Discuss: Art is Subjective, But Does an Objectively Good Film Exist?
by Brandon Lee Tenney
January 27, 2011
I've written a lot about movies. I've written a lot about Art as a kingdom, for that matter. And as we are all aware, it's all subjective. Not only is what I write filtered through my experiences, my likes and dislikes, my emotions and personal connections, but what every observer of Art feels is laden with their own filters. This is why we naturally gravitate toward critics and reviewers who share the most filters with us. When we read them, they speak for us. Sure, it's just confirmation bias. And I'm sure you all, like me, also seek out opposing viewpoints, too, but if we have no voice of our own finding one similar can be a powerful thing.
But all of the above is known. And I've no interest in subjectivity. I'm interested in the possibility of an objectively good film. More clearly: within Art, can there exist a film that is objectively good, and what would that film need to do to be so?
I'll just start with my hypothesis: I believe an objectively good film is possible. Within Art, Film is in a unique position to come as close to possible to objective goodness. This is because narrative films are made with the purpose of telling a story. At its most base level, if one understands the story then, objectively, the film has succeeded. Even if you didn't like the story, if you understand the story -- mission accomplished. Film is also in a unique position because it is a pastiche of many different art forms combining to achieve a common goal. One part must work in concert with others or see it objectively unbalanced. The same can't be said about painting, sculpture, or even music. Those forms are so beholden to their style, the rules — if one can even say rules — of those specific styles. And while Film is beholden to styles of each individual director or trend or purpose, stories are still being told and are in a form that are most easily understood. For Film is the evolution of the earliest form of storytelling as art. Of cave paintings telling the stories of the hunt in one frame, so we have twenty-four frames per second.
Already, Film has a leg up on the rest of Art in the pursuit of objective goodness. Now, you may expect a specific example of what I believe to be an objectively good film. There are two that I think come closest to success: Casablanca and Memento.
One, Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, a classic story, well told, easily understood, presented clearly. The second, Christopher Nolan's Memento, well, all of the same can be said. As you should expect. Sure, Memento is told in a much more stylistically idiosyncratic manner. But this means nothing when speaking of objectivity. It's presented in reverse, but the audience is never want for explanation.
If the films are to be broken down into their base components, each has a story that is clear with universal themes expressed clearly. Each film has acting that is believable and services the story's telling. Each film contains music that is in service of the emotion of the story and the narrative itself. With Casablanca, bringing the story's subtext to light when necessary, and in Memento orienting the audience in time. Each films lighting, art direction, costumes, and cinematography works in concert with the story; none outshine the other, but empower all. Each film has a script that is clear, no matter its presentation. The scripts speak to greater, ubiquitous truths. They feel real, even when they are not real. The direction is technically sound in each film; it's clear and lacks confusion, even when experimentation is employed. In Memento's case, especially when experimentation is employed.
Both films are objectively good. Now, you may not like one or both of these films. But when exploring them part-by-part, finding fault is difficult if not impossible. Can one remove emotion from the equation when discussing Art, though? Yes, I believe one can. Whether one should, though, is a different query. And will be saved for another time. While 2001: A Space Odyssey remains my favorite film, I would never say it is objectively good. That is a film that revolves around subjectivity. Ironically, because it's a film that purposefully removes itself from emotion. And while its complexity and obscurity of story is a reason that cements it as my favorite, those are the very reasons why it can never be among objective goodness.
I'm sure the very notion of objectivity has boiled some of your subjective brains. As it should. Art, at its most powerful, is a subjective, individual experience. But Film, in its parts, all of them together, can be executed to such a degree where goodness needs no subjectivity. Yet, ironically, this is but my subjective opinion. And I'm sure you'll have your own. Do you think objectively good films exist?