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?
Reader Feedback - 29 Comments
To this matter I can only say that Tron Legacy is the best film ever followed by Terminator Salvation and The Matrix Trilogy...
neo on Jan 27, 2011
Analyzing film objectively can be done, but only in socio-political contexts. To create a list of constructs, to say, what makes a film good or bad, is a near impossible task. One could find faults in “Casablanca” or “Memento”, even when claiming to view the film objectively. Now, one can’t deny that both films are “good” in relation to their canonization in society. In other words, to accomplish an objective determination of a good or bad film one must critique the film as to why it’s important. Now, a lot of silly, critically-panned films have made huge impacts on our society. Does that make them good? To quote Pablo Picasso, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Even when being entertained, audiences shouldn’t be too lazy to ask themselves, “Why is this important?” If it’s important to you personally for a variety of reasons it may only be good to you “subjectively”, but if you can go beyond that there is much sound objective thought to be found.
Greg L on Jan 27, 2011
David Perretta on Jan 27, 2011
Maybe we should deconstruct a film - as with a lot of other forms of expression - in two components. One, is the emotional part. If you go down that way, it's nearly impossible to say that a film is either good or bad, simply because the emotional response in everyone is different. One person can be reduced to tears when the mouse is killed in The Green Mile, and another won't feel a thing when Björk is hanged in Dancer in the dark. Based on those examples, you won't ever find an objectively good film. Now, the other aspect of a film: its construction. You surely can say Casablanca is well constructed, with a nearly perfect script, or maybe Saving Private Ryan based on the technical merits of the whole D-Day 20 minutes flawless sequence. Then, being the whole movie or just the relevant parts, you can say "this movie is good", "that dialog is good" or "that scene is good". Emotion and Construction are the ways of qualifying something which can be ambiguous. But hey, the whole discussion of it is what keep us going on with the subject right?
Leinergroove on Jan 27, 2011
Brotodeau on Jan 28, 2011
Perhaps you can give objective scores to each aspect of a film - skill (i.e., could the thing only have been made by that person), ingenuity (was it done before?), revenue - assign metrics and give aggregate scores that are objective, but that collectively measures your subjective definition of greatness. The fact that those metrics are what you used to describe the greatness of a film. Furthermore, what if you want to add the factor "beauty"? How can you give an objective score of how "beautiful" the film was?
Teru Kei on Jan 27, 2011
Behavioral and Social Psychologists have attempted to do just that: apply an objecting rating or "score" to beauty, or at least what we, humans, perceive as beauty. A lot of it has to do with symmetry and proportion and healthy coloration (is the subject not jaundiced or splotchy, etcetera). I don't think it's a stretch to at least attempt to view Film in the same light. Some things just... look right. The rule of thirds. Symmetry. Vibrancy. Contrast. Focus. There are measurable components to beauty, I think. Maybe. Even if not, it's still something interesting to explore! Thanks for taking the time to explore it yourself.
Brotodeau on Jan 28, 2011
This 'Editorial' is a disaster. I can't believe I still read this film site, I think I really should just stay with Hitfix, you guys are all such uneducated and naieve writers, you consistently write the mostly cyclical mashed up redundant junk criticism and sophomoric art theory. I don't think any of you who author this site are meant to be writers, honestly I would find another profession. This'll be the last comment I ever write on here. Won't even check for a response.
Mardukthegreat on Jan 27, 2011
obvious troll is obvious.
Edge on Jan 27, 2011
No, film can NOT be objective. For something to be objective it must quantifiably measurable. Height. weight, distance. Who threw the most touchdown passes? That's a measurable question with an OBJECTIVE answer, an answer which can not be debated without changing the nature of the question itself. There is nothing in film (thank god) to measure quantifiably other than length. Without quantifiable and measurable criteria, there is no objective truth, only subjective impressions. Film is art, and as art it is without measure or boarders or statistics. If something is not measurable or quantifiable, then it is debatable... and if it is debatable then it is by definition subjective. Case closed.
