Posts Tagged ‘film criticism’

A brief glance at the stats for this blog tells me that, as of this writing, there are somewhere in the region of 650 film reviews hereabouts. I have been writing these on and off since 2001, and fairly solidly since 2010 (sometimes at the rate of three or four a week). At a conservative estimate, I must have written about 600,000 words about films, all told (the last two novel-length stories I managed to finish, in comparison, amounted to only 230,000 words between them). I have never really thought very deeply about the nature of film writing in all this time: or at least I hadn’t until I read Hatchet Job, the latest movie-related tome by Mark Kermode.

Kermode’s first book was the story of his life in film; his last one was an extended series of moans about the things he finds particularly irksome about modern films and the contemporary movie-going experience. I liked it, even if I found it a bit on the negative side. Hatchet Job, despite the title, is a bit more balanced.


Kermode opens by celebrating the most memorable result of the film critics’ art: the devastating negative review, kicking off with ‘Forest Gump on a tractor’ (The Straight Story) and taking in ‘Miss’ (Battleship), ‘an explosion in a stupidity factory’ (A Good Day to Die Hard) and some of Kermode’s own most vitriolic utterances, such as ‘An orgy of dripping wealth which made me want to vomit’ (Sex and the City 2), before going on to question, if not the value of film criticism in the modern world, then certainly the need for professional film critics as a species.

This is the core theme of Hatchet Job, which Kermode comes at from a number of angles: the decline in the respect in which critics are held, the sometimes strained relationship between critics and film-makers, the current crisis in the lot of old-school print critics in an increasingly digital age, and so on. Along the way Kermode gets to indulge himself on many topics which will be familiar to long-term followers, such as the plight of the skilled projectionist, the careers of Ken Russell (Dr K like) and John Boorman (Dr K very no like), and how lovely Silent Running is, as well as some which may be new, such as the unreliability of the automatically-moderated reviewing system on Amazon.com and the pernicious influence of test screenings on film storytelling.

He is, as you’d expect, very good company throughout, even when dealing with unpromising material without a great deal of interest to anyone not specifically interested in the lot of film critics (he is touchingly eloquent when paying tribute to two deceased giants of the field, Alexander Walker and Roger Ebert, even though it is clear he is rather more simpatico with one than the other). If you know much about films, you are unlikely to learn a lot, but at least you will hear things for the second or third time in a highly entertaining way.

You might expect Kermode to be precious and possessive about his status as someone who’s paid to watch and talk about new films for a living, and perhaps he does come across as slightly self-mythologising when he expresses his belief that ‘[f]or a critic’s opinion to have value beyond the mere joy of the savage put-down or the well-constructed defence, I believe they must have something personal at stake, something about which they care, and which they are in danger of forfeiting.’ (He’s talking about the bubble reputation, by the way, not an actual job.) Yet his argument does sort of hang together. I rarely make much use of critics myself, especially since I stopped listening to Kermode’s own radio show (sorry Doc), but this is largely because I just found myself writing my own reviews as a response to theirs rather than to the film itself, but on an instinctive level I know that I’d rather read a review from someone with a track-record and a real name than by some anonymous username on the internet.

On the other hand, though, doesn’t this just make me a massive hypocrite? My own name isn’t on this book review, after all: why should you give a damn what I think? Why should my opinion have any special value? Well, you might well say, in the case of a cruddy little blog like this one, which on average is read by no-one at all, what does it matter? Speak or stay silent, it doesn’t make any difference.

And yet, and yet. All other things being equal, I wouldn’t write at all if I didn’t think there was at least some chance of getting read (to do otherwise would be, to quote Stephen King, ‘quacking into the void’). And yet Kermode himself argues that ‘writing for free in an arena where someone else is getting paid eventually undermines the possibility of anyone being properly remunerated’. This sounds a little protectionist, I suppose, but there is a grain of truth here, surely – if the reviews on the blog are any good, then I may be taking bread from the mouths of film critics’ children – if they’re not, what’s the bloody point in them anyway?

I don’t know. I suppose the brutally honest response would be to say that if a professional critic with the resources of a national paper behind them can’t come up with something more useful and entertaining than an amateur nobody sitting behind a laptop in a garret, they don’t deserve to be in the profession anyway. And perhaps this is true. It has still made me question exactly why I am so rigorous about writing up every new film I watch, even the really boring ones.

As I’ve said in the past, I have a pronounced OCD tendency, and I think doing the reviews helps control this – also, feeding the OCD helps fend off the depressive tendency I also possess. So perhaps there is a therapeutic aspect to all this. Thinking about this has also made me realise that starting writing this blog regular coincided fairly closely with my stopping writing ‘substantial’ fiction suspiciously closely. I said in an ‘interview’ (it was a webzine feature where completely obscure individuals took it in turns to ask each other silly questions every week) a few years ago that writing is just about the only thing in the world, other than watching the 1970s Doctor Who title sequence, guaranteed to make me happy, and so perhaps obsessively writing endless film reviews has taken the place of producing fiction.

