Movie Critics: Personal Vs. Impersonal Evaluation

Most people will agree that the evaluation of art works, including films, calls for a more detached and critical assessment of their merits and flaws, meanings or lack of.


As film critics, we suggest and recommend that you see a particular film because it’s worthy, and/or interesting, and/or entertaining.  But who are we to tell you what to see?  Most moviegoers evaluate films on the basis of their own personal values and idiosyncratic tastes, and that’s how it should be.        


However, the critical question is to what extent it’s possible to evaluate films with any degree of detachment, let alone objectivity. As the distinguished scholar David Bordwell pointed out, there is a difference between personal taste and evaluative judgment.


Personal preference may include guilty pleasures of one kind or another.  It’s possible to enjoy films that are not good, or even bad.  As I pointed out in a previous column, trashy movies (or any other form of pop culture) brings different sorts of pleasure while we view the work and even afterwards.


Take “The Rocky Horror Show,” a movie that was dismissed by most critics at its initial release, in 1975, and was considered an artistic and commercial flop.  Three decades later, it has become a cult classic, a campy experience that goes beyond the merits of the movie as movie.  But is “The Rocky Horror Show” a good picture?  Should we include it in classes or textbooks about American movie musical (I have faced this dilemma several times when teaching such courses).


In contrast, the more serious film critics and scholars, who aim to make a relatively more detached (or impersonal) evaluation use more specific criteria.  A criterion is a standard, which can be applied to the judgment of many different films of various genres made at different historical times.

Any criterion (and it’s recommended to use more than one) could serves as the basis of comparison among many different films for their relative merits.


Some scholars distinguish between external and internal criteria in evaluating films.  Thus, among the external yardsticks would be the film’s degree of realism and authenticity, or application of some moral or political standards.  Is the film conservative, reactionary, liberal vis a vis dominant ideology?  Is the film lagging behind the zeitgeist or is ahead of its time?  And who has the skills and abilities to determine those features?


Other critics, such as Brodwell, advocate a more formal analysis, evaluating a particular film in terms of its formal artistic properties.  This approach is known in the literature as Formalism. For them, the most crucial element is the film’s particular form.  They try to answer the question of whether or not a particular movie succeeds on its own terms in creating a set of identifiable or distinguishable formal relationships, such as narrative structure, visual style, resolution, and ending.


My teacher and mentor Andrew Sarris used to say in classes that seeing, interpreting and evaluating films, and then re-seeing them, is a lifelong project.  Indeed, evaluation can serve not only aesthetic or artistic but also many useful and pragmatic functions.  It can call attention to neglected films, which were under appreciated when they were initially released.


Evaluation can make us as viewers think and rethink our approach toward what’s considered to be a canon of films, composed of the accepted classics.  Why do most critics consider Orson Welles’ stunning debut, “Citizen Kane,” made in 1941, as one of the best and most significant American movies ever made?  Or take the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest American Film, for example.


Evaluation can also lead to the discovery and rediscovery of old directors, who had never received their due recognition, or lost cinematic treasures, which had never been seen theatrically or properly.  This is the case of many foreign-language films, indies, and documentaries, still the problematic works in the more mainstream American movie climate.


In a future column, I’ll deal with the crucial, controversial, and problematic issue of timely movies, which are grounded in their immediate socio-political contexts (and become disposable when these contexts change), and timeless works (such as “Citizen Kane” or “The Searchers” or “Psycho” or “Taxi Driver”), whose meanings and merits go way beyond the times in which they were made.