Anonymous on Jan 27, 2011
This is the typical response of someone who doesn't understand film criticism. They hide behind this subjectivity argument to protect themselves against those who call them out for loving Disaster Movie and not liking The Godfather.
It's Pat! on Jan 27, 2011
Someone who doesn't understand film criticism huh? Ok, I won't even respond to that. I notice that in your weak response you don't actually address any of my points in my position. So please do enlighten me as to which points in my argument are wrong and why they're wrong.
Anonymous on Jan 27, 2011
Hiya campea, I am discussing not arguing, so pls note. In your sentence 'There is nothing in film (thank god) to measure quantifiably other than length.' I not trying to dig, but just carry on the conversation. What about other measurements other than length, how many actors, the colour, facts such as light, temperature measurements etc. Yes I know thats mathematical but so is length. If you can measure length you can definitely factually state other things. Wether a performance is good / believable yes you cant, like a touchdown measure that I agree but like Picasso one can have certain consensus taken. As much as film is subjective, which I agree with, there is the objective agreement, although not mathematically proven, that Casablanca is a good film. I am sure there are people who actually hate it, but those that hate it can't substantiated factually that its bad, just that they dislike it. Think my point is getting lost, so will stop there.
Tyrone Rubin on Jan 28, 2011
@Tyrone You said: " I am sure there are people who actually hate it, but those that hate it can't substantiated factually that its bad, just that they dislike it." This is completely true... but the opposite is also true. Those that like it can't substantially nor factually say it's good, just that they like it. This goes back to something I said earlier: "If something is not measurable or quantifiable, then it is debatable... and if it is debatable then it is by definition subjective." And while it is certainly true that you can objectively measure a census of how many people like or dislike a movie, a consensus of individual subjective opinions does not equate objective truth for the movie itself. My mantra for years about movies is this: "The most beautiful thing about film is the pure subjectivity of it". The subjectivity of a movie is the single most inherently wonderful thing about the medium itself. It allows us each to individually engage it, to experience it on a unique level than anyone else. But now I'm just rambling.
Anonymous on Jan 28, 2011
I should mention here that although I disagree with your idea and conclusion, it's a thought provoking article that I enjoyed reading. Good stuff.
Anonymous on Jan 27, 2011
Thank you, campea. That's all I ever hope to do: provoke. Thought! Provoke thought! Close call.
Brotodeau on Jan 27, 2011
Films are subjective. There is no "objectively good film" (my subjective opinion). Maybe if you judge a film only by its structure and not by its implied affection, but then you will neglect the essence of the movie, its "soul". Films exist to make you laugh, to make you cry, to make you feel. Perhaps it has to do with the genre? Jonnah Hex as the objectively BAD flick! :)) 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my favorites too!
Anonymous on Jan 27, 2011
I have to agree with Campea. How can film be objective ? Each of the components of its construct , music , script , art direction etc etc is subjective so the film itself will be so too.
vladsmegford on Jan 27, 2011
It's certainly possible that objectively good films exist, Casablanca being a great possibility, but I don't think we should even entertain the notion. I don't believe there is any point in ever trying to figure out if a certain movie is objectively good, because that takes away everything great about film as an art. There are rules in film that you may follow so a movie can be good, but those rules are meant to be broken, just like music or any other art. If you come across a movie that only follows the right basic rules, in terms of story and direction, never straying from them or taking risks I'm sure there will be many out there who say this is a bad film because it's a pointless exercise in following the basic rules. There are objective flaws and there are subjective flaws, and discussing whether or not a film has subjective flaws will always be more worth your time than discussing the possible objective flaws. There could be a writer/director who does everything by the book, he writes his movie according to everything in a basic screenwriting book and directs according to everything he's learned in a classical Hollywood style book, and if he succeeds his film may be flawless, but it still may not be good. This isn't exactly the question you asked in the article, but it's interesting to think about.
samir on Jan 27, 2011
Just try use the same objective good vs bad viewpoint on other variables like food, music, architecture. Film is as much a separate entity and art form as those so one needs to ask can anything really be deemed factually and objectively good or bad. One mans great McDonalds burger is another mans disgust.
