Over the last two days I have receive some substantial backlash for my criticism of the current domineering popularity of middling superhero movies at the box office. The primary charge seems to have been that I am elitist in my opinions. But there is an ironic twist to this story. After some discussion with my two main interlocutors — Bryan L and Walter — it turns out that each denies that one can assess the quality of films objectively. Instead, each believes that film quality can only be assessed relative to a particular viewing community.
Why is this ironic? Because Bryan L and Walter’s relativistic view contradicts directly the mainstream view that films can be assessed for their objective quality. It is that very assumption which keeps film critics in business and which fuels the interest in awards shows from the Academy Awards to the Razzies. This assumption also drives film festivals from Cannes to Tiff which aim to provide the service of curating quality cinematic works to a wider audience. And so, if anybody is an elitist, it is not me. Rather, it is my critics who eschew the opinions of the general population and seem to do so with a notable dose of elitism. This is how Walter put it to me:
“You are free to lament all you want about other people’s poor taste in cinema or music or whatever else as long as you realize that it is ultimately just your own subjective value judgment at work here.”
As I said, this is quite ironic. Walter chastises me for daring to render opinions on the objective quality of particular films, and roots his criticism in nothing more than his own declaration that my opinions (and presumably those of the film critics and awards shows and film festivals and movie-going public) are all merely subjective value judgments.
Now let’s close by noting an implication of this relativistic position that both Bryan L and Walter have endorsed.
Let’s take a look at “God’s not Dead”. This film, which was released in February this year, tells the story of a young man who goes off to university and boldly stands up to a hostile atheistic philosophy professor, declaring for all the world to hear that God is not dead.
“God’s not Dead” is one of the most critically panned films this year. Currently it holds a score of 16/100 at metacritic.com and an abyssmal 13% rating at Rottentomatoes.com. At the same time, audiences have flocked to the film: it has a high 85% audience approval rating at Rottentomatoes.com and I have spoken with several Christians who loved the film.
If Bryan L and Walter are correct then there is no objective fact about whether “God’s not Dead” is a better or worse film than “The Dark Knight” or “August: Osage County”. The only facts are those relative to viewing communities. And so relative to one viewing community (e.g. the Comic-con community of Peoria) “The Dark Knight” is better, but relative to another viewing community (e.g. the First Baptist Church of Memphis) “God’s not Dead” is better.
Really? That’s it?
Film critics use a wide range of objective criteria in their assessment of film quality. For example, they flag continuity errors and cliches, breaks in verisimilitude, poor cinematography, muddy script writing, poor lighting, wooden acting, and so on. They also are incisive critics of the use of films merely as propaganda pieces to further a particular perspective (and one suspects that is a significant source of the criticism of “God’s not Dead”).
So let’s say that a Christian youth pastor wants to take his youth group to go see “God’s not Dead” so they can be entertained and have their faith reinforced in the rightness of Christianity and the wickedness and shallowness of atheism and the secular university system. Based on the Cinemascore, survey data at Rottentomatoes, and anecdotal accounts I have heard, I can say that relative to those interests they will enjoy “God’s not Dead”. But I can also say that those are the wrong kinds of interests to have, objectively considered. Consequently, if propagandistic reinforcement is the only cinematic virtue of “God’s not Dead,” then it is objectively a bad film because the motivations for seeing it and the beliefs it inculcates in a receptive audience are themselves bad.