Gilbey on Film: Situation critical

A genuine critic doesn't use tricks or tomfoolery.

In his introductory column last week, the Telegraph's new film reviewer, Robbie Collin (late of the late News of the World) set out his stall with a comforting introduction for the paper's readers, who are easily frightened and don't take kindly to shocks, especially if they haven't yet had their lunchtime medication. It was just as well that Collin's tone evoked jolly japes and matey cuddles, as the sight of a new face on the arts pages will have alarmed many after nearly a decade of film writing by the stimulating, unorthodox Sukhdev Sandhu.

(By the by: one of those to leave a comment on Collin's piece, under the handle "corgimajor," did the unspeakable and raised the subject of the outgoing critic, which is rather like pitching up at a chap's wedding and mentioning his bride's ex: "I was disappointed not to see an acknowledgement, in Robbie's introduction of himself, of the great work Sukhdev Sandhu has provided for this section of the Telegraph over the years. Could someone at least let me know...where I might find his work in the future?" At the time of writing, no one at the website has yet answered this reader's enquiry. The comment did, though, provide a reminder of the way in which readers are expected to simply adjust to new arrivals. To editors, we are but the children of divorces, waking up in the morning to find that Mummy has a new boyfriend.)

Before issuing a rather baffling warning about two species of Naughty Critic (those who write exclusively to impress other critics, and those who serve to flatter the stars or filmmakers) and insisting that he belongs to neither group, Collin laid out what he considered to be the requirements for anyone writing about movies. Such people should, he said, "watch films and then write about them in a way that is honest, well-informed and entertaining. We should tell you what a film is about, put it into context, explain what we think works and what doesn't, and do all this in a way that is pleasurable to read."

Well, yes. But put in those terms, it sounds at best like a set of instructions for the home assembly of a bookcase, and at worst like a nurse preparing you for a mildly invasive procedure which will nevertheless have lasting beneficial effects. What Collin describes are the rudiments, the skills that should get a writer past reception. When I think back to the critics who first inspired or thrilled me, the common ground is not that they met the Collin criteria, but that they did so much more besides, spinning off into unpredictable or far-flung areas of their subject, while always throwing illumination back onto it.

The first person who made me realise what could be possible in critical writing was Anne Billson, whose sparky, playful prose never fails to bring her subjects to life (even the half-dead ones: I remember laughing aloud in my school lunch-break at her short Time Out review of Wild Geese II). In the interests of transparency I should point out that she has since become a friend and colleague (as well as a predecessor, having served a stint as film critic on the NS) but my admiration for her was already cemented a good decade before we met.

I also got a big kick, obviously, out of the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, that liberating force of nature, and Victor Lewis-Smith, the then-television critic of the Evening Standard. (I recommend the latter's prickly collection of columns, Inside the Magic Rectangle). But if you put a gun to my head and asked me to name my favourite critics, I would say, "What are you doing? Put that gun away for goodness sake! I'm more than happy to tell you my favourite critics without the threat of injury or death." Then, after disqualifying my esteemed NS colleagues in the interest of neutrality, I would produce for you a roll-call that included the following:

Nancy Banks-Smith Sadly no longer writing about television in the Guardian (although she still contributes a splendid monthly Archers column), she is an embodiment of so many qualities to which a critic should aspire: her mixture of the frothy and the weighty, her ear for a delicious or telling phrase, her instinctive feel for articulating the shape and shading of whatever she is writing about, and her palpable love of her subject. If she's ever written an indulgent or wasteful sentence, I haven't read it. I wrote a fan letter to her many years ago, partly to balance out the karma of having written to a director on the same day complaining about his latest terrible film, but mostly because if you love anyone that much, it's only right to let them know.

Giles Smith The ceaselessly witty sports-on-TV critic at the Times. His columns are collected in Midnight in the Garden of Evel Knievel and We Need to Talk About Kevin Keegan. Here's a measure of how good his writing is: I read him whenever I can and I don't even like sport.

Adam Mars-Jones Former film critic at the Independent and the Times, and now a literary critic at the Observer. There's no one more thorough, or more capable of making the forensic funny, although Steven Poole's book reviews in the Guardian's Saturday Review supplement run a close and satisfying second.

Nigel Andrews Film critic at the Financial Times. It's not only that Nigel Andrews knows his onions (and everyone else's) or that he writes with an enviable mixture of deftness and muscularity; there's also fact that he has been writing professionally for around four decades, and still has the nimblest pen in film criticism.

Anthony Quinn. Film critic, the Independent. I go to Anthony Quinn for the crispness of his prose, the sophistication of his insights, the purity of his perspective (he didn't read anything about Avatar before reviewing it -- nothing at all!) and his passion for the underrated medium of solid storytelling.

Then there are writers who may not be moored to particular posts: Dennis Lim, whose star has not waned since he was waved off five years ago by short-sighted cost-cutters at the Village Voice; his former VV colleague Jessica Winter, now arts editor at Time magazine; David Heuser, who writes on film infrequently and for his own pleasure, but who produced one of the richest film essays I have read in the past few years (about Noah Baumbach's Greenberg: read it here) and who has done the impossible and made Inception sound interesting. I also want to recommend a brilliant site of critical writing by Chris O'Leary about David Bowie: Pushing Ahead of the Dame takes a fine-toothed comb to Bowie's work, dissecting each song in obsessive detail. It sounds tediously nerdy but doesn't read that way; O'Leary's weightless writing inflames rather than kills your interest in the music.

So what can we learn from this subjective list of favourites, other than that it helps to have "Smith" somewhere in your surname if you are going to be a better-than-average critic? Only that each conforms in his or her own way to the most pertinent piece of advice that any creative person could ever wish to receive. And no it isn't from Robbie Collin. It's Maupassant:

Talent... is a matter of looking at anything you want to express long enoughand closely enough to discover in it some aspect that nobody has yet seen or described. In everything there is an unexplored element because we are prone by habit to use our eyes only in combination with the memory of what others before us have thought about the thing we are looking at. The most insignificant thing contains some little unknown element. We must find it. To describe a fire burning or a tree on a plain let us stand in front of that fire and that tree until for us they no longer look like any other tree or any other fire.

It is in this way that we become original...

Whatever we want to convey, there is only one word to express it, one verb to animate it, one adjective to qualify it. We must therefore go on seeking that word, verb or adjective until we have discovered it, and never be satisfied with approximations, never fall back on tricks... or tomfoolery of language to dodge the difficulty.

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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser