A Debate on Critiquing Film Objectively vs. Subjectively

So this conversation I had about a year ago, which I forgot about until now, came about somewhat randomly when talking about how much Ghostbusters: Answer the Call sucked loads of diarrhea ass.  You may find it worth a read.




 

  • There is something odd about your acknowledgement that humour is subjective but then following that up with a claim to objectivity. Sure, you didn’t like the movie, but to assert that others couldn’t derive pleasure from the film is a bit over the top.

     

 

Me:

But that’s not what I said. I said, “People have subjective tastes in films, and there’s probably nothing more subjective than a sense of humor. But I can prove that the original is objectively better than this one […]”

Subjective tastes indicate subjective ways of being entertained. People can be entertained by low brow humor, people can be entertained by high brow humor, or the stuff in between. But being entertained by a movie doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. People enjoy films all the time that they readily admit/claim is trash, just as people enjoy films that they admit/claim is not trash. There is criteria to be met for a film to be considered good, and this film falls short of that, at the very least. I consider it trash. Doesn’t change the fact that viewers can be entertained by trash.

 

 

  • There is criteria to be met for a film to be considered good

    and that criteria is just as subjective and prone to institutional, political, social, and economic forces. The canon of “good” films is an archive and those who decide what goes into the archive and what does not is not simply a choice made on aesthetics but also those other forces. Even a cognitivist approach to the study of film is not without the instability of its truth-claims.

    When I said “couldn’t” I meant a proscribed “couldn’t” as in you were asserting that those who like this low brow humour could “take their opinions and stick it up their low common denominator asses.” You conflated your subjective affective reaction to the film (eg. you hated it) with a delineation between value (“In my opinion, those people got really shitty tastes in movies”) and “objective criteria.” In sum, your assertion on the value of this film is prescriptive: if you like the film, then your opinion and experience is worthless… which is demonstrably not true.

    Even if I hated this movie, I still would have objected to your line of argumentation.

 

Me:

Well it’s about damn time someone got confrontational with my statements. Care to expand on how those truth claims with the study of film?

I stand by my opinion regarding those who like the low brow humor of this movie, but I believe I should clarify that this applies to only this movie. There are varieties of low brow humor, and this film only has 1 of them (for the most part anyway). This isn’t the same as Troll 2, Ted or Ted 2, Rick and Morty, etc.

The statement, “if you like the film, then your opinion and experience is worthless” isn’t entirely accurate. I would rephrase it as, “if you like this film, then your opinion of this film is worthless.” Key words there being “this film.”

With that said, I’ll relent a bit. It’s not right to say “if you like this film, then your opinion of this film is worthless,” because there is usually something to be gained from one’s sincere opinion, even if you don’t agree with it. Some who like a movie but admit it is trash should serve as a fair warning to others. Those who like a movie that is trash but don’t admit that it is trash, and refuse to admit it is trash, those are opinions that are worthless. You can argue that films can’t be objectively labeled as trash or good because films are an art form and art is subjective, to which I’ll reply, “I would love to see your arguments.” Bring them on.

 

 

  • I love when internet discourses are actually productive! Yay us!

    because there is usually something to be gained from one’s sincere opinion, even if you don’t agree with it

    I’m a huge believer in reading opposite opinions on cultural objects to get a sense of what other people are thinking. I loved this movie, but I can for sure appreciate the criticism that other people, such as yourself, make about the film. You’re for sure right in your review that the plotholes are particularly galling as well as you’re right about the beat-for-beat remake of the original. I reacted negatively to The Force Awakens but positively to this, and that reaction is worth examining—which is why I read opposing opinions.

    No matter the trashiness of the film, the spectator’s affective reaction is worth something. And sure, the film might not hold up to the same standard as the first (I can think of few reboots/remakes that will last in the cultural memory longer than the original) but that’s not to say the film itself is worthless (have you seen all the women and little girls fucking pumped about Holtzmann?) nor are people’s opinion on the film itself worthless

    Care to expand on how those truth claims with the study of film?

    Well, the cognitivist approach was popularized by David Bordwell. He takes at length about the practice of film criticism in his book Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. He argues, quite persuasively, that since film studies as an institution derives from literary studies, it also carries the same rhetorical strategies and evidentiary standards —which is to say, not from the traditional scientific method of hypothesis, test, validate. It’s definitely worth a read if only because it helps put into words why we tend to interpret films the way we do (methodologically speaking).

 

 

Me:

I don’t have that book handy. I’d rather see a quote that supports the claim that disagrees with my statement.

 

 

  • From my .pdf here’s a screenshot of pages 4-5. The relavent passage starts with “In the course of this book,” and goes onto the next page. This is a summary of one of his arguments, that film theory is divorced from rigorous (ie testable) truth-claims. He has a whole book called Post-Theory where he expands on this.
    imgur.com/L3fMvB0

 

 

 

Me:

Big dictionary words in this. Used to dabble in works such as this, but that was a while ago, so I’m a bit rusty. From what I gather, it’s arguing that a critic has no boundaries, no limits, to how films are critiqued, thus he can reset or move the boundaries whenever he desires. Interpretations are tricky, and so are the words that are to be used for film criticism.

