Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Necessity of "Experts"

It has been a criticism from some that the way I watch movies is not a good way.  I should not follow the opinions of critics and "experts" because these people are so often wrong.  There are a slew of problems with and arguments against having some group of educated elite telling us what old movies are worthy of our time and which should be forgotten.  In spite of all this, this is the best system we have and I have never heard of alternatives.  Without putting some level of trust, albeit with a critical eye and our own personal tastes and opinions in mind, in the opinions of so-called experts, we have no viable jumping off point for starting an interest in old movies, or any sort of movie that is outside the mainstream.

All human culture is built on the opinions of fallible men.  Someone with the authority to do so passes some piece of art, knowledge, etc. on to the next generation.  This always entails a choice of what is and is not worthy.  It would be impossible to pass down everything and that would not be necessary.  Some things are forgettable and have no great cultural value.  Charles Dickens gets remembered, but his brother Frank Dickens is forever forgotten.  This can happen in the case of an "expert," or someone whose job it is to be a guardian of culture.  This can even happen on a micro level with a head of household passing down family traditions.  This would be more common with folk culture.  In some cases a group, no longer living can affect the books that we have in our libraries.  The whole system is relatively organic and just happens over centuries.  Culture builds upon itself when people are willing to look to the past and its landmarks, not in blind servitude, but with openness and a critical eye.  While it feels random and arbitrary to some, and is certainly not ideal, we would be nowhere without it.  Embracing culture involves putting a certain level of trust in the fallible human opinions and tastes of our forefathers, yet without culture, we set mankind back 20,000 years.  A skepticism that is overly deep keeps us from building on the wisdom of our forefathers.  All of these same concerns play out similarly in the case of movies, except for two differences.  Movies have only been around for about 100 years and movies are only one sphere and not every sphere.  This makes this entire debate less important than the wider cultural debate, yet to be less is not to be nothing.

In the case of movies, who are these critics and why should they get to tell us what to like?  Firstly, I don't believe that anyone should blindly follow the opinions of anyone.  That is an insecure fake snobbery.  The best way to know if I movie is good is to watch for yourself and to formulate your own opinion based on some sort of meaningful criteria.  For the most part, though, these people are highly educated.  They have years of study and appreciation in film and art.  They have seen all types of movies from different countries and time periods and have been exposed to many different perspectives.  They understand the process of creating and interpreting movies.  Individual critics could have a slew of different problems or come to different conclusions on different things, but I can't imagine that the previously mentioned qualities are not some of the ideal qualities of a movie critic.

What about the fact that movies are mass entertainment?  Would not being more educated about them make you a snob and disqualify you from rating them?  No.  Learning more about something always makes you more qualified to appreciate it, especially when it is at its best.  As to not enjoying the bottom of the barrel, this can make critical opinion incompatible with some people's tastes and useless to their aims in a given situation, but the notion that lowbrow mass entertainment is even the proper approach to cinema is wrong.  It is currently the common approach and the one that many people uncritically accept, but not the best approach.  As a human race, we should truly be striving to pass on something worthwhile to future generations.

What about the problematic mix of art and commerce?  This was a less serious problem in the history of art until more recently.  When Thomas Aquinas wrote his great Eucharistic hymn, Pange Lingua, it was untainted by commerce.  The song was written with the highest ideals of art and perhaps no one made a penny off of it at least until the printing press was created.  In today's society, everything is for sale.  Art is commerce.  Just look up Pange Lingua on google shopping.  Perhaps more than any other art form, film is an expensive medium to do well and is by necessity tied to money.  To call something a work of art is often a veiled act of advertising.  This is most obviously a problem to me in the case of award shows.  Mediocre, yet at least relatively popular, movies are proclaimed art so that the Oscars show will get higher ratings or because the studio wants to promote its work and see an extra bump in the sales of its own already popular movie.  Movies at the bottom are beyond saving.  Even in the case of old movies, many of them are for sale on DVD.  Good money is made off of these films even years later.  I admit that critical consensus can be a tainted thing.  It is impossible to measure the level of taintedness.  One thing to note is that critics are independent and award shows are often made up of movie industry professionals.  Critics have an extremely smaller stake in the health of the film industry and certainly in individual movies.  As long as the industry doesn't die, they are safe.  I also feel that in general, the older a movie is the smaller the level of corruption is.  When a movie is brand new, it has to sell.  The older a movie gets, the more it moves away from advertising hype and we are able to look at it objectively.  Many silent movies are currently in the public domain.  This has not hurt their reputations.  In the next 100 years, many beloved movies will move to the public domain and their reputations will not disappear with their market value.

Should we put our trust in one critic?  No.  Following some sort of consensus is the best way.  Most statistics have some anomalies.  Individual critics can be all over the place and their tastes may not match your own.  You could follow trends within a single critic to see if you generally agree with him or her.  Following a larger group is usually safer.

Where would we be if we did not watch old movies based on reputation?  It would be nearly impossible to watch any old movies.  How would we know what to look for?  Even the decisions of what is and isn't on DVD is a choice built on the opinions of others, even if it is a mass public opinion.  The average viewer is not the first gatekeeper of his media choices.  We would either have to watch everything or nothing.  If I can't go on the web and look up what are good movies from the 1930's, then I have no starting point for enjoying movies from that era.  I can't know what I haven't learned or experienced.  If I merely look up movies in general from that era, it may as well be the exact same as looking up the "best" movies because those are the only ones anyone will be talking about anyhow.  Without experts, we have to completely shut ourselves off from film history.

What about the notion that the conventional wisdom is often wrong and it's the obscure movies that are really the best.  If your personal taste leads you away from the obvious "classics" and to more obscure movies, you have to realize that even these things have some level of reputation or they would be too obscure for you to have even heard of them.

Does it really matter that we hold on to movies from each era?  Yes.  If we can accept that other art forms have a timeless value, we should be able to come to this conclusion about film.  Art gives us another angle on history and unites history to the universal.  If old movies have nothing to offer us, then why should we presume the movies of today will offer anything to the future?  Old movies can also surprise us by their quality or evolve our ideas.

Is there any value in watching "important" films that we didn't like?  Yes.  Even movies that we did not like can still have some value in numerous ways.  Some tastes are acquired and do not come immediately, but once we have them we realize the rewards.  All new things are challenging at first.  This is not to say that someone will change their initial opinion of everything, but our rigid ideas can be softened.  I like movies now that I wouldn't have enjoyed five years ago.  Plus, there's a certain intangible value in being somewhat culturally literate.  Why, in our modern lives, when we waste hours of our time with media, should we pretend to be above spending two hours watching a famous old movie that we might not like?

For creators of film art, a movie that's groundbreaking in one way may have an influence on them while they dislike it for being weak in another way.  Creators of media can almost always take something away from any work of art, even if they hated it.  Film is such a multifaceted art that is especially prone to engaging us in this way.

In conclusion, the system of giving old movies acclaim and reputation is a flawed yet necessary one.  It is the only means we have for beginning to watch and appreciate old movies.  We should have a critical, yet respectful, view of these opinions, but also form our own opinions with the movies we watch and not fall into fake snobbery.  Movies are about enjoyment, not being arrogant with others or pretending to be smart.

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