Matt Singer writes at IFC.com about the good and the bad on critics considering context when reviewing a film. The impetus of discussion is Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters,” a favorite of mine from this year, which he mainly celebrates for being a “marvel” on a technical level, given that it didn’t cost much and was achieved with a small crew and minimal equipment. Singer wonders:
to what degree do the flaws “Monsters” deserve a pass simply because of the ingenuity of its creators? How much does how a movie was made affect what a movie is? If “Monsters” had cost $30 million dollars — and the movie looks so good, you could believe that it might — would we be less forgiving of its flaws?
I can see where this unfortunately happens for many critics, yet my enjoyment of the film had nothing to do with how little it cost. Unlike Singer I enjoyed the updated “It Happened One Night” story set in a post-alien-invasion world. And I accepted the dialogue and plot for what it was, more a device to lightly look at topical stuff like immigration and disasters through a peripheral perspective utilizing sci-fi concepts and (minor) spectacle. It might have been less interesting as a $30 million or $300 million movie, but not because of the expense so much as what kind of overdone effects that expense would have afforded.
Now look at next week’s “TRON: Legacy,” the reviews for which tend to bring up how pricey it was. I think they’re saying something north of $300 million, but I don’t know because I try to ignore that stuff. Whether or not it clouds my judgment of a movie, as it seems to be doing with fans who expect more for that much money, I just don’t care about the production context of a movie. I doubt most moviegoers care, though it’s hard for them not to hear about budgets just as its hard for them not to hear about grosses — neither of these should matter to the majority of us. “TRON: Legacy” might be bad because of its script, but regardless of how much the cost, the visuals are pretty awesome to gaze at for two hours, and for the cost to the consumer (upwards of $20 or so), it’s worth it. That’s all that people need to worry about.
Singer also brings up the issue of personality context, how we can’t help thinking about scandals or gossip and other background involving Mel Gibson, Meg Ryan, Tom Cruise or Robert Downey Jr. while watching certain films of theirs. This is part of a greater problem having to do with American interests in celebrity, related to the fact those four actors’ lives will always be of more interest to both the media and the media consumer than any work they actually produce or performance they give. And sadly, it’s even harder to not hear about Gibson’s insanity than it is to not hear how much “The Beaver” cost, whatever that might be.
Commenters at IFC.com also reference contexts like auteur theory and film movements, such as Italian neorealism, yet these are contexts that rarely come into play until retrospective viewing and analysis. I like such analysis, of course, which is why I prefer writing on, reading about and discussing a film a while after it’s come out and I’ve seen it as purely as possible and had time to think about it. The more we follow films in every step of development, though, the more we force a lot of unnecessary contexts onto them prospectively. “The Beaver” has been pre-analyzed in this way since the casting of Gibson was revealed, probably even before it was even confirmed.
It’s an interesting topic that Singer brings up, but one thing I think should be mentioned is how context relates to subtext, which is something most of us film writers are more accepting of and interested in. But subtext is rarely appreciated without context. The real-world issues used as allegory in “Monsters,” somewhat too obviously, aren’t really so clear without knowledge of the immigration discussion and the disasters the film evokes. The HUAC allegory of “On the Waterfront” that Singer alludes to works in both ways, as subtext and context. Subtext in foreign films especially can be viewed only with familiarity of national contexts. “TRON: Legacy” might be more satisfying by thinking of what little subtext there is regarding the tech industry and particularly how the context of Disney’s relationship to Apple figures into this.
It’s that kind of context that’s more satisfying as a viewer than production costs and developments and especially how an actor’s real-life influences and intrudes upon his or her roles and how we perceive them.