Tom Sutcliffe: It’s a cop out to attack critics

The Week In Culture
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The Independent Online

Film critics are having a pretty hard time of it right now, what with Variety – Hollywood's trade bible – axing its staff critics (they're off the payroll and will only function as freelancers) and the film-maker Kevin Smith railing against the whole system of reviewer's previews. Stung by the reaction to his latest film, Cop Out, he asked a question that has no doubt occurred to other film directors in the past: "Why am I giving an arbitrary 500 people power over what I do at all, let alone for free. Why's their opinion more valid? It's a backwards system. People are free to talk shit about any of my flicks, so long as they paid to see it." To which one might answer that if he thinks American critics are more arbitrary in their judgements than the average occupants of a multiplex screening then he needs to put more coffee in the pot in the morning.

He's right about one thing though, which is that pointing out what should be obvious to anyone – that Cop Out, say, is a lame comedy – is the most redundant element of any critic's job. Bizarrely Smith compared the critical assault on Cop Out with a school bully picking on "a retarded kid", a very strange kind of a metaphor for a man to use about his own work, suggesting, as it did, that it couldn't compete on level terms with the other children in the playground and was deserving of critical sympathy and special allowances. And when a film very obviously does have learning difficulties most good critics will feel there's not a lot of return in going on and on about it. You point it out (it's a critic's job to stream for ability) and then move on to something more interesting. It's why films like that tend to get written off with just a paragraph. What was really intriguing about Smith's metaphor though (apart from its dubious taste) was that it could so easily be adapted into a defence of the critic.

One way of putting this would be to say that when critics really work well they're taking the bullies on, rather than bullying themselves. Into the schoolyard swaggers one of the rich kids, backed by millions, boasting about his merits and bribing others to back him up. This kid can afford to look good, to spread his largesse around, to create an impression of mastery that has absolutely nothing to do with his inherent merits. And sometimes the critic is the one who comes along and says 'Actually, you're not all that special'. And since this rich kid wants your lunch money off you – and will use his reputation to wheedle it out of you – it can be handy to have someone pointing that out.

Far more significant, though, is what the critic can do for the shy kids and the funny looking ones. I went to see Lourdes last week – Jessica Hausner's quiet masterpiece about the human hunger for miracles – and it struck me as precisely the kind of film that justifies the existence of critics – not because it would be inconceivable without them, or owes any of its virtues to their existence – but because what you want to do when you come out of it is to talk or read about it some more. And since everything that's good about it is unobvious – tucked away into corners of the screen, held back at the end of scenes that demand your patience, a matter of mistakes not made – reading good criticism of it, and finding that someone else noticed too (and quite possibly noticed more) is inseparable from the pleasure of the film itself.

In the kind of playground that Kevin Smith seems to want – boisterous, noisy, oafishly unjudgemental – Lourdes wouldn't stand a chance. It's the introverted child, lost in thought in a quiet corner, and all too easily dismissed as dull until a really good critic comes along and says, "This is the one that you should spend some time with." And not because it's an act of charity either.

The crem of the crop

I am compiling a new collection of Crematorium Classics, with the aim of freshening up the overworked Top 10, which funeral directors have to listen to day after day. There must be only so many times you can hear Whitney Houston (below) hammering the high notes on "I Will Always Love You" before you want to scream alongside her, in atonal counterpoint. I'm not thinking here of the jokey songs some people like to request – like Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" – but the kind of soaring pop aria that provides a demotic alternative to the Mozart Requiem. Two superb candidates have recently presented themselves. The first is the title song of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Love Never Dies", a song which is almost a platonic model of the crematorium classic, in its combination of sentiment, lyric and tear-jerking crescendo. But another candidate arrived from an unusual quarter the other day – when I was listening to David Byrne's new collaboration with Fatboy Slim, a song cycle based on the life of Imelda Marcos. This begins with a 1970s pop pastiche called "Here Lies Love", sung by Florence Welch, and it almost out-Webbers Webber. It's fantastic and given its lyric ("When I am called by God above/ Don't have my name inscribed into the stone/ Just say: Here lies love") it deserves to be a fixture on the crem playlist.

* I'm delighted to tell you that all of you – pretty much without exception – can now number among your possessions an object hallowed by admission to the prestigious permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Then again "object" might be thought to be a tendentious description since what we're talking about here is the @ sign. In a recent blog post one of the museum's senior curators Paola Antonelli announced that the Department of Architecture and Design was proud to have acquired the @ sign as a new acquisition. This innovative enlargement of the museum's holdings, Antonelli argues, was a precedent that "sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that 'cannot be had'". Nobody knows who invented the sign itself, but Moma credit the act of design to Ray Tomlinson, the computer engineer who lifted it out of keyboard obscurity to use in email addresses. By choosing it and defining the rules of its contemporary use, Antonelli argues, he was engaging in an act of design. You might equally say that @ is a Duchampian readymade, but whatever the case it somehow feels right that it's been put on a plinth and had a museum spotlight shone on it.