Film Studies

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The Independent Culture
Here's an oddity, and one that obtains in the relevant section at your Sunday paper, whether it is headed "Arts," "Culture", or even "Kulcha". Just about every movie that opens in Britain gets reviewed, at length, or in a short killer para, or noted. This is taken for granted, in Britain and in America, though sometimes - most recently with The Avengers - distributors arrange no screenings, as if to say, just this once, let us off the hook - don't review the wretched picture. So reviewers waited for the first public screening, determined to be fair, and put the stiletto where it belonged.

On the other hand, publishers, literary editors, authors and readers know that many good and interesting books go unnoted. There are concerts, art openings, dance events, radio and television programmes, equally, that are not written about. And in all those areas, apparently, it is deemed "fair play" that the works must scramble and plead for attention, and that it is the right of the paper and its editors to decide what "deserves" proper review attention.

Why is this? Well, you can be cynical and say that film distributors advertise more often than publishers or small galleries - so, one way or another, they "buy" their coverage. Don't rule that out: in a large and famously cultured American city once, in the late 1970s, I was removed as film critic from a paper because of pressure from the local distributors - to the effect that I didn't like enough films. (And films were better in the 1970s than they are now - believe me.)

There's also the practical argument: that there are too many books to be fair about, but that four or five new pictures a week is "manageable". Maybe so, but sooner or later, that is going to mean three or four very funny sentences on Steven Seagal in a section called "culture" that omits Musil, Mahler or Stagg (You don't know who "Stagg" is? Proves my point.) That's nothing to take pride in.

Ah well, you say, there is the factor of scale: after all. movies are for "everyone". They therefore matter in a way that a newspaper editor should take account of. Well, yes, that is a valuable point, and there's something to it. However, for decades now, it has been the case, all over the world, that far more people see the big TV shows than ever go to hit movies. If a paper has some duty to carry on a discourse about the things that occupy the minds and dreams of most readers, then TV coverage should be immense, and the movies need to find a corner like that kept for "Jazz".

"This section has lately extended its coverage of TV - bravo for that. But TV reviews usually come after the event; they remind you of what you missed; the alerting function is hard to maintain. And, anyway, TV is ... well, while it's certainly cultural in that it's the soil in which we grow, is it respectable? Is it "Culture" ? Can TV be "beautiful"? Does it have its artists or authors (as opposed to its mere stars)?

There, I think, we are close to grasping the special power that "cinema" or "the movies" are supposed to have. It is an excitement that gripped DW Griffith and Chaplin; it was shared by Preston Sturges, David Selznick and Orson Welles; it's there still in Tarantino, La Bute or Anderson (and if you're not quite sure about those names, consider how far a study of mountaineering has descended to a kind of prairie research).

For there is a feeling, or a hope, allied to memory, that every now and then, what is a very crass, very brutal, very industrial process (American pictures) can deliver something that is lovely, searching and important. What we love about that, above all, is the notion that, even with so many of us on Earth, and with such differences, sometimes some two-hour marvel can light up the common dark and move "everyone" at the same time. This is more than art or entertainment; it's politics and the ideal community of men and women.

That chance is what made Chaplin the most famous man in the word for 20 years or so - so that his fame matched that of Hitler and made The Great Dictator almost inevitable. It's what you find or feel in, say, King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, From Here to Eternity, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather ... and so on. That's my list; you will have variants of your own. I'm not saying my list are all "great": Casablanca, plainly, is ridiculous. But it wasn't in 1943. Then, it was a terrific popular success, and something that made many people feel they were on the same page.

I make this point because I want to suggest that the list is about to grow. The Truman Show opens in Britain next week. I believe it's great and important; and it did startlingly well in America. But my feeling and its success are less important than the way it comes close to speaking to all of us - about the way television has become our life. For it is a movie and a chance of passionate reunion with the screen such as many of us have been waiting for. It makes movies central again.