Thursday, 15 January 2015

How do we decide if we like a film?

How do we decide if we like a film? It's both the easiest and the hardest question to answer. As you'll have probably guessed, I'm very interested in judgement/criticism/objectivity/subjectivity, I'm very interested in other people's views on things ... primarily in terms of how and why they differ from mine. I've gone to great (ultimately fruitless, probably) lengths to try to establish criteria for what and who is good/great/meaningful/universal/unique/overrated/underrated in the fields of popular music and sport. I think a great problem I've had in communicating anything worthwhile in both cases is the tension between my attempts to seem like I'm being fair and reasonable and open-minded and secretly - not that secretly - thinking I'm the world's great expert on both topics and that what I decree ought to be written into law.

So, I'm taking a detour and doing something I haven't previously done in the over 350 posts I've rattled out in the last 6 years about Pop Music and Sport (as well as one random post about TV). I'm writing about film. I'm writing about film, perhaps, as a means to understand more about Music and Sport, and about the experience of enjoying in general.

I think I'm on safer ground with film because, even in my own head, I don't really think I'm an expert on it and I think I do have a pretty fair and open-minded approach to it. I have no inside knowledge whatsoever - I've never held a video camera, acted on screen (I've barely ever acted at all), written a screenplay, cut or edited, tried to get a budget together ... everything any one person does which contributes to the making of any film is worthy of respect and wonder in my eyes. That ought to be the case with pop music and sport, sure, but, somehow, with the fact I've studied music a tiny bit, the fact I've written in verse a little, maybe the fact that what constitutes pop music can be comparatively transparent, likewise the fact that I've played a few sports and, hell, the fact I really do know far too much about sport (see, I can't keep that instinct at bay), I can pontificate and judge and look down on the people within those fields to my heart's content.

Films are all about the experience and, in most cases, you only get one shot at that experience. You might not appreciate an album the first time you hear it, maybe the second or third time, but if you've spent money on it or have any emotional investment in it, you might give it a few more shots and pick up all the nuances later. Most films, we only watch once, and film makers know that - the films have to work, at once, for what they are. The primary criterion for any one person judging any one film is simply "Did I enjoy that?". Of course, there are lots of different ways to enjoy a film, and that's the fun of it.

I don't call myself a film buff. I know there are loads and loads of people you've watched way more films than me, who love films more than me, who know the arts and crafts of films inside out. I am only a film watcher. That's it. That's helpful for this post.

There are a few genres I don't really watch, sure. I don't watch animations any more (I can't explain why, and it's not because I don't know they're great) or very rarely children's films in general, I rarely watch horror. Apart from that, most things are fair game. Silly comedies, action flicks, romcoms, musicals, epic sagas, sci-fi, I'll give most of them a go, and if I like them, then I like them and that's that. Sure, I mainly watch well-reviewed films and well-reviewed films are usually dramas/indies, because that's the way the world is but, if I enjoy the film, if it does its job with me, I can recognise that and praise it accordingly.

Just to give you an idea, while most films I've ever seen (like most people who aren't film critics) I've only seen once, the films I've seen many multiple times (sometimes more through accident than design) include ...

-Die Hard
-The Big Lebowski
-Mary Poppins
-The Deer Hunter
-Role Models
-Pretty Woman
-Dirty Dancing
-Dead Poet's Society
-Mean Streets
-Star Wars

So, I'm, at heart, pretty basic with films. I can be poncey if needs be and it does me good to be poncey, I understand that films can go a long way towards being pure art or a long way towards being pure commerce and I'm happy with various things on that scale at various times.

Lots of  my friends are on a similar filmic level to me. Without being world experts, they love films, they've seen lots of films, we talk about films. And we disagree. Really a lot. That's the thing. Likemindedness with films exists a lot less between likeminded people than with other things. A film I love can be panned by one or more friends for reasons I hadn't considered. There's very little reliability in second-guessing people's views on films. That comes, I think, from the fact we only see them once. Outside factors can have a big impact. Some aspect of the film can assume huge prominence where to someone else it's barely noticed.

And, of course, different people like different things. The people that watched Transformers 4 and made it the highest grossing movie of 2014 must have found some aspect of what they were looking for in it. I don't, at least not to start with, want to talk about all the different elements of a film that different individuals might like, I want to think about the universals (which then have innumerable variations).

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think the universals are ...

