Thursday, December 18, 2008

My two cents


Though none of us can apply a strictly objective set of criteria to judge this or any movie’s specific value, my own inclinations are to think about what the movie tries to do and decide whether or not it follows through.

This movie promises to be a couple of things (dramatic, funny, explosive, some sort of political statement) and doesn’t necessarily accomplish them. Things do explode and do so in an epic, utterly compelling sort of way. That I’ll give it. But the other things just don’t play out for me. Therefore, to follow Gaston’s criteria, I wouldn’t watch it again, nor would I recommend it to someone. It has, of course, evoked responses, and I myself did review it upon watching it (see my myspace blog ).

I base it’s rewatch-abilty, be it my own or a proxy’s, on the things the movie can do (tell a story, tell a joke etc), the things T AZ has laid out. And rewatch-ability is linked up with what I already prefer, right? Not just some objective reaction that occurs upon my watching it the first time. Would I watch Tombstone a zillion times? Yes. Do I argue that it’s aesthetically solid film? Not really. I’d watch it any day of the week because it accomplishes what it promises (being a Western), it’s got some zingy one-liners, and I think Val Kilmer is hot. Part of what I’m arguing is that we have to be aware of what we already prefer and recognize that must factor into a movie’s rewatch-ability status.

I think we also need to think about the watcher’s pleasure. None of us (I hope) would argue the Cougar selections are good movies. Yet you people watch them because you derive some sort of pleasure from seeing a bad movie being bad. So, that has something to do with a film’s aesthetic value. Perhaps the watcher’s reaction might be a better measure—There are films that I consider terrific that I cannot watch again because they were too overwhelming. I found little humor or pleasure in TF, though I delight in the juvenile, as my penchant for Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Friday indicate. I also like watching things blow up. Somehow, though, the anti-freeze as pee-pee joke in TF didn’t work for me and the fighting scenes weren’t enough to carry it. The pleasure I derived from watching it had far more to do with the company rather than anything the film tried and failed to do.

I’m glad to see that box office draw and money made have been tossed from the criteria. By that logic Mariah Carey is the best female artist ever. Lastly, in regard to Michael Bay—the best thing he ever did was direct Meatloaf’s videos

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


1. My argument is NOT that either box office receipts OR critical consensus (with Rotten Tomatoes used as shorthand) constitute grounds for an objective evaluation. We shouldn't replace your list with either of these things, nor should we assume that when all three of these things correspond that we have suddenly found an objective trifecta. My point is that BO and CC complicate any claims to aesthetic objectivity. I don't need to argue that they make their own absolute standard. Of course, popularity doesn't equal "good." Of course, the critical oligarchy aren't absolute arbiters of taste.

2. Ultimately, the only aesthetic judgments that mean anything to me are the answers to these three questions:
a. Would you insist that someone else watch this movie?
b. Would you watch this movie again?
c. DO you want to write about/talk about this movie in an extended format elsewhere?

I still think the re-watchability is probably my go to evaluator (for instance, I tried to watch The Dark Knight again last night, and I fastforwarded everything but the Joker scenes, and I have to say that the film has taken a serious hit in my book after my initial ecstatic response).

But of course, how do you judge something like Schindler's List according to that? That's a movie that I appreciate, but that I really don't want to rewatch. So, the recommendation that someone else NEEDS to watch the film replaces the rewatchability criteria.

Finally, does a film provoke further thought, conversation, and writing? If so, the film is working on some level (i.e. there's enough there to reward engagement).

Notice, each of my criteria relate specifically to practices: watching, telling someone to watch, or writing and talking about the film.

3. My job isn't to argue for TF's perfection. I maintain it's a two star movie. I watched it again, and if someone digs the idea of robots transforming, then I would recommend it in a heartbeat (!). Even if we stipulate your criteria for TF, your evaluation is far from definitive. I've finally decided that the film WANTS to keep the deceptacons indistinct in order to approximate the affect of confronting these evil robots from a clueless human point of view. The F/X and action pacing is enough to earn a star and a half (that is, the accomplishments of the film are NOT slight; they are significant); all I have to do is cobble together half a star from the rest of the film. Easily accomplished.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Viability of Evaluative Film Criticism

Dear Gaston,

Briefly and off-the-cuff:

I mean awful in the sense that it 1) attempts to adhere to a particular set of aesthetic conventions regarding the look, rhythm, structure, pacing, organization and affective power of a Hollywood film and 2) fails to do so on multiple counts. What are these conventions? I believe they could be more-or-less derived from 1) an analysis of the Hollywood film canon, taking into account films that have a) endured as financial draws through re-releases, television rights, critic lists, DVD sales, etc. (this is the Bloom part of the argument) and b) received general critical acclaim (and this would require looking not at the "good" vs. "bad" scale of rotten tomatoes, but the reviews themselves...lest we forget, a 2 1/2 star movie on RT is 'fresh', but I wouldn't call that "critical acclaim;" and 2) an analysis of aesthetic-based critical assessments of Hollywood films (this, as opposed to thematic-based or auteur-based criticism). Obviously, that's too much of a task for me to adequately perform in an email, but I will say those who have watched shitloads of movies (like the two of us) tend to develop a sense for these conventions and expectations, and we carry them into movies when we see them. I know that's not academically precise, but I hope the previous few sentences will suffice as a 'warrant' for this approach, and this last sentence will serve as an 'example' taken from personal experience. Also, this is not to say that all movies everywhere are subject (in terms of their quality) to an adherence to particular cinematic conventions--many movies intentionally deviate from convention and are the better for it, as they strengthen their cases in thematic and auteur based criticism, among other forms of more-academic short, they become more 'interesting'--but it is to say that when a movie 'enters' into a conventional game, its failure to a) self-reflexively explore that convention, b) transcend that convention in any meaningful or intelligent way, or c) carry out that convention in a way that is satisfactory is a FAILURE of its aesthetic program. It becomes a "bad" movie, in the sense that it inadequate AS a movie.

