Who Needs Film Critics Anymore?



With winter nights drawing in I’d hoped we would get a bumper crop of horror films – my guilty pleasure – and after the beautiful-looking but cartoonish ‘Crimson Peak’ I’d hoped for something original at the low-budget end. Instead I watched ‘We Are Still Here’, an astoundingly bad, illogically plotted haunted house movie starring former scream-queen Barbara Crampton which had inexplicable rave reviews. (Plot: there are fried demons in the basement and creepy locals who conveniently explain that ‘the house has a bad history’ despite being the very folk who need the newcomers to stay) When the highlight of a horror film is Larry Fessenden swallowing a sock, you know you’re in trouble.

Well, the film was Canadian and the best reviews understandably came from Canadian critics, but it’s a poor film that cannot explain its simplistic plot. Not much better in the cheap-shrieks stakes was ‘Howl’, a werewolves-on-a-train film with possibly the most hopeless protagonist ever put on film and absolutely no original tricks up its sleeve, but it’s British, had good monsters and also received (too) decent reviews.

Newspaper film critics have a problem; information delivery has changed and audiences can now make up their own minds instead of relying on someone who is paid to praise free screenings. Too many critics lack wit, whether it’s dour Kate Muir in the Times or irony-free Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian – and God forbid you read the unimpressed post-modernists at Slate magazine who hate everything.

What we need are more critics like Joe Queenan and Kim Newman, who can write about film with elan and style. When ‘Lost River’ premiered in Cannes it was greeted with howls of derision by the French (who would do well to recall just how far they have fallen in the world order of film), partly because critics thought it was derivative and because it was directed by an actor (Ryan Gosling) whose most recent films have been pretentious. But as a debut movie which showed its influences, mainly David Lynch, a tad too heavily, it proved a genuinely appealing film with haunting moments that was killed off by overreacting critics.

Perhaps press writers will rediscover the lost art of wit. One of my favourite books of criticism was by Libby Gelman-Waxner, a Jewish assistant buyer in juniors’ activewear described as ‘America’s most charming and irresponsible film critic’, who admitted she knew nothing about film except what she saw at the multiplex. The idea was that as ‘an average filmgoer’ she would bring a new perspective to reviewing. In a very short time she became the only reason for buying Rupert Murdoch’s hagiographic film magazine Premiere.

Her reviews were hilarious because her naivety pointed up the absurdity of most Hollywood product. ‘Pretty Woman is basically a recruiting poster for prostitution,’ she says. ‘The salespeople on Rodeo Drive snub Julia Roberts because she’s tacky. What do they do when Jackie Collins starts to browse?’ On the definition of film noir; ‘sexy and really, really boring.’ On ethnic-demographic movies; ‘I was brought up to believe in a rainbow coalition because my mother said if a sweater is a classic you should get it in every colour.’ On Tom Cruise; ‘In almost all his films he learns a skill that only boys in a high school shop class would find attractive, like being a fighter pilot in peacetime, selling Lamborghinis or playing pool. In Cocktail he expresses emotional torment through banana daiquiris.’ On Sharon Stone; ‘On her tax return where it says ‘profession’ she can proudly have her accountant type in ‘Jezebel’.’

Gelman-Waxner vanished from Premiere and in 2007 the magazine folded, when it emerged that Gelman-Waxner did not exist. ‘She’ was screenwriter Paul Rudnick. That’s what we’re missing now – fun.



9 comments on “Who Needs Film Critics Anymore?”

  1. Bob says:

    I think that film critics stand and fall on the strength of their prose. A lot of my favourites over the years have been writers whose views on film, and individual films, were pretty far removed from mine, but who were fun to read. As a young film fan, I kept getting books of Pauline Kael’s reviews as birthday and Christmas presents .Although generally high brow in her cinematic tastes, she had a weird, unquestioning devotion to the films of Brian De Palma, and seemed willing to forgive him anything. She also had a virtually pathological hatred of Clint Eastwood. She was caustically witty though, if a bit on the bitchy side, and always had interesting things to say.

    Someone who deserves better recognition for his film writing is the late Quentin Crisp. I remember coming across a collection of his reviews in book form in the eighties, and they were enthusiastic, informed and, as you would expect, occasionally very funny. He had a great love of classic American gangster films, and wrote well about horror films too. I think the collection was called something like ‘How To Go To the Movies’ . I think I might try to search out a copy.

  2. Matt says:

    I get my very best obscure film recommendations from either this blog (which has led to several excellent DVD purchases) or one called Ruthless Culture, which is written by a reviewer who has managed to convince me that films I thought were awful, weren’t, and generally explains films on a level well beyond what I’d ever notice.

