Guest Post: I Know I Hate This, But I Don't Know Why
by Jon Weisman
By Joseph Cox
Everytime I watch a movie, I mull where in the grand hierarchy of cinema it belongs. This process is supposedly ongoing, but I often revisit an old favorite (say: American Beauty) and wonder what I was thinking when I liked it in the first place. Today, my top five favorite movies might be something like The Big Lebowski, The Royal Tenenbaums, Stevie, The New World and The Decalogue, but tomorrow only Lebowski and Tenenbaums would remain.
It isn't that I don't have any criteria to judge movies, but after film classes, theory books, hours reading film criticism and enough movie watching to make me permanently allergic to sunshine (read: pasty), I have too many yardsticks to judge a movie with. Should I worry about auteur theory (Altman!), genre subversion (The Host!), thematic complexity (Angels in America!) or just simple entertainment value (Monty Python!)? So during a movie I either over-intellectualize ("Was that the plot point? Can someone make a movie about Africa that doesn't star a white guy?") or completely non-intellectualize, and simply live in the moment. It is probably more important to think about the movie afterwards anyway, though I end up forgetting a lot of the best parts and taking notes would be the ultimate mood killer.
I would like to think that just playing it by ear would work. I probably shouldn't go through back issues of Cahiers du cinema before watching Rush Hour 3 and I shouldn't watch Abbas Kiarostami movies with a hangover, but I don't want to buy into the "subtle bigotry of lower expectations," because it is obvious is that there is a caste system in the evaluation of movies. Certain movies (comedies, horror films) are seen as inherently lowbrow, while hoity toity schlock seemingly gets a free pass to a higher plane (Finding Neverland). Sure, not every movie released in December is an Oscar contender, but, as Sasha Baron Cohen found out, nothing released to box office success during the dog days of summer is regarded as more than bread and circuses for the great unwashed. Why can't a movie be all things to all people?
So ultimately, what makes a movie good? At the very least, a good movie should illicit strong emotional reactions, while middlebrow (or worse) leave no impression whatsoever. True art is a search for something authentic and telling about the human experience, and as such it should resonate. No matter how slick and clever a movie is, if it never taps into real emotion then it won't have any staying power in the mind's eye. Everything else is negotiable, but that is the bedrock. At least for me. So what do you look for in a movie?