Criteria in Film | The Serious Drama | What I Like | Film Zones | The Serious Drama Canon | What the Public Likes: Violent Special Effects | Special Effects and Non-Violence

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Criteria in Film

What criteria do people use to judge a good film?

Movie critics often do not make explicit their criteria for film excellence. One has to try to guess it from their choices of good films.

The Serious Drama

When one looks at the "best films of the year lists" put out by critics over the last fifty years, one is struck by a common denominator in many, even most, of the films chosen. The most admired films tend to all be members of a single genre, the serious drama. The "serious drama" can be defined as films that present a non-comic dramatic look at the personal interactions in the daily life of a group of people, set against a realistically depicted background of ordinary daily life in modern times. Such films are explicitly not comedies, which are light hearted and funny, and not crime thrillers, musicals, Westerns or science fiction films, none of which looks realistically at ordinary daily life. Serious dramas never have any experimental or avant-garde features in their narration; they stick to straightforward, traditional dramatic storytelling. Serious dramas are very different from "historical films", which often look at highly unusual people and events in history, far from the routine modern daily life shown in "serious dramas". Serious dramas are never biographies of great artists or scientists; they focus exclusively on ordinary talentless people and ordinary modern daily life.

Serious dramas are produced all over the world, and by all sorts of filmmakers. Recent famous examples from Hollywood include American Beauty (1999), from American independent film, You Can Count on Me (2001), and from abroad, the Taiwanese film Yi Yi (2001). All of these films have been praised to the skies by critics, and showered with awards. This is in fact fairly typical of the critical reception of serious dramas: for much of the last fifty years, they have been singled out as the best in film making. Critics have spent decades seizing every serious drama they can find, and praising it as the summit of film art.

Over the years, other critics, not into "serious dramas", have proposed a series of other criteria for film excellence. Some like films with imaginative plots. Clever dialogue; humor; good singing and dancing; rich characterization; good acting; emotional depth; intelligent social commentary; documentary like looks at other cultures; educational looks at science or the arts; educational looks at history and unusual subcultures; and spiritual values all have their adherents. Innovations in film technique are also prized, and abstract imagery. Many auteur critics have admired pictorial beauty, visual style used in the creation of atmosphere and meaning ("mise-en-scène") and visual imagination in storytelling. I personally value all of the accomplishments in film mentioned in this paragraph. Of course, one is not likely to find all of the above in any one film!

One problem with the above list is that it intersects only infrequently with the serious drama. It is my experience that the serious dramas that are so admired by critics rarely have any other virtues, other than being serious dramas. They tend not to be imaginatively plotted, or filled with interesting dialogue. They tend to be visually dead. They have little pictorial beauty. The actors tend to look as if the director arranged them at random, then plunked the camera down in front of them and shot them. There is no visual style or mise-en-scène. There is little educational value in these films about science, the arts or other cultures; after all, they are restricted to daily life. Even the acting and characterization, which might be consistent with the films' dramatic nature, tends to be remarkably weak. In short, judged by any other criteria than being serious dramas, these films tend to be poor.

This has caused a profound disconnect between the critical community and me. I read critics rave about a film like Yi Yi or You Can Count on Me, but when I go to see it, it has few or no virtues. These films show none of the signs of excellence I look for, as measured by the above paragraph of criteria. By the numerous criteria I use to judge films, these are poor movies.

What I Like

Please do not write me off as a philistine, or someone incapable of appreciating subtitled movies. Among contemporary foreign directors, I greatly admire the pictorial beauty found in the films of Claire Denis, Carlos Diegues, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Shohei Imamura, Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jean-Paul Rappenau, Alexander Sokurov, Béla Tarr, Tran Anh Hung, Angès Varda, Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou.

I also love the experimental qualities of Alain Berliner, Christoffer Boe, Kazuyoshi Okuyama, Christian Lara, Guy Maddin, Stuart Main and Peter Wells, Carlos Saura, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Lou Ye, not to mention such great veterans as Jean-Luc Godard, Dusan Makavejev and Alain Resnais. All of these directors are superb at creating mise-en-scène.

