Daily Archives: February 28, 2009

Critics and film – the same old story

Most Friday nights I subject myself to a form of torture known as the Newsnight Review on BBC2 TV, a programme that rarely fails to leave me fuming. My main gripe is that the programme parades an array of cultural critics who collectively have around seven or eight minutes on four or five of the week’s new productions. Each of the critics tends to have a specific area of expertise, but they are required to speak on all of the items. Very occasionally there is someone with expertise in cinema, but films are regularly reviewed – usually the major Hollywood offering, but sometimes a European film (never anything from India, China, Africa etc.)

The idea of an educated liberal elite who are able to speak about all art forms is a British cultural tradition. There are some things to be said in favour of this approach, but mostly it creates problems. The critics on shows like these rarely have the space to say anything vaguely theoretical or ‘intellectual’ so discourse is at the level of genteel discussion. (The programme has in the last few years ditched the older and more curmudgeonly critics like Tom Paulin who could often be entertaining in his ignorance of popular culture as well as sharply analytical.) The real problem is that the British tradition is still mired in a worldview that recognises writers, fine artists and other high art practitioners, but pretty clueless about cinema and by extension filmed drama on television.

On last night’s show the four topics were an opera, Dr Atomic, the Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery, Red Riding (a trilogy of Channel 4 films) and the ‘Eurothriller’,  The International. The quartet of critics, Paul Morley (popular music and popular culture generally), Jeanette Winterson (novelist), Tom Service (classical music) and Tim Marlow (chair and art critic) referred to both Picasso and the opera’s composer John Adams, but when it came to the film and TV material, the references were only to the writer of the source novels for the television film and to the actors involved. 

I haven’t seen either The International or Red Riding (which airs during the coming month), but I have got some sense of what they are about and what disappoints me is the refusal to see the medium of ‘filmed entertainment’ as worthy of proper coverage. It has long been the case that UK television has been discussed in terms of its writers and producers and virtually never in terms of its directors, cinematographers, designers, editors or any other creative personnel other than the actors. Red Riding is a major production based on a quartet of novels by Yorkshire-born (currently Tokyo domiciled) David Peace. Peace has received plenty of recent attention having developed as a cult crime writer over several years. His recent ‘novelisation’ of the legendary football manager Brian Clough’s disastrous 44 day reign at Leeds United has also been adapted as a feature film and The Damned United is released in a few weeks. So, I have no problem with a discussion of Red Riding in terms of an adaptation of Peace’s work. Yet the trilogy was written for television (melding four stories into three two-hour films) by Tony Grisoni, himself a relatively high profile figure in the British film industry after work with Michael Winterbottom and Terry Gilliam. The films were a co-production between Channel 4 and Revolution Films (the company owned by Michael Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton) and together they represent a significant investment in UK filmmaking. Each of the films is directed by a significant UK director (Julian Jarrold, Anand Tucker and James Marsh) – surely this deserves some kind of comment? As it was, the critics mostly discussed whether the film (the first of the trilogy) was a faithful adaptation and whether this was proof that British television could match recent US TV drama (something of an obsession with UK television critics).

The same issue arises with The International. This was discussed in terms of a mainstream feature in which Clive Owen and Naomi Watts were underused in a film that clearly failed to be a Bond thriller or a Bourne adventure. Other than this, the main discussion was about the theme of corrupt bankers. In the current circumstances focus on corrupt bankers is understandable, but the big question is why nobody was interested in this as a Tom Tykwer film. Tykwer has been a controversial figure with plenty of gainsayers, but in Run, Lola Run (1998) he gave a much-needed boost to European filmmaking in the international market-place and he recently had a major European hit with Perfume (2006).  His 2002 film, Heaven, from a script by Krzysztof Kieslowski and starring Cate Blanchett, was poorly received (unjustly in my opinion). Both Lola and Heaven sound like they were important references for The International yet the film was discussed as just another Hollywood thriller. Officially the film is a German/US co-production with some UK involvement. There are four US independents and three German companies involved. The film has been sold to Sony and Disney in terms of international distribution. Although it has some fans, the general US feeling is that it doesn’t work. OK, but wouldn’t it be more useful to discuss the difficulties of ‘international’ filmmaking in English for European directors – or perhaps, the difficulties that American audiences (and Europeans in love with Hollywood) have with these kinds of films. Whatever Tykwer’s successes or failures, he at least needs recognition as the director of this film.

Update: BBC reviewers on Radio 4’s Saturday Review programme recovered the corporation’s reputation a little by discussing Red Riding and mentioning both the screenwriter and director of the first film – perhaps they should take over Late Review?