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January 29 at 8:15am

Nobody Knows Anything #2: What Makes A Film Good?

By Charles Peirce

By Charles Peirce  


Everyone, I’d hope, has some thoughts about what makes a film good. Perhaps it displays a degree of craft or a particular aesthetic sensibility, covers specific subject matter, has a quality story, certain stars, etc. As you get older and your exposure to cinema becomes both richer and more refined, that definition probably becomes more nuanced. Still, if further pressed most people will also have some few “guilty pleasures” — films that don’t fulfill all their own requirements of what makes for a good film but which they like anyway. Perhaps they were childhood favorites, particular genres or kinds of stories that give comfort, or they just have an indescribable something. It can all seem very subjective, but that discrepancy, between our self-defined tastes and our secret loves, is a telling one.

A certain amount of our tastes are actually hard-wired into us physiologically. Particular colors illicit stronger responses, shifts in speed grab our attention, some tonal qualities are innately more pleasing, and many images can cue primal, subconscious desires. There’s also a way our brains work that makes certain stimulus more attractive or noteworthy. Marketers use what is called a Hierarchy of Effects Model to court people’s attention, though the more interesting take-away from that might be the “Think-Feel-Do Model” which tries to use how people process information to greater effect. Basically, many people Feel and then Do, while some people Think and then Do — which means appealing to them takes different means (and is part of why the marriage of text and image works so well). Good work is probably always going to exploit our more basic, ingrained responses, while work that only tries to exploit these responses is probably going to resemble pornography or slot machines more than what we might commonly think of as storytelling. [1] 

Culture is the larger, more obvious determinate in why we think something is good, though often we’re remarkably oblivious to this. But family, social sphere, regional attitudes, racial identity, and class play a huge and more often than not subconscious factor in determining not just our interests but in what we think has value. The art of demographics and political polling is in understanding these cultural tastes and differences, though again it’s the potential of social media and Big Data that is changing this field dramatically.

Regardless, while our individual aesthetic tastes aren’t something most of us tend to question, there’s definitely a rough, if workable, science to it. As a general rule, your tastes are probably more conventional — and predictable — than you think. You probably find the most resonance in whatever aesthetic sensibility defined your childhood (were your childhood photos and those of your parents mainly black and white? polaroid? digital?) and how far you’re willing to accept the violation of that sensibility should correlate highly with one of the Big Five Personality Traits psychologists call Openness to Experience. Aesthetics and values are intimately connected, perhaps finding their root in the inborn desire we all have to feel a sense of belonging and yet still see ourselves as individual and important.

Stories then, even the seemingly most vapid or incoherent, are not simply or always pure escapism. Bruno Bettelheim, child psychologist and author of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales made a strong case that fairy tales are important for children because they help them externalize the inner conflicts of their own still-forming self. Anthropomorphization, the definitive punishment of evil, narratives that transgress acceptable values — all help the child become settled in their own personal identity. [2] There’s little reason to think stories for adults can’t or don’t do the same thing.

Kazimierz Dabrowski, a lesser known psychoanalytic theorist of the 60s, advanced the idea that anxiety in individuals was a necessary state, coming about when two internalized opposing value systems were in conflict. People “progress” toward a more unified, complete sense of self as they discard old, limiting value systems for new ones (say the conflict between doing what your parents demand of you versus the values your society is trying to impress upon you).[3] That conflict — the choosing between two opposing value systems — is a nice parallel to one of the basic tenants of mainstream screenwriting: that the final decisive moment of a film comes down to the protagonist having to make a choice between a world of “dominant values” and a world of “underdog values.” Those terms come from screenwriter Michael Arndt and his highly recommended lecture “Endings: The Good, The Bad & The Insanely Great.” Arndt uses the examples of Star Wars, The Graduate, Tootsie, and his own Little Miss Sunshine to make this point. I myself like the ending to Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, wherein Peter Parker has to reject the love of his life because Spiderman can’t have loved ones — illustrating the conflict between worldly responsibility and personal desire. [4]

That’s not to say that every movie has to help us awaken or resolve some slumbering internal crisis — just that stories have the potential to ease those moments, and often what causes them to resonate is precisely that. Hollywood obviously has found its success more with movies that reassure their audience than challenge them, but it’s debatable as to whether or not that’s the best cinema for every demographic — particularly the coveted teenage demographic, whose very existence is centered around conflict and inner turmoil.

