Ken Loach at Cannes promoting his new film Jimmy's Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Ken Loach has got us bang to rights: film critics know nothing about real life

The esteemed director joins Kevin Smith and William Nicholson among the ranks of writers and directors who blame critics, and their lack of experience, for disliking their films.

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.

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.

David McNew/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.