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I’m Not Gonna Debate You, Jerry: Why the Idea of Objectivity in Film Discourse Should Be Put in the Woodchipper

When you go to a museum, do you read the description beside a painting and wonder, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but how much money was it sold for? What awards did it win? Where did it rank on art critics’ lists of best paintings of the year?”

If your answer is yes, please consider stopping right here, as this article is definitely not for you. But if your answer is, “No, of course not, why would I be concerned about any of that?,” then my follow-up question to you is: why are you concerned about that stuff when it comes to movies then?

Of course, by “you,” I don’t necessarily mean YOU personally. For all I know, you’re already on my side here and think that movies, like any other art, should be appreciated and enjoyed on their own terms, and even if a movie doesn’t connect with you or you simply don’t like it, other people might have a profound connection to it, and that’s great. We all have not just our own tastes, but our own experiences, beliefs, cultures, histories, and upbringings that make any sort of objective approach to art impossible. And if you’re itching right now to correct me by interjecting with something like, “I agree within reason,” then again, please consider stopping right here, because this article is not for you. What I’m about to do is a total, unabashed proclamation that there is absolutely no such thing as an objective critique, analysis, or appreciation of movies. And not only that, the idea that there is such a thing is what makes movies as a whole maybe the least interesting art form to discuss publicly, at least as it stands with the current line of discourse intact.

I realize that must sound a bit odd and perhaps even hypocritical coming from someone who writes about movies for a profession (or at least a full-time hobby, as I don’t profess to be a professional). But if you’ve followed my writing for any length of time or listened to my podcast at all, I’m sure you’ve learned by now that my approach to film discussion is…well, different, in a word. And that’s not me bragging about my uniqueness or anything. There are plenty of other people who write and talk about movies with a similar approach to what I try to do, many of whom are far better at it than me, let’s be clear. But that approach is not even close to being regarded as the standard, and I think that’s an issue worth exploring. Obviously there is no one approach to movies (or any other art, for that matter) that is inherently superior to any other, but that’s kind of my point. The approach that seems to have dominated the bulk of film discourse both online and in the ever fledgling world of print is one that is rooted in the idea that a movie can be objectively superior to another movie, and additionally, that someone’s take on a movie can be inherently superior to someone else’s by sheer virtue of either perceived credibility (as in “this person gets paid for their opinions, so surely they must be right”) or purported insight (as in “look, I can frame my opinion in the form of an objective argument, so surely you must acknowledge that I’m right”).

In my previous article, I talked about the fallacy of One Cinema. That is, the notion that cinema is one thing and that all movies can be viewed from the same perspective and judged according to the same criteria. Again, I want to stress that my position on this issue is not suggesting that you should feel obligated in any way to like every movie you see or that any movie is beyond criticism. It’s simply suggesting that your criticism of a film doesn’t devalue or discredit people who like it. And I guess furthermore, if you’re the type of person who acts like your argument for or against a movie should be able to devalue or discredit opinions to the contrary, you are what takes the fun out of discussing movies. Point blank. People who talk about movies like they’re in a debate club and actively attempt to “win” arguments are doing nothing but standing in the way of the personal, genuine response that movies are capable of eliciting. Particularly if you’ve ever tried to convince anyone that they were wrong for loving any given movie or dismissed their opinion by acting like you knew their reasoning better than they did (which is a phenomenon that occurs all too often), now’s your last chance: stop right here, because this article isn’t for you. Move along and go back to your fuckin’ debate club, you insufferable elitist.

