Is there such a thing as an objectively great film? I've been having this argument in one form or another for at least 20 years. The prevailing school of thought seems to be that yes, there are objectively great films, and if you don't like these films, well, you're just plain wrong.
Which of course is ridiculous. "Objectively great" is an oxymoron. If something is objectively anything, it is so based on facts, free from bias or personal interpretation. And personal interpretation is integral to any discussion of film.
So, why, then, do people make this claim? Someone once told me that certain films simply become objectively great, based on their place in cinema history and the general consensus. Which, to me, sounds worryingly like opinion by syndicate, groupthink taken to ridiculous extremes. I'm reminded of an anecdote I heard the other day, in which a screenwriter called up a Hollywood studio executive to find out what he thought of his script, and the response he got was: "Honestly, I don't know what I think, because I'm the only one here who has read it."
Even the meaning of the word "great" is subjective. My ex-husband used to get annoyed when I described a movie as being very good but not great, because he didn't understand the difference between a great movie and a movie that has nothing particularly wrong with it (I eventually cured him of this condition). But what is a "great" movie, really? Everyone has their own standards for bestowing that most sacred adjective on a film. Myself, I tend to think of a great film as being one that challenges me, either artistically, intellectually, or emotionally. But really, the best answer is the same one used to define everything from art to pornography: I know it when I see it.
Many people confuse historical importance for artistic greatness, as though the one automatically assumes the other. This has always seemed problematic to me, though. Surely, greatness requires more than mere innovation. Sure, The Birth of a Nation is noteworthy for, if you'll pardon the pun, birthing modern cinema in many ways, but is it really a great movie, this offensively racist, cartoonish Civil War melodrama? Is The Jazz Singer a great movie for being the first with synchronized sound? A movie is a lot more than merely the sum of its technical achievements, and being the first to do something certainly does not mean you were the best at doing it, or even particularly good at it.
The real reason people make this claim of "objective greatness," I suspect, is simply that they don't trust their own opinions. And really, who can blame them? There are so many factors to consider when forming an opinion of a movie -- directing, writing, acting, cinematography, editing, sound, makeup, costumes, set design, to say nothing of those that are entirely script-related: plot, dialogue, characterizations, are there any plot holes, does it all make sense? -- that it's a wonder we're even able to coalesce our thoughts after only one viewing. It's much easier to trust the experts to determine cinematic greatness for us, to start from that fundamental viewpoint and work our way to an understanding of the film from there.
There comes a point, however, when you just have to stand on your own legs and declare, "No, actually, this movie really isn't all that great!" But people are afraid to do that. Nobody likes to stand alone, to be the dissenting voice in the crowd. It's scary out there. And because it's so scary, a kind of herd mentality overtakes us. It's not that we necessarily alter our opinions to match those of the majority, but when our opinions do match the majority's, or at least come close enough to roughly align with them, it comes as such a relief to have them validated in such a way that we start thinking of them as objective truths. Opinions seldom thrive in a vacuum. Knowing others feel the same way we do makes us feel less alone, less strange, less... different. It's why we watch movies to begin with. And read books. And listen to pop songs. It's all to confirm that there are others out there who are Just Like Us.
So what happens when we don't agree with the majority? Well, results vary from one person to the next. For some, it's anger ("How can you all like this overrated piece of crap?!"). For others, it's fear ("What's so great about this movie? I'd better watch it again because I must have missed something!"). For still others, it's concession ("I know this is a great movie, I just don't like it."). We scour the Internet in search of smart people who agree with us just so we know we're not crazy. We're all so afraid of our own opinions that it's become nearly impossible to have a rational, intelligent discussion anymore.
This is especially true in the nerd community. Certain movies have to be great. They just have to. Nerds are extremely protective of their movies, and often go to extreme lengths to defend them. The Dark Knight Rises (you knew this was coming) opens this weekend, after four years of collective salivating over casting news, leaked set pics, general gossip, any tidbit having anything to do with anything having any kind of connection to this movie. Such levels of anticipation create a pressure cooker situation, one which requires only the barest hint of negativity to set it off. When early reviews came in, and not all of them were positive, the fans exploded. "How dare they dislike this movie, when clearly it's the best movie ever even though we haven't seen it yet?!" Rotten Tomatoes actually had to shut down comments, it got so heated. This goes beyond a mere unwillingness to accept differing opinions. This is fanaticism in the truest sense, as blind and irrational as any extreme religious zeal. But it's what we humans do, I suppose.
So if there are not objectively great movies, does this mean there are no objectively bad films? That's harder to judge. Certainly, there are films that one would be hard pressed to call "good"; it's why something like Mystery Science Theater 3000 could exist. At least from a technical standpoint, there are certain standards that must be maintained; if a movie fails to reach any or all of them, then yes, a case could be made that it is objectively bad. On the other hand, in my 30+ years of moviegoing, I've discovered few movies as purely entertaining as Plan 9 from Other Space, a film that clearly falls short of acceptable standards of quality in virtually every aspect of its creation. So how can it be a bad movie if I enjoyed it so much? This brings us back into that gray area governed largely by "I know it when I see it."
Of course, fans are just as quick to label a movie as "objectively bad" as they are to label something "objectively great." There are the reasonable candidates, like the aforementioned Plan 9. Manos: The Hands of Fate is another commonly cited one. But then there are movies like The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Superman Returns, and X-Men: The Last Stand, movies that actually got good reviews from the majority of critics on Rotten Tomatoes (76% in the case of Superman Returns), and yet which are invariably used in fan discussions as synonyms for "bad movie." Now, I bring up these four examples in particular (there are many others) because they're all movies that I personally love. Not like, love. And yet I can never talk about my love for these movies in public, because I'm already coming from a foundation of Wrong in the minds of most people who might take part or in some way encounter the discussion.
How did we get to this point, where opinions are so threatening that they need to be quarantined? Is this really what we want in an intelligent society (which I realize is another oxymoron)? I suppose humans have always had a fundamental need to make others agree with them -- it's why we have religion, wars, and Oprah -- but at its core, it's always been a matter of fear and insecurity. Applying that paradigm to something as trivial as moving pictures (and I'm speaking as an ardent film lover) is just doubly pathetic. Movies aren't mathematical equations to be solved. They're not scientific formulas. They're collections of images, sounds, ideas, emotions, rhythms, perceptions. Some affect you, some don't. Some that don't affect you affect others, and vice versa. Whether they affect others or not has nothing to do with you and the effects the movie has on you. Acceptance of this truth is the first step to a genuine, uncompromising love of the cinema.