End credits for Philip French

French, the Observer’s main film critic since 1978, will retire in August. Douglas McCabe assesses the work of a critic who was determined to see every film in its social, historical, cultural and aesthetic context.

Philip French, the Observer’s main film critic since 1978, will retire in August following his 80th birthday. For the past few years, it has looked as if the Observer, a newspaper founded in 1791 and now suffering from a rapid decline, could be retired before French steps down.

Film criticism in newspapers today is not the discipline to which French elevated it when he began reviewing in the early 1960s (his first film review for the paper appeared in 1963). Despite his confidence in its future, I suspect that digital, mobile and social media collectively threaten to undermine the demand for professional cultural criticism more broadly.

French has been an integral part of the Observer experience for 35 years in a way no successor will be able to equal, because our lifestyles and expectations have changed enormously. When I was an adolescent, he was part of my Sunday ritual. I lived in a small town with an impecunious, uneducated family that had limited interest in culture; French informed me about films I was not able to see for months. He helped me define my interests; my sense of how history, cultural analysis and taste intermingled and of the range of values that determined a civilised life. It is impossible to imagine another Sunday newspaper columnist having such influence today.

Most newspapers and magazines have not markedly reduced their space for film reviews in the past few decades (it is inexpensive and relatively popular copy) but they have frequently handed film criticism to populist journalists who have a limited historic perspective on the medium. There are exceptions. In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes beautiful prose, full of metaphor, his light-of-foot style arguably making the informed, knowledge-based approach of French seem verbose, plodding and a little worthy. Mark Cousins – the journalist, author, broadcaster and film-maker – communicates an indefinable film-art temperament with infectious enthusiasm and he has democratically decentralised cinema to an art form and industry alive and effective across all continents. This risks making French’s love of westerns, police procedurals and British dramas look conservative.

Yet such comparisons are misleading. French breathes cinema. Few cultural commentators trust the medium as he does (it saved him from a career in law). He embraces quality popular entertainment as much as the more demanding European cinema because he sees every film in its social, historical, cultural and aesthetic context.

A S Byatt has referred to him as “one of the monuments of our culture”. His short film reviews in the Observer’s television pages are deceptively simple mini-essays, overflowing with insights. The longer reviews contain an intelligence and analysis – of both a film’s wider context and its style – that few reviewers have the experience or cultural knowledge to match. Look again at his reviews of The Great Gatsby, Brokeback Mountain, Heat, or Vera Drake. French systematically articulates how to approach each work and how we experience it emotionally and intellectually.

Like everyone, critics have topics to which they return again and again. Over the decades, attentive readers of French have developed an intimate understanding of his obsessions. A comprehensive list could go on for pages but would certainly include: the writers Graham Greene and Jorge Luis Borges (many crime films manifest “Borgesian themes”); cowboy adventures (his book Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre is a leading work in a contested field); films set on trains; actors with great voices, notably Cary Grant and James Mason; the Gherkin in London; directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Ingmar Bergman, Christopher Nolan, Pedro Almodóvar and Louis Malle (his extended interview Malle on Malle is one of the finest books on a film director).

In 1994 I sent French a postcard outlining my films of the year and, in a brief reply highlighting my inclusion of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, he noted wryly, “Movie titles that start with numbers are often fine.” The implication was clear. French has long written about sequels (with the notable exception of the Godfather films), and the public obsession with the box office, as representing the worst traits of an industry that changed after Steven Spielberg reinvented the movie event.

He would never stoop to using a Shakespearean cliché such as: “We shall never see his like again.” But in this case, it is true – and it’s hardly French’s fault that he will be unable to inspire a sequel of the same stature.

Philip French's review of Vera Drake is worth revisiting.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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