But it’s not surprising that film discussion has devolved into this. Cinema is still in its infancy compared to almost every other form of art, and because it’s really the first art form we are getting the privilege of witnessing grow from birth, I think some feel compelled to essentially step in and play parent to the medium, as though their spicy hot takes can drive the discourse, contribute to the consensus, form the canon, and help shape the future of movies. Rather than shining a light on films and filmmakers to better expose them to others, though, it definitely seems like a lot of people are more interested in tearing down films and filmmakers that they feel are “overrated.” Post a tweet asking people for their unpopular movie opinions, and I guarantee at least 90% of the responses will be “this movie is overrated,” “this movie is bad,” or “this director is over-hyped” instead of “despite the negative consensus, I actually love this movie.” I’m not going to regurgitate the same lamentation of how negativity gets more traction than positivity, but only because it appears self-evident at this point. An article on most overrated movies will almost always get more hits than an article on most underrated movies.

I don’t quite think this is a purely a byproduct of general online negativity and people’s innate desire to argue with one another. I think a big part of it is simply that the overwhelming amount of time and energy that have been devoted for decades now to anoint “the greatest movie ever made” has made it so that pretty much every movie is positioned from release as a subject of debate for groups to argue over rather than a piece of art for individuals to engage with. Nobody likes being told what they should and shouldn’t like, and every single “best of the year” or “greatest of all time” list as well as every awards show through its mere suggestion implies a sort of societal curation of movies. The fact that these are the facets of film discourse that get the most attention makes it only natural that debate and “objectivity” have become the language of whatever overall movie community people have convinced themselves they’re a part of. I sometimes wonder if these people even truly like watching movies or if they derive more pleasure and satisfaction from smugly believing they’ve won a debate with someone on Twitter and movies are merely a convenient subject for them.

Engaging with movie buffs on Twitter often feels like recreating this skit.

Let’s consider for a moment the decennial Sight & Sound poll that has long been regarded as the most prestigious list of greatest films. It’s this list that was largely responsible for propelling Citizen Kane to its status as the de facto best movie of all time. I want to talk about it not because I object to any of their choices or omissions, but because I want to demonstrate how toxic and frankly ridiculous it is that so many people even put stock into this stuff. I once got into a tiff with a friend of a friend who aggressively declared that anyone who liked Citizen Kane was a sheep and would not budge from this position. That included me, I might add, because despite my better judgment, that’s when I decided to jump in on the conversation (or lack thereof, really) by stating that I liked Citizen Kane, and while they certainly weren’t obligated to like it too, it was unfair to outright dismiss my opinion or anyone else’s up and act like there was no other reason to like the movie other than what they rudely assumed about others’ perspectives. “No,” they insisted, “anyone who says they like it is just being a sheep.” (I didn’t bother pointing out the hypocrisy in them making this assertion when the movies they liked were way more popular among our age group, but the thought definitely ran through my head.)

But you see, the mere notion that any movie is “the greatest of all time” is absurd. It distracts people from actual engagement with movies and turns discussion into a game in which participants treat movies as teams they either want to come out on top and be declared the best or to be torn down and dismissed as a piece of shit. And since Citizen Kane topped the Sight & Sound poll for five consecutive decades, it became impossible to watch it without feeling the weight of its reputation in every frame. Its status as “the greatest movie ever made” quickly went from an accolade to a burden as that status really only served to paint a giant target on it. Young movie buffs eager to take control of the proverbial wheel of film discourse basically viewed the act of watching Citizen Kane as a challenge, and I don’t doubt that many of them decided before the movie even started that they weren’t going to like it. But even if they didn’t, how could anybody possibly watch it with a clean slate when its stature in the world of cinema had achieved almost mythic proportions?

The thing about Kane is that it wasn’t immediately given the throne. Aside from the controversy surrounding its uncredited appropriation of William Randolph Hearst’s life story, it was well received enough upon its release, but it wasn’t even the most popular or acclaimed film of its year. When the very first Sight & Sound poll was conducted in 1952, Kane didn’t even make the list, let alone top it, despite having eleven years by that point to build its reputation. It wasn’t until the second poll was conducted in 1962 that it was solidified as the perennial “greatest,” twenty-one years after its initial release. What changed? Well, not the movie, of course. Believe it or not, Citizen Kane — the safest, most boring choice to top any list of greatest films (although maybe not so much anymore?) — was at one point in time a movie that was much more championed by the young, radical cinephiles than the establishment critics and academics. It’s not too difficult to see why: much of its praise stems from its technical innovation, at the time unconventional structure, and perhaps above all, the fact that it represented artistic freedom given that it was one of the extremely rare instances of a director being granted total creative control over the film. And auteur theory was all the rage in film discourse of the early ’60s thanks partly to Cahiers du Cinéma and the emergence of the French New Wave and other cutting-edge movements in world cinema. Citizen Kane was a natural fit for representing where the younger generation wanted to shift the discussion of film to.

