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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis