I hate the idea that a critic is ‘reliable’…

Posted on October 31, 2015


Baradwaj Rangan catches up with Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian’s chief film critic, who was at the Mumbai Film Festival mentoring future critics. 

Do you think reviews are a kind of consumer report, or are they an art form?

They’re certainly not a consumer report. I can’t say whether or not you will like a film. I hate the idea that a critic is “reliable.” I’m not reliable. I’m not a Volkswagen. What kind of moron are you to think critics are reliable? I’ve been reading critics all my life. I’ve been reading Pauline Kael, Clive James, Christopher Hitchens – and it never occurred to me, even when I was 16 years old, to think of them as reliable. I knew I could rely on them to entertain me. I knew they were reliable in that sense. But I’m not out there road-testing microwave ovens – and I hope that, over time, people understand my various prejudices and idiocies and idiosyncrasies, and they may perhaps do the opposite of what I do. They may say, “Peter Bradshaw is such an idiot. If he likes something, I won’t. If he hates something, then I’m going to go and see it.” And that’s fine, fair enough.

Over a period of time, a critic tends to see a lot of the same kind, the same genre of films. What do you do to not sound repetitious in your reviews, having written about the same kind of plot or contrivances so many times before?

I don’t know. I think, intentionally or otherwise, I’ve cultivated a kind of goldfish lack of memory, a kind of willed forgetting. If you try to stack up everything you’ve ever seen in your mind, you’d go a bit mad. I don’t mind seeing another movie in a familiar genre. A good filmmaker can revivify the genre, make it live. It’s like reading poetry and going, “Oh my God! Another sonnet? Three quatrains and a couplet at the end. I get it.” I think the point is that sometimes it can be a great sonnet. Part of its charm and its accessibility is that you have understood it as a series of widely accepted generic points of reference, which make it acceptable to the audience. You yourself, as a critic, can anticipate that widely understood lingua franca. If one’s criticism gets stale, it’s not the filmmaker’s fault for making another Western or horror film. It’s your fault.

But do you do anything consciously so as to not sound the way you did when you wrote about similar films in the past?

I don’t know if I consciously do anything at all. I look for some tiny detail or quirk which kicks off my review. I sometimes feel that the introduction is the kind of spark that sets the whole thing off. I’m always happier in my mind when I think I’ve got the opening line. I don’t know what the other lines are going to be, but I think they’ll come naturally once I’ve got the 747 off the runway. And it’s the opening line that does that. It’s not the only important thing, of course, but it’s important.

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What do you do when, five minutes in, you know this is going to be a rank bad film? After so many years, so many movies, you can kind of feel these things in your bones.

You just have to suck it up. Sometimes you know you’re not going to review a film. I’ve done this at festivals. You say, “I don’t like this film. I’m bailing out.” And then you hear your friends say good things and you feel you have to go back and watch it again. But once you’ve bailed out, you can’t review it. But that’s in festivals. Once I’m back in London, I’m the chief critic and I have to review six or seven films a week. And if you know you’re going to review it, you have to, out of a sense of respect for the filmmaker, watch it fully. There was a recent film – I can’t remember its name – that was very violent. I couldn’t take the violence and I just bailed out. I admitted as much in the review. As I get older, I’m more and more squeamish. But I will respect it if it is a good movie.

When you gave The Immigrant a bad review, the director James Gray took it personally. He called you “a failure as a critic.” He called you “corrupt.” How do you respond to something like this, which is unfair in a way because you merely wrote what you felt?

There’s a couple of ways I respond to that. I respect James Gray, and I respect the fact that he is higher than me on the totem pole. He is the creator, I am the critic. I’ve never had a single problem acknowledging that or saying that to anyone. The other thing is that I’ve always liked his movies. This movie is the first one I haven’t liked. I think that – and I don’t mean to sound patronising – he was reacting to some bad stuff in the cultural weather.  All the American critics loved it, and then he had to come across a bunch of snarky Brits who didn’t – and I was not the only person who didn’t like this movie. I think that accentuated it. He was under a lot of pressure and I respect that. I was watching James Gray in the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, about Alfred Hitchcock’s conversations with François Truffaut. He spoke very eloquently and passionately, and it revived my admiration and respect for him. What I’ve been trying to do is broker some kind of peace process between him and me. I don’t have a problem with him. He let off steam. I didn’t have a problem with that. We live in a free society still. I don’t take it seriously. It’s not like I’m going to challenge him to a duel. I made a single factual error in my review, and he honed in on that. But even with that factual mistake corrected, I’m still not sure I would like his movie.

So what do you say to people who say that critics should go make a movie first?

Making a movie and writing about a movie are two separate techniques. I’m not saying equal techniques, because, as I said, making a film is more important than writing about a film. As it happens, in my humble way, I have published three novels and I have written a script. I wrote it ages ago in the spirit of experimentation, and there is actually some interest in it. Who knows? I hope this movie will get made. I don’t think a critic has to be a great filmmaker, although there is a great tradition of great critics who became great filmmakers, like Godard and Truffaut. Godard can say, “I’ve done your job. I’ve done it really well. And now I’m doing something better.”

