Will the twain ever meet?
Why isn’t film criticism taught by film critics in British universities? Or to put it another way; why have we never heard of those who teach us how to do film criticism? Creative writing courses in higher education up and down the land get to be run by practicing writers, some very well known, all with publications to their names. Witness the acclaimed Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. Even writing circles are run by individuals with publications. Witness the long-running poetry workshops run by Dinah Livingstone in north London. But the number of practical film criticism modules run by “critics” we have never heard of is on the rise. If the essential point of these courses is to teach students how to persuade somebody else to publish their work, it would help if the teacher had a track record of doing the same. Seen from the opposite perspective, it surely isn’t beyond the ken of professional film critics to impart something of their expertise to a bunch of bright-eyed students. Indeed, after the grind of pitching, researching, writing, waiting for publication, and waiting for cheques, talking about what you do and showing how it’s done should feel like Easy Street.
To investigate the forthcoming academic programmes for a selection of British universities is to witness a module option on the rise, yet one peopled by individuals teaching “Film Journalism” with scarcely a shred of experience of actually doing film journalism. Across the country there are modules and courses run by eager beaver recruits from who knows where with a yen to slum in what they presumably perceive to be the sexier precincts of Film Studies cos it’s cool and, besides, once they read a book by “Pauline Keel” . . . (it was blue). At Oxford Brookes University they run an Arts and Media Journalism module, bravely announcing that “the analysis and production of film reviews is a key component of this module.” Teaching the module is a certain Daniela Treveri G. Who does Dr Treveri G write for? Do any of her students care? Indeed, the qualifications touted by these people are pantomimic. At Anglia Ruskin University one Toby V got in post by winning a poetry competition! As a prank, a friend approached this particular institution with a proposal for an undergraduate module in Intermediate Romanian. Naturally, she emphasized her cycling proficiency badge in her resumé. At University College Falmouth, one Angela A is a tutor on the 2nd Year Film Journalism course. She “provided writing advice and expertise to the students, as well as subbing all their first-draft material for reworking to reflect the standards and conventions of a professional publishing environment.” But is Ms A herself acquainted with any “professional publishing environments”? Presumably, the assumption behind the rise of film criticism as an option for the ambitious undergrad is that criticism is a cultural phenomenon of some importance, and that there is specific expertise there to impart. Do heads of department actually read the resumés of the people they hire?
Back in the ’70s this didn’t matter. Before the onset of intellectual rigour and academic respectability vital to the legitimizing of Film Studies as a subject, any lecturer from the English faculty with a taste for Ford and a smattering of insight into Godard could pass themselves off teaching film. But in the UK part of the problem is that perceived congruence between English and Film which dogs film culture here. The assumption that any old “poet” or PR hack can be drafted in to run film crit classes is a symptom of that eccentric alliance. In the ’70s and ’80s, stuffy drama critic Sheridan Morley hosted movie programmes on television and wrote thumbnail film reviews in the Radio Times, the BBC listings magazine and sometime British flagship of broadcast publishing. In British universities the imagined sisterhood between film and English literature persists as much in the appointment to teach film journalism of winners of the Beazley-Blenkinsop Memorial Prize, as it does in the prevalence of “Novel into Film” modules. The idea that a film may be more than the sum of its narrative, characters, and dialogue; that it is subject to energies and flows deriving from its status as imagery, movement, colour, and light; that the cinema sprang as much from early photography and sideshow spiritualism as from Shakespeare, Griffithian melodrama, and the “Film d’Art” dies hard in the chilly corridors of English academia. The abeyance to the literary persists across the landscape of English film culture in the lodestones of official taste. Hence the canonical status of Shakespeare adaptations in the British arthouse — Henry V, Hamlet, Much ado . . .. . Hence the persistence of thespian-led, dialogue-heavy projects in the British arthouse: The Madness of King George, The History Boys, Notes on a Scandal . . . (Olivier’s Henry V got dusted down in a digital print at the Cambridge Film Festival this year). Witness that gaggle of Cambridge University overseas grad students agog before a DVD of the BBC’s dull production of Pride and Prejudice. (They knew what to expect from Old England long before they passed immigration control at Heathrow!)
Some of our better critics decry the literary taint in English film culture. Independent critic Jonathan Romney bemoans the replacement of critical analysis of the filmic by plot rehearsal and commentaries on actors’ performances. In the introduction to his collection Short Orders, he writes: “In a culture that privileges the literary over the visual, it’s generally held that to describe a film in terms of its narrative is to describe it effectively: to say what it’s “about” is the same as saying what it’s “like.” Seen in this light, a film’s plot is its programme, its statement of intent (just as, at the pre-production stage, a good script is held to be reliable promise of a good film): whether or not the film works is evaluated in terms of how well it tells its story.”
The traditionally literary British attitude towards film seems to be intimately bound up with the perennial wrangle over what is essentially “British” about British cinema. The legacy of the British documentary movement, with its tradition of sober, matter-of-fact realism, relies upon film’s photographic capability, its propensity to reveal the real world to the audience. Aside from resonating with Britain’s sometime aspiration as imperial overseer of far-flung places, this empirical “objective” mission is undoubtedly a part of what films do, and there are many fine British realist films. But films also reveal how individuals feel about the world, and draw upon a range of specifically cinematic techniques to express interiority. Compare British assumptions about cinema’s verisimilitude with Continental ideas about what film does to images of the world which no other art form does. Look at the montage people in Soviet Russia, for example, or the French notion of “photogénie” which was current in the ’20s. Or film noir.
The British penchant for verisimilitude dies hard. Critics, and my aunt and uncle, are as likely to say of a film that it was “true to life, ” “believable, ” as that it was “well scripted” and “well acted.” “Very well done” is a common middle-class English platitude from armchair “critics” who are reluctant to negotiate the mysteries of just how affecting films can be. What counts as quality for many professional British film critics has most often been inspired by currents external to the cinema such as literary criticism or the historical record, rather than by currents external to the British cinema such as foreign art house cinema or the Continental avant-garde. In the 23 October 2004 edition of the London Guardian Josh Lacey perpetuated British distrust of the image: “By its nature, film is not a profound medium; it only records surface emotions. Prose fiction requires more wisdom, more honesty, more thought.”
The staging of literate talk has dominated English notions of cinematic taste as much as the empirical window on the world. But a paradox persists. Given the exaggerated regard in which this culture holds the written word and its practitioners, why is it that film critics don’t teach film criticism? How much more effective, efficient, verisimilitudinous it would be for students to be instructed by someone who actually practices the skills associated with film criticism, rather than by some charlatan who thinks criticism is a form of storytelling. I’d give anything to be a fly on the wall when Toby V passes judgement on some hard-working critic’s work and bright spark Tamara in the front row coolly asks him the question that has crossed every one of her colleagues’ minds at one time or another over the term: “So who do you write for?”
So what’s the solution to the proliferation of Mickey Mouse “film journalism” options? In an environment in which writing about films, the history of the history of cinema, so to speak, is becoming sexier to universities and publishers alike — Sight and Sound critic Chris Darke’s Light Readings (Wallflower, 2000); the reprint of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars (Wallflower, 2002); Verso’s collection of vintage women’s writing Red Velvet Seat (2006); the current excitement around Irene Dobson — I envisage fresh rigour in the provision of film criticism options. I look forward to a time when those who teach film criticism hail from a Film Studies background, practice film criticism, or both. At the moment the old attitudes and adages persist: those who can’t do, teach.