Approaching an Objective Criticism of Film. (And his little brother, how not to do it)
We're all guilty of it. Subjective criticism has no place in reviewing a movie professionally. So where does that lead us? Let's find out, grab a shovel, a cold cocktail and your favorite pumpkin spice candle and let's discover together the error of; Subjective Criticism.
First and foremost we have to determine, what is subjective criticism of film: In a nutshell it is this; the inability to appreciate a movie's technicality or talent because of a preconceived notion of entitlement. Where do I get that from? Well, Subjectivity; the quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions. OR; the quality of existing in someone's mind rather than the external world. So right off the bat we have a problem, when a film is more created for the art and the intention of telling a story we have a problem of conflicting accuracy. How is there an accuracy problem? Because a lot of films are created from a place of experience that the director/writer is trying to convey.
So if they're trying to convey a certain story or sentiment, than how is subjectivity a bad thing? After all, a movie about being an underdog who's just trying to make ends meet and prove his/her natural talent can apply to all walks of life, can't it? It can. And this is why this topic is so important. Because in certain cases, subjectivity is the only true way to experience a film. The movie Brothers (starring Jake Gyllenhal and Toby Maguire) for example, affected me on a personal level. A lot of the movie wouldn't have worked for me as a filmmaker if I did not have that personal connection. Rambo, on the other hand, I have no real life experience towards and can not comment on it save from the perspective of a budding filmmaker. So what about movies that simply can not benefit from this perspective? Movies like Terminator, Star Wars, The Prestige, Mission Impossible etc. Well, thank you for asking. I'm Thomas McKinnon, welcome to my TED Talk.
CHAPTER 1: Understanding the Place for Subjectivity
As we briefly went over, subjectivity does have it's own place in critiquing and understanding movies/films. Certain films are meant to relate to specific people, and some of us will be relegated to the "put yourself in their shoes" mentality because that is honestly the most that we can contribute to the efficacy of the story.
Subjectivity has merit in theses cases, I'm much more likely to see a film about Special Forces Operators behind enemy lines when real life SpecOps are praising the film for it's realism and attention to behind-the-scenes real life details. I'm much less likely to see a film when those same people are trashing the movie for it's historical inaccuracies, liberal disregard of the real life events or the seeming poor representation of the characters portrayed (looking at you Battlefield V, and yes I know that's a game fight me). When a film is meant to be subjectively focused, hearing from those subjects is an incredibly meritorious way to garner feedback and approval as well as a true insight to what this film is going to make you feel. It can truly contribute to a place of belonging, emotional impact and immersion into this created piece of art.
What about subjectivity in films that do not try to tailor a subject? Well, that is a tricky answer. On one hand, you can say that someone who has a different viewpoint and life experiences than yourself will inevitably see a film like that differently than you but that should not invalidate their subjective opinion. On the other hand, it creates a rift between what the film is WANTING to say and what you and your friend think it SHOULD say. More on the latter, the issue with this is that it creates a viewpoint of a sort of one way window. You either can't or don't want to see what the other side is saying and all you want is to be able to scream and yell at the thing that won't back down. And that is where we come to the fundamental flaw of self imposed subjectivity of films. Is it truly that from your life experiences, or beliefs, that this film made you feel a certain way or are you just screaming at a one way mirror?
Let's look at a couple of examples to drive home what I'm really trying to enunciate on here. Rambo: Last Blood, is a very violent, very profane, very action heavy movie about the last time we'll see the titular character. It's a movie that probably no one you will ever personally know, can relate to. A giant muscle bound ex Military Soldier from Vietnam has his peaceful existence interrupted when a duo of cartel sex traffickers kidnap his niece. So on paper, not a lot to subjectively criticize, is there? No, there is not, if that was not clear. It's an action movie, about an iconic action character, forced to do action hero things, played by the original action movies star. It's a fan service movie that tries to reconnect the more personal and heartfelt roots of the original Rambo, but with the same level of gleeful violence as the 2008 prequel. This did not stop a host (more like a mob) of 'professional critics' calling this movie; racist, problematic, Donald Trump propaganda (seriously, if you want to lose faith in humanity more, there are at least 3 reviews stating that), too violent and catering to white people. Now, we're not here to discuss politics, and neither was Rambo: Last Blood. While the original film did have a surprisingly heartfelt message about War Veteran's feeling discarded and forgotten, this last movie was more about the character's inability to move on and giving fans violent action. It was not trying to be racially insensitive because it was not about race. It was not trying to be problematic because for it's time, the original one already was. It was trying to be overly violent and you should have known that from trailers. And I will not even dignify the propaganda one. These are ways to incorrectly give a movie a pass, a bad score or an outright insult, and this movie is just a poster child for bad subjective criticism. Two of my Hispanic friends said they enjoyed the movie, so move on from the politics. Am I saying that Last Blood should be given a better chance because it's a diamond in the rough kind of movie? Not at all, but it is a movie that does not deserve subjective criticism. If you're going to review it, review it as the pure fan service-action heavy movie it is. Critique the parts that deserve critiquing. Such as; the supporting cast's performance, the choppy editing during action, the awkward placement of profanity in the writing, the poor pacing in the middle act to name a few. Honestly, from where I'm sitting, the only standout reason to see this movie is Stallone. He rarely gets an opportunity to truly act and this movie is a good showcase for his skills.
