Every year, film communities, critics and enthusiasts, as well as seasonal moviegoers from all over the world tune in for the awards season in different countries. One of the highly popular and highly awaited award shows is Hollywood’s Academy Awards, more popularly known as the “Oscars”, which have already been running for 91 years since its establishment in 1929. The Academy, which has more or less 9,000 members as of 2020, has the power to give the most prestigious awards in Hollywood and, the way it works is that this exclusive club of members stretches over 17 branches, while its membership is bestowed via invite and sponsorship from within the Academy only. Because of the intense exclusivity, for many decades, it has been dominated by white males, the majority of which are over the age of 60 already. As the industry began to recognize its bias, and following the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the push for diversity within the Academy has intensified over the past years, thereby increasing female membership, as well as that of people of color. What is even more surprising is that it is formulating a 2025 diversity initiative for the qualification of films in each category, which supposedly will include criteria involving the inclusion of women, LGBTQ+ community, people of color, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups. Failure to include parts of these communities in the film would mean an automatic snub for the major award categories.
The reason for the statement of these facts about the Academy Awards is to give an example of some of the standards and criteria that the major industries have set for the judgment of films and filmmakers. Normally, films are judged for a competition based on their plot, cinematography, sound, originality and other factors, but the facts indicated above just shows that there is more to judgment than just looking and watching the films. Filmmaking is, after all, business and politics. However, the usage of award shows as an example does not equate the deliberation process of these shows to film criticism. Criticism is involved in the process, for sure, but it is overshadowed by so many other factors. The objective for these examples are merely to show that any film industry uses set standards and templates for the judgment and criticism of art such as film. Handpicked members, who are a privileged few, of numerous organizations, are formed to pinpoint which of the films produced in a year are considered the “best” and which ones are worthy of the general public’s time and money. Moreover, these decisions put the selected films on the pedestal which, in turn, influences other critics and movie reviewers regarding the “content” that they should view and write about. The whole process is an institutionalized viewing of art and picking out the ones that are deemed “good” based on their standards, with the intention of, not only recognizing and advancing the careers of the film auteurs, but also influencing the taste and standards of the general public, as well.
“Cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it.”(Astruc, p.17, 1948)
Film is an art of self expression as much as viewing it is an art of self realization. Just like any other artwork, the experience of it differs with every viewer. This is because viewing a film is not limited to watching it. Rather, when one watches a film, one takes all of her/his experiences, moods, personal history with oneself and experiences the art according to these very unique and personal realities. At the height of its flexibility as an art form, true enough, Astruc mentions, “The cinema today is capable of expressing any kind of reality” (Astruc, p. 21, 1948). And if there is any truth in the statements that each experience of art is unique, why then are these experiences being quantified? Why has there always been a need to set standards to quantify them and classify which art brings out good versus bad experiences? Based on these quantifications, certain qualities are also being identified as staple qualities that somehow become “required” in order for the art to be labelled as “good”. This leads to the development of templates that artists, should they wish their works to be recognized, must follow religiously. Divergence to such templates will result in either negative criticism or the general snubbing of their work. As such, does it mean that the setting of aforementioned standards destroy the essence of art and should, therefore, be considered unnecessary? Not exactly.
Art such as film needs certain standards because it has a commercial purpose. The process of creating it does have a personal aspect to it, and there are artworks created for personal use, but the majority are created for public consumption. Thus, in order for the public to properly digest and appreciate the art, the artist must partially speak their language, as well as gain their attention through the identified elements that the public is known to pay attention to. Here lies the never ending argument of whether or not a dot on a canvas or a banana taped to a blank wall is considered art. They can be and, for some people, they are, but can they be sold for a million dollars?
“For the new soul is still a bud, still going through its most dangerous, most sensitive stage…Those “buds” often behave more like tough nuts”(Kael, p.24, 1963)
Standards are necessary so that art could evolve and be contextualized, as well. Emerging artists, some of which tend to already be entitled upon entering the industry, are in need of being formed according to the context of the art in the current generation. These templates are also their gateway to the public’s attention, in a way. Ultimately, standards set are useful, but that does not mean that they are not limiting. In an industry where form is given a whole lot more importance than content, it will be extremely hard for the art to fulfill its purpose for self expression. Several aspects of it are bound to be toned down to meet expectations. However, these expectations are, more often than not, already preconceived judgments of the works of art based on several factors, one of which is the criticism of the work based solely on the auteur. In the case of film, if we were to use the auteur theory, this would be the director.
“An artist who is not a good technician can indeed create new standards, because standards of technical competence are based on comparisons with work already done…Just as new work in other arts is often attacked because it violates the accepted standards and thus seems crude and ugly and incoherent, great new directors are very likely to be condemned precisely on the grounds that they’re not even good directors, that they don’t know their business”(Kael, p.14, 1963)
Pauline Kael seems to put into words these preconceived judgments in the elaborate statement above. Just as how form is considered superior, the act of putting down a verdict on a film exclusively based on the technical competency of an artist is completely unjust and unfair because of several reasons, two of which, I will expound on.
