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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Why serving wine at room temperature is a myth

There is no such thing as room temperature: there are simply different rooms. 

As a child, I loved Aesop’s Fables – all except one. Like most children, I had an aggrieved sense of adults’ perceived superiority, and enjoyed seeing them outwitted or outthought, in fiction at least, by fellow inferior beings: children, ideally, but animals would do.

Voltaire thought that fables were invented by the first conquered race, because free men have no need to dress up truth in allegory, and maybe he was right: Aesop, after all, was a slave. But children have been shackled by dependence and freed by imagination since time began, so who knows? Perhaps the form was created by them.

The fable I disliked involved a Satyr and a Man. The latter blew on his fingers to warm them, then on his porridge to cool it; the former, appalled, refused to fraternise further with a creature who could blow hot and cold with the same breath. Even to my immature self, this seemed unjust. The Man was adaptable, not dishonest; the ambient temperature had changed, and his actions with it. And who is a Satyr – half man, half goat – to accuse others of being neither one thing nor the other?

It turns out that most modern wine waiters are Satyrs of a sort. If I had a pound for every bewildered burbling about “room temperature” when I’ve asked for a wine, often red, to be cooled, I would buy myself a Eurocave. (Actually, I already have one, and it stores all my wine at a beautifully consistent 12 degrees. But it is full, so I would buy another.)

There is no such thing, Satyrs, as room temperature: there are simply different rooms, and just as I despise a wine chilled beyond all flavour perception to a degree that could be termed English Stately Home, so I desire never again to sit in a breezeless interior in midsummer while someone serves red wine that practically steams in the glass.

The vine is an exceptionally adaptable plant, stubbornly digging its roots into chalk or sand or clay, and the eventual result is a liquid that contains, when well made, something of both the land that nourished it and the hand that made it.

Humanity, too, is malleable, often to a fault. We shuck off cardigans or pull on thick coats, and sometimes we do the one while wishing heartily that we were doing the other, and we drink something that briefly transports us to the place we yearn for. It is only Satyrs who lack imagination, although adults sometimes need theirs refreshed.

Voltaire agreed. “The Man was absolutely right,” he wrote scornfully of this fable, “and the Satyr was an idiot.” I suspect he and I would also have concurred on the question of wine temperature, although, if so, Voltaire had a problem. He was in the habit of serving his guests wine from Beaujolais, just south of Burgundy, which is made with the Gamay grape. If there is one red wine that needs to be served chilled, to about 11 degrees, it is this one. But for his own enjoyment, the great philosopher cravenly reserved fine Burgundy, and the aromatic complexity of that wine would have needed a couple of degrees more for its perfumes and flavours to evaporate sensuously into his hovering nostrils.

I picture him chilling the wines uniformly, then warming the contents of his own glass with a discreet exhalation of breath. Moral failings, as every Aesop reader knows, come in many forms. That is what separates us from the animals.

 

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear