Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Good Critic

Last night I attended a very interesting debate at the British Film Institute, discussing the role of the critic in the 21st century.

The talk was chaired by Nick James, editor of Sight & Sound, the international film magazine based in London. The invited speakers included: filmmaker, author and curator Mark Cousins; Jean-Michel Frodon, editor of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma; The Times film critic Wendy Ide; and Mark Fisher, blogger and Deputy editor of The Wire.

I really enjoyed hearing each of them speak, and to listen to responses from members of the audience, too. I was glad to hear that there are still many people who are passionate about keeping educated, enthusiastic and opinionated (yes, opinionated!) criticism alive. I agreed with Cousins and Ide who spoke against the pressures of marketing ploys to promote star-studded blockbusters at the expense of less mainstream, smaller-budget films. Cousins used Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End as a prime example of what he calls 'bullying'. Quite rightly, he questioned the need for it to be shown 53 times over the course of one single day in Edinburgh. I couldn't agree more. I'm also thrilled that among the list of films Cousins has selected for screening at the BFI at the moment, is Djibril Diop Mambety's Hyènes (Hyenas) is being shown.

It was also fascinating to talk to Nick James and Jean-Michel Frodon after the debate. I asked Frodon whether he thinks that France is suffering the same 'crisis' of criticism that the Anglophone world seems to be undergoing (in America, 31 permanent critics have lost their jobs over the past couple of years, since web 2.0 came into being). It seems evident that the French haven't quite reached our stage of cynicism yet, and hopefully they never will. France has had a cinéphile tradition ever since Lumière and Méliès delighted audiences with their projections. Henri Langlois founded the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 1936 - the world's first film archive. It was at this historic location that François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard received their cinematic 'schooling'. They also wrote regularly for Cahiers du Cinema, which was founded in 1951. I loved living in Paris for the very fact that it has so many wonderful art cinemas, and that people there (and in France in general) tend to appreciate a wider range of films. Perhaps I'm looking through rose-tinted spectacles, but I don't think so.

Earlier this week, I was reading a few interviews with Peter Greenaway in the BFI library, and he often says that his most loyal and enthusiastic viewers can be found in France. He says it's because the French public tend to be, in general, more inclined to embrace cinema in relation to other art forms such as painting, theatre and literature, as well as philosophy and history. He also talks about an 'inverse snobbism' in the UK, in that people tend to be sceptical about films which try to be too clever for their own good. In his view, we're a far more literary nation than a visual one, and as a result we're quite accepting of playwrights and novelists to tackle complex issues, but are less inclined to appreciate a thought-provoking, 'difficult' film. I'm not sure if one can make such a sweeping statement, but perhaps he's right to a certain extent. But maybe it's more to do with the fact that we're victims of the 'bullying' that Mark Cousins mentioned in his talk. Perhaps if there was a more equal distribution of small-budget films alongside Hollywood blockbusters, more people would take an interest in a wider range of material.

It was also interesting to hear what Mark Fisher had to say about the demise of terrestrial TV. Nowadays, he argues, mainstream networks such as the BBC and Channel 4 hardly ever show foreign or 'arthouse' films. He says that he first discovered directors such as Tarkovsky and Jarman by happening to switch on the TV and being instantly captivated by what he saw. This is a valid point. However, I'm not sure if I totally agree with him. I find that the availability of DVDs in local libraries and on websites such as Love Film means that we have a far greater access to all kinds of films. The chance encounter is still possible- just in different ways. In my local Camden town video store, there's always a freshly arranged shelf of 'recommended' titles, picked out by the staff. OK, I am lucky to live in an area where there's a high demand for all kinds of films. But internet rental sites are quite well stocked too. However, I do think that local cinemas should be encouraged (or financed) to show a wider range of films. Finally, I think it can be concluded that critics can function as 'signposters' (as Mark Cousins says) or 'bridges' (Jean-Michel Frodon's term). In an age of information overload, we should welcome suggestions and recommendations from critics who dedicate their lives to watching films and framing their reactions thoughtfully, articulately and above all honestly. Long live the critic!

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