Why We Fight (on Movie Blogs)

There are two free-floating ideas on the film blogosphere that I would like to call out as bullshit, and my hope is that the more they are recognized as bullshit the less people will cling to them. I see them as the ‘all or nothing’ approaches. They are as follows:

1) Film taste is wholly subjective, so nothing is debatable

2) Film taste is wholly objective, so everything is debatable

Nothing kills a thread faster than someone proclaiming that all debate is futile because ‘film is subjective’. By this logic, the forum that exists is just a depository of self-contained opinions that need not even brush up against each other, lest they be challenged in any way. On the flipside, you have the predatorial approach based on the assumption that ‘everything is debatable’ including how a person must feel about the film. Sometimes this is just trolling, but more often than not it is a genuine presumption of knowing how everyone must feel. These are the extremes and unfortunately they play out on occasion on Row Three, hence my desire to put a spotlight on them.

Despite the obvious subjective quality to personal taste, opinions can co-exist, healthy debate can happen. For some, this will be glaringly obvious, but take a look at any movie forum and time and again you will see that this farce does play out. Still it takes all kinds, and there is certainly a benefit when aggressive types stick their neck out for people to get agitated enough to join in (we at Row Three have a knack for doing that, i.e. the Signs water theory, the politics of Milk), but after the ball gets rolling things tend to fall apart because somewhere, someone neglects how exactly we relate to film, and how film relates to our lives. There are useful boundaries that we can hold to, to keep the insightful threads ricocheting into the hundreds.

First, lets do away with this fallacy that film is subjective and therefore everyone is right. This is not kindergarten. At its best, a film community can be a place to confront your feelings, articulate them, come to some conclusion that you would not have independently. While there are indisputable aspects to one’s opinion (i.e. your emotional response), the causes are not so indisputable and can and should be challenged. There is a tendency for people to get upset when told that they do not feel what they feel, and it’s usually the fault of the accuser missing their mark; what is meant is not that someone does not feel the way they do, but rather the justifications for why they feel that way rings false.

Cause and effect, but when talking about aesthetics, its more like effect and then cause. Which is to say: we feel the movie first and then enshrine the experience through some sort of convincing fiction, associating the feeling with reasons pulled from the film object or our relation to it. It’s the cause that can be disputed, not the effect. I suspect all of us have watched a film, felt something, and then after prolonged discussion about it, felt something altogether different. This lack of stickiness to our causes indicates how arbitrary they can be. The whole point of having causes, taking the experience and articulating it, is in itself another kind of aesthetic experience. Still, these fictions are useful, and of relative accuracy to answering the why of the experience. The film discussion is a way of refining the why, getting beyond the obvious and perhaps inaccurate signifiers for the feeling, to new and more fascinating layers.

Despite all of these useful fictions for why we like what we like, there are ways to speak of a film critically but it depends on a mutual understanding between the people discussing it. In other words, both parties need to know the conventions of the film, its genre conventions, its storytelling devices, it’s socio-cultural significance, in essence looking at ‘film as craft’ (and considering that what I am talking about presently is behavior on a movie blog, its probably taken as a given in this context that people who write here already have this foundation). With this foundation established both parties can argue the relative conformity or deviations from formulas, (“this film adds nothing to the vampire genre because…”).

The problem, though, is that each person has his or her own threshold for familiarity. This threshold is determined in part by the saturation of experience, if you have seen the same device used in a film a hundred times, the hundred-and-first time may be the tipping point for your toleration, but your friend has been exposed to it only twenty times and sees no fault in it. If we are aware of our biases in this regard then the useless back and forth can be prevented.

In the same way that we have a threshold for familiarity, the same is true for confronting films that we have little or no built up cache to compare or contrast against. For every kind of film there will be a genus, which is to say an original encounter that leaves an impression on you as the standard, in more ways than one. Each of us at different points in our lives, different time space paths, we are all going to have different markers of what is standard, of what is new and what is familiar. When the new experience resonates strongly enough it can become a source of one’s personal mythology. We here go beyond the concern of ‘film as film’ and enter a new grammar of ‘film as art’. Every film has the potential for art, it depends only on who is in relation to the object. When you were nine, something simplistic may have impressed on you so much that it became embedded in your life, the first time you saw death depicted in a film for example, that may be something that is a marker in your development, it HAD significance.

We collect these stories, both about our relationship to the films, and the stories of the films themselves, and build a mythology around which our lives are affected. These higher echelon experiences come to affect who we are and how we interact with the world. The enshrining ‘explanations’ of the feeling are fictions we make up, but they are useful fictions to move us in a certain direction. We may argue over the objects we associate with our feelings but this too is another useful fiction, a way to further elaborate or enshrine our valued ideas. It doesn’t matter so much if we convince another person one way or the other only that we refine our own ideas.

The conflict between each of us when debating a film is attempting to reconcile these cached qualitative characteristics we impart on the films we like and dislike. Its helpful to realize which qualifiers are unique to your experience (film as art) and which can be demonstrably shown as part of the buffer zone (film as craft).
One cannot argue over someone’s impression of feeling an art experience, the best you can do is challenge the causes, and since there is no definitive cause really, its an aesthetic exercise, its two people refining their ideas about a film.

Film as craft = debate
Film as art = discuss

In summary:

– (effect then cause) We feel the movie than enshrine the experience with fictitious causes

– Film discussion is a way for us to refine our fictitious causes to suit a certain aesthetic end

– There are two ways in which a film may be understood and talked about: film as craft, and film as art, or, similarly, considering it as an distinct object amongst objects, or in relation to your self

– Serious debate can only occur when treating film as craft (to compare art experiences in order to ‘prove’ something makes no sense because we have different familiarity thresholds, different cached experiences to draw from. A film’s particular deviation or conformity to a formula can be proven, but its qualitative value cannot)

– When looking at ‘film as art’ (film in relation to yourself) one can only discuss impressions, parties working together to refine their own ideas. The motives for why someone feels so strongly about a film may be challenged, since causes are fictitious, but its not really a matter of debate, as neither side can be right or wrong in this process

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Mike Rot
Master of War