As a film nerd, I engage in a fair amount of discussions on the subject, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend I’d like to explore. Why is it that for a lot of audiences, a movie can only be either the best film ever or the biggest pile of garbage in history? Granted I am speaking with an air of hyperbole, but I do feel my presumption is well founded.
In a world where “literally” officially means “figuratively” and even the most mundane things are “awesome”, I think we as consumers of culture have forgotten that sometimes things are simply okay. A prime example of this came into my life recently while scrolling through Netflix with a friend. He saw that I had given Joe Carnahan’s Stretch a three-star rating and forcefully asked how I could like the movie so much, which is weird because I don’t. It was okay, but my absence of vitriol towards it was somehow read as a glowing review. Reminder: the Netflix scale goes up to 5 stars, so 3 really is a middle-of-the-road rating. I responded by asking him why he disliked it so much, and he explained that Stretch wasn’t as good as Narc, one of Carnahan’s previous efforts — and a truly great flick. He’s right. It’s not nearly as good, but is it fair to hate Stretch based on how it stacks up to something entirely different in every way but for the fact that it’s from the same director? Moreover, is it fair to hold Carnahan to the standard that by making a very good movie his subsequent output should consist only of superior films? I think not.
It works the other way too. When discussing the Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road, I expressed to a fellow film buff that I thought it was “pretty good”. His response: “How could you not like that movie?!?” Well, for starters, I do like that movie. It’s decent, but I’ll probably never watch it again, and that’s fine. However, I also don’t think it needs to be struck from existence.
This trend has infected the film blogging community as well. Less and less often am I seeing reviewers give a movie a fair shake, and by expecting nothing less than perfection, they ruin any chances they had of enjoyment. When a movie comes up even slightly short of such a rarely fulfilled standard it ends up being branded as the worst. This sentiment bleeds into the moviegoing audience who may read a review of this ilk and either be primed for disappointment, or end up avoiding a movie that they likely would have enjoyed.
Let’s posit an alternate world where every movie is either an objective masterpiece or a complete failure. How boring is that? My favorite thing about being a film buff is discussing my medium of choice with others. If all we did was applaud greatness and condemn awfulness, what’s the point of even having the discussion? Why even bother seeing any movie knowing that it’ll either be flawless or terrible? If the quality of a film could always be judged in simple binary, I don’t even know if we could consider it art. This type of world would have no room for filmmakers to grow or experiment, and I don’t even want to think about how damaging it would be on a business level. You think a lot of movies look the same now? In this hypothetical, they’d be indistinguishable. Ugh.
Once again, I am aware that I am discussing extremes and impossibilities, but I think there is a lesson here. It’s not a mar on artistic or critical integrity not to obtusely love/hate a movie, nor is the best/worst mentality it a healthy way to consume art. By forcing critique into the black and white, we ignore that delicious gray area where the noble failures commingle with the surprising successes. The place where Robocop 2 and Identity can hang with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome; where Timecop and Demolition Man can blindly entertain; and where we can be thrilled by Joy Ride, knowing that Duel watches proudly from the sidelines. I love a good 3-star movie, and so should you.