Homer: Wait, I’m confused about the movie … so the cops knew Internal Affairs was setting them up?
Glen: What are you talking about? There’s nothing like that in there.
Homer: Well, you see when I get bored I make up my own movies.
– The Joy of Sect, season 9, episode 13 of the Simpsons
Sadly, this isn’t far from the truth. Look at you, reading this blog. Stand back, sit back, take a look at yourself. When you watch a movie, whose morality are you considering? Yours, right? If something appeals to you, then it must be good. If something doesn’t appeal to you, it must be bad. I know it hurts to hear it stated in frank tones like this, but that’s how you think. That’s how I thought for the longest time. That’s how I still think when I watch a movie for fun. I am watching to be entertained, therefore I’m watching something that will entertain me. When you watch something you want to be entertained by, you watch it with your morality in mind. You watch the characters as you would see them.
But that isn’t how the director saw them on set. That isn’t how the editor saw them in the editing suite. That isn’t how the costume designer read them from the script, that isn’t what the actor connected with when offered the part, that isn’t what the producer felt vaguely ambivalent toward while making sure the receipts checked out. That isn’t the movie that was being made at the time. That’s simply what you want to see. And in this way, we are all Homer Simpson.
Movies are a hard thing to write about. Movies are universal. Every town has a cineplex; every computer has an internet connection. Everyone can see a movie at any time they want. And we all like movies–at least, I’ve yet to meet a person aside from my father who hates the majority of films. And even then, he doesn’t hate movies, he just prefers documentaries. Movies are available everywhere and loved by everyone because they all trade in something we all possess: emotion.
At their base level, movies are a conductor treating their audience like a symphony orchestra and conducting your feelings. You laugh when they want you to, you’re horrified after. Feelings, even for people whose feelings are guarded and kept secret, are personal things. We all have them. We all feel qualified to talk about our own feelings. This is true. We might not do it well, but the only people who know our feelings are ourselves. And as movies deal exclusively with how we feel about things, we all feel equally qualified to talk about movies. This is not true.
“There he is again, on his know-it-all pedestal–telling me what I can and can’t talk about and how he’s so great!” You know, I don’t hear it often. But when I do, I remember it. So stow that line of crap and lemme read you the news: We are all Homer Simpson. From Ebert and Maltin to film majors to you to me. We are all Homer Simpson. We’ve all watched the movie in our head instead of the one on the screen at one time or another. I love The Room, it’s a comic masterpiece. But a critic recognizes that it was never meant to be a comic masterpiece. That’s why it’s a bad movie.
The same goes for any movie. Homer Simpson, you or I, takes their feelings at face value, sees the movie through their eyes. They judge whether the protagonist is a good person or not and view what happens to them accordingly. And I do it too. And you do it too. And angrily insisting that you don’t doesn’t help anybody giving or receiving criticism or making movies. We all bring our baggage and philosophy into the cinema with us, even the people who are paid to be objective (or do it for fun, like I do).
The big difference in film criticism vs. film commentary comes with whether or not the writer is judging by what the creative team behind the movie wanted to make as opposed to what they want to see. Criticism takes the objective approach. If dialogue = poorly written and movie = throwback to grindhouse cinema, then dialogue = good. If dialogue = poorly written and movie = serious drama, then dialogue = bad. That’s the thought of a critic. Say a particular Homer Simpson likes poor dialogue, regardless of the intention of the movie. If dialogue = poorly written and movie = serious drama, then dialogue = spectacular! After following these if/then criteria through a movie, you can start seeing where a critic and a commentator would have differing opinions.
But movies are still hard to talk about. They were before that Simpsons quote, they are now, they will be after you stop reading this article and go back to being bored. Everyone thinks that if you say a movie is bad that they found to be particularly affecting, their feelings are invalid. This isn’t so. Because, despite what I’m going to say everywhere else, there is subjective truth to be found in movies. After all, if Kick-Ass was so great, why did Ebert give it one star? If Last Airbender is so bad, how come I’ve met a person who’s seen it twice? (If you’re reading this from the future, this is before it came out on Blu-Ray. They’d seen it twice in theaters.) Well, there are a few reasons.
Critics don’t only look at whether the creative team did what they wanted to do. They also have to see if they did it well and if it was worth doing. In Roger Ebert’s opinion, Kick-Ass did what it wanted to well, but it wanted to do something immoral and worthless. I respect that, and emulate it on occasion (like my Up in the Air review). And as for the Last Airbender fan, that’s because every movie, no matter what everyone in the world may think of it, has the potential to speak to someone. Does that mean that critics are wrong to say that The Last Airbender is a mediocre film? No, they’re right to say so, it’s not that good.
What it means is that even the Star Wars Holiday Special can speak to someone. Because we are all Homer Simpson.