I ask a lot of questions on Criticwire. Too many? (See, there’s another.)
I don’t know. The questions aren’t because I’m wishy-washy — although I am — but because I’m trying to start a conversation with readers. I tell you what I’m thinking, you tell me what you’re thinking. When I see that someone has taken something I wrote to heart and written something back in response, that gets me excited.
So I was really excited to see that Jonathan Poritsky of The Candler Blog picked up a few of the questions I tossed off in last week’s piece “The Pros and Cons of the Critic of Everything” and turned that into his own post entitled “Criticizing Everything.” My original essay was inspired by Glenn Kenny’s admission that he was relieved not to have to review “The Hunger Games,” or to form an opinion about it, and the question — I’m not the only one with questions! — of whether a critic should feel obligated to have an opinion on everything. From there, Poritsky takes the idea of a “critic of everything” in a direction I hadn’t necessarily intended.
While the original piece was about “The Hunger Games,” Poritsky’s is about “The Raid: Redemption” and the social media reaction to Roger Ebert’s 1-star pan of the otherwise critically acclaimed Indonesian action film. As Poritsky debated the film’s value, the conversation eventually moved into an area that, I imagine, is going to come up a lot on this blog: the endless discussion over whether to judge a movie based on its relative merits or its overall merits. In other words, should a solid action film like “The Raid: Redemption” be compared only to other action films or to films of all genres? Poritsky says a movie must stand against everything:
“When I say ‘The Raid: Redemption’ isn’t a very good film it’s because I’m judging it the same way I would any other film (a Spielberg, a Malick, a Brakhage, etc.), based on my own knowledge of the cinema. If your experience is different, then great! This is why there is no shortage of critics and viewpoints… I get that ‘The Raid: Redemption’ is better than a lot of the other crappy action films of the last few years, so people are jumping to laud it in hopes of seeing more like it. But this is how the bar gets lowered; this is how we end up with multiplexes full of varying levels of crap. So no, I don’t think it’s a good movie, and I think it’s preposterous to tell me I’m judging it wrong. I’ll be as good a critic of everything as I can be.”
Not quite the critic of everything I had in mind — which was more about open-mindedness than creating a single evaluative framework that can be applied to any and all films — but an interesting one nonetheless. Maybe it is my wishy-washiness coming out, but I kind of want to have it both ways on this issue. I want to be able to exalt “The Raid: Redemption” on the relative merits of its meticulously choreographed fight scenes, breathtaking long takes, and inventive use of camera placement; as an exemplar of technique in the world of modern action, the film is certainly without recent equal. But I also want to remind the people who have proclaimed “The Raid” the greatest action film in decades (like the unnamed critic who did so on the film’s poster) that action films are more than savvy technique. Plot, characters, and dialogue matter too. American action films could learn a thing or two about visual style and editing from “The Raid” but if they look to it for advice on how to deal with narrative and dramatic arcs, they’re not going to get very far.
So what do you think? Is it valid to call “The Raid” a really good action film even if you don’t think the elements of it besides its action are all that spectacular? Or is it unfair to give something genre props? If your instinct in praising a movie is to say that it’s “Pretty good for what it is,” are you really saying that it’s not very good at all? It’s a question I’ll have to pose to the critics who participate in our weekly Criticwire surveys, the first of which premieres tomorrow morning on this blog.
I know, I know. More questions.