I also respect the social consciousness of Youssef Chahine, Pol Cruchten, Max Färberböck, Eytan Fox, Bahman Ghobadi, Tareque Masud, Jan Svarek, Margarethe von Trotta, Andrzej Wajda, Benito Zambrano and Zhang Yuan, often expressed in cinematically rich ways.

I have an especial interest in both pictorial beauty and mise-en-scène. These are interlocking ideas. "Pictorial beauty" expresses the idea that the film is beautiful to look at. The frames and images are beautiful, in and of themselves as works of visual art. "Mise-en-scène" also centers on beautiful images, but it goes beyond the concept of pure pictorial beauty. Mise-en-scène refers to the way beautiful images can create dramatic moods and atmosphere, and convey the subtleties of the characters' feelings and the director's emotions. Mise-en-scène can be a continually unfolding commentary on the story, as the pictures that pass across the screen create moods that describe and emotionalize the action.

Film Zones

The different kinds of film today have become a battle zone. People who enjoy foreign language films are accused of being pointy headed elitists, whose recommendation of films with subtitles is motivated by snobbery and one upmanship. Conversely, people who like any Hollywood films at all are accused of promoting trash, sleaze and the betrayal of film art. And everyone dumps on experimental films, whose often deliberate lack of narrative is seen as an affront to viewers. As a person who enjoys many of all of these kinds of films, I feel like my admiration for any one of these kinds of film is turned into a controversial issue. Simply adding a new movie to my list of recommended films today seems like sneaking into a combat zone. Having fun at the movies has never been so controversial.

A Doubtful Canon: Film History and Serious Drama

Film historians who only like serious drama can construct a whole canon, made up of filmmakers who can be depicted as specializing in such works. This includes such directors as: Renoir, Bresson, Ozu, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and maybe Dreyer (whose historical films do not quite fit the contemporary realism favored by the serious drama); and such film movements as: Italian Neorealism; the French New Wave, the "serious" American films of the 1970's such as Coppola, Scorsese and Altman; the New German Cinema of the 1970's; contemporary Iranian films; the Taiwanese New Wave of Hou, Yang and Tsai; and contemporary American Independent films in the serious drama mode.

Obviously, there are some great filmmakers in this list. Italian Neorealism is especially full of giants: Rossellini, Fellini, Antonioni, Olmi. And the French New Wave contains Resnais, Varda and Godard. I also revere Renoir, Bresson, Ozu, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and Dreyer.

Still by leaving all genre filmmakers off the above list, from comedy through Westerns, thrillers, love stories, melodramas, historical films, musicals and science fiction, and most experimental filmmakers too, the above canon gives a seriously distorted account of film history. One sees one version or another the above "serious drama canon" being used as an account of film history by many critics today. It is badly flawed.

As far as I can see, there are only two theories of the "history of the narrative film" in widespread use. One is the "serious drama canon" above. The other is the auteur theory. The auteur theory, to which I subscribe, finds virtues in creative filmmakers of many different types, from realist to genre.

What the Public Likes: Violent Special Effects

The film going public has some special preferences in films. Many movie goers love films that mix special effects with violence. There are numerous blockbuster hits of this sort: Titanic, Twister, Pearl Harbor, and many other recent war movies, the Jurassic Park films, the Indiana Jones pictures, The Terminator, The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Lord of the Rings all come to mind. Some high tech animated films such as Toy Story also fall into this category. I differ from much of the public in that I have no interest in violent special effects - probably because I do not enjoy violence in general. Pictures like this rarely interest me very much; none of the above films is recommended by me. (Honesty compels me to admit that I have never seen Pearl Harbor or Jurassic Park, fearing they would be too gory for me.)

The situation here oddly parallels that of the "serious drama". Just as most film critics admire a favorite genre, "the serious drama", so does much of the public admire another genre, the "film with special effects and violence". People who like these genres seem to like and enjoy virtually all films in the genre, without fail. Many critics seem to have loved nearly every serious drama that has come out over the last fifty years. And much of the public treats every new violent special effects film as a triumph. Meanwhile, examples of these films regularly seem deficient to me in what I like in a movie. Imaginative stories, comedy, musical numbers, pictorial beauty, mise-en-scène, social commentary: all seem to be absent from both genres. I go to these movies, and regard them as dismal failures, for not containing the sorts of accomplishments I admire and enjoy in films.

