Film: The Critical Condition - Bite. Chew. Swallow. Gulp!

Film critics see themselves as... well, how do they see themselves? As harbingers of the truth? As Freudian analysts? As directors in waiting? In the fifth part of our week-long series on criticism, we explore their dark and lonely worldes

The sheer newness of film means that it has been absorbed by different cultures in different ways, sending down its deepest roots in America, the country with the shortest history. In France, for instance, they do things differently: film is accorded parity with the other art forms by the invention of an extra protective muse, the 10th, and writing about cinema fits into a dense pre-existing dialogue of philosophy and rhetoric. If you read an article that asserts, with a sort of reductive bravado, that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is less a film than a deconstruction of Jack Nicholson's smile, you are likely to be reading French criticism.

The British approach to films has tended to be coolly literary, favouring script and performances at the expense of the other things a film contains. In this, our criticism has paralleled our film-making (with regular exceptions, such as Hitchcock and Lean), though we can more confidently claim to have the virtues that correspond to our vices. The tone of British cinema criticism has generally been polite rather than impassioned, balanced rather than partisan; when the late Dilys Powell, whose reviewing career spanned well over half a century, wrote about films, her readers were not bombarded with her opinions, but could be quite clear about whether she liked a film, or merely admired it. She didn't need to raise her voice.

Criticism has always itself been criticised, as being essentially an act of revenge by the uncreative on the creative - a seductive argument that is refuted by the history of New Wave Cinema in France in the Fifties. A whole generation of critics, spearheaded by Truffaut and Godard, stormed the imaginary barricades and became film-makers in their own right. A sniping opposition became a radical government almost overnight. A colony of parasites declared its independence.

Film is an inherently expensive medium, so most budding film-makers have to wait some time before getting their hands on a camera, but perhaps criticism can clear the ground creatively by giving an artist some foretaste of his predilections and aversions (the French directors, by and large, aligned themselves with American cinema, and a new and flattering reading of Hitchcock).

All the same, the New Wave phenomenon hasn't been duplicated elsewhere on anything like the same scale. Paul Schrader, for instance, writer of Taxi Driver and director of American Gigolo, also started out writing criticism, but his was a special case. He was brought up in a religious environment, in which films were disapproved of, and his pent-up enthusiasm once he discovered what he had been missing carried him beyond the category of mere fan. But perhaps for a truer repetition of the New Wave event, a culture is required that takes criticism seriously, as something that need not be a secondary activity.

British critics are more likely to see themselves as scriptwriters manques than directors in the making. Penelope Gilliatt, for a long time a film critic for The New Yorker, wrote the screenplay for Schlesinger's successful and influential Sunday Bloody Sunday, but it seems unlikely that she ever had designs on the director's chair.

The hyper-inflated economics of film means that, nowadays, a bad review of a film will be visually cancelled by a large advertisement on the same page bristling with quintuple stars (you can find someone to give five stars to pretty much anything). Academic film criticism is very much a minority pastime, now that the medium has been losing fashionability to pop culture. The magazines that used to support interestingly hybrid writing, on the cusp of reviewing and true criticism, have been swallowed up or limp along from issue to issue.

In the Seventies, for instance, it was possible to read an article in New Society about Jaws, which argued that Spielberg's blockbuster was essentially about the fear of female sexuality, with the savage orifice of the Great White Shark embodying the vagina dentata of phobic male fantasy - a perverse reading that can't quite be dismissed. It was possible to read an article in Sight and Sound analysing Marathon Man in terms of its imagery of ritual cleansing. The argument was carefully mounted: the film starts on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement; the hero's brother dies in an ornamental fountain; the climax takes place in a sewer, down which the villain's atrociously acquired wealth of diamonds is sluiced.

I remember reading this particular article, and resisting it quite fiercely, insisting mentally that Marathon Man was a fairly undistinguished thriller, relying on nothing much more fancy than people's fear of having their teeth assaulted by Nazis with dental drills. But the preposterous argument has stayed with me, and has enriched the film, rather against my will, with a layer of unsuspected meaning.

But if British film culture in the Nineties is relatively impoverished, we can still boast of having given two major figures to the world, that is, to America: Quentin Crisp and David Thomson. Crisp's idiosyncratic criticism is now widely published, but he started writing it at the instigation of the editor of New York's Christopher Street, the flagship magazine of the gay movement, which he both contests and is embraced by.

Crisp's reviews are polite, even when they are deadly - he will find something nice to say about something, and if that means complimenting the spotlessness of the toilet in the cinema where he happened to see the film, so be it. He prefers to use surnames prefixed by "Mr" or "Miss" - a piece of gallantry that has the effect of revealing the campiness of many one-word names (Mr Sting, Miss Madonna). His agenda is clear: for him, any film at all is better than real life, but a good movie can provide a set of imaginary standards to live by; better yet, to dream by. He wants glamour rather than realism, and romance rather than tawdry consummation. He wants dreams rather than grit, because for him - and he puts his case unsurpassably - cinema is not about truth, but about compensation; and he can do grit for himself.

David Thomson's way of looking at films is very different, alert to money, to politics, to biography, but no less creative and subversive. In his novel Suspects, for instance, he takes as his characters the characters of films noirs (from Double Indemnity to Body Heat), unweaves their stories, and then reweaves them, to produce a composite portrait of American dysfunction and darkness. The cumulative effect is extraordinary: the hero of American Gigolo turns out, in Thomson's version, to be the son of the Faye Dunaway character in Chinatown.

Thomson revisits the cliche of the critic as parasite, but he is a sly sort of parasite, incubating his fantasies inside other people's films. I can't be the only person who dreads the scene in The Godfather Part II where Kay Corleone (Diane Keaton) is raped by her estranged husband's goons on his orders, to stop her making trouble - a scene that of course exists only in Suspects, but has successfully been grafted from one imaginary world on to another.

Thomson's most recent project is just as bold. In his book on the Alien series of films, he sets out to emend them where they fall short of his standards. So he offers in alternate sections the Alien Resurrection that viewers were offered in cinemas, and the Alien Resurrection that they deserved, and that the logic of the earlier films required. It's hard to imagine a higher achievement for film criticism than this one: remaking a movie, in people's heads at least, while it's still new.

Tomorrow: Andy Gill on rock, and Edward Seckerson on classical music criticism

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