TRANSFORMERS in particular is a classic example of this kind of aesthetic failure. In terms of pacing, the film is uneven, unbalanced and awkwardly timed; this is not wholly a personal opinion--I think most viewers would agree that the screen-time alotted particular characters and events is disproportionate--for example, Megatron, the film's main bad guy and a staple of the cartoon to which Bay's movie has some responsibility to adhere, receives approximately half as much screen time as Shia Lebouf's grandfather's glasses and probably a third of the time alotted to Megan Fox's ass. There's also the problem of the time devoted to particular characters' development: again, Megatron is under-explored, Starscream is ignored, and even Optimus Prime is relegated to a position BENEATH Shia, the glasses, Megan Fox, the black computer guy, John Turturro, Hot Rod, a handful of Marines, the opening credit sequence, Shia's parents, the ending credits, the Hoover Dam, and the Dolly Grip. This is a FAILURE in terms of the way screen time is shared between the principal characters and plot elements of the film. There are also obvious plot problems regarding how particular plot elements are over- or under-explained. This is not purely a subjective judgment, it is an analysis of how TRANSFORMERS compares to the traditional model(s) of narratives it seeks to emulate. This argument is getting repetitive, so let me say quickly that it can apply to any of the elements outlined in the previous paragraph: timing is wrong, plot development is wrong, editing is wrong, pacing is wrong, screen-time alotment is wrong, characters are wrong, the movie fails as an exercise in conventional action-film narrative (it is far too sprawling and loose), it fails as an homage to a children's TV show (and it does this almost as badly as the FIRST Transformers movie), and its not even particularly interesting as a star vehicle, because, again, Shia Lebouf is given a strange and disproportionate amount of screen time in a movie that ISN'T ABOUT HIM. The only area in which TRANSFORMERS is successful is in its achievement as a summer F/X spectacular, which we might want to discuss as its own genre, independent of action films. In these terms, the movie hits the right notes: big opening F/X scene, two scenes in the middle of the film designed to highlight particular developments in F/X (robots at night, interacting with environment, and the chase with Hot Rod and the police car), and a 20 minutes or more closing F/X extravaganza. I am arguing that these ARE legitimate criteria for a movie to attempt to meet, and TRANSFORMERS does meet them impressively; thus, in these terms, it is "good." However, the film doesn't pretend to ONLY be an F/X spectacular--the screentime given to Shia's character is evidence of this--and thus, it must be evaluated in accordance with ALL the criteria relevant to the genres in which it engages (I would say it shoots for comedy, action and bildungsroman, at least). On these terms, the movie is a near-total failure, and thus it is bad, bad, bad.

That was not pre-planned, and so I know it rambled, but I think there are ideas there worth taking seriously and continuing to talk about. Finally, I would also like to say that I think I see the logic you are using in your discussion of quality as necessarily and objectively derived from either 1) box office receipts or 2) critical consensus, but I think your oversimplifying the way this thing has to work. If proposition 1 is true, then the masses have to be arbiters of taste, and the way they wield this power is through dollars--this is a flawed proposition for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its insistence that the masses have free access to capital, that the masses value movie-going in the same way that critics do, and that the masses are somehow in tune with an aesthetic resonance that we are not individually privy to...this seems like mysticism to me. Your second proposition is also problematic, particularly as it is reached through RT--as I said before, there is a huge difference between a critic who calls TF a 2.5 star movie and one who calls it a 4 star movie, and this difference should be accounted for (see: This proposition also rests on MY INABILITY to objectively (or even consistently and subjectively) evaluate a film but OTHER CRITICS' ABILITY to do so. WTF, yo? I admire what you're trying to do with these criteria, but I don't think it works well enough to warrant the way you are discarding any other options for considering the success/failure/quality of a film.

Okay, that was long and I have to get out of here. I hope its food for thought. Hit me back.

T. Az.

Transformers: Good, Bad, Otherwise?

T. Azimouth,

I think we've had this kind of argument before, one where you level an evaluative and objective statement about a film you don't dig. I want to lay out the problems I see with your stance on Transformers, and get some sort of systematic response from you.

You say TF is awful, beyond bad awful, bad as The Core awful.

And you do so in some objective sense.

Okay, what exactly does "awful" mean?

It can't mean "didn't make money." It made 650 million dollars. This means that not only did other people disagree with you on the film's merit (I have several friends who dug it), but that they decided to watch the film in the theater more than once.

It can't mean that critics loathed it (that is, a critical layer of opinion that hovers above the hoi polloi with disdain while the common audience laps it up), because it has Bay's best Rotten Tomatoes rating of all his films.

So...does it mean "Morally repugnant"? If so, how (in some other way than its aesthetic failures...i.e. it's so bad a film that it becomes a sin to watch it)?

Does it mean aesthetically awful? How are you judging this?

What "I" think it means is that you won't watch Transformers again. I'm fully willing to take that as a workable answer. Moral judgments? I guess I can see you coming down hardline on it. Aesthetic judgments? Um...not so much. Your stubbornness regarding this film lets me know it's something more personal rather than some objective standard. can articulate a program of judgment on which to base your claim.

EN garde...