Crix pix? Nix!

  • Datum 27-01-2011
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Neil Young wonders why film critics are so seldom portrayed in fiction films.

"I’m a film critic."
— Lt Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), inglourious basterds (2009)

Of all the lines of dialogue Quentin Tarantino has written over the years, those four words are hardly the most quotable, memorable or renowned. But in terms of cinema history — in all those decades stretching back to Louis le Prince, Edison, the Lumières and Skladanowskys — they’re decidedly, and surprisingly unusual.
It’s easy to recall theatre-critics appearing as prominent characters in prominent movies: George Sanders’ silky Addison De Witt in all about eve (1950), Clifton Webb’s acerbic Waldo Lydecker in laura (1944), Monty Woolley’s gale-force Sheridan Whiteside in the man who came to dinner (1941), and most of the ill-fated dramatis personae from Douglas Hickox’s theatre of blood (1973… why no movieland remake?).
Representatives of my own chosen profession have, however, enjoyed the most marginal of appearances in the medium to which we’ve devoted the bulk of our creative energies. Perhaps this is just as well, as whenever we have popped up in movies — leaving aside documentaries such as, to name a couple of recent examples, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Brazilian critico (2008) and Gerald Peary’s for the love of movies (2009) — such portrayals have tended to range from the unflattering to the downright insulting.
This is partly why the presentation of film critics in movies — the screen acting as (distorting) mirror to those of us scribbling notes with our light-pens in the stalls — is one of those very few areas pretty much guaranteed (one might even use the word calculated) to jar movie journalists, no matter how long-established, battle-hardened or globally-esteemed, out of that cosy "comfort zone" which is our usual locus operandi.
I wonder if it’s a coincidence that so many of my fellow critics — if memory serves — cited the moment of Archie Hicox’s earlier-than-expected exit as the juncture when the wheels started to come off inglourious basterds’ lovingly-crafted but structurally ungainly wagon. How cruel to rob us of such a rare paragon, such a noble advertisement for our perpetually-maligned trade! ("Nobody ever put up a statue to a critic," as the old adage reminds us.)
Until his fateful flourishing of the wrong three fingers in a boisterous bierkeller — thus betraying his non-Teutonic background and setting in motion his premature, violent demise — Archie had been that rarity of rarities: a fictional film-critic who was dashing, daring, handsome, heroic and, crucially, not too clever for his own good. The closest thing, one could argue, that Tarantino’s sprawling ensemble had to a "conventional" leading man.
Ostensibly on Graham Greene — one of Britain’s most adventurous and eloquent film-reviewers during the 1930s — Hicox is introduced as a regular contributor to the magazines Films and Filmmakers and Flickers Bi-Monthly, and author of two books: Art of the Eyes, the Heart and the Mind — A Study of German Cinema in the Twenties and Twenty-Four-Frame Da Vinci ("a subtextual film criticism study of the work of German director G W Pabst.").
It’s interesting that Tarantino should go to such trouble to sketch in these specific (fictional but plausible-sounding) details of Hicox’s career, in addition to giving a film critic, of all things, such prominence and immaculate suavity. For all his publicity-courting flamboyance, QT is a director who, despite many of his post-jackie brown efforts having proved highly divisive among critics, has benefited from their vocal support on several occasions over the years (and unlike the more boorishly confrontational Kevin Smith he does — as befits such a passionate adherent of the Nouvelle vague — seem to realise that most film-critics are, like him, first and foremost professional movie lovers.)
He’s certainly had a generally smoother reception than his compatriots M Night Shyamalan and Rob Zombie, writer-directors who’ve scored significant commercial and/or cult success despite regular, vitriol-soaked maulings from professional commentators. And each have included film-critics as supporting characters in their own movies: Bob Balaban’s grouchy Harry Farber in Shyamalan’s lady in the water (2006) and Robert Trebor’s Groucho-phile Marty Walker in Zombie’s the devil’s rejects (2005).
While Archie Hicox is perhaps guilty of (inadvertently fatal) hubris, both Farber and Walker are examples of the film critic as geeky weirdo whose (prodigious) knowledge of their chosen field proves of questionable practical use. indeed, Balaban’s snooty Farber ends up as dead as Archie Hicox, learning the hard way that "real life" monsters don’t behave like their silver-screen equivalents.
Harry Farber, his name a nod to one legendary American critic (Manny Farber) and his dress-sense at times a more subtle homage to another (Roger Ebert) is perhaps the most acidically vinegary example of what we might diagnose as a directorial sour grapes: he’s been described as having "chips on his shoulders and a vendetta to seemingly suck the magic out of everything," and the personification of a "massive M Night hissy [fit]."
Unsurprisingly, such a savagely negative portrayal of one of their brethren inspired a vociferous response from real-world critics. That rare 21st century Paul Giamatti enterprise to receive lousy notices, lady in the water was (somewhat excessively, in my personal opinion) kicked between here and next Wednesday by the vast majority of reviewers, especially in the States (where both Farber and Ebert are held in special reverence), the Farber character — caricature, rather — coming in for particular flak.
the devil’s rejects wasn’t exactly warmly received — ditto its grindhousesqe predecessor, house of a thousand corpses — but the moustachioed, motormouthed buffoon Walker is, in comparison with Farber, a benign idiot. His worst crime, in the picture’s skewed moral universe, is to voice criticism of Elvis Presley (on the pleasingly absurd grounds that the King’s lavatorial 1977 demise robbed publicity from G.Marx, who’d passed away three days later.)
Like much of the devil’s rejects, the Walker scene is too dopey to be taken seriously — but Harry Farber can’t be so airily dismissed/forgiven. And while there are numerous reasons why Shyamalan (always more of a public fave than critical rave) has remained in the reviewers’ doghouse ever since — the happening (2008) was received with bemused bafflement; the last airbender (2010) proved as welcome in screening-rooms as the proverbial fart in a spacesuit — the spectre of Harry Farber has, one suspects, yet to be fully exorcised (not that this has prevented both of Shyamalan’s last two efforts from respectable performances at the world’s box offices.)
Such perceived "attacks" — by their nature — displace the critic from his or her preferred "comfort zone," as they place us in morally tricky positions. If we "rise to the bait," we lay ourselves open to the charge of being happy to dish out barbs but unwilling to receive them. But if we "let it go," and bite our collective tongues, there’s the worry that Joe and Josephine Public will come to tar all of us with the same Harry Farber / Marty Walker shaped brush of joyless, nerdy insularity.
And there’s also the matter of the film critic commenting on the one profession which he/she knows inside out, but whose nuts-and-bolts practicalities are a mystery (and an irrelevance) to the average cinemagoer — ticket-buyers having only a vague, misleadingly glamorous image of how press-screenings and film-festivals ("aren’t they all like Cannes?") operate.
It’s one thing for me to praise the convincingly documentary-style presentation of, say, California tuna fishing in the Depression era (the last movie I saw in the cinema was Howard Hawks’ 1932 tiger shark), but to do so gives, in a casual fashion, the impression that I have any idea of how tuna fishermen went about their business (maybe Hawks made the whole thing up.) But I’m hypersensitive when dealing with film critics as fictional characters — and it’s a hypersensitivity which, I reckon, goes with the territory.
Of course, as with most journalists depicted the movies, it’s most unusual to ever see a film critic actually doing any proper work in a picture. Who’d want to see that? A bunch of pallid, unhealthy looking blokes (and the profession is still male-dominated, sad to say) sitting in the dark watching a movie, then grumbling about it in the bar/cafe afterwards, then heading home to bang out 500 choleric words, and then waiting weeks if not months to get paid?
OK, there may be the occasional dramatic "flashpoint" when a piqued director responds with verbal/physical violence to a perceived or actual slight — but in terms of the quotidian graft of being a film-reviewer… shall we say it’s not exactly the stuff of which celluloid dreams are made (that’s not to say that the lives of Andre Bazin, Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, to name but three, couldn’t make for prime biopic material in the right scriptwriting hands.)
One notable recent exception is a movie seemingly designed specifically to nudge us poor beleaguered critics out of our comfort-zones, Swiss writer-director Lionel Baier’s un autre homme (another man, 2008). A kind of black-and-white, movie-flavoured combo of shattered glass and the sweet smell of success, Baier’s barbed psychological comedy is the story of François (Robin Harsch), an opportunistic academic-turned-journalist who finds himself working on a tiny weekly paper in the Jura valley after moving there to live with his girlfriend.
For reasons that are never made clear, he decides to plagiarise a fancy French movie-magazine, copying the high-falutin’ prose verbatim into the film-review pages of his hicksville rag. Attending press screenings in nearby Lausanne, François drifts into an exciting, illicit affair with the enigmatic ‘Rosa Rouge’ (Natacha Koutchumov), ecritic for L’Epoque magazine — including a bout of auditorium coitus which is, in my own admittedly somewhat sheltered experience, Baier’s most imaginative flight of scriptwriting fancy.
A kind of very poor man’s Tom Ripley, the callously amoral anti-hero bluffs his way along quite successfully in the world of criticism — committing the cardinal sin of commentating on movies he’s never actually seen — until his eventual, eleventh-hour unmasking and disgrace. "Underneath it all…" as I wrote in my Jigsaw Lounge review of the picture, "is what feels too much like cheap contempt for film critics and their work — dangerous territory for any director, unless he’s really coming up with the goods himself."
As it is, the only particularly well-regarded movie with a film-critic as its principal character remains Herbert Ross’s play it again, sam (1972), starring Woody Allen as Allan Felix, a San Francisco resident with a cosily bohemian pad (complete with enviable antique booth for his record-player), an undemanding work-schedule, a chaotic love-life (involving, inevitably, a young-and-lovely Diane Keaton) and the spectre of Humphrey Bogart, no less, on his shoulder dispensing romantic advice.
Witty but nervy, imaginative but luckless in love, Allan Felix — originally written (by Allen himself) for the stage and not the screen, as it happens — is perhaps the one example of a movie film-critic that actual film-critics can write about without that creeping, gnawing sense of self-conscious discomfort. Mr Allen then enjoyed more than a decade in which he received, with only occasional exceptions, the most gushingly glowing critical notices… Film-makers of the world are invited to draw their own conclusions.

Neil Young

Neil Young is a film-critic and programmer/curator. He writes regularly for The Hollywood Reporter, Tribune and Jigsaw Lounge, among other outlets. He programs or advises on programming for the festival of Bradford in the UK, Crossing Europe and Viennale in Austria, IndieLisboa in Portugal, Tromso in Norway and Ljubljana and Izola in Slovenia.