Symposium: Movies and Objectivity

In response to the excellent ratings and reviews of “Saving Private Ryan”, Tim claims that “These two scores represent a reasonable enough cross-section of viewers and critics to call this film great”.

Tim then issues me a question, asking, “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.”

Up is not my Saving Private Ryan. I haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan so I can’t comment on the quality of it, but, like Tim, I think I probably would not appreciate it as much as other people because of a general aversion to war movies. Nonetheless, despite my not having a taste for it, it is possible for Saving Private Ryan to be a great movie but I believe this for different reasons than Tim. I reject the notion (promoted in slightly different ways by Tim and John) that movies are great because people think they are great. John takes a more subjectivist approach claiming that “Calling a movie “great,” whether it be Saving Private Ryan or Mindhunters, is ALWAYS a subjective judgment. If you enjoy a movie, then you think it’s a good movie.” Tim takes a more collective subjectivist approach, believing that we should look to the mass view of a movie based on viewers and critics to determine a film’s greatness. I reject both of these views.

The fact that great movies entertain and make people happy is a consequence of them doing something else that makes them great. Tim may disagree with me but I maintain that the lack of communication in Wall-E was a technical feat that was essential to the film’s greatness. Whether the characters in Wall-E were humans or robots, the ability of the creators of the film to convey complex themes and emotions without the use of language is essential to the film’s greatness. I would agree that people who like Up better than Wall-E differ in taste from me.  Some people are satisfied with “feel good” movies and don’t really care “to think” when watching a movie. That’s fine with me: Those people have their tastes, but they also prefer an inferior film, a film that is less ideas-driven and less technically impressive. Just like I’m fine with recognizing that some people really enjoy trashy romance novels (even if they are not “great”), I’m fine with recognizing that people enjoy trashy movies even if they are not great. I’m not a movie critic so I’m not going to pretend to know all of the qualities that make a film great. All I’m saying is that it is possible to compare films’ greatness by looking at the quality of the film rather than the audience response.

So, why isn’t Up my Saving Private Ryan? I think Up was not a very good movie. I actually was very intrigued by the plot and, if anything, the topic of Up appeals to me. I didn’t enjoy it because of its inferior dialogue and theme. Saving Private Ryan, on the other hand, I theoretically would not enjoy because of taste, not because of quality. I simply don’t have a taste for war films, so my enjoyment of Saving Private Ryan would not be high even if it is, by objective standards, a great movie.

John claims, “The only way to judge a film is by your own subjective feelings about it. Once you let ’objective‘ or external factors dictate the ’greatness‘ of something, however, you are really just outsourcing your opinions and trying to find excuses for thinking what you think. And where’s the fun in that?” I think John conflates two qualities of art here. On the one hand, there is taste: Do I like war movies? Do I enjoy this type of humor? Do I like this genre of art? These are subjective questions, and I agree with John that to outsource these answers is to lose your individual taste. But, within a particular genre of movie, for example, you could say that Movie A’s theme was better developed than Movie B’s, or that the dialogue in Movie A was less meaningful than the dialogue in Movie B. Am I outsourcing my opinion? Not really. To outsource is not to think. In fact, making objective judgments about movies is very difficult because you have to think so hard and rationally. I don’t pretend to know some objective equation for measuring a movie’s greatness, but I do maintain that it is possible to compare movies’ greatness on grounds other than taste.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Josh, what about music? Instinctively, I tend a bit more to your view with regards to movies, but more towards John’s camp for music. I can’t really explain why, except that I tend to like music that is generally considered “bad” and dislike music that is generally considered “great,” whereas my tastes in film align more closely with the mainstream views of “good” and “bad.”

    What about wine? Food? Fiction books? Nonfiction books? Paintings? Other art?

    In all of these aesthetic areas, we generally have mixed views – we simultaneously think some items are in some quasi-objective sense “really” better than others (foie gras is better than a hot dog) and yet think that such conclusions are in some quasi-subjective sense really context- and person-dependent (Bob just prefers catfish to swordfish – he thinks catfish is better).

    Maybe we just need more specific language. Instead of saying Thing One is “better” overall than Thing Two, we could describe the objective criteria in which Thing One beats Thing Two and vice versa. Some people will value those criteria differently and some will have different assessments of how Things One and Two stack up on the criteria. Is there a universally correct answer to the question whether texture or flavor is more important or whether complexity or intensity is better? (In other words, maybe you could write a program to rate movies or wine or art, but you’d have to specify coefficients to put in the algorithm’s equation, and I don’t know how you can objectively decide what those coefficients are.) I’m inclined to go with John on this one and reject your Millian distinction between the “higher” and “lower” pleasures – but I think because maybe just because you mean something else when you label something “good” than John means… Which raises the question whether there is an objectively “right” definition of words.

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  2. […] very refined 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. […]

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  3. […] refined 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. […]

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  4. […] with Anthony Bourdain. Moral relativism, objectivity in food (which has some bearing on John and Josh’s past Symposium), and fatherhood are also […]

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