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Going Against the Grain: Unpopular Movie Opinions…

I quite liked J. Edgar. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think it was perfect or anything like that, but I thought it was an interesting piece of cinema that clearly articulated Eastwood’s views on twentieth century America, fitting as part of a tapestry the director had crafted exploring the country’s history. However, I still feel a little uncertain about my opinion. After all, it seems that most critics quite disliked it. I know that anybody writing or discussing film is required to formulate their own opinion, but there is a strange feeling that comes with disagreeing with the majority opinion. While the world wouldn’t be an interesting place if we all agreed, it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the individual’s opinion against that of the critical majority.

Suits you, sir...

The internet is a great place, because of the sheer diversity of the place. You can find anybody saying anything about something if you look hard enough. It allows for the development of an opinionated and informed community on the subject of just about anything, instantly connecting people with dozens of others interested in the same sort of subject matter. It makes it possible to discover and debate things you’d never thought of before, but it also introduces the idea of a consensus, something it feels a little strange to brush against.

A lot of people have some very serious problems with Rotten Tomatoes because it reduces the quality of a movie to a binary equation informed by majoritarianism. It’s not about the particulars of the individual film, but about fresh/rotten dichotomy. I can see the merits in such an argument – there are critics I personally trust more than I trust the Tomato-meter, but it is a handy tool for determining the general swathe of opinion, the wider attitude towards a certain film. It’s easier than ever to determine what the majority of critics thought about a particular film or work, and that tends to inform the conversation about it. After all, the fact that critical opinion about Cars 2 had solidified long before it was released over here gave me significant pause.

Race to the middle?

Because of the gap in release dates between the United States and Ireland, it’s hard for me not to know the majority opinion about a film before it opens here. And while I pride myself on remaining objective, and while I’d argue it doesn’t influence my opinion of a given film on its own merits, I’d be lying if it doesn’t set my preconceptions about watching the film in question. Ideally we’d find a way to convert Plato’s Cave into a cinema, where we could each view every film without the burden of popular opinion weighing down on us. However, that’s not quite possible.

And so, knowing the majority opinion, it’s interesting how we respond to it. Most writers would argue that they don’t pay it any heed, and to a certain extent that’s true – it’s the fairest way to write, paying no attention to the majority. And yet, as I find myself enjoying a film that everybody else hated (The Three Musketeers), or hating a film everybody else loved (Avatar), I do wonder a bit why that is.  I wonder why my own opinion is relatively far off the base, and if I’m being “eccentric”, to use a polite word. I wouldn’t dare to say that I second-guess myself, but I do contemplate it a bit.

Na'vi blue...

Don’t get me wrong. As I noted above, everybody must form their own opinion. What’s the point in watching a film if you’re just going to echo everybody’s else’s sentiment? I subscribe to the idea that film is a subjective artform and that everybody can make their own sense of everything. Some of the most passionate and thoughtful articles I have ever read on film espouse opinions sometimes directly opposed to my own, but they’re valuable precisely because they provide a different perspective. I hope that somebody might think the same of my own writing, even if they disagree vehemently with my position.

I am always amazed by some of the responses to my reviews from commentators who hold different opinions – I welcome debate and discussion, but there seems to be an unnatural amount of vitriol in some of the comments. You would almost have sworn that, by daring to hold a position different from their own, that I had somehow killed a relative or beloved childhood pet. I never understood how daring to have a position different from the majority (or even an individual) could provoke so angry a response. After all, what good is anybody’s opinion if it can’t withstand the articulation of a point in opposition?

50/50...

Of course, at this point, I should probably clarify that while opinion is subjective and personal, I do take exception to those with an ill-informed opinion. For example, my issue with Armond White isn’t that he’s wilfully contrarian, it’s the fact that he doesn’t appear to pay any attention to the films he likes to lambast. Consider his infamous review of Toy Story 3:

The toys wage battle with the daycare center’s cynical veteran cast-offs: Hamm the Piggy Bank pig, Lotsa Hugs and Big Baby.

The obvious point being that Hamm is one of the good guys. (The lesser being that the bad guy is Lotso Huggin’.) I tend to dislike White not because he holds controversial decisions, but because he’s consciously adversarial towards other critics and viewers who don’t share his opinions, working off the assumption that everybody who doesn’t agree with him is a moron. That’s an attitude that I find objectionable, and – to be frank – I find it hard to believe that White isn’t cynically setting himself up as contrarian in order to garner more attention.

Gun to my head, I kinda like The Three Musketeers...

Still, while I don’t let the majority inform my opinion of a given film, I’d by lying if I didn’t concede that it changes the way that I write my commentary. Of course, I try to justify every opinion I hold on a given film, no matter how mundane or insane it might be, but it feels as if pressing against the majority requires a higher standard of proof. It’s as if the majority opinion almost sets a higher threshold for my argument, which I have to rise to meet. Of course, in an ideal world, every argument would receive every ounce of passion that we have, but the reality of the situation is that we have to pick and choose our battles.