Similarly to what happened with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band routinely being declared the greatest album ever made, the impossibly high expectations placed upon Citizen Kane for new viewers went from skepticism to backlash to an attempt to fully debunk and discredit its place in film history. But as much as Kane may not appeal to very many younger filmgoers’ sensibilities nowadays, the outright vitriol it receives from some within the imaginary unified movie community is almost entirely reactionary, no matter how much they insist that they’re simply presenting an “objective” argument. Obviously nobody should feel compelled to like or even watch Citizen Kane if it’s not their cup of tea, but when your personal indifference or distaste turns to accusing people who like it of being “sheep” (which, again, is exactly what happened to me) and insinuating that they’re somehow objectively wrong, you’ve succumbed way too much to the erroneous notion that movies are a source of debate rather than a multifaceted artform that different people seek different qualities in and through which different artists express different ideas with different techniques and different approaches.

While I wouldn’t say the backlash and movement towards complete rejection of Citizen Kane has infiltrated the Sight & Sound crowd given that it still ranks highly on the latest version of the list, it was a relatively big deal in 2012 when, for the first time since the original 1952 poll, it didn’t come out on top. Two separate lists were compiled, one for the critics and one for the directors who were invited to participate. The critics voted Vertigo the greatest film of all time, while the directors voted Tokyo Story. In the time since then, I have noticed at least a small increase in skepticism towards both films (particularly Vertigo, as it’s the more accessible and therefore more open to criticism of the two; far more people have seen it, so it has the bigger sample size). Nothing approaching the full-fledged backlash that Kane faced, but certainly grumblings about them being called “the greatest.” And again, I don’t think it’s the movies themselves that are being reevaluated or anything like that. I don’t think backlash starts because the wrong movie is being referred to as the greatest of all time; I think backlash starts because no movie can live up to that reputation. Once it’s crowned, people naturally want to overthrow it. The king is dead; long live the king. That whole thing, you know? Even if the people taking aim at these movies got their way and the 2022 Sight & Sound poll resulted in, I don’t know, let’s say The Shawshank Redemption being voted the greatest movie of all time (people still seem to like that movie a lot, unless I’m really that far out of the loop now), there’d be countless articles the next day asking if The Shawshank Redemption is really as great as it’s made out to be, and most of them would conclude that it’s not. Because when you are actively looking to criticize a movie, you will find every reason to do so, even if none of those reasons would necessarily have occurred to you had you gone into the movie blind with no concept of its reputation and only intending to, ya know, enjoy it.

My point is that any movie that develops a consensus behind it of being the greatest or among the greatest of all time becomes tainted in the “movie community” (again, to the extent that there even is such a thing) because from that point on, it’s impossible to approach the movie from an unbiased perspective. If you are aware that a lot of people have proclaimed it the best, you’re liable to go into it with the mentality that you’re almost challenging the movie to impress you. “Come on, let’s see what you’ve got. Impress me, Greatest Movie Ever Made.” You’re demanding to be impressed by it rather than watching it open to being affected by it. I’ve said time and time again (to the point that it’s become a sort of catchphrase here) that movies — and all other forms of art — should be about EXpressing, not IMpressing. And any kind of approach towards films that claims to be objective is inherently suggesting that the main function of them should be to IMpress. If you’re saying that being moved, entertained, or otherwise captivated by what a movie expresses isn’t enough to call it a good movie if it doesn’t also impress you according to whatever “objective” criteria you’ve settled on, you’re not actually engaging with movies. You’re taking a purely cerebral, academic approach and viewing them more as objects of study and debate than as communicative art, and I mean really, what even are you in that case?

