Symposium: The Function of Film

Josh’s complaint that Up merely made him feel good instead of forever altering his weltanschauung prompted me to consider a deeper question: What is the relationship between a film’s quality and the feeling it evokes in its audience?

This is a broad, intimidating, and largely unanswerable question—at least not within the space of this blog. I can only try to speak from my own, admittedly idiosyncratic experience with film.

The imposing opening question boils down to me like so: Can one be unentertained by a great film, and can one be entertained by a bad one?

The first half of the question is prima facie simple to me: No. Any film that fails the basic criterion of entertaining its audience falls short of the designation “great.” And yet I know of several films called “great” that I personally have not, or would not, enjoy. The first that comes to mind is Saving Private Ryan, which ranks 56th on IMDB’s “Top 250” and receives a score of 90, or “Universal Acclaim,” on Metacritic. These two scores represent a reasonable enough cross-section of viewers and critics to call this film great.

For me, however, it holds no appeal. War films in general do not, as I have no desire to experience that reality first-hand or vicariously. I am bored by the violence and uninterested by the plot—the latter also characterizing my relationship with an even greater giant of film, The Maltese Falcon.

It’s obvious that there’s not complete objectivity in film, and that no one film will entertain and enlighten all of its audience. The question for Josh, then, is whether Up is his Saving Private Ryan, or whether the film subversively manipulates the masses’ reaction to it.

I am personally more intrigued by the idea of the entertainingly bad film; I experience them far more often than great films.

The paradigmatic entertainingly bad film, to me, is Mindhunters, a 2004 mystery starring Kathryn Morris and L.L. Cool J. Yes, the last three “words” and seven letters of that sentence constitute a large part of the film’s entertainment. It is poorly acted, even by more highly regarded performers such as Morris, Val Kilmer, and Christian Slater. The plot can be confusing, and the funniest lines were never meant to be so. Somehow these things make it more enjoyable to watch.

There is no doubt that Saving Private Ryan is a better film than Mindhunters. But, if given the choice to watch either of them, I would select Mindhunters every time, and so would a lot of my friends—even the ones that enjoy war films and Saving Private Ryan, in particular.

Am I that off-base?

P.S. to Josh: I feel much the same way about Wall-E that you do about Up. It was cute, and it made me feel good. The film’s accomplishments—things like expressing feeling without dialogue and commenting on human consumption—seem unoriginal to me. Would you have been as impressed by the body language displayed by Wall-E and Eve if they were not cute, anthropomorphic robots and were, instead, soft-spoken or even mute human beings? And is a portrait of a future earth filled with garbage still groundbreaking? I mean, you’ve been to Staten Island, right?

One response to this post.

  1. […] genres. His latest work, Inglourious Basterds, is supposedly both a war movie (sorry, Josh and Tim) and a “spaghetti western,” as well as Tarantino’s homage to The Dirty Dozen. Whatever that […]


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