movies.

I know that this may come as a shock to many of you but I talk about movies a lot. In fact, I would say that in terms of frequency, movies are the topic of most of my life conversations. With my friends we love to trade our insights and reminisce about our film-watching experiences. In my family, the one the that we could always talk about no matter how far apart we became was the movies.

Rick O. noticed that I was considering choosing The Avengers as best movie of the year over The Dark Knight Rises (so far). But he was confused because he said that The Avengers, while fun, was not nearly as deep as the final Batman movie. I agreed, but I did not think that this was necessarily a slam dunk.

So Rick O. said that he wanted me to lay out my criteria for judging films. By what standard do I judge the quality of a movie? Since I am writing film review after film review, that is an important question. What is my frame of reference? What are the important elements that make a movie great or awful?

First of all, it should be remembered the nature of our subject: art.

Movies are first and foremost an art form. Because of that, there is always a subjective element to them. Imagine Michelangelo’s sculpture of the David with several people ringed around it. Depending on where you are standing, you may come away with a different impression. If you are raised to eye level of the statue, you may be struck by the look of fear in David's eyes. If you are standing in to the side from the floor, you may not how majestic and large the statue is. If you are directly behind you may be thinking, “Why am I staring at a giant naked butt?”

Movies are very much about perspective. You bring your own mental and emotional state to the subject and it will affect how you experience it. I remember the line from a Jewel song “Saw a movie, it just wasn't the same 'cause it was happy or I was sad.” We take those things with us into the movie theater. I remember the first time I watched This is Spinal Tap, I found it boring. But then I watched with a group of people and we were all doubled over with laughs. I've often found that comedies are actually funnier if more people are laughing together.

I also think of the great movie critic John Nolte, whose criteria for a good movie is: “It casts a spell on me and never breaks it.” It is hard to argue with such poetic logic. But the problem is that this standard leads him to say that both Apocalypse Now and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo are great movies. But they both are not.

If movie criticism is all subjective then that last sentence makes no sense. But while all art is subjective, art is not ALL subjective.

I believe that there is also an objective element to art. The main subject of art is beauty. I believe that Beauty Itself is a real thing. Keats was on to something when he said “Truth is beauty, beauty is truth. That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need know.” Movies are better or worse depending on how much of a window they give us into the True and the Beautiful.

So how do we know if it closer or further away from the True and the Beautiful?

If you've noticed, I have a tendency to rely heavily on the great minds of history like Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, CS Lewis, etc. And in this case I have fallen to the irreplaceable Aristotle.

They said that if anything could be known in his day, Aristotle knew it. He wrote not only on philosophy, but on physics, biology, ethics, politics, botany, and (most important for this essay) dramatics.

What I find especially appealing about Aristotle is that he had great respect for human nature and human experience. He valued basic intuition, or what we would normally call “common sense.”

How many times have we seen a movie, thought it was great, but then struggled to explain why? We've all been there. We know that it affected us and moved us, but we may not be sure how it did so. Aristotle understood that experience and he simply put into logical organized terms what we think and feel when we see great pieces of art.

When it came to dramatics, Aristotle that any good play had to have 6 elements: plot, character, diction, rhythm, spectacle, and theme. I apply those same elements to modern movies.

This is, simply, what happens in the film. And simplicity in this case in not always a bad thing. A good plot is one that can be followed by the audience. It has to be a story. I remember when I was a kid I was a huge fan of the Monkees. So I was excited when I found out their movie, Head, was going to be on TV I sat down and watched and it made me feel literally ill. I didn't understand at the time that what I was watching was an experimental film, one that wasn't interested in telling a story. Because of that I tried until a vein popped in my forehead to figure out what was going on. Nothing made sense! It was like being in a kind of hell.

Most movies we watch are narrative, meaning that they are designed to tell a story. Everything needs to be in service to the story. But if I can't make heads or tails of what is happening, I will become incredibly frustrated and want to punch someone.

Batman and Robin is the worst film I have ever seen in the theater. One of the many reasons why is that nothing in the plot makes sense. Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy work together. Why? It doesn't matter. One wants to freeze the world the other to turn it into a jungle. Wait, aren't those opposite? Never mind

A bad plot will shout at you from the screen.

Let us not forget the Richard Grieco classic: If Looks Could Kill. It sounds like a fun idea, where a high schooler gets mistaken for a spy. But the events make no sense. His French teacher is mistaken for a secret agent whose code name is “the French teacher.” Towards the end of the movie Greico desperatly says to her, “You ARE the French teacher.” At this she immediately takes a gun and fights the bad guys. Nothing about this made sense.

