Flick lit: writing in the dark

The daily grind of being a film critic can be tough, as a host of great novelists have discovered.

15 November 2023

By Nicole Flattery

Buster Keaton
Sight and Sound

“Four and a half years of watching films several times a week…I can hardly believe in that life of the distant thirties now, a way of life I adopted quite voluntarily from a sense of fun. More than four hundred films – and I suppose there would have been many more if I had not suffered during the same period from other obsessions.” I recently came across a copy of Graham Greene’s The Pleasure Dome: The Collected Film Criticism 1935-40 in a second-hand bookshop. I spent a day leafing through it, looking, of course, for the link between the critic and the novelist. Are they the same person? Do they bring the same skills to both tasks? The critic Greene wrote many, many reviews for the Spectator (he said the job idea came to him after a third martini at a cocktail party); the novelist Greene wrote such masterpieces as Brighton Rock (1938) and The End of the Affair (1951). So what did all that time in the dark teach him? Although I doubt Greene would be all that interested in teachable moments. Instead, what did his time as a critic do to him? How did it change him?

It’s amusing to look back at a collection of criticism from 80-plus years ago; it reminds us that we have basically no understanding of what might endure. The best we can do is feel around in the dark. Greene on Hitchcock is an example of this: “His films consist of a series of small ‘amusing’ melodramatic situations… very perfunctorily he builds up to these tricky situations (paying no attention on the way to inconsistencies, loose ends, psychological absurdities) and then drops them: they mean nothing: they lead to nothing.” He was wrong, but the majority of his criticism is sharp, decisive, well-argued, witty (“The Great Ziegfeld is another of those films which belongs to the history of publicity rather than to the history of the cinema”). His reviews, much like his novels, were undeceived, grasping for a grander truth. His novels, with his trained cinematic eye, were regularly adapted for screen.

Hilary Mantel, famous for her Wolf Hall trilogy (2009-20), also did a term as the Spectator’s film critic between 1987 and 1991. She was a fan of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) calling it “energetic, visually brilliant and very funny”. She was less interested in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990): “The scattergun nastiness is, after a while, profoundly unaffecting.” Mantel’s gift as a critic was, unsurprisingly, to correctly assess the cultural temperature. This is the test of a film critic – can they take trash seriously? And can their criticism tell us something about the world we’re living in right now? Mantel, while writing about Mike Nichols’s Working Girl in 1988, accurately predicted the coming backlash against women’s emancipation: “As for what Hollywood is telling us this year about women – the mind recoils. Eat up your ice-cream and try not to think about it.”

Wild at Heart (1990)

Renata Adler, author of the 1976 modernist novel Speedboat, was nearly destroyed by being the New York Times film critic from January 1968 until February 1969. Her suffering is detailed in her collected columns, A Year in the Dark: Journal of a Film Critic. One of her pieces opened: “There is probably no more edifying and, in many ways, valueless kind of communication than everyone’s always expressing opinions about everything.”

My favourite piece of writing about being a film critic, however, is courtesy of the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan in his essay ‘Two Years in the Dark’. It was published in Granta in 2004 and details, often hilariously, his two-year sojourn as the film critic at the Daily Telegraph. Like Mantel, he’s prophetic: “Nearly every film I saw in the year 2000 was a version of something else – a previously successful movie, a best-selling book, or formulas that studios had been working to death since D.W. Griffith.” He’s mean, angry and insulted – insulted, most often, by what is being sold to him. A lot of his ire is reserved for the faux-European films of the Miramax corporation. The essay details the moment it all curdles; when your passion becomes an obligation, your dream job turns nightmarish: “As the months passed the screenings became slightly painful to me. I started waking up in the middle of the night and sneaking downstairs in search of class acts: Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Ray Liotta in GoodFellas, Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop… those nights on the sofa would turn me into myself again, restoring my capacity for wonder. I’d get up in the morning remembering my favourite lines about film… and everything would be great up until about five minutes into a screening of Kevin and Perry Go Large, when I’d realize, once again, that no loss can be more painful than the loss of one’s illusions.”

Still, what remains after all these complaints, bitterness and disappointments? Only style. Even at their most cantankerous, their work remains a delight to read because of their observations, their energy, the attention paid to language, their ability to capture both the joy and disappointment you feel when the lights go down and you’re left alone in the dark.

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