Importance vs. Enjoyment: How dare your review have OPINIONS?

As is often the case in online writing, one thing leads to another in the comment section and we are left with a dangling question. I don’t like unfinished business and so let’s talk about the difference between importance and enjoyment.

First, some context: I recently published a list of my top five favorite silent movie directors. As I always do with lists of this kind, I specified that my list was based on personal enjoyment. When discussing art, I find it ridiculous to try to quantify quality. I mean, we can coldly talk about the technical elements but when push comes to shove, it’s all a matter of personal taste.

Ahhh! An opinion that does not conform to mine!
Ahhh! An opinion that does not conform to mine!

Anyway, I knew I would be a bit controversial when I awarded the top two slots to Ernst Lubitsch and Cecil B. DeMille but I was unprepared for the, well, anger in reaction to the fact that Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau were left out in the cold.

Here’s the thing: I don’t really enjoy most of Murnau and Lang’s output. It’s not fun for me to watch. I like Sunrise, I like Spies, I like M but most of their films are a chore rather than a pleasure to get through.

And that’s okay. You see, too many people mistake importance for enjoyment.

But everyone's best-of list needs to be just like mine!
But everyone’s best-of list needs to be just like mine!

I don’t personally enjoy Metropolis. That does not make it any less important. I freely acknowledge its importance and its place as a cultural landmark and icon. Again, that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it. And my lack of enjoyment does not detract from the film’s overall importance. It is strictly a matter of taste.

I think this is what I find most irritating about the whole thing: I don’t like people trying to dictate my enjoyment of a film. You can argue all day about camera angles, editing cuts and the use of tinting but no one can tell another person what they do and do not enjoy. That’s their personal taste and it’s entirely up to them.

My expression at this point.
My expression at this point.

I once did an experiment in which I posted a list of my favorite genre films on Twitter. I made very sure to say they were personal favorites, not the best of the genre. Sure enough, someone chimed in with a “Wrong! The best films in the genre are X, Y and Z!” Nice to know someone knows my favorites better than I do. Very comforting to realize that Betazoids do exist.

The pleasure of film criticism is listening to the reviewer’s ideas and broadening your own thinking as a result. I rarely agree with my favorite reviewers but I love to read why they feel the way they do about a film. I suppose this is also why I snicker when someone calls for an “objective review” of a film, television show or other work of art. What, are we going to judge the print quality of the script? The model of camera used to shoot the thing? If you want an objective review, you are spectacularly missing the point of the entire review process. It’s supposed to be an opinion. That is the point! It’s like being shocked to find that Victoria’s Secret sells underwear when you wanted a snow suit.

Don't you go trying to convince me that a lingerie store sells bras and panties!
Don’t you go trying to convince me that a lingerie store sells bras and panties!

So, here’s everything I have said in a nutshell:

Quality, importance and enjoyment are not interchangeable.

People like what they like and that’s fine.

Dry technical lists make for boring reading and personal opinion is an important key to a good review.

I should also mention that there is a tendency to dismiss lighter silent dramas and non-slapstick comedy, which is why DeMille and Lubitsch seem to get shafted in favor of more “serious” directors like Murnau. Here’s the deal, though: F.W. Murnau did try to make a DeMille/Lubitsch-style romance-amongst-the-smart-set film. It is called The Finances of the Grand Duke and it stinks.

We tried to warn Murnau but he wouldn't listen.
We tried to warn Murnau but he wouldn’t listen.

DeMille could never make a Murnau film but Murnau was clearly incapable of making a DeMille film. Creating a light and breezy romantic comedy is not as easy as it looks and acknowledging the skill displayed by DeMille and Lubitsch is simple matter of respect. You may not personally like the genre and that’s okay but it won’t do a bit of harm to acknowledge that certain directors did well in their own wheelhouse.

47 Replies to “Importance vs. Enjoyment: How dare your review have OPINIONS?”

  1. Hear! Hear! Agreed! It’s sad that some readers have to make an issue of tastes that conflict with theirs… How do they coexist with others if they can’t take another person’s taste?

  2. The main force one contends with in reviews is the pre-cooked ideas about film, who is who and what is what…the same holds for music. “How can you not include so-and-so?” “You put so-and-so on your list? Who ever heard of it?” “You liked so-and-so, but you didn’t like so-and-so?!?”

    I tend to mostly write about things that I like as an intro to the curious; more of a review than a criticism, but from time to time I do get out the skewering stick…when it’s an absolute public service! πŸ™‚

    (btw, I tend to ignore the four or five most popular of anything, so the four chaps you mentioned get put at the end of the Phantom Empires queue to wait their turn, wot?)

      1. The ‘one man’s trash” principle…I generally find myself looking at the discard pile and end up thinking that much of it is preferrable to the menu items, hahaha.

