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Criticwire Survey: Sliding Scales

Do you judge a movie like "The Fault in Our Stars" for how well it does what it sets out to do, or whether what it's trying to do is worthwhile in the first place?
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Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley in "The Fault in Our Stars"
Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley in "The Fault in Our Stars"

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Many of the positive reviews for "The Fault in Our Stars" boil down to either "It's good for what it is" or "It gets the job done." But in an essay at Slate that deals in part with John Green's source novel, Ruth Graham says that one of the reasons more adult readers have turned to Young Adult novels is because it offers the pleasures of literary fiction without its challenges: "Adults," she writes, "should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children." So, as a critic, what's your feeling about measuring a movie—whether it's "The Fault in Our Stars" or "X-Men: Days of Future Past" — against what it sets out to do as opposed to what it could do? (Likewise, do you damn "Orange Is the New Black" for not being "Oz"?) Do you take it on its own terms, or do you set your own?

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Movies are to the arts, and Hollywood is to movies, as YA novels are to literature: often wrongly damned on the basis of prejudice. There used to be people who thought of movies as throwaway entertainments with no claim to the profundity of the classical arts, and there are still Kaelians who relegate some of the greatest movies, ones that were produced in Hollywood as genre films, into the subcategories of kitsch and camp. Plus ca change: in The New Yorker, in 1944, Edmund Wilson sneered at detective novels overall ("As a department of imaginative writing, it looks to me completely dead") and at Dashiell Hammett and "The Maltese Falcon" in particular. The real issue is prejudice, narrowness -- less that of readers of YA than that of adulators of just-plain-A (or "Easy A"), the adult (in the non-porn-euphemistic sense), whose presumption to so-called maturity is often a mask for sanctimonious claims of authority, and whose refuge in the sententious, the earnest, and the issue-oriented helps to sustain an art-house consensus of imagination-thin mediocrity. On the other hand, it does no good to give popular work a free pass for the conditions of its production; it can be great on its own, with no asterisk. (P.S. I remember riding in a car with my parents past a store with a sign that said "Adult Books" and asking if we could stop in, because I wasn't interested in reading children's books. They let me figure out the euphemism on my own.)

Stephen Whitty, Star-Ledger

I don't believe in sliding scales, which feels like the height of patronization. My own scale is very simple and very consistent -- Is this a movie which I would not only watch again, but enjoy introducing others to, and add to my stack of DVDs when it comes out? Then it's four stars, whether it's "Raging Bull" or "The Incredibles." Does the film work? Does it continue to move you, even after you've taken the back off and seen how it works? Does it reveal new pleasures, the more you watch it? To me, that's the definition of great cinema, and it doesn't matter whether it's a film that's ostensibly aimed at children or adults.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

I read pretty widely, from 19th and 20th century literary classics to 21st century YA. My interest in YA is to keep up with what my teenager is reading. I'd argue that "The Fault in Our Stars" is a far better book than "The Bridges of Madison County." (Some, including myself, christened that one "Old Adult" reading.) Godard and Coppola, among others, have observed that movies from romance novels and pulp fiction often yield better artistic results than literary fiction because the director can focus on visual storytelling rather than hitting every convoluted plot point. Goodness knows, "The Godfather" is a great movie but Mario Puzo's novel wasn't literary fiction. "Babe" was adapted from a children's book and it's a very sophisticated piece of filmmaking. A great film is all in the execution, no matter its literary pedigree or lack thereof.

Alonso Duralde, TheWrap, What the Flick?!

Well of COURSE we have to evaluate movies based on where they aim versus where they hit. There's no point in evaluating, say, "Airplane!" on the same scale as "Last Year at Marienbad." The tricky part is figuring how to compare a slapstick comedy that lands 100% versus an ambitious, complicated art film that lands 85%. And if you're going to say that a superhero movie is good as superhero movies go, then complete that sentence so everyone is clear what you're saying and why you're praising it.

Nell Minow Beliefnet, RogerEbert.com

One of the reasons more adult readers have turned to Young Adult novels is that they are so damn good. There is a reason that YA and graphic novel sales are flourishing while what is considered traditional "literary" fiction is collapsing on itself, smothered by its preciousness, pretension, and neurasthenic post-modernism. It is often said that if "The Catcher in the Rye" was published today, it would be categorized as a YA novel. And yet it is still read with thoughtful appreciation for its art and depth, even by those who believe they confine themselves to work with literary aspirations. 

This is not to say that best-selling YA books are all literature, any more than best-selling books for adults meet that standard. But too often books are put in the YA category just because they are about teenagers. Well, so is "Romeo and Juliet." Stories are about teenagers for the same reason that stories are about war and death and vampires and zombies and MacGuffins that have to be found or the world will explode in 24 hours. As Augustus says in "The Fault in Our Stars," it's a metaphor. The heightened emotions and discoveries of that time of life intensify the elements of a story to provide a dramatic framework. 