Well, I do believe I can at least respond to the boundaries claim. There are boundaries that can be set. Take acting for example. The actor must react to a situation in a certain way, and must look convincing when doing so (unless this is to be a parody or a documentary, in the case of the former, the actor must intentionally act unconvincing if the scene or film calls for it). So the situation must be analyzed and consider what is called for.

For example, in the portion of Citizen Kane where Orson Welles is playing an old man and throws a tantrum, the situation calls for realism, to demonstrate how angry Kane becomes when he doesn’t get what he wants, when he realizes that there is something he cannot possess to illustrate his desire to possess everything. As an old man, raging rather meekly and stiffly demonstrates how pathetic and childish he has become, while also realistically demonstrating that this is how an elder would get angry, as opposed to the youth that Orson Welles actually is at the time who would more effectively, more terrifyingly, and more energetically break things in a fit of rage. That’s the situation. And it can’t really be argued that the performance didn’t effectively portray this. That being said, if an actor came on to the role for this sequence who didn’t look angry, didn’t move liken to an elderly, then it would be a bad performance for that scene.

I believe the reason the author claims critics have no boundaries is because he doesn’t take into account that films have different situations, or may have the same situation but desire a different performance from it to deliver a different mood, atmosphere, or message. One must consider each scene, each situation, consider the intention, and critique accordingly. And it’s not just with actors, but the music (much more difficult to critique, but possible), the directing style, the coloring, lighting, mise en scene, etc. And then of course you have to consider the film as a whole, and consider the situation in context with the film as a whole, if all the “situations” within the film mesh well together for the entire film. Difficult, but not impossible.

Boundaries can be set, but they must be set relative to the situation at hand. If boundaries can’t be set, then there wouldn’t be near-universal agreements on the status of certain films. Troll 2 is considered a bad film, but there are those who would disagree, and I say their opinion doesn’t really matter because they’re not sane, and their reasons for thinking the movie is good are not logical (such as the director and at least 1 actress, as highlighted in the film Best Worst Movie). But the film is still popular in a cult status way because people think the film is good entertainment for reasons different from those few exceptional dissenters.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Citizen Kane, a film borderline-universally considered good, where many essays and books (much less reviews on this site) highlight why it is good. And once again, the dissenters opinion doesn’t really matter because their arguments against it not being a good film (not their arguments for why they didn’t enjoy it mind you) are flawed.

As for this film Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, the boundary I set is that it takes more than comedy for a film to be good, even if the film itself is a comedy. All famous comedy films that are remembered decades later have more going for them than just their comedy, the most famous example being Dr. Strangelove. As for another example, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it also has great set pieces, great stuntwork, little messages about the downfall of those who are ruled by greed or refuse to stand up for themselves against the will of others. That movie, a movie that is very centered around its slapstick comedy antics, has more contained within it (length aside) than the new Ghostbusters film does.

So, what else have you got?

 

 

  • it’s arguing that a critic has no boundaries, no limits, to how films are critiqued

    Bordwell will go on, in fact, to argue the opposite. He takes issue with the idea that critics have no boundaries. In fact, he’s quite famous for bitching about film theory and related semantic fields like post-structuralism. He wants to bring interpretation back down to a rigorous and valid form of hypothesis testing.

 

 

Me:

Uh, ok, but that isn’t giving me a reason to be dissuaded from my stance unless I see some sort of critique against it, as opposed to, “the critiques are there, just not here, they are coming someday.” I’ve made my argument, I’ve made my shot, the ball is still in your court.

 

 

  • Your argument is that criticism can find a measurement of objectivity. Exactly how you haven’t explained. My riposte is that film theory has problems with truth-claims, ie objectivity. My evidence to support such a thing is Bordwell’s insistence that film theory, which derives from the field of literary studies, is rife with the problem of “enumerative inductionism” which is to say that the conclusions might be true for the premise, but are also similarly false for the same premise. The scientific method, at least summarised by Kuhn, functions by “eliminative inductionism” which as it sounds, discards hypotheses as they’re shown to be false until arriving at a positive truth-claim conclusion. Bordwell’s argument, shared by numerous thinkers in the philosophy of science, is that the postmodern view of “epistemological unreliability” ie there is no objective truth, is spurious in light of rational logic. However, the methodology for objective film criticism does not yet exist as even Bordwell’s own cognitivist semantic field struggles to find single positive truth-claim conclusions amongst a sea of premises, something he admits to in the end section of that book I quoted from. In other words, the realm of aesthetics is not one of objectivity but rather subjective experience.

