16 July 2009

It's Called Putting in Your Two Cents Because Two Cents is All its Worth

Everyone is entitled to an opinion on any subject. Sadly, too many people feel the need to share those opinions. Whether through call-in radio shows, internet message boards, letters to newspapers, or blogs, people today are not shy about telling you what they think.

The trouble with this is that many people treat all opinions as equal. Individuals who spend their days working in factories and come home to watch Fox news after listening to Rush Limbaugh on their car radios enter our public discourse on the most complex of legal, political or foreign policy issues. To deny them a voice would be a subversion of democracy. We are all equal.

We don't especially esteem education or the educated in our culture. The knowledgeable are brushed with the taint of elitism. Joe the Plumber is given a forum on television and has authored a book. In other words, people want to know what this man thinks. Why? Because he's famous. (Paris Hilton is famous too but no one asks her to comment on appropriate troop levels in Iraq.) More people have listened to his views about the economy than they have a Nobel Prize winning economist. Fact.

So it goes with art. You like the paintings of Monet better than the charcoal sketch of a buffalo my Aunt Minnie did? Yeah well that's just your opinion, buddy! You really think that Hemingway's writing is more insightful than Glenn Beck's? Yeah, well that's just your opinion, buddy. And you really think The Seventh Seal is a better film than the latest Transformers flick?* Now you're kidding.

There's also little room for discussion. You're either with us or against us. Black and white. People don't share insights or perspectives. They draw lines in the sand. They establish totally inflexible positions and hurl invective at "the other side." Watch political talk shows. Many are shoutfests. Bill O'Reilly doesn't engage guests in discussion, he tries to tear them down.

Wild generalities and mindless supposition are stated as fact. Barack Obama is going to cancel future elections. Young people will be sent to re-education camps. The U.S. is heading towards socialism (as a socialist myself all I can say to that is, I wish). And although the right is especially guilty of such paranoid ravings they hold no monopoly on insane ravings. The left also has seen conspiracies everywhere and Armageddon just round the bend.

Nationally known film critics are bombarded with hateful messages and attacks when they pan hit films. The films devotees react with vitriol. They don't just disagree with the review, they lambaste the messenger. Too frequently people are their views. Thus to take an opposing position is to be against not just the movie but them. You're either with us or against us. We are entrenched. Within our fortress is the computer that provides the internet that, when needed, provides anonymity. Much time is spent among like minded souls reaffirming our views and getting new ammo. On other occasions we go out on raids, leaving angry attacks on websites or dashing off nasty emails.

We treat everything as if its the week of the big game. Our opinions are neither nuanced nor open to discussion. They are part of our uniform, the colors we wear with fierce pride. People who hold views dissimilar to our own are not different, they are the enemy. Subtlety and negotiation have given way to unquestioning loyalty.

Some facts are treated as opinion while some opinions are treated as fact. Suddenly evolution is a theory (why not the theory of gravity?) while creationism is treated as a perfectly viable alternative to this "theory."

How prescient Stephen Colbert was in inventing the term "truthiness."

I would encourage everyone to have as many opinions as they like on all manner of topics. I would also advise discretion in sharing those views, particularly if one is not well versed in the subject matter. Perhaps more importantly one should be willing to hear opposing views and more important than that people should be willing to not hear certain opinions. Sometimes you've got to recognize where the opinion is coming from and be ready to dismiss it as poppycock. Certainly one should want to hear the views of the opposition party, but when they are being presented by a plumber or a three year old there's no reason to pay attention.

I often am asked for my opinions on films both past and current. Some folks have developed the impression that I have a bit more than a layman's knowledge of cinema and I'm not one to contradict such notions. A few times these questions have been traps because the questioner has seen the film they're asking about. When I state an opinion different from their own they pounce. If I share their general feeling about the movie they'll then look for different reasons we liked the same film. That's fine and can make for a lively discussion but too often the person just wants an argument. I hate manufactured arguments because they're not designed to reach understanding but as an exercise in and of itself. To me arguing for the sake of it is like doing a physical exercise that has no health benefits. Why sweat and strain for nothing?

I'm always glad when people want to share their opinions on a film or director or actor. I love the notion of it --sharing. Of course that presupposes that they want to hear my view. I saw a film once and was I was leaving the theater an acquaintance came up and asked what I thought of the movie. Before I could say a word he had launched into a lengthy review of the film, then bid me good day before I'd uttered a sound. Share and share alike. It's critical not to set out to change the other person's opinion. Better to try to expose a person to how you saw the film and why you liked or didn't like it and to hear the same from them. Maybe you'll get new insight and help someone else do the same. But it shouldn't be a struggle. Think of it as more of a I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

I've never quite figured out how to deal with someone whose views on film are, to be it charitably ludicrous. If, as has happened, someone takes issue with my love for No Country For Old Men and particularly its ending, that's fine. A person who prefers Peter Jackson's version of King Kong over the original is not someone I'm likely to have a whole lot in common with regarding cinema, but not someone who I would perforce dismiss. But what of someone who considers the Rambo films classic American cinema and derides The Godfather? Are we still dealing in the realm of opinion? Is all art a matter of taste? Are there no standards? If a person likes Tiny Tim more than Sinatra or finds Tom Clancy superior to John Steinbeck, is this opinion? In art, when do we move away from opinion and into, this person is a frigging idiot?

Can there be, should there be norms? For goodness sakes what if someone says cod liver oil tastes better than strawberries? I suppose we have some unwritten standards. Louis Armstrong, not to everyone's liking (he is to mine) is a great musician. To say otherwise is silly. Michael Jordan was a great basketball player, maybe the greatest and if you don't think so, maybe you've never seen the game. John Ford a great director and if you disagree how to account for the admiration he earned from so many fellow directors? Anti semitism, slavery, denying the women the vote are all terribly wrong. Homophobia will fall next.

There are some generally agreed upon truths. There is much room for opinion on innumerable topics but let's listen to one another carefully before hardening our position. Hey, that's just my opinion.

* Fun fact. On IMDb, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen which was released less than a month ago has received 50,787 user rating votes, including 10,373 perfect tens. The Seventh Seal, released many years before IMDb came into being has received 31,043 votes, of which 12,065 are tens. I am at least happy to report that The Seventh Seal's average rating is an 8.4 and the Transformers latest is a full two points lower at 6.4.

1 comment:

Skitch said...

WHAT?!? Transformers is LESS than The Seventh Seal? Well, we'll see about that, now won't we? I might have to vote under my many aliases!

Thankfully, I'm kidding...

That was a great article and I completely agree with you on every point. I pretty much laughed out loud when I read this line...

"...when do we move away from opinion and into, this person is a frigging idiot?"

I only laugh because the latter is what I dealt with much of the time while living in Las Vegas the past few years. Idiots I can take with a grain of salt...but peppered liberally throughout that populace were delusional idiots. That I can't work with.

For example, I used to argue with a guy who had a new "favorite movie of all time" every time he saw a new film. "Iron Man is the BEST movie of all time!" Later, "Transformers is my favorite movie of all time!"

I think you see my point. Problem is...they didn't when it came to films...or anything else for that matter.

Always nice to read something by someone who has a voice of reason!