Almost a decade ago Bruce Willis, irked by press response in Cannes to The Fifth Element (1997), claimed reviews no longer mattered. He had a point, at least with regard to Hollywood’s determination to rid itself of the nuisance that (ideally) is objective assessment of its output; as I write, 11 films have been released in the USA this year without press previews. Distributors in Britain, too, occasionally adopt this strategy. If the major industry players had their way, film criticism would be extinct.
It does seem endangered. Although media coverage of film grows exponentially, it’s mostly preoccupied with sex (i.e., the hedonistic indexes of how film stars live) and money; apparently cost and profit, not content and quality, interest us most. Why this should be, when few of us work in or properly understand the film business, is unclear, though it’s surely a consequence of the symbiotic relationship between publishers and companies making or marketing movies. Sometimes they’re even part of the same multinational (when did you last see The Times nix a Fox-owned film?). And if you want exclusive interviews with a company’s biggest stars, it’s best to be nice about that company’s films.
It’s not just gossipy features and news stories that seem like publicity releases; much of what now passes for criticism feels as though it’s an adjunct of the industrial marketing machine. Keen to have their name and paper on a film’s poster, hacks happily provide, long before writing their review, utter drivel: ‘Beg, steal or borrow a ticket!’ ‘Absolutely unmissable!’ ‘I laughed, I cried, I saw God!’ Their absurd pile-ups of hyphenated hyperbole (‘a gut-wrenching, mind-blowing, heart-rending road-movie rom-com’) are all to do with ephemeral promotion – get ’em in the opening weekend! – and nothing to do with a calm, considered assessment of a film’s artistic value or cultural significance. Sadly, by the time the review is written it can still be unclear what the scribe actually thinks of the film, since many editors now expect reviewers to second-guess readers’ tastes.
But surely readers expect critics to be better informed than themselves? Isn’t that what they’re paid for? Are not expertise, insight, wit, honesty and integrity the requirements of a good critic? Too often now such qualities are regarded suspiciously as evidence of an excessively arty, serious, snobby and ‘pseudy’ attitude to what, after all, is only entertainment. That’s why ‘the common touch’ is now favoured. If it can be made not quite so common by the use of a celebrity, however ill qualified to offer genuinely informed opinions, then so much the better. This, surely, is the great failing of British film criticism today; imagine celebrity pundits such as chat show host Jonathan Ross (perhaps the most high-profile film critic in Britain today) or novelist Will Self being taken seriously as critics of art, ballet, opera, classical music or theatre! But because in Britain film has never been fully accepted as an art form, we’re deemed content to be influenced in our cinema-going habits by anyone sufficiently famous to have been given the nod by an editor whose own knowledge of cinema probably extends only as far as the next blockbuster.
Readers need critics to get behind the industry hype. Critics should know what’s out there – internationally and regardless of budget – and place it in a historical and cultural context. They’re paid to watch, discuss, read and think about more films than others have time for, to pass on ideas, facts and opinions, and to suggest ways in which others might broaden and deepen their own enjoyment and appreciation of cinema. The critic should enable us to make a choice: to be active, not passive. But that’s difficult when film is widely conceived of, by many critics as well as by advertisers, as a factory product to be bought and consumed, like a can of beer, rather than as an individual work of meaningful creative endeavour.
It’s not all hopeless. There are superb critics around, keeping an eye on what’s happening around the globe, seeing things within the larger context of history, art, politics, economics or ethics. They don’t just write what the industry wants them to write – nor, conversely, do they bemoan the death of cinema. They know life exists beyond Hollywood. Some write weekly reviews, some books; others, now, write for websites such as Senses of Cinema. New technology too has brought benefits; DVDs appear, for example, to be encouraging an interest in old, obscure or foreign-language titles long unavailable in cinemas, thanks to good digital restorations and contextualizing extras. As with many of the finest films, you need to seek out these critics and savour them a while. You can tell them partly by the way they regularly venture beyond the English-language mainstream, partly by the fact that you’ll never, ever find them on a poster, warning that you’ll ‘miss this film at your peril!’
Geoff Andrew is Head of Film Programme at the National Film Theatre, London, Contributing Editor to Time Out London and the author of numerous books on cinema.