BOOKS: Refuting Bruce Willis

PROJECTIONS 8 eds John Boorman and Walter Donahue, Faber pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
MANY people would give their right arm to be a film critic, and it's easy to see why: getting paid to watch movies, rub shoulders with the stars, jet off to international festivals and see your name in print on a regular basis knowing that your opinions count for something. Or do they?

Not according to Bruce Willis, who responded to derision heaped on The Fifth Element by critics at Cannes in 1997 with the assertion, "Nobody up here pays attention to reviews ... most of the written word has gone the way of the dinosaur." Peter Cowie, International Publishing Director of trade paper Variety which may have prompted the outburst with its stinging review, notes that the star had the last laugh when the sci-fi extravaganza cleaned up at the box office; Cahiers du Cinema critic turned French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, in his influential essay "What Do Critics Dream About?" written some 20 years earlier, puts it another way: "Gentlemen, I cried all the way to the bank."

The spectacle of the latest blockbuster sailing imperviously through oceans of bad notices crops up repeatedly in this latest and glossiest annual instalment of Projections, which steps into the ring by prefacing the usual pieces by or about world film-makers with two lengthy chapters devoted to the role and relevance of modern film criticism. "The Critics" invites newspaper and magazine reviewers in England, America and France to respond specifically to Truffaut on the one hand and Willis on the other; "Critical Writings" includes examples of reviews by James Agee and Paul Schrader, and accounts of reviewing by Graham Greene and Pauline Kael. Together they create an identikit of the ideal film critic - someone who knows their film history inside out, someone who has a distinct worldview which films fit into, someone who can act as an objective buffer between the marketing men and the paying public, and someone committed to promoting Abbas Kiarostami above Mission Impossible.

Kiarostami, the feted Iranian director of Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry, is himself profiled in the second half of the book by New York Press writer Godfrey Cheshire, who turns out the sort of thorough, thoughtful article which makes the uninitiated want to check out the man and his movies. His comment that critics should try to get to know film- makers because the film-maker can speak up when the critic gets it wrong, unwittingly but eloquently rebuts the essay in the first chapter by Los Angeles Times columnist Kenneth Turan, who writes that the two should have as little to do with each other as possible. Sadly, isolated pieces by directors Allison Anders, Sally Potter, Nora Ephron and Michael Tolkin failed to make it past the proof stage, even though their shared opinion that the best film critics are those who prompt film-makers to see new things in their own films, was an opinion well worth listening to.

As usual, the rest is a mixed bag: rambling diaries by Christopher Doyle, cinematographer on Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together and Alex Belth, assistant to the Coen Brothers on The Big Lebowski; concise interviews with Hector Babenco (Kiss of the the Spiderwoman) after his recovery from cancer and Fred Zinnemann (High Noon) just before his death; and affectionate tributes to Fritz Lang (Metropolis) and Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor) by friends and colleagues. But the real gem is a conversation between top film editor Walter Murch and novelist Michael Ondaatje about adapting The English Patient - scenes are dissected, sound effects discussed, and cinema interpreted by two artists with different yet complementary perspectives. Jonathan Romney rightly complains in his pragmatic "Critic's Diary" that "Hollywood is one giant jamming device", but books like this serve as a reminder that you can still tune into a different station.