Symposium: Objectively Good?

First of all, I’m putting a moratorium on discussing the quality (or lack thereof) of Saving Private Ryan, a movie NONE of us have evidently seen, and so none of us are really equipped to discuss.

Moving on, Josh concludes his discussion of the subject by saying, “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.”

Really? How? I’d love to know.

The “objective” judgments he mentions, that involve thinking “hard and rationally” (as if subjective judgments don’t), are: “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.” Ok, what if I think Movie A’s theme was better developed and you think Movie B’s was? How do we resolve this supposedly “objective” dispute?

If you and I disagree about something objective, then we can look it up or empirically test it. In this instance, though, we are at an impasse, because these types of judgments are inherently subjective. 

You mention genre differences as something for which taste does account, saying you and Tim both do not like war movies. This is why I hate discussions of genre. They are a waste of time. Is it really fair to compare movies only based on some arbitrary genre description? Apocalypse Now has way more in common with Taxi Driver than it does with Tropic Thunder. It might have more in common with TD than it does with Platoon.

If you don’t like war movies, then you probably have a problem with something movies about war tend to do, i.e. rely on violence excessively or repeat certain themes that do not interest you. Whatever it is, though, those are valid things to discuss in judging a film’s quality, no matter what genre it is in. In other words, the questions of taste that affect your opinions of genres are the same subjective things that affect your opinion of a film’s overall quality.

I agree with your objection to the implication in Tim’s post that collective judgments constitute objectivity—popularity by no means implies quality. But I object to the condescension and elitism of your fourth paragraph, particularly these lines:

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.

The problem with this line of argument, in addition to its pure arrogance, is that it leads inevitably to the conclusion that some peoples’ opinions or tastes are more important or valuable than others’: “I’m not a movie critic so I’m not going to pretend to know all of the qualities that make a film great.”

This is precisely the “outsourcing” I’m worried about. When we let conventional wisdom or critical reception become the deciding factor in whether a film is “good” or “great,” then we don’t have to do the job of thinking hard and rationally about a film or develop actual reasons for our opinions—we can just rely on this external “objective” fact about the film itself. But what matters about works of art isn’t how they measure up to some objective criteria—what’s important is how we react to them.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dan on June 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    well acted, well shot, clever plot, etc., … one does not need to “outsource” to critics to pick these things out.

    and one could say (although apparently none of you can say this, since you haven’t seen it -and it is, by the way, a great movie), objectively, that “Tom Hanks gave a fantastic performance in Saving Private Ryan” even though one personally may not find the movie enjoyable.

    similarly, one can recognize that while mindhunters (a movie I haven’t seen, but I have many “mindhunters” of my own) may not satisfy any of these objective criteria, it is still a movie i find enjoyable. however, i would not recommend my mindhunters to another, Josh for example, as a great movie … in fact, i would only recommend it to someone who would enjoy for the exact reasons that i enjoyed it.


  2. […] just a generalization of a personal taste. I know how I would construct a list of great films, but, as I’ve said before, this can’t be expected to hold true for everyone. And yet I don’t think my tastes are that […]


  3. […] is harmful. Absolute objective truth (a concept which at least one of my co-bloggers admittedly doesn’t believe in) is different than perceived subjective truth. An individual may be personally certain that the […]


  4. […] interview 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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