Graham should be ashamed by trying to embarrass anyone who is moved by a work of fiction. One of the most liberating discoveries of my life was learning that no one's childhood is long enough to read all of the great books written for children and teenagers. I reread my favorites with increased pleasure and deeper understanding. I read new authors with great appreciation, and keep in mind that one generation's low culture is quite often understood to be literature by the next.

That said, all movies should be measured against their own aspirations and the expectations of the intended audience. Otherwise, all movie reviews would read: "Well, it's not 'Citizen Kane.'" 

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

Without rehashing the spat over the specifics of Ruth Graham's essay, I think the fundamental failure of consumers of art is the same as the fundamental failure of the consumers of food: not understanding that variety is healthy. To my thinking, that virtually *demands* different ways of evaluating whether a work is doing its job. There is room in the arts diet for hot dogs, metaphorically speaking, and we can appreciate a *really* good hot dog while understanding that a more sophisticated creation can satisfy on different levels. My job as a critic is contextualizing a work, and every work has a unique context: within the history of film, within the zeitgeist of its moment, within the history of a genre, within the director's oeuvre, and so on. Demanding that each and every work of art should meet identical standards, when it may not even be remotely about those standards, strikes me as both bad criticism and kind of a dick move.

Piers Marchant, Philadelphia Magazine, PopMatters

This is pretty much the whole crux of the critical question isn't it? It also happens to be one I struggle with on a regular basis. To be fair (and of much use, as far as audiences go) I think you have an obligation to treat each film at least partially on its own terms: It's possible to take "Ernest Goes to Camp" to task for not being more like "Deliverance," but what would be the point? You can personally dislike "Scary Movie 15" all you want, but you also have to give even something that schlocky a modicum of credit if it accomplishes what it sets out to do, no matter how craven and reprehensible that might be. I mean, I absolutely loathed "Taken," which I found to be little more than a reactionary justification for torture and assassination, but taken on its base level, even I had to grant that it was a dimly competent action thriller. Just a hateful one. 

Jake Howell, Movie City News

A popular novel gets an accessible film adaptation? If the adaptation succeeds in telling (selling) the source text as a movie, then typically I can give it a pass. There are exceptions, of course, but in the case of "The Fault in Our Stars," there's no reason to add or subtract anything substantial - be it plot points or subtexts -- from John Green's novel to make the film something "more challenging" or "less young adult." It's created for a purpose, so let's evaluate the film on its inherent goal (read: adapt the novel successfully).

However, this isn't always the case. "The Fault in Our Stars" is a relatively new book; to adapt it so soon after publication is to cash in on a trend. For a text like "The Hobbit," though, this question gets more difficult: adapting a canonized book is different from a quick turnaround adaptation, and as we see with Peter Jackson's films, he's taken more than a few creative liberties in the process. Those liberties are where we can sink our critical teeth into.

Robert Levin, amNewYork

This is going to be a non-answer of sorts. You have to judge a movie against what it sets out to do as well as what it could do. Mediocrity should never be celebrated but it's completely unfair to treat a movie like "X-Men" or "The Fault in our Stars" to the same lofty standards one would apply to a film by Mizoguchi or Malick, or even to other movies about superheroes or teens dying of cancer. Each new film is its own beast and should be judged according to how well it achieves the goals it sets out. That being said, it's awfully hard for a movie with lowered ambitions to be anything more than adequate. The films that stand the test of time are those that recognize they can do more, that they can transcend the basics of their genre, and then achieve something special.

Joanna Langfield, the Movie Minute

I think it is important to measure a film both for what it sets out to do and for what it could have been. Context is everything (especially commercially) unfortunately, whether it's a YA novel or a Tom Cruise movie. I may not be head over heels about a genre, for instance; that does not preclude me from shaking out those pre-conceived notions and walking in open minded and open hearted. I love to be surprised. And if a film misses its intended mark, like the upcoming children's adventure that I screened the other night, it's of real value, both artistically and as a service to the ticket buying public, to note that even the kids for whom it is intended will be miserable.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

"It is what it is" and similar weasel phrases are not only lazy, but a complete surrender of critical faculties. A critic is not an applause meter; context must be applied. For example, take Adam Sandler -- please! You shouldn't complain that his movies aren't as enriching, say, as "The Godfather" or "L'Avventura." But within the realm of Sandler movies, there's quite a range of quality for critics to discern: from the high of "The Wedding Singer" to the rock bottom of "Little Nicky." Similarly, with "The Fault in Our Stars" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past," it's not enough to simple rubber-stamp "weeper" and "blockbuster" and jerk thumbs up or down. Context, please! As for Ruth Graham's essay that adults shouldn't read children's stories, I admit to being baffled by her argument. "Alice In Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz" were both written for children; is it wrong for adults to read and enjoy them? How about the Harry Potter series? And should I feel guilty about the hundreds of times I read "Pat the Bunny" and "Love You Forever" (always with tears) to my kids when they were wee tots?