Indeed, it’s almost as if I imagine I’m addressing the majority when committing my opinion. Odds are, after all, that the reader is probably a part of it. It’s the reader who I have to convince with my opinion, if I can be said to convince anyone, and I can’t claim to write for absolutely everybody. There are going to be those who will agree with me, and those who will disagree with me no matter the opinion. And, publishing on a public forum like a blog, I can’t target my audience and – truth be told – I wouldn’t want to target my blog. Ideally anybody could read this and like it, regardless of whether they’re somebody killing time on the internet, or a die-hard cinephile.

No prompting!

Either way, I feel it’s fair to assume that the average reader is either familiar with, or holds, the majority opinion, and that’s a fair starting point. Unless I’m among the very first to see a given film, in which case there is no solidified opinion, I often find it reasonable to work from that perspective. And we have to start somewhere.

In this era of Rotten Tomatoes and instant publication and dissemination of internet opinions, it’s hard not to be mindful of how the majority have spoken and what they have said about a particular film. In the end, my opinion is my own, but you do need to listen if you plan to enter any sort of dialogue.

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11 Responses

  1. My favourite part of having a site is fighting the corner of a stance that isn’t really the consensus… whether we’re successful or not is another thing though, but at least you usually get some sort of discussion going.

    I love sites like IMDB/RT for fact-fingding and info, but for opinions and recommendations I’ll always take a handful of reviews from sites I know to be agreeable, and like reading, over the average from thousands of people that vote 1 or 10 on IMDB, or a consensus of critics – who, let’s face it, usually speak from a very cinema-literate and appreciative background.

    • Personally, I’ll watch almost anything, but I pretty much agree with your point when I’m paying for something. And it’s not even the notion of people I agree with, but people I respect. I find that if you read a negative review, you can get a sense of whether those flaws will matter to you when you come to watch it, for example.

      And trust me, I’ve given up on any major definition of being “successful” – as long as people read and enjoy the site, that’s more than enough for me. I hope I might persuade one or two people, but I just hope I foster a bit of thought. Even if you hate my work with a passion, I’m proud if you’ve thought a bit more about where you stand than when you clicked on to the site. I

  2. Films are very subjective and my favorite part of differing opinions is the chance to see what someone else saw in a film, whether they liked it or not. It’s the same reasons I read reviews. Many times I latch on to certain parts of films and miss whole elements that are brought to life by someone with a differing opinion. And many times I can do the same for some one else.

    I, too, very much disliked “Avatar” and was basically ostracized for being in the minority. I worked at a video store at the time and was constantly barraged with questions of how I couldn’t love that film when in fact I extremely disliked it. If the conversations got going enough, I would usually end up explaining my dislikes so well that I would start to put doubt in the minds of the people who said they loved it.

    I have grown so comfortable in my own opinions that it gets easy to separate myself from the masses, but not so much so that I intentionally veer away from what the masses enjoy or berate them for it. Much like last year with the Oscar race between “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech”. I was told before I saw the former that I was going to be amazed. I saw it, was vaguely bored by it, and was not completely impressed. I then saw “The King’s Speech” and adored it. But the entire month before the awards, I was told on a daily basis that “The Social Network” was a “guaranteed” win at the Oscars and that I had picked the wrong horse. I could have easily accepted defeat and filed into the ranks, but instead I went with my gut and what happened? “The King’s Speech” won the Oscar, which basically put me in the majority (at least as far as the Academy was concerned).

    I’ve always had an “eccentric” taste in films, as well. Most of my all-time favorite films are apart from the norm. They usually don’t carry great Rotten Tomatoes percentages. But that “off-kilter” taste in films sets me apart and gives me a unique fingerprint, often getting the chance to share these films with people who never gave them a chance or never saw them the way that I do. Whenever I read a poor review for a film before venturing out to see it, I am constantly asked why I bother? “If you know it’s going to suck, why bother?” And my response is always the same. “How do I know it will suck? Maybe I will love it.” Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. But if you don’t see a film, how will you ever know?

    As always, great article, Darren.

    • Thanks, much appreciated. I never understood the idea of ostracizing the minority opinion on the quality of a film, if only because that misses the point a bit. the question isn’t whether you liked or disliked a film, but what you made of it – and not whether that agrees or disagrees with me. Some of my favourite writers couldn’t be more opposed to my taste if they tried, but I like reading them because they make good and clever and insightful points.

  3. Yeah, I sometimes have the same feeling as it is a while before movies are out over here. By the time it comes the majority opinion is already known and it sometimes makes it a bit harder to stay objective. I’m not afraid to have a different opinion though. For example I didn’t like Avatar as much as other people did or recently really enjoyed Immortals.

  4. Nope, you’re wrong.

    (just kidding)

    What I find interesting is the popular internet opinion, rather than critical opinion. It’s very trendy to hate “Avatar,” “The Phantom Menace,” and “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” for instance. If you dare indicate that you enjoyed these movies, people will blast you as if your morality is on the line. Lately, the same has gone for the rock bands Nickelback and Creed. It seems everyone’s jumped on the bandwagon of hating them. The Internet is great for people to express individual opinions–unless those opinions are contrary to those of the vocal minority.

  5. I agree that listening is the key. It doesn’t matter what your opinion is if you’re not prepared to listen to someone else’s, no matter how contrary or aggravating (I’m looking at you Mr White!).

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