Actual Movies, explained
What is the Actual Movie rating? Isn’t a movie just defined as a “moving picture,” wherein still pictures are presented in rapid succession to create the illusion of motion, and therefore don’t all films qualify as “actual” movies?
Well, yes and no. Your grandmother could project slides from her last Key West vacation on a wall for two hours and that would “technically” be a movie. But we’re not talking about technicalities here. We’re talking about a complex set of criteria (too complex to be adequately defined here), and a vast but gradual change in the very fabric of our society.
THE VERY FABRIC OF OUR SOCIETY
Long ago, I’m told there were times of peace, free love, and a national sense of hope. For evidence of this I look to the vibrant styles of the time: primary colors, sideburns, flared pants, and thickly-framed eyeglasses. Now we wear a lot of black and gray, we have productized-hair, chino or khaki pants (what’s the difference?), and frameless specs. The most “hopeful” thing we don today is a pair of pre-fucked-up jeans. Even the visual motif of Saturday Night Live’s intro, which used to be a lively parade of moving, colored lines, is now a manhole. Things are not hopeful. Our youth is jaded.
These days you often hear the word “actually” used as a qualifier. “(Blank) was actually pretty good,” one commonly says; the “actually” is used to indicate that the experience was better than expected. But the widespread adoption of the term is essentially a defeatist acknowledgement of the general crappiness of all things. It is also indicative of our lowered expectations, which apply to everything: a newly-released movie, the latest song on the radio, a heavily-marketed beverage. “How was the concert?” “Good, the band actually sounded pretty good live.” “How is that magazine?” “It’s actually pretty informative, for a teen gossip rag.” “How was your colonoscopy?” “It was actually a lot of fun.”
The “actual” in the Actual Movie verdict is not meant to refer to whether or not it is “actually” any “good,” however. No, it’s even worse than that. Here at No Film School, movies are not given a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” or something as objectively precise as four-and-a-half stars. No, the criteria used here is to simply ask the question, “was it actually a movie?”
By this, I mean the following: I have left the theater so many times with the feeling that I just witnessed an amalgamation of arbitrary formula, committee-based decision-making, marketing strategies, and opportunistic career-building–with nary a singular, creative vision to be found among it all–that it could not even technically be called a film. This garbage I just sat through could not possibly be considered a movie in the same vein as a film that actually tries to express something genuine, could it? No. Thus it is Not Actually a Movie.
More often than not, movies get their start these days not from a good script or a fully-formed idea, but from a bought property with a star and/or director “attached.” Oftentimes that’s all it is–a 25-words-or-less high concept that some major studio has backed–that “just” needs a writer (or twelve) to “bang out” the script. Actually, even more often these days it is a property with a pre-built audience, like a book. Either way the studio figures with the right amount of star power, marketing, explosions, and exposed breasts, the project will make money; therefore it’s worth doing. NOT because it’s something new, or because it expresses anything genuine. NOT because it calls attention to something that needs changing in our society, or because it helps us understand ourselves, our history, or our dog. NOT because it’s a remake of a project that made money in the past. Wait; YES because of that. Basically: most of the time, movies get greenlit for all the wrong reasons, or really, THE wrong reason: “It’s all about the Benjamins,” Puff/P./Daddy/Diddy once postulated. (The movie of the same name, starring Ice Cube, had to be re-titled for international markets, to “All About the Money.” Just so we’re clear).
When your primary reason for making art is commerce, you’re going to end up making projects that foolishly ask the question, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Besides forcing critics to get creative to come up with a poster quote, the worst kind of Not-Actually-Movies are pandering, and are often insulting to the intelligence of anyone who has any. Too many of these pandering releases over the years and, voilà–you have an exponential rise in the use of the qualifier “actually.” Thus the Actual Movie verdict is a monster of the studios’ own creation; if they didn’t repeatedly fund useless projects and advertise the hell out of them and release them even though they know they suck–then we wouldn’t actually have this problem.
Obviously the movie industry is not the only offender here; rather it is the marketing departments of many different industries that contribute to this. Overuse of the word “actually” is a response to the prevalence of hype in our culture today, where the trailers, TV spots, and quotes from critics all hail the film in question as a terrific achievement. If every other film is advertised as the film of the year and a “must-see,” then eventually audiences get desensitized to the hype. If there was no marketing there would be no need for people to use “actually” so much, because there would be no inflated expectations as a rule. But these days the marketing department is much larger than the creative one. Consent has to be manufactured, after all. And therefore I evaluate movies based on their motivation; is the director trying to express something, or is he or she only taking this job to build a career? Was this movie made because it offers audiences something they haven’t seen before, or was it greenlighted because the numbers added up?
