Seen any good movies lately?
I always hate getting that question. Not because there are no good films out there, but because I rarely want to give the answer expected of me. As a film scholar I imagine people expect me to recommend something on all the top ten lists, something challenging, something only playing on one screen in town, something with subtitles. Godard not Guardians of the Galaxy. Leviathan not How to Train Your Dragon. Winter Sleep not The Winter Soldier.
There are longstanding hierarchies of taste, implicit judgements on which types of works are worthy of our time and energy, and it is these judgements that guide the process of exclusion and inclusion into the canons of quality cinema and that sit at the back of my mind whenever I’m asked that question.
Sometimes these valuations are based on a reified notion of excellence that we all seem to recognize even if it can’t entirely be defined. The buzz-word in journalistic criticism for this type of quality tends to be “serious,” a term which carries the twin virtues of artistic excellence – a well-crafted example of its genre or type, or one that pushes the boundaries of those categories – and an ability to generate reflection. Something that “makes you think” about whatever subject matter is on display, that has something to say about the “human condition,” is often given more critical value than a work which may very well be an excellent example of its kind, but that seems bent on entertainment not edification.
I’m just as guilty as anyone of this sort of evaluation. When a cousin learned I was writing about fantasy for my Master’s program and asked me for recommendations for films in the genre, my automatic reaction was to suggest its more “serious” side. I singled out Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, since the film’s dedication to exploring a real-world historical trauma – the Spanish Civil War and the first years of the Francoist regime – could be offered as something of an apology for a type of film that has typically been dismissed as only fitting for children or the childish. (It’s also a brilliant film overall, of course, but that’s beside the point). As an “avowedly non-realist” genre, fantasy is often viewed, as Steve Neale argues, as “frivolously escapist…and thus as suitable only for children, or for ‘mindless,’ ‘irresponsible,’ adults.” Adults that watch and enjoy fantasy therefore often have to disavow that enjoyment by acknowledging that such films “are not really for them, but for children, teenagers, others less responsible (less ‘adult’) than they are themselves.” To maintain that they don’t take the genre seriously can be offered as an apology for its presumed lack of seriousness.
The idea that certain types of works are meant solely for certain types of people is often what leads us to dismiss them, the logic being that one shouldn’t like something if it is not meant for them. An adult should not like a film directed at children. It may be the best example of a children’s film ever made, but in being made for children it should be below the presumed sophistication of adult tastes.
That any film is meant for a single group of people – whether defined by gender, age, or ethnicity – is a difficult claim to maintain, since Hollywood’s economic imperative to sell as many tickets as possible typically leads to films that offer a series of pleasures to appeal to different audience members with different tastes. Reviewers often praise children’s films for offering something that will entertain the inevitably accompanying adults, or, conversely, warn those adults that they are about to suffer an hour and a half of utter boredom. Paddington may be “the kind of family film that shows everyone a good time, regardless of age,” but “while kids might respond to the fast-paced airborne antics” in Planes, “the humor isn’t clever enough or the story surprising enough to satisfy accompanying grown-ups.”
The difficulty I have with these judgements isn’t only that they disregard such attempts to appeal to multiple audiences or that they establish very limited definitions of quality, but also that they value certain responses to cinema over others.
Films that make us think or question by giving us a new way of looking at the world or by challenging a perceived norm become implicitly more worthwhile. A critic may consider Guardians of the Galaxy to be the best blockbuster science-fiction adventure film of the year, but it is, after all, just another Marvel movie designed to entertain the masses and make as much money from those masses as possible.
But there are other responses to film that are of value beyond those that could be labelled serious. Most people are fans of their favourite films or TV shows because they touch them in some way, they generate a response, and that response can be anything, from laughter, to inspiration, to disgust, to wonder. To suggest that these reaction are of less value than others not only misunderstands the role film plays in most people’s lives, but also puts us in the impossibly contradictory position of liking something while also feeling we probably shouldn’t. If we admit to these films or TV shows we often feel the need to apologise for them, to acknowledge their unsuitability even if we also must admit that we like them all the same. We call them guilty pleasures, as if to ensure that everyone is aware that we know we’re spending our time on something that shouldn’t deserve it.
I never label a film or show I like as a guilty pleasure, because I don’t think that kind of pleasure should be tainted by guilt. Some pleasures are justified in generating a modicum of embarrassment. I would blush to admit to eating a whole tray of brownies, or watching cat videos when I’m supposed to be working. But no colour rises to my cheeks when it comes to my love for kids’ movies, and black and white science fiction TV shows, and any of the other wonderfully affecting things that force me to surrender all thoughts of what counts as “quality” as they storm their way through good taste and academic detachment to hit that part of me that hums in response to a movie that is something beyond good.
I used to justify some of my favourites by making claims to their hidden qualities, assuring all who would listen that what might look like a piece of schlock at first glance really has all those features a serious film is meant to have. While I quickly came to recognize the “here we go again” expression on my friends’ faces when I launched into one of these soapbox-worthy defences, I remained undeterred. Whether it was because I felt I needed to insist on the quality of the film in question or on the quality of my own judgement, I’m not sure.
I have increasingly realized, however, that those types of justifications are beside the point, that they play into the reification of a very specific notion of quality that deems some films more worthy of attention than others. So I stopped apologizing. If someone asks me what my favourite films are I answer truthfully without thinking if the response is somehow fitting my age, intelligence, or the image of what a film scholar is meant to be. If they ask me why I like these films, I may go on long passionate rants detailing their qualities that resemble my previous rants trying to redeem my choices, but only to explain, not to justify.
By the way, in case you were wondering, the best film I saw this year was How to Train Your Dragon 2. Not just because it is an indescribably beautiful film that has something profound to say about serious themes like friendship, grief, and the struggle to become who we are. Or because every aspect of it, from the voice acting, to the character design, to the score, is expertly crafted. And not because it is all those things in spite of also being a big-budget, 3D, animated, children’s fantasy film. But because it is all those things and it got under my skin and stayed there. There is an endless list of films that I recognize are good according to the canons of good taste but that do nothing for me. I may admire the skill with which they were made and admire their makers, but that’s as far as it goes. The power of films like Dragon to get past my supposed academic detachment and lodge themselves in my mind and heart outstrips that kind of admiration and reaches something more akin to bewilderment. And it is that feeling of joyous bafflement that originally spurred my desire to understand the medium by becoming a film scholar.
So, yes I’ve seen some good movies lately. But what do you mean by good?
I am indebted to Geoff Pevere for expressing some of these sentiments first.