A last blog post in honour of Venice 2010 and I'm going to use it to tackle a topic that niggles close to my heart, like a partially-clogged pulmonary vein. It is not something specific to the Venice Film Festival by any means, but a couple of incidents at this year's event saw it brusquely stamp its way to the forefront of my thoughts, appropriately enough, given that a basic rudeness is key to this subject.
So what is that subject? Well, I'd like to reflect a little on some of the manifest shortcomings of the professional film reviewing fraternity – and it is the fraternity I'm dealing with here, the nadirs of ill-mannered behaviour to which the blokes sink being far lower than those of the ladies (in my experience, this holds true in just about every area of life).
But before I get started I should offer some kind of pre-emptive apology-cum-disclaimer: while I am about to launch into a heartfelt whinge regarding the abominably objectionable behaviour of the most arrogant movie reviewers, this does not mean I view myself as some scented, saintly presence floating airily above the rest of the scum-sucking hacks. Hard as I try not to make the mistakes I perceive others as making, I have no doubt that I am plenty dumb enough and plenty naïve enough to clumsily tumble into these traps on far too regular a basis. And that is not even to mention the legion appalling blunders I must commit with hourly frequency but of which I am too stupid to be aware. Having said all that, I think the primary point I want to address in this post is worthy of attention, especially as reviewers often get to put their feet up in gilded little cages, tossing their shit down on those who, for all their faults, have been bold and industrious enough to allow a spotlight to be shone on their own creative sensibility.
The main charge I would level at certain film critics is a towering arrogance, a belief that the job they are so lucky to do has put them on a rarefied stratum many miles above that inhabited by the rest of the world's population. The evidence for this accusation is plentiful in any gathering of film reviewers (though I must stress it is only some who fall prey to this vainglory, many are eminently reasonable, friendly and humble), with two specific incidents witnessed by myself and Indie Movies editor Emma on the Lido during the course of this year's Venice Film Festival appearing to provide particular apposite illustration.
The first of these episodes happened during my very first morning at the festival, when I was sat in the Sala Perla, a little giddy with excitement about seeing my inaugural movie of Venice 2010 (excitement which proved misplaced as that movie was Machete, which I found to be on the tepid side). Ahead of the lights dimming and the projector flickering into life*, the two critics sat in front of me engaged