Article by: Josh Bradley
“It’s just my opinion; it can’t be wrong.”
Or can it?
When it comes to film criticism (or even, less formally, just giving your opinion on a movie), there seems to be a line somewhere that denotes the Realm of Irrefutability.
In an attempt to expand my knowledge of foreign classics, I dropped some real flow on the Criterion Collection website a couple months ago and just got around to watching them this past week. In the last seven days, I watched Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), and (just because I was in a classics kinda mood) Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946).
After just one viewing, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I thought these movies were…pretty good. If I had seen them cold, with no context, that’s likely what I’d say about them. But, more to the point, I’m willing to bet my entire Pokemon card collection that more than a few people today would go so far as to say that these movies suck. Hell, they’re black-and-white, not in English, and made before 1973 — that alone is enough to elicit a “this movie sucks” from most Americans under 30 and every Michigan frat bro.
Here’s the thing: these movies clearly do not suck. They’re clearly better than the “pretty good” that I would’ve given them sans context. These are regarded as some of the very best of film by damn near everyone who knows film.
Akira Kurosawa called The 400 Blows “one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen.” Roger Ebert called The Seventh Seal “one of the masterpieces of cinema.” Perhaps most impressively, the British publication Sight & Sound, which has released an ever-changing “greatest film of all time” top 10 list every ten years since 1952 (according to Ebert, “by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies – the only one most serious movie people take seriously”), put The Rules of the Game on all seven top 10 lists that it has released. And it’s the ONLY FILM to appear on all seven lists. Not even Citizen Kane (1941) did that. I know for a fact (ok, fine: I hope) that I will enjoy these movies more on a second, third, or fourth viewing – I certainly enjoyed my second viewing of Notorious far, far more than my first – but it’s really only because of reputation that I’m willing to give them a repeated look.
This is my point: these movies are so revered (especially by people who are so revered) that their brilliance is now taken as fact. So if I say they’re “pretty good” or Tate Forcier says “they suck”, what we’re really saying is “I don’t get it.”
It’s extremely common for someone to not connect with a film, but so often, critics – both professional and amateur – put the onus for this disconnect on the film; it’s the film that’s lacking, not themselves or their understanding. But if a film reaches the tier of these listed, the Realm of Irrefutability, the script is flipped.
So, my question (that I’m not going to answer) is: where is this line? How much of a consensus – and by whom – is required for people to give the movie the benefit of the doubt? When does one’s opinion become nullified by the overwhelming opinions of greater (or, at least, more established) tastes? When can your opinion be straight up wrong?
I think this is an important question because it requires us to humble ourselves. We have to acknowledge that saying “I don’t like it” is not the same thing as saying “it’s bad.” More and more, this has become a widespread belief, especially in the age of the internet where everyone has an opinion [see my first post for more on that]. And people who strive to have discerning tastes (like me) are especially guilty of this, as they (we) like to equate the two (“I don’t like it” and “it’s bad”) or at least attempt to groom our movie palate so that the disconnect between the two shrinks. After all, who doesn’t want to be able to recognize great, transcendent art?
But I also think it’s an important question because it doesn’t just apply to foreign classics. Few things fascinated me more during this past award season than watching the change of public opinion of Richard Linklater’s Boyhoood (2014). It got a limited release during the summer months, such that only critics and cinephiles who seek out limited release indie movies (hi there) saw it, and oh how the praise rolled in. It remains one of two movies ever to have a perfect score on Metacritic.com (the other only had four reviews, compared to Boyhood’s 50). I thought it was one of the truest films I’d ever seen, and therefore (as art should always strive to find truth) one of the greatest artistic achievements I’d ever seen.
And then award season began, where it got nominations and accolades galore, and naturally, casual moviegoers (i.e. non-critics and non-cinephiles) began to seek it out to see what all the fuss was about. Suddenly, things like “boring” and “overrated” and “gimmick” started to get thrown around, culminating in my pick for the laziest film criticism in years: “people only think it’s good because it took 12 years to make.” Well, that’s not taking the fucking easy way out now is it?
And lo and behold, it won one measly Oscar (no disrespect to Birdman – it’s a great film, but not like this).
What’s particularly interesting about Boyhood is that some people took its universal praise among critics as a reason to further trash it (no one is more guilty of this than Red Letter Media). Instead of letting its reputation allow for the benefit of the doubt, as is more or less required for films in the Realm of Irrefutability, it was used as ammo to lash out against it. You have to wonder…why? Why does Boyhood fall on one side of the line and The 400 Blows – also about the complex pains of the adolescent experience – fall on the other? If not universal praise from people who know movies (which Boyhood certainly got), is it longevity? Will people stop fucking smugly quoting Red Letter Media to me when Boyhood is still being talked about and studied thirty years from now?
Time will tell. And please do not take this to be me saying that your opinion should always be shaped by the consensus; it shouldn’t. One of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen (in my opinion) has a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.4 on IMDb. Clearly, I disagree with the consensus – which is lukewarm (for the most part: Ebert named it the best film of the decade, so at least good ol’ Roger is in my corner). All I’m saying is that there comes a time where you have to ask yourself: could I be wrong about this? No one likes to admit that.
(I certainly won’t like to – but I will – if Boyhood turns out to be a flash in the pan)