More Critical Discussion

Two interesting posts went live as I was headed to bed tonight. The first (that I noticed) was from Matt Singer at Criticwire, following up on his aforelinked “Critic of Everything” post. Tonight’s post was a response to my “Criticizing Everything” piece from yesterday. Here’s what he says:

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.

As Singer rightly points out, this is a never-ending discussion. The question of how we quantify a film’s “goodness” is something all reviewers struggle with. Which brings me to the other piece that went live tonight.

In my post yesterday, I wrote about how I agreed with most of Roger Ebert’s review of The Raid: Redemption. Tonight, Ebert posted a solemn reflection on why his review puts him “way out of step with other critics.” Essentially, he enters the same conversation from another angle:

When I began, I found the star rating system to be absurd. I still do. But I thought I’d found a way to work with it. I’d take a “generic approach.” Instead of pretending a star rating reflected some kind of absolute truth, I’d give stars based on how well I thought a movie worked within its genre and for its intended audience. A four-star rating might indicate the movie transcended generic boundaries. For example, what genre does “The Tree of Life” or “Synecdoche, NY” belong to?


So what am I saying? “The Raid: Redemption” failed as a generic success because it simplified its plot too much? Not really. It is a generic success. And yet my heart sank and I asked myself: Is this all they want? Are audiences satisfied with ceaseless violence, just so long as they can praise it for being “well choreographed?” Is there no appreciation for human dimension, meaning, and morality?

Ebert is someone whose writing never fails to amaze me. He is a prolific critic, a paragon of a tweeter and an incredibly generous linker. This piece, titled “Hollywood’s highway to Hell,” is just plain stunning. He at once regrets his decision to pan the film but admits it would go against his taste to praise it. He pats other critics on the back and agrees with their laudatory quotes, but still admits that the film delivers little. Ebert, it seems, is still working out how to be a critic of everything.

I don’t think there’s any shame in being the odd man out for panning The Raid. It does, however, hearten me to know that Ebert is still toiling with the demons of movie reviewing. You’d think he’d have had these battles long ago and figured them out. The truth is, though, that criticism will never be the same as long as the movies keep changing. From Ebert, to wit:

When I began as a film critic, the word “genre” suggested a type of film that had highly developed traditions, possibilities and richness. Now it suggests a marketing decision.

These days, audiences enter a film like this with tunnel vision. They know what they want, and they’d better find it.

I like to think that cinema is much richer than what audiences expect to find at the multiplex, but it feels like that’s exactly what we see week in and week out. It feels like we are getting what we pay for and nothing more. That’s how I felt about The Raid: Redemption; it delivered a wet dream of a slug-fest but was otherwise thin. I think we can do better.