Another example, or rather an adverse example, is Ad Astra. If you peruse the IMdB, Rottentomatoes, Letterboxd and Metacritic fan reviews of this film you'll notice a rather ostentatious thread. That thread is that this movie is overly long, poorly paced, unclear in it's motivations and ultimately just really pretty. However, on the complete separate half you'll hear; Brad Pitt is phenomenal, this movie really spoke to me as a single child who never had a father figure, this movie speaks to me as a military kid who grew up without really knowing his father. There's two completely separate camps on this movie, split almost completely down the middle. People objectively criticize this movie (pretty accurately in most cases) for it's technical or creative shortcomings. However, based on interviews and after multiple viewings I have to agree with the subjective opinions. This is not a movie meant to be enjoyed by everyone. You'll get the most merit out of the film by having a direct connection with it's highly relatable theme and emotions. The story of a sociopath son, abandoned by his father and forced to adapt to a new way of living is something that a lot of people theses days can directly relate to. So by that very extension, it would make sense that this is a movie that is not easy to recommend to everyone or every film viewer. It's just not a casual viewing experience.
So hopefully, with that long bit being said, you can understand where I place the validity and place for subjective reviewing or criticism. And hopefully you're either in agreement or just at least interested to see what the next section more immediately pertains to.
CHAPTER 2: Subjectivity is Directly Hurting Filmmakers and Films
Let's really think about this for a second, because it's important to differentiate what the previous chapter discussed from this chapter. And that differentiation is that subjectivity, while beneficial to movies like Ad Astra, is not something that can be blanket stated when it comes to critiquing films. And nowhere was this more evident than in the absolute debacle of a shitshow that was the following months of the release of The Last Jedi and the current release of Joker.
Joker, is a masterpiece by the way. When talking about this movie as a technical achievement of cinematic entertainment it is a masterpiece. Everything about the cinematography, acting, editing, blocking, sound, soundtrack etc is near perfect and in some cases, it is actually perfect. However, it is not a subjective movie. Now certainly, we can all subjectively agree with the empathy of the moral epicenter of the story; after enough perceived and literal browbeating from society and it's population we could snap. All it can take is just one bad day, you really do not know your breaking point until it happens. That is an objective truth that we can all relate to and empathize with, at first. However, do not let that distract you from the truth, we empathize with the emotions but not with the actions taken. At least, not in too literal of a way. Arthur Fleck's increasingly violent outbursts and moments of complete psychopathic lack of control is something that, hopefully, none of us can relate to. We're not meant to actually revel in the violence, rather we are meant to be abhorred by it, but in a strange, fucked up way... We're also meant to find catharsis and a strangely abhorrent sense of justice within the results.
Now, what about what I just spouted about Joker sounds subjective? None of it? That is the exact point. No one praising this movie's accomplishments is going to go out and murder people, start a riot and kill someone on Live TV. It's like some of these critics did not even watch the movie. It is not about what the movie is saying, it's about what is being left unsaid. Why does no one except the powerful and wealthy in the movie condemn Arthur? Why does nobody truly try to help someone who is clearly disturbed? Why does no one ever ask the question of why instead of whom? This is exactly what the subjective reviews of Joker are missing. The subtext of the movie is the unfair but justified condemnation of a man who at every turn is rejected by society, by people and by those he loves. It's not about us being forced to empathize with a serial killer, or being forced to understand the psychological reality of what some people may do when pushed too far, that's just surface level obviousness. And this is the fundamental flaw of the polarizing nature of the reviews for Joker. Too many people are worried about the surface value story beats, and almost none of them are examining the subtext and technicality of the film. This is one of those rare films that even if the story and pacing had been bad (which it absolutely is not) the technicality of it would elevate it well above the competition.
So, how about that pesky child of The Last Jedi? Here we find a very weird adverse set of logic. Professional critics were all over this movie's proverbial dick. They wanted to make this a good movie by forcing a sense of technicality to it. Now, here's the first set of problems, Rian Johnson is a technically solid director. Which is why I found the lack of skill and technicalities in The Last Jedi to be so incredibly odd and non-existent. The Last Jedi has about two moments that are technically well constructed, and they are both throwaway scenes that do not benefit the main story. Some critics liked to point out scenes like the Throne Room fight or the Hyperdrive Suicide. The issue with those scenes is that the editing, for such a huge budget and solidly stacked crew, for a film of this caliber is unacceptable.
