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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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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