‘Worst. Film. Ever.’ For a while that was the first thing my friend Andy would say to me every time we met. We didn’t know each other very well at the time, but I was soon to learn that this would be typical of our friendship — we think almost exactly the opposite on just about every issue. I drink tea, he drinks coffee. I use a PC, he uses a Mac. I like stability, he loves change. I thought The Tree of Life was a brilliant film, and he, well, he thought it was the ‘Worst. Film. Ever.’
Our huge (friendly) argument about Terence Malik’s 2011 ‘coming of age’ drama was one of our first proper conversations, at the party of a mutual friend. The main reason why we had such differing reactions to the film wasn’t the subject matter, the plot or the acting. It was the expectations we approached it with. I had read enough reviews to be forewarned about the long (admittedly strange) dinosaur sequence at the beginning, whereas he had not. So when the film started, I was prepared, and the segment wasn’t as long as I had been expecting. To him, though, it felt like it went on for about 20 minutes. We saw exactly the same thing, but experienced it completely differently.
At the end of 2017, film critic Alissa Wilkinson explored this phenomenon with reference to three of the most polarising films of the year: Wonder Woman, Detroit and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri . ‘Did we even watch the same movie?’ she asks.
How can we sit side by side in a movie theater and have diametrically opposed reactions? How can I cry while you sit stone-faced? How can I find a movie offensive and you find it insightful?
Her answer is that our experience of a movie is shaped by what we bring to it. She argues this most clearly in her section on the film Three Billboards. The film, about a mother fighting for justice for her murdered daughter, was a hit with critics and audiences at the Toronto and Venice film festivals last year, but once it started reaching wider audiences, it received harsh criticism for its handling of race.
How could the same film prompt such polarized responses?
The answer…had everything to do with how the work of art shifted under the eyes of whoever was looking at it. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a flaming ball of emotion, and it tended to tap into the dominant emotions of whoever watched it. Frances McDormand’s performance as a furious woman hit a lot of people where they were at near the end of 2017, a year of women’s rage onscreen and off — but the movie also tapped into how that rage frequently excluded people of color. What you brought into the movie theater helped shape what movie you saw.
It strikes me that this isn’t only true of movies, or of art in general, as Wilkinson goes on to argue, but of just about every aspect of life. Your expectation of how the world should be, and your experiences of how it is, will shape everything from how you use money (cautiously save for a rainy day, or enjoy it while you can) to how you vote.
And of course, the same is true of religion. Your experiences of life will strongly shape how you perceive it and whether or not you explore it.
One of the biggest areas where this is seen is when Christians talk about God as a father. For many, many people this can be a really difficult concept to embrace, because their experience of a father has been so negative and damaging, that they want nothing to do with a God who calls himself that. That was one of the things I found most compelling about The Tree of Life, in fact. It is the story of a very domineering father who uses his warped version of the Bible’s teachings to oppress and abuse his wife and son. Watching that really helped me to understand on a much deeper level why people who have grown up in such an environment might be so sceptical of the Christian promise of a loving father.
So what can we do? Are we doomed to live forever in our personal, polarised perspectives, where my experience interprets the world for me, and yours does for you, and never the twain shall meet?
No, there’s another way, a better way. Wilkinson found it in her film reviewing world — as she read the reviews of thoughtful people who disagreed with her, she found that they weren’t simply crazy lunatics who had misinterpreted what they were seeing. Instead she found her own perspective expanded and her understanding deepened. Her opinions of the films may not have changed significantly, but the way she watched other films did, as she was able to bring other people’s perspectives and experiences into the cinema with her and view the next films through a slightly different lens. Wilkinson’s big learning point from 2017 was this:
By nature I’m limited, as a critic and as a human. And so are we all. I need to read more widely and absorb more opinions that challenge and even oppose my own.
Through watching The Tree of Life I gained an understanding of other people’s perspectives of fatherhood, and through arguing good-naturedly about it with Andy, we both widened the lens through which we viewed it. Counter-intuitively, we deepened our friendship by disagreeing well.
Automatically dismissing views we disagree with is common in our culture, but this is hugely problematic. For it is actually only by grappling with differing opinions and viewpoints that we come closer to understanding ourselves and others. If we do not even entertain differing perspectives, we merely exist in an echo chamber of our own making, and our thoughts become tribal, unsympathetic and extreme — as amply demonstrated by Twitter on any given day. The only way to counter this is to push past the shouting and engage in the difficult disagreements. Listen-evaluate-respond-repeat. If you’ve got this far, that suggests that you’re already the sort of person who does that. You are willing to have your views on the world challenged, to explore perspectives that you may not naturally agree with, or may not have encountered before.
But don’t stop there. We always love to discuss our posts further, to learn from your perspectives as well as sharing ours, so if you read something you’re intrigued by, do contact the authors via their email links at the bottom of each post.
And if you want to hear from us in person, why not come along to a Salt Live event? The next is on 6 February, and we will be looking at the question ‘Can love survive the dating apocalypse?’ Book in here and come along. We would love to hear your thoughts, even if we disagree.