        Clayton P. S. Walter, cinematic dumpster diver. It has a ring to it.

        I often feel like I may have to figt sometimes, like when I say that, though I respect CITIZEN KANE as an artistic statement, I think it sucks, and every copy should be burnt. For some reason some think that’s an extreme view. πŸ™‚

  3. I try to avoid dictating taste. When you posted your list, I knew perfectly well I would not agree with all of the choices. I also knew that I would benefit from seeing the “best of” list of an informed viewer of many MANY silent films, and I was more interested in what you had to say about directors I WOULDN’T have chosen than those I WOULD, precisely because there was a chance you’d turn me on to something I hadn’t had a chance to appreciate, yet. I would have been a lot more disappointed in a list of Murnaus, Langs, and Griffiths, because what new can be said about them?

    1. Indeed! One of my big problems with so many “Top 10 Silent Films” lists is that they all seem to draw from the same pool of about 20 silents that are shown in many film appreciation classes. Give me quirky any day of the week!

      1. As a side note, while this was going on I was navigating a tricky Facebook conversation with a friend who picked “Star Trek V” as her favorite Star Trek movie. If it’s her favorite, it’s her favorite, but that’s not likely to change my opinion of it!

      2. That is an unusual stance! Star Trek V was the very first movie I saw in theaters so I have a lot of nostalgic affection for it but I do have to admit… yeah, not their finest hour. Still better than Nemesis, though. A third-grade puppet show is better than Nemesis. But I’ll wager there are plenty of people like me who like V for reasons OTHER than what’s on the screen. I have seen a lot of people who adore Voyager because it’s what was on when they were kids.

  4. I like this blog. The commentary is good and the comments are civil–no name-calling or insults. Having said that, I’d like to compose a short letter to all the unseen ragers who disagree with the blog’s opinions:

    DEAR BALLISTIC “COMMENTATORS,”

    So your favorite director or film didn’t get put on a list? Boo-f**king-hoo. Either grow up, grow a pair, or get out. We talk like adults here. You wanna yell, scream, call people names, or show off your pseudo-expertise, you know where you can go? To ALL THE REST OF THE INTERNET! Cyberspace is a great, big, beautiful arena, and I’m sure SOMEONE out there would be happy to hear you yammer on about how Fritz Lang didn’t receive his due on ONE blog.

    So don’t let the door hit you in the a** on the way out. (On second thought, DO–it can be an effective reminder.)

    Sincerely,

    T.M. Rezzek

  5. I find that if you’re lucky to discover a critic/writer whose likes are similar to your own you’re on a winner.

    But it’s smart keep an open mind too, I’m not always in concord with Ms K’s likes, but I’ve learned a lot, and been guided to some remarkable films via this blog.

  6. In addition; I knew there was trouble brewing the moment I saw that tongue poking header πŸ™‚

  7. I think your post is spot on. We all recognize certain films are “recognized as Iconic or classics, however you wish to term it., But it doesn’t mean that we all need to have the same taste, and make some “official” ranking for them. It is inherent that all best, worst, influential, etc list are arbitrary by nature. What we need to focus on as you pointed out is to celebrate the fact we all can enjoy something., no matter what the genre, who the Director or Star may be. It is the worlds cinematic buffet, choose what you like, and let other choose what they like, plenty there for everybody.

    1. Indeed! And I have come to appreciate stars and directors I may not have liked at first thanks to reading enthusiastic reviewers with different opinions.

  8. The first time someone told me I as “wrong” for liking a certain movie, I was rather taken aback. For a brief moment I will filled with fury, then I couldn’t stop laughing. As you say, it is a matter of personal taste. I realized as well that the person telling me I was wrong probably was unaware of the fact that I am never wrong. Poor, foolish, deluded person who doesn’t think like me.

  9. I love what you wrote here and you made me laugh at the silent image of the gal raising her eyes up…hahahahaa. When I read the comments I was dumbfounded and I laughed because they really need to get a life if they take offence at someone’s opinions. They are looking to be offended. I am one who loves Mack Sennett and always dream that, one day, I will be in a pie fight even though it was more Soupy Sales than anything else. you have an excellent knowledge of film especially silent film and I enjoy all you write. If we all agreed with one another the world would be so boring but …Man! People need to take a chill pill. Personally I like Murnau and his work, what little I’ve seen but that’s my personal likes. If I had to choose watching Gone With The Wind or Dodgeball…..yup, I would choose Dodgeball because I enjoy the stupidity of it. One can talk about all the amazing feats of GWTW but it’s simply not one of my favourite films. Yes, I know I’m talking sound films but I’m agreeing( or trying to) with you because GWTW has great actors, amazing shots, huge story etc… But I just don’t get why the South should be considered so wonderful. I also( sorry Olivia) want to trip Melanie into a ditch. Ok I am droning on and on. I like what you wrote here and what you present.

