When we review film or media or any kind of work in general, its important to understand the internal conflict between your tastes and your objectivity.
Now you might look at that statement I just wrote and be completely puzzled, but that’s alright, because it’s a complex concept to both understand and apply when talking about film and media especially when dealing with criticism.
When we critique any work, we judge based on the fundamentals: proper atmosphere, proper camera angles, proper use of sound, character development, etc.(And of course these change based on the media: books, film, TV shows, etc.) These are the “objective” measures that we use to judge any media, they are techniques and skills that should be applied correctly in order to make a great piece of work.
But there’s another, more personal aspect to our internal review, and that’s Personal Taste. These are more “subjective” aspects of our review, as they dwell in things that are more reflected as opinions instead of actual fundamental story telling skills. They come from our personality, our experiences in life, and from what we “believe” to be “good” or “bad”. For example, a certain camera angle may be “fundamentally sound” but I personally might not like that angle for that scene, and thus, I have a disagreement between my objective review and my Personal Taste. This is where many people fall into the trap of using their Personal Taste as objectivity, they feel like their opinion is best, and anyone else is wrong. This is where we get arguments about movie reviews, or whether or not this movie was bad or not, in reality these arguments are fruitless, it’s merely a matter of opinion.
But once you understand the difference, its OK to have this disparity between your objective review and personal taste, going back to my camera angle example, yes, I don’t like that angle, but that doesn’t make it a “bad” angle objectively, that’s just my taste, my opinion. But this also can go the other way, a movie might be an awful movie, but I might personally enjoy it, despite its flaws as a film.
Like all things, a balance is required in reviewing a work, you shouldn’t interject your opinion as objective, but you shouldn’t keep your review as merely a check list of facts without a single shred of personality.
An example of one of these extremes can be found in a review of “The Scarlet Letter” from Arthur Coxe, a pastor.
You can read the whole review here, and I’ll be referencing it throughout this next section:
What was striking about that review to you, especially when you compare it to a modern-day review?
What struck me was the fact that Arthur Coxe completely rips apart the Scarlet Letter, but not because of its writing, actually praising the writing, not because of any of its literary techniques, or really anything to do with writing in general; instead he vehemently shreds the Scarlet Letter for……its message?
“Now, in Goldsmith’s story there are very coarse words, but we do not remember anything that saps the foundations of the moral sense, or that goes to create unavoidable sympathy with unrepenting sorrow, and deliberate, premeditated sin. The “Vicar of Wakefield” is sometimes coarsely virtuous, but “the Scarlet Letter” is delicately immoral.”
I could not find a single objective criticism within the review, and in fact, found a very biased, and personal review of the book, which is fair game; he has every right to do so, but once again is an example of using Personal Taste as objective. In this case, Arthur Coxe, being a pastor, takes religious stances against the book, not really making this a review, but a personal anecdote against Hawthorne’s use of this particular moral message by putting “sin” into a “more positive light.” I completely disagree with how Arthur Coxe chose to review “The Scarlet Letter.”
But do you know what’s the funny part? I completely agree with Arthur Coxe. I fully view Hester Prynn and Dimmesdale in the wrong for their actions, and I do put the blame on them for what happened to Chillingworth, but the difference is that I understand the disparity between my Personal Tastes and the Objective Review.So yes, the Scarlet Letter might not have a great message to me personally, but its a damn good book, with the most painstakingly crafted and detailed imagery that I’ve ever read. I don’t judge works based on their message, and I judge them based on how they get that message to me. My English teacher had a great quote that I’ll paraphrase here:
“You know you’ll always here this thing about, “What did the author mean?”, well in this class, we’re style analysts; we don’t care what the author means, we care what the author DOES.”
So taking in both Personal Taste and Objective Review, how can we figure out what is or isn’t good media? Well that’s even more complicated.
And at the end of the day, that remains completely subjective on an individual level. We all have different tastes, we’re all different people, so really we can’t individually agree upon what’s “good” or “bad” as those terms themselves are completely vague and would require definitions: is a good movie only fundamentally sound? What about movies that break traditional roles? How much does Personal Taste factor into a good movie? Should Personal Taste matter at all?
These questions drone on and on, with no end in sight. But we as a society have come up with a sort of theory on how to determine what is good and bad; what I’d like to call “General Consensus”.
Now this theory relies on not one individual’s review of a media, but many individuals, and from this we can get a consensus on how that media is received by the public. But that word is key: public. You can poll a bunch of average people about a certain media, but even with that consensus, it’s merely an average score of laymen opinion, not really a measure of how good a film is. So what’s the solution?
Simple. Poll a group of people about a certain media, but have those people be experts in that field for that media, basically, professional critics.
This method becomes more streamlined when we apply it to critics: sites like Rotten Tomatoes or IMBD get the reviews from multiple experts, and from there we can a consensus review from a panel of professionals, getting an overall review from a more qualified source than just the overall public. This is the reason why sites will have two different cumulative scores for films: one overall score from the public submissions, and one overall score from qualified experts.
I feel like I should place in my personal opinion on the topic of movie criticism, and that I should remind you that what I’m about to say is in fact my opinion.
For me personally, I like to think that I use a fairly balanced mixture of Objective Review and my own Personal Tastes, I like smart movies that don’t treat me like an idiot, and leave me to figure things out on my own. For me, character development is one of the, if not the, most important aspects of a film, as the drama from a film comes from caring about the characters and wanting them to overcome whatever conflicts they should come across; so if a film has poor or no character development, why should I care about the characters, therefore why should I care about the movie? But I also have my own opinions on how certain things should look in scenes, or how exposition should be done,etc and I do factor those in, but I make sure they don’t define a movie’s score for me as they are subjective.
Buts its important to understand that for the regular person, they watch a movie for entertainment, and that’s it. They’re not looking for parallel structures, or characterization, or literary or thematic skills or tools, and that’s absolutely fine. Up to this point, I’ve written almost 1400 words on this topic, but in the end, sometimes some people just like a film and some don’t, and that’s OK; some people don’t want to or don’t care enough to go into this much detail, but that’s OK! And I mentioned this before in this post but really,its honestly not worth the time to argue movie scores or whether this was good or not, in reality it’s just a childish fight over something completely subjective on an individual level. I respect someone else’s opinion on a film, and just because I felt a certain film was a masterpiece or not, doesn’t mean that it is objectively, its my opinion. And in the end for reviews, that’s all they are: opinions.