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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.