Archive for November, 2008

What makes a good movie

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

There’s a good argument for movies being the king of all forms of entertainment. There’s visuals, audio, stories and characters, and it all has to come together or the whole thing flops. No other form of expression has that: you’ve either got the words, or the sound, or the image. In a movie, you have it all. And unlike theater, the whole thing is preserved for posterity.

I have a pretty good idea of what makes a good movie, one that’s worth seeing a second time. Sure, my tastes are different than the next person. But to understand your own likes, it’s good to understand what other people prefer in movies.

My first favorite movies were science fiction and fantasy. I first obsessed over The Wizard of Oz, then the first Batman movie. I even marveled at 2001: A Space Odyssey before my voice changed. In high school, a friend made a list of movies for me to see, movies like Fight Club, The Big Lebowski, and The Producers – the good stuff. That list showed me movies that weren’t just fun to watch, they were of high quality. Then came Roger Ebert.

If you want an education of why some movies resonate better than others, read Ebert’s reviews. Everything I know about film I learned from reading his work. He also has a list of what he thinks are great movies. It isn’t what he thinks are the greatest films – there’s no such thing – but what he thinks are the best made that he’s seen. That means movies that are well made, but also movies he loves. La Dolce Vita is a mirror for his life, and Herzog’s metaphorical epics mirror his convictions, etc*. Citizen Kane, Solyaris, and the like are on his list – but they’re on every list of great movies. The reason why they’re there, and what everyone forgets is that at one time people were entertained by them, not just forced to watch them in film class.

Just because a movie is on one of these lists doesn’t mean it’s worth watching. So must we watch them? Yes.

Movies, good ones, are just like great literature, great music, or great theater: they reflect who we are and show us the truth in all its myriad contradictory explanations. Just like in Rashomon, where four descriptions of the same crime are wildly divergent. Every one is true. So a good shortcut in learning to live a full life is to be able to understand these art forms to learn from others who once lived what they learned about existence.

…this, of course, is a lofty ambition. In all honesty, I watch movies because it’s fun. I enjoy being wrapped in a story that requires more than one sensory input and has multiple parts to analyze. And by ‘fun’, I don’t just mean watching comedies. Think of ‘fun’ as wanting to watch the whole movie to find out how everything ends. Fun is working out why a character is acting the way they are. Fun is trying to guess why something happened and what might happen next, and being surprised when it turns out differently.

Stop watching movies if you aren’t having fun. Just because movie critics watch the entire movie (sometimes they don’t) doesn’t mean you have to – don’t think you have to finish Solyaris because is considered a great movie. I’m not quite sure how I finished it myself!

Finally, what makes a good movie.

This isn’t a list that I print out and check off for every movie I watch. Rather this is what I’ve gathered from the movies I’ve seen and why I liked one and didn’t like the other. Here’s what usually exists in a movie that I’d want to see more than once:

  1. The movie is fun. (See above for what I mean by fun.) This rule trumps all others. If I’m bored or not wanting to pay attention, it isn’t worth the effort.
  2. The characters behave like they really do in life. It’s not that the characters are behaving rationally (nobody does in real life anyway), but that there’s a cause-and-effect to what they do in the movie. This is easier to catch than to describe. If more than one character is doing or saying something that’s making you roll your eyes, especially if you’re by yourself, then something’s wrong. This also goes for characters that aren’t human or even alive: in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, New York is the main character, and she plays the part beautifully – I’ve never wanted to go anywhere after watching a movie as badly as I wanted to visit New York after seeing that movie.
  3. The movie accomplishes what it sets out to present. Not every movie has a plot, or necessarily about humans, but every movie has a motive behind its creation. Maybe the movie is trying to show how a teenager thinks as he is working out his place in the world (Wild Tigers I Have Known), perhaps a movie is about man’s place in nature (Koyaanisqatsi), or maybe the film’s creator just wants to screw with his audience (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Did the movie make its point? Of the three I mentioned, only Koyaanisqatsi failed. Or take my favorite example: Big Trouble in Little China - the movie’s purpose is only to be quoted and referenced with your friends, and it accomplishes that superbly.
  4. “Three great scenes and no bad ones.” Howard Hawks said that, but don’t take it literally. I think of it as, “If you can’t remember anything bad about it, then it works.”
A rule isn’t a rule if you can’t break them. So these don’t always apply. Psycho has a lame final scene, but it doesn’t detract much from the rest of the movie***. I suffered through The Passion of Joan of Arc and felt claustrophobic with the close-ups and the silence, but it moved me deeply.


*If I’m mistaken, I apologize. I don’t really know him**.
**Only Roger Ebert is being mentioned as a movie critic because my tastes align more often with his reviews than any other critic. Exceptions include Fight Club and Solyaris.
*** An example of this in music is Michael Jackson’s Thriller - there are five lame, sappy songs on the album, but the other four are so good, it doesn’t matter.

