Criticizing Everything

Here’s Matt Singer over at Criticwire last week, in an article titled “The Pros and Cons of the Critic of Everything:”

…In an ideal situation, an outlet would employ several film critics, each with their own beats and areas of expertise; you might have one critic who focuses on mainstream American films, another with a background in Asian cinema, a third who can recite every film by Jean-Luc Godard. But, as we all know, these are not ideal times for professional film criticism, or for the journalism industry in general.

Publications that employ large fleets of freelancers (like, say, The Village Voice) might be able to keep specialists on hand, but for the most part, any working critic today is pretty much expected to be a critic of everything.

His piece, a reaction to Glenn Kenny’s post on his relief of not having to have an opinion on The Hunger Games, came across my web-trolling shortly after I had a related Twitter conversation with Scott Weinberg about Roger Ebert’s panning of The Raid: Redemption. You can read the whole thread, but here’s the money-tweet:

The Raid: Redemption is a film that has received gushing praise from a number of voices in the online film community, but overall I found it to be weak sauce. I agree with Ebert’s take that it is “essentially a visualized video game that spares the audience the inconvenience of playing it.” The director made almost no effort to build a narrative or take advantage of the vertical and horizontal playground that is the building at the film’s center. But hey, it has cool fight scenes!

How dare I, and Ebert for that matter, judge the film on a most basic cinematic rubric. We should have, as Weinberg, says, judged it as an action film, not merely as a film.1 When one takes on the task of reviewing movies, there is always a question of how democratic one’s viewing schedule should be. Is the form itself comprehensive enough that we can ignore monikers such as horror, documentary and experimental; that we can be objective(ish) regardless of label? Or must we brace ourselves differently for each screening? Is it foolish to expect something more from an “action” film?

In cinematic terms, I believe genre is a misnomer, a classification that often holds people back from taking work seriously. I hate when people tell me that a film is good, stupid fun and that I shouldn’t try to watch it critically. This tends to come up in conversation with friends about a new Transformers or otherwise bombastic franchise film. Whenever I hate some boffo2 punch-fest, or try to make my argument that our collective cinematic bars have been lowered to the point that some of this stuff is considered not just decent but high art (see Christopher Nolan’s career), my opinion tends to get sloughed off by friends who ask it. Such films deliver perennially on low expectations to the point that most would see them as being above criticism, by which I mean desperately far below it.

All of this brings me back to the issue of whether or not we should aspire to be critics of 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.

While at SXSW, I struck up a conversation with a woman standing next to me in line for some film. The usual questions came up: where are you from and what do you do? “I’m a film critic,” I said. “Oh, you’re the bad guy,” she responded. Next she dove into an explanation about how awful film critics are (“Most, at least,” was the olive branch she offered to let me know that we were cool); how they never know how hard production actually is and tend to be overly academic when they write about films. She didn’t explain whose “bad guy” I was, but I didn’t take the time to find out.

Her stance is probably the one most film-goers have.3 I can’t help but wonder whether or not it’s not tied up in this same conversation. Is this “over-academic” stance not just my taking the medium and its makers to task? Isn’t it only fair that, when a filmmaker puts something out into the world, anyone and everyone can pass judgement on it?

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.

  1. Now seems like a good time to mention that I know I’m putting words in Weinberg’s mouth by taking one innocent tweet and turning it into an indictment. I’m sure he’ll let us know if this isn’t what he meant. ↩︎

  2. z"l Variety and their slanguage↩︎

  3. Critics are out of touch until we actually like something. Have you heard any complaints of the critical shower 21 Jump Street just enjoyed, myself included? All I’ve been hearing is, “It looks dumb but it’s getting great reviews.” ↩︎