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

The notion that adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature meant for children strikes me, out of context, as a seriously dumb thing to say. Should we not read "Alice in Wonderland," "Pinocchio," "The Wind in the Willows," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and so on? What a loss that would be. I haven't read the whole piece so it seems unfair to judge its totality, but the argument sounds like it emanates from the sort of person who also thinks comics and animation must be for children. Not all stories need be challenging, and even the ones that are simple on the surface may become challenging as you attempt to assess their deeper meaning, if any.

Measuring a movie on its own terms is the only way to do it. "Jonah: A Veggietales Movie," for example, is about as good as I imagine any conservative Christian cartoon starring talking vegetables could possibly be - should I dismiss it because it isn't "Toy Story"? If so, I'm summarily dismissing anyone who might be interested in seeing the film and wishes to know how it is, essentially saying that the stuff they like doesn't matter, and increasing the perception that critics are irrelevant. On the other hand, you can have a movie like "Funny Games," where the goal, as best I can tell, is to make me hate it. If I then do so, I'm measuring it by the standards it has set but hating it nonetheless. So a movie can achieve what it sets out to do and still suck -- I can't imagine Adam Sandler thinks his movies at this stage are particularly inventive or clever, but I can compare them to films he made when he was still trying.

But rather than use all my examples, let me just use the one given. "do you damn "Orange Is the New Black" for not being "Oz"?

Answer: No. But I do say that the first three episodes of series 1 were entirely unnecessary and you can start at #4.

Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire

You can't help but compare the things you watch to other media -- whether it be looking for secret inspirations or analyzing how a story is transformed through adaptation from one medium to another. That said, I personally at least try to enjoy each experience on an individual level, mostly because the alternative is being that person whining about how in the books, Yara Greyjoy's name is Osha and did "Game of Thrones" not think we would notice? Of course reading a young adult novel is easier than reading more complex literature, and a media diet comprised entirely of just one thing is supremely unhealthy. That just means balancing expectations with reality, and balancing indulgences with more challenging works.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

Bad books make great movies, and great books make bad ones, or so my theory goes, though of course, there are exceptions. I think people -- critics, producers/executives, and viewers -- will always judge a film against source materials and/or other films because they need a reference point, or baseline. Every film a director, actor, or writer makes is always measured against the last one. Is it different? better? worse? or even, the same? [Particularly true of sequels, remakes, and special editions/director's cuts]. I think this can be a good thing when tracking the arc of an individual's career, but not so good when the comparisons are facile or disingenuous. Everyone sets their own terms when they approach a film, and the key is how they interpret what they see on its own merits. The filmmaker's intentions ultimately do not matter once the viewer encounters the work. If they align great, but if not, that can sometimes yield a more truthful response. Or, as I like to say, "There's no accounting for taste."

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

I don't think it's wrong to want every piece of culture, in any medium, to transcend its presumed trappings; I can want a comic-book movie to feel like more than just a series of boxes being checked off to appease the core fanbase or for a novel categorized as young-adult to be as mature or complex as an adaptation of the newest Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. As such, I find the entire thesis of the Slate piece, applying it to books or films or whatever, to be entirely ridiculous. (But then, seeing as I co-host a podcast about the films of the Walt Disney Company, I would say that.) Granted, I'm also guilty of imagining what could have been with any given film, whether it's a comic-book movie or something like "Maleficent," trying to reverse-engineer some way for a story to have done more than just what everyone expected. Having said that, I try (and keep trying) to avoid that discussion in a regular review, as I find it to be more of a scenario that demands a conversation between viewers 

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Well, yes, I do try my best to judge a film as often as possible based on what it's trying to do as opposed to what I think it should be doing; that's an essential tenet of film criticism, at least for me personally. But let's face it, we're all human beings, bringing the totality of our taste and experience to bear on a particular artistic experience. There's no way we can always assess something with that kind of near-100% objectivity; to do so would be false to the nature of arts criticism, really. So sometimes, one can't always help it if one watches a film and is so bothered by what the film isn't accomplishing or even trying to accomplish that it clouds one's judgment as to what it actually is accomplishing. (For me, this is becoming increasingly common with documentaries: I can't help it if a standard-issue talking-heads doc, as effective as it may be on a baseline informational level, usually leaves me profoundly indifferent because of all the aesthetic risks it doesn't even bother to take.) As always with larger critical questions of this sort, I tend to take it case-by-case, and hope that my honesty about where I'm coming from will be enough for readers.

