Evaluating Movies: Some Critical Criteria

Dean Duncan

The reviews that are now found and will continue to be added to this site come from a number of individuals and a number of different sensibilities. We hope that this diversity of opinion will be a positive part of our discussion, and a reminder of some important points that are too often obscured when we consider the act and institution of criticism.

There is a common complaint that many people lodge about film and media criticism: “I don’t like that critic because he doesn’t agree with me!” This is an interesting sentiment, and in some ways an understandable one. Our disagreements may stem from important differences in disposition or sensibility. They may even turn on some key moral point, on a principle that we are not willing to compromise. (They may also turn on the fact that a lot of contemporary film criticism is really poor, which is a topic for another discussion.) But these things are not true as often as we might think, or claim. Precept is one thing, but could it be that a little shortage of intellectual industry, or a small surplus of close-mindedness lie at the root of my critical resistance, as well as my resistance to things criticized?

This is an important question and it extends beyond our mere experiences with the movies. We should think about our protesting-too-much resistance to people, critics in this case, with whom we disagree. Should we only talk or listen to those who think like we do? A world made in our own image, which conforms and limits itself to what we know and desire, will surely be a pinched and paltry place. On the other hand, though it is true that opening ourselves to things that we had never contemplated can be a humbling and disconcerting experience, it is also true that an open-hearted participation in the exchange of ideas and observations can lead to much growth and edification.

We believe that involvement in positive, constructive critical conversations can facilitate just this kind of growth and edification. We hope to contribute to that conversation and to be of some assistance to our readers looking for substantial media, as well as for better ways to understand and gain from it. But as suggested above it is important to establish that we are not trying to make definitive judgments, or to have you always agree with us. We proceed on the assumption that the open airing of perspectives and possibilities, for all the complications it entails, will ultimately help us understand others, and ourselves, better.

To this point you may agree; this is not a particularly controversial idea. However it might be said that, as stated, it is too abstract to be of much use. Questions naturally arise: what specifically does one do? How can we take part? We don’t have all the answers, but we have come to believe in a few basic principles, the consideration and application of which may also equip our readers for the critical work, and the fun, to follow.

One important idea is that the way things are usually done is not necessarily the way things should, or must be done. Take, for instance, the movies. Most commercial story telling tends toward closure, a neat and satisfying conclusion that answers all of our story-related questions and solves all of our story-related problems. In addition a great deal of the critical writing that we find, whether the object of criticism is commercial and intends closure or not, reflects this same impulse. Now there is a reason for this. We are understandably reassured by clear answers to important questions: what does it mean? Is it good or is it bad? Should I spend my time and money on this thing?

But in this approach there is a potential problem. It may be that a consumer report about a product with a very specific purpose can be appropriately and effectively made in the way just described. It is certainly true that the people that make these products benefit from such cut and dried conversation, at least if the consumer report is positive. But as parents and teachers, neighbours and citizens, should we be satisfied by mere product ratings?

The fact is that the commercial and critical closure characteristic of the workaday production and discussion of movies is incompatible with the kind of expansive, searching, discussion that leads past mere entertainment to education. The fairly complete domination of the transaction approach—you sell, I buy, and the offer expires soon—to cultural expression and social interaction has had an unfortunate, even dangerous affect on the way we think and interact. The reason for this is that it really has little resemblance to what we know, and who we are.

People are complicated, groups of people are even more complicated, and that complexity is inevitably, confoundingly, and wonderfully a part of any expression of individual or community life. It takes time and patience to get to know someone, or something that is an expression or reflection of that person. Products may be straightforwardly this or that, but the books and movies and programs and people that are most worth our while require a little more of us.

If we hold these things to be true, then they should affect the way we read and see, and they may require us to make some fundamental changes. Though superficial practices are all around us, we are not obligated to follow suit. Too many critics and spectators reach for definitive judgments without first thinking about the criteria on which something should be judged. We are at risk if we hasten to critical conclusions without giving any time or thought to the conversations that would give them meaning.

Since we believe this to be the case, and since we would like our readers to be consciously involved in the discourse, we wish to be clear about our methodology and approach. Our writing will be informed by two main critical principles. The first is that a work should be judged on its own terms, and not on the basis of some other prevailing custom or preference or expectation. When we consider a film or program we will try to identify what it is and how it operates. We want to understand the way it is structured, and something of the intent behind it, and then discuss it accordingly.

This means that a story that seeks to raise questions should not be faulted when it doesn’t give answers. A small character-based story is not a failure because it does not resemble a big-budget special effects extravaganza. We need not reject the Iranian feature that moves at a more leisurely pace than the action-adventure picture from Hong Kong. An old movie is not the lesser for not being a new movie.

This does not mean that we will champion every film simply for doing what it wants. Intention is just one consideration among many, and if we feel a film’s objective to be questionable, then we will say so. For instance, films that advocate and model materialism or destructive self-absorption, even—especially—if they do so unconsciously, will be considered and then possibly condemned on their own materialistic, self-absorbed terms. But we want to listen to the film first, and not just throw it out because of our deafness or our insensitivity to its language.

We should also post a warning that, though we are firm in our convictions, we will undoubtedly, and again maybe accidentally, be inconsistent or inadequate in upholding them. But as we are meaning and trying to do well, we will hope for your indulgence and charity in this matter.

Appropriately, the virtue of charity very much informs our second critical principle, which is also closely related to the first. Much media product is distributed on the assumption that audiences are demanding and passive and requiring that everything be done for them. Our assertion runs directly counter to this truism: we believe that much of the responsibility for a good film experience lies with the viewer. If we are to judge a work on its own merits, according to its own nature, then we must do some thinking, maybe even some studying in order to understand that nature. If the film is falling short, the sympathetic viewer can make a few mental adjustments and help it out. If his principles are being challenged (personally I find myself being troubled by cynical, cash-grabbing adaptations of spirited children’s books), then the active, thinking viewer does not remain defenseless. He’ll come to know clearly what is wrong, and perhaps what he can do about it.

In sum, a combination of generosity—not permissiveness—curiosity, and a willingness to think things through and work things out will actually bring the viewer into the creative process. This means that the challenges, invigorations and satisfactions of art making need not be restricted to those with the money and the equipment and the means of distribution. These are the things we are looking for, the things we hope to accomplish in our conversations here.

Visitors to this site will certainly find strong opinion and firm judgment, and they may well, indeed should, sometimes disagree with those judgments. But our perspective, though it may differ from most consumerist, reductively evaluative criticism, is that this differing is not inherently a problem. Rather than offering definitive conclusions we are interested in continuing conversations, helping each other to discover and consider angles or nuances that we would not have found on our own. We will proceed on the assumption, and with the conviction, that there are many valid and instructive approaches to any idea or representation. To discuss and consider these alternatives is to increase our critical vocabulary, to increase our ability to effectively understand and apply the ideas that we encounter.

See Also

Easy Street

The Straight Story

Jason and the Argonauts


Alice in the Cities

The White Balloon

A Man for All Seasons