Evaluating Movies (or Art in General)

I’ve been thinking a lot since then about what makes a good movie. A lot of times, I’ll go see a movie in the theaters with some friends, and while walking out of the theater, a friend will say, “That was a great movie!” or “That movie was meh.” But what does either claim actually mean about the film? What follows here is simply my own attempt to construe the issue in a way that makes sense to me.

A few months ago, the internet was raving about the movie True Grit, which is a remake of an old John Wayne movie. A number of my friends had gone to see it, and each of them told me that it is a “must see” film. So my parents and I went to see it. The cinematography was beautiful. The acting was superb. The directing was masterful. The pacing was perfect. It was a very well-made film. And yet, I felt a little sick afterwards. I realized that I really disliked it, but not for any flaw I could find in the film’s technique or style. I disliked it because I didn’t feel as if I was a better person for having seen it. It didn’t invite me to change or see the world differently. It just did a really good job of telling a not very good story.

Now, you are free to completely disagree with me. You may have loved True Grit, and have been inspired by it to be a better person. This is all subjective, to some degree. However, I’m sure you’ve all seen films where you realized that the filmmaker has done a masterful job of telling a somewhat morally questionable story.

For example, I think Inception was artfully created, thought provoking, and in every other way a well-made film. I also think that Life is Beautiful is a masterfully created, thought provoking, and in every other way a well-made film. If I were to place both films on a scale of 1-10, they would both be sitting near 10. And yet, I think one of these films is far better than the other. Life is Beautiful is the better film. This doesn’t make sense until we evaluate the films using two different measures. We need to look both at how well-made the film is, and also how morally uplifting they are.

Here’s an example of how this might look (on slower connections, this GIF may take a little more time to load):

I made this little animation this evening mainly to illustrate the dramatic difference that two measures makes when comparing movies. Inception and The Testaments, for example, were right next to each other on the original scale, but then end up being very different once we look at the picture through an additional lens. Again, you may disagree with my assessments of each movie in the chart. I’ve mainly included them as examples of how the chart would be used.

Also, I think I’ve been able to invent a limited terminology that can help me express the two different dimensions of analysis. First, movies that aren’t well-made and don’t uplift are “trash.” This may sound harsh, but life is too precious to waste watching films that are in that quadrant. There are too many better alternatives (both in movies and in other uses of time). Second, a “good” movie is a movie that invites me to be a better person in some way. It uplifts me in such a way such that I’m a better person as a result. But it isn’t necessarily a well-made film. Investing time in this quadrant isn’t necessarily a bad investment. A lot of children’s movies and Disney sequels may be in this category. Third, well-made films that don’t necessarily uplift, or have some morally problematic themes, are simply “quality” films. Discretion is needed to decide how much time to spend in this quadrant. Finally, a well-made film that also uplifts is what I consider a “great” movie. Using this terminology, Life is Beautiful is a great movie, and Inception is a quality movie. With this terminology, I’m able to make distinctions that I haven’t been able to make before.

I’ve also been thinking about adding a third axis to the chart, but there’s no easy way to visualize it. The third axis would measure how much a movie invites the viewer to think. Many movies may be both morally uplifting and well-made, but they don’t invite the viewers to think about what they are seeing. This third axis would help accomodate anomalies like The Dark Knight, which isn’t necessarily an uplifting film, but it invites me to ask questions I wouldn’t otherwise ask. It forces me to see the world a little differently, and to question some of the assumptions that I have. Thus, The Dark Knight would be a “10” on the quality scale, slightly above neutral on the moral scale, and a “10” on the thinking scale. A film like Primer would be in the negative on the quality scale and the moral scale (it wasn’t very well made and had some problematic moral themes), but an “8” on the thinking scale (it forces the viewer to really think about what’s going on). This third axis, however, isn’t quite as necessary or useful as the first two, so I’ve made no attempt to visualize it, and it isn’t quite as relevant to my movie choices at this point. Someone who values cerebral films more might find this scale more useful. For me, I love films that make me think, but I value films that invite me to be a better person even more.

