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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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