Gilbey on film: Sleeping sickness

If a critic can't stay awake, it's not the film's fault.

There's a lot of Pauline Kael around right now. She features prominently in James Wolcott's autobiography Lucked Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, which contains a delicious description of her writing: "Every phrase quivered like the handle of a knife whose blade has just lodged in the tree bark." There's also a new selection of her writing, The Age of Movies, edited by Sanford Schwartz, as well as a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow.

Not having read the latter yet, I'll return to it here at a later date. But this week, 20 years after chancing upon my first Pauline Kael reviews in the over-heated library at the University of Kent, I finally read the infamous 8,000-word demolition job that Renata Adler attempted to perform as part of an assessment of Kael's When the Lights Go Down in the New York Review of Books back in 1980. I think Kael's reputation easily survives the puritanical attack, which is so prohibitive that it seems to oppose the idea of a critic having any stylistic continuity, any blood in his or her veins. Adler is highly disapproving of the notorious sexual metaphors that pulse through Kael's writing, and goes to great pains to provide a shopping-list of the examples she has found, neglecting to appreciate fully how vital Kael was (along with Manny Farber) in loosening the terms of discourse in film criticism. (There's also the charge, of course, that Kael also calcified it in her own way, but that came slightly later.)

However, there was one passage in Adler's essay which pinched, for this reader at least. It forms part of a paragraph disparaging Kael's sense of humour, and isolates the following examples from some of her negative reviews: "you fight to keep your eyes open"; "people were fighting to stay awake"; "but after a while I was gripping the arms of my chair to stay awake"; "the audience was snoring"; "the only honest sound I heard...was the snoring in the row behind me."

Lifting those phrases out of the context of reviews written years apart is unfair, but it does highlight a particular injustice in reviewing that persists to this day. The suggestion that the critic in question was fighting sleep during a film has no place in serious reviewing, and yet we hear it frequently in supposedly dedicated settings -- middle-brow arts programmes on TV and radio, broadsheet newspapers. If the critic is having trouble staying awake, it's not relevant to the movie under discussion: it's a failing of the critic, and it means that he or she should have got more sleep the preceding night, or sunk an espresso before entering the cinema, or needs to seek medical advice at the earliest opportunity.

Is there any other species of criticism where it's acceptable for the reviewer to use his or her own susceptibility to sleep -- basically his or her own indiscipline or lack of professionalism -- as a stick with which to beat the work in question? You don't tend to read music critics maligning an album because they nodded off during the guitar solo on track seven. That said, I did once fall asleep standing up, for the first and only time in my life, while attending a Stone Roses gig, also for the first and only time in my life. But it had been a long day. It wasn't the band's fault. Well, not entirely.
Perhaps the tendency for sleep to loom large in film reviews is attributable to the viewing conditions. The cinema is dark and (unless it's an Early Bird screening at my local Cineworld) warm. So, too, is a theatre or an opera house, but at least in a cinema the performers are not disposed to object to, or even notice, a little snoozing or snoring. (The situation can be embarrassingly different in the theatre, as AA Gill observed in a review in the NS earlier this year.)

Plainly put, if the critic succumbs to sleep, it is not the film's fault, even if the film in question is Jacques Rivette's Out 1, all 12 hours and 41 minutes of it. Observing that other audience members were dozing has as little to do with what's on screen as comments about the décor in the cinema, or the amount of popcorn on the floor. The absolute minimum that we should bring to a movie is consciousness. Critics need to wake up to that.

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