Funny how we tend to lash out when we feel cornered or criticised, blaming everyone else for our perceived failings and shortcomings. Why should internationally lauded screenwriters and film directors be any different? If you cut them, do they not bleed? If you give them a bad review or fail en masse to go to see their work, do they not have a hissy fit? The past week has brought objections from two venerable filmmakers who believe themselves to have been unfairly maligned or overlooked.
First Ken Loach decided that those who write about films—specifically, his films—lead too insular a life to be allowed to express their opinion. He told the Guardian that in general film critics are:
“[P]eople who live in darkened rooms—they don’t meet the people who are running campaigns to save hospitals or save community centres, or engage in that political struggle in the real world, or organise trade union activity. If they did they’d meet people who, from their own experience, can articulate their ideas, can articulate a strategy for the particular campaign; they’d find people whose use of language is very vivid. They tend not to meet those people and so it’s like it’s a fantasy for them.”
I have to admit that some of this rings true. When I was being ferried in my sedan chair between classes at Hogwarts Film Critics’ Academy in West Tossershire, I would often snack on Dairylea Dunkers—with the Dairylea removed and replaced by the puréed livers of trade unionists—and wonder how I could possibly relate to any film that did not correspond precisely to my own life and experience. After all, it wasn’t like I had any cause in my life to interact with doctors, nurses, refuse collectors, police officers, postal workers, domestics. When I became a film critic, I signed a form agreeing to forego for the rest of my life any interaction with friends or family members who might be, for example, teachers or train drivers likely to support union action in order to preserve their rights and working conditions.
Loach has got us bang to rights: becoming a film critic means withdrawing entirely from the world and having nothing more to do with it. I mean, it’s not as if the cinemas where we spend part of our working lives are in any way analogous to the offices or banks or schools or oil rigs or—yes—editing suites and film sets where people in other lines of work spend their hours of employment. We “live in darkened rooms” so we must, therefore, be in the dark. (Do you see what Loach did there?)
Even so, his solution was a tad extreme. He decided it was time to “sack the critics and get ordinary punters in. People who are experienced, who know life.” I’m disappointed that Loach, who knows his Cahiers du Cinema, his May 1968, his Free Cinema, should deliver such a short-sighted and self-serving prescription. The idea of removing critics from their posts and drafting in “ordinary” folk is often proposed by filmmakers who feel they’ve got a rum deal from the press. Kevin Smith felt critics (or “whiners” as he calls them, presumably excluding the ones who were instrumental in bringing his 1994 debut Clerks to the public’s attention and making it a success) were unkind to his comedy Cop Out. “Writing a nasty review for Cop Out is akin to bullying a retarded kid…” he said. It was a pretty rum position even if we forgive him his insensitive language, since it presupposes that films of foreshortened ambition or botched execution should automatically be exempt from criticism. When his next film, Red State, rolled around, he fired off tweets with the hashtag #OnlyPayingCustomersMatter.
It is quite something to respond to critics who say “I don’t like your movie” with the retort: “Then critics should be abolished!” If the system isn’t working in the favour of Loach and Smith, their solution is to dismantle the system.
Loach’s latest film, Jimmy’s Hall, has received largely positive reviews. I happened to dislike it. Nothing to do with not believing that working-class people can be articulate (I’m from a working-class background, and I like to think I’m fairly articulate, so it would be a peculiar act of self-loathing to reject it in that way). But not liking Jimmy’s Hall doesn’t mean I think Ken Loach should be banned from making films and replaced with extraordinary directors who don’t treat their working class characters like fluffy bunny wabbits to be cooed over and sentimentalised. He has every right to make those sorts of movies, just as film critics have every right to find them absurd without having their objections turned into class warfare.
The other figure this week who decided that his woes were someone else’s fault was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson, whose credits include Shadowlands, Gladiator and the recent adaptation of Les Misérables. Nicholson blamed the relative failure of his biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom on the success of 12 Years a Slave, which he believed “sucked up all the guilt about black people that was available.” The intensity of his delusion is almost touching. It would be unfair to expect him to see that his film was deeply orthodox where Steve McQueen’s movie, for all its flaws, at least employed sophisticated rhetoric, emotional effects and cinematic language. But to blame its disappointing profits on race is a low blow. If Nicholson thinks that guilt is the sole or predominant route through which a white viewer could connect to a film about black suffering, he has perhaps stumbled upon one of the reasons why his own movie failed.