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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What Makes a Movie Good?


I had the most interesting discussion with a dear friend recently, about what constitutes a "good" movie. I don't mean in the normal sense that it was good versus bad in all of the usual areas like acting, directing, story and style. My friend had a great take on it: if she enjoyed it - it was good. Well, that makes perfect sense and I bet you're wondering where I could possibly go with that.

Where I'm going is that I disagreed - I have seen "good" movies that I didn't particularly enjoy watching. I know, seems counter-intuitive. And controversial, this discussion - because we all know there are movies we are supposed to like, that are good for us in that they have film studies significance, or cultural relevance but that to be totally honest, didn't make us forget about ourselves and get on the ride in the way that some movies do. I would put, most recently, PERSEPOLIS under that category for me. I really appreciated it - the animation was great, the story was told with an interesting point of view, and one that I had never been exposed to before, but I didn't go nuts over the entertainment value for me, personally. But it was a good movie - I appreciated it. BREATHLESS is another, more random example - great performances, a place and a time and all that. I appreciate the French New Wave filmmakers but am more entertained by watching RAT RACE, frankly. But JULES ET JIM, THE 400 BLOWS - good films. Just not super entertaining to me.

Movies are populist entertainment, but they can also be an art form. I hold that one can appreciate the art in and of itself, and categorize said movie as "good" without meaning, necessarily that the entertainment value is the true measure of being "good". I would also put DR. STRANGELOVE under this category. A good film but not one that I was particularly entertained by. Watching "good" movies (using good as a substitute for "appreciated") is more work than watching a straight up, entertaining ride. But - should we have to work to appreciate a movie? Isn't the point that we should be transported and entertained, with universal theme and plot? Are we supposed to notice the thematic and schematic lighting, shot placement and background cues? Or should that all be subconscious?

Who is a better filmmaker - Spielberg or Truffaut? Spielberg or Malick?

I just had a friend over last night - a director - who holds that THE THIN RED LINE is a far superior movie than SAVING PRIVATE RYAN because Ryan was ginormously plot driven while TTRL was more internal and cinematic.

So what goes on here - is it the Emperor's New Clothes? Do people say they loved x, y or z art house or foreign film because we are supposed to love it when in fact, it just wasn't all that entertaining?

What is the measure of a "good" movie to you? Is it pretentious to appreciate a movie while not particularly being entertained by it? Are there movies that receive accolades by dint of nobody wanting to dissent with the commonly held view of the movie?

My friend summed it up perfectly. We saw DR. STRANGELOVE together and when it was over she said, well, at least we saw it. For me that means - it's a movie one should see, because we work in the movie business and now we have it under our belt. But did we enjoy it? Was it a good film?

I hold that yes, it was a good film. My friend differed by noting, provocatively and interestingly that all the angles, lighting and cutting edge satire in the world don't really add up if the movie is not genuinely entertaining.

So what do you think, Wavers? What is a good film comprised of? Is there a difference between a "film" and a "movie"? I know that's just hair-splitting semantics but I think it is ultimately the distinction I am talking about here; film embodying the art form and movie embodying the entertainment value.

Should that distinction exist? Personal side note: I hate it when people call movies "pictures" as if assuming some kind of movie mogul persona of the 40s.

Everybody who reads the Rouge Wave knows that I feel strongly that if you want to work in entertainment you should see every movie listed here and many, many more because whether you enjoy the movie or not, you should be able to contextualize the trajectory of the medium. For every "good" (by my definition: cutting edge, technically interesting, topically provocative, great performances, cinematography and direction) French New Wave, art house, foreign and classic film there were 100 bad ones. That much is obvious to me. Just because a movie is of a certain era does not automatically mean it's good. But the stand-out examples are, in my view "good" whether I was personally captivated by them or not. But that's just it - argues my friend - who says these movies are good? The majority? Is the 400 BLOWS good because no one dare argue otherwise? Was Kubrick such a genius - really?

What do you think, Wavers?



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20 comments:

The Thinker said...

Clearly, Saving Private Ryan was a more traditional movie--almost typical in the big John Wayne war movie sense, while The Thin Red Line was a different, more philosophical--telling a different, internal story, a slowed down vision (as opposed to SPR), saying that even in war there are moments of beauty and terror to be observed, which is much more like what war is for the soldier, something akin to Tim O'Brien's classic short story, The Things They Carried.

Malick is a cinematic genius--and The Thin Red Line was a beautiful film. Once you get past the first 20 odd minutes of Saving Private Ryan it's just another traditional war film. Which is better? Neither is superior to the other, taken as "art" though, you'd have to vote for The Thin Red Line.

R.A. Porter said...

I'm still trying to get over this befuddlement...

