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The Anxiety of Opinion
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Irish director Jim Sheridan made the film In America (2002) after he'd already received some renown in the United States — My Left Foot (1989), The Field (1990), In the Name of the Father (1993), and The Boxer (1997), were all well-received, critically acclaimed movies that earned numerous nominations and awards. None were terrific box-office successes, but most made a profit, and Sheridan became known as a talented writer-director who created fiery, emotional Irish dramas on a limited budget. Sheridan earned six Oscar nominations as a writer-director-producer, and seven actors scored nomination as well, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker winning Academy Awards for My Left Foot.
Of course, it reflects on the perversity of Hollywood that the Dublin-born Sheridan is probably best known for Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2005), the 50 Cent biopic that tried to reproduce the success of Eminem's 8 Mile. It didn't, by a mile — Get Rich got killed by the critics and its box-office take was about a quarter of 8 Mile's. The movie is probably only remembered now as the film that proved that Curtis Jackson was such a bad actor that he was miscast even when playing himself. Last year Sheridan directed Brothers, a well-intentioned, over-wrought mess that joined the list of Iraq War movie failures. In both of the latter films Sheridan had no hand in the screenplay, and it's obvious that his talents are best served when he stays close to Ireland, telling stories that he has a natural affinity for.
In America is Sheridan's most personal film, a deeply-felt, autobiographical story about an Irish family emigrating to Hell's Kitchen in the early 80's. It deals primarily with grief and how the family responds to the aftermath of the loss of a cherished loved one as they restart their lives in a new, intimidating world. Like all Sheridan's "Irish" movies, In America was a critical favorite, and it notched Oscar nominations for Djimon Honsou and Samantha Morton. It's my favorite movie of the last decade, but I'm not too sure how good it is — the film strikes so many deep, private chords in me that it's probably the one film I should never talk about. When I saw it the first time, I was so overwhelmed by the emotional force of the story that I found myself weeping at the film's end. I discovered that I related so strongly to the movie that I was incapable of analyzing it in critical terms.
I recommended the film to many friends, and invariably I noticed that their responses were muted in comparison to mine. Even the ones who liked it registered a few criticisms about the movie that I had been unaware of. It was at that point that I realized that everybody probably has a movie or a CD or a book that hits them like this, a story that caused such a primal response that they are utterly blind to judging the work in traditional, critical terms.
Outside of In America, though, I'll pass judgment on any movie, play, or novel that comes my way, and I'm always startled at how vitriolic the responses are to my opinions. It's not that people get pissed that I slammed something they liked; usually, they're offended that I have the audacity to offer any opinion whatsoever. There's almost an anti-intellectual attitude at work here that demands an abdication of critical thinking — "Who are you to say what's good?" I've been confronted by angry acquaintances who ask me, point blank, if I think I know more than they do, and I always respond the same way: Yes I do.
Arrogance aside, the point I'm trying to make with these people is that I perceive myself to be more qualified simply because I engage in critical thinking more than they do. There is a real dearth of critical thinking nowadays, as if articulating a forceful opinion is the gravest of social sins. It's becoming impossible to engage in a healthy, spirited debate without insulting some easily-damaged ego. People are taught to obey the maxim "All opinions are equal" so reverently that they look absurd — clearly, all opinions are not equal. I'll take the educated, well-reasoned argument over the moron's half-thought every time.
The vein in my right temple nearly exploded recently when I heard an acquaintance dismiss my exultation of Shakespeare's work as "merely an opinion." I had claimed that Shakespeare was number one, the greatest writer ever, and that there was a huge gulf between him and every other writer. My acquaintance countered, saying that while he respected my opinion, he thought any differing opinion was just as valid. Any opinion? I asked. I threw names at him: H.P. Lovecraft? John O'Hara? J.K. Rowling? Stephanie Meyer? Just as good? "Yes," he replied. "Just as valid. All opinions are valid."
I pointed out that he had no argument. I articulated Shakespeare's vast superiority in aesthetic acuity, verbal fireworks, deep insight, the fact that he predated Freud and knew more and saw more than any writer, before or since. . . and I got the same bemused smile, the same infuriating response. "Just an opinion." I ended the conversation shortly thereafter, stating that I believed that we can forget the "all opinions are equal" nonsense and proclaim, unequivocally, that saying "Shakespeare is better than J.K. Rowling" is not an opinion, but a cultural fact.
As a solipsist, I can never imagine anyone who doesn't think like I do, so I don't understand the negative connotations that critical thinking has attracted. For artists, developing critical thinking skills is imperative in order for any growth to occur. You must ask yourself, What's working? What isn't? Why is this a failure? It is only in exercising this flabby creative muscle that any true insight can present itself. And critical thinking isn't just limited to artists; it ought to be a playful, indulgent past time of every cognitive human being. There are fewer things more exciting than the life of the mind.