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Being Right About How Opinions Can't Be Wrong

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire May 2, 2012 at 12:03PM

If opinions can't be wrong, then mine about this essay about mine about opinions never being wrong can't be wrong. Everyone got me so far?
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"The Godfather Part III."
"The Godfather Part III."

Last week on Criticwire, I wrote a piece called "Can Opinions Be Wrong?" inspired by critics who dare to disagree with the consensus about "The Avengers" and the Internet commenters who hate them ("Critics Who Dare to Disagree With the Consensus About "The Avengers" and the Internet Commenters Who Hate Them" -- sounds like the worst episode of "Maury" ever). In that post, I attempted to explain why it's illogical to attack a critic for not liking a movie (especially one you haven't even seen yet) because their review is based on an opinion, and because an opinion about a film, if honest and thoughtful, can't really be wrong. It can certainly short-sighted, it can definitely be uninformed. But wrong? I'm still not so sure.

At Movies.com, critic Todd Gilchrist felt sure enough that opinions can be wrong to write a response entitled "Can Opinions Be Wrong? If It's Yours, Absolutely."  Can you believe it?  Dude had the temerity to disagree with me!  Is it too late to change my opinion about whether opinions can be wrong?  Because now I totally think they can be, and I think his is!  

All right, all right, I'm calm.  Let's look at Gilchrist's (almost certainly incorrect) argument:

"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."

And here's a specific example from Gilchrist's own life of his theory in action:

"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."

So Gilchrist's original opinion of "Mulholland Drive" was "wrong," and then a smart article by another writer set him straight, which means he now has the  "right" opinion. I guess my follow-up question is this: how does he know that his old opinion was wrong and his new one is right? Maybe next week a writer will pen a really smart takedown of "Mulholland Drive," exposing some sort of fundamental flaw that Gilchrist and the rest of critics who love the film (myself included) had never considered before. Just because our opinions change doesn't necessarily make one better than the other.

Gilchrist's flip flop on "Mulholland Drive" is precisely the reason I'm hesitant to label any movie opinion with a blanket "right" or wrong." Read another excerpt from his piece, and I'll explain why in more detail:

"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."

Okay, yes, if some eleven-year-old watches twenty minutes of "The Godfather" on AMC and starts boasting on Facebook that it's boring and murky and overrated, then that's not a particularly compelling argument. But maybe that's just an invalid expression of a perfectly valid opinion. Gilchirst concedes that a writer with a different opinion from his changed his mind about "Mulholland Drive" -- it's not possible that someone could do the same with "The Godfather?" What if instead of saying it's boring in a sentence or two they spend eight thousand words parsing the film's text, examining its shot length, and considering its use of framing, character, and story? Like Gilchrist, I think "The Godfather" is a masterpiece.  But I'm not willing to go so far as to say any opinion of the movie that dislikes it is "wrong."  I'd rather watch "The Godfather" 20 times in a row than watch "The Godfather Part III" once -- but I don't preclude the possibility that someone out there might feel the opposite, and might even have a damn good reason why.

If I'm reading Gilchrist's piece right, he seems to want to have it both ways: he wants to allow for differences of opinion, but he also wants there to be objectively good and bad movies.  He says there's "no such thing as objectivity in criticism" but he divorces whether a movie is "good" or "bad" from people's opinions from it -- stating that you can like something that's bad or hate something that's good. "The bottom line is that everyone’s opinion is wrong occasionally," Gilchrist writes, "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."

Here we definitely disagree. I would argue that personal context is the very core of film criticism. If it wasn't, then we'd only need one film critic to review everything because there would only be one "correct" way to read movies. A filmmaker's intention is important, but it's not always paramount; some of the most interesting parts of movies are often the things that viewers notice in them that directors say they never intended to be there. I can write about "Demolition Man" as a manifestation of star Sylvester Stallone's fears about his own mortality and his desire to be frozen for all eternity in his incredibly muscular 45-year-old body and I can back it up with examples from the film and from the rest of Stallone's career.  If someone asks Stallone in an interview about it and he says "Y'know that's interesting, but I never thought about it," or, even worse, "That's a load of crap," does that negate my whole article?

Maybe this is just my opinion, but I say it doesn't. And you know how I feel about opinions.

Read more of Todd Gilchrist's "Can Opinions Be Wrong? If It's Yours, Absolutely."

This article is related to: Todd Gilchrist


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