Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Or You Could Make Up Your Own Mind

Recently, nominees for the Academy Awards were announced, and Al Sharpton got huffy. You could probably put any event you wanted in between the commas and that sentence would be the same, but the lack of nominations for the director and cast of Selma caused quite a bit of discussion about whether the Oscars "mean anything" or not.

This blog has gone on record with the position that the awards, except for the technical categories, are glorified opinion polls among a very narrow set of voters. Acting performances, directing work and such are very largely subjective, and at a certain level it's tough to pick one as "better" than another in any way that's much different from saying,"I liked this one more than that one."

Movie critics are in the same boat -- they offer opinions about the movies they see. Many of them realize that, but many also don't, and seem somehow unable to understand why people see movies that they, the critics, think are lousy. I have some sympathy for that view, because I cannot for the life of me see why Eli Roth, for example, is someone that people will pay money to make movies instead of the clerk in a dingy, fading video store who can give you fifteen minutes of reasons why one obscure grindhouse exploitation movie is better than another one.

But on the other hand, all movie reviewers do is tell me what they think about the movies they've seen. You may note I do the same thing with movies, as well as books and some records. And awards and reviews don't always seem to match up with whether or not a movie has a long-term impact. Enter the Northwestern University (yay!) Institute on Complex Systems and professor Luis Amaral, where researchers developed an algorithm based on how often a movie was mentioned or referenced in subsequent movies.

They used their algorithm to predict if a movie would be included in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress, and found out that it did a better job of that than good reviews, awards won or box office sales.

Of course, inclusion on the film registry might not be the final signal of equality either, since the standard is "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," and significant doesn't have to mean "good." Johnny Weissmuller's syntactically challenged Tarzan and His Mate and Cecil B. DeMille's scenery chowdown The Ten Commandments are on the list. Becket, Diner and The Lion in Winter aren't. Nor is Dr. No -- or any other James Bond film -- which have had quite the cultural impact over the years.

In the end, maybe there is no real way to fine-tune the judgment of a movie's greatness. Some movies with amazing performances surround them with a storyline that doesn't really work (Birdman, I'm talking to you). Some movies have less-than-stellar acting and more holes than a chain-link fence but somehow hang together for an amazing experience (Star Wars, that's your cue).

So perhaps if you want to think a movie is great, you should do that, no matter what professional folks or algorithms or run-their-mouths bloggers may tell you. I promise that if I disagree with you, I'll hold my laughter at your unfathomably shortsighted choice until after you're out of earshot.

But only if you do the same.


fillyjonk said...

It seems to me that "someone will get huffy" is a safe bet regardless of what happens these days.

It's really too bad we can't generate electricity from umbrage. Or turn it into a food product. Or something.

Friar said...


Although most people seem to number the ability to take umbrage among their gifts, but for Rev. Sharpton it stands alone