Even a good idea can be killed in poor plotting. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace actually has a fascinating idea behind it. What if Superman wanted to force the world into giving up its weapons? That would be a deep, complex meditation on human freedom and super powers. Instead, all of the countries of the world simply say, “Okay, we'll let you neuter us!” The plot makes no sense (and don't get me started on the solar powered super villain).

A good plot will hook you. As I said, it doesn't have to be complex, although the human mind loves complexity. Whether it is simple or complex, a good plot should always leave us wanting to find out what happens next. You can tell that your story is stale when it doesn't matter to you one way or another where the next scene progresses.

Let's take a look at 2 different Tarantino movies: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The first has a straightforward plot: a jewelry heist goes wrong in a bloody way and the thieves try to find out who is the rat. But as the story progresses, it draws you deeper into the intrigue and pushes you forward to the edge of your seat to see what happens next.

Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, is harder to nail down, since there are multiple storylines. But that isn't the real problem of the movie. The problem is that the plots are terrible. The last story was particularly grating because it involved bad people doing bad things with no real character development played out in long, slow scenes. I know I may be in the minority here, but Pulp Fiction commits the cardinal sin of movie plots: it's boring.


My boss once told me that people don't donate money to charities. They give money to people.

In the same way, you don't simply invest your interest in a plot. You invest it in characters. A good character is relatable. I can see the world through their eyes and sympathize with them.

Or if they are not relatable, they have to be fascinating. Hopefully we don't see the world the way Hannibal Lecter does, but he is charming, brilliant, and terrifying. All of these things draw us to the character.

Good characters are not flat. Watching a good character in a movie should be less like reading a person's wikipedia page and more like meeting them at a party. You should feel as though you get a sense of who they are as a person even if you don't know all of the nitt-gritti details about their lives.

By feeling like we are meeting them and getting to know them (as opposed to knowing ABOUT them), we care about their character arc. And the journey of the character should be the essence of the plot. As quoted in the movie Shadowlands, “Plot is character.”

If you don't want to watch the characters, you will not care about the rest of the plot. A movie like Reality Bites fails mainly because the characters are so shallow and self-absorbed that you cannot connect to them. But even a movie like Wag the Dog, which has no redeemable characters, makes the people in it charming, smart, and fascinating. And even though they have a bad goal, you almost root for them (and then the movie wisely reminds you that they are bad people).

(there are of course exceptions to this, as in parody movies like Airplane and The Naked Gun. But even then, there is a clear plot through-line and the characters, while not deep, take the story that they are in seriously)


Dialogue is a means to plot and character. It should reveal something about the speaker by what they say, choice of words, etc. But it should also move the story forward. You only have a limited time in a movie to get across a lot of information.

But while this occurs, a movie should avoid exposition (explanation of what is happening) when possible. Sometimes you can't avoid it. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring needed a scene like the Council of Elrond to set up the rest of the film.

Also, each character should have a distinctive voice. You shouldn't be able to give Luke Skywalker lines that belong to Han Solo and have it feel natural to the character. The dialogue should be believable, even if it isn't natural. Yoda has a very distinctive syntax that is very unnatural to modern ears, but we buy into the idea that this ancient Jedi would speak in such a strange way.

But one of the great things we can find in good dialogue is subtext, where ideas are conveyed without being explicit. This moves the story from an external event to an internal experience. As Captain America prepares to crash the his plane into the ice, he talks to Peggy about a date that they will never have. The speak of dinner and dancing as he careens to his death. That dialogue has great subtext, because we can feel what they are doing. They are holding on to a happy thought before he dies, even if it is a lie. Subtext forces you to “get into the head” of the characters.

But the most important thing about dialogue is knowing when not to use it. There is an old adage in film is “Show. Don’t tell.” You reveal plot and character through action more than dialogue. Willy Wonka has some great lines. But Gene Wilder made sure that the first time you see him that he looks crippled but then does a somersault Why? Because Wilder said that from that moment on, you would never know if he was lying or telling the truth.


There are two aspects to this that I would like to focus on: Music and Editing.

A good movie score is invisible, but unnoticed it creates in the audience the intended emotional response. A great movie score, like a bad movie score, causes you to pay attention to it.

On editing, there is an intuitive sense of timing that we feel when watching movies. One of the biggest mistakes most amateur film makers commit is leaving everything the shot in the scene. There is a reason that most director's cuts are not as good as the theatrical cuts. Often, less is more. Trimming the fat is essential for an effective, lean story. And inside of each individual scene , the rhythm of the moment will effect the tone and emotional goal of the director.