- not being bored
- not finding the acting really bad
- not finding the script really bad
- not finding the film far too short or far too long
- not finding the film a physically unpleasing experience
- finding the film "tight"
- not spotting too many glaring errors
- the film not putting forward a worldview you wildly and violently disagree with ... [I think this is more of a 95% than a universal. Film critics often talk about admiring the artistry in DW Griffiths' racist Birth of a Nation, but generally, I think there's something in finding a film's views (if it has views, really most films don't necessarily have views) disgusting and appalling that will mean we won't like it

So those are, as far as I can see, the fundamentals, it's just that what each one means varies enormously for different people.

So, inevitably, I have to think of my own experiences, and the particular criticisms I hear from friends which turn them off or onto films. A few friends are "insiders", having been on one or both side of the camera, and, inevitably, their issues can be more specific, though often they're just extensions of what us laypeople think and feel. Still, a cinematographer is more likely to have a film ruined for them by shamelessly derivative cinematography than I am. I'm not 100% sure what cinematography is.

These are things I often hear and often think (in a negative way) ... it'll be quite a long list ...

  • I don't care
  • The lead characters are unsympathetic
  • It drags in the middle
  • There's no tension
  • It was let down by its ending
  • It took ages to get going
  • It doesn't stand up on its own as a film
  • There are glaring factual errors
  • It claimed to be to do with the truth but played fast and loose with the truth
  • There are glaring errors of continuity
  • I don't believe in the motivations
  • It wasn't that funny
  • It was gratuitous and manipulative
  • There was no light and shade
  • I could tell what people were going to say in advance
  • It was ridden with cliches
  • It took itself far too seriously
  • I couldn't understand what was going on
  • It didn't challenge me
  • There was just nothing special about it
  • The lead actor's poor attempt at an English/American/Australian/Irish/African accent ruined the whole thing for me
  • There was a lot of shameless stunt casting
  • It was offensive
  • There was far too much exposition
  • There were lots of scenes that didn't need to be there
  • It was completely obvious what was going to happen
  • Like this list, it was let down by its ending

(and in a positive way ... the positives are always less fluently expressed, I find)

  • It was well-acted
  • It was moving
  • It was very funny
  • It was exciting
  • It was honest
  • It was true
  • The story was fantastic
  • It created a mood and maintained it
  • It created a world and made you believe in it
  • It was important
  • It was profound
  • It was like nothing I'd seen before
  • I didn't breathe
  • I didn't think of the time
  • It was a work of art
  • It didn't treat me like an idiot
  • It surprised me
  • It gave me what I wanted
  • It made me feel better

Then there are external factors which affect our enjoyment of a film and we'd be lying to ourselves if we didn't recognise them

- whether someone's head is slightly in the way
- whether people are being noisy
- what kind of mood we're in
- whether you're drunk etc.
- whether we spend a lot of the film needing the loo
- whether there is some kind of problem with the projection
- whether the volume is too loud or even too quiet
- whether people in the cinema are clearly hating it or rapt
- whether you hear someone slagging it off as soon as it's finished
- whether the person you went with liked it or not

And context

-what our expectations are
-what the reviews we've read say
-whether we're comparing it to a previous incarnation eg previous film, play or book
-what we think of the actors starring
-what we think of the director
-whether it's in a genre we generally favour
-the very scale of the film (if a film is aiming to be massive and important and gets there 80% (maybe '12 Years a Slave', how does that compare to a tight simple little film (e.g. '71)

I've undoubtedly missed loads (countless) out but I think people are deceiving themselves if they don't think all these things, even the most trivial) might matter to the eventual two-sentence moderately pretentious summation we might well give of the film at some point.

I've been watching a fair few films at the cinema lately and mainly enjoyed them. Some have served as interesting test cases. I saw the last Hobbit film - out of a sense of completion and duty to the franchise - but the 6th film in a blockbuster franchise for children is a long way from what I'd usually go for. I knew I wouldn't think it was great, but I wanted to enjoy it, I just kept on being jarred.
And for me, I think it's the "jarring" which is so important. How many "jars" do we allow? I was jarred a few times in 'The Theory of Everything', by a few scenes of exposition, its obviousness, its occasional playing on the emotions, its pretty obvious playing with facts, but, you know what, I was moved, the performances were so good and the performances were the film, the strange course of the life at its centre made it by definition unusual, I forgave the jarring. There were only about 5 jars, mind, if there'd been 8, who knows?
Likewise, Interstellar, just too many jars, too many moments where I just felt "I'm not having this". Maybe if i'd been in a different mood, i'd have forgiven the jars and admired the artistry...

It's an impossible question. Impossible, of course. Endless. As it should be. I don't want to reduce my watching of a film to a checklist. This year I thought both Under the Skin and Edge of Tomorrow were great . Both were about voracious aliens. That's where the similarities end. But they were both just fine with me ...