Over at Criticwire, great writer and critic Matt Singer has been providing an invaluable commentary on the critical community filtered appropriately through whatever’s currently happening in movies. After critic Boxoffice Magazine critic Amy Nicholson was unfairly and cruelly antagonized by commenters for giving what was the first “rotten” review of The Avengers, Singer examined the nature and motives of those who feel compelled to write the most heinous and mean-spirited responses on comment boards (Matt joined us for an audio chat about it as well). Subsequently, he widened his view to look at a recent piece by Darren Mooney about whether opinions can be wrong. While the substance of both Mooney and Singer’s pieces adeptly deconstruct the ways in which opinions can, shall we say, vary in their accuracy, I felt compelled by them to make it a little plainer to folks wondering about this age-old quandary: opinions absolutely can be wrong.
Mind you, someone liking or disliking something cannot be wrong – that’s literally a matter of enjoyment, offense, taste, or lack thereof. And quite often liking or disliking something can run contrary to one’s acknowledgment of a film or piece of entertainment’s artistic or technical merits, or even just common sense. But the reason that opinions can be wrong, and why they are, is because what they’re based on is almost certainly wrong. That isn’t to say that a person liking or disliking a film can be measured on a scale of correctness, but there are many, many people who misunderstand, misinterpret, disconnect or just personally dislike what a film is trying to do, and they will consequently say a film is bad. And they may very well be wrong. The distinction here is that people equate opinion with fact – that if they feel like a movie is like this or does this, it is that, that’s what it’s doing, or it’s trying to do – and so if they say something is awesome or it sucks, they are often suggesting that their reaction is an objective evaluation of its merits, as opposed to their individual and specific reaction to what they saw or experienced.
I have a very good friend and colleague who is, in the best way, almost a metatextual film critic, by which I mean he likes to look at a broader cultural context of a film -- its ideas and its performers -- when reviewing or examining one. While that superficially sounds like what every critic should do, the difference between him and most other folks whose work I read is that his analysis is far more abstract and eclectic; in the case of, say, The Avengers, he might not just look at the history of the comics, or comic adaptations, but the political attitudes embodied by each of the characters, or the filmography of Joss Whedon, and make an argument that it’s a dialogue between warring political factions, or some sort of essay from Whedon about his career. While I think these are all fascinating interpretations of the movie, that does not make them right. Or just because, say, you think that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is an Iraq war screed does not make it an Iraq war screed.
More importantly, and perhaps more to the point, however, is the indisputable truth that we bring all sorts of our own baggage to movies, be it a long history of hating “X” or a recent good experience with “Y,” either (or both) of which might be a main part of the story, characterizations, or themes. As a result, we might love or hate a movie consciously or subconsciously because of that personal experience, and while that’s perfectly valid, that doesn’t make our opinion “right.” It could literally be as generalized as not watching a lot of movies; if you watch The Godfather and think it’s boring and poorly-executed based on having started watching movies in 2006, (1) you’re wrong, but (2) you’re wrong because your perspective isn’t based on an informed understanding of filmmaking in a classical or more formal sense.
Or, further, you might be wrong just because you misinterpreted the thing. There’s a great essay on Badass Digest by the inestimable FilmCritHulk about Mulholland Drive, and it’s one of the best analyses of a film I’ve ever read. But it’s the first time since the movie was released in 2002 that someone has articulated to me what the film is trying to do, and why those things make it a great film. Prior to that, I was not a fan of the film, and couldn’t understand why anybody else was (mind you, I didn’t discourage people from doing so, even when I disagreed with them). And I freely admit that I was wrong. Similarly, a discussion recently erupted on Twitter about the “emo-Peter Parker” segments in Spider-Man 3, and while I actually liked the film a lot more than most, there were a couple of scenes in that storyline I didn’t like, and I got a lot of really interesting responses from colleagues suggesting it was trying different things than I thought. Is it possible that I misinterpreted those scenes? Yeah. Is it the movie’s fault if I blame the overall film for my misinterpretation of its content? Definitely not. But I still might be wrong.
Regarding Amy Nicholson’s review of The Avengers, I disagree with her interpretation of the film, although I don’t think Whedon’s work in it is perfect by any means. But I categorically an unconditionally condemn the reactions that she received in the comments on her review – first on the grounds that they’re sexist and cowardly, but second on the grounds that few if any of them were reacting from a counterpoint of actually having seen the film. But even if those commenters have seen it, none of them were engaging her about any of the ideas either in the movie or Nicholson’s review. It’s perfectly fair and reasonable to point out something she may have missed in her interpretation of the film, to challenge an argument or question the context of her reaction. But no badly how good you want a movie to be, if you haven’t seen it, and you’re telling someone else that they’re wrong, you’re not just an immature, insecure jerk, you’re wrong.
Ultimately, the way to prove them wrong (and possibly you right) is not to hurl epithets and disagree like a petulant, tantrum-throwing child, it’s to know, or learn about what you’re talking about, and then make an argument worthy of being right, rather than just “knowing” that you are. In terms of film criticism, no film is or should be appropriate for every viewer, no matter how hard the studios try to make them that way, so if you don’t dig Joss Whedon’s work and prefer Harmony Korine’s (or vice versa), fair enough. But there is no such thing as objectivity in criticism – filmmaking isn’t a mathematical formula, and quality isn’t based on adherence to a strict set of rules that must never be diverged from or violated – so the bottom line is to make the distinction between “liking” something and it being good. Because something can be good and you dislike it, just as something can be horrible and you love it. As counterintuitive as it is to love terrible comedies or cliched horror films or even just childhood staples that you since have realized are derivative, stupid or otherwise poorly made, we all have a handful of favorites that are generally speaking indefensible except in terms of context, nostalgia or personal connection.
But at the intersection of knowledge and maturity, it doesn’t matter anyway -- you can like all the garbage you want, and the hell with anyone else if they agree. And even though that doesn’t mean you’re right and everyone else is wrong, what’s important is knowing why you like something or think it’s good. Critical thinking is unfortunately too seldom employed to understand what it is about a movie that a person thinks is good, which is why when somebody calls a shitty movie good, they often use the refrain, “I didn’t want to have to think, I just wanted to be entertained.” So ultimately, the bottom line is that everyone’s opinion is wrong occasionally, if only because the criteria by which they judge something is itself subjective – it comes from an angle that wasn’t intended, or a reaction is driven by a personal context which has nothing to do with the film or filmmakers at all. So for critics, the important thing isn’t to be right, it’s to be understood – and if you can articulate to somebody else that what you saw or didn’t see or liked or didn’t like is what was actually up there on screen, you might talk someone into seeing your point of view, even if they don’t change their mind. Because thankfully, there are as many ways to be right as there are to be wrong.