In which case it looks like that the main purpose of this blog is not to actually share opinions and judgements on films, but to shore up my mental equilibrium. If I actually ever say something worthwhile and useful about a film it is a fortuitous fringe benefit and nothing else. I’m not really sure how to process this little nugget of increased self-knowledge, but then that has largely been the story of 2014 so far for me. If you are the starving child of a professional film critic, I apologise, but I fear it may be pathological on my part. And if you are not, but you are at all interested in films and serious film writing, you will probably find Hatchet Job to be an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

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There comes a time in a man’s life when he realises that some films he wants to see are going to slip through the net – well, it’s more like that there are numerous times when he’s reminded, really. Then again, there are some films that seem interesting but the expense involved is unjustifiable, mainly when the chief distinguishing feature of the film in question is that it’s complete and utter irredeemable cobblers from start to finish. One of the advantages of being a proper professional critic is that you get paid for watching films like that (but not enough, the likes of Kermode and Leigh would doubtless assure me).

 Enjoying what appears to be a tiny, tiny UK release at present is Got to Run, un film de Robbie Moffat, either one of Britain’s ‘premiere independent directors of low-budget films’ or ‘the UK’s answer to Ed Wood’ depending on who you listen to. I have not seen Got to Run and thus am not qualified to pass judgement on it. I have seen what passes for a trailer for the movie, which is quite jawdroppingly awful and technically inept (check it out on YouTube if you don’t believe me) but does seem to support the mainstream critical consensus.

The film is apparently the story of a lingerie saleswoman who’s unhappy with her life but is given a list of ten locations in the UK which, she is told, are good for jogging in. She duly goes forth and jogs and finds her life transformed. Hmmm. Doesn’t sound a million miles away from Roadkill, a low-budget Canadian movie I reviewed many, many years ago, but whereas Roadkill is quirky and moving and has a great central performance in it, Got to Run apparently spends most of its running-time (no pun intended) watching the main character jog around while an orchestra plays on the soundtrack. Certainly there is a lot of jogging in the trailer, more than I’d usually have liked, but in this case it meant there were fewer of the technically inept and appallingly badly-acted dialogue scenes that comprised the rest of it, so I was all for them.

Yes, I haven’t seen it. Good films have had bad trailers before. And critics are not infallible (and speaking as the guy who slated The Bourne Identity back in 2002, that’s an informed opinion). But let us just partake briefly of some of the critical bon mots that Got to Run has inspired. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian weighs in with: ‘Watching it, I felt like screaming… technically simply unreleasable… Gobsmackingly dire…’ ViewLondon’s review offers ‘Staggeringly inept on every conceivable level…the standard of acting would shame a group of dyslexic non-actors gathering to read a script for the first time…A film so bad it makes all previous one-star films look like masterpieces by comparison.’ Time Out joins the chorus with ‘Technically horrible…it looks like a porn film without the sex.’

(Something is clearly wrong with me. Does anyone know a place where this film is showing within easy reach of Oxford?)

Well, so what, you say, it’s the summer and dreadful films are unleashed upon the world nearly every week, many of them without the excuse of having been made for no money to speak of. Hmm, well, you may have a point. However, what really piques my interest in the whole Got to Run saga is the doughty, nay, ferocious work carried out in its defence by someone who has opted to remain anonymous, but operates under the codename of ‘CultFollower’. Whenever a bad review of Got to Run has appeared on t’internet, CultFollower has been there sticking up for it, reposting highlights of the one and only positive review the film has apparently received, courtesy of the Morning Star (hmmm) and taking the critics to task for their lack of vision and insight.

 Time Out only receives a repost of the Star piece, praising Moffat’s ‘skill, wit, and elegance’ (it’s enough to make you ashamed to be socialist), while Pete Bradshaw gets the following advice from CultFollower – ‘go running and learn to enjoy movies or get a new job.’ ViewLondon are the real beneficiaries of the wisdom of CultFollower, though. The Morning Star review is reposted in its entirety (again) followed by these words of genius:

‘I loved everything about this movie. The Olympics are coming up and the reviewer hasn’t noticed that half of the country goes running.’ 

Crikey, jogging is now an Olympic event. They snuck that one in on the quiet. They still haven’t managed to get Snooker into the Olympics and now jogging’s in? Surely some mistake. And one’s breath is well and truly taken by the incisive logic present in the ‘half the country goes jogging = people will want to see a film mostly comprised of someone jogging’ assertion. More than half the country, I would guess, clean their teeth on a regular basis, so no doubt we can expect Moffat’s forthcoming opus Got to Brush. I wonder what CultFollower makes of the massive success of films like Iron Man and Harry Potter?

‘I’m completely mystified. Hardly anyone I know attends wizard school and battles the forces of darkness, or has built their own cybernetic battlesuit, and yet they still go to see films about these things. What is the world coming to?’

Am I being too harsh on CultFollower? To be honest I really believe he or she has brought it on themselves, quite simply by not having the wit to post under different names when defending the film on different sites. As a result opinion is quite widespread that CultFollower is Robbie Moffat himself, or some associated minion. Moffat and Palm Tree Entertainment are obviously, shall we say, utterly dedicated to promoting their work: on their website, Peter Bradshaw is quoted as saying of Got to Run, ‘Cult classic status beckons…’ – which is true enough, but the rest of the sentence (which has mysteriously vanished) runs ‘…for this film is awe-inspiringly bad.’

 Oh well. I’m actually slightly moved by CultFollower’s unstinting efforts to salvage the unsalvageable, for I can’t imagine anyone being taken in in the slightest, no matter how often they cut and paste that Star piece. But I must admit to be more amused than anything else. Will CultFollower be drawn here to work his or her very special magic in defence of Got to Run? I must confess my fingers are crossed.

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