Sean Wilson explores the difficulties writers face when their opinion flies in the face of the popular consensus…
Film journalists such as myself frequently get slammed for daring to criticise a movie we hated: we didn’t make it, we had no idea of the stress involved in organising a small army of cast and technicians and are catastrophically wrong in every way.
This is a perfectly valid point – but to assume that it’s easy putting one’s opinion to paper (or, more pertinently nowadays, to web) is certainly not always the case, especially if the opinion in question dares to be different. In fact, defying popular consensus and arguing a point-of-view that many might see as utterly bizarre takes a sheer act of will and bravery.
This issue has been on my mind of late. After all, is what constitutes a ‘proper’ movie critic the ability to think outside the box and argue an opinion that is so radically different from everyone else’s? It’s one thing to support, or indeed castigate, a movie that many other journalists have supported or castigated (see the critical mauling accorded to Batman v Superman, less a scrum than a feeding frenzy); but many non-writers will likely be surprised at the insecurities journalists such as myself face when an especially provocative review or feature flies out into the ether to stoke up opinion.
I want to draw on two recent touchstones. The first is Mark Kermode’s 2014 review of Wally Pfister’s widely vilified directorial debut Transcendence, an experience dismissed by the majority as being bloated, tedious and wasting the talents of nominal star Johnny Depp (sentiments I completely agree with, incidentally). Nevertheless, Mark came out on his Wittertainment Radio 5 Live show with Simon Mayo to defend a movie that had been eviscerated elsewhere, praising its commitment to the kind of provocative science-fiction ideas that were once so prevalent in the cinema of the 1970s. And he wasn’t the only one: The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin was also in complete agreement, arguing that the film had more on its mind than explosions and popcorn-munching.
Now, I don’t agree with either Mark or Robbie at all – I detested the film for being the clunky, boring mess that it was – but in the end, it didn’t matter whether they liked it because their arguments were typically persuasive and brilliant. I don’t have to agree with a reviewer in order to respect their opinion; in fact, I often respect them more when they throw me a curveball like this and get me to think about how their opinion is so radically different from mine. In short, both Mark and Robbie openly ignored the consensus and stuck to what they believed, the admirable essence of any great movie journalist.
I was also intrigued recently by Flickering Myth writer Mark Clark’s take on the aforementioned Batman v Superman. Seemingly in direct contravention of all other reviews of the movie, Mark liked it; actually scratch that, he loved it, arguing that whilst the aesthetic wasn’t to everybody’s taste it bore its own distinctive character: bold, dark and bracingly different from the shiny happy approach of Marvel. Once again, I couldn’t disagree more; once again, it doesn’t matter, because as far as I’m concerned, to stick up for a movie that so many have hated is in itself a bold move. In short, it took guts, and I value such a stance far more than my own predictably damning take on the movie.
I’ve certainly experienced this feeling myself, and it’s an oddly uncomfortable one that makes me question my own abilities to argue a particular case. Back in 2011, the Nicolas Winding Refn film Drive roared onto screens following its triumphant debut at the Cannes Film Festival, and pretty much everyone seemed to go gaga for its neo-noir stylings, sleek synth soundtrack and stoic central performance from Ryan Gosling.
All except me that is; much as I enjoyed the first half of the movie, I found myself repelled when it drifted into seemingly gratuitous splatter violence involving smashed heads, fork-eyeball face-offs and more besides. Much as I was gripped by the slow-burning automotive theatrics of the first 40 minutes, I felt the gore belonged in a completely different movie, and I went on the record in saying so for film website Devon and Cornwall Film.
As pointed out in that very feature, I wasn’t the only person to think the same: Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times also had issues with the film’s awkward mixture of spare, 1970s-esque car thriller and extreme Refn violence. But it didn’t matter whether Turan agreed or not: I had to stick true to my own thoughts and express my opinion; I distinctly remember having several conversations in which I was openly jeered and told to watch the movie again. Apparently I hadn’t got it: Gosling’s performance was terrific and the progression of the violence made sense within the story.
As it turns out a quick read of James Sallis’ source novel, not to mention another viewing of the movie on TV, did indeed change my opinion, helping to re-contextualise my thoughts on Drive’s more graphic content. Nevertheless, I remember feeling distinctly trepidatious around the time that the movie came out. Was I… wrong for not thinking what others thought?
Of course I wasn’t wrong, and that’s the gist of it. Many believe the act of film criticism boils down to a simple case of like or dislike, and a journalist’s opinion is ultimately fated to be remembered as such. But if an opinion is well-expressed in an entertaining and lucid fashion (I confess to cringing at reading that former D&C Film article, admittedly), then that’s what really counts. It’s the quality of the argument that ultimately matters, not the opinion itself, the passion and enthusiasm behind every word no matter how gonzo the end result might be.
Of course, just to play devil’s advocate there are limitations. As far as I’m concerned, the infamous contrarian Armond White‘s dismissal of Toy Story 3 for being a celebration of consumerism tips over from the realms of opinion into fatuous trolling. One should never praise or hate a movie simply for the sake of it; truth is what counts.
In which case, I really ought to duck and run when I claim that Speed 2: Cruise Control is actually rollicking tongue-in-cheek entertainment.
(And yes, that is what I really think, like it or lump it.)
Sean Wilson is a film reviewer, soundtrack enthusiast and avid tea drinker. If all three can be combined at the same time, all is good with the world.