I’ve been thinking a bit, lately, about how I form an opinion about a particular film. Of course, it should be somewhat objective. I should be able to take out any possibly subjective influences and divorce a movie from any of those countless outside factors, to judge it entirely on its own merits. (Or, as the case might be, its lack of merits.) However, I am honest enough to admit that this isn’t always the case. There are any number of reasons I might feel a particular way about the movie. I find J. Edgar interesting to place in the context of Clint Eastwood’s body of work. I approached Cabin of the Woods with an admitted fondness for cheesy horror. I’ll admit that these facets colour my opinions somewhat – I am more likely to respond to a film that resonates with me on something I feel strongly about.
However, sometimes that influence factor isn’t anything to do with the movie in question at all. Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder, whether my opinion is down to something as arbitrary as the mood I was in when I watched the film.
Now, being honest, one makes a conscious effort to cancel out any influence like that. You try to judge a film on its own merits rather than on an arbitrary set of circumstances that surround it. After all, we all have movies that we associate with deeply personal memories and moments. I fondly remember a lot of the cheesy and terrible horrors that I watched with my grandfather, for example. Casino Royale was the first film that I saw with my better half, so it holds a special place in my heart.
Still, acknowledging these important connections, I think that reviewers do make a conscious effort to divorce movies from those contexts. I love those old horror movies like The Devil Rides Out or Prince of Darkness, but I will freely concede that they are flawed. I’d like to believe that the reasons I like Casino Royaleare based on its own merits, rather than the important place it holds in my relationship history.
I’m thinking about this because I saw The Silver Linings Playbook last week, and I really liked it. It’s a feel-good film, executed with incredible tact and skill by director David O. Russell with a great ensemble. It comes very highly recommended. At least, I’m fairly certain it does. I really don’t want to turn this into a personal blog, if only because you came here to read about films – and because I’m terrible at personal stuff. However, I did get some personal news last week that probably meant I was really in the market of a feel-good film. I can’t help but wonder if, on some level, my ecstatic response to the film was rooted in that decidedly personal issue.
It’s not really fair to mention The Silver Linings Playbook in this context, because I am pretty certain that I was genuinely impressed with it. After all, I’d seen a similar drama, People Like Us, the day before and I really disliked it because it lacked pretty much all the virtues that made The Silver Linings Playbook so good. I’m certain that The Silver Linings Playbook is a great film, I just worry that perhaps I’m exaggerating howgood it was.
Of course, there are ways that this arbitrariness (if it even exists) can be countered. Unlike Pauline Kael, I am a big fan of repeat viewing – of films I love and also films that I did not like that much. There’s lot’s of reasons I like to return to a film. The most obvious is the simple fact that I probably didn’t get everything the first time – and it would be arrogant to assume that I did. Also, though, it allows me to determine whether my initial response to a film accurately measured the quality of the film, or if I was just caught up in the moment.
I feel somewhat vindicated that – a lot of the time – my original opinion stands quite firm. It means that I’m generally a bit more comfortable voicing my opinion coming out of a film. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule – although perhaps they come from acknowledging that a film is what it is and trying to appreciate it on its own terms. I’ve grown slightly fonder of Alien³ every time I have seen it, perhaps because I can at least admire what David Fincher was attempting. (Curiously, I grow colder towards Alien Resurrection on every re-watch.)
Every time I watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I get a clearer picture of what Peter Hunt was attempting, but the film’s problems coming together become more frustrating as I can see what it should be. I have no problems admitting when I am wrong on a film – I’ll freely concede that time has changed my opinion on Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. (In my defence, I weakly offer, I was only a young teenager when I first saw it.) When my twelve-year-old self say Blade Runner, I couldn’t quite process it. I now consider it one of the best films ever made.
Still, despite all that, I think it has been quite some time since a re-watch of a film completely reversed my opinion of a particular film. Perhaps that’s a good thing – an indication that my gut instinct is generally relatively accurate. Of course, I could just be sticking to (and attempting to vindicate) my original opinion of the film, so I’m not sure.
For the sake of my own sanity, I tend to adopt a rather laissez-faire attitude to such things. Perhaps it’s part of the reason I’ll never be a great film critic, but it does at least give me some peace of mind. I can only accept that – despite my best efforts – sometimes outside factors might creep in and influence my opinion of a film. However, I can only hope that I have the self-awareness to recognise such contamination and perhaps even to counter it if necessary.
We live in hope.
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