Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The colossal cost of comments”

Everyone has the right to an opinion about your work. After all, they’ve paid a pretty price for the privilege.

What gives me the right to criticise a movie, a book, a work of art, a snatch of music? Perhaps the word “criticise” is too severe, the pedant’s equivalent of a cane whistling down on a schoolchild’s tremulous bottom. Let’s go with the more even-minded “opine.” What gives me the right to offer an opinion about something that someone else has written, filmed, composed? And when you read my opinion in the form of an essay – in this paper, or on my blog – what gives you the right to weigh in, to declare that I am right or wrong, to wonder politely what I was smoking when I wrote what I wrote, or to snicker with unconcealed derision, in language that would never see the inside of a parliament? And what about those others who chime in with their thoughts on your thoughts? How did they earn this privilege? And what of the commenters who will follow them, as they inevitably will in a familiar, inexhaustible and eventually wearying cycle?

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Like Harry Potter, we carry around in our computers our own cloaks of invisibility, which allow us to stalk the virtual world without fear of detection, and emboldened with this magic, we transform into the kind of incontinent opinion-mongers we could never be in the physical present. And in these electron-enabled times, where our orbits of interaction spiral into an unfathomable infinity, we are at once everywhere. (Harry Potter would call it Apparating.) We can read everything, see everything, hear everything, in any corner of the world, and offer, from our well-rested nooks, a pointed opinion on a column in The Huffington Post, or rip into a cross-continental forum where cinephiles are discussing the latest Almodóvar. The unsolicited opinion is what unites our socially networked human race – only the tone of this opinion separates the civilised from the savage. The opinion sometimes takes the form of carefully considered thought, as if the cautious commenter were still chewing the end of his pencil. Or the opinion can be a visceral vomit, a heedless emptying of emotion.

Hence the sensitive creator’s lament that after all his time and effort and money – on say, a movie – the verdict freezes into a cold statistic on the Tomatometer, that jumbled soup of wide-reaching and often-unsubstantiated opinions. It is easy to sympathise with him as he rages, “What gives you the right?” But the answer is equally easy. We have the right because we have given our time, which is as precious as money, and as much a commodity. Andrew Niccol’s In Time, despite its deep imperfections, is an astonishingly accurate mirror of our harried times – because it fashions a tangible reality from the abstract idea that time is money. The film literalises what mankind has known all along, but seeing it on screen makes the heart stop. The people in the movie have a physical clock on their arms, which they keep checking like a wristwatch. They live in an unspecified future where time is money – they pay for purchases with units of time they have left on their hands, in their lives. But this is what we already do in the present.

We all have, strapped to our selves, a biological clock that’s counting down. And every time we watch someone else’s movie, read someone else’s writing, listen to someone else’s music, we are compensating the creator with the units of our time that we conferred on his creation. This is time we could have spent cleaning our homes, watching sunsets, walking our kids at the park, learning a language, making love, writing poetry, or chasing iris-hued dreams, but we chose to spend it instead on the work of this creator. We have, in other words, paid to undergo what this creator had to offer with hours of our life we can never regain – and that is how we have purchased the right to an opinion. The idea at the core of In Time rattled my consciousness the way few films have, yet I didn’t care much for the movie. That’s my opinion, and I have the right to propagate this opinion because, like the people in the movie who give up their time for amenities and pleasures, I have coughed up a portion of my lifespan to Andrew Niccol. It’s too bad if he wants my hours as well as my huzzahs.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2011 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

28 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The colossal cost of comments”

  1. It’s like they say, opinions are like assholes, every one has one. I would just like it expressed silently when the performance is on(or it becomes impossible for others to hear/see the performance and make up their own minds) after the show, people are free to tomatoemeter the place.

    Unlike MY opinion of YOUR blog, a film or a broadway play can be interrupted by the opinions of people , because, for instance, Adaminte makan abu, hasn’t played in the US until yesterday, and people can seriously harm its commercial(or oscar ) prospects by their opinions (which can sometimes be RIGHT, but shouldn’t we let the performance play out for all to see before we condemn it?)

    I wish this were just a free speech issue(it trivializes the very serious nature of the free speech debate to focus it on the “right to have opinions on films” ) . It is also (as the US studio system and American film criticism at cannes have discovered) more a commerical issue about making or destroying audiences for creative works.

    So If I can go all meta on you, The filmmaker has a right to 1. express his opinion by making a creative work 2. try to grab the attention of a certain segment of the general population (eg: the oscar voter) through his film and its promotion 3. Spend money and publicize through other means, his vision for what that audience is to be.

