Gilbey on Film: Against orthodoxy

Beware the over-hasty critical consensus.

A consensus is something to sniff at. Whether a movie is widely fêted as a masterpiece or strung up like a birthday piñata, I can't help feeling a touch suspicious of any kind of pack mentality among commentators. Witness the largely hostile reaction to the unveiling at the Venice Film Festival of W.E., a movie about Wallis Simpson directed by Madonna. Plenty of fine, sane-headed critics found the film wanting, to put it mildly -- among them Xan Brooks at the Guardian, who called W.E. "a primped and simpering folly", and Guy Lodge at In Contention, predicting "future camp-classic value" for an "irredeemably silly, self-admiring ode to life, love and all the fabulous bed linens in between ..."

But it's not the veracity or wisdom of anyone's opinions which worries me, so much as the way these initial impressions will calcify into received wisdom. W.E. has already become a marker of awfulness, despite the fact that only a tiny selection of people in the world have actually seen it; a few days ago, the Guardian asked whether it was destined to rank as a classic of bad cinema, and the comments section has already filled up with people casting aspersions on this movie which they have not yet seen (and probably won't even bother with -- not that this will stop them mouthing off about it).

Reading Mark Kermode's feverishly argued new book, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex: What's Wrong with Modern Movies?, I came across several mentions of movies which had been comprehensively battered and bruised by critics over the years, and which were given another going-over in passing by Kermode. You know the sort of thing -- Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake. It isn't Kermode's dislike of those movies which rankles, even though I adore Ishtar and have already devoted more than enough space on this site to defending Van Sant's bold and delicious experiment. After all, Kermode has seen and assessed those movies, and they have become for him the sort of touchstones of mediocrity or plain wretchedness that we all have filed away in our memory.

(My own bugbear at the moment, in case you're interested, is the shockingly inept new version of Brighton Rock. It was the surprise movie at last year's London Film Festival. Then again, no one specified that it had to be a pleasant surprise.)

What doesn't sit well for me is when the same titles come in for a bashing across reviews, film history books, blogs, comments sections; I feel the same sort of fatigue setting in when Citizen Kane dominates the Best Of lists. We owe it to ourselves to interrogate the critical orthodoxy wherever possible, even if that means reversing a previously-held position or risking a social faux pas.

Let me give you an example: Michael Winner. No, wait -- come back. His films are ghastly, I know, but I must tell you that some time last year I found myself watching Death Wish 3 on late-night television and... well, I'm not going to say that Winner was rehabilitated in my eyes, but that movie is so gloriously berserk, so detached from any other kind of filmmaking grammar, that I began to admire it (the New York street scenes shot in London are only the start of the madness). The misanthropic nastiness and racism of the first two Death Wish instalments has been replaced by a sense of abandon and excess. It seems I'm not the only one to feel this way about Death Wish 3, as this fond post by Joshua Miller over at Chud.com proves:

As straight cinema, the movie is slap-you-in-the-face terrible, with zero redeeming qualities (other than maybe offering some nice sized roles to senior citizens). Yet the film is also kind of amazing. It is kitsch. But it isn't camp. Nor is it so-bad-it's-good. It is slightly too knowing for that. Yet, somehow, it also isn't tongue-in-cheek. Death Wish 3 belongs to the same bizarro group of exploitation cinema as Commando -- movies that are just so ridiculous and off-the-rails over-the-top that it is almost as though they've pushed the very framework of their genre so hard that it broke and now all we're left with is some ethereal vapour of unquantifiable mad terrible genius.

There's more where that came from, with in-depth discussions of the various perverse embellishments and inconsistencies that help substantiate that claim of "mad terrible genius."

But I am not here to praise Michael Winner, or to encourage you to rush out and buy Death Wish 3, so much as to say that I no longer feel able to dismiss Winner, despite some of his crimes against cinema. I'm sure we all have a Michael Winner in our lives (if you see what I mean). Perhaps yours was once Elizabeth Hurley, who came in for a lot of flak in the 1990s, much of it tinged with misogyny. But if you can be cruel and cutting about her talents once you have witnessed her exquisite timing and jauntiness in the first Austin Powers movie, or her anarchic sense of fun in the absurd Ice Cube action film Dangerous Ground, then you have a hard heart indeed.

All of which is brings me back to W.E. It may be ghastly, and worthy of uncomplicated disdain. But before you add your voice to the clamour, wouldn't you prefer to find out for yourself?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era