(Side note: I was originally thinking of calling this article “Razing Kane” because I’m embarrassed to admit I find it hard to resist puns, but I decided against it because I realize it would have been both lame and misleading. I still kept a still from the movie as the headliner image, though, despite using a reference to another movie as the title instead. I’m confusing that way.)

There can be no “greatest” or “best” in a medium so vast and diverse as film. And like I mentioned earlier, I know some of you can’t help but insist that there is at least some level of objectivity that can be achieved in film criticism, but that’s only true if you settle on a certain set of criteria for judging movies, and suffice it to say that set of criteria itself will be inherently subjective. Even saying something like “it’s well written,” “the shots are well composed,” or “the acting is great” is subjective not even just in terms of taking a stance on whether or not it meets the criteria you’ve arbitrarily put in place, but more so in terms of deciding that any of those qualities are inherent values in the first place. What does it mean to be well acted or well written anyway? There are so many different styles of acting and writing that holding up one example and saying definitively that THIS is great implies in its misguided sense of authority that certain styles are better than others. Is classical music better than hip hop, or are they two completely different things with their own values and techniques? By the same token, who’s to say the kind of post-Brando method acting that strives for realism is better than the intentionally unrealistic, exaggerated style of, say, Kabuki? And even without the need for comparing different recognized schools of acting, what if someone just genuinely loves a movie regardless of the perceived quality of the performances in it? Are you really going to be that dick who lectures them with a laundry list of things you interpreted as objective flaws in an attempt to convince them that they’re wrong for liking it? If so, get over yourself. There’s no rule that any movie has to do things any certain way in order to be of value, and any attempt to implement such rules is an attempt to control what other people like…which seems like a shitty thing to do when you word it like that, but hey, that’s exactly what it is when you’re not dressing it up as intellectualism or objectivity.

I don’t know how to categorize this next behavior, but a lot of the same people who will call you a sheep for liking a popular and/or highly acclaimed movie are also the ones who will call you pretentious for liking an obscure and/or critically maligned movie. I’ve only published one list article on this site, and it wasn’t a ranked list or any kind of “best of” list; it was simply meant as a source for recommendations. But I have witnessed the reactions to other people’s end-of-the-year or all-time lists, and it pretty much goes like this: you’re allowed one or two non-English language or obscure arthouse films in your top 10, and that will be taken as a sign of sophistication, but if your top 10 is mostly or all movies that fit that description, well now you’re pretentious and “looking for attention.” You’ve committed the cardinal sin of venturing too far outside the narrow view of which movies you’re supposed to be discussing. Everyone knows that if you’re gonna do a top 10 of the year list, you have about 30 movies to choose from that are considered acceptable picks, and you’re only allowed one, maybe two choices from outside that pool before people accuse you of “just wanting to be different.” Yep. Imagine seeing someone list a few movies that they love and having your reaction be to accuse them of not being genuine just because you don’t immediately recognize most of the titles. This, again, is a form of trying to control what other people like, in this case by insinuating that there’s only a select group of movies that are allowed to be included in the conversation, and your contribution should only be to rank those movies so we can all argue over whose list is the correct one.

