By Derek Malcolm
I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why Dick should choose me to speak to you. I mean a critic, of all people, and a Scottish critic at that, awful people, to talk to real writers. It is like asking a butcher to talk to surgeons.
I will soften you up with a story which actually is a very good script in itself. Yesterday 0.J. Simpson came out of court and he met President Reagan.
President Reagan said: “Congratulations O.J., I have always admired you and I knew you were not guilty. I hope everything is going to be alright with you.” And O.J. said: “Thank you very much indeed for your confidence in me. It has cheered me up no end.” Reagan said: “Well, look, I am terribly sorry,” and gave him a firm handshake, “I am terribly sorry, but I have to go now, because I have an official appointment. But I tell you what, why don’t you and your wife come to dinner.”
I had better tell you how I started this terrible descending loop into becoming a critic. I left university and tried to get into publishing. There was no job for me, possibly because I could not read very well. I then became a jockey, that is a Steeplechase rider, in races in England.
I did actually win thirteen races before retiring, because I did not really like falling off animals of two tons weight onto my head. So I decided to become an actor. And I was an actor for about three years in the theatre, not in film. And I got fed up with that too and decided to become a journalist.
Finally, after spending years in the provinces in England, I got onto The Guardian in Manchester. And amongst the other things I did, when they started racing coverage, I became a tipster. And then I descended even further, into the arts section of The Guardian, and finally became a film critic. So really it has been an appalling descent from something quite glorious — being a jockey — to being something quite ignominious: a critic.
Now I have been a critic for twenty-five years and I suppose I see about five hundred movies a year. Can you imagine it? Therefore I have seen about twelve thousand five hundred films for The Guardian. It gives you some experience, but it does not make you wise and it does rather soften the brain, because most of the films I See are pretty bad. Perhaps John Ford got it right. I once had to interview him at Venice. He really did not like critics. I arrived at his door in fear and trembling, because I heard that he had a terrible temper. His wife opened the door for me and said: “Look, I am terribly sorry, but I am afraid John is rather ill this morning, He has got a stomach upset and at the moment he is in the lavatory, “I was trying to say: “Well, I will come back later”, when suddenly this huge voice appeared from the lavatory somewhere, and said: “Come on in, I can do with two shits at once!”.
Let me tell you what I think a critic has to do and maybe you will see some parallel with being a real writer. The first thing any critic has to do is to write entertainingly. Because if he does not write entertainingly, no-one will read him, however knowledgeable he is about the cinema. He has also got to write pretty fast. People do not quite realise that sometimes you have to see six or seven films in a row and write about them within three or four hours of seeing the last one. It is not an easy job to clash off a column sometimes at great speed and to just the right length.
It was even worse when I was a theatre critic, because you had sometimes to ring from outside the theatre to catch the edition, directly after seeing the play. So, if you can not write entertainingly, and if you can not write fast, you have had it. And the other thing is, you have got to write to length, because if you write fourteen hundred words and they only want a thousand words, they are going to cut you and you are going to look pretty silly in the morning. Those are the sort of things some people do not realise when they read ugly reviews of their work. Sometimes it is not in the best circumstances.
The second thing a critic has to do, obviously, is to know something about the subject. And believe me, there are an awful lot critics who don’t; there really are nowadays. You have got to believe that the cinema has produced as many geniuses as any of the other art forms in this century. People like Orson Welles, Bergman and Kurosawa and Ozu and dozens of others. If you compare them with the great writers and if you compare them with the great playwrights and the great artists, you have to believe that they measure up to those great names. Buñuel, for instance, in my opinion, measures up to Picasso. A lot of people think that an absurd statement to make, but if you believe in the cinema and if you are a film critic, you have to believe it. And I do.
The third thing you have to do — and a lot of people do not understand this — is you have to know something about the other arts, because the cinema is an amalgam of so many of them. If you know nothing about music, or nothing about literature, or nothing about the theatre, then you are not really qualified to be a good film critic. I believe some of you saw Blanche [Walerian Borowczyk, 1971], which was my selection yesterday. Where would that film have been without the extraordinary music that he managed to find for that film? So, you really do have to extend your sympathies beyond the cinema.
Finally you have to be a reasonably rounded human being, someone halfway decent, because the cinema is actually about people and about their troubles, and about their joys and their tragedies. If you do not understand anything about people, you are still not a good critic, if you do all the other things that I suggested. So to be a really good critic — which I do not claim, by the way – is a bit of a tall order. Just as it is a bloody tall order for you to write a decent script, it is pretty difficult for me to write decent criticism week after week after week.
l have always suspected that you can not teach people to write a good script. You certainly can not teach people to be good critics What you can do, if there is some talent there in the first place, is help that talent to develop. I presume that is what has been happening this week.
