Should we shoot the critics?

Should we Shoot the Critics?

4th Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture

By Derek Malcolm

Satyajit Ray (2 May 1921 – 23 April 1992)

Satyajit Ray (2 May 1921 – 23 April 1992)

I am greatly privileged to be given the chance to deliver this lecture, not only because I admired Satyajit Ray so greatly, but because I considered him to be a personal friend of mine, as are Bijoya and Sandip. Now, there is always a kind of tension between the film-maker and the critic, however friendly they may be. If a friendly critic praises them, they regard you as a valued supporter but they don’t really believe you. And perhaps that was why Satyajit Ray once gave me a book of his, inscribed “To Derek, who sometimes likes my films”.

Actually, I disliked none of his work, though I did like some of his films better than others. But now he has gone from us, I regard them with more rather than less affection. He was a giant, and as long as films are remembered at all, his will be. Indeed they look even better now than during his lifetime against most of the work being produced today. Where are the giants today? We have gained a lot technically but lost a lot artistically. Unfortunately, even in Ray’s lifetime. he was often given praise without understanding. Even those who honoured him did so without actually seeing his films.

When he got his American Oscar for his career, just before he died, there were a good many members of the Academy who had only the faintest idea of who he was. It was only at the insistence of people like Ismail Merchant, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and others, who knew his work well, that the decision was made in his favour. Why was this? Because there is, I fear, an enormous ignorance of world cinema everywhere, and it is getting worse each year. That is why festivals like that of Calcutta, which I attended this year for the first time, have become more and more valuable. If many Indians, for instance, are unable to watch the British films they would like to see, many British people are unable to see the Indian films they would like to see. It Is the same everywhere. The world is said to be growing smaller by the minute, thanks to email, the internet and modern technology. In fact, the reverse is happening as far as culture and the arts is concerned.

We know less and less about each other, especially in cultural matters, because the dominating culture in the world is now American. And it spreads far and wide, with money to burn. If you go to Europe now, you will we the same Hollywood films in every capital city, from London to Rome and Helsinki to Athens. Most of the responsibility for this lies at the door of Hollywood’s huge financial power. A big American film gets up to 400 prints in the UK alone. A British film by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh is lucky to get 40. The publicity budgets are equivalent. Small surprise that everybody is aware of the American film, and few have heard of the British one. It is the same all over Europe. And the media – newspapers, radio and television – co-operates with this conspiracy.

There is where, of course, the critics come in and where I reach for my gun. Nowadays, newspaper editors all over Europe – and I believe the world – appoint people to the job who are not qualified to fight against the commercial monolith. This is particularly true of film which is often considered something other than an art form – merely an entertainment for as many people as possible. So when an Indian film comes to London it is compared by critics who should know better than last week’s Hollywood film and judged as something strange and a little peculiar. Probably too long and too slow to be understood.

The result of this is that less and less non-English-speaking films come to London, except at Festival time, so less and less people can see them. It is a wheel that turns full circle. Because people only see American film, the critics write about them to the exclusion of almost everything else. And because critics do that, the public is not made aware of world cinema as a whole. Could we say that the same is happening in India, substituting Bollywood for Hollywood? I leave you to answer that question. But it is certainly happening in Europe and large parts of the world as well. This is a kind of cultural imperialism almost as dangerous as the political imperialism you know so well here. It doesn’t open people’s minds. It closes them.

I remember going up to Manchester to talk to 500 ordinary school children. Why I was asked to talk to them, I don’t know. Since they had never seen critics in their life, they did not know what the critics actually do. They were supposed to watch a Hollywood film and I was supposed to lead a discussion about that film. It was not a very good film and they did not really discuss it much. One of them raised his hand and said, “Well Mr. Malcolm, do we dare say what we think about the film.” I said, “I can tell you what l think about this film in one sentence, even in one word. It’s rubbish.” They all agreed. So I said to them that they will see a Chinese film next morning. They said, “Oh, no! Chinese film are boring. Has it got subtitles?” I said, “Yes it has got subtitles.” They said, “Oh so boring. We don’t like films with subtitles.” I said “You are to come at 10 o’clock, all, five hundred of you. If you are bored with this Chinese film, you may stay up to forty minutes. If you like it, you may stay. But are free to leave after forty minutes. But you will have to stay that long.”

Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

So they all came to see the cinema grumbling the next morning. It was a Chinese film they had never heard of. After forty minutes, of the five hundred about eighty left, the other children stayed till the end. It was amazing, the comments I heard afterwards. Who is the wonderful actress Gong Li? Why is she not working in Hollywood? And I said, “She does not know English. She is Chinese. Chinese do make films of this quality.”

Several of the best film critics in Britain have now either resigned or been thrown out – notably David Robinson of the London Times, who came to India often and wrote sympathetically about Indian films. His sin was to put a New Zealand film by Jane Campion about Harrison Ford film from Hollywood in his column. The paper refused to allow him to do so, and reverse the order. When he complained, he was told it was his last column. This despite the fact that Robinson was one of the most respected critics in the world and the premier authority on Charles Chaplin. The next critic of the Times was Geoff Brown, another able and knowledgeable critic. He was later sacked “for knowing too much”.

Before he was sent packing, however, something happened to him that you might scarcely believe. One week, he wrote a lengthy and laudatory review of a film by Theo Angelopoulos, the distinguished Greek director. In it, he called Angelopoulos one of the most masterly of Europe’s film-makers and accounted the film one of his best. When he opened the paper next morning the review was there complete. But underneath it were the short comments of three other people, apparently taken more or less at random from the street. These comments were quite different. The first was: “What is Harvey Keitel doing in this rubbish”; the second was “This is the most boring film I’ve ever seen” and the third was, in its own way, rather witty. It was “If this is the Greek Cinema, I’m not even going on holiday there.”

Now these three “ordinary” people, asked to give their opinion of the film, would never normally go to a film with subtitles, and certainly not a film to by Angelopoulos. It might have been worth asking them the opinion of the new movie from Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. But to put them in front of an admittedly difficult European art movie could only be considered a provocation. So I wrote to the editor of the Times in the following terms: “Sir, I would like to congratulate you on your new policy of using ordinary film-goers’ opinions next door to those of your film critic. I hope you will do the same when the Berlin Philharmonic plays Beethoven at the Festival Hall next week, when the Royal Ballet Company performs Giselle at Covent Garden shortly. It might be also be entertaining to hear what the man in the street thinks about the Renoir exhibition at the Tate, or the National Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”

My letter was not printed, but I later got a reply from the Arts Editor of The Times, simply said: “I know what you mean, but have to tell you that the idea was imposed upon me from above.” The fact is of course, that even Murdoch’s Times would not dream of treating their own critics in this manner. The paper would expect its music critic to be an expert, its theatre critic to be knowledgeable and experienced, and its art critic to know what he or she was talking about. But movies are different. Anybody can write about them, and anybody should. If the film critic writes about an allegedly obscure Greek film, then he should be corrected by the ordinary man in the street who knows better what the public wants to see. “It’s nice”, one Arts Editor told me, “to find a film critic without any baggage.” In other words without either knowledge or experience. That way, presumably, he or she can reflect better what we want to see, without putting any strain on anyone’s brainbox.

The result of this attitude has been to the appointment of a number of what you might possibly call “bright writers” to the post of film critics in British newspapers who know little or nothing of film history except where it reflects Hollywood and its stars and who are not interested in films stating the ordinary film-goer would reject. One of them recently came out of an Iranians film at the Cannes Festival exclaiming that he didn’t know Iran made films and heart surprise he was that the film was quite good. You can imagine what might happen if and when a new Indian film arrives in London. What strange thing is this?

The result of all this is devastating to the screening of the world cinema in the UK. The smaller distributors who used to buy interesting films from all over the world cannot afford advertising necessary to spread the word about such films and have always relied on the critics to encourage people to see them. Now they find their wares either really relegated to the bottom of Column in favour of the latest Hollywood films, or not reviewed at all. Added to that, the BBC and Channel 4 buy Less and less non-English-speaking films, which makes matters worse. As far as India is concerned, only three new serious Indian Films have been shown commercially in London over the last eight years.

Bollywood, it is true, has reached out from the video stores into them multiplexes recently, with a number of Bombay spectaculars playing well in areas where there is a sizeable immigrant population. But if Satyajit Ray were making films now, it would be extremely doubtful whether his films would be given a decent run in London or whether the reviewers would acknowledge him to be the great filmmaker he was.