I want to emphasize that this is the way I’ve personally began to evaluate the entertainment I watch. I don’t think anyone else is obligated to use these same standards or this same vocabulary. However, I do think whatever vocabulary we use to evaluate films needs to be able to distinguish between films that are “virtuous, lovely, and of good report” and those that are simply well-made and engaging. A film that is masterfully created but which conveys problematic moral themes is simply more effective at expressing morally problematic messages. I’m not convinced we should champion films that make falsehood more persuasive, simply because they are artfully created.

Anyways, there’s my two cents. My hope is that this provides at least some of our readers with a tool by which they can better select media that is worthwhile. There is an ocean of media that we can swim in, and so we have every reason to be picky about what we watch.

21 thoughts on “Evaluating Movies (or Art in General)

  1. LDSP – I agree that we should take into account a few different vectors when we evaluate movies. But I wonder if I can push you a bit on one of them: Your chart mostly restated what you say in your first paragraph: you like movies that make you “feel like a better person” or that you find “morally uplifting.” Could you give us deeper sense of exactly what that consists of? I’d argue that it goes far beyond simply content (whether a movie has swears or violence in it) and rather rests in the authenticity of the moral orientation of the universe of the film.

    For instance, it’s possible to argue that many films – including many produced by the church – are shallow and generally emotionally manipulative because they used cliche and cinematic technique (like music) to trigger emotional responses without really earning them through honest portrayals of recognizable moral struggle of the sort all of us deal with every day; similarly, I might argue that True Grit is an enormously moral film, because it depicts the moral growth of the marshal Rooster Cogburn, who matures from a lazy, violent, selfish character to a savior figure capable of the sort of sacrifice and love necessary to rescue the young girl Mattie Ross from her self-destructive pursuit of revenge.

    The Green Hornet, assuredly, exists in a morally vacuous universe, but Captain America does little better: rare is the comic book movie that engages seriously with real questions of right and wrong, and while Captain America offers a nice fable of perseverance and an admirable hero, it’s pretty far from the sort of mature morality that the best movies have. (Not to say that comic book movies can’t do this; I actually think Spider-Man II is an extraordinarily adult, and more, human, film.)

    Any thoughts?

  2. One of the reasons I placed Captain America where I did was because of how the movie and the characters defined what it means to be a hero. A man is not a hero because of his strength, his power, or his unique abilities. A man is a hero because of his instinctive willingness to sacrifice his own life for the sake of those around him. Steve Rogers demonstrated that he was able to do that (poignantly demonstrated to both the audience and the characters in the dummy grenade scene), and that is why he was chosen to be the test subject. He first demonstrated that he was a good man. It’s kind of the reverse of many other super hero movies, in which arrogant, irresponsible heros are inexplicably and randomly given a super power, and they have to learn to use their power responsibly. In contrast, Captain America was chosen for power because of his goodness. It reminded me of the passage in the Doctrine and Covenants, “the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.” The main point being that Steve Roger’s most valued trait was not cleverness, intelligence, strength, or even perseverance, but his goodness (as manifest in self-sacrifice).

    In addition, I watched Captain America back-to-back with Thor. In Thor, the primary romance in the film is based entirely on physical attraction. In fact, the movie almost goes out of its way to remind you how physically attractive Thor is (because that’s about the only thing he has going for him, and so they had to have some plausible reason for Jane to fall for him). Jane Foster keeps remarking again and again about his physical appearance. And in their two days together, that is about all that they had going on between them. In contrast, Captain America’s romance with Peggy Carter is entirely different. The seeds of her admiration for Steve Rogers are sown long before his physique is transformed. The movie hints that she is attracted to his courage and willingness to self-sacrifice, and that she is looking for the “right partner,” who is specifically not defined by looks (considering that she turns down other men who are likely equally, if not more, handsome). In the end, their romance is based almost entirely on mutual admiration of character. I felt that this modeled in a subtle way what healthy relationships should look like. In addition, their relationship was entirely chaste, with no sexual overtones.

    For these reasons, I felt like the universe and message of Captain America was much more morally sound than Thor, Green Hornet, or other super hero movies. Thor was a little more neutral, although I do appreciate the theme of humility and fealty, so I consider it “good,” but not “great.” The Green Hornet, however, is completely and thoroughly morally vacuous, as you said. There wasn’t a commendable character or a morally engaging dialogue or message to be found.

