As both a celebration of my 500th(!) post on this website and as a reaction to numerous criticisms of the widespread “movie-review format,” today I shall analyze what I perceive are the major types of biases that corrupt viewers’ interpretation and enjoyment of films. I published my 500th essay last month, yet never found the right topic to elaborate on that milestone at the time. By the same token, I have received much feedback from peers on and offline with regards to blogging, film criticism, and cinephilia, noting how most general audiences outside film culture (i.e. non-cinephiles) find extensive, in-depth reviews of individual feature-films uninteresting. The average moviegoer gravitates to straightforward thumbs-up or thumbs-down recommendations when deciding what movies to watch at home or in the cineplex, tolerating at most a two-sentence explanation for one’s reaction to a popular film. Several film theorists and bloggers have voiced similar criticisms of “basic” film review essays, insinuating that detailed evaluations of movies for the purposes of deciding artistic merit or recommending films to others are at best verbose, and at worse, downright reductive of cinematic craft.
In case you, dear reader, haven’t noticed, the vast, vast majority of this website consists of “basic” movie-reviews. I enjoy few things in life more than writing exhaustive criticisms — from constructive to loving to hateful — of individual feature-length films. At this point in my life, I have little reason to expect those inclinations to change, and furthermore launched this site seven years ago with the intent of writing for myself, not others. Express Elevator to Hell is a sort of glorified public journal stylized with my lifelong passion for cinema, detached from any notion of career-advancement or social networking. While I welcome critical feedback on my writing syntax and vocabulary, as all responsible writers should, my chosen genre of blogging is the guarded, narcissistic domain of one young man, and one young man only.
Still, I have often used this site as a vehicle to examine not just my analytical limitations and biases, but the biases of others as well. Evaluating the artistic merit of a given film, especially a popular new release in the moment, without the benefit of hindsight, is a difficult task even for experienced writers and knowledgeable film theorists (I consider myself neither, for the record). Understanding how a film works, what makes its narrative, thematic, and audiovisual elements tick is made that much harder when deciding whether to recommend that film to other people with different artistic tastes, backgrounds, life experiences, and personalities. People who don’t consider themselves film buffs are generally more prone to knee-jerk reactions and judging a given film project for how it jibes with their specific sense of humor, political inclinations, or genre preferences instead of how a film operates on its own terms.
What does it even mean to “recommend” a film, anyway? Are you saying Film X is a great work of art (… whatever the hell that means) that will inspire other filmmakers, that will stand the test of time? Perhaps you’re advocating a given film for its entertainment value or ability to pass one’s free time, regardless of how it may be perceived — or even forgotten — years from now.
The modus operandi I use when judging movies, both for evaluating (A) the “artistic merit of a film” — how a film will stand the test of time, how it may or may not inspire other artists to mimic its style, how effectively it uses editing, camerawork, and mise-en-scène (i.e. the visual language of filmmaking) to execute a visual narrative — and (B) the likelihood that another person, cinephile or not, will enjoy a film regardless of their individual persuasions, is this: How good is a movie at being what it’s trying to be? That question may sound a bit circular or obtuse, but hear me out. How effective is a given action film at telling a story through “action” or cinematic violence? How effective is a comedy film at telling its story through cinematic humor? How well does a genre hybrid use extraneous, unrelated genres (e.g. action, comedy, drama, musical, thriller, Western, etc.) to describe a coherent visual narrative? All story ideas and executions of those ideas on film are unique to a certain extent, and genre categories delineate stylistic boundaries between groups of movies the way evolutionary cladistics partition the tree of life into species, genera, families, and everything in between.
This essay is not a discussion of artistic genre studies, but rather a reflection of how fairly or not so fairly people evaluate movies’ visual (re: cinematic) language within the confines of a given story. What follows are rough, broad categories of biases I have encountered in both my and other people’s analyses of films during my lifetime. They serve as a healthy reminder that no moviegoer can always be objective, however much we try, and nobody can predict a film’s place in pop culture history with absolute certainty. These common film-viewing biases include…
Political Biases (For & Against): A random person’s political affiliations may either bias them in favor of (for) or in opposition to (against) a film before they even start watching it! I’ve analyzed political corruption of film criticism numerous times before, so I’ll try to keep this short, but in essence, if people find themselves arguing solely about recent government legislation, public elections, or historical ethnic conflicts when discussing film, that’s a telltale sign they’ve morphed from cinephiles into political pundits.