  3. Tony Walker says:

    You should try reading Stephen Hunter’s reviews. As well as being the author of the Bob Lee Swagger novels, he was an excellent reviewer for a Baltimore paper, and his reviews have been collected and printed in two books (the titles of which escape me).

  4. Roger says:

    It’s the reason I miss Philip French. Not just some of the worst puns in recorded history, but he probably knew more about films and had seen more films than almost anyone else around. I think I know more about films, as an eclectic film-fan, than many contemporary film reviewers and I don’t think I’m expert.

  5. snowy says:

    ‘Filn critic’ seems to be used as a blanket term that covers a wide range of varied and variable commentary.

    A ‘Film Reviewer’ rolls up to some freebie screenings and decides if they like it or not. Scribbles out a couple of paragraphs and cashes the cheque. They are inherently and perhaps unwillingly part of the promotion process for new films. They are barely tollerated by the ‘beast’ on which they feed, much like the birds that pick ticks off of buffalos bums, annoying flapping little things but they have a function of sorts.

    However if they upset the ‘beast’ they might find their supply of freebie stuff dries up and so there is a sort of unspoken pressure not to be too damning of some of the bilge that passes for ‘cinema’ put out by big studios. But thier view is only an opinion and I can get a dozen of those down the pub, gratis. For all they bring to the discussion of a film’s merits they might as well be reviewing toasters.

    If we go right off to the other end of the spectrum, here we will find the ‘Academics’, palid, wan creatures that are uncomfortable in daylight and baffled by seeing things moving on more than one wall at a time. [You can usualy calm them by throwing a blanket over them and giving them a bit of celluloid to sniff.]. It’s nice work if you can get it, but it’s not going to end poverty or cure disease. But if you really do have masochistic tendencies trouble sleeping a burning desire to be told about the semiotics of ‘Sergei Eisenstein’ then they are the boys for the job, [It’s mostly boys at the moment.]

    [Closely related, but with more spots and less dining at ‘High Table’ are the ‘Uber Nerds’, who have made a long study of one particular film franchise, be it ‘Space Trek’ or ‘Galaxy Wars’ or some other thing, get stuck between two of them at a dinner party and you will be jabbing fish forks into your thighs and gnawing off your own fingers to make earplugs.]

    Somewhere in the middle of those extremes is the really interesting stuff, ‘Film Writers’, like authors you have to try a few and once you have found those whose area of interest and knowledge matches yours you should never be short of a good read.

    Anne Billson who has commented on here before writes a good piece, mainly Horror, [when she isn’t taking pictures of Belgian Plumbers bottoms and putting them on Twitter]. Or if that is not your thing, she ‘curates’ the Internets finest resource for lovers of both film and cats: ‘Cats on Film’. “At last an answer to all those nagging questions about feline film stars”.

  6. admin says:

    I’m a mate of Anne Billson’s and think she’s a really smart cookie, whereas the academics of Sight & Sound just seem humourless and low-spectrum autistic.

  7. snowy says:

    Ms Billson is a tremendously ‘good egg’, smart, funny [and a style icon, apparently].

    I don’t always completely agree with her point of view, but whenever I have written a comment, politely disagreeing with or contradicting her, she is always very gracious in her reply and very generous with her time.

    [She does have a most odd blog schedule, like London Buses, absolutely nothing for ages and ages and then suddenly oodles appear.]

    Her last piece about ‘Crimson Peak’ and ‘chick flicks’ was very interesting, but that was back in October!

    Would it be too demanding or too needy of me to wish she would put out a weekly blog?

    [The next sentence really might get me in the mire, but I’m going to risk it and eternal damnation.]

    I know a ‘girl’ has to make a living these days but how about just 500 words a week, please? No? I’ll take 250 and some nice pictures!

  8. snowy says:

    No good deed ever goes unpunished!

    There is a new* article published today, ‘Westward Ho! The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Western’.

    [*Not entirely new-new, but a revised and expanded press piece with extra ‘good stuff’.]

  9. Ken Mann says:

    Diasgreeing with a critic is fine provided they are consistent, so that you know what interpretation to put on a review of a film you haven’t seen yourself. I once saw a film because Barry Norman didn’t like it, not out of perversity but because I knew his tastes well enough to deduce that I might enjoy it (I did). Peter Bradshaw I haven’t taken seriously since his review of “Wanted”, in which he seemed not to notice that he was watching a superhero film, despite the fact that it starts with a man jumping across a New York avenue, smashing through a window a both ends of the leap.

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