    As far as True Grit is concerned, I didn’t feel as though the movie or the characters ever admitted that her quest for revenge was self-destructive and misguided. Rather, it seems as though she succeeded in her quest, and when forward with life with the same rotten, dark heart she had before. The movie as a whole, included the final scenes of her adult life, depicted her as a kind of woman I would specifically NOT want my children to emulate.

    Again, one can disagree with my individual assessments of movies.=) But I think your real question is, what constitutes morally uplifting? I think authenticity is important, as you say, but that is also part of the quality dimension. The Testaments could be vastly improved with more subtlety, better acting, better character development, etc. But regardless, I feel like I’m a better person for having watched it. I guess one possible litmus test is this: “After returning home from the theater, am I more or less likely to perform an act of kindness towards my roommates? Am I more or less likely to be chaste in my relationship with my girlfriend? Am I more or less likely to put the needs of others over my own? Etc.” At least, that is my personal litmus test. I’m willing to let this concept evolve as I need it to.

  3. I just spent 20 minutes in After Effects making the animation, and then exported it as a GIF sequence (which wordpress is automatically equipped to handle). Thanks!

  4. One the great things about art is that even the non-uplifting variety can engender discussion and thought that leads us to uplifting ends. There is a certain dissonance when one watches and exceptionally well crafted movie and realizes after the fact that he’s been rooting for an awful protagonist pursing an awful end.

    One the reasons True Grit rises to greatness (you used it as one of your examples) is not only its classical structure, but also it’s completely interal consistency. The film creates a world unto itself and is true to that world in every sense throughout the film, inlcuding in its moral treatment of good and evil.

    In fact, I would argue that the newer True Grit is more satisfying morally than the original John Wayne version.

    BTW, I’d suggest that using cartesean planes to define art puts as risk of using the same “PIG” analysis we learn of in Dead Poets Society…

  5. Great post ldsp, your graph is much more realistic than the standard bad or good (thoughI don’t know how Life is Beautiful ended up where it is). So I assume True Grit would end up in the Quality section of your graph?

  6. I agree, we can separate ourselves from the context of a movie and comment on its immoral worldview, and those discussions can serve to help us be better people, as you said. But I don’t think we need to invest in non-uplifting films in order to get that benefit. The fact that we can rationally analyze a movie and discern its underlying problematic moral themes doesn’t make the movie a good investment.

    I also noticed the internal consistency of True Grit. That one of the reasons it is a “quality” film, around a 9 on the quality scale. But in my analysis, it isn’t “great” unless that internal consistency leads me to be a better person, which it doesn’t. And I don’t value internal consistency as an end in and of itself. For me, internal consistency and quality is not sufficient itself to make art worth investing in. It bespeaks the skill and passion of the artist, but it does nothing for me personally.

    Willing suspension of disbelief is a crucial component of most fiction, and it’s fun. That’s what fantasy and science fiction are all about. That’s what action flicks are all about. However, many films ask, in addition, that we suspend moral judgment. That, I think, gets problematic. That’s the reason I really detest films such as Ocean’s 11 and Italian Job, because they do a fantastic job at getting the audience to root for protagonists even as they are pursuing obviously immoral goals. Although it may seem like fun and games, I think in the end, it has an aggregate affect on our collective perception of good and evil. Even though we put our moral glasses back on after the show is over, the habitual taking off of those glasses, and having tons of fun when they’re off, is somewhat dangerous.

    However, I don’t mind movies that seriously ask me to re-evaluate my moral judgments, and invite me to see the world differently, particularly if the result is that I’m a gentler, kinder, more compassionate person. However, movies like Ocean’s 11 and the Italian Job never actually invite me to reconsider my feelings about theft. They just ask me, for the duration of the movie, to pretend like it’s not bad, so that I can just have fun with the story.

    I have no clue what you’re talking about in reference to the “PIG” analysis, and Google wouldn’t help me either. Perhaps you can point me to what you’re talking about? Also, I’m not trying to “define” art. I’m simply trying to find my own way to evaluate it.

  7. jjohnsen, it’s been about 8 years since I’ve seen Life Is Beautiful, so I’m mainly working from memory on that one. However, I remember there being deep themes about what it means to be a person, and about our response to inhumanity. I remember being deeply affected by the way we dehumanize those we consider to be our enemy, and I think that was one of the purposes of the film.