I often feel baffled by audience reaction to such films. Take the most unendurable example: Twister. This was a gigantic hit, and many of my friends loved it. They all said the same thing: "Wasn't the flying cow great?" Yet by many other standards, Twister is awful. It has no plot, for one thing. First a tornado comes through and wrecks things, then another tornado comes through, then another, and so on. There is no real story at all. The film's characters are ciphers, the dialogue is awful, the film looks ugly, and two hours of death and destruction seem just plain repulsive to me. Traditional, pre-1970 Hollywood movies tended to stress plot. They had plot, plot and more plot. Audiences seemed to expect this. One suspects that had Twister been shown in a movie theater in 1939, that it would have been hooted off the screen by the audience. "Where is the story?" everyone would say.

Special Effects and Non-Violence

In recent years, Hollywood has also been making some special effects movies that are not centered around violence. To my surprise, I discover that I have been enjoying these films very much. These films tend to fall into two categories, so far.

Racing films like The Fast and The Furious (Rob Cohen) and Torque (Joseph Kahn) use special effects to recreate high speed races, and stunts involving motorcycle and cars. These films are genuinely dazzling in the evocation of high speed, especially when seen in a theater. They also use an eye-popping array of bright color.

Several good comic book adaptations use special effects to create amazing stunts performed by their super-heroes, and to show the super-heroes' unique powers. These include Daredevil (Mark Steven Johnson), Fantastic Four (Tim Story) and Superman Returns (Bryan Singer). While there is some violence in these films - too much for my taste - the emphasis is on the amazing things superheroes do.

I think super-heroes are far better role models for us all, rather than the violent "heroes" of some recent Hollywood films. Superman, that archetypal super-hero, has always been a pacifist figure, throughout his long history in comic books. Superman is NOT a fighter. Instead, he is a man who uses his powers to help people, often in unique ways: shoring up bursting dams, rescuing kids, preventing disasters. The film Superman Returns captures this spirit with deep fidelity. Its centerpiece is an amazing stunt, in which Superman rescues a crashing air liner. This is a genuinely thrilling sequence. Later, Superman tries to prevent a disaster involving rising sea levels: a thinly disguised look at the horrors of Global Warming. Films like Superman Returns suggest that we should be out helping people, like Superman does. By contrast, I fear that films that glorify violence are suggesting that audiences support war. This is one reason I am so afraid of violent films.

Daredevil has one of the most beautiful special effects sequences of recent years. Rain splashes over a visualization of a woman's face, as created by the blind hero. This is a poetic scene that Cocteau would have loved.

There are other good films full of special effects that fall in neither of these two categories. Charlotte's Web (Gary Winick) is an example.

A Bad Time at the Movies

If your idea of a good time is Yi Yi, a film about the death of a loved one, losing one's job, sadistic teachers mistreating little kids, guilt about neglecting your elders, the pain of adultery, corruption in the business world, and horrendous feelings of angst and misery, you are welcome to it. Yi Yi sort of hits the jackpot in "serious dramas", by including virtually every horrifying or depressing situation found in modern daily life in one fun-filled three hour movie. It is hard for me to imagine any ordinary person seeing Yi Yi, and not feeling ghastly. I cannot imagine a more miserable experience, short of having your dog die. When critics recommend a film like Yi Yi, I wonder if they are sadists, trying to inflict suffering on audiences. While Yi Yi made many critics' ten-best lists for 2001, the public stayed away in droves. Yi Yi also seems to me to be a complete piece of garbage by other standards: it is visually ugly, has little creative camera work, and the acting is at a somnambulistic level of misery and malaise. Am I making myself clear: I hated Yi Yi. I have also come to dread the genre it represents, the "serious drama". Most of these films seem awful to me.

Critics seem to me to be using up whatever respect they possess from the public by recommending dreadful experiences like Yi Yi or You Can Count on Me, another visually dead, depressing look at awful people and situations masquerading as a movie. While I keep trying to get people interested in films that are visually beautiful, the critical community just keeps pushing films that are depressing.