One of my favorite films. Does that make it a work of art?

A post from another blogger about his love of Claudette Colbert and how he would watch any film in which she appeared struck a chord because I realized I do not feel that way about any actor. There are plenty whose work I respect and who might be reason enough to see a film I might otherwise ignore. But I have never sought out a film just because a particular actor or actress appeared in it.

All film fans have such “favorites.” What differs is the criterion of judgment, for movies provide something for everyone. That “something” is not static, it can be fluid and change with the circumstances. I can ignore an actor I do not care for to focus on the world around him, for example. Or even if I have not sought out an actress, I may cherish her performance in an otherwise indifferent film.

At least you can cite actors’ physical attributes and the roles they play as a rough explanation for inevitably contingent preferences. A Claudette Colbert movie, for example, is obviously different from, say, a Greta Garbo vehicle. Even if you cannot verbalize the differences, you can assume they are obvious enough that most will understand, if not share, your opinion.

Instead of actors, I have indulged my inclinations as a filmmaker by seeking the work of particular directors. That is not a superior approach, but it is tougher to explain what sets the work of one director apart from others, even relatively well-known quantities like a Hitchcock or a John Ford. Auteurist critics, who popularized focus on directors, make this difficulty worse by constructing vague categories and hierarchies that crumble at the least contrary opinion. But at least focusing on directors has a degree of cultural acceptance. More arcane interests—say, watching films with scores by a particular composer, or seeking out the work of a favorite cinematographer, or wanting to see what a studio’s costume department has come up with—can provide pleasure no less real, but which are even more difficult to explain. After all, what is “good” direction, music, camerawork or costuming and why should anyone care about any of it?

The mistake many critics make is to answer those questions as if their opinions adhere to universal values that do not have to be defined. There might once have been consensus of what constitutes the “good,” but today no one takes such insistence very seriously. Populist attitudes encourage everyone to nurture their prejudices, so that we have little motivation to abandon personal favorites in the face of a presumption of cultural importance. Criticism has been made almost irrelevant, and yet, it does still serve a purpose. Being frank about preferences is a start, for once recognized as expressing only an opinion, the critic can concentrate on an imaginative, articulate response to cinematic dross and sparkle. It is not what the critic says that counts, but how he or she says it.