Are Critics Getting Less Critical?
Halfway through director Sally Potter’s critically-feted ‘The Party’, the feeling came over me that I was watching a terrible film.
Six guests gather for a dinner party to celebrate Kristen Scott-Thomas becoming the Shadow Health Minister, but secrets tumble out within seconds of their arrival. The guests are archetypes; Cillian Murphy tips up with a gun and cocaine because he’s a city trader, there’s a health guru who sits cross-legged on the floor, a bitchy wife who drinks, a right-on feminist professor, a spring/autumn lesbian couple and Timothy Spall, doing the starey face he does when he’s being contemplative. Spall has cancer, Scott-Thomas has an affair and the lesbians are having triplets. Either the film has exceeded its dramatic baggage weight or it’s being satirical.
The brief run time of 71 minutes seems like 300 because it’s am-dram and the writing is awful – one character only seems to exist in order to explain what everyone does for a living. I love Sally Potter’s films. I’ve met her and she’s delightful. During an interview in a restaurant she whipped out a screwdriver and mended my tape recorder. But she can’t fix this. And according to the critical establishment she doesn’t need to. Their reviews are distinctly uncritical 5-star raves.
What did the critics spot that I missed?
Lately this has been happening more and more. The new ‘Star Wars’ film, surely a very minor event in anyone’s book, caused miles of print to be expended in a war between critics and audiences. The critics loved it, the punters were far more doubtful, and the gap between viewpoints was so wide that one started wondering how deeply the studios were colluding with the press.
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ was for me the dreariest film of the year, a proto-western with allegorical pretensions featuring mo-capped monkeys on horses. ‘Wonder Woman’ was less boring but bad, with its tasteless plot involving a superhero fighting the WWI inventor of mustard gas and dialogue so cliched that it felt as if someone had entered random words into Google Translate.
Both of these films garnered amazing reviews. This doesn’t happen with more erudite theatre and literary critics, so why just cinema? I think it’s partly because the film industry and the press have a symbiotic relationship, still exerts pressure by threatening to withdraw screenings, and partly because film critics can be sycophantic and uncritical in their worship of film. The genuinely passionate ones, David Thompson, Mark Kermode, Kim Newman, Anne Billson and many at Sight & Sound, are stringent and unsentimental, and know their film studies inside out. Other critics are just passing through on the way from beauty features to the travel section.
So how do we choose films without critics? By the trailers, or recommendations from friends? Recently I watched ‘Loving Vincent’, which takes a police procedural approach to uncovering the truth about the tragedy of Van Gogh. It was created over seven years, using 100 artists to hand-paint the story with oils on canvas. The rotoscoped cast includes Chris O’Dowd and Saoirse Ronan, and finds time to include 300 of the paintings Van Gogh produced (in his working life of just nine years he finished, by my reckoning, a painting every three days). Critics were generally approving but flummoxed by the whole idea of such an enterprise. Incredibly, the film was criticised for having too much artistic style. I thought it was a joyful and innovative enterprise.
Perhaps the critics are writing to please the middle-of-the-road viewer, the kind who won’t see world cinema because they don’t want to read at the cinema. Or perhaps it’s simply that opinion about films is subjective, papers have to be sold, and critics’ columns fill a hole in the page.
I’ll have to write the Book of Forgotten Films one day, but I don’t imagine there’ll be many critical darlings in it.