    1. I’m with you on Dodgeball vs. GWTW. Heck, I’d watch almost anything else. Did you see the kerfuffle last year when the NY Post critic (who’s a super nice guy) suggested that maybe GWTW should be considered more of a museum piece? People were running around in circles screaming that the film was about to be banned. It was both hilarious and sad. I had no idea the film critic of the NY Post wielded so much power.

  10. Might you consider tackling a top five favorite cinematographers list, top five favorite producers, dare I say top five favorite studios? Bring it on! Just think of all the fun back ‘n forth to be had in the threads πŸ˜‰

    Wait, you haven’t already posted on any of those…have you?

    1. I haven’t done too much listing for behind-the-camera stuff but I look forward to being lectured for my failure to include von Sternberg on my cinematographer list. πŸ˜‰

  11. I agree with pretty much what everyone has said, though not all in equal measure; maybe one day I will list my top five favourites of the comments posted, though they may not be everyone’s faves. i once listed my top five favourite numbers and was castigated for putting seven above three!! There’s nowt so queer as folk.

  12. STV was your FIRST theatrical film? No wonder you love silents so much!

    “Row, row, row your boat…”

    πŸ˜€

    Great post, btw!

    1. I was the perfect little Trekkie. I watched everything that came out and supported it no matter what, up to and including season 1 of ST:TNG. And then, Voyager happened. Brrrr!!! (I am convinced that the entire plot was a secret collaboration between the Federation and the Maquis to get rid of their most idiotic members. And it worked!)

      1. Heh, here comes the Wrath of Kon(-vention going Trekkers) if THAT Voyager opinion gets loosed into the wilds. Shields up! Get us out of here, warp factor eight!

      2. The Voyager fans can’t scare me. I’ve dealt with Valentino nutters.

        I must say, Voyager fans are a textbook example of “doth protest too much.” I can hook just about anyone on DS9 just by showing “Duet” with its themes of war, genocide, forgiveness and empty vengeance. Voyager, meanwhile, is almost crippled by cheese. I also resented the condescending way they treated their female audience by making the captain always right because the story says so instead of, you know, ACTUALLY TAKING RISKS WITH THE CHARACTER. 90s grrrrl power. Sigh.

        Needless to say, I agree with every word Ron Moore spoke about the show:
        http://www.lcarscom.net/rdm1000118.htm

  13. You are so right. Look how many movies come out and are savaged by critics but hits at the box office, Who’s right? The fans or the critics. It’s all subjective. I’m sure I like Metropolis but I’m fine with the fact that you do not. It’s your privilege.

    1. So many people forget that the purpose of movies is to have fun. If you’re not having fun but someone else is, well, let them enjoy themselves. Even if it is Lubitsch and DeMille. πŸ™‚

  14. Absolutely agree- movies are supposed to be fun, to entertain us!

    I’ve had fellow members of AMIA (you shall remain nameless) inform me that my love of all things Keystone needs to be tempered by the fact that “Chaplin and everyone else who was any good left after a short while.” My response is normally a semi-polite, ” Wow, you’re right, and that would indeed deeply concern me except for the fact that Keystone comedies make me laugh my — off.”

    1. And humor is so very personal. I mean, how can you tell someone else what they can and cannot laugh at? I’ll take the Three Stooges over W.C. Fields any day of the week but why begrudge anyone their Fields, Keystone or whatever else makes them happy? Was Chaplin more sophisticated than Keystone? Of course but belly laughs aren’t dictated by that sort of thing.

  15. I’m so glad you made this post! Ultimately the enjoyment of any film or even if one thinks a film is good is going to be subjective. I don’t think there really is such a thing as watching a film objectively. One could try, but I don’t think anyone could really succeed! So much of what one likes in film is going to be because of one’s personal tastes, and there is nothing wrong with that.

  16. I’m so glad to hear you say this (or see you write it). My personal example is, I can see why THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is revered in film history, but that doesn’t mean I’m dying to have another crack at it.

    1. Thank you so much!

      At the risk of being one of THOSE people, I must say that I felt exactly the same way about Potemkin until I saw the recent German restoration. For year, the only available version had been slooooooooooooooowed down and turned a snappy picture into a horrendous slog. The restoration returns the film to its proper speed and restores its powerful original score, as opposed to the droning Shostakovitch stuff from the Soviet re-release.

      Of course, no hard feelings at all if the film still doesn’t do it for you, I just wanted to let you know that 90% of the home video releases are slo-mo. πŸ™‚

  17. I find Lang and Murnau entertaining, myself, but I certainly recognize that everyone does not. Being entertaining and being important are not the same thing, but they CAN converge.

Comments are closed.