Film Schooled: Do you know any good movies?

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

I saw that. You just clicked the link to read a review after you watched the movie. Did you want to see what the great film critic of the day thought, or did you miss something while watching and are now scrambling to find an explanation? (The Scholar’s Stone floats because it is fake and hollow, it’s a metaphor.)

I’ve done this on several occasions, so this isn’t an attempt to shame. But why is the knee-jerk reaction after watching something to look to those we deem “greater” than ourselves or with opinions more “viable” for an answer?

It’s great that there are myriad sources to discuss, debate or illuminate the themes and topics of films, and the internet and proliferation of streaming services are partly to credit. But when superiority complexes lend themselves to debates on if a film is good or bad, these services use this debate to their advantage. 

Now I’m not saying that friendly discussions between peers should be banished because they are major media corporations’ tools, at least not in this column. These talks are simply a microcosm of a larger issue: What films get included or left out of the canon of “really great films” should not be because of the few’s opinions, of the elite, of these companies. 

One thing that I’ve seen following me over my shoulder in my time as a film student at the sunny School of Cinematic Arts is the looming declaration: “This is what you should be watching if you want any sort of credibility as a film lover.” Beyond the canon’s roots in majority-white academia and Hollywood pats-on-the-back (which niche streaming services like Criterion and schools like USC do little to address), it often leaves people discouraged and confused after being told to invest their time in something that is simply unapproachable or not for them. 

Maybe this is the time to introduce the column. I’m Lauren, I’m a cinema and media studies senior and I’m going to use this to try to challenge you (and myself) as to where film culture and study should be situated, and how that’s going to shape history and the business of entertainment to come.

Now that that’s out of the way, the increased accessibility to films and television is a double-edged sword, a battle in which the gatekeepers of “great cinema” are steadily losing and the general public seems to gain a greater edge.

OK sure, but what is good? What films are worth remembering? And who gets to decide this? I’ll start with the last one by telling you to look at yourself. By being part of the discussion surrounding film and media, the public has an even greater sway over what stays relevant. Have you seen that meme of the two-photo collage that features a group of men fighting with the caption “Discussing ‘Twilight’ in 2009,” and then a round-table meeting, seemingly serious in nature with the caption: “Discussing ‘Twilight’ in 2019”? 

It may seem silly, but that in itself is a reflection of the continued conversations that were being had about the movie, including how it shaped the process of adaptation, young adult culture and laid some of the foundations for leading actors Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson to build their “reputable” indie careers off of. And despite its abysmal 49% Rotten Tomatoes and 56 Metascore ratings, the general public ate it up — to put it in numbers, it made $408.4 million worldwide at the box office on a $37 million budget. 

The reverse sort of cultural evaluation can lead to intense scrutiny as well. When Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” was continuing its Oscar campaign, a certain scene at the pinnacle of the two main characters’ divorce proceedings brought with it a bout of intrusive thoughts (see Hunter Harris’ “This One ‘Marriage Story’ Line Plays on a Loop in My Head”) and memes that lead to warring camps discussing the film’s goodness and badness. For better or for worse, the scene was used to analyze other texts, including the true identity of Baby Yoda. Either way, the film had its moment on Twitter and other social media sites for quite a while, though it might not have been the sort of spotlight the director or critics lauding the film agreed with. 

These are just some examples of the fluidity of opinion about film that the general public can raise at its leisure. With the right audience and platform, you might not find the definitive consensus on whether these movies are good or bad. Still, the value of people’s opinions is much more democratized. And streaming and media giants take notice with their PR and social media strategies, especially the increasingly corny Netflix Twitter account. 

Remember when I used the word microcosm? Well, speaking of streaming services, part of their development and distribution strategies hinge on the ability to generate these sorts of conversations. Film Twitter will eat up indie darlings right out of festivals’ hands — for the most part — and these services will take what’s most promising and offer distribution deals worth tens of millions of dollars. 

On the flip side, they will approach a filmmaker that had critical but maybe not as far-reaching mainstream success as possible — take, for example, Dee Rees’ journey from “Pariah” to “Mudbound” — and pour their heart (if they have one) and money into these future projects because they see dollar signs come with critical acclaim and runs through the award circuit.     

But with distribution models shifting from solely theatrical releases to completely streamed or hybrid releases, the answer to what gets included in the canon of great film (and this includes great bad movies as well!) lies in its own purpose — what we can remember about the film and how that is a reflection of our culture. While streaming giants are encroaching more and more on the discussion of what stories get to be told and what don’t, the increased accessibility to programming puts the power in the viewer’s hands. The films that are celebrated because they are accurate, far-ranging and impactful may or may not float to the top. Still, now more than ever, the average viewer (that’s you!) can guide film culture to what is truly remarkable and worth celebrating or push what isn’t to sink.

Lauren Mattice is a senior writing about film culture. She is also the digital managing editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Film Schooled,” runs every other Wednesday.