So that’s what the Actual Movie verdict is: when significantly reduced expectations meet disaffected youth, you have a drastically-lowered bar. Is it an Actual Movie? At the heart of this evaluation are some important questions:
The Actual Movie verdict is based on a snap judgment rather than a scientific calculation based on previously made statements or forthcoming criteria. This is important, because snap judgments evaluate many things that wouldn’t typically make a pros-and-cons list, e.g., how attractive your date was the night you saw the film–which can significantly affect your overall impression of the movie in question. Saying that it’s a snap judgment is also my escape clause.
Questions asked of an Actual Movie:
1) Does the film try to reinvent movies? If not, does the film contribute something to the advancement of the art form, preferably something new, or at least something not seen in the last few years?
2) If the film is not overtly trying to reinvent cinema, then it must be trying to succeed on established terms. Does the film effectively incorporate some of the lessons learned in storytelling over the past few thousands of years of human civilization, ever since stories were told by loin-clothed Cro-Magnons around a leaping fire? Actually, Cro-Magnons would have been more than a “few” thousands of years ago. So forget the leaping fire and substitute the Globe Theatre: since Shakespeare first honed what would later be called “Da Art of Storytellin” by Outkast, have the filmmakers in question learned something of the art of Drama and/or Comedy, and applied it to their picture?
3) At some point in its running time, does the movie observe something about our overall human predicament?
4) Was a genuine emotion, feeling, or sentiment expressed at some point in the film?
5) Does the film have staying power, i.e., does it resonate with you a few days, weeks, months, or even years later?
6) Essentially, much of this boils down to this: is the film significant? Will it stand out from the crowd, or, with time, will it simply slip into a morass of endless me-toos?
Things the film must avoid to be an Actual Movie:
1) The driving force behind the movie must not be the marketing department. Yes, maybe the project was funded because an executive thought it would make money–this is the real world, after all–but the creative force behind the movie must not be primarily interested in the finances.
2) Similarly, entire scenes were not written into the film in order to “fill the quadrant,” i.e., appeal to a certain demographic. For example:
Executive: Let’s have this chase sequence take place on skateboards. That will give us some scenes for the trailer that the teens will like.
Writer: But the film takes place on the frontier! In 1803!
Executive: Horse-drawn skateboards, then.
3) Most importantly, formula was not simply used for formula’s sake, i.e., “shit, we’re on page 90, we need a climax–blow something up!” (see: summer movies, 1982-2005), or for lack of imagination (see: Dreamworks Animation).
4) The movie does not star Colin Farrell.
DISCLAIMERS, CAVEATS, ETC.
1) The good thing about not being a real movie reviewer and having no publication or standards to hold myself to is that I can blatantly violate my own rules. For example, you could have a film starring Colin Farrell, in which he brilliantly plays Hitler as a child (yes, not only does he play Der Fϋhrer, but he portrays him at the age of six) and it could turn out to be an Actual Movie despite the “no Colin Farrell” rule. A real-world example of this is 1998′s Out of Sight, which starred J. Lo, albeit in her “Jennifer Lopez” days. J. Lo certainly qualifies as an inferior female version of Colin Farrell–at least he does accents–but Out of Sight was an Actual Movie, despite (probably not because of) her presence. Note that I may have to substitute another actor in Colin Farrell’s place if the upcoming The New World (November 2005) turns out to be an Actual Movie.
2) Trying for greatness and not succeeding fully will be rewarded; successfully pulling off mediocrity will not. 1998′s The Thin Red Linewas heavily edited by Fox against Terrence Malick’s wishes, and as such may not have succeeded in the manner he intended. Yet it was an Actual Movie through and through, not only for what it was, but for what it strove to be.
3) Films which are deemed Not Actual Movies may still be very enjoyable, or even have considerable merits. But do they have staying power? Snap judgment!
4) The Pseudo-Actual Movie category had to be added because several films on each list inevitably fell under the same footnote: that they walked the line, at times being an Actual Movie and at times not. Note that this is different than the film that “jumps” the line; these films get put in multiple categories, if they cleanly divide (one of which could be the Pseudo category). Think of the Pseudo-Actual Movie category as the equivalent of the two-critic compromise, where one critic gives the film a thumbs-up and the other a thumbs-down. Years ago, this would have been very confusing for gladiators.
5) The “Actual” method of evaluation could also be applied to music criticism, in the form of Actual Albums. In fact you could apply this to many things… But that is an Actual Bad Idea. Unless I end up doing it.
So, with all of that in mind, here is the current list of Actual Movies.
EDIT: this was moved to be a “post” instead of a “page,” because of my general abandonment of this ratings system. Thus the “current” part of the above link is an outright lie.