Indie Film, meanwhile, fills the voids mainstream cinema refuses to acknowledge, tackling social issues, marginilized peoples, and controversial ideas. These films often do anything but comfort or present what we think of as just resolutions to their conflicts. They are also often noteably absent a classical third act (such as the endings proscribed by Arndt), a decision which can leave them with the message that “life is complicated” or “things don’t always have answers” –  a psychological panacea of its own for many.

If so much of our tastes are physiological or sociological in nature rather than proof of the artistic superiority of a work, then a good movie largely becomes one that is entirely personal and meaningful to the individual. Instead of “good” being some monolithic demonstration of art and craft — the perfect creation of the auteur, unassailable and missunderstood by a naive and uncultured public — a good film is one that is able to reach out to somebody and touch them, affect them, cause them to feel or learn or grow.

A study using Deep Metaphors [5] has suggested that there are two main reasons why people engage in social media. The first reason was the “Podium” Metaphor: the idea of getting to be important and speaking your mind and having people listen to you. The modern world has emphasized this perspective for a long time — certainly it is the relationship many of us feel to Hollywood, and it is how many of our canonical directors and stars are lionized. But the second reason was the “Campfire” Metaphor: the idea that we like to sit around in a circle and share stories with each other. This idea is often lacking in our current conception of social media and our relationship to it (and certainly stories, of all kinds, are the true fuel of social media). [6] 

The change in paradigm is simple: audience must become the first concern in the creation of a film rather than the last. Films have to be thought of as a conversation with their audience — whoever that audience might be — and stories as a gift from one individual to another: perhaps something shared around a campfire to make the night a little less cold and the dark a little less foreboding. Films may be the preeminent art of mass culture, but it is within the individual heart that they take root and bloom.



1. When people use the term “gamification” for marketing, ads, etc, what they’re often really talking about is creating addiction systems — we respond more strongly to inconsistent dopamine rewards than to consistent ones, and this is what makes things like slot machines so potentially addictive. A great many of the more popular websites now seem to work on this model.

2. Consider also the case of Blue’s Clues as outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and how that show is engineered for children to have the most impact.

3. Dabrowski’s work is often associated with the anti-psychiatry movement (which refused to see mental illness as a separate, negative category) and is not well known today, though it has apparently had some resurgence with parents trying to raise “gifted” children.

4. If I often use more commercial movies as examples it’s not because they’re what I think of as the most valid for discussion. Mainstream movies, however, are more likely to be known by a greater number and are often simpler in their construction — and thus easier to use to illustrate points. That said, for my tastes and interests, The Act of Killing was easily the best film of the past year. Did you see it? You should.

5. Deep Metaphors are an idea from Gerald Zaltman that I’ll cover more thoroughly in the future — essentially they are a series of cross-cultural primal ideas or symbols which are a root that all communication can be oriented around. The mentioned study about Social Media and the Podium/Campfire Metaphor comes from a lecture by Joe Plummer.

6. It’s interesting to note that Facebook’s changed model drastically limits the reach of any post, subject to paying Facebook to expand that reach. While the average user is probably oblivious to this, it’s become readily apparent to anyone using the service for marketing or PR — and in the process it has markedly cannibalized the “Podium” aspect of Facebook’s social media appartus, while in no way expanding the “Campfire” Metaphor.



Previously: Marketing and the Collective Unconscious

Next Week: What Makes A Film Successful?


Nobody Knows Anything is a speculative journey through the more esoteric theories of popular culture: what that means, what comes next, and what can be done about it.

Charles Peirce is a screenwriter and musician, with an active interest in marketing, behavorial psychology and  strategy. He finds it odd to talk about himself in the third person. He can be reached at ctcpeirce@gmail.com or via twitter @ctcpeirce.

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  1. Out in the Street Films / Jan 29 at 8:15am

    I knew there was a good reason why I no longer care to bother with festivals. Jim Jarmusch says there are as many ways to make a film as there are filmmakers http://www.moviemaker.com/articles-directing/jim-jarmusch-5-golden-rules-of-moviemaking/

    And this is all purely my reaction to your incredibly well thought and researched post. But it seems your evidence indicates that there are as many ways of defining a good film as there are people who watch them. In the internet age with so much cinematic content available we see more and more fragmentation and definitions of what is a good cinematic experience. It’s no longer a world where the curators at A&E can decide that Duck Dynasty is pushing the limits (not that I’ve ever seen it).

