Critic Pauline Kael demonstrated that you could make your own rules. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Girls on film: it's time to celebrate women critics, the liveliest voices in cinema

Why has it taken us so long to realise that the strongest, most exciting voices, shaping our opinions of cinema are women?

It was encouraging to find such a celebratory air to the recent Sight & Sound feature on female voices in film criticism. Without playing down the levels of gender inequality in the industry, the magazine (which last year ran a competition to find new female film writers) opted primarily to highlight the influential contribution of women to the way movies are discussed, understood and appreciated. I’m grateful to the article for alerting me to Hilary Mantel’s film writing for the Spectator between 1987 and 1991. And for making me ponder the role women played in my own film education, which is to say: they were everything.

My main cinemagoing companion as a child, in fact the first person who ever took me to the cinema, was my grandmother. Our post-movie chit-chat was as much a part of the experience as the packed lunches she prepared for us to eat in the stalls in those days when cinema concession stands didn’t run to much more than pre-packed popcorn, a King Cone and a box of Matchmakers. That means the first voice that ever spoke to me, and with me, about films was passionate, giddy, funny — and female.

I didn’t find an equivalent of that voice in print until I was a teenager. Existing on a diet of film reviews in Time Out, I discovered the snappy dispatches of Anne Billson, and realised overnight that it was permissible, even preferable, to use humour when writing about cinema. I can even remember the review that flicked that switch on in my brain — it was Billson’s mischievous take-down of Wild Geese II (“A right load of proper gander”), a film so ridiculous that it merited only mockery. (Happily, the whole review is online here).

I wasn’t the only one inspired and energised by reading Billson’s writing: Jane Giles celebrates her in the Sight & Sound feature. That in turn reminds me that Giles herself was also an important presence in the life of any film buff coming of age in 1980s London: she was the manager of the Scala repertory cinema (and later wrote a study of The Crying Game in the BFI’s Modern Classics series—a film that was financed in part from the Scala’s takings).

From reading Anne Billson it was only a short leap to Pauline Kael, whose chunky collections looked unruly and gaily-coloured on the sober shelves of my university library.

Watch Kael in action:

If Billson showed that humour was an important tool in film writing, Kael demonstrated that you could make your own rules. As Nick Pinkerton notes in his own contribution to that Sight & Sound feature, to love and read Kael is to engage in endless spats with her. My love and admiration for her has been fierce and erratic. Paradoxically, that’s one of the reasons her reviews are so important to me: a disagreement with her is always a ruck worth having. Her writing is alive and boisterous, with shades of the bar-room brawl about it; closing one of her books, it still feels as though the arguments are still raging with the pages.

Film criticism has plenty of robust, distinctive female voices — from Charlotte O’Sullivan at the Standard and Catherine Shoard at the Guardian to Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies and my NS colleague Antonia Quirke (whose brilliant and engaging guests spots hosting BBC1’s Film 2015 render it absurd that the programme makers haven’t handed stewardship of that show to her on a permanent basis). The Sight & Sound piece has been chastening in one way. Just because the female voice in film writing and broadcasting is implicit doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be emphasised and celebrated. How strange, and telling, that it took that feature to make me consider and acknowledge the importance of the female voice in my own development.

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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era