There is an American who goes round Europe — he certainly goes round England — who talks extremely well and tells everybody how to write Hollywood movies. I think on the whole this is a contradiction in terms, because most of the best leading actors in Hollywood, say that most Hollywood movies are not written at all.
I had an interview with Jack Nicholson in Venice and I said to him: “Look, I have been doing this job a hell of a long time, and maybe I am getting old, maybe I am getting tired, but are not most Hollywood films nowadays pretty good shit?” And he said: “No, you are not getting old, you are not getting tired – they are shit!”He said: “I do not want to be associated with most of them, because all I have to do in them is to look over my shoulder and say two lines in front of a car crash and behind a sex scene. Fortunately I am rich enough to be able to refuse.”
Hollywood is not going through a good period and I would not tell any of you to copy it just at this moment. Obviously there are some good scripts being produced, but most Hollywood scripts now are just intervals between special effects. It is no good asking you to do that, unless you want to earn an awful lot of money for doing practically nothing, rewriting your script endlessly. Of course, you might find that rewarding, since money is everything these days.
Then on the other side is the European film, which is often equally ghastly nowadays, but in a different way. You have the most boring movies I have ever seen in many of the European countries today — I am sorry to say that, but it is true. When I go to a festival and see twelve days of boring art movies, I long for a piece of shit from Hollywood. When I see nothing but pieces of shit from Hollywood I long For a boring European art movie. Neither of them however are the answer.
Here you are, trying to write films in a time which is hardly the golden era of filmmaking. And it is not just because I am bored with movies that I say that. When I started there were great directors in Europe and indeed in Hollywood. The number of great directors around now can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that is the entire world. I think probably the third world is the most interesting area of film making at the moment; certainly not Europe and certainly not America.
What is a writer to do? I am not going to teach chickens to suck eggs, because it would be very silly and you would probably start throwing tomatoes. This is what I advise very judiciously and very tenderly: for God’s sake, tell a good story! So many European films illustrate a theme, but they do not tell a good story.
A filmmaker or a scriptwriter says: “I am going to write about the alienation of youth” and they fit some kind of a plot around it. Or: “I am going to write about the situation of immigrants” and then they put a story around that. But the story has got to come first! If you have got a good story, there are amazing things you can do with it. You can put themes in, you can do all sorts of things with it, but it is no use saying: “This is the theme of my film, now I am going to write a story for it.” That is the wrong way round.
The other thing that European Scriptwriters do not do is to hone and hone their work. Pare it down, pare it down until you can really see it in visual rather than written terms. That seems very obvious, but it is actually very rarely done. One of the most moving scenes I ever saw was in a Bergman film, not a very good Bergman film, but it had some incredible moments in it. It was a perfect piece of script writing, because hardly anything was said.
This part of the Story was of a girl who was summoned to the hospital because her mother had had a stroke. She arrives rather flustered at the hospital, rather terrified, and inquires where her mother is. The nurse looks at her very awkwardly and says: “I am terribly sorry, but ten minutes ago your mother died. Would you like to see her?”. She goes into this little room and she sees the nurse taking the ring off her mother’s finger. She just sits there. The nurse gives her the ring. The daughter looks at the mother and looks at the ring. The traffic is going by outside, all life is going on outside. There she is: she has lost someone nearest and dearest to her. Hardly anything is said in that scene, but it expresses perfectly the sense of loss that you can actually create in a movie if you do not say too much and if you have a director like Bergman who can really get his actors just to express it simply enough. The film is The Touch and the daughter was Bibi Andersson. I can not remember who was the mother.
The Touch was not a very satisfactory film, but this little episode in it was a classic case of a writer and a director cooperating brilliantly to say very little, but to tell you absolutely everything. How do you do that? God knows. I do not think I would be able to do it, but maybe some of you will.
The next thing is, when you have honed and honed your script down, do realise that most directors will ruin it anyway. You have a director to think about, you have a producer to think about. The producer will say: “This story has not got the right kind of ending. The public will not like it.”Or the director will say: “No, I will do the scene this way, so we will cut these lines out.”
So, the film starts with the writer, but it ends without him or her. It is supposed to be a collaborative art, but it leaves you out at a very vital moment. After you have done all your work, you have to face the fact that it might very well come out in a totally different way on the screen and that is a pain. Mind you, some of my reviews come out in a totally different way in The Guardian sometimes, thanks to subeditors.