See, treating movie discourse like a debate is damaging not only because it needlessly creates warring factions within a community that truthfully doesn’t exist to begin with but which each of those factions claims ownership of, but it also inevitably leads to the truly deplorable practice of assuming other people’s reasons for liking or not liking any given movie. Once you have it in your head that there is an objective approach to judging movies and that a debate about a movie is something that can be won or lost, because you are convinced that your take on a film was derived from reaching a logical conclusion about it, whether or not you outwardly admit it, you are implying that people who don’t agree with your take are at least misguided, if not outright wrong. That’s what happens when you believe in objectivity in art. And then you dismiss other people whose opinions you might actually enjoy hearing if you weren’t so insistent that they’re simply not as educated on the subject as you, for you have ascertained through careful analysis the objectively correct take, and nobody else can possibly have their own reasons for feeling otherwise. So you accuse people of just wanting attention, just trying to be different, or on the other end of the spectrum just being a sheep or only liking something because it’s popular (where anybody thinks they get the authority to determine where the line is drawn between blind populism and confrontational elitism is beyond me). Or you chalk their opinion up the absolutely infuriating assumption that if they didn’t like it, they just “didn’t get it,” or if they did like it, maybe they only did so because they’re not familiar with some other movie you claim it was just ripping off. Or a myriad of other ridiculously dismissive excuses you care to concoct in your head to avoid confronting the simple possibility that maybe other people just look for something different in a movie than you do.

I’ll be honest, I don’t avoid looking at lists, despite my belief that placing value in them for the purpose of reaching a consensus is completely destroying film discourse. If nothing else, they’re simply too hard to avoid. They’re the bread and butter of most movie sites, YouTube channels, podcasts, and blogs, because they guarantee clicks. But my favorite ones are the ones that are obviously the most personal and aren’t even trying to contribute to whatever larger movie discussion people think we’re supposed to all be having together in perfect unity. If I read an article on someone’s 10 favorite movies and am not familiar with any of them, that’s a good thing to me. No, not because I think “different” is a value in and of itself (it’s not, although I maintain dismissing something just because it’s different is still far worse than embracing it solely because it is), but because from my perspective, those are ten movies I hadn’t heard of before I read the article that I now know about, and depending on how closely I identify with the approach the author is taking, I potentially have ten new movies to add to my watchlist. That’s much more interesting to me than seeing someone just list off the same movies that are featured on the IMDb list or 90% of other lists around the internet and insisting that theirs is still worth reading on the basis that they’ve figured out the correct ranking for them. Which is not to say that I’m naturally suspicious of their sincerity (that would be incredibly hypocritical of me after my spiel about making assumptions of other people’s reasons for their taste), but simply to reiterate that I don’t put stock into lists, rankings, or ratings for any reason other than as a source for recommendations. If that’s all they were presented as (and I believe that’s probably how they were conceived when they first started being published decades ago), I wouldn’t have any qualms with them. It’s when people take them so seriously that they’ll fight tooth and nail with you if you so much as rank their favorite movie a bit lower on your list than they think it should be ranked.

It’s a problem when film discourse revolves disproportionately around rating and ranking movies rather than actually discussing how they affected you. There are even a lot of lists published by major websites and magazines that don’t bother writing about any of the movies they include; they literally just rank them, and people respond in droves because sparking debate is all they’re designed to do. And I don’t see the value in that. If you enjoy treating movie discussion like debate club, I mean, whatever. Go for it, I guess. But there needs to be room for people who want to separate their personal experiences with cinema from the implicit conformity of such an approach. That’s what I’ve tried to accomplish here on this blog and in my podcast, anyway. My goal is to show that you can have a much more personal relationship with movies than the One Cinema fallacy finds acceptable. That you can have your own reasons for liking or not liking any movie, and none of them will ever make you “right” or “wrong” in any kind of objective sense. To move beyond the outdated, irrelevant, and in many ways totally classist and elitist notions of “good” and “bad” in terms of cinema.

I’m only interested in talking about movies with people who care to share their personal experiences and relate how they were affected by them. How did the movie make you feel? What did it make you think about? I don’t care the slightest about how it fits into some consensus-based canon of “greatest” movies; what does it mean to you? If you insist on taking the opposite approach and acting like there is an objective conclusion to be reached about any given film, I will henceforth only respond to you with this quote from Fargo (done in by best Steve Buscemi impression to boot):

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