Here’s a question that literally no one has ever asked, ever:
“Hey, do you have an opinion about the lens flares in Star Trek?”
There’s no need to ask that question, because of course you do. Everyone has an opinion about the lens flares in Star Trek. Or the casting of a new superhero movie. Or, well, anything having to do with movies.
Certainly about the new Star Wars teaser.
We’re all experts on movies. We love them, we freeze-frame them, and we react to them. And our reactions are our opinions, and our opinions are us. So we feel that they are important.
And we are wrong.
Drink it In
Clinton Torres and I have regular meetings to discuss the development of our app, Slugline. We meet at a bar, because Slugline is a screenwriting app. This bar has a great menu of unique cocktails. Some are good, some are great, and all of them are interesting.
I have never ordered anything at this bar that wasn’t on the menu, because what I like about this bar are the opinions of its proprietors. I like that they play interesting movies on the flatscreens instead of sports (once they had The Phantom Menace and Sin City going at the same time, which made me feel quite at home). I like that they serve both fried chicken and bone marrow brûlée. When they add a new drink to the menu, I can’t wait to try it. Because I find their opinions interesting.
Sometimes I overhear patrons around me ordering their drinks. One gentleman ordered a Long Island Iced Tea, which is less of a cocktail than a fraternity hazing ritual. Another asked for a Death in the Afternoon, and then, when the bartender had a moment’s hesitation, reveled in explaining exactly how to make it. A woman next to me described the margarita she wanted in such detail that I thought she might just hop over the bar and start mixing it herself.
Starbucks has built an entire business on people’s love affair with their own opinions. You would never want the employees of a Starbucks to weigh in on what drink might suit you. There, you are the boss, with your lengthy half-this, number-of-pumps-that screed that has been lampooned so many times that it now surprises me how often I witness it performed in earnest.
If you haven’t tried it, there is an immense freedom and joy in going to a coffee shop where you order a cappuccino by saying the word “cappuccino,” and nothing else except “please.” But that’s just my opinion.
We are experts on what kind of warm pint of milk and sugar with a tiny drop of robot-prepared coffee at the bottom we like. We are experts at what kind of self-flagellating college memory of a “drink” suits us best. And we are all experts on movies.
But there’s a big problem with that last one:
Everything about a movie is someone else’s opinion.
You can’t “send the movie back” and ask for it to be hotter, or colder, or for Wonder Woman to be played by someone else, or for Loki to have horns on his helmet, or not. Or for fewer lens flares, or a less spherical droid, or a differently-configured made-up laser sword. The movie is the movie, and it’s up to you to enjoy it, or not. A movie is an opinion. If you’re not open to that, don’t go.
And let me be clear: It’s fine to not like it. That’s your reaction, and it’s always valid.
It’s your opinion that means nothing.
Above, I tried to trick you by saying “our reactions are our opinions,” but by my definition, that’s not true. You’re expressing your reaction when you say “I don’t like the lens flares.” You’re expressing your opinion when you say “there were too many lens flares.” See the difference?
There were exactly the right number of lens flares in Star Trek, because Abrams put in exactly as many as he wanted. And when he put fewer in Star Trek: Into Darkness, that was right too — because it was the opinion of the filmmaker that a movie where we go “into darkness” might not be as bright as the previous chapter.
If you’re still having a hard time seeing my distinction between reactions and opinions, here’s a helpful rule of thumb. Your reaction doesn’t require anyone else to be wrong.
Recently, J.J. said in an interview that he looks back at his use of lens flares in Star Trek as a bit excessive. The internet (not you, the other internet) jumped all over this. “I’m vindicated!” said The Internet, “J.J. finally admitted that I was right all along about the flares!”
No. That’s not what happened. What happened is that a creative, cool guy tried something fun in a big movie, and now he’s made a few more movies, and he’s tried other things in those, and he looks back at one of his experiments and thinks, “wow, I sure did have a lot of fun with that, maybe even a bit too much by my current standards.” His current standards, which are different than they were a few years ago.
Because his opinion changed.
Smart, cool, creative people change their opinions. It’s necessary that they do so, because they sell their opinions for a living, and they need new material to stay in business. Smart, cool, creative people know that their opinions are not them. Their opinions are a snapshot of them, at a particular time, under a particular set of circumstances.
The “you” that matters is not your opinion. What matters is the “you” that can thoughtfully generate an independent opinion. And that you changes over time. Opinions that don’t change when presented with new circumstances are not opinions, they’re dogma. That bar in Emeryville? Its menu is now completely different from when Clinton and I first started meeting there. Yet it’s unmistakably the same bar.
Here’s a universal characteristic of people who have figured this out: They celebrate the opinions of others, even when they don’t agree with them. They try a new dish, or a new cocktail, or watch a new film, with eager anticipation to be exposed to something new — something that challenges, instead of panders to, their expectations.
They understand that opinions matter when creating, but only reactions have value when partaking. Your opinion about the lens flares in Star Trek can have value — but only if you use it to inform something you create.
Embrace the Mystery
There’s not a film I can watch where the director will have had all the same opinions as I might have. Consequently, if I’m ever to enjoy any movie, I have to switch my mindset from filmmaker to audience. And as an audience, I want to be like a customer of Jiro’s sushi. Don’t show me a menu. Don’t ask what I like. Just make me something great.
Would I have done things differently than J.J in the Star Wars teaser? Sure. Does that mean I can’t enjoy it? Quite the contrary. After working my butt off on a few Star Wars movies (and one Star Trek) I’m so excited to be just one of the crowd — watching and reacting to the new Star Wars.
And nothing would be more boring than if it perfectly met every one of my expectations.
Life is short, and experiences are all we get. So have them, embrace them, even actively try to enjoy them. Seek out ones that challenge you. Then, later, by all means, consider both your reaction, and, yes, even your opinion about those experiences.
And here’s a crazy thought. At least for a little while, try keeping it to yourself. The crowd is a bad author. So just sit back, relax, and enjoy the glorious luxury of experiencing someone else’s opinion.
But do keep your opinions handy, because you'll need them when it comes time to make something of your own.