You have to realise that you must write less words rather than more. Do you remember Ozu’s Tokyo Story, one of the greatest films ever made. A very, very simple story about an old couple who are summoned by their children from retirement to the big city. Their sons and daughters want to entertain them.They do not know what to do with them, so they pack them off to the seaside and later they bring them back. Again they do not know what to do with their parents. The old couple go sadly off home.
It expresses everything about that kind of relationship and that kind of modern guilt, although the film was in fact made in the early fifties. It does so in such a simple way, that if you were to look at the script, you would almost say that there was no script. In the final words, which I can not remember totally accurately, the old man says to his wife: “It is a pity our children do not really like us.”It really does bring tears to the eyes; it is a most extraordinary film. So, the simpler you can be, the better chance you have of actually making a scene really hit home.
Let us look to what is happening to the European cinema now. You are faced with a situation which is as bad as it has ever been, a situation where Hollywood is dominating almost all the major theatres of Europe. You can not get European films screened at all half the time. Hollywood dominates in such a way that the seventeen to twenty-five age group, who mostly go the cinema, would not even consider a film with subtitles, or even going to films from their own country. Ken Loach, one of our great directors, has a terrible time in Britain getting his films shown.
Even if you make a good film, even if you write a good script, it is likely to go a to festivals, it is likely to be distributed in art houses, but it is not likely to reach the general public, because America has all the cinemas, they have all the distribution network, they have all the hype, they have all the stars, hey have all the money. They can make films for fifty, sixty million dollars and then spend another for fifty, sixty million dollars in each territory. Ken Loach gets sixteen or seventeen prints at the most in England. And an average Hollywood film gets two hundred and fifty prints.
It is very difficult to believe that your film has got much of a chance of success, unless it goes the route of the festivals and unless it gets prizes. There you are in the lap of the gods with juries and with critics and with the sort of people who you might not wish to judge you at all. It is a bloody difficult job.
We have to make our European films better. We have got to address a wider audience. We do that — as you all know — not with Euro puddings, not with the sort of co-productions which have a French star and an English cameraman and a German writer. That is death. As Barry Devlin very rightly said in his lecture you have to stick to the culture you know about. If there is a good Italian film, there is a minority in every country who will want to see it. Even in America there is a minority who want to see a really good Italian film, or a really good British film, or a really good French film.
What they do not want to see are these frightful things which are called Euro puddings and which you are sometimes forced to write. They usually fail at the box office. We have to make films from our own culture; relevant to our own culture, which tell a damn good story. I can not believe there are no good stories in France just now, or in Germany, or in Italy, or in Britain. I think the British, oddly enough, are doing much better than most in Europe at the moment. How long it will last I do not know.
There are two people who have to be looked after better. One is the producer, because the producer takes all the risks, raises all the money, is the last person actually to be paid very often with European films. The other is the writer, you. In Germany, they have all sorts of aid structures, but not a single structure for the writer. They sustain directors, they sustain producers, they sustain some kind of distribution, but not the writer. That is absolutely crazy. The script is totally essential.
That is why I think that the European Union in doing something about it, is working in the right direction. We have to have better scripts, better stories and tell them from within our own culture. Even then we are going to have a hard job, because where do we put them in the cinemas? It is going to be very difficult.
The fact of the matter is that there is five percent in every cinema going audience who want to see something more than Hollywood movies. I am not attacking Hollywood; Hollywood movies are often very entertaining. If you add that five percent together, throughout Europe, it is quite enough to sustain a European film, because European budgets are far more reasonable of course than American ones. So there is hope, if we can get audience out and persuade the cinemas to show the films.
What generally happens with the European film is that it opens and — unless the critics say: “masterpiece”— there is nothing else to support it. There is not the publicity and advertising that every Hollywood film gets as a matter of course. Many people say to me: “Oh, I wanted to see that Chinese film” or I wanted to see that Italian film, but I did not realise it was on. Is it off now? Oh, what a pity!”
Sometimes these films — even though they do well at the box-office — are taken off in favour of another big budget American film, which the cinemas are forced to put on, because if they do not do so, they will not get the next bunch of Hollywood movies. Very often a European film does very well two or three weeks and then disappears, because they have already pre-booked another American one.
We have got to do something about our national cinemas and the only people who can do it are our governments. They are the only ones who can make rules and regulations to ensure that a certain number of European films do actually get shown in the cinemas.
It has to be done by some kind of regulation, possibly by quotas. I do not think money should be thrown at film-makers — that does not actually work — but I certainly think that tax breaks and something on the distribution and exhibition side is absolutely essential if European work is actually going to be shown.
