I’m not sure how explicitly I’ve noted this elsewhere, but there is a bit of irony baked into the “Is It Good?” rating system. Of course it is reductive to distill a film to a numeric rating with some variation of the word “Good” slapped on.
But if it feels a bit silly to give an “Is It Good?” rating to modern feature films, it’s downright ludicrous to do so for cinema from its nascent era. The value of these films typically derives more from historical value than anything than their actual content.
Historical value is not captured by an “Is It Good?” label, and the significance of early films often exceed their rating.
Many of these films are held back from a modern critical perspective due to limitations that are no fault of their own. Modern cinematic language, technology, and standards simply did not exist in the earliest cinema years.
(I am mostly speaking here of pre-1920 films, especially shorts and serials.)
My goal with the “Is It Good?” rating is not to evaluate the historical importance of the film, but its continued appeal and merit to viewers today.
So when I apply a rating to these films, I do so with the following question in mind:
To what extent would a curious film fan, applying appropriate historical context but still holding the film to the standards of fully functional cinema, find enduring value in this film?
Or put more succinctly:
Does this hold up?
In other words, these ratings are not a reflection of how influential or groundbreaking or historically significant these films are. Just because a film redefined cinema doesn’t mean it’s compelling to watch today! (Although it’s worth noting that the majority of medium-defining works are great films.)
Nor are early cinema films “graded on a curve,” though context is certainly considered. Just because filmmakers worked hard and overcame limitations and dealt within existing frameworks does not mean they are good when viewed with 21st century eyes. On the other hand, just because something is made in an outdated schema does not mean its artistic merit is outdated. Curious and open-minded viewers can gain a lot from early cinema if they learn how to watch it.
You see, it’s complicated! So please forgive me if I, for example, give D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance a label of “Good.” It’s encapsulating a lot of complicated thoughts and competing impulses. It’s what I get for trying to reduce every film in history to an answer of the question “Is It Good?”