Most people will waste no more than a few seconds of their lives wondering what the point of cinema is. But if you’re at all interested in film (which you should be, it’s amazing) then that question will now be lodged somewhere in the back of your head, incessantly poking at you like E.T.’s boney finger. After all, if film doesn’t have a purpose then, bloody hell, what good does film criticism do anyone? It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to criticise something if you don’t know what it was trying to achieve in the first place.
The vast majority of contemporary feature films exist because the people who made them believed they would make a profit
Literature gives people insight into the lives of others. A good novel is essentially a massive empathy pill – and when you come out of the identity trip and find yourself back in your own body, you feel weird and different. Like seeing things from another perspective somehow changed you. Film, though, doesn’t have the advantage of total imaginative immersion. Rather than ‘being’ and ‘feeling’ with a character as we would in a book, we’re passively observing an actor who we are fundamentally separate from and unable to relate to so intimately. We can’t get inside their brain.
But if the purpose of film isn’t analogous with literature, then what the hell is the point of it all? Luckily, just because films aren’t books that doesn’t mean they lack all purpose. It’s just, with the proliferation of Hollywood, the purpose of films has become a bit… muddy.
The vast majority of contemporary feature films exist because the people who made them believed they would make a profit. You can be the most creative, intellectual, talented filmmaker – but if you can’t get a return on investment, your funding will dry up, and then, hey presto, you can’t make any more movies. This guarantees that filmmakers who are in cinema for the long haul consistently produce marketable products, and as with any other industry, this profit motive trumps most other considerations. Don’t be fooled by the glitter Hollywood throws in your face every time you approach; cinema is an industry first, with a downtrodden workforce and a rich elite like any other.
Yet some movies that are clearly produced as cash cows are criticised as if they were intended to be meaningful works of art. A common misplaced criticism is that a film adaption of a piece of popular fiction ‘isn’t as good as the book’. The glaringly obvious reply to this is, ‘It didn’t need to be. It was a surefire fucking hit either way.’ The Twilight franchise was exceptionally good at making money, and that was what it was there for. So how can we really criticise it as a film series based on some other, higher ideal of our own? That’s like being angry at a pair of jeans for being poorly made, rather than criticising the child labour, wage-slavery and other human rights abuses within the textiles industry that led to your shitty denims. In the context of these wider issues, yelling about bad stitching is at best a self-gratifying and hollow gesture. In many cases, it’s profit-first consumerism, fan culture, and the attitude of Hollywood executives towards cinema that should be criticised, not the resulting products themselves.
Most films are about entertainment, and people need to be entertained. It’s a noble calling – movies save lives. Sort of
While money is the driving force behind most movies, there are secondary reasons that a lot of films are made which enable that profit. These are the reasons filmmakers typically like to spout in interviews: The film tells a story, or takes the next slap in the endless game of VFX dick-swinging; in short, entertainment. That’s all well and good. People need to be entertained, or we’d eventually blow our brains out all over the pavement just to provide a brief spatter of colour on the grey streets we miserably tread every day to jobs we hate to make money for people we don’t know or even care about. It’s a noble calling. Movies save lives. Sort of. And critics can tell you the best ones to go and see.
But entertainment is subjective. An informed, film-literate critic might find the movies of Lars von Trier and Jean-Luc Godard entertaining, while many less savvy viewers would find Breathless slow and dull, and Antichrist sickening. So at best a critic can only either tell you their subjective opinion of a film – which likely will only matter to other widely-read critics – or they can lie and recommend something they assume will be popular anyway, despite the fact they’re bored to death by it. So even when we strip away all the industrial and cultural politics and focus on criticising a film as a story, or as a spectacle, or just ‘entertainment’, critics are still left stuck in the mud with their pants down, somewhere between an advertising drone and celebrity journalist.
Documentaries are different to fiction films in that they document something real or something that really happened. They are not ‘re-enactments’ like Rush, which are just feature films cashing in on a real life story by using famous names and events as marketing tools. Documentaries can be about anything and don’t even need to tell a traditional story, as long as they capture some small part of the world we live in and subsequently show it to people.
Having spent a few years pondering it, I think that in the same way literature’s ‘higher purpose’ is to enable people to imagine another life for a little while, documentary is film’s higher purpose. To capture something real and show it to somebody in a dark, silent room and say, “look at this.” Films like Samsara have the power to show everybody all of the beauty and suffering and triumphs and failures of the world we live in. They encourage discourse about the way our world is, rather than distract us from it like fictional films, and they can be more life-affirming than any fictional protagonist overcoming any fictional obstacle.
Documentary is film’s higher purpose, with the power to show all of the beauty and suffering of the world we live in
But what place does a film critic really have in the world of documentary, where there is no acting or costume, no VFX, no traditional story, and no innovative filming technique? The same role as ever – they can criticise film form; they can say whether or not they liked the movie; they can promote and discuss. But now they’re discussing something related to a real issue, and have access to that subject as well. With documentary, critics can become enablers and contributors to a wider dialogue, rather than unaccountable culture snobs.
Having read this article, it wont come as any surprise to you that I think criticising commercial cinema is pretty futile. Films like The Avengers and Pacific Rim were not made to be seriously deconstructed, and shouldn’t be. A lot like blockbusters themselves, formalist criticism of mainstream movies is mostly here to entertain. But sometimes, like documentary film, a critic will have an opportunity to say something about the film industry, or even the wider media. And when those opportunities come, they shouldn’t hide behind lens flare and bad acting – they should take them. Because no system should be immune from criticism. Not even criticism itself.
Featured image: Columbia
Inset images: Summit Entertainment; Dogwoof Pictures