The first is that filmmaking is teamwork. As an art form, it is an incorporation of several different arts such as music, digital animation, illustration, etc. Its complexity is achieved through the hundreds of people working to create a certain effect based on a unified vision. Focusing on the director alone is a total disregard for the multitude of people who were hired to help her/him achieve this vision.
“A badly directed or an undirected film has no importance in a critical scale of values, but one can make interesting conversation about the subject, the script, the acting, the color, the photography, the editing, the music, the costumes, the decor, and so forth.”(Sarris, p.562, 1962)
Also, it takes the focus away from the other elements of film (cinematography, sound, etc.), which should all be taken into equal consideration when making a criticism. They should not just be secondary conversation elements, as Sarris claims. The discussion on cinematography, for example, merits an equal space in a criticism as the discussion on direction. Passing on these elements drives criticism on a shallow level, concluding only upon the basis of an initial judgment.
“What are fifty thousand new readers, who do not fail to see each film from a novel, if not bourgeois?…What then is the value of an anti-bourgeois cinema made by the bourgeois for the bourgeois?…Workers, you know very well, do not appreciate this form of cinema at all even when it aims at relating to them”(Truffaut, p.16, 1954)
Second, the problem lies in the factors surrounding the setting of these expectations based on technicalities alone. This is where power comes in. Cinema, nowadays, is still the cinema of the bourgeois designed to meet the standards set by the higher classes because, logically, they are the ones who can afford access to the art. It is the bourgeois who make up the institutions who classify the good and the bad artworks, and it is also them (or us) who pretend to understand the struggles, likes and dislikes of the lower classes so that they could derive the formulas by which the majority could be fed with. These formulas, depending on the intention of the governing minority, may be genuine acts of communicating with the public, or they could be composed based on personal or political agenda. This is not to invalidate the fact that cinema, in its genuine progression as an art form, has proactively reached out to the other classes and has transformed itself into something that anyone could relate to. But it is hard to take the classes out of the picture because they are the consumers. Astruc says that “Up to now, the cinema has been nothing more than a show” (Astruc, p. 19, 1948). Films can be relatable to everyone, but they are not necessarily accessible to everyone. And until they are, chances are, cinema will remain as nothing more than a show whose progression will only be dictated by those who have the power to watch it.
Fortunately, in terms of the era of art, we are currently at an age of exploration. This is not only limited to the exploration of new methods and technologies that will further film’s boundaries, but it is also about the exploration of methods that would make the medium more reachable for the masses. But with the continuous battle for commercial value and significance, where will innovation take its place in an artist’s priorities?
“The auteur theory, silly as it is, can nevertheless be a dangerous theory — not only because it constricts the experience of the critics who employ it, but because it offers nothing but commercial goals to the young artists who may be trying to do something in film.”(Kael, p.25, 1963)
At the age of exploration, innovation or divergence of an artist from the norms can possibly lead to the beginning of a new movement in art. Kael creates a great emphasis on how criticism that is imposed by the industry should not aim to limit or constrict the artistic value of film, because it may hinder the development of film as an art. As an aspiring director, I would like to know what criteria I’m going to be judged by and why. However, new generation filmmakers such as myself are also aware of the practical need to comply with the industry standards set by the powers of the previous generation. The challenge in every generation is to fit the need and the desire to innovate in this tiny gap of control that an artist has with her/his art. However, it would be unfair to assume that criticism, unlike art, has not evolved from its conservative roots. Like the movement in the Academy Awards, film criticism is evidently progressing towards focusing on empowering the artist, as well as the viewers. Kael claims that,
“He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; He is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized.”(Kael, p.21, 1963)
I absolutely agree with this statement and I do believe that film criticism is driving forward with this objective in mind. Inclusivity in the industry and openness to less commercial and more innovative works are good beginnings. And when the viewers are led to exploring for themselves the unique personal experience of the art, beyond its commercial value, the work will assume its full potential. The goal is to have, not only an empowered artist, but also a free one. And with critics not only focusing on initial judgments through limited elements, future filmmakers such as myself will have plenty of room for second chances in the industry we ultimately aspire to be in.
Astruc, A. (1948). The Birth of a New Avant- Garde: La Caméra-Stylo. L’Écran Français.
Kael, P. (1963). Circles and Squares. Film Quarterly, 16(3), 12-26.
McKittrick, C. (2019). How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Picture Oscar?. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.liveabout.com/qualifying-for-best-picture-oscar-4071766
McKittrick, C. (2019). Who Votes for the Oscars?. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.liveabout.com/who-votes-for-the-oscars-4021744
Rottenberg, J. (2020). New Oscars standards say best picture contenders must be inclusive to compete. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-09-08/academy-oscars-inclusion-standards-best-picture#
Sacks, E. (2020). Who makes up the academy? A breakdown of the exclusive Oscars club. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/awards/who-makes-academy-breakdown-exclusive-oscars-club-n1126866
Sarris, A. (1999). Notes on the Auteur Theory. In L. Braudy & M. Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism (5th ed., pp. 561-564). New York: Oxford University Press.
Truffaut, F. (1954). A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. Cahiers Du Cinéma, 9-18.