Here’s a frustrating scenario, one in which we have all been:
In the course of conversation amongst friends, a subject of one of your favorite films comes up. You state your unwavering love for said film, expounding upon its greatness and its nearness and dearness to your heart, only to have some asshole (probably one of your friends) disparage it, calling your taste into question. You insist that this dumbfuck justify his or her position and when they do they make a claim that, while you feel is it wrong, you cannot immediately refute. You cannot refute the claim because the claim may not be wholly inaccurate, in fact it may be quite accurate. In the world of casual film criticism there are a number of technically accurate claims made about movies that are presented as strikes against a film’s quality, but are, in fact, not. What follows are a list of these arguments and some cogent points to counter them, arguments that will let these wannabe-Pauline-Kael-who-do-not-know-who-Pauline-Kael-ises, know they are fools and deserve to crawl on their bellies for the rest of their days.
CRITICISM: “IT HAS NO STORY/PLOT!”
This is never true unless you’re talking about experimental films. Any narrative film has plot, but not all are plot-driven. Many movies are character-driven rather than plot-drive, others just have simple, straight-forward stories. Complexity of plotting does not necessarily equate to sophisticated storytelling. Many of the best dramas are character driven rather than plot-driven and possessing a simple story often works to the advantage of a genre film (horror, action, western, noir.)
CRITICISM: “IT HAS NO CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT!”
This is the opposite of the previous claim. What it really means is that the viewer did not learn (i.e. was not explicitly told) anything about a character that they did not know at the beginning of the film. A plot-driven movie does not necessarily require any character development at all. Really, when you hear someone make this claim, they don’t know what they’re talking about, but using the term “character development” makes one sound as though they are a sophisticated viewer.
CRITICISM: “IT’S PREDICTABLE!”
The goal of a movie should not be to simply prevent the audience from guessing what is going to happen at the end. The worst kind of twist ending is the one that cannot be guessed by collecting clues from the film. As Roger Ebert said “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.” It’s perfectly fine for what happens in a movie to be predictable, it’s what the movie has to say about those events that is important.
CRITICISM: “IT’S PRETENTIOUS!”
A movie can be pretentious and good. People break out this criticism when they found a movie boring (“boring” is a perfectly valid criticism of a film) but are insecure about having found it boring; they fear that they will be thought to be unsophisticated for disliking a movie.
CRITICISM: “IT’S NOT ART!”
This criticism is the opposite of the last and is twice as loathsome. This one suggest that a film is too accessible, it’s not pretentious enough. A movie being accessible does not make it dumb, a movie being dumb does not make it stupid. Also all movies are art, even the most crassly commercial of them.
CRITICISM: “IT’S NOT REALISTIC!”
Realism is not important to movies, authenticity is. That is: does the movie adhere to its own reality. Movies are impressionistic, they don’t need to be strictly realistic.
The greater point here is that there is nothing that a movie has to be. The real questions should be about what the movie has to say and how it says it, whether it achieves its goals, and whether it works on its own terms.