You didn't think Dr. Strangelove was funny. My head's spinning and I suspect, though I'm not sure, that someone slipped some fluoride into my whiskey.

Beyond that...I can completely agree with your point that there are good films that are not entertaining, at least to me. And I also draw a distinction between films and movies. The former are like paintings intended to create a mood or feeling. The latter are more concerned with being good vessels to transmit story.

That's how I see them, at least.

chaia said...

My very favorite movie in the world is the extremely horrible in all respects BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, so do with that what you will.

Julie Gray said...

I thought that Dr. Strangelove had some very funny moments, those which included Peter Sellers, as I am a fan. But overall, I found it mildly funny but in a very sad way....ohhh the humanity.

PJ McIlvaine said...

There are movies we can appreciate on an intellectual level, and others reasonate more emotionally. For example, my husband goes rabid every time he sees 2001: A Space Odyssey. Me, it's a yawnfest.

R.A. Porter said...

@chaia, sucking up to Roger Ebert isn't going to get you thumbs up, you know. :)

JPS said...

This may be a case of generationalism (is that a word? It is now). When "Strangelove" came out (and I saw it a few days after it opened), it spoke to us in that particular historical moment. We "got" the jokes and references, and it had real resonance for us.

Likewise with the "nouvelle vague" films. They all came out at a time when cinema, like politics, was getting a little stale and crusty (think McCain), and "Breathless" and "The 400 Blows", among others, really made us see cinema in a whole new wa

ImpureAscetic said...

Movies like Breathless are intended to be honest searches into the verge of aesthetic consciousness, places difficult for many intelligent minds to reach, to say nothing of the average movie-goer. Bertoldt Brecht, arguably the father of French New Wave, despite being very not French, inasmuch as he came first, felt that ONLY by alienating the audience and derailing them from a traditional, i.e. emotionally captivating, experience could they absorb the message and ideas of a piece. Granted, he's at a far end of the spectrum, since it's rare for even the most avant-garde artist today to say he doesn't want the audience to have any emotional response whatsoever.

Anyone who has stared deeply into his or her navel and juggled Deep Thoughts About Art probably has strong feelings about the inability of original ideas or innovative concepts to break through the market. But with most art, with movies in particular, that inability finally comes down to the decisions made by consumers at the box office. Most people-- most of the people I know and love, if not other writers and artists-- seek entertainment from their movies. Not even catharsis. Entertainment. There is nothing wrong or right about, Vanilla Sky, but Cameron Crowe decided the best way he could say what he had to say was by jarring the audience. I think the need to entertain is often viewed as a crutch by filmmakers and writers, especially young writers with a healthy view on What Exactly is Wrong, who have fallen in love with nihilism as an explanation for the wrongs of the world. But our grandparents and our best friends's siblings, i.e. the other people in the world, don't seem to want that experience. They want to be entertained. It doesn't mean they can't or don't appreciate the ideas of a Vanilla Sky or Dr. Strangelove, just that they don't want to pay $10 to have their souls excoriated. They worked hard for their money, and that's their right.

It is probably unfortunate that modern Western culture (by and large) won't come along for the ride when an artist tries something daring and different. We-- all of us-- come to movies/TV/plays/novels with an expectation of how things are going to unravel, and although we demand to be surprised by certain elements, we refuse to free our minds from the structures through which we have come to understand art. Then again, maybe it's not a refusal to surrender. Perhaps it's simply not how we are wired. In Story, Robert McKee makes an excellent case for the primal reasons behind the arch-story, and Aristotle was talking about three act structure and audience catharsis a long time before you or I paid for our first ticket.

So we know that is a powerful model: A protagonist (or group of them) encounters problem and either solves it or fails based on circumstances or beliefs!

Not only is it powerful, but it can be beautiful, beautiful like the mountains set against a flaming sunset or your firstborn child or the eyes of God. While a handful of viewers inhaled off-center productions in the natal stages of their artistic development, the vast majority of artists and non-creatives alike were weened not on Trauffaut but on six million incarnations of the same plot. Sometimes there were light sabers, sometimes ruby slippers.

To assign a value like "good" or "bad" to a movie is, for this reason, a conundrum. Finally, you can only account for your own tastes. Your tastes seem to occasionally overlap the mainstream, but there are enough Argentos and Trauffauts that they are certainly your own. Why is there no niche market for you and people like you? Because your ideas won't compel people to pay to see movies on 4,000 screens. Those ideas don't pay for $200 million budgets, which is another way of saying your ideas don't cross the sweet spot of the spectucular and the realistic in a way that forces someone to spend that much. Audiences WILL pay for those expensive, blandly entertaining movies. That is what they desire, apparently. "They," says the guy who saw Iron Man and I am Legend opening night.