The Throne Room fight, is full of technical errors. From extras and the main two leads full one missing cues for a few seconds apiece, to weapons that had an advantage disappearing mid fight and in some cases even mid-swing. Multiple characters teleport across the room with no explanation... Jesus, I feel like I'm writing a video game critique.
The Hyperspace scene is the same issue. The biggest being that it's edited in a way that looks really flashy, but upon closer inspection you realize that all of the ships that get hit magically transported from underneath the Dreadnought to behind it in a matter of about two minutes.
Now, this may seem like nitpicking to some people, but that is the whole point of objectively looking at a movie and it's technical achievements or shortcomings. The purpose is to examine the movie, as a movie and find it outstanding or lacking to everything in between. And the problem with The Last Jedi is that it does not stand up to scrutiny and criticisms. So why did critics fail to do this? Well, there's a conspiracy theory level of reasons as to the individual why's and how's but the most important thing is because nobody wanted to criticize a movie that was inevitably going to anger a lot of people. A lot of very vocal and aficionado level fans. So if objective was the incorrect way to give this movie a high score, than who's to say that the subjectivity route was the correct answer when the backlash from lifelong fans was so extensive and damaging? Well, subjectivity does not have to be positive. From people that put themselves in the character's shoes and tried to find ways to enjoy it found that the more they subjectively inserted themselves into these beloved characters, the more the intensity for the dislike of the movie grew. And yet, what was done about it by execs, critics, crew and actors? Demeaning comments and complete disregard for legitimate criticisms leveled by people with the right credentials and lifelong admiration of the source material and franchise. So suddenly, the people who spouted that film was a subjective medium, were telling the subjective crowd to shut up and stop being manbabies over what was (in their eyes) a clearly great movie. So here we have a prime example of where subjectivity, can fail.
What did this do? Well, it tarnished the credibility of a lot of people. When it comes to movies like Joker, the effects may not be quite as different or catastrophic as some people will say. As far as the reactions to the objective praise of Joker, it seems more that people do not realize it will cast more of a casual spotlight on indie created movies, or rather movies created within an indie style. And this will inevitably hurt the superhero franchise. Some people may be unwilling to admit this but the landscape of character study within the context of superhero films now have an almost impossible standard to obtain. Joker's success with introspective looks at what we can empathize and be traumatized by is going to be something that no upcoming or current MCU or DCEU film can objectively or subjectively say is comparable. So maybe it has not hurt filmmakers who want to be creative, who want to push boundaries and do new things. But it did hurt films, the subjective people freaking out about this movie in a negative way are hurting films of this caliber and the competition when audience's realize just how much of a different level that Joker is on. The Last Jedi hurt indie filmmakers and corporation filmmakers as a whole. Not only did Rian Johnson go from being a well respected indie filmmaker with critically acclaimed movies under his belt, but he also put a black eye on filmmakers who feel safe behind corporate money. People will struggle to enjoy The Rise of Skywalker and it will most likely (in this humble filmmakers opinion) either just barely or fail to gross a billion upon it's theatrical run.
Subjectivity has been utilized as a toll to excuse a viewpoint that is either completely unfounded or completely useless in these scenarios. And unfortunately, it can be applied to so many more movies in this past decade.
CHAPTER 3: So, What Exactly Can We Do? What Can We Change?
There's a fatal flaw in the systemic approach to film critiques. Most people who are paid to do so, will inevitably give a review on what will enable them to continue making money in their chosen profession. And when this comes to films that really benefit from either viewpoint or from switching the stance a little bit, these critics fail to do so most of the time.
We can probably all silently (or bitch on the internet about it) agree that a majority of the media really knows precious little about properly reviewing films. So, what's the solution? It's actually a fairly simple task; stop assuming that the movie is always written for a specific audience unless it has explicitly stated by the filmmakers or the physical film dialogue itself. In retrospect, we can always make arguments for movies as a personal story. However, I do not need a sad 25 - 40 year old film critic telling that he/her found Joker to be traumatizing and socially harmful. Maybe the movie was not made for you to project it unto yourself, it was made to be projected onto society and the disgusting normality of grinding people down because of mental and social inadequacies. Maybe, the swap of the racially disenfranchised with that of a white person is meant to start a discussion about the current political climate. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a film directed, acted, shot, scored and edited by people that wanted to make a film for film lovers and filmmakers, and maybe you're the problem.
I tend to make a point to never denounce casual viewers, but when the casual viewer is indistinguishable from the 'professional critics' I have to denounce them. Some movies, are not made for you, but that should never detract from what it does correctly as a film and vice versa. Stop pretending that everyone should love Midsommar, stop saying Joker will incite killings, stop telling people that Batwoman is well written. Criticize what is objectively present and praise subjectively when you've already gotten the objective out of your mind.
We do not need more Brie Larsons, we need more Todd Phillips. And we need better critics.