In 1983 Siskel and Ebert got into a frivolous argument with fellow critic John Simon, then film critic for the National Review and Drama Critic for New York Magazine, over whether Return of the Jedi is a great film or not. I include this piece because it displays the profound emptiness associated with a profession that wastes its time classifying films according to prescriptive judgments. It also reveals that these issues with which we contend in contemporary popular criticism are not so isolated. Though I am undoubtedly on the side of Siskel and Ebert in arguing the technical and affective merits of the original Star Wars trilogy, notice how both sides lapse into strings of non sequiturs when asked if the film is great. The reporter asks “Is this film good?” To which Ebert replies “it excited me, it made me laugh, it made me thrilled, and that’s what a movie like this is for.” I agree with him completely, but this gets us no closer to answering the original question, precisely because the original question is a useless question. Not a good or bad question, but a useless one. Nothing can be made of it. It’s the work of youtube viewer satisfaction tallies, not the issue of prolonged study (though the results could then be tabulated to form the basis of some anthropological observations about cultural responses to art, yet this work would be an abstraction from the original product in question: the film).
The real valuable statements are found precisely in Ebert’s response to the movie. The question “what did this movie do” provokes a more solid and valuable answer than “is this movie good or bad.” Ebert’s remarks are a useful foundation for exploring the film further, while ostensibly acknowledging its intent as an affective rather than intellectual piece of pop art. How did it excite Ebert, and what tools did it employ to do so? How did it thrill him? Arguing whether a movie being thrilling or not thrilling is good or bad is a useless debate.
Allow me to run the debate through to its inevitable conclusion:
“Should a film be thrilling?”
Alternatively, if the respondent is especially foolish, the answer might even be something so offensive to understanding as “Yes” or “No”.
In all cases it is the prerogative of the artist to make these choices, as it is our function as critics to analyze the effectiveness of these choices. Would Star Wars have communicated its ideas more effectively if it wasn’t thrilling? Here again we encounter a problem, we must decode and decipher what we assume this film to be communicating. Is Star Wars purely pop culture confectionery? No, of course it isn’t, or it wouldn’t have endured for over 30 years. But what exactly is it saying? I won’t repeat the words of countless writers over the last three and a half decades who have tried to answer that question, nor even to provide the gist of it, suffice it to say people have grappled with this question, as we must with any film if we are to arrive at any insights worth perpetuating.
Our personal responses to film are a wonderfully useful invitation for further exploration. Contrary to popular opinion, films are not made purely for profit. Flicks might be, those disposable collections of trash intended to make a quick buck before the audience gets tired of that sort of thing, but films are made with the hope that the art will be profitable as a consequence of its artistry. Films are intended for consumption, they rely on the resonance they provoke within the viewer for their continued dissemination. If people weren’t responding to Star Wars it would not have endured long past the all-pervasive and terribly persuasive media push. It would have fizzled out. And it endures precisely because of its resonance. The same can be said for any great film. Casablanca endures because viewers recognize an underlying value to the moving pictures and sounds, and not simply because Warner Brothers keep rereleasing it on home media.
But personal responses are only ever useful as the foundation of discussion, and not the culmination. Notice how John Simon uses his dislike for the film to offer all manner of tangential remarks about how Star Wars makes children stupider. Simon was no doubt grappling with this stultification independently of the film, but which he allowed to infect his subjective opinion of the film. He offers no evidence to correlate his grave misgivings between the content of Star Wars and the education of children, instead appealing to his authority to make the case. “As an adult, I think it’s bad, so it must be”. He even goes so far as to make the false equivalency and prescriptive fallacy that “children should be reading Huck Finn instead”; as if children couldn’t do both. Well, as it happens, I have done both, and intend to do so again in the future, because I gained something of value from each work, and my cultural education would have been irrevocably stymied if I’d taken his arbitrary declarations.
Whenever you find yourself stuck in a conversation with a friend or a colleague over the goodness or badness of a film: stop. You’re arguing over nothing. You’re wasting each other’s time. And you’re only causing disagreement that can never be resolved. The beauty and wonder of art is that we don’t all need to think the same way about something, and the true greatness of a great work of art is revealed when it provokes different meanings from people, meanings that can be studied, examined and consolidated. Yet we cannot arrive at these revelations if we content ourselves with the mundane declarations of personal qualification. We watch the art, and the art reflects us back. If someone can experience a complex work of art and only engage with it at the most simplistic level it suggests more about the reviewer than it does about the work.