    The critic/ member of the audience has a right to 1. see the film 2. have an opinion on it 3. extol everyone to see it/ like it/ enumerate why you like it 4. try to influence the SAME segment of the audience(eg: the oscar voter) to like/dislike / ignore the film. 5. Use his influence with his reader/watchership to make them like/dislike the work of art/crap.

    and equally, the reader of your piece has the right to agree with you/disagree with you anticipate your opinion and try to counteract it with people he(I ) have influence over 4. start a whispering campaign against you(well, if you can do that to a film, maybe youre gay …or in the pay of secret agencies that hate America) , ignore you (avan kadakkan) ..etc.

    Ultimately, the battle for hearts and minds gets fought over how many open minded people get to see the work of art and are compelled enough to treat it as worthy of further analysis. I (as a creator, critic or reader of criticism) am against anything that is tantamount to the preemption of this process by a critic- in the pay of Ambani or othervice.

    Sorry for a long (blog)post on your blog, but really this subject was dealt with on the last post I made on mine and I’m not in a mood to wite another one there. ( http://rameshram.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/editorial-dear-asseem-chabbra-or-why-people-should-give-adaminte-makan-abu-a-chance/ go here my people! ;)

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  2. Ooh. Last paragraph is all kinds of provocative.

    I’m wary of such a line of thinking. Sure the filmmaker is no Christ-figure – tormenting himself and enlightening his audience – but neither are the audience investors worried about “return on investment”. I do think such an idea – that we are gifting our precious time for someone else’s work – is not only condescending, but also commodifies the relationship between the artist, the art and the audience. This introduction of managerial parlance – already rife in pop film culture – keeps trying to override the fact that ultimately film viewing is a rich conversation. And you don’t get into conversations thinking about invested-time.

    Moreover, I just cannot see how time and money could be literally considered equivalent. Time is subjective (time near a hot girl/ time on a hot stove) and there’s little truth in equating time spent in watching a film and time “spent cleaning our homes, watching sunsets, walking our kids at the park…”

    That everybody has a right to comment is a no-brainer, but, surely, not because one has had the luxury to sit through three hours. I can’t help but see it as being one step away from the argument: “I’ve paid, hence I have the right”. .

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  3. I was wondering, while reading the comment thread on your review of 7aam Arivu, whether you would respond in some form or shape! I like the way you’ve taken a somewhat balanced view — you’ve made your point, I think. Not that it might change much, though.

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  4. Ramsu: This is not a reply to that post, which I couldn’t bring myself to read beyond the first line. I mean, I’m all for criticism, but I got the feeling that the tone would be the kind I’d be better off ignoring. (Otherwise you get all worked up and angry and say retaliatory/defensive things in a heated rush and then it deteriorates into something sordid. That kind of negativity I don’t need in my life.) This is actually inspired more by in Time, a film that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about (and of course the first line of that post). The donation of time for someone’s creativity is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    You’re right about things not changing much though :-)

    Padawan: Saw Tintin yesterday for reviewing. Will hopefully see Rockstar today but review may not be up very soon. There are these November Fest concerts going on and I;m covering a few of them. Have you seen Rockstar?

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  5. Dear Rangan,
    TIME – Truly a great perspective… i loved reading what you wrote and as a musician myself, it’s true that once the music / film / art is made public, you do have the right to your opinions.. and i guess it would be ‘nice’ if your opinions and opinions of most critics could be more positive in nature, as we all have our imperfections too, but we are trying our best…whilst remaining honest to the art. Was good to read this and best wishes always… keep on keeping on.. nuff respect.. BlaaZe

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  6. @BR, Rockstar: ‘all soul no spine and very frustrating’ seems to sum it up in the words of popular media! Nothing much from the blogs as yet.
    A movie brilliant and banal at the same time?
    Can you post a review sooner than later??

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  7. oru naalaikku, when you become big boy I will teach you about goethe and schiller and the thesis antithesis synthesis matter. (if you are good I will also tell you about apollo and dionysius and weimar criticism ).

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  8. If the time we have left in our lives were the only wealth, the richest people would be too old to enjoy it while the poor would just be too young for it to be fair… :-(:-)

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  9. “Everyone has the right to an opinion about your work”, so far I agree. What I’m uncomfortable about is the reductive expression of this opinion by film critics on a medium like twitter. When a critic with the influence to change the business of the film tweets after first day first show, “Ra.One: waste of time. 1 star. Detailed review tomorrow.” – such a tweet goes viral. The movie gets mocked, people thank the critic for saving them their time and money, the movie is declared a washout even before being given a chance. I had exactly that opinion about Ra.One FWIW, but if I were writing for a major daily with lakhs of people basing their movie-watching decision on my word (it shouldn’t be that way, but it is!), I would want to propagate my opinion more responsibly. In some cases, there is a lot more to the equation than the hours spent watching the film.

