Tuesday, July 20, 2010
A Matter of Opinion? The Vagueness of Subjectivism
[I]f you say you dislike "The Godfather" or "Shawshank," I can't say you're wrong. The one thing you can never be wrong about is your own opinion. It's when you start giving your reasons that you lay yourself open. Many years ago there was a critic in Chicago who said "The Valachi Papers" was a better film than "The Godfather." "Phil," I told him, "film criticism is a matter of subjective opinion. Only rarely does it stray into objective fact. When you said 'The Valachi Papers' was better than 'The Godfather,' that was an error of objective fact."
- Roger Ebert, http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/07/the_myth_of_a_perfect_film.html
My first impulse is to just say that Ebert is wrong. Whether one movie is better than another is an objective fact (this includes the possibility that no movie is better than another movie because it's an objective fact that the properties that it would take for one movie to be better than another do not actually exist). However, this whole notion of subjectivity in criticism needs to be examined because as it stands, what is meant by it is not very clear. I'll stick with The Godfather as the example I'll be using throughout this post. I'll also use two fictional people who I'll call Gene and Richard.
Gene says The Godfather is a good movie. Richard says The Godfather is not a good movie. One subjectivist says they are both right. But if they are both right, then The Godfather as a film is both good and not good. It is a contradiction for The Godfather to be both good and not good. Therefore, The Godfather cannot be both good and not good. Therefore, this subjectivist is wrong by thinking that both Gene and Richard are right. This is logic at one of its simplest forms, and it shows that there is a huge problem with this interpretation of what is meant subjectivity in criticism.
But there are other ways to interpret what is going on here. Perhaps when Gene says The Godfather is a good movie, what Gene really means is that he likes The Godfather. And when Richard says The Godfather is not a good movie, what Richard means is that he does not like The Godfather. This avoids the contradiction problem since there is no contradiction in saying that Gene likes The Godfather and and Richard does not like The Godfather. A similar interpretation is that when Gene says The Godfather is a good movie, and Richard says The Godfather is not a good movie, what is really meant is that Gene thinks The Godfather is a good movie, and Richard thinks The Godfather is not a good movie. This too avoids the contradiction problem.
However, it's important to note that if either of these interpretations are correct, then Ebert is wrong to say that a person cannot be wrong about their opinion. This point is humorously shown in the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where a knight must answer the question, "What is your favorite color?" in order to cross a bridge alive. The knight responds, "Blue. --No, YELLOW!" But it is too late and he's plunged off the bridge to his death because he was wrong in saying that his favorite color was blue.
This is a silly point, but I'm all about clarity. I can see two responses to my Monty Python example. The first is that it is true that one can be wrong about their opinion in the way that the knight in the film was. But what's important is that only that knight (and perhaps the bridge keeper if he had some sort of mind reading power) could confirm whether or not he was right or wrong about his opinion/favorite color. So, for example, when Gene says The Godfather is a good movie, and if what is meant is that Gene likes the Godfather or that Gene thinks The Godfather is a good movie, Richard (along with every other person) is not in a position to confirm or deny that Gene likes or thinks The Godfather is a good movie, so it would be foolish for someone like Richard to say that Gene is wrong when he says that The Godfather is a good movie (under this interpretation of the meaning of the sentence).
The second response is that what is meant by Gene and Richard isn't exactly something like Gene likes The Godfather and Richard does not like The Godfather, because both of those have truth values. For a statement to have a truth value, it means the statement can either be true or false. A statement like "Gene likes The Godfather" can be true of false, logically speaking. If Ebert wants to say that that one cannot be wrong about their opinion, then the opinion cannot be one that has a truth value. To avoid the truth value problem, instead of saying that what is meant by Gene is not, "Gene likes The Godfather", but instead what is meant is something like "The Godfather yay!"; or for Richard, "The Godfather boo!". Neither of these have truth values. It would not make sense to ask, "Is 'The Godfather yay!' true or false?". This interpretation avoids both the contradiction and truth value problems. If this is what Ebert means, then I'll stop arguing with him for now, as such an interpretation is quite complicated, and this post is already getting too complicated. In addition, I think it is unlikely that this is what Ebert actually means, as it seems like a very strange way to interpret what people mean when they say a movie is good. Further, and more importantly, this leaves out the possibility that someone thinks a film is a good film, but does not actually like it or have that "yay" feeling. I have personally had this experience where I thought a film was good, but I didn't like it (an example would be when a saw a movie I thought was good, but I did not like it because it reminded me of a bad situation I had gone through with an ex-girlfriend that I did not want to remember). Or even the opposite, I can think a movie is bad and still like it, like if I make a silly little video with my friends that I put no effort into, I can easily feel that what we made was a bad movie, but that I still like it. But this interpretation cannot account for this notion of liking bad movies and disliking good movies.
Here is what I think Ebert, or at least many who think that how good/bad a film is is subjective, probably mean: In truth, movies either don't contain the kind of properties that are needed in order to make them good/bad or better than other movies (this is a nihilistic and/or a non-realist view); or if movies do actually have properties that could make them good/bad and better than other movies, no person is in a better position then anyone else to see what movies truly are good/bad and better than others. And if no one is in a better position than anyone else to see the goodness of films, no one is justified in saying that their or someone else's opinion is more correct than another person. So, for example, If Gene thinks that The Godfather is a good movie, and then says that Richard is wrong for thinking that The Godfather is not a good movie, Gene would not be justified in his criticism of Richard because Gene is not in a better position than Richard to see if The Godfather is a better film than Richard.
I don't think I actually agree with the idea that no one is in a better position to see the truth of how good a film is than another, but what if that is true? What does that mean for the role of the critic? Do they deserve money or fame for saying what they think of a film when they are no better than anyone else at figuring out if a film is good? Are classes that teach people to be better film critics ripping off their students since they cannot actually make them better at seeing if a film is good?
Are there any kind of value judgments a critic can justifiable make about movies? If The Godfather had been redone to have someone else do the lighting in the film, and this lighting was just one man holding a lighter for every scene, would a critic be right in saying, "The lighting in this new Godfather film was bad, and you're wrong if you think this movie had good film lighting"?
Why should a critic say what he honestly feels about a film instead of just saying whatever it takes to meet goals likes making more money, gaining popularity, or pissing people off? If his true opinion is no more justified than the false ones he would say to reach goals like those, does that mean he has little to no reason to give an honest criticism of a film?
This whole thing brings into question just what is the role of the film critic, and how should they criticize films. But the answers to these questions seem complicated and unsatisfying if every person's criticism of a film is just as justified as everyone else.
The bigger problem I see from all this is the extreme discomfort many people have with being wrong and being accused of being wrong. I agree with Ebert when he says in the link, "There's a human tendency to resent anyone who disagrees with our pleasures. The less mature interpret that as a personal attack on themselves. They're looking for support and vindication". We need to stop being so hurt by the idea that we could be wrong. It's causing too many people to believe arguments that are not based on reason, but are instead believed because it helps to avoid the fear of embarrassment that comes from being mistaken.
But hey, maybe I'm wrong.