Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Judging a movie

I happen to be taking a film class this semester. Let me tell you, it is an education, and sometimes not always a good one. I want to pass on some things I’ve learned that I hope will help you increase your ability to judge films with righteous judgment.

One thing I’ve learned is that it is not enough to say, “_____ was a good film”, because the question “Why?” quickly arises. Too often we speak only in generalities. In order to evaluate (meaning to form an idea of the value of) a film, we must judge by certain specific criteria.

One criteria that people often use to judge a film is by whether it is realistic or not. They get really into looking at the props and whether they are accurately depicted for the time period the film is set in. They point out when the hero doesn’t reload his gun when he should. They wonder whether people would really act that way. War movies are especially judged by this criterion. Were the Nazis brutal enough? Was enough blood spattered in a realistic manner? It seems to me that there is some realism that is not worth seeing, because the desensitizing effect on our spirit would outweigh any educational benefit we might receive from seeing what it was really like.

Another criterion that is often used to judge a film is by morality. I very much like this criteria, of course, because my religion is so much a part of my life that I see the world through the lens of morality. The thing that very much disturbs me is that my film book seems to be ambivalent about moral criteria as an important criteria for judgment or for making an effective film. It merely acknowledges that some people think that obscenity, nudity, and violence is bad, whereas others think those elements are praiseworthy. It suggests that a film might be praised morally for its overall view of life as suggested by its form as a whole, even though its individual elements might be considered offensive. If we admit this to be the case, we find ourselves wondering where to draw the line—how much swearing, sexual content, violence, etc. can a movie have before it becomes bad? How much safer to avoid it! And then, of course, we find out that someone has made a film that has none of these things in it, but which deals with a terrible theme in such a way as to make it unfit for consumption.

One thing I always used to wonder about was why filmmakers would get so upset when other companies would edit the obscenity, nudity, sexual content, and violence from their films. It never seemed like that kind of stuff is necessary to the plot. In my film textbook, it says, “If form in cinema is the overall interrelation among various systems of elements, we can assume that every element has one or more functions. That is, every element will be seen as fulfilling roles within the whole system…One useful way to grasp the function of an element is to ask what other elements demand that it be present.” (1) So, somehow, the filmmakers make a story that is so constructed that those elements of obscenity, nudity, sexual content, and violence are in some twisted way important to the effect or progression of the plot.

Let’s take an example. Enchanted . PG, right? The scene that most disturbs me is when Robert walks in on Gizelle when she’s just getting out of the shower. (Guys do not just walk in to the bathroom when they know that a strange woman they took in from off the street is taking a shower!) Pigeons cover her up with a towel just in time, before there is nudity, but still the shock of what almost happened.. Oh, words fail me. And then somehow they end up stumbling around and she falls on top of him on the hallway floor, still in her towel, just as his girlfriend walks in. ARGH! Why did they have to put all of this in there?!

In my frustration with it, I thought about how it affects the events in the story. First, it sows the seeds of distrust in the girlfriend so that she begins to distance herself from Robert. (Robert and Gizelle are going to end up together somehow..) Also, it provides the groundwork for the totally cute musical number later in which Gizelle tells Robert how to patch things up with his girlfriend (and the musical number ironically becomes another bonding experience between Robert and Gizelle). We could take out that shower bit and then we’d have no premise to support some of the other events that happen afterwards.

When this kind of content is necessary to the plot, the plot itself has moral flaws. Could it be improved? I bet it could. The story would have to take a rough massaging, but it could be done.

Lets move on to some of the other criteria used to judge a film. These are criteria that the book says are artistic.

First there is coherence, which is also called unity. I like to think of this as an indication that the film has started in the right place in the story and ended when it should, and that it has a feeling of completeness, that the various elements reinforce each other and accumulate a meaning for the viewer.

Then there is the criterion of intensity of effect. This refers to whether a film is striking or emotionally engaging to the viewer. Many filmmakers are trying to get as strong an emotional response from us as possible, so when we say that we are not affected by a film, we are truly desensitized.

As Latter-day Saints, we spend as much as our lives as possible sensitizing ourselves to moral situations so that we can make good choices. The more sensitive we get, the more we will notice things in the films we watch. We may find that films we liked years ago become painful to watch now. That is okay; it just means we need a higher level of entertainment.

I have to make a comment about an aspect of intensity of effect. Latter-day Saint artists, in trying to create stories or films or paintings or whatever with emotional intensity have to constantly make choices about far they will go to achieve an effect. How far will you go to convey the idea of love? Filmmakers think that means steaming up the screen with sexual content, but if we put morality as our top priority, we know sexual content is off-limits. The intensity of effect must be achieved some other way—through the accumulation of many small and simple things.

Another criterion for evaluating film is that of complexity. A complex film is one that is interesting on different levels. It could be that the characters are complex mixtures of good and evil. It could be that the plot has unexpected twists and turns. It could be that the topics that are examined are difficult and puzzling. It could be that there are different storylines going on at once. It could be that focus is on a larger number of characters rather than on just a small number.

Here too in the issue of complexity there is potential for abuse. For instance, I really, really don’t like it when the hero or heroine becomes such a complex mix of good an evil that it seems impossible that they could ever pull off the heroic action. I am constantly annoyed by whiny heroes and whiny heroines who are fighting their heroic “call” up to the moment that they start doing their hero thing. In my mind, heroism requires strength of character that has to be built up over a period of time through smaller feats of heroism. I'd like to see those preparatory feats. I subscribe to the idea of the “prepared hero”. I also don’t like the idea of characters that do both very terrible and very good things. A bitter tree can not give good fruit and a good tree can not give bitter fruit.

When films examine topics that are difficult and puzzling, it seems like it is almost on a collision course with moral criteria, because difficult topics (like marital relations, aging, death, illness, gender issues, and so on) require sensitive treatment and a velvet touch, yet filmmakers are still going for that intensity of effect, trying to knock our socks off.

Another criterion is that of originality. There seems to be some kind of idea out there that it is original if films depict good things to be bad. I’ve already run up against the idea of making the villain the hero. Ones in which marriage is portrayed as inhibiting and divisive and religion is portrayed as evil and yada yada yada…. this is seen as original? The problem with doing this is that soon the good value of the thing demonized is forgotten and with proliferation of this point of view, the other point of view disappears and then bad marriages are viewed as the only ones worth portraying, oppressive and bigoted religion is the only religion that appears, snotty rude children are the only ones shown on film, and so on.

I think true originality lies in discovering something good that no one quite noticed before, saying the truth in a fresh way. And being original in a moral way is actually spiritually demanding and requires inspiration and the help of God for it to be genuine and not sentimental. This is why I feel that morality is an integral part of art and the creative process.

This has been a bit of a rant, but I really had to get it off my chest. Thanks for listening.

(1) Film Art: An Introduction, David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson, p65