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  10. runa,

    the other way around. (cuz the young would be rich…and so on..) reminds you of the marquis de sade quote “youth is wasted on the young”. ;)

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  11. Shuchi: This is a huge topic and I only touched a bit of it. Of course I don’t mean to say that this opinion can be thrown about in such a cavalier fashion. An opinion becomes credible only if you back it up with facts and arguments. I think Twitter and FB are a plague, a swarm of locusts, a pox on our society — even if I’m a complete hypocrite and use these media to plug my writings.

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  12. “The movie gets mocked, people thank the critic for saving them their time and money, the movie is declared a washout even before being given a chance.”

    Sometimes maybe that’s all the audience WANTS TO KNOW about the film. can you blame them?

    I think , as an industry, the filmmakers are reaping the results of what they have sown here. We once used to have films by gulzar hrishida and basu chatterjee. we once used to have sahir and majrooh write (sometimes bad and superficial) poems for lyrics. we once used to let ghatak and guru dutt flourish. INSIDE this industry came a gut wrenching change and now we want shah rukh khan and Javed aktar considered today’s equivalent of Hrishida and Guru dutt.

    Well, the Audiences are growing more dismissive(and often looking for an excuse to be so) with this fake “art” that’s being offered to them.(and the fake “criticism” that comes with it.).

    So what could we do? It would help if the industry got less mindless(hollywood , for all its flaws HAS gotten less mindless, even as it has produced more mindless films- today’s comic book films have a deep soul to them sometimes.) and developed a literary and cultural backbone, instead of being the “sell crap to a studio and feggedabooutit” machine that it currently is.

    (might also help if Ambani, shahrukh khan, A R Rahman, Javed Akhtar, Rajinikanth’s daughter…etc etc) retire and leave bollywood to God.

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  13. I don’t think that the right to an opinion need to be “purchased” in the first place, either with time or anything else. Because after all it is just that, an opinion. It gets formed inside you, sometimes without you thinking about it actively. I already have an opinion on how Hair-is-Jayaraj’s concert would have been without spending any time watching it :-)

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  14. Shuchi, you’ve made some interesting points but a couple of things you said are raising questions of my own:

    “When a critic with the influence to change the business of the film “…how many of these are there today? Or were they ever there? I mean, there are critics who are widely read and discussed, whose own dissections of film are in turn analyzed and pored over by fans of their critique, but change the business? I mean, there are widely read critics in the State, but if they were truly influential, Michael Bay’d be whipping up caramel macchiatos in Starbucks today.

    “lakhs of people basing their movie-watching decision on my word ”

    Once again, the number of people whose viewing choices would actually be dictated by critics is debatable. I mean, I love B’s style of critiquing, adore Walter Chaw’s from Film Freak Central and even derive some mild amusement from contrarian dicks like Armond White, but my viewing choice has always been based on myriad factors pertaining to my own experience of previous work done by a director/actor/scripwriter, my love of the genre the film sits in and once in a blue moon,a desire to just take a “leap of faith” and see what it’s about sans expectations, rarely on a critics view or recommendation.

    “propagate my opinion more responsibly”.. idhu enna?

    I abhor smarmy put-downs not based on facts or erudite analysis (that kind of writing is a waste of space and the writer, usually a waste of good semen) but if I am a critic and I watch a film that, in my opinion, is a certified Wreck on the Cine Highway, containing all the usual elements that comfortably slots it in the Must Avoid category ( Shitty Writing, Bad Acting, Schlocky Effects, Vijay) then should I temper my opinion because the movie is…what? made by a struggling film-maker who loses the house and car if it tanks? yet another “brave” attempt by Indian Cinema to “transcend the formula”? “Path-breaking”?

    Am not being facetious here, just genuinely interested in where do you draw the line between calling it like it is and a social obligation to let a film find it’s own audience and should this responsibility rest with the critic?

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  15. @BR, disappointed! With one seventh of humanity on Facebook I did not expect ‘… a pox on our society’ comment! What makes you say this? Facebook is so many things to so many people… peeps are writing academic treatises on this huge social media connect.

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  16. i hate the internet. abhor it . despise its vitiating influence and roundly condemn it for being there.

    but i love this ra-one review ( smiley face)

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  17. Nimmi Rangswamy: I meant the instant-comment culture. The kind of people who say things like “Twenty minutes into Aayirathil Oruvan. The movie sucks.” This is a truly terrible thing that has happened.

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  18. Oh I’m guilty of such egregiousness here. I often tweet/facebook from within the theater about what Im currently thinking. But to my (magnanimous infinite) credit (peace be into me!) I CONTINUE to tweet until the film ends and after.

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