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

Posted on November 11, 2011


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.

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