    Fortunately, the purpose of my post is not to justify my personal taste in movies, but to provide a conceptual tool for others to map their own evaluations. Your chart will likely look different than mine. =)

    Also, yes, I would put True Grit in the quality section, right next to Inception.

  8. ldsphilosopher,
    But…but…the Testaments is a terrible movie. An absolutely terrible movie. At least use the new Joseph Smith movie or even *shudder* Legacy. Not The Testaments, please. Otherwise I have to throw out your entire scale.

  9. John C., I disagree with your assessment of the Testaments. But like I said, you don’t have to agree with my placement of movies on the scale to appreciate the scale itself.

  10. LDSP: I can’t remember exactly the formula, but this sentence from the Wikipedia article accurately describes what the teacher in DPS does: “In another class, Keating has Neil read the introduction to their poetry textbook, prescribing a mathematical formula to rate the quality of poetry which Keating finds ridiculous, and he instructs his pupils to rip the introduction out of their books, to the amazement of one of his colleagues.”

    The mathematical formula attempted to weigh the aesthetics and moral value of the poetry.

    PIG is an anagram related to the values in the mathematical model. Sadly, I don’t remember what they stood for.

    There is an endless debate about whether art is to teach or not, and if so, how.

  11. Paul, that’s another reason I haven’t included the third dimension. I didn’t want to make this a science by any means. I mainly want to be able to distinguish between well-made movies and movies worth investing time with, because the two categories don’t always overlap.

  12. LDSP, fair point. Each will make his own choices in that regard, and we ought to spend our time wisely.

    Interestingly, Bertolt Brecht wrote remarkably didactic plays built around his worldview. But he also recognized and often commented that if his plays did not first entertain, no one would see them, no matter how important the message.

  13. Why was Napolean Dynamite morally problematic in your opinion?

    I actually thought it was one of the most hopeful movies I’ve ever seen. The whole premise seems to be to imagine a world (unlike the real one) where even someone like Napolean Dynamite will ultimately succeed just by being himself.

    It’s not even just the ending. The whole movie was fully of “ouch, oh no” moments which never end up ultimately causing a problem. I think here of things like inviting a girl to the dance who then ditches him, but he ends up having fun (with another girl) anyhow. The whole movie was like that. It was extremely hopeful. (If, perhaps utterly unrealistic.)

    I guess we could say it’s ‘immoral’ on the grounds that it sets unrealistic expectations? But if that is so, then so do all hopeful movies, don’t they?

  14. True Grit is not my favorite movie, but I do think it was effective as a robust exploration of stylized masculinity. Perhaps it’s appeal derives from the fact that our own culture has been thoroughly emasculated, and there is something particularly inspiring about “grit” which has been lost in our flabby day and age.

  15. Nate, I think you’re possibly right. We don’t have a lot of “grit” these days, and perhaps we need role models of that sort. I just wish there was something else commendable about them, and that their “grit” served nobler goals.

  16. Bruce—I personally abhorred Napoleon Dynamite. It was full of bullying, poking fun at the characters’ ineptitude, and invited the audience to bully right alongside. There are other issues I had with it, but I can’t remember them in detail now because I’ve done all I could to purge the memory of that movie from my brain.

    Watching it lowered my IQ a good 10 points, and when I walked out of the movie theater, I felt like I had been wrestling in a particularly vile swine wallow.

  17. The first time I saw Napoleon Dynamite, I was in Afghanistan and had food poisoning (bad goat meat) so I was sort of delirious as they were showing it against the wall of the tent I was in. It wasn’t until years later when I saw it again did I have any idea what it is about. I think it was a somewhat uplifting movie. It sort of said that it is ok to be yourself and that there is someone out there for everyone. I also learned that you should not feed tuna casserole to a lama.

  18. Pingback: Seeking After That Which Is Praiseworthy | Jeffrey

  19. Great post! I’ve been running a movie review site (movies.losanderson.com) for the last few years trying to rate movies on their moral and entertainment value. I’ve recently been working out a new formula that will help me be more consistent in the ratings we assign to each movie. You’ve definitely gave me some good things to consider. Thanks!

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