“THE MOST BORING STAR? HARRISON FORD BY MILES!”
Joseph Gilson talks to veteran film critic Derek Malcolm about his esteemed career, the past, present and future of cinema, and the time the Dalai Lama gave him some advice.
Q - In Birdman, a drunk Michael Keaton asks: “What has to happen in a person’s life to make them want to become a critic?” So, was there any particular event in yours that led you to this career?
A - When I was about ten I used to go to a shabby cinema in Bexhill to see B features and lots of 30 minute Westerns. I particularly liked Roy Rogers and his familiar horse. I thought that one day I’d write about his films. But my critical sensibilities were honed at the Gloucestershire Echo, Cheltenham’s daily paper. There I wrote about the local theatre, films, concerts and even wrestling matches. It was good practice for The Guardian. My fate was sealed. Being a former National Hunt jockey and actor, I guess I’ve gone downhill pretty fast.
Q - Was there a moment, a specific film perhaps, that made you fall in love with cinema?
A - I thought I was going to be a theatre critic until I was made film critic by the late Peter Preston, editor of The Guardian. I don’t quite know why. Possibly because he didn’t know what to do with me after he had sacked Richard Roud, a fine critic who had made the mistake of writing a one-word review of The Sound of Music, which was then the most popular film of all time at the box-office. It read: The Sound of music (Odeon, Leicester Square, U certificate) No. Then I saw some of the films of Yasujirô Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, the great Japanese directors. I’ve never forgotten the effect on me of Tokyo Story or The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums. Changed my life.
Q - Looking back through all your years as a critic, is there any one film you think you got wrong; that you reviewed unfavourably but now, in retrospect, regret doing so?
A - I made several bad mistakes. The worst was slamming Fellini’s Casanova at the Venice Festival. When the film came out in London I realised it was very good and said so in my weekly column, with apologies. I got a nice letter from Fellini thanking me. Which I have now foolishly lost. Typical!
Q - Have you had any run-ins with film-makers who have, let’s say, disagreed with your opinion of their film?
A - Not many real run-ins, largely because film-makers soon have another movie coming out and don’t want to queer their pitch for life with a critic, especially from a well-known international paper. But, of course, quite a lot of directors or actors probably dislike me, thinking I dislike their work in general. I certainly dislike some of them! Brian Singer, for example, and John Travolta. The most boring star to interview? Harrison Ford by miles!
Q - In 2001 you were named one of the six most influential film critics in the world. In the age of the internet, of blogs and sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, do you think the value and responsibility of the film critic has diminished?
A - Film criticism has certainly changed with the weakening of newspapers and the printed word. Alas, the arts don’t sell as well as politics and sports. So they don’t get the same kind of space. Some of the best American critics are now just writing online, and in England there are very few I would read with any real enthusiasm. As for the star system, how low can you get? My advice is to stick to the critic whom you generally agree with, and ignore those who either say everything is great or hate everything. And beware lots of five stars reviews. I only gave four at best.
Q - In your top 100 films, the most recent entry is Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou) from 1991. Do you think, after the turn of the millennium, the standard of film-making has dropped or is it more a case of films needing time to immortalise themselves as classics?
A - There are certainly not the great European names around compared to when I started. Just a few directors capable of making two or three fine films before relapsing. Where are the Bunuels, Bergmans, Tarkovskys and Fellinis now, or the Hawks and Fords in America come to that? It is not a golden age but year after year really good films manage to surface, like Roma, Cold War, The Favourite and Shoplifting. There’s hope left.
Q - You seem to be a champion of the auteur theory, that the director is the supreme artist of a film. Do you think there are any great auteurs working in cinema today? Or has the age of the auteur died out?
A - The age of the auteur is probably past, but see my last answer. There was a time when almost every major festival had a great director participating. Sometimes two or three. It was hell to choose.
Q - You’ve said the world is becoming smaller thanks to modern technology, but that culture and the arts are doing the opposite and expanding. Is this still true and do you still believe that we are ignorant of much of world cinema?
A - If you want to see the best foreign films, you have to seek them out, probably far from home. Hollywood still commands almost everything and the sad thing is that, ever since the financial fallout, it is the arts cinema that has been badly affected, not the commercial. I am tired of would-be distributors from all over the world saying to me: we loved the film but couldn’t buy it because it’s too difficult for most audiences. If you don’t go to festivals you don’t see a half of what is available from around the world. I gave up regular weekly criticism because I was bored stiff with mediocre movies. There are ten or twelve nowadays each week. As the Dalai Lama once told me: “We were put on this earth to suffer, you know”. Also half the critics ignore the ones I really like, often because their bosses didn’t give them enough space. The best group of films at Cannes this year were from the East. Will we see any of them? I doubt it.
Q - Finally, are there any films coming out this year you are particularly excited about?
A - I am perhaps not as cynical as some of these answers might suggest. I still love the cinema, even if prepared to see films on the telly as well where you don’t get the vile smell of popcorn. I also love the other arts too. Critics obsessed with the cinema alone are often exceedingly boring. I was once asked to be the cricket correspondent for The Guardian. Now that would have been an epic production!
Joseph Gilson is the editor of Playtime, a quarterly film journal based in Belfast.
www.playtimejournal.com www.derekmalcolm.com and Twitter is @derekmalcolm123