So where does that bring the writer or director or artiste? Where is the middle ground? It seems that the middle-ground is no middle-ground at all. Simply, if you wish to shout a message to the largest number of people, you MUST entertain them, at least in some way, at least in the West in 2008.

Perhaps the answer is a Kevin Smith route, where you have comparitively few viewers, but they are loyal. Or you could be like Mel Gibson, where you ignore everyone and everything before and make a religious snuff film. When you have your loyal viewers or your legions willing to take a chance on you, you hope that some of them aren't brainwashed by what the marketing people have told them they should like. You hope that you will have the opportunity to slave and sweat and hammer out something of awful, resounding, quirky truth, the kind of truth that reminds people why they need artists, and those people, the ones beckoned by your Braveheart or your Clerks, will come away and say, "Damn. I really liked that innovative take! I want to see more stuff like that!"

Because no one can tell you what is good but you, and when it's your turn to make something good, all you can do is be honest to the reality you want to paint on that screen.

Yoda said...

I think there is, to a very great extent, an "Emporer's New Clothes" mentality with certain films. I saw TTRL and even with all the cinematic appeal, the movie simply pissed me off. On the other hand, I wept openly at the end of SPR, and I'm not afraid to admit that it gets me every time I see it.

One movie I know you and I disagree on, Julie, is "No Country For Old Men", which I loved, but saw with a date who spent the whole movie asking, "What just happened? Why did he do that? Why is this supposed to be a good movie?"

For me, there are two qualities a movie must have before I'll consider it "good": The characters must be either likable or interesting enough in the first few minutes that I want to spend the next 90+ minutes with them, and their story has to be compelling and contain AT LEAST ONE THING I didn't see coming.

~Kurt

Anonymous said...

Was Kubrick a genius? His films were huge cultural events that inspired filmmakers everywhere. Same with Godard, Truffaut, and Antonioni. Without the French New Wave and Antonioni, there would be no Coppola, De Palma, Scorcese, or Friedkin. That was their inspiration. I know this is considered a pretentious idea, but some films aspire to be more than amusing entertainment.

Luzid said...

When it comes to talkies (eh? eh?), I am sometimes bewildered by the obsession with, and Rotten Tomatoes' score for, certain films that leave me underwhelmed.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION is one example. I mean, yeah, it was good, but it didn't blow me away - and I actually don't care for the ending. At all. It's far too jarring.

2001 also bores me to tears, yet I recognize its importance to film history. Maybe that's the issue - films held as classics may be out of touch with today's world.

Anthony Peterson said...

The ultimate compliment for a movie?

"That changed me".

Think about it. We talk about arcs in the hero's character, but what about the audience?

Its tough, near impossible - but those movies do exist.

E.C. Henry said...

The two movies I've probably watched the most because I thought they were "good" is "How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days," and "13 Going on 30."

"How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days" was EXCELENT artistically. Great performances, witty dialog, very high production value, a well thought out supporting cast, lots of laughs. I could go on and on, but it was the "art" inside that movie that kept me coming back.

"13 Going on 30" same genre as "How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days," (romantic comedy), but significantly different appeal for me. This one got me at an emotional/fantasy level. The opportunity to go back or forward in time and re-untie with that one person you crush you had, and then find out they are interested in you too! To me that's the univiveral, fantasy, high concept hook of "13 Going on 30." The question you have to ask yourself going in is, are you willing to put that shoe on... If you are, in my opinion, the script and coresponding movie that was made from it delivers.

That look that Matt (Mark Ruffalo) gives Jenna (Jennifer Garner) when standing at the elevator at her appartment, that gets me every time. I can relate...
Artistically, "13 Going on 30" isn't quite as strong as "How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days," but it still is right up there at pinnacle level: Jennifer Garner's performance is spectacular. (Can believe this is the same girl as the one who starred in that ABC lemon, "Alias," for years?) And Judy Greer's Lucy Wyman/Tom-Tom is the best rom-com antagonist I can ever remember watching.

Having seen both "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line" let me say their approach angles to fitting a story in the midst of a war are POLARLY DIFFERENT. "The Thin Red Line" is for people against war. It demeans our soldiers serving, and shows them through a lot of voice overs questioning those in authority while in the midst of combat. This irked the shit out me, and NEARLY got me to walk out of the theatre before the movie was over. "Saving Private Ryan" is geared to honor those who served our county, and the cause of freedom in World War II. Steven Spielberg doesn't get near enough credit for this OUTSTANDING movie. But then again he's had SO MANY outstanding moives over the years, it's hard to keep up with them all.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Christian M. Howell said...

I would have to say "elements of remembrance."

I've spent several months intensively studying the Time Image and really feel that people respond more to the whole rather than the parts (twists being most forgettable).

