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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pearls from Mt. Olympus

     Several years ago Russell Crowe starred as Jack Aubrey in a movie adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” – a seafaring saga set during the Napoleonic wars. When I first saw the movie I didn’t like it. Russell Crowe looked out of shape and seemed to be breezing through the part as if his mind were only half involved. The movie was competently done, but I just couldn’t shake the negative impression I had of Russell Crowe’s performance. Well, I saw the movie again two weeks ago and realized I was a complete idiot and that Russell Crowe and the rest of the cast had nailed their parts, and the movie itself was an excellent screenplay superimposed over a meticulously researched recreation of life on a British frigate. What changed?
     Well, for one thing, just before I saw the movie for the second time, I had just finished reading the first two books in O’Brian's series, Master and Commander and Post Captain, and now had a really good feel for the character of Jack Aubrey and the subtleties of life in the British navy. So when I saw the movie again, I realized Crowe was faithfully rendering the character – masterfully, in fact – and that Peter Weir, the director, had not lost any of his magic or attention to detail since he directed the excellent Harrison Ford movie Witness some eighteen years earlier.
     But what was interesting to me was that the movie itself hadn’t changed, but my ability to appreciate it had. My ignorance had caused me to misunderstand and under-appreciate a really sterling work. Also, quite interestingly, I realize now that my original opinion of the movie had been influenced by a negative article I had read about Russell Crowe the week before. Ha! Aren’t we human beings interesting characters! We think our opinions are more than that – we think they are all pearls of pure wisdom handed down from Mt. Olympus. Little do we realize how many of our supposed objective opinions are shaped by ignorance and prejudice. 
     This same principle holds true for book reviews. Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey series has been called by the NYT book reviewer, ‘the best historical novels every written.’ And if you go to Amazon you will find hundreds of people who wholeheartedly agree. And yet you will also find a few who criticize the series as boring, too nautical, and plotless. It makes you wonder how many of those critics actually made the effort to appreciate O’Brian’s genius. So the learning principle for me is that whenever you give your negative opinion on the hard work of another, you should think twice – after all, you might be the problem.         
    My next posting will be on what makes a good book title. 

Best regards,

Jim

Zurich

2 comments:

SwissMiss said...

Well, I think an opinion is just that: a personal take on something. I can appreciate that someone has talent, but still not like their work. Or, I can wonder how in the world millions of people are raving about how wonderful a certain artist is, when all I see is a faithless rip-off. But as long as I don't say 'you're stupid if you think that's good', then my opinion is just as valid as the one that likes the movie/book/painting. I think it's an ego crutch to try and justify someone's bad opinion by saying, well, he just doesn't get what I'm trying to say or do here. I don't mean that you should feel personally criticized by a bad review, either. Once you create a work and put it out there for public consumption, it kind of leaves your hands and your influence. On the other hand, the public's opinion shouldn't define the author or artist. If someone feels good about churning out five trashy novels a year, even if the critics pan them, then more power to them.

I think what you're saying about people being influenced by others' opinions is very true. If a movie has gotten lots of good reviews, and someone sees it and doesn't like it, or vice versa, they may be reticent to say anything that goes against everyone else because they have more faith in the majority than in their own judgment, or just because they don't want to stir up conflict.

Jim Haberkorn said...

Hi SwissMiss, thanks for your comment. You are obviously an intelligent critic who thoughtfully considers her opinions. However, not all internet critics are so responsible.