I’m anxious to see John Cusack star as Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven. It opened this weekend, to a slew of absolutely awful reviews. This has not deterred me in the least, but it has made me think a bit more than usual about perception in filmgoing, and about the role and purpose of a film critic.
First, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel I should let you know that I am a huge fan of both Edgar Allan Poe and John Cusack. Poe’s stories are very intriguing to me, drawing me in as few authors do. (I hope that doesn’t do too much to expose my personal dark side!) John Cusack’s acting likewise draws me in in a rather unconventional way, Cusack being one of those unconventional actors who seems to land a few pretty choice roles over the years of his career, despite being what Hollywood would consider true “leading man” material. Being a child of the ’80s, my first exposure to Cusack was in the movie Say Anything, which of course means I’ve been secretly in love with him for years. I wouldn’t have naturally thought to cast him as Edgar Allan Poe, were it not for his absolutely fantastic performance in 1408, a wonderful film which has the distinction of being a very well-done adaptation of a story by Stephen King, another of my very favorite writers. (Okay, okay, there’s no more hiding it. I obviously have a dark side. There, I admitted it.)
My initial impression of The Raven, based solely on the trailer, is that it’s much more an action/adventure flick than a psychological thriller, a distinction which is bound to annoy some–and obviously has bothered many critics of the movie. Raven reminds me a lot of the new Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr., which if memory serves also got terrible reviews, at least in the beginning. Public perception seemed to be that Holmes was meant to be a buttoned-down stuffed shirt, which Downey’s Holmes vehemently is not. Perception unfulfilled led to scathing criticisms, deserved or not. I personally enjoyed both of those movies, though I did have the distinct feeling of “expectations not met” with the first movie. Fortunately for me, what I got was every bit as enjoyable as what I had expected, just in a different way.
I recently had a brief online conversation with a friend who admitted she hated the movie Moulin Rouge. A number of her friends were surprised that she hated it so much, either because they expected her to enjoy it or because they enjoyed it themselves. Moulin Rouge, as I told her, is one of the few movies I didn’t bother to finish the first time around. I was watching it at home, and literally turned it off in disgust about ten minutes in. The only other movie I’ve never bothered to finish was Spies Like Us, but it’s likely that that had more to do with the fact that my date and I had decided we had more important things to be doing that evening than sitting in a theater watching a somewhat stupid movie. We were teenagers, after all–you connect the dots.
I started watching Moulin Rouge with certain expectations, none of them having to do with a score filled with remakes of popular tunes, many of which I felt rather ambivalent about in their original forms. I guess I figured a movie that had garnered such positive attention would have been more original than that. I have to remember that popular opinion often differs from mine. Regardless, I really wanted to like that movie, so a few days later I came back to it, with a modified expectation. And I loved it. Is it one of my top five films of all time? No. But at least I don’t hate it anymore, and I can watch it and enjoy it for what it is.
Which leads me to think about the nature of critics, film or otherwise, and what they (we?) are supposed to be doing. I absolutely do not believe that a critic’s job is to spew venom and tell people how awful something is, which sadly is what many critics seem to love doing. My thought is, if you want to write about a subject, you most likely feel something for that subject. For example, I love movies; therefore, I want to write about them. Call me naive (it’s okay, it balances the dark side), but I can’t help but believe that people would naturally choose to write about something they like. I mean, really, what kind of masochist chooses to write continually about something they hate? Once in a while? Sure, I can understand that. But to focus an entire vocation on hatred of something is just inconceivable to me. So for the moment, let’s work on the assumption that people who write as film critics ENJOY films. Okay? It’s true for me, so for now at least, it’s going to have to suffice.
That said, certainly there are good movies and bad movies, and movies that have good and bad elements. However, something I like might be something you don’t like, and vice versa. If I enjoy a particular movie, I’m going to tell people about it. If I don’t, I can probably still find something of value to say. (Okay, full disclosure time again: I absolutely hated The Happening, and my review on it was very clear. But again, that was my personal reaction, and even in that review I still didn’t say that you shouldn’t go see it.) As I see it, a critic’s job is to do a bit more than allow themselves to be swept away by the movie, do a bit more than parrot whatever marketing talking points are out there about the film, do a bit to perhaps spark some conversation about the film or about the art itself. To simply bash a movie outright is not the point; it’s a critique, not a criticism. The two words are not interchangeable, regardless of common opinion.
Bringing this back around to The Raven, the reviews I’ve read about this movie were definitely scathing. The image of poor Edgar rolling in his grave was dredged up more than once. But I feel like this is another case of mistaken perceptions. No, this is not The Black Cat, which presumably delves into the mind and psyche of Poe himself. (I haven’t yet seen this one, but it’s definitely on my Watch List.) Nor does it claim to be! It claims to be precisely what critics complain that it is: a crime thriller that happens to involve one of the greatest literary minds in history. Poe is a hook, pure and simple–a (hopefully) fresh twist on a genre that constantly teeters in the direction of the Land of Bland. Unlike Cabin in the Woods, this is a movie where viewing the trailer will certainly aid in your enjoyment of the movie itself, because you know exactly what to expect.
Put plainly, if you enjoy the concept of this movie, I feel you should absolutely go see it–regardless of what the critics are saying. And shame on those who would encourage you to stay home! I’m not saying go see it even if you weren’t interested before, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to say that without seeing it. But if you were interested before, stay interested enough to see it through. And then, if you don’t like it, you’ve at least formed the opinion yourself. This doesn’t render the role of the critic useless; rather, it should strive to define it as a facilitator rather than a judge.
Stay tuned, friends. I’ll be back with my actual review of The Raven in due time!
Tina D says
Can’t wait to read your review! I have found that the movies plastered with “critically acclaimed” or “Oscar Nominated” months before the movie even hits theaters arent usually worth the $30 bucks spent on a night out to see them. The films I enjoy are almost always given bad reviews. Does is mean I have bad taste in movies? Most certainly not! I agree with you in your observation that these critics are confusing critique with criticism, and if they truly hated it then I can respect that, but surely there has to be at least once nice thing that can be written about any performance viewed in that last 90-120 or so minutes.
Thank you for this incisive description of the role of reviewer. Too often, we seem to be a culture of eeew _vs_ omg, without further analysis. I think you’ve noted that before, in re politics … 🙂