Films are primarily visual. George Lucas once said that ideally, you should be able to watch a movie with the sound off and still be able to follow the story. I think he is spot on. Even if you have great dialogue, films are not stage plays. You need to make them visually interesting.

Some people complain that movies are too much about spectacle. Particularly they rail against the overuse of CGI. I am not one of those people. I understand the spectacle without substance is empty. But you need a visual “wow” factor to your movie.

This can sometimes be through special effects, but that is not really the point. The director needs to use all of the visual techniques at his disposal to hold my attention visually. The movements, angles, colors, etc don't have to be showy. The movie 12 Angry Men takes place almost entirely in one room and yet I couldn't take my eyes off of it.

Acting is also key here. This is also a part of the Character element, but the performance also should add to the total experience. There are some actors like Brando who didn't care if the audience understood him as long as he felt like he found the character. That's awful. The actor must always remember the audience. He or she is in service to the audience. They have to, as Hamlet said, “hold as 'twer mirror up to nature.” A bad performance is repellant I could not stop focusing my anger on Ryan Philipe in Cruel Intentions. A great performance is riveting I feel like I'm hypnotized whenever I watch Jimmy Stewart's desperate descent and ascension to joy in It's a Wonderful Life.

This should give the story depth and consistency. This is what the story is “about.” This is not to be confused with the plot, which is what happens. Theme is what it “means.” The Godfather movies follow the rise of Michael Corleone to power and the results of that. But that is just what happens. The movie is about how the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

This is the transcendent element of the story.

Art is about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. The theme tries to break bring together all of the other above elements and make the movie more than the sum of these parts.

A good theme will give you insight into life. There are many movies about the horror of the Holocaust. But Schindler's List is a movie that touches the deep and abiding question: how much is one life worth? Oscar Schindler learns this and we also learn that in the world is often horrible and heroism has a painful cost.

I would say that theme is the difference between a good movie and a great movie. It is also the difference between a great movie and a classic. A great movie should have something about it that is timeless. As with any piece of art, it will be a product of its age. But if they can find the right theme and express it well, it will speak to all generations hence. Star Wars is still relevant because heroism is the same from age to age. The same is true for movies like Casablanca and Braveheart. This is what Rick O. was getting at when he pointed out that since The Dark Knight Rises touched on higher truths and deeper insights than The Avengers, it is a better film. I think that this is why most Best Picture nominees are dramas rather than comedies. I'm not sure that this is fair, but I will write on this at another time.

But while theme is essential, it cannot be delivered effectively if the other elements are out of balance. I think this is why a lot of “message movies,” particularly Christian films, fail artistically. They often have wonderfully uplifting themes, but they lack to the other elements to deliver the theme to our minds and hearts in an effective way.

So a movies quality depends upon an interesting plot, a connection to characters, judicious dialogue, flowing music/editing, an impressive spectacle, and a transcendent theme.
(when I talk about what I believe is the greatest movie ever made, I will demonstrate how all 6 of these elements work in divine harmony)

This leads me to the role of the critic. When I criticize a movie, I am not trying to tell you what is good and what is bad per se. You already know that. Aristotle believed that all people intuitively understood the above elements, even if they could not lay them out formally.

My job is to point out what is good and bad in a movie. Your time and your money are limited and precious resources. If a movie is bad, I want to spare you the experience of it. I respect you enough to not waste yourself on a movie if I did not think that it would be worth it.

But my job might also be to change your perspective. If I see that you hate the statue of the David because it you are staring into the marble buttocks, then I should try to get you to see him from a different vantage point so you can appreciate the rest of what Michelangelo intended. A critic can provide that same service by giving an insight that can change a person's perspective of a movie.

I remember I was not impressed with the directing for the Oscar winning film The King's Speech. Director Tom Hooper broke a lot of conventions and filled the screen up with a lot of empty space. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who works in the film industry. She pointed out that this was Hooper's way of showing how the character feels swallowed up by his surroundings. Now you might say that if I needed someone to explain that to me, then the director did a bad job of conveying this. Nevertheless, from the point on I began enjoying the movie much more, not because someone told me that I should but because they gave me a key that unlocked a new perspective.

I am also reminded of the words of Anton Ego, the critic from the movie Ratatouille, which I quoted in my very first film review: In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends... Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*.”

I have seen nearly 2200 movies. Many of them have been awful. But there are so many many that are good and funny and sad and scary and whimsical and profound. Many of them have given me a good deal of inspiration, a great deal of joy and, dare I say, a little bit of wisdom.

I talk about movies because I want to share that inspiration, joy, and wisdom.

ET pointed at Eliot's heart and said “I'll be right here.” And that is exactly what a great movie says to us.

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