 

 

Me:

I demonstrate how acting can be critiqued objectively, demonstrating that 1 part of film can be critiqued objectively, which indicates that all parts of film can be critiqued objectively on a similar basis, and you say I haven’t given an example? I provided my own theory to counter what I have seen and what you have told me of Bordwell’s theory, and all you do is restate your stance with little added?

The least you can do is demonstrate how acting can’t be critiqued objectively to counter my example with Citizen Kane. I’ve shown an example on how my theory can be used, you should be able to do the same for yours by exploiting the faults in my example, if you can find any.

 

 

  • You didn’t demonstrate that acting can be critiqued objectively. You demonstrated that your methodology for critiquing acting derives from conventions agreed upon by the critical apparatuses that prop up film theory (which are based on enumerative inductionism). Which isn’t to say that your critique isn’t worthwhile. What it means that your claim that acting as an artform would exist outside our own perception, a priori. That an alien consciousness could infer the meaning from the assemblage of gestures and sounds without the contextual and social clues and conventions agreed upon about what good acting constitutes. Again, not worthless but still not objective.

    I’m nitpicking your insistence on “objectivity” not your opinion on what acting is or what is good humour. I’m nitpicking because we’re talking aesthetics which are notoriously tricky to pin down.

 

 

Me:

No, this isn’t enumerative inductionism. That indicates that you have to consider multiple actors and how they could’ve done the role better or worse, or even the same actor. I am not considering it, nor am I saying that should be taken under consideration. A film shouldn’t be critiqued on what-ifs, it should be critiqued on what is, and compared to other things also set in stone (other “what is’s”, if you will).

Acting a priori? Are you telling me that research for a role isn’t based on evidence? Deduction, evidence, acting can be performed and analyzed through both. Do actors not do research for a role? Do they not find evidence that the character they are portraying, even if fictional, isn’t based on some real life figure that there is evidence for? Acting caters to our perceptions, thus it must exist within our perception. If it exists outside of it, such as we can’t perceive this, how would that even work? I do know one thing, the acting done in Citizen Kane at the very least makes sense to our perceptions, both when it was made, and in the present.

Citizen Kane is a movie that does have Orson Welles in it acting as Charles Kane. Fact, objective.

Orson Welles does act like an old man in that scene. You could argue that there are old people that don’t move like that, but on the other hand, there are old people who do move like that. He would only have to replicate the look and movement of one of them. Fact, objective.

The scene portrays the character as an old man who is currently angry and ill-tempered, and Orson Welles acts angry and ill-tempered. You could argue that not all angry people act like this, some would skulk rather than break inanimate objects, but there are people who do act this way. We know people act this way because we’ve seen people act this way, we have perceived and understood it. Fact, objective.

The reason the scene calls for Welles to act this way relates to a previous scene in that his wife left him. People can get angry for such reasons. It also calls for him to act in this way for thematic implications which are not difficult to fathom, as other reviews would be more than happy to point out. The acting not only portrays an angry old man, but also gets this message across, because audiences can “perceive” this, because perceptive individuals exist. Fact. Care to demonstrate how this isn’t objective, or how precisely one can’t arrive to that conclusion?

You see, this is why you should debate by example. State your hypothesis, your theory, make an example out of it, and/or demonstrate how it topples an example set forth by an opposing theory. If you do this, and be as specific as possible while doing so, your message gets through more clearly.

 

 

  • We know people act this way because we’ve seen people act this way, we have perceived and understood it.

    That’s literally enumerative inductionism.

    When I have more than a moment, I’ll come back and offer my rebuttal.

 

 

Me:

I’m not sure what definition you’re using, but according to google, enumerative inductionism is reasons from some instances to all instances, such as by claiming all swans are white if you have seen only 100 swans that are white. That is not what I am basing my theory on. I am saying actors base their performance off of a way specific individuals act, and that replicating that specific individual brings about the desired performance. Because that is accurate enough. Not to say there aren’t other ways to act better or worse, but enough for what the situation calls for. As an even better example, some actors act in a role that replicates the way only 1 lone individual acts, which is hardly similar to the way anyone else would act, such as Bronson with Tom Hardy. I’m not seeing anything close to enumerative inductionism there, but if that is the case, you need to tell me how it is, with specifics.

 

 

  • Premise: we’ve seen people (specifics) act this way
    Conclusion: we know people (general) act this way

 

 

Me:

Wrong.

Premise: we’ve scene that people act this way. (Specifics)
Conclusion: it’s reasonable to believe that one of those types of people can act that way in that situation (specifics).

It’s wrong to generalize everyone who shares similar traits that the actor portrays the same way it is to generalize actors who act similarly with everyone they supposedly represent. No generalizations. Case by case, situation by situation, basis. Case in point, it’s wrong to generalize by stating women and men in general act like the women and men portrayed in Ghostbusters: Answer the Call. That is not the conclusion I am drawing, nor the argument I am supporting.

Or do we have failure to communicate?

 

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