    Maybe you have blinders on. I would say that your definition of indie film as “….tackling social issues, marginalized peoples, and controversial ideas” (as general a definition as that is) is very limited and somewhat out of date. Although I have no doubt the indie filmmakers that do get honored by film festivals fall into that definition. But it excludes so much more. And I think this is why we see Sundance having a “meh” reaction this year and the NYT complaining that there are too many films. It’s not that there are too many, it’s more that they all considered “good” based on a limited definition like yours, which ignores probably 90% of what’s out there, and leaves us with only the choice of a lot of films that are very similar.

    In this regard, the mainstream is where I see the really breakout films happening. Nymph()maniac as opposed to Don Jon as one example (which one is more controversial of an idea?). Blue is the Warmest Color is another. Neither screened at any indie festivals. Yet both are ‘….tackling social issues, marginalized peoples, and controversial ideas’ to extremes, and both screen at mainstream film markets like Cannes or Berlin. The indie world is pathetically conservative and top heavy with rules. You don’t see Jim Jarmusch screening at Sundance.

    Thank you for prompting my thoughts.

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  3. tcpeirce / Jan 29 at 8:15am

    Thanks so much for your thoughts.

    I am, essentially, using a ridiculously inclusive definition for what makes a “good” film, and hopefully next week when I talk about the idea of a “successful” film the reasons behind that will be more clear. The end takeaway, that films need to be audience-centric, also shouldn’t be particularly revelatory to anyone who has been paying attention to the business side of things these days. A lot of what I’m hoping these posts do as I move forward is start to better tackle the idea of “niche” audiences and how you court them — not just who they are respective to a film, but where they are, how you reach them, and how you engage them.

    And I agree with you re: Indie Film. It’s not actually a term I like to use (I think I used it last week in quotes), but decided in the final edit to just go with it, hoping to use it as a gloss for a certain conception of cinema in the same way that “Hollywood” is used without necessarily acknowledging the real facts or inner complexities of that world.

    As for the films you mention, I don’t know if that divide is quite mainstream vs Indie — but considering the split I discussed above (Podium vs Campfire) they’re interesting choices. Nymphomaniac and Blue… are both European films (so different funding methods) by prestigious award-winning directors whose films are going to get recognition and likely distribution by virtue of who their creators are (and deservedly so). They’re an active part of the European legacy of film as high culture. Whereas Don Jon is the first film of an actor who has managed to carve a pretty diverse career for himself, choosing some interesting roles in the process and being actively involved in social media, bridging the gap between fandom and stars, and creating a production company to foster crowd-based and community collaboration (just contrasting the realities of Dogme 95 vs hitRECord tells something about the two worlds, the two audiences, and how the film world is changing). Levitt’s obviously likewise going to get more publicity and chances than most people by virtue of his celebrity, but he’s certainly used that celebrity in a way that’s at least trying to be more populist than elitist.

  4. Out in the Street Films / Jan 29 at 8:15am

    I never thought of those films as populist versus elitist. It’s my ignorance of European culture I guess. My take is that they are just highly original, provocative, and especialy compelling. I saw Don Jon in the same way, at first. It seemed unusually compelling for Sundance and very different from the typical deeply sensitive characterizations in most Sundance choices. It’s just that in comparison Nymph()maniac and Blue seemed in a different league. “Lynchian” comes to mind. Perhaps Lynch is the high American culture director. Rhetorically, what is it about American people that has them getting defensive about what they perceive as their own low (or pop) culture?

    Anyway I like Levitt too and his wide range of character choices in his films. There’s this downtrodden attitude among a lot of indie filmmakers that they are getting the short end because they don’t have the money or fame. But it seems to me in most cases that people with fame deserve it and have talent, experience and work that justifies it. Why do we think in terms of divides anyway? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    You’ve hit on something there (perhaps inadvertently) that has long bothered me, and that is the competition-sports paradyme. Everything is a game, a sport, a win or lose. But life is not really like that. it’s mostly gray areas.

    Thanks for the dialogue. It really is thought provoking.

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Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Nobody Knows Anything #3: What Makes A Film Successful? | Truly Free Film
  2. Nobody Knows Anything #4: Rethinking Franchises and Sequels | Truly Free Film
  3. Nobody Knows Anything #1: Marketing and the Collective Unconscious | Truly Free Film
  4. Nobody Knows Anything #6: Principles of Strategy | Truly Free Film
  5. Nobody Knows Anything #5: Rethinking Transmedia and Crossmedia | Truly Free Film
  6. Nobody Knows Anything #7: Archetype Theory | Truly Free Film
  7. Nobody Knows Anything #8: Casting, Celebrities, and Archetype Theory | Truly Free Film
  8. Nobody Knows Anything #10: The Hare Hypothesis | Truly Free Film
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