Thursday, July 10, 2008

The problem with film critics

I'm covering Word's film reviews while Jim White's away. This means going to a few screenings. This still has novelty value for me but it also brings me into contact with film scribblers, a sub-section of the hack fraternity which, encountered en masse, has a tendency to set my teeth on edge.

I cannot bear journalists who swap opinions with each other. Why would you do that? If they're interesting ones, you might be giving an idea to somebody else. If they're not, keep them to yourself. Film journalists, who move as a pack, subsisting on a diet of warm white wine and cocktail sausages, are forever telling each other what they thought of all the things they've seen lately and they do it in such a po-faced way.

The other day I heard one put his head back and, inbetween complaining about the free wine, bark "Oh, I was quite kind about it but I had reservations about the second act."


  1. Anonymous9:17 am

    I think Stephen Fry summed it up best when he imagined what happens when a critic gets to the gates of Heaven and St Peter asks him 'So what did you do with your life?' And the critic says, 'Well, nothing really. I just looked at whatever anyone else did and said -well, that's really not very good now is it?'

    Whlist many other areas of criticism have lost that sneering superiority over the years, film critics do seem to be the last bastion for some reason. I think it's maybe because it's so easy to over-intellectualise film.

    Mark Cousins was the absolute worst, used to set my teeth on edge whenever I heard his pondering questions - hanging on his own every word, so fascinated as he was by his own views.

    I also used to find Mark Kermode quite irritating and then I saw him playing in a skiffle band on The Culture Show and realised that he was actually quite a nice guy and it was just my own inate prejudices coming into play.

    That's the problem with some critics - they end up bringing out the worst in the rest of us too.

  2. Agreed big style, David. When I was a showbiz editor, I always found movie people - both PRs and journalists - a very odd bunch. It was just a big cabal of nods and winks, with conditions being laid down, and journalists being walked all over, and happily taking it because it meant they could get five minutes alone in a room with a Hollywood name, and a branded goody bag. I also found the PRs unpleasant (they thought THEY were the stars half the time), and the other journalists particularly unfriendly. Sod 'em.

  3. Mark Kermode worked on a title that I published a few years ago, and I have to sya that he is one of the nicest writers that I have ever dealt with. Always on time, endlessly considerate and a thoroughly nice man.

    There are a few strange film critics, but as so much of film is about context, I can at least see an arguement for discussing a film after a screening.

    Times must have changed though, I don't remember a lot of free wine in my day (at least not at magazine screenings).

  4. Anonymous2:43 pm

    as someone else said about cynics, not critics (although why split hairs?): when you get to heaven saint peter isnt waiting there with a medal saying 'congratulations, you didnt enjoy any of it'.

    keep on keepin' on davey hepcat

  5. Having flirted with film criticism in both print and for radio and TV, I never truly felt one of the pack. Perhaps this is because, on arrival at a screening, I sign in, pick up the production notes and go and sit, on my own, in the theatre to read. I have never felt the need to hang out in the green room with the sandwiches and the other critics, discussing what films I've seen. Not to protect my opinions, but because I like to talk about other stuff, and other stuff never comes up.

    You have to admire their dedication though, Dave. You're dabbling; I still dabble, especially when Mark Kermode (yes, nicest chap in subterranean Soho) goes on holiday and I fill in for him. They have to watch about six or seven films a week, of which one if they're lucky will be good, and at least two will constitute two hours the critic will never get back. I wouldn't want to do that, week in week out. It might turn you into a film critic. One who talks to other film critics. About films.

  6. Anonymous9:13 pm

    Someone once launched a movie magazine to counter all this, they called it Empire and they wrote a sentence for the Board report that summed it up: "Movies can sometimes be art, but they should always be fun." That man was of course our very own Dave, and Empire did (and does) counter much of the utter bollocks that film critics insist of inflicting on the world. The trouble is it is such a seductive life: no popcorn-munching plebs behind you chattering, paid to watch films in comfort and then write about them, what's not to love? A certain sort of hack just cannot give it up. When I was editor of Empire I used to insist that we all paid in to a cinema at least once a month, to, like, stay in touch with the real world. Of course we didn't actually get round it. Who would?

  7. Anonymous10:59 am

    I reviewed movies for many years, in print and online, and it's a 'job' that seems to breed pomposity and a sense of entitlement. I wasn't immune from that but saw some horrific examples ranging from David's experience of complaints about free booze to the inadequacy of goodie bags. Very dispiriting. This kind of solipsism isn't limited to film journalism, but it's deep-rooted there.

  8. Anonymous10:34 pm

    Have to add to the general bigging up of Mark Kermode. For some reason, I found him insufferable at first but soon warmed to him. At least I've seen him give some decent reviews for mainstream films, unlike Cosmo Landesman (surely a nom de plume!). Respect for the discipline in maintaining an immaculate quiff at all times!

  9. Anonymous4:39 am

    One thing to be wary of when seeing a preview with the film-crit pack is that they are a dreadful way to judge a comedy. None of the serioso critics will laugh, it's too uncool. (And they never let on what they thought in the very quiet lift rides out of the building). I saw 'Withnail and I' with a film-pack and none of them got it - now it's a cult.