An audience watches a film in a time BT (Before Twitter). Should we reminisce fondly about those halcyon days, when not everyone was a have-a-go critic? Image: Getty
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Is everyone really a critic?

User-generated content is driving out expert or elite opinion and this is affecting the film reviewing trade in particular.

Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics
Mark Kermode
Picador, 256pp, £16.99

The rhino-skinned, imperturbable Stephen Fry spoke for a nation of fragile creatives when he asked, “What decent person would want to spend a life picking and cavilling?” Setting aside that there is more to arts criticism than spotting a Viking extra wearing a wristwatch, he probably won’t have professional critics – of film, music or anything – to complain about for much longer.

The internet and social media have trapped the scribbler-in-the-dark in a pincer movement. The former has pushed newspapers into such penury that editors increasingly see their arts desks as luxuries (the Independent on Sunday fired all of its critics in September). The latter offer up the prospect of a more “democratic” critical landscape, forgetting that the sales chart is a fairly democratic measure of what the public thinks and that some perspectives on works of art cannot be expressed in 140 characters.

Nevertheless, user-generated content is driving out expert or elite opinion and this is affecting the film reviewing trade in particular. “Everyone’s a critic” is no longer a Hollywood curse but a simple statement of fact. If reviewers can’t get paid, where are the next Barry Normans, Alexander Walkers and Pauline Kaels going to come from? Do we even need them?

Mark Kermode, the Observer’s cinema critic and co-host with Simon Mayo of the best movie programme available at present in any medium (Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, BBC Radio 5 Live, Fridays, 2pm), is better placed than most to ride out the twilight of the critics and understand its consequences. An educated movie man moulded by the film underground of the 1970s and 1980s – loves The Exorcist and Silent Running; hates Michael Bay and 3D projection – he still reacts to cinema with the open-minded enthusiasm of someone who sees going to the pictures as a treat.

Kermode’s technique on the radio is to scatter nuggets of theory and insight through highly amusing digressions as Mayo plays plain-speaking Ernie to his fulminating Bert. (You can tell Kermode loves cinema because it makes him so angry.) This approach works less well in print, where the reader may want to yell “cut” at overlong anecdotes about film-makers who’ve confronted the writer over a bad review.

Hatchet Job doesn’t quite deliver on the premise of its title. In fact, it’s a valiant defence of what Kermode calls proper movie criticism: writing that is thoughtful, informed and, above all, honest. Anyone who wants to read a true bestiary of harsh reviews should run, not walk, to a copy of I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Kermode’s hero Roger Ebert instead.

Hatchet Job is, however, entertaining. It is actually two books, intercut like Ran (if you know your Cahiers du Cinéma) or Pulp Fiction (if you don’t) into one. In the first strand, Kermode argues that because cruel reviews are undoubtedly more fun to read and to write than positive ones, the internet’s supply of ignorant snark is bound to increase. Unlike obscure tweeters, the professionals have skin in the game, be it their utility as a recommender of quality, their reputation for factual accuracy, or just their paycheque. Nobody ever got kicked off Facebook for getting stuff wrong or making stuff up about a movie.

But since the advent of the audience test screening – see Kermode’s forensic account of how the original “operatic” ending of the bunny-boiling thriller Fatal Attraction was replaced with a pandering finale to ensure that the “bitch” got her comeuppance – it’s been a given that the public is always right. Recuts based on audience or Twitter reaction would have given us a neutered Casablanca in which Rick gets the girl, Kermode argues. With critics diminished, there is one less line of defence to point out that what the audience wants is not necessarily what it needs.

This is lowering stuff but the second strand, which could be subtitled “Great Squabbles in Movie History”, leavens it. Among other detours, Kermode presents lively recaps of the feud between the maverick director Ken Russell and his nemesis, the Evening Standard’s morally upright critic Alexander Walker; and a chivalrous retelling of the erratic but probably underappreciated career of John Boorman of Deliverance fame and Zardoz infamy. His picture of a lost world of itinerant reviewers subsisting on complimentary sandwiches in screening rooms across Soho is hopelessly sentimental but, hey, so is Silent Running.

Not being clairvoyant, Kermode is unclear about what will happen to film criticism when the digital dust settles – if it ever does. I suspect that he will do what Ebert did: expand his reach through video blogs, the web and any other means to consolidate a global brand. But the world needed only one Roger Ebert and it may only need one Mark Kermode. How their successors will earn a crust, hone their trade and spread their personal brand remains to be seen.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.