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In the course of my writings, I have oft repeated a couple of mantras that I think are important for screenwriters to have.
One is: there is nothing wrong with liking a bad film, but there is something wrong with thinking a film is good for no other reason than you liked it.
Second is: I firmly believe every screenwriter needs to develop critical taste and that in the same way you can teach your palate to differentiate between good wine and bad, you can do the same with film.
To the first, readers often reply that since all taste is subjective, that it is impossible to ever be objective in taste, that this is meaningless and simply not true.
To the second, readers often reply since all taste is subjective, that it is impossible to ever be objective in taste, that this is meaningless and simply not true.
Then I’m often asked, if it’s possible to develop critical taste, which they don’t think it is, how does one go about it? Sometimes I think they aren’t really interested in how I think one can do it so much as they want me to explain it so they can shoot me down because there is just no possibility that they will ever give up their belief that subjectivity of subjectivity, all is subjectivity.
But I shall try.
First, a few caveats. When I refer to whether a film is bad or good, I am defining that as the innate qualities of that film that make it good or bad outside of how much of a profit it makes. Money is irrelevant here.
Now many of you may very well believe that what distinguishes a good film from a bad one can only be determined in matters of dollars and cents. If so, this essay is simply not for you and is irrelevant. Your critical taste has already been developed as much as it can be since profit is the only criteria.
Whether you are correct or not is meat for another essay and not one I’m going to indulge here.
This essay is for screenwriters who believe that something that is good or bad is not determined solely by bread alone, and who strives to write something that is meaningful to them, that is unique and results from a vision, that whose main interest right now is to write the best possible screenplay they can.
And I believe that developing critical taste can be indispensable in this goal since it enables you with more clarity to see the width and breath of what can be possible. It can help you see screenwriting as something more than just making a living. It can help you see that there are few limitations to your aim and can help you think outside the box. It can engender ambition and help you reach for the stars.
I suggest that if you develop critical taste, it will simply make you a better writer.
Another caveat is that when I say develop critical taste, I don’t mean trying to make you like what are considered the greatest movies ever made. In the same way that just because you like a movie that doesn’t make it good, just because you dislike a movie doesn’t make it bad.
There are many good and great films that simply don’t do anything for me. This doesn’t mean I can automatically stamp them as not being a good film. It just means I don’t happen to like them. Nothing more, nothing less.
In trying to encourage you to develop critical taste, I’m not trying to tell you what to like. What I’m trying to do is give you tools that can help you approach the topic in a more objective manner.
And finally, by critical taste, I define it as a methodology, both instinctual and not, as to how you decide whether a film is good or bad. And by instinctual and not, I mean a combination of both subjective and objective thought.
To start, I am going to suggest an exercise. Take the last ten films you’ve seen and rank them from the worst at one to the best at ten. Then take the next ten films you see, and with the first ten, make a top ten list from those. This, of course, will require you to omit ten films. Then take the next ten films and do the same.
And every time you do this, you will end up with only ten films.
This is only the first part of the exercise and not really the most pertinent. The real exercise begins now as you go back over the list and state why you replaced certain films with others, what made you take one film off the list, and what made you keep others on them.
The purpose is not to create a best of list. The purpose is to help you start thinking critically as to why you make the decisions you do. It’s not so much a list to separate bad from good, but a method to give you insight into how to start developing critical taste.
You can even take this a step farther. Six months later, take the list of thirty films and again come up with the top ten. But do this without referencing the original list. And do the exercise as to writing out why this film made the list and why this one didn’t.
The list may be identical. Or it may not be the same.
One of the greatest contributors to developing critical taste is time. The longer the period from when you’ve had an immediate subjective kneejerk reaction to a film, the more objective you will probably find your opinion to be.
And you might just be surprised at how your opinion has changed.
And the longer the period of time you wait to do this, the more your list might change.
The next exercise is close to what most readers have to do on a regular basis for contest and production companies. We have to assign a value to various aspects of the screenplay. And through this assigning, we make a judgment as to whether to recommend the screenplay or not.
The categories usually fall into these categories: character/dialog; story/structure; originality; technical accomplishment. These are categories that as a reader you are asked to be as thoughtful, or objective, as possible. I will add here one extra category that one contest had me do: spark. This means how much you immediately liked it, the immediate, knee jerk subjective impact it had on you.
For this exercise, take all thirty films (without referencing their ranking) and give a point count from one to five for each category. And here, try to have the mindset of being objective about it. Really carefully consider whether the characters as well drawn, have depth, are three dimensional. Try to forget how much you like it, but think about the quality in and of itself.
The exception to this is the spark rating, which is supposed to be a knee jerk reaction. Keep that rating separate and don’t include it with the others.
Then take an average of the categories for each film and compare that average to the spark rating. You may find that the ratings perfectly correlate. You might also find that they don’t. And you may then ask yourself, why don’t they correlate?
And then do this exercise six months later and see if they correlate. And if they don’t, then ask yourself why.
The most important part of this exercise is not which film is where on the list, but why you made the decision. This is called critical taste. It’s not what you like, but how you determine the quality of the work of art.
An additional way to help develop critical taste is to simply see as many films as possible and then see twice as many more and then see twice as many more. But see films from all walks of film life: popular entertainment, foreign films, classics, major independents and indies. And from all genres.
This is probably one of the most important and even easiest ways to develop taste because the more films you see along with the variety of films you see, the more you might find your tastes changing as certain aspects of films that thrilled you when you had only seen a modest number of them no longer interest you.
And see them with people who have different tastes than you do. Share your feelings and why you feel the way you do. Argue for your take on the film. Listen to other’s insights. You might find your opinions changing without you realizing it.
Finally, see movies more than once with a significant amount of time between viewings. I sometimes find it very interesting that a film I had a very positive reaction to the first time now feels a bit lackluster, such that sometimes I’m confused as to why I held the film so high in the few place.
And the reverse can happen. A film that left me cold suddenly has a different effect on me, something more positive.
One final note. I have often said that if you want a list of the greatest films ever made, the place to begin is with the lists of the Cahiers du Cinema and Sight and Sound. Each list is a compilation of film critics and other authorities’ choice for what movies have withstood the test of time.
A response I get is that these lists are as subjective as any list any Tom, Dick or Harry can come up with.
I suggest this is not true. Though not entirely devoid of subjectivity, these lists are made with a great deal of objectivity as well, of people trying not to simply give kneejerk reactions to seeing a film, but from people with wide experience and history in film who try to really consider not just what is on the list, but why they think it should be there.
I believe that greatness in art is the result of a ratio of time passed to critical reception. That the more time has passed along with how well received a work of art is received by experts in the area determines what is great and what is not.
Many do not agree with that. They believe that in the end, it is all subjectivity.
To that I say, it’s irrelevant. You can kick against the pricks all you want, but time doesn’t care, time laughs at you, and time will ultimately have its day long after you no longer do.
One final thought. In trying to apply subjectivity to art, perhaps think of it as serving on a jury. You may hate the defendant, you may despise him with every bone in your body, you may want him to get everything you think he deserves.
Or you may love the defendant, think he’s a saint and a wonderful human being.
Those are your kneejerk reactions. And to some degree they have their place.
But once you get in that jury room and start deciding guilt or innocence, do you still go by your initial impression, or do you go over the evidence and talk about it and try to be as objective as possible?
I suggest developing critical taste is somewhat the same.