I speak of the UK. But part of my job is to be President of World Association of Film Critics, and I can assure you that it is virtually the same all over the world. Good critics from Europe, Russia, North and South America and indeed the East are finding it harder and harder to make their voices heard. Editors, it seems, would far rather print gossip and criticism or have an interview with a star than a proper appreciation of the film he or she appears in. We seem to be obsessed with celebrity and the surface of things rather than anything properly cultural. This is the age of nothing built into something, and something degraded into nothing. If we fight against this, we are called elitists, determined to celebrate things ordinary people have no taste for.

We are, it appears, living in a time when what we call a dumbing down process is in full swing, when culture is becoming increasingly homogenised and when everybody is being encouraged to see the same thing, read the same book and listen to the same music.

Should we shoot the critics for this? Well, it is not, of course, exclusively their fault. But they, or those who appoint them, have to take at least some of the blame. A critic should be one step ahead of the public, not one step behind. We need to know more, not less. We need to believe that culture is important as well as computer literacy or passing exams. That no educated man or woman can be a whole person unless they have in them some appreciation of culture.

We need to understand the past before we can comprehend the future properly. Film is part of culture in the same fashion as all the other arts are. It appeals to and influences millions upon millions of people. Those who write about it trivialise it at their peril, and at ours. What it is certainly not true that neither Hollywood or Bollywood has anything to offer, there is another cinema and we should take care of it. Critics can help to do that, and too few of them do. They seem to see it as inevitable that commercial forces will drown everything that isn’t addressed to majority. It isn’t so.

People have often asked me what it takes to be a good film critic, and is difficult to reply without seeming pompous, since there are all sort of critics writing, talking, in all sorts of specialist and non-specialist media. But if I were to confine myself to newspaper criticism, which is what most people read and what I do for living, the first thing, obviously, is a sympathetic editor. You can’t write anything coherent without the space to do so and the understanding of those who will allow you to do so. Even where is an understanding, you have to be entertaining, since all the knowledge in the world is pretty useless if you write boringly. You also have to write to the space provided. It’s not much use penning 1500 words if there is only space for 1000. You have to be prepared to write fast, since there is often little time to consider a review and even less to correct what you have considered. Your have, in short, to be a good journalist if you want to be a good critic. There’s a craft to it as well as an art.

Secondly, you really do have to know something about the cinema, its history, the difficulties of making films and the problems associated which showing them effectively. And most important of all, you have to believe that some of the greatest artists of the past centuries have been filmmakers as well as authors, playwright, musicians, and painters. It isn’t always easy to make people understand this, especially within a culture like that of the UK which tends to regard them as entertainment first and culture afterwards. But are not Ray, Chaplin, Orson Welles, Buñuel, Renoir and Kurosawa as great as are other artists of the 20th century? And not only as great, but as influential too? I think they are. You MUST think they are if you are to be a film critic of any standing.

Thirdly, a good critic must have an understanding of the other arts as well, because film is influenced by the theatre, literature, music and painting. If you know nothing about the other arts, you will be only half armed as a film critic. Film isn’t an island to itself. It is an amalgam of much else besides. What would Bollywood be without its music? What would some of the great adaptations of literature be without the inspiration of the original source material?

Finally — and this may seem a little naïve but I will say it anyway — you have to be a decent, well-rounded person to be a film critic. If that sounds absurd to you, I would only say that films are about people and their stories, and if you don’t like people much how can you write about their stories sympathetically? Sympathy and understanding are a great part of the armoury of a good critic, who knows there is no such thing as an objective critic, but only a subjective one. All a critic does is to say what he or she likes or does not like, giving good reasons one way or another. He is not God, though he may begin to think of himself as such. He is himself, taking from his own experience and often unconsciously parading his own prejudices. There has to be a heart involved as well as a mind. And a recognition that other opinions may matter too.

It is very easy to become an eagerly-read critic if you simply attack without sympathy. It is much easier to become noticed if you destroy rather than build. It may be nice for editors to know that readers search for his critic’s words week by week to see what calumny is coming next, what reputation is going to be undermined. But in the end this is not criticism. It is something else. It is betraying both film and the reader. A critic should also be able to admit mistakes, to change his opinion if he feels he has initially got it wrong. I have done that often enough myself, and never regretted it, even though one can look a little foolish at the time.

Our job is to open windows for our readers. Too often we merely slam them shut. So reach for your guns when you read a critic who tells you nothing but his own opinions, based on little more than a tastebud approach. But don’t shoot me until I’ve answered some of your questions.