Opportunity cost

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

Quick economics lesson on “opportunity cost.” This is quite possibly the most important, and most practical economic concept to understand. If you can grasp this and plan your life with it, you’re 80% of the way to understanding economics. And possibly have a more fulfilling life.

Opportunity cost is: what you give up to get something else. Every single thing we all have access to is limited: your time and money are the most important and the greatest limiting factors, but distance and accessible space are also important and very constrained. So you have to decide what to give up in order to do the things you need and want.

Time is the ultimate limited resource. You only have 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, 365 days in a year, and then one day you’ll die. You need to sleep, so there’s 6-8 hours every day that’s given up – but you can sleep less to get more time in the day. But is it worth it? Also, you can have more money than anyone else, but you’re still constrained by how much time you have. Time can be spent, but it can’t be saved.

In exchange for working 40 hours a week, you get money from your employer – so you gave up your time to get money. That money can then be given up for other things like rent, utilities, groceries, drinking, etc. But you have to decide what’s important – do you save for a long-wanted vacation in Europe, or do you go to the bars every night?

Opportunity cost doesn’t just affect how you live your life, it also affects everything else. If we let the government spend its resources on bailing out large corporations and people with bad mortgages, that means less for responsible businesses and citizens who were smart and didn’t overextend themselves. A teacher must choose to spend time helping a single struggling student, or to teach the entire class and help more people who need less specific help.

This is a very simple concept and very logical, but most of the time there isn’t any overt warning signs that we’re allocating our resources incorrectly. That means it’s important to analyze the opportunity cost in every decision we make – OK, that’s hard to do and not always practical (or fun), but at least the most important decisions. My suggestion is to first figure out what you really want in life and what you can give up, and second analyze any decisions you make in whatever you do to earn money. Notice I didn’t say ‘job’ – because earning money is one of the most time-consuming activities, a good use of that time should be doing something that you enjoy and are happy to be doing.

So, what are you going to give up?

Rights for everyone

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

There is absolutely no reason for there to be a debate over gay marriage. This isn’t like abortion where the life of an unborn child is at stake*. This is about living in a land of freedoms open to all the citizens of America.

Christians have no right whatsoever to be against two women or two men who love each other to join together in holy matrimony. If you worship God and try to follow the teachings of Jesus, he would not be happy with your treatment of your fellow brothers and sisters; he would be sad because you have a choice to treat others as you want to be treated.

This is not just a religious thing, we must all treat others fairly. We live in a country founded by people who were pissed off because they were treated like children and given no rights. And when we grew up as a country and confronted our own hypocritical treatment of ethnic and racial minorities, we took it upon ourselves to be accepting of everyone.

When I moved to Massachusetts over three years ago, it wasn’t because I suddenly gained the right to marry whoever I wanted. But I don’t want it any other way; at least all loving adults are treated the same by law here. It should be that way anywhere else in the United States.

On Tuesday, California’s citizens will be voting to keep the rights given to them by courts earlier this year. Even though most of us don’t live there, we need them to have the right of open marriage for everyone. Why? Because the more states that are in step with the rights granted us by the Declaration of Independence, the more that will follow. We all have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – that’s for everyone. In the end we’re all humans, and we’re all in this together.

Growing up in Iowa, I tried hard to surround myself with people who accepted me for who I am. People who I could tell that I was gay, and nothing would change. But there were always people who weren’t so accepting, because they didn’t know how to deal with it, or they were taught to hate. They may have treated me badly, but I forgive them. Acceptance takes time.

The treatment I received gave me a complex. I felt I had to bury my identity it to almost everyone for fear that things would change and I’d be treated differently. You had to either have known me for a long time, or be gay yourself to gain access to the knowledge. But fuck it. It’ll take time to be open but I’m not hiding anymore. You have no reason to hate me for being gay. You can hate me for not liking your favorite band or thinking you’re a prick, but you can’t hate me for something I have no control over.

It may be different for me because some day I may want to marry another man, but we all must stick up for each others rights. Boston is so diverse that nearly everyone I know is a minority of some sort. And it would hurt me for them to be treated differently. Some of their ancestors were unjustly persecuted and denied their rights, and I won’t let that happen again. It’s the same thing, though – do you really think we should be selective in treatment of law-abiding people who aren’t trying to hurt others? No.

Eight years of bigoted conservatism is more than enough.

It’s time for America to walk the walk.


I guess this post was about more than just gay marriage. Surprise!


*I was taught that as a man I have no say over abortion. It’s not my choice and never will be. Women are the only ones to make a decision on abortion, so I’m keeping my mouth shut!