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.