Is there any film that made you really, really angry while watching it?

Yeah, Fair Game. It was about a case the CIA allegedly stitched up about a diplomat. The director, Doug Liman, is someone I really like. He’s very talented. But I thought there was something very, very pompous and self-satisfied about the film. It said we are the liberal good guys, and somewhere out there are the bad guys we should destroy. I come from a liberal background. I write for a liberal paper. But this was a very smug movie. I didn’t like Pan. It was kind of stupid, and there’s something parasitic about it. You’re using the established reputation of the Peter Pan story, and then doing a goofy backstory. This is the thing that everyone’s doing, this origin myth. And I just think, “Get your own ideas, dammit.”

What, in your opinion, is the fundamental difference between criticism in the pre- and post-Internet eras?

Firstly, there’s more of it, and it happens more quickly. I’m not sure there’s been a loss in quality. But certainly there’s more pressure and we’re all working harder. There was a time, particularly during film festivals, when I really wasn’t working that hard. I would wander around, I would go see a lot of movies, and write a roundup that brings in five or six of these films. Now, every single movie you see has to get an individual review. And there’s no hanging around – they need it the day before yesterday. When I first discovered I could do that, I thought it was great. I can write a review in a cafe on my iPhone. I don’t mind doing that in a crisis. I’m not too grand or too proud to do that. I don’t have to lie down in a darkened room with a wet towel on my forehead and think about it. I just crack on and do it. What newspapers want is site traffic. It’s like the ratings game on TV. If you publish the review of the new James Bond movie, how many hits do you get? That’s how they’re selling the ads. So there’s a lot more work for the critic. But I’m not convinced that there’s a loss in quality. It means that you have to know how to relax at the end of the day. You have to learn to switch off. No more phones. No more social media. No more hyper-instantaneous reaction. Now I will lie down with that wet towel.

Are there any genres or kinds of movies that you find especially tough to write about?

I found Bollywood tough to write about – again, because of the sheer amount of it. I had this conversation with this friend of mine. He’s a music critic. He thinks Bollywood is the death metal of cinema. If you’re a music critic covering death metal, you’ve got to get ready for a lot of work – because there’s a lot of death metal out there. And a lot of fans, who take it very seriously. Part of the reason I’m here is to reconnect with Indian cinema, both commercial and arty. I find it difficult logistically because it’s difficult to get prints in time for a review. The distributors can’t help you. Bollywood is great. I love it because it’s the only genre in the world that believes in the musical. They’re not ironic or self-conscious about it. The musical lives in Bollywood. It’s not like Hollywood doing Les Misérables and Russell Crowe coming on and he can’t really sing. It’s still an accepted genre in Bollywood, where they think, “This is where the songs can go.” It’s a great popular art form that Hollywood has neglected and abandoned.

So if you could be teleported to a different era of cinema, to write about it, would you choose, say, the golden age of the Hollywood musical?

I would love to be in New York of the 1970s, where you’d still have shouting matches between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. It was an era when criticism mattered. You took sides and everything ended in a crockery-smashing row. Now, nobody’s uncool enough or unsophisticated enough to get angry. I was thinking about this recently because the critic Penelope Houston died recently. She used to edit Sight & Sound magazine, and she was part of the kind of side-taking, head-butting tradition of not liking the French critics. She butted heads with them. She butted heads with the British critics who took their side. And I kind of miss that now. Critics can get angry with each other, or they can be short-lived quarrels between critics and filmmakers, but there are no rows. There isn’t a sense of this amazing thing that’s happening that the critics can champion, like Pauline Kael championed Bonnie and Clyde. A critic can create the circumstances in which a film like that can be seen.

Would you care to venture the name of a filmmaker you consider extremely overrated (or underrated)?

It baffles me. I think he’s kind of brilliant, but he took a wrong turn and he’s still not got back on track. M Night Shyamalan. Ages and ages ago, he made these movies we all loved, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. He made these really funny, smart, shocking, unexpected movies. And then he made these really eccentric movies that I didn’t like. You know from those first few movies that he’s really talented. But he seems to have taken a weird series of creative turns and I’m waiting for him to come back. There are a lot of British filmmakers that I think are wonderful, like Carol Morley and Clio Barnard. It’s wrong to say they’re underrated. But they deserve a better international reputation than they have.

Do you think critics have an expiry date?

I certainly hope not. I’ve got a mortgage to pay. I think a good critic can carry on and get better and better by learning. That’s the other thing. You never really stop learning. You’re always growing and developing – as a critic, as a writer. I think some critics get disenchanted with themselves, and some critics can lose their jobs through no fault of their own. I’ve seen that happen in London. I think as long as your readers are entertained by you, you’re still worth a shot.

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