The world needs critics, not influencers with an eye out for freebies – Aidan Smith
I’m not really a fan of comic-book superhero blockbusters but am disappointed that the Batgirl movie never made it to my local multiplex. For one thing, it was shot in Glasgow where there were “challenges” for the production, including Biblical quantities of rain. Many times you must have watched thunderstorm scenes and cried: “Fake!” But I bet Glesca made for a stunning Gotham, all the more so given that, for what cineastes call verite, it was proper p*sh**g doon.
My other reason to be dismayed is that the film was junked after a poor reaction from test audiences. Hollywood has been trying out flicks on samples of the public for almost a century. Now, punter opinion has its place. After all, it produced one of the all-time great headlines – entertainment mag Variety’s “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” after films with a rural setting were given the thumbs down by country folks. That was way back in 1935 but I’m worried that today’s amateur reviewers wield too much power. They’ve thrown away the Kia-Ora and are getting drunk on it.
Because we’re all critics now, aren’t we? Across every cultural form and indeed every aspect of life. From movie-making at its most artful and complex such as Oppenheimer to crashingly mundane household appliances, comments are invited and star ratings sought. There’s the opportunity to put an atomic bomb under anything, to blow it out of circulation.
The test screening appraiser, the Amazon evaluator, the Mumsnet provocateur and the Tripadvisor scrutineer, fearlessly trying out the entire spread on the all-inclusive holiday, reporting from the groaning buffet as if it were the kill zone in a war, which I suppose it kind of is – these are not guinea pigs who’ve been shoved into an experiment lab against their will. They’re only too happy to review, believing this to be a valuable public service. And that everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
But do we want it? I grew up reading professional critics because back then that was the only kind there was. On Sunday mornings, I waited my turn at the breakfast table for the papers to be passed around and would devour the movie reviews of Philip French and Alan Brien. Some of their elegantly-turned phrases have stayed with me.
I am a journalist because of Clive James’ television criticism. “More gloop from the schlock-hopper,” he once wrote. I may have written it once or 20 times myself, hopefully acknowledging the source. In The Scotsman, I enjoyed Stanley Eveling and Tony Troon (both TV) and Nicholas Wapshott (film). Now, in any paper, the books pages are usually where I turn first. I want to be impressed/to be made envious/to be encouraged to become better-read by people who are a lot smarter than me.
But it’s tough for professional critics. Full-time posts have all but disappeared. And the reduced status of critics within journalism has been pounced upon by the film industry especially, with hard-nosed PR restricting their access to movies and lessening their influence.
At a London press preview of the Barbie movie, the audience was told: “Feel free to share your positive feelings about the film on Twitter after the screening.” In other words: keep your negative ones to yourself. But there was every likelihood the buzz would be perkily pink and frothily enthusiastic because critics in the cinema were heavily outnumbered by influencers, a breed which can usually be relied upon to gush with relentlessly upbeat vibes, not least when showered with merchandise. An embargo enabled two full days of those positive feelings before the critics were allowed into print.
Pauline Kael, the doyenne of American film critics, said: “The critical task is necessarily comparative, and younger people do not truly know what is new.” Also this: “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.” Her remarks were made long before the advent of the internet, the rise of the hobby-reviewer and the omnipotence of the cyber-cheerleader, tripping over all the free stuff. She’d turn in her grave today.
Does criticism – proper, grown-up, considered criticism – matter? It did before and surely even more now, in every sphere. PR and spin should not control the narrative. Fake news should not dominate. Just because Boris Johnson when he was prime minister was only able to cope with the information that could be contained on a Post-It doesn’t mean that everything has to be bite-sized and no one has the attention span for longer and more detailed discourse.
Life moves terribly fast. You might well feel like echoing the cry of the old musical, Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. But, checking reviews of the film version, would you really be satisfied by this one, posted online a few years ago: “Worst movie ever”?
Of course, professional critics used to have omnipotence. Frank Rich, the “Butcher of Broadway”, closed plays with his reviews. One incensed producer tried to place an advert in Rich’s New York Times, encouraging arsonists to torch its offices. An actor aimed a punch at him and Andrew Lloyd Webber wailed: “This is a man who knows nothing about love!” But he did know about theatre and, at least if the curious were quick, they could catch the doomed productions before the lights dimmed on them. Too bad if you were looking forward to Batgirl.
Do I have a vested interest in the continuation of criticism? Definitely. But you can get anywhere with a bit of flattery. A book I wrote has a nice review on Amazon. The critic’s credentials? Well, before me he’d been passing judgment on everything from ear wax removal kits to dog clippers, cordless and “low noise”. Great work!
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