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

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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