Last week, my editors at The Sun informed me that this was going to be my last column for the paper — and I was shocked. The Cornell Daily Sun has become such a part of my life over the past couple years. Departing is going to be a huge change… but I’m not sad about leaving. Instead, I’m glad for the time that I’ve had here. It’s given a direction to my writing skill, and I fully intend to continue Animation Analysis on my own site, GouldenBean.com. For my last column here though, I’d like to talk about something a little more generalized: how I judge movies, and how I view the art form of cinema in general.
While I’ve specialized in animation, you might have seen my reviews for films as diverse as Love, Simon, A Quiet Place and The Death of Stalin. All three were films that I really enjoyed. Why did I enjoy them? Well, for one thing, I look at the writing. Any art form ultimately comes down to storytelling; some stories are simply more explicitly laid out than others. I look at the characters, I look at the plot, I look at the messages and themes that come out of them. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that even the best visuals cannot save a broken script.
That’s not to say that impressive visuals escape my notice. I’m always eager to see spectacle on the screen, whether bombastic or subdued. Especially in animation, I love seeing little details that help elevate the world from computers or ink into something bursting with life. A beautiful composition will always leave me feeling happy and satisfied. In the same way, there are many times when I’ve purchased a soundtrack after watching a film because the score simply blew me away. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, after all.
Now so far this all sounds objective, and to be sure most films I can judge well with these categories. Yet, I consider it impossible to objectively judge a film’s merit. Every film is different. Do bad special effects sink a movie? If so, I’d point to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with its tongue-and-cheek cheesy effects. What about a story that has mediocre characters, but thrusts them into an inventive plot? Is that better or worse than a film that does “pretty good” at both? If humor makes a film good, I’d point out Schindler’s List. If heavy drama makes a movie good, I’d point out The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s no way to measure all these great films on a single metric. It’s this reason that I don’t use a number scale. I usually end reviews with a recommendation to see, not see, to wait or so on. That said, there is one factor that I use reliably to determine a film’s worth. One single factor that I base my entire judgment on. That single factor?
Did the people behind this movie care about making a movie? Did they at least try to make good characters? Is there some imagination in the world, some attempt to make things look good? Or, was it spat out with the hope that the budget would be recouped before it left theaters? Did someone sit down and say, “Let’s try to tell a story here,” or did they say “Let’s trick those poor audience members into forking over their dollars”?
Funnily enough, the film that helped me reach this conclusion was The Room, the infamously bad production that nevertheless has a cult following. Here’s the thing with The Room. It’s totally inept, with incoherent writing, laughable acting, bizarre visual choices… but at the same time, you can tell Tommy Wiseau cared so deeply about it. He wanted to make the world’s greatest drama, and even though he fell so far short, you can still tell that his movie has heart in it. That’s why it’s talked about 15 years later.
When it comes down to it, I love cinema. I don’t like excluding certain genres from that love. I was thrilled and shocked by this weekend’s Avengers: Infinity War just as much as I was moved and impacted by Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I’ll watch horror and family, comedy and tragedy, mainstream and niche, because all these areas are full of people, full of artists doing their best work possible. That’s why it pains me when people seem to go through a checklist with films, dinging it for every “mistake.” It reminds me of a line from The Greatest Showman, where P.T. Barnum encounters a critic, and asks when was the last time he smiled. “A theater critic who gets no joy from the theater,” he mutters with a pitying shake of the head. I don’t let my love for cinema become a dry search for mistakes. I make it a joyful celebration of strengths. It brings happiness to my life, it brings laughs, ponderance, education and so much more. You can be darned sure that I’ll keep going to movies even after school, and I’ll keep reporting about them.
Once again, I’ll be continuing at GouldenBean.com. I hope to see you there. This is David Gouldthorpe, saying a final goodbye to The Cornell Daily Sun.
David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the School of Industrial Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Animation Analysis will appear alternate Tuesdays this semester.