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Caitlin Barry Headshot

Why Do We Call Some Movies 'Good' and Others 'Bad'?

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I recently started teaching a film elective to middle schoolers. At the beginning of the first class, I screened three short films as a prompt for discussion. During the conversation, a seventh grader remarked, "the last one was better than the other two," and went on to explain why he felt this way.

It was a thoughtful comment, and I noted that. But then I added, "Be careful about saying one film is better than another. It's a matter of taste."

This is much bigger than a classroom question; it's a big, society-level question. Is there an objective standard for media (and movies in particular)? Should there be?

My boyfriend and I fight about this all the time. He likes "good" movies, like Silver Linings Playbook and Children of Men. I like "bad" movies like Taken and National Treasure. He always argues that, using the rules of aesthetics and narrative and composition, we can decide that some movies are better than others. Many people use critics as an easy way to gauge the quality of a film.

My argument is that it's all relative. To say that Silver Linings Playbook is better than Taken is a personal choice. (I know, to some this may seem an absurd comparison.) How can we claim that one is universally better? However, this is what the Academy Awards seek to do every year. They set out to publicly recognize some directors and writers as better than others. As a society, we accept this practice as normal.

So, should I feel bad about myself? Am I making the "wrong" choice when I pop in an action movie that only got 40 percent on Rotten Tomatoes?

This conundrum goes back to the century-old distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. Highbrow defined the art and literature consumed by the upper class, and lowbrow referred to -- you guessed it -- the entertainment that the lower class consumed. For many years, this distinction had a lot to do with access. High culture was more expensive, harder to obtain, and required education to understand. Low culture was cheap, silly and easy to acquire (see Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow for a much more historically accurate description of this phenomenon).

At some point, we began to apply this way of thinking to the media. But while opera and sculpture are expensive to see and tough to interpret, media is accessible to almost everyone. Thus, the division between highbrow and lowbrow, good and bad, smart and dumb, has become more arbitrary (and some may argue it was pretty arbitrary to begin with). Does it make sense to measure the value of a film based on its proximity to something upper class, serious, educated people might like in the 1890s?

My point is that these standards are somewhat random and that we should not confuse a critical consensus with objective truth. If we are going to assign value at all, it should be based on the pleasure we get from viewing. (And let's ditch the term "guilty pleasure," like Chuck Klosterman recommends, because we shouldn't feel guilty for liking something.)

Rather than focusing on filling our plates with film that will supposedly make us smarter because it's so much "better," we should practice asking ourselves probing questions. Specifically, we should be able to identify why certain movies resonate with us and why others don't. This -- knowing ourselves and understanding social beliefs -- is what will make us smarter.