Ben Travers, Indiewire

I don't believe in judging media by what "it" sets out to be or by what I want to see from it. If I did the former, I would be relying on trailers and other marketing to judge what genre a film or TV show fits. That's far too limiting, especially when so much media these days is about blending or deconstructing existing genres. Knowledge of the genres and an understanding of their goals is helpful to put things in context, but judgement should be given based on the impression left on the viewer. It's a difficult task, and one easy to stray from when bombarded with labels from outside sources, but I do my best. Meanwhile, if I subscribed to the latter argument, then I would contend every movie could be improved by including Sylvester Stallone -- and I think readers would tire of seeing that point of view week after week even sooner than I grew tired of writing it. "The Fault in Our Stars" either works for you or it doesn't. Don't try to guess how others might feel.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I think the truth is somewhere in between for me. Sometimes I use a sliding scale, sometimes I don't. Full disclosure, I loved "The Fault in Our Stars" and think it succeeds without a sliding scale, but I can understand others saying "it's good for what it is." I do that sometimes with certain comedies and other fare that perhaps isn't meant to be particularly artful but simply sets out to make you laugh. Basically, I don't have a strong opinion one way or the other. Now, to finally stop crying over "The Fault in Our Stars."

Zac Oldenburg, Having Said That

I think that taking a movie for what it tries to be is the fair way to assess a film, and we should compare a film's success based on whether it meets the goals they set for themselves.

I try to not let what a film could be take away from it, but that doesn't mean I won't make note of what could have made it better. "Edge of Tomorrow" seems like a perfect example of that contradictory sentence. What it aims to do, it does pretty great, but had it attained/strive for a bit something more it could have really gone over the top to something special.

Something that does what it wants should be regarded as good, if it excells at what it wants to do, it should be called great. If "Edge of Tomorrow's" action or sci-fi ideas been something truly mind blowing, I would assess it as such, even if it had some "shortcomings" it wasn't necessarily trying to reach. 

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

First off, Ruth Graham's statement is the stupidest thing I've heard anyone say in a long time. People like YA novels because there are some good, innovative stories being told in that genre. Saying adults should be embarrassed for enjoying literature written for children is the same as saying they should be embarrassed for enjoying movies made for children. If we were to follow her logic, we'd skip films like "Up," "The Lion King," "Toy Story," "Beauty and the Beast," and dozens more. I don't know about you, but I'm not willing to trade those movies away. My approach is pretty simple: I take every movie on its own terms, and my primary criteria is whether or not it entertained me in some way. If it did, I'm grateful for it, no matter what the genre or who the target audience is. I refuse to close myself off to a potentially good film simply because I don't fit the intended demographic.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

There is unexceptional literature in all subgenres and pitched to all audiences. If a work provokes thought or awareness, or makes the reader or viewer recontextualize their own experiences in light of what they read or see, then that's a good thing. Apologies to Ms. Graham, but I am skeptical of anyone who thinks a shame-based filter is a good thing for any art form. 

John Keefer, 51 Deep

Any movie worth the price of admission teaches you how to watch it. That's why bland movies without a strong point of view draw such ire from the critical community. What was the point, then, other than making money? What's the point of anything without money? My god, it's full of money! But more to the point you're free to have your own terms for what a movie should be or do to attain, in your eyes, greatness. For me, in order for a movie to achieve greatness it needs to have been directed by Ozu or Tarkovsky, Bresson or Renoir, Mizoguchi or Powell. In other words you need to be dead and not American to make, or have made, a great film. If you're not either of those things you're out of luck, thanks for playing. I'm kidding of course, you can be alive and American and make a great movie... if you started your career in the '70s. I'm still kidding but not kidding. In fact I don't know what I'm doing at all. But I do know this: the movie can be made from a children's book about a magical land called Oz, it could have been adapted from a lousy novella about a couple of wine-drinking losers, or it could have been written for the screen if you can imagine such a thing, but limiting your understanding or appreciation of the work to standards you set outside of the frame makes you a fanboy, a myopic troll who demands things of an art form rather than appreciates, devoid of true love, existing off bile or epic awesomeness, mistaking Want for a Need, Superheros for Shakespeare, everything wrong with the world, etc. Like taking a gourmet meal, putting it in a blender, and slurping it down with a swizzle straw, it's the wrong way to do things. Art should expand your vision, not support a contracted one.

Edge

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: "Edge of Tomorrow"

Other movies receiving multiple votes: "Ida," "The Immigrant," "Under the Skin," "We Are the Best!"

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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