THE FILM CRITICS: DEREK MALCOLM

ďyou have to be a wholesome person to be a good criticĒ

Jaap Mees


 
Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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I did a workshop the other day at the National Film and TV School. I showed Lawrence of Arabia, which was well attended. Then I screened Last Year in Marienbad by Alain Resnais for three people. Nowadays the big multiplex cinemas mainly show big budget Hollywood films, sometimes a British film and hardly ever a foreign language film. That means we are getting  a generation who donít know anything about World-cinema at all. There never was a huge audience for foreign language films, but at least a loyal minority. That minority is now more or less disenfranchised. 

It makes it difficult to be a critic nowadays, my hands are tied behind my back by my own newspaper, who would prefer to print a witty column about Godzilla than give space to a literate review of The Dream Life of Angels, the wonderful debut film of Erick Zonca. 

When I started as a critic in 1970 it was possible to write about interesting films from India, Africa or Europe, now everybody wants interviews with stars, preferably pretty girls. Last year in Cannes I saw serious colleagues running after some stupid stars, because thatís what their newspaper expect from them. Itís a  real dumbing-down effect. I give you another example: when the Mizoguchi-season was held in the NFT and the Renoir cinema in 1998, which drew in a huge audience, it did even better than the recent Howard Hawks season, I wrote positively about it together with Time Out. I heard the arts editor of my paper saying to the deputy arts editor, what is Derek writing about this week, he said : Ďsome old Japanese director he likes.í They donít know that Mizoguchi is one of the best directors in world cinema!

Is that the reason you retired from the Guardian?

I  didnít  really retire, I donít do the reviewing anymore, now I write my own column Pass the Popcorn (Thursday)  and still do the festivals. Then I write a lot for European papers and Iím still the President of the FIPRESCI, the world film critics organisation. To be honest Iím quite happy not to have to review anymore, because you have to sit through so much crap. When you are an art critic or a music-critic you doní have to review everything, but a film critic does. 

The last few years Iíve done some work for radio and TV. When Kzrystof Kieslovski died I went on the BBC world service, the interviewer turns round and says: Ďhavenít we had enough of this Polish angst.í Unbelievable. At one time critics were taken too seriously, but now they ask the man in the street his opinion, that is considered more valuable than what some boring old critic says.

In the arts the critic is the only Independent source of  information, the rest is advertising. Do you agree?

Yes thatís absolutely right, but now the hype is so immense, for a film like Titanic for example, that it doesnít make much difference what the critic says.

What is the function of a film critic?

First of all you should write entertainingly, because you want to be read. You also have to work fast to  make your deadlines, they are quite severe now. 

Then you need to know the film history, and should be able to relate one film to another. Then you need a certain knowledge about the other arts, especially theatre and visual arts. Importantly you need to be some kind of whole person who really likes people.

The last aspect is that you must forget about objective criticism, because there is no such thing. As long you are clear to your readers, where you stand and what your view on life is. I think I can see if a film is true or fake, when itís on the screen. People who never write in the íIí form sound like God, and you never know where they are coming from. 

I find critics who have been out in the world a bit and have some broader interests, usually more interesting than reviewers who spent most of their life sitting in the dark completely absorbed by movies and nothing else. 

 What did you do before you became a film critic?

When I left Oxford University I couldnít get in to publishing, so I became a steeple chase jockey for two years. After that I acted for three years and then drifted in to journalism, first I did theatre-criticism, since 1970 I became the film critic of The Guardian. 

What stands out in 28 years of  film criticism?

Itís difficult to answer, but certainly Kieslovski, I pushed him even before he made the Dekalog. Other  filmmakers I always have supported are Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Satyajit Ray, and several directors from the Third World and Latin America.

I would like to know what you think of three recent British films: Love is the Devil, Elisabeth and My Name Is Joe?

Love is the Devil is directed by the experimental film maker John Maybury, with this film he makes his first commercial feature. I think itís a good and honest film, with very good performances, especially from Derek Jacobi, who plays Francis Bacon.

Elisabeth is a very lively, provocative film, which is not very accurate in a historical sense. Itís definitely not a very conventional costume-drama film in the usual sense, but made much more darker and daring. Director Shekhar Kapur, who made The Bandit Queen before proves himself an excellent actors-director, especially the Australian actress Cate Blanchett as Elisabeth and Geoffrey Rush stand out, I wasnít very impressed by Richard Attenboroughís part. Kapur is now working on a film on Nelson Mandela.

My Name Is Joe by Ken Loach is for me the best British film of the year. Itís true in some parts, like the football scenes, they looked similar as in his earlier film Kes. Itís still an excellent film about ordinary people, told with a sense of humour. Loach always draws amazing performances from his actors.

During the last London Film Festival your colleague Jonathan Romney wrote an article under the heading: British Film is Sick. He stated that films like Sliding Doors and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels are made to please the audience. He made a plea for more adventurous cinema, for making more risky and truly original films. 

Yes, non-commercial, more experimental  films hardly get a chance to be made anymore, and that is a worrying development. A filmmaker like Peter Greenaway would find it extremely difficult to make his mark, if he started now. The audience is getting more and more conservative, the minority of filmgoers  who like subtitled films, go frequently to  International film festivals to see World-cinema.

How do you see the future of cinema, are there any new young filmmakers you find exciting? 

At he moment I donít see any great filmmakers in the category of Bergman, Truffaut or  Fassbinder. Film directors who stay in your mind for a long time. The Golden Age of cinema is over, I mean there are no periods anymore, like the New Wave in France, with Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette etc. Or the so called Movie Brat generation in the Seventies with people like Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader and Spielberg, or the New German cinema with Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog . Deeply original filmmakers find it difficult to deal with the increasing  commercial  pressure nowadays. They often give up on filmmaking and find other ways to express themselves.

Another point is the extensive choice people have to spend their free time. Digital TV channels, personal computers, the Internet, video games etc.

Which filmmakers I find promising? Anand Tucker who just made Hilary and Jacky, a biopic on the well-known cellist Jacqueline du Pre. Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom, although he hasnít made a cracker yet.(what about Jude? J.M.) And Terence Davies, but heís more established already. 

What are your top three films at the moment, and who is your  favourite director?

1)  Tokyo Story by Ozu
2)   Les Regles du Jeu by Jean Renoi
3)   Rio Bravo by Howard Hawks.
My favourite director is Luis Bunuel and I donít have a  favourite actor/actress, that depends on the film.

After two years of work Derek Malcolm has compiled The complete 100 movies for The Guardian.
 
 

On the subject of film criticism see: Hooray For Hollywood
 
 
 
 

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