The facts of life are more powerful than the most clever plot line. The key I believe is to give people something to think about after they go home rather than while watching.

Of course, times have changed with the advent of technology. People aren't as easily amazed when they have an MP3 player that holds all of their albums.

And witht he proliferation of sex in cinema it's even harder to have an enjoyable experience that doesn't go too corny or too "adult" or especially too foolish.

The greatest filmmakers relied(rely?) on complex character interactions and the spectacle of imagery rather than shock value and star power.

Sure all of those elements make for interesting images but they have to happen the way they do in real life.

The success of movies like Juno, Sex and the City, Knocked Up, The Dark Knight shows that people respond to the visceral, not spoon-feeding.

I think the changes in generatiosn is the root of Goldman's most famous statement of fact:

Nobody Knows Nothing.


I take that to mean that people outside a world may not understand the intricacies of that "internal" world, so they shouldn't underestimate the power of the demographic.


The elusive "four quadrant" film hasn't really changed much bu tthe people who need to be reached have, but only in the sense that technological sophistication does indeed influence viewing habits.

In other words write what you know and get a good director who understands YOUR vision as the writer and the demo will respond favorably to "inherent elements" of their lives whether they be suffering, partying, danger or even excitement, joy or glory.

Succinctly yet not overly-defined images make good movies; at least that's my opinion.

hoeft13 said...

I'm a story teller and write stories that entertain me. When I see a movie I think in those terms. For me it must be a story that I enjoy (elicit emotion from me), is original, and is as advertised.

Since I am a story teller, I could give a fat rats ass about something cinematically appealing as long as the big three mentioned are there, I'm good.

Gnasche said...

The real goal for the filmmaker is to guide the viewer to a particular combination of perspective and emotion.

The best you can do is work backwards from that goal and hope that the path is accessible to as many people as possible. Sometimes it's not, but to make it more accessible would obscure the path.

The only opinions to be suspicious of are the ones in the form of "I don't understand why everyone is making such a big deal about that movie". Yes, you do...it's that people have different tastes, and with a little effort you could also see that a movie was very well-done.

I, for instance, didn't enjoy La Doce Vita...at all. I also didn't even make it through the first half of Schindler's List (and I'm German).

In the end, I don't think many people really care whether a movie is good or not. They only care about how it affects them, personally (or the person they coaxed into watching it with them).

Anonymous said...

Hey Julie,

Here is what makes a good movie.

You must learn to write better or equivalent to writers like Shane Black for example.

If your writing is as good as Shane Black's writing, then you will have a great movie.

C

Seth Fortin said...

All right, somebody has to stand up and say this --

People who are into "art" movies don't go to them out of a sense of duty or obligation. We go for the same reason anyone else goes to the movies -- because we're hoping to be blown away. We're hoping to be amazed and startled and thrilled. We're hoping to laugh in sheer delight at the audacity of the filmmakers, the invention on display. And as part of the price of admission (because art cinemas are often a bit cheaper than mainstream ones), yes, we're willing to work a little for it. We're willing to sit still for ten minutes, even if nothing's exploding, even if the theater's subwoofers aren't inducing vomiting two blocks away.

When I went to college, I had some vague notion that it might be fun to make movies -- big, spectacular movies like Tim Burton's Batman. And then, over one weekend, I saw Hal Hartley's Trust and Richard Linklater's Slacker, and my whole world flipped polarities. I realized I had been excited about the wrong things in movies. I realized that there could be more excitement in a movie where nothing "happens" at all than in one where characters whoosh around saving the world.

And those aren't even the "great" movies. Sure, every now and then a "classic" leaves me cold. (I have never been able to stay awake through a Tarkovsky film, even though his imagery is gorgeous.) But Breathless knocked me out -- it was such a different way of looking at things, at human beings, at the world. It was more than thirty years old when I saw it, and still it just stunned me.

Is anybody going to have that reaction to Transformers in thirty years? Or will they be bored, because the special effects will seem commonplace or even weak by then, and there's really nothing else to that movie?

So, for me, Malick by a landslide. He and Spielberg have made roughly the same number of really great movies, and Malick never inflicted The Lost World on anybody.

Anonymous said...

I have to briefly intervene, in the name of historical accuracy. Brecht did not care about alienation for the sake of alienation. He was interested in using distancing in order to transform the experience of viewing theater -- instead of getting sucked up in the action, you stand back and try to understand it. Like a boxing match.

Ultimately, the reasons for this position are political: he wanted theater to educate the proletariat.

Praveen said...

I will attempt to say in layman's words, what a movie is?

It is good when he knows he is not watching one. He must be so immersed in the emotion it is supposed to evoke.

long after he had watched the movie, haunting images from it should keep popping up in his head.

By this, I guess I mean, the theme must be haunting and technique should play second fiddle.