I’m all for increasing political activism in various walks of life, but the arts is a risky, often inappropriate arena in which to engage political debate. When political biases cloud viewers’ judgement such that they overlook a film’s weaknesses or nitpick them to death, they’re in effect judging a movie based on how much it agrees with their personal views, not how well a film executes its own political views — or lack thereof — via editing, cinematography, mise-en-scène, etc. This type of blatant subjectivity is most evident amongst professional film critics and click-bait articles debating popular films’ ostensible progressiveness or conservatism.
Genre Biases (For & Against): This is the bias of which I am most guilty, I shall admit. Action fans who give mediocre to bad action movies a pass while disparaging “chick flicks” or “dramatic cinema” by default are as lazy film-viewers as snobbish professional critics who lean toward the opposite dynamic.
Giving a pass to one’s preferred flavor of filmmaking may be harmless when choosing which streaming service or Blu Ray hard copy to purchase, but when referring films to others or discussing cinematic merit, it is as offensive as any self-righteous political diatribe masquerading as serious film criticism. One should neither lionize nor kneecap a film musical for being, say, too whimsical any more than one should criticize chocolate ice-cream for not tasting like strawberry.
Fan Biases (Usually For, though sometimes Against): Audiences who worship at the alter of a given multimedia franchise or established intellectual property (IP) are prone to grading filmic portrayals of those IPs on an extreme curve. Terms like “fanboys/fangirls,” “geeking out,” or “nerd-credibility” may arise in discussions of popular movies like Star Wars (1977–2019), Marvel Studios productions (2008-), The Fast and the Furious (2000-), or various contemporary remakes of classic Disney animated titles (e.g. Beauty & the Beast [1991, 2017], The Lion King [1994, 2019]). In most cases, the brand name or IP label is enough to get people in the door and say they enjoyed their experience without thinking too hard about it.
In rarer cases, fandom can bite against a particular film if its parent franchise has fallen on hard times (re: lost credibility with its base) after a series of lackluster installments. Fans may be overprotective of a franchise’s reputation or appear “fundamentalist” with regards to how a Franchise X-movie “should” or “shouldn’t” be. Examples of fan biases undercutting a movie’s success either in box office gross or critical reception include the Alien (1979–2017) and Predator (1987–2018) series as well as various reboots of cult or niche IPs (e.g. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles , Ghostbusters , Suspiria ).
Adaptation Biases (Most always Against): These occur when popular or cult stories in other media (e.g. novels, plays, etc.) are adapted to film, like fans of Robert Heinlein’s right-of-center, hard military science-fiction work hating on Paul Verhoeven’s intentionally subversive translation of Starship Troopers (1997). The interplay between this bias, which predisposes fans of the original works to scrutinize their adaptions, and the fan biases of those adaptations, which tend to be friendlier, can be fascinating. Take Game of Thrones (novels: 1996-, television series: 2011-2019), for instance, whose loyal fans of the novels often berate the television series for any real or perceived deviation from the source material, regardless of whether those deviations are justified by the change in medium (a negative Adaption Bias).
These fans, in turn, contrast with the much larger following the series gathered after it was adapted for television by HBO (a positive Fan Bias). Similar examples of Adaptation Biases and Fan Biases clashing can be found in numerous comic book-movies or blockbuster franchises based on young adult-novels, such as the Harry Potter (2001-2011) series.
Anti-Cinematic Biases (Most always For): General audiences respond well to generic crowd-pleasers that either feel like big-budget theatre plays recorded on video (e.g. Forrest Gump , Titanic ) or special FX showcases (Independence Day , Gladiator , Avatar , Baahubali [2015, 2017], etc.), regardless of their lackadaisical direction. People forgive movies when they’re aware other people like them, when few have substantial complaints relating to a movie’s dialogue, story, or general themes, and in particular when a movie has a likable, charismatic lead in the starring role (e.g. The Theory of Everything , The Imitation Game , Hidden Figures ).
Movies benefiting from anti-cinematic biases lean on their bland, inoffensive subject-matter to distract from their forgettable cinematographic vision or general lack of directorial style; while overrated, critically acclaimed Oscar-bait may fit this category in a superficial sense, most high-profile critical darlings (e.g. 12 Years a Slave , Moonlight , etc.) rise or fade in popularity due to their sociopolitical topics (see Political Biases) irrespective of their cinematographic merit. Non-cinematic crowd-pleasers, on the other hand, tend to be loaded with dialogue and saccharine melodrama, are bloated to running-times well over two hours, and yet are difficult to criticize without sounding like an asshole. These features are, in general, weak movies due to their self-indulgent special FX or long-winded storytelling, but could make for decent or even great projects if completed in other media (e.g. theatrical plays, operas, epic poems, etc.).