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Criticizing the Critic of Everything

Criticizing the Critic of Everything

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.  

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Thuan Dang

"Pretty good for what it is" is a cop-out statement by a person giving up their own tastes for tastes from what they perceive to be a group objectivity. It's a cynical statement more about a person's insecurity than the film itself.

Secondly, a movie shouldn't be judged by others in its genre or by films of all genres, it should be judged by the amount of entertainment they supply to the viewer. Judging movies by other movies is a futile search for the perfect movie. When comparing movies, the goal is to acknowledge subjective effectiveness. There are no good or bad films, only different levels of entertainment.

(As you can obviously tell, I couldn't care less about objectivity.)

When putting a film into some sort of context (social, cultural, historical, technique, genre, etc), the comparisons and connections are still based on personal interpretation of effectiveness and still based on a level of entertainment value though after the movie is watched. When someone describes a film as good, bad, great, average, all those "grade" words, it's obvious someone's half-assing their writing and analysis of the film. I also disagree with Poritsky judging a movie based on his knowledge of film, instead he should base it on himself as a person and his entire life insofar. Why limit yourself?


There's no useful reason to rate a film within a "genre" other than for the purpose of glossing over it's short comings. Fair criticism would say "it had terrific action sequences, brilliant editing, masterful camera work but the story and acting was third rate". Within such a comment if story and acting are not important to you, then you know the film might interest you.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter because "good" or "bad"…is purely subjective.

Edward Copeland

No matter what the film is (and I haven't seen The Raid, so I truly have no opinion on it) a critic does a disservice to readers and to himself or herself if the review doesn't reflect their true feelings and opinions. There is no reason something can't be written that says "Movie X has some of the best action sequences I've seen in eons. Unfortunately, those scenes are surrounded by heaping piles of shit." To thine own selves, be true. Way, WAY too often, the acclaim for some films end up coming out sounding like groupthink. I believe many or most of the critics have written honestly but a lot read as if they fear if they dare dissent they'll get kicked out of the cool kids' club. I've known other people who review movies they've seen at radio-promoted screenings that don't like the film, but get unduly influenced by audience reaction and end up pulling their punches. The only way a reader will ever be able to learn to judge how a critic's opinion relates to their own is if that critic stays consistent to himself or herself. Then the reader can say, "I never agree with him, I might like this" or "She usually has good judgment. I should see this." If a critic jumps on a bandwagon or overpraises something for any reason other than they just loved that movie to death, they aren't doing their job. There are no rights and wrongs in terms of whether a film is good or bad since every opinion is subjective, but rights and wrongs exist when it comes to judgment and decisionmaking. Be true.

As for Glenn's admission of relief for not having to review The Hunger Games, I know exactly how he feels, if not about the specific movie then about many, many others in the past when I did this as a job. Now that I just see what I want to see, write what I want to write about — granted, I get no renumeration but that's small pay not to get if it means I never have to sit through another Adam Sandler film.

Tomris Laffly

It's completely fair to hand out some genre props, in my opinion. One does need to understand the film's intentions and cater their criticism accordingly. You can't for instance review TREE OF LIFE like you would do with a linearly told story. My two cents on the matter.

Brett Gallman

I haven't seen THE RAID (yet–next month for me!), but I think it's fair to say this falls under the same umbrella as all "genre" movies that engender this debate. And, in my not so professional opinion, I don't think there's anything wrong with molding expectations and standards according to genre. You don't want the same thing from a slasher or action movie that you'd want from a Malick movie, so if it treads water on certain elements (acting, scripting) but blows you away with its genre stuff, I think that's fair. You'd never reverse this sort of criticism; for example, you'd never say "oh, Tree of Life was good, but it needed more exquisite martial arts and gun fights."

If a movie does what it's supposed to but you still note that that some of its more basic underpinnings are rote (or worse), you've been completely fair to it, I think.

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