Often times you’ll see a film and someone (possibly yourself) will ask you what you thought of it. For many, myself included, that can be a pretty difficult question. Even if you have some sort of feeling about the film, it’s often hard to turn that into a defensible opinion. Before you begin to try and understand a film, you have to answer for yourself: was it any good?
Sometimes it’s easy: The 400 Blows (1959, dir. Francois Truffaut) is good–you may not know or care to know why, but it’s pretty obvious that the film is good. The Life of David Gale (2003, dir. Alan Foster) is bad; very bad. Once again, though you may not want to know how bad it is (indeed the breadth and depth of its badness are quite disturbing) but it’s pretty obviously bad. But then you have all those other films. Films like Slumdog Millionaire (2008, dir. Danny Boyle) or Ida Lupino’s the-popcorn-in-the-theater-cost-more-than-the-budget-of-this-film The Hitch-Hiker (1955) or Kurosawa’s oddly balanced I Live in Fear (1955) where it just isn’t that clear whether the film is any good.
I found a partial answer for this, more or less on the spot, when I had to give an intelligent response to the new remake of Yoji Yamada’s Yellow Handkerchief (1977). I must confess that I have not seen the original and probably would not have seen the remake had I not been invited to a special screening of it. Yellow Handkerchief (2007, dir. Udayan Prasad) was exactly that sort of in-the-middle movie. It’s a sentimental but elegant story of a convict being released from prison and looking for his pre-prison wife. She is to signal that she wants him back by displaying a yellow handkerchief on the post by their old house. On his way he meets some misguided teenagers and together they travel through the countryside towards the film’s predictable, though well executed, climax. The film is proficiently constructed, the cinematography is appropriate, the acting believable (if not outstanding) and the various ingredients well mixed to pave the way for the climactic end. Everyone in the theater cried (myself included) and we went home.
The test that I developed in response to this film was as follows. A good estimate of a film’s quality can be assessed by when the emotional climax takes place. In Yellow Handkerchief, it was exactly at the end. It kept our interest until that point but when it ended it ended. The truly great films, on the other hand, continue to grow long after the lights in the theater go on.
Anyone who doesn’t believe that the emotional climax of a film can come long after the film ends simply has not watched enough good films. Batman: The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan) easily grows for a good couple of weeks before it really peaks. It took me several months after seeing Sansho the Bailiff (1954, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi) until its emotional power really hit me. Returning to the above examples, I’d say that the Hitchhiker passes. The story is compact and brief, but the suspense and fear continue to develop after the film ends. I Live in Fear probably doesn’t–it has its intense moments but by the end you just ask yourself, “where was he going with all that weirdness?” If I had seen Slumdog Millionaire before its ridiculous hype build-up, I might say that it passed. But since I spent the whole film looking for something that could justify it being considered a “great film” I couldn’t appreciate it for the above average film that it was.
This test isn’t objective–Kurosawa’s Red Beard(1965) and Ikiru(1951) affected me for a very long time when I first saw them but no doubt they would affect me for far less time were I to see them again today. It isn’t wholly original either. Rather, it stitches together at least two time-honored principles: a great movie should not leave you when the lights come back on and a bad movie won’t keep your attention until the end. This test further fails in that it maligns the ability of a film to merely maintain its power. Plenty of excellent films build some sort of structure within the film that merely continues to exist in the viewers mind long after the film ends.
But next time you see a film, think about it. If you suspect the film may have been of exceptionally high caliber, wait a few days. And see if it waxes or wanes.