Tyrone Rubin on Jan 28, 2011
wall of text makes me go to sleep. nighty night!
Redguy on Jan 27, 2011
Citizen Kane is objectively a perfectly executed movie: from all technical aspects it excels those before it and influences those after it. If you are to look at the emotional aspects that the cinematography depicts, then it does become subjective like all art does. But to reach an end of your argument, yeah, you have to separate emotion from technical aspects. Because a film can be perfectly rendered in cinematography (aspect ratio, framing, gauge, lighting, whatever), yet still carry a horrible story which makes it subjectively horrible, but objectively a success.
crumb on Jan 27, 2011
Good and bad are themselves subjective terms. Goodness and badness can never be objective because they depend on an individual's opinion of what those things are. Yes you can tell a story and have a person understand what it is about, but that is meaningless if said person did not enjoy it or take anything of value away from it.
Verbal Kint on Jan 27, 2011
In a way, they can be subjective. Consider what an art teacher has to measure--things like negative space, color choice, placement, appropriateness of texture, etc. Writing teachers teachers notice word choice, the flow of a plot, how how articulate something is, the success of the message, etc. While I don't know if it can be 100% (style is always subjective), one can measure the quality of a film to a degree.
Lindsey Wiker on Jan 27, 2011
Question answered: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yysbbPStfWw&feature=player_embedded
Anonymous on Jan 27, 2011
I thought that this was a pretty good article and you make some interesting arguments. However I thought that I would make a counter-argument based on your hypothesis involving how you believe an objectively good film has done its job if you understand the story. One of the first things I learned when I went into film studies was that there is a big difference between the story and plot of a film. Here are the definitions from my old textbook: - The set of all events in a narrative, both the ones explicitly presented and those the viewer infers, constitutes the STORY. - The term PLOT is used to describe everything visibly and audibly present in the film before us, including nondiegetic material such as credits. Essentially, the plot is everything the viewer sees, while the story is everything that happens, including what the viewer sees and then some. (THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS FOR MEMENTO BEYOND THIS POINT) When you say someone understands the story of a film, I believe you are actually talking about the PLOT. Using your example of Memento, I agree with you that, despite the reverse narrative, it can be quite easy to understand the plot of the film - i.e. the depictions of the events in the story that lead to Leonard killing Teddy. However, coming up with the entire STORY, requires more than a simple viewing of the film. Hypothetically, there is a gap in the story of approximately a year between Leonard's attack and the start of the plot. By passively watching, there is no way the viewer can understand the whole story. What needs to be done is an analysis of the clues given in the plot. For example, in the final Sammy Jankis flashback, the face of Sammy is replaced by Leonard for a split second. There is no way a passive watcher would have noticed that without looking for it (I know that I didn't notice it on the first viewing). However, that one shot offers a big clue that hints that perhaps that it was Leonard who was institutionalized instead of Sammy, which is supported by Teddy's statement towards the end of the film that Leonard was mixing his story up with Sammy's. Well, I'm starting to rant on a bit, so I will just conclude that I still liked your article, however I don't believe that films are meant to be passively understood.
Sean Kelly on Jan 28, 2011
Great points, Sean! Thanks for giving it so much thought. This was more an exercise to allow me to play devil's advocate against myself... I, like you, never think that films should be passively understood or even passively experienced.
Brotodeau on Jan 28, 2011
Hey Alex - are you aware of all the literature about this question? Pretty interesting stuff. Your text follows the commuication theoreticians who say: A message is successful if it gets its content across. But when you talk about film as art it all gets a little more complex. Still, there are ways to tell what is good from what is not-so-good. While some aspects remain open to discussion, the two criteroia usually applied are: On how many layers does a film work and how many meanings does it carry - complexity and ambiguity. That's why 2001 is a really good film - precisely because it carries so many meanings that viewers cannot simply resolve it into one simple interpretation.
The Silent Cowboy on Jan 28, 2011
Sorry, no commenting is allowed at this time.