Objectively, Watching Movies Objectively Is a Bad Idea
Every year, as January painfully meanders to an end, I make the same promise to myself: that, when the Academy Award nominations are announced, I won't spend hour after hour scrolling through the inane and heated Twitter debates guaranteed to follow.
I usually make it about three hours before I break this promise.
Making myself angry by reading some random stranger's 280 word take on Thoroughbreds, one that completely misses the point, is just so addictive, and weirdly energizing. Of course, ultimately these people's opinions about an awards ceremony that has more to do with current Hollywood politics than actual art or quality (hence the lack of nominations for Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade) do not matter in the slightest. And all that the people participating in internet arguments about said awards ceremony really want is their personal taste to be validated in some official capacity (hence my fury at the lack of nominations for Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade). Trying to change anyone else's mind is just a waste of everyone's time.
But this year I noticed something in the online discourse that bothered me more than usual. Black Panther's historic nomination for Best Picture, the first superhero movie ever to earn that level of recognition from the Academy, has unsurprisingly generated a frenzy of debate about its worthiness. A lot of the arguments I've seen against have centered on its cultural significance, suggesting that its appeal to online calls for diversity and representation have overpowered its 'objective' quality; its triumphant depiction of a black superhero may be important and ground-breaking, but that doesn't make it a good movie. I loved Black Panther, with its gorgeous, lovingly-crafted world and its nuanced, thoughtful script, but it wasn’t just my personal admiration for the film that made this thought process stand out as strange to me. I'm not saying you have to like Black Panther, or think it deserves to be nominated, obviously. But I do think this line of logic, where a film’s sociocultural context gets divorced from its quality, is not only fundamentally flawed, but it’s dangerous in the way it upholds ‘traditional’ (read: exclusionary) connotations of quality.
This isn’t unique to the Oscars season. In film classes we’re all taught to break down films into disparate elements and then reassemble them in Times New Roman font, double spaced essays. A paragraph on cinematography, a paragraph on sound, a paragraph on costume design. Following the individual thread of each of these pieces helps us to understand how and why good films affect us like they do, and how we can recreate those same effects in our own future projects. Learning about film and its history also requires a certain level of mental disassociation between the texts themselves and the people behind them. I don’t know if anyone besides me has ever said this, but there were and are a lot of bad people working in Hollywood. Some of the most historically significant films, works that forever changed the landscape of the industry and the artform itself, had abusive, hateful, and even violent filmmakers at their helms. In order to at least understand why these films were held up as revolutionary, we often have to (briefly) set aside the human concerns behind them.
Not to mention that the existence of an “objective” interpretation of film is an incredibly attractive one. It’s nice to believe that there’s a right answer, that with enough logical analysis and rationale we can solve a film like a newspaper crossword puzzle, confirming our conclusions with the answer key on page eleven. Our infinitely varied life experiences make it nearly impossible for everyone to agree on the human side of it, but whether or not this shot or that set design worked? We’re a little bit more in yes or no territory there.
But this sort of left-brain investigation only gets us so far. Not to state the obvious, but all films are made by human beings (but if you know about any robots making movies I would love to be proven wrong). And human beings are messy, to say the least. Our identities are shaped by our communities and our worldviews are constructed by our identities. Almost everything about who we are individually has roots in the cultural and historical moments we live in, often in ways we don’t immediately recognize. Regardless of how hard we try to consume film without prior bias, our unique humanity is intrinsic and inseparable from our cinematic experiences. It goes the other way, too; every film ever made has been filtered through the personalities and politics of the people behind them (again, I would be totally interested in any robot made films you know about). This goes for both films that are overtly invested in current social problems as well as works who do their best to ignore them. If we don’t acknowledge the explicit and implicit humanity at the core of film, however messy or frustrating or contradictory it may be, we’re missing the entire point. Trying to detachedly watch film might get you to a more universally agreeable interpretation, but that doesn’t mean it will be right or true.
Take 2015’s Carol. A quietly intense melodrama about two women having an affair in 1950s New York, it was often talked about by critics as a “universal” story. The American Film Institute, in naming Carol one of its top ten movies of the year, described it as “painted in the universal hues of heartache and passion.” Which is all fine and good, but generalizing its love story to something “universal” is just another way of watering down the human specificities that made it worthy of our attention in the first place. The fact that the love affair is between two lesbians is what gives its narrative urgency and consequence. The fact that director Todd Haynes is gay affects how he treats Carol and Therese on screen. The fact that classic melodramas historically focused on the unspoken lives of straight women in repressive, performative social circles is important in understanding just what Haynes is trying to say by applying the genre mode to gay women.
So we can debate back and forth over Black Panther’s Best Picture nomination until the cows come home, but to try to suggest that it doesn’t deserve to be there because its humanity is the only thing that got it there is naïve. The extraordinary power of its depiction of black royalty in a film industry where that imagery is rare, its vision of an Africa never ravaged by European colonizers, its willingness to comment directly and boldly on the state of the world within a genre that is often less subversive than it has the potential to be – all of this is just as much part of what it makes it a quality film as its costuming, its performances, its cinematography. Let’s watch film intelligently and thoughtfully, but let’s also not be afraid of allowing our emotions and our life experiences color what we see. Human beings are the only species on earth, maybe in the galaxy, who create art. Why take our humanity out of the process?