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Being Right About How Opinions Can't Be Wrong

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by Matt Singer
May 2, 2012 12:03 PM
5 Comments
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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."

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5 Comments

  • Demosthenes | September 26, 2012 2:43 AMReply

    A proof that opinions can be wrong.

    1. It is your opinion that no opinion can be wrong.
    2. It is my opinion that some opinions are wrong.
    3. It is not possible for the statements "no opinion can be wrong" and "some opinions are wrong" to be true at the same time.
    4. Therefore, both of our opinions cannot be right.
    5. If your opinion is right, then my opinion is wrong.
    6. But if your opinion is right, then my opinion cannot be wrong.
    7. So if your opinion is right, then my opinion is both wrong and not wrong.
    8. Therefore, your opinion must be wrong.
    9. Therefore, my opinion that "some opinions are wrong" is proven true -- because yours is.

  • Surprise | May 4, 2012 4:17 AMReply

    A good film critic attempts the following:
    ~To analyze the film's plotting, characterization, tone, acting, script, cinematography, and special effects.
    ~To determine the filmmaker's intentions in making the movie.
    ~To decide whether the filmmaker succeeded in his or her intentions.
    ~To determine the worth of those intentions within the context of the film critic's own worldview and/or expectations for films.

    Movie reviews can be "wrong" if they don't cover many of the points above, and resort to a simple thumb's up or thumb's down; they can also be "wrong," if you, as the viewer, reject the film critic's worldview or expectations for film out of hand.

    I recall a movie review of "Fireproof," a conservative Christian movie about the sanctity of marriage. The reviewer, who had been in the business of film review for over 20 years, said that it was a dreadful film: bad acting, bad script, and poor plotting. And to boot, the reviewer claimed, there was an altar call right there at the end of the film. The film was trying to proselytize to the non-believing audience, and failed miserably in making new converts (or so the reviewer said). The reviewer added that this type of film (one which has a heavy, non-nuanced Christian message) was not his cup of tea.

    Of course, Christian viewers of the film saw it quite differently. Most ignored or minimized the bad acting, bad script, and poor plotting, and went directly to the intentions of the film. They saw the filmmakers' intentions as not trying to convert non-Christians, but as trying to strengthen Christian marriages and Christian faith. In this, they felt the filmmaker was wildly successful, and were quite happy that the film's intentions matched their worldview.

    For them, the message was the movie. The message was: Christian faith leads to faithful and successful marriages. The tail wagged the dog.

    In twenty years' time, once the American Christian film market has matured, will these Chrisitan movie-goers look back and cringe at what they once thought was an excellent movie?

  • Joel W. | May 2, 2012 4:57 PMReply

    There are two routine critical positions that *can* be determined correct or incorrect:
    (1) "My specific readership by-and-large will/won't enjoy this film."
    (2) "Over time, canonical consensus will emerge that this film is good/bad."

    There is no such thing as objective value in art, but critics, by attempting to presuppose a collective evaluation, can be proven right or wrong, as the film is viewed by many people over time and as popular conversation bears out.

  • Michael J. Anderson | May 2, 2012 4:13 PMReply

    Matt, what exactly do you gain from fighting this semantic war? Let's stipulate that an opinion can't be wrong in the way a belief can be, it still can be ill-informed, short-sighted or worse (say the product of unyielding stupidity). What does one gain save for being less decorous in their criticisms? Besides, is it even true that it is the task of the film critic to give their opinion? Might we say instead say that it is to make an argument, which brings one more directly into contact with questions of validity and plausibility?

    Really, though, it always comes back to another semantic battle: whether there is such a thing as good or bad art, whether one film can be meaningfully better than another. When we start to argue about this, the question shifts to what values animate one's criticism, and whether any one set of standards can be judged to be better than another. I believe that we can, and applying this to life, I think we can safely say that anyone who proposes that say "Hot Tub Time Machine" is a better film than "Playtime" or "Trouble in Paradise" is wrong - ultimately for reasons that pertain to the critical standards they use.

  • Dave | May 2, 2012 1:58 PMReply

    I think what Gilchrist is trying to imply (although this is just my opinion) is that some opinions are 'wrong' because they miss the point. There have been negative reviews of the avengers, for example, that indicate that it's another comic book movie and is therefore derivative and no better than mediocre. That opinion is 'right' in the sense that it is a comic book movie that is derived from other such movies. It is 'wrong' because it doesn't take into account how effective it is within that genre. Is it an exceptionally done comic book movie in comparison to similar movies? If so, it is good and the opinion that it is not is 'wrong'. In a sense, movie opinions, unlike other opinions, should be based on a bell curve that includes movies that are seeking similar entertainment ends, or at least fall within the same genre so that there is an understanding the apples are being judged as apples and not oranges. In other words, it is in some ways a critic's job to ask 'if a person likes comic book movies, will they find this one exceptional (The Dark Knight) , well executed (Thor), or just plain bad ( The Green Lantern)' when taking into account such necessary elements as plotting, characterization, cinematography, and script? If they refuse to do that and instead criticize a movie such as The Avengers because it's not The Godfather they are kind of missing the point as to the movie's purpose and success at achieving it.

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