Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The film as a thing in itself

I am frequently asked "What kinds of films do you like?" and my response is always the same. All kinds, as long as they are good. This often leads to protests from those who ask this question and an effort to disprove me, by way of mentioning different kinds of films that they think I could not possibly like. (Some have suggested spaghetti westerns, others Bollywood musicals, others action blockbusters.) But that is a game they cannot win because what I say is not just a line, it happens to be true. It also means something more important, and that is that I see every film as a unique entity or, as Kant might have said, a thing in itself. It appears that this is surprisingly rare.

There are many ways in which films are not judged on their own merits but in comparison with something else. One obvious example is adaptations. As I have written before, I have a problem with the way films that are adapted from other art forms are discussed and appreciated, as when the quality of a film based on a book is measured on how faithful the film is to its source. I have a problem with this because it says nothing about the film in itself; it only says something about the film's relationship with something else (such as a book). When I see a film based on a book, even if it is a book I love, I do not care about that book, I only care about the film. Its fidelity to its source is immaterial.

When you ask a person what they thought about a horror film they have just seen they might say "I didn't like it, it wasn't scary enough." But by this they do not mean that they only like films that are really scary, what they mean is that since this was supposed to be a horror film it was bad because it was not scary enough. To me that is going about it the wrong way. You might be disappointed because the film was not as scary as you thought it to be but that does not make it a bad film. If the film had great acting, great cinematography, a good story, fantastic music and so on, that should be enough. Whether it was scary enough is something else because it is not based on the actual film but the film's relationship to other films, and that is unfair. If you had approached it as "a film" instead of "a horror film" you might have really liked it.

In her review of Pacific Rim (2013) Deborah Ross wrote that "Pacific Rim is a giant monsters v. giant robots film and although written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, who made Pan’s Labyrinth, which was sublime, it’s still just a giant monsters v. giant robots film, and now we have dealt with that". But there is no such thing as "just a giant monsters v. giant robots film". How were the visuals? How was the acting? Did the film stay true to its own inner logic? What did the film's politics look like? Any film can be discussed, analysed and appreciated, and they should be, especially by critics and reviewers. A related situation is when somebody says "It was good for being a horror film." (You can exchange horror film with Western, comedy, musical or, well, any kind of film.) What does that mean? Was it a bad film, because horror films are always bad, even though this one was better than the rest of them? Or was it actually a really good film? But if it was good, then why not just say that, instead of adding a caveat? And compared to which horror films? Was it good on the level of Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960) or Alien (1979)? Any genre has a wide spectrum of films, from the really bad to the really good.

So all films should be discussed, analysed and treated with respect, but preferably on their own terms and not in relation to something else. You can of course compare a film to others like it, or how it relates to other films by the same filmmaker or with the same actor or from the same country, but these comparisons should not be used as a way of passing judgement; but rather as a way of comparing. This is not to say that all films are good, it is just to say that any film has the potential to be good, regardless of style, genre, place of origin or source material, and the chances of you appreciating it increase if you regard it as a unique work, instead of comparing it to some matrix. That, as Kant might have said, should be a categorical imperative.


  1. While I find your stance commendable I have great difficulties adhering to it myself. Mostly because I’m an unstructured movie lover. When it comes to genres I have to (grudgingly ;) agree with you on principle – it shouldn’t matter which label is slapped on the movie. Here, however, expectations play a large part even though maybe they should not. If I think I’m going to watch a horror movie, I expect to be scared. It is too hard for me to consciously disregard potential precursors and everything I might have heard or read about it

    But I also have to say that I don’t wholly agree with your tabula rasa attitude.

    All movies are a result of circumstances and at least sometimes these circumstances should be allowed to matter. For example, a remake and an original film that in all other instances are alike differ in that the remake is not an original. It draws inspiration from a more easily accessible source than the original film. Also, I expect more from a movie with a large budget than one made on a shoe string. I expect more from an experienced director than a debutant. And so on…

  2. Finally some intelligent comments instead of the usual spam! Yes, it's hard, well probably impossible, to disregard knowledge one already has, and to watch a film in some kind of bubble. But what I primarily meant was that even if you're disappointed with a film it doesn't automatically follow from this that the film was bad.

    It's not necessarily clear why you should expect more from a big budget movie than a small budget movie. I don't expect more from Spielberg than from Woody Allen just because Spielberg has more money (they've got the same experience). Big or small budget, you're equally likely to make a good or a bad one. The quality of the story, the acting, the camera work and so on is not contingent on the budget, only on the skills of the people involved. My list of favourite films include both shoestring budgets and ridiculously expensive films. What costs money is usually big stars and effects, which are not the same as quality. But ultimately, for me, if a film is bad, it's bad, and if a film is good it's good, regardless of budget, experience or any other circumstances.

    You mention remakes but would you say that remakes are different from films based on plays, books or other sources?

  3. Haha, comforting to hear that I manage to appear more intelligent than the average spam ;)

    Generally, I tend to be a lot more forgiving towards a movie that for example have a smaller budget or an inexperienced crew. Especially when it comes to those things which I (in my limited knowledge) imagine cost a lot of money and that includes actors.

    Nope, storywise remakes are no different compared to other movies which come from a very obvious source.