Not so long ago I went to Manchester to do a schools’ lecture. I have no idea why they invited me, since none of them had ever read a critic in their lives. These were ordinary working class kids from about thirteen to seventeen. I did not mind the fact that they had no idea what a critic was, but I did mind the fact that when I said to them: “Have you ever seen a British film in your cinemas?”, four out of about eight hundred of them put their hands up. Not one of them, except those four, had seen a British film, let alone a French or Italian or Scandinavian film. They were presented with a pretty awful Hollywood film, which they were then asked to discuss in groups.
I thought I would take a little bit of a risk. So I said: “Look I would like to bring you back to the cinema tomorrow morning at ten thirty to see another film. It is Chinese.”They all went: “Oh, my God!” They said: “Are there subtitles?” I said: “Yes, I am afraid so, but there is not much dialogue in it.” I said: “Look, you must come at ten thirty, all eight hundred of you, but if you do not like it or if you get bored, leave. You have my full permission. Stay for twenty minutes and you have my full permission to leave.”The film I chose was Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou. Well, forty or fifty of the kids left after twenty minutes. The rest of them stayed and a lot of them came up to me afterwards and said it was one of the best films they had ever seen. I was very surprised at the sharpness and intelligence of their comments.
The tragic thing is that none of these kids had ever had a window opened on to the cinema for them, except by Hollywood. They did not know what anyone else could offer them. They did not know what even their own country could offer them. That is happening all over Europe now, and we have to do something about it.
You might say: “It is up to the critics. They have got to do something about it.” But the critics in Europe are having a very difficult time, because the editors want Hollywood. They say: “Everybody goes to see Hollywood films, so when Waterworld comes along, let us have a huge piece about Waterworld, why it is so bad. Let us interview Kevin Costner, if we can. Let us interview the producers and find out what went wrong with the finances. If there happens to be a small French film opening in London at the same time, please do not go on about it too much, not with Waterworld coming out.”
We are constantly being told: “You have to serve the public. The public goes to Hollywood films. Please do not write about some chichi little European film which is on in one cinema, at least not at great length. Please mention it if you like, say it is good, but what the people really want to know about is Batman Forever or Die Hard, or whatever the hell it is, that’s coming up next week.”
It is painful to read and it is extremely painful to write, I can tell you. This is the centenary of the cinema. but most young people think the cinema started with Star Wars. It has only been going for a hundred years. For God’s sake. If you go to any kind of a college to study literature, you would study probably about four or five centuries of literature. If you go to a film school, you are very lucky indeed to get any kind of history of the cinema at all.
You learn how to use a camera, you learn scriptwriting, you learn scriptwriting, you learn all sort of things, but one of the best learning tools is to look at Buñuel, to look at Fellini and look at Kurosawa and look at Ozu and look at Orson Welles and John Ford. That is a way you learn how to do it, because when you see their work, you see things that you just did not know could be. I think that it is really important that people who are actually learning to write scripts, people who are actually learning to be directors, have a course in the history of the cinema and see how the great film-makers have worked over the last hundred years.
One of my jobs is to be President of Fipresci, which is an international organisation of critics. We have branches in about fifty-five countries all over the world. We are trying to activate the critics in all these countries to do something primarily about their national product, to make sure that it is not drowned by Hollywood and to make sure that their governments know that they are concerned about their film culture.
Most governments regard film as entertainment and not culture at all. That is not true in Italy, that is not true in France, but it sure as hell is true in Britain. We have to make people sure: that we mean business, that film is an important thing, that film does influence people that i: is one of the most important of the arts.
The cinema does influence people. It will not send them to the barricades, it will not make them kill their mothers, but it will give them an attitude to life, so you have got to be very careful when you write. If we do get our films on, they have got to be good, they have got to be relevant. they have got to touch people, they have got to be good Stories.
Finally here are two stories about screenwriters. John Ford used to say: “You should point a finger only at French pastries, lavatories and writers. You should say to the writer, who is late in delivering a script, ‘I do not want it good, I want it Thursday’.” That is what you have got to face, most of your careers — if your careers are going to be as screenwriters.
So you are up against this ludicrous machine, which is pumping out stuff which you do not much care for or which is not your best work. Somehow you have got to get through that, just like a critic who writes for a lousy paper and has got to be careful the way he frames his reviews.
Another story. Dino De Laurentiis once gave Antonioni a ticket to Rome from where he lived. Antonioni was completely broke. Dino said to Antonioni: “Tell me the story. If I like the story, I will finance the film.” Antonioni said: “It is about a girl who disappears on an island. They search for her.” Dino said: “Well, where was she?” Antonioni said: “I do not know.” Dino said: “Who wrote this bloody story?” Antonioni said: “I did.” Dino said: “Give me back the price of the air ticket.” The film was L’Avventura.
Believe me, yours is a really difficult job. I really wish you luck! And wish me luck too when I have to write about it!