Saturday, March 21, 2009
The inadequacy of absolutes
Before we start, a little business: Do you like my unwittingly appropriate choice of a movie poster for the first day of spring?
If asked which critics most influence my work, I would probably have to produce a pedestrian answer like Siskel & Ebert. They were certainly the first film critics I was consciously aware of, though I may only be saying that because they endured into my adulthood. And, well, they're the most famous critics in the world (R.I.P., Gene).
But the truth is, it's probably a good answer, because I don't regularly read the work of many other critics. Answers 2 and 3 would be Owen Gleiberman/Lisa Schwartzbaum (the long-standing Entertainment Weekly critics) and in the last few years, Joe Morgenstern (the Wall Street Journal film critic, whose work I hear on NPR).
I can tell you that I've grudgingly adopted Siskel & Ebert's black and white, thumbs up/thumbs down rating system. It comes into play in exactly one place, and it's another one of my lists: the Excel spreadsheet that contains what I believe to be a complete listing of all the films I've ever seen. (Which stands at 2,702 as of this writing.)
Awhile back, I decided it would be an interesting exercise to figure out what percentage of my collection I actually liked. So I went through the whole list and labeled each film "up" or "down," then did the math. I continue to update it ever time I see something new, and the Excel formula adjusts one way or another by a couple hundredths of a percent.
As of this very moment, I've liked 64.17% of the movies I've seen, which I honestly find a little concerning. Since I see a fair amount of crap, I thought it might be lower. Then again, maybe most people are closer to the 80th percentile, since they see only things they think they'll like.
Needless to say, there have been some tough choices. It's a pretty rigid standard, on the order of pass/fail, stop/go and day/night, and Siskel & Ebert regularly admitted that they sometimes felt imprisoned by their own system. There's no room for hemming and hawing. This system is especially hard on such things as noble failures, and well-made movies that are totally uninspired. You have to choose one category or the other.
And so it was that I came face to face with a prototypical example of this struggle earlier this week, when I saw How Green Was My Valley.
If you aren't familiar with this film, that's not entirely surprising, since it came out 68 years ago. But you probably should be, because it won best picture that year. That's right, 1941, the same year Orson Welles made a little film called Citizen Kane. A little film that is widely considered the best film of all time, which wasn't even considered the best of the year it was released. Of course, that's hardly the only evidence that the Academy's judgments are not sacrosanct, but I bet they'd get it right if they had it to do over.
Since I love Citizen Kane as much as the next guy, How Green Was My Valley already had a demerit against it before I even popped in the DVD. Actually, it had two, because an ex-girlfriend of mine once dubbed it How Long Was My Movie. Swish.
I was pleased to discover that it's not terribly long in actual minutes, a reasonable 118. But its undeniable length comes from its turgid storytelling. I found it next to impossible to care about the characters, especially since I couldn't really figure out who the main character was supposed to be. Technically it's the cherubic little moppet who is telling the story as an adult in flashback, but this kid is so blandly cherubic and blandly moppet-like that I just couldn't care about him. The rest of the characters are family members and other townspeople in a Welsh coal-mining town in (I believe) the early 20th century. Walter Pidgeon playing the reverend is probably the film's most famous star, but I didn't care that much about his frustrated would-be romance with bland Maureen O'Hara either. In fact, the only thing I'm really sure I did like was the village where it was shot. Quite picturesque.
So I don't like this film ... right?
For me it's not that simple. This is a movie directed by John Ford, one of the great directors of all time. And it is an Oscar winner.
That doesn't mean I've given every best picture winner a thumbs up -- I'm looking at you, Crash. But it does mean that I feel like I might have to apply a different standard to a film made 68 years ago. I have to recognize that viewing it through a 2009 lens will tell me little about how it affected audiences at the time, how it would have affected me had I been in one of those audiences. I would submit that if you really wanted to know how to contextualize it, you'd have to watch 20 other prominent movies from 1941 and see how it stacks up against them. Then you could grade them on a scale. Because you can't just say "I don't like any films from 1941," especially since one of them was Citizen Kane. Plus, it would mean you "didn't know your history." There's nothing less interesting to me than a film critic whose only references are 1980 onward.
But comparing it with Citizen Kane isn't really fair, either, because Orson Welles was doing things in that movie that nobody had any business doing in 1941. His film had as many advancements in its way as D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation did in 1915. (And speaking of films it's complicated to render a judgment on -- how about one of the most important cinematic advances of all time, in which Klansmen are the heroes of the movie?) Just because How Green Was My Valley didn't break any new technical ground doesn't mean it was a bad movie.
However, just because it was made in 1941 doesn't mean it was a good movie, either. In other words, just because I'm worried I didn't completely "get it," does that mean I am obliged to praise it more than it deserves? One of the things I consistently rail against is when critics over-praise a movie out of fears of intellectual inferiority. Some critics think that if they were confused by a movie, they have to say it was brilliant, so people don't question their ability to intellectually grapple with a challenging film. When really, that film may just be bad.
As usual, I don't really have an answer, I just want to put it out there for your consideration.
And I'd be interested to know, if you will do me the honor of commenting, whether there are prominent examples of this in your own viewing past -- films you knew you were supposed to like, and simply couldn't justify saying were bad, even if you didn't really like them.
For the record, I did give a thumbs up to How Green Was My Valley on my movie list.
Must have been that pretty village.