Sunday, 6 March 2011

No Strings Attached and target audience

Last week I really wanted to see a film on the big screen, at the cinema. St Andrews has only one cinema, and very few films to choose between, so I settled for No Strings Attached (2011), the romantic comedy with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. I wasn't expecting anything good, and I didn't get anything particular good either. However.

Besides me, almost all the others in the audience were females and either late teenagers or in their early 20s, which must be considered No Strings Attached's core audience. And unlike me, they really liked the film, right from the beginning. Whereas I saw the jokes coming a mile off, and felt that it was poorly written, directed and acted, the others in the audience apparently didn't feel like that. They all laughed at the right moments, sighed at the right moments and in general made all the right noices at the appropriate times. They also liked the sight of Mr Kutcher's bare buttocks. And as I sat there it occurred to me that as much as I might think that the film was rather bad, it clearly wasn't, because the audience reacted exactly as the filmmakers had anticipated, and afterwards I heard many of them say that they really liked it, that it was sooo sweet and funny. In short, the film did a beautiful job catering to its target audience. It cost around $25 000 000 to make, and so far it has made around $103 000 000, so it has already by far covered its costs. Considering that it is R rated, it could not hope to do all that well any way.

No Strings Attached is not the kind of film that would be considered a "good" film, a quality film, by critics, intellectuals, scholars, not even by adults in general. It will most likely not be written about in film history books or discussed at seminars. It is also the kind of film where I have to explain my decision to go and watch it. Had I gone to see that other Portman film, Black Swan (2010) nobody would have asked me "Why?". This is not because No Strings Attached is a romantic comedy, plenty of romantic comedies are well-liked and, well, accepted, and can be watched without explanations. No, it is because No Strings Attached is not a "good" film. And people would "know" this without having seen it.

But what exactly are the criteria for what constitutes a good film? That it is visually rich? Emotionally engaging? Socially conscious? Well, maybe, but what is that any way? What does it mean to be emotionally engaging? For whom? And why is that important? We're none the wiser. The girls at the screening of No Strings Attached were most certainly engaged in the story. No, the efforts to try and define what is a good film and what is a bad film, outside of our own personal hangups and feelings, will most likely remain fruitless. This is of course not particularly revolutionary, but most people, perhaps especially those that have, shall we say, educated tastes, talk and act like such definitions do exist, even if they in public would deny it.

However, there might be an objective criteria for what is a good film, but one that doesn't deal with any inherent qualities in the actual film, but rather the interaction between the film and the audience. That criteria would be that a good film is a film that is liked by its intended audience. That is a tough criteria to live up to, and the teenagers that watch No Strings Attached are just as harsh and demanding an audience as are the most highbrow critics. It is only that they demand different things. And judging by this criteria No Strings Attached is a pretty good film. Better perhaps than some films by, say, Bergman.


  1. I would counter your concluding point with this - who says that the target audience matters? This 'objective' valuation still values the plurality over the individual, something which serves no individual well. As soon as you divorce goodness from the individual you kill its usefulness, I think. What use would this 'objective' criteria be to those individuals who liked No Strings Attached if they didn't like Avatar, despite it being 'good'. The film and the term is no good for them. The answer to defining 'goodness' is not to make it objective but to never forget that it must be inherently tied to each person, because it is their valuation system which generates the data which you then collect. That a lot of people found a film good is just that - a description of a lot of individuals, not a collection of individuals creating a new valuation. I would go further - that anything that can be collected into such a dataset is meaningless. Once you delve into nuance and passion and mood and emotion and ideas and the substantiation of these categories the simple signifier of 'good' becomes banal and meaningless.

    Furthermore, some films deserve better audiences, not the audiences better films. From Angelopoulos: “I create audiences for my films, not films for audiences.” Greenaway has said, and here I must paraphrase, that it is much more difficult to be a good film watcher than a good film maker.

    I treat art as if it were my lover, but an immaterial one. I can't possess it, it can't be used up by one person and can be shared equally by all (media which can be copied at no loss to the audience is more practical for this purpose, but the idea is the same), but only my love really matters. And it matters. It's all I have! Except for the material lovers, of course. I love them, too. No matter how many or few love them too. But I wouldn't say that the word 'love' encapsulates any meaningful part of that feeling, it's just a data point. If it was 'love - and nothing more' then I'd feel strangely hollow. And so with this 'good' it is just banal.

    Besides, I just listened to someone who had just seen Smiles of a Summer Night call it the best romantic comedy ever - did anyone say that about No Strings Attached? Clearly this man was Bergman's intended audience, and Bergman was the best (and better than No Strings Attached). That he was born decades after the film was released is no matter - he created the film, the audience was born FOR the film, so by your objective formula Bergman is the best. The best romantic comedy director! As for his less well liked films - not all genres are as easy as romantic comedy. I won't hold it against him. I credit his boldness.

  2. Hello! Thanks for these long and interesting comments. I like the idea of art as your lover.
    However, I'm pretty sure some think No Strings Attached is "the best romantic comedy ever". Although that's an empty statement, unless you qualify it. "the best romantic comedy ever of those I've seen so far". My criteria for a good film was not 100% serious, but how you could use it to say that "Bergman is the best" is not clear to me. I don't think there is such a think as "the best".
    Also, most people in the business of making films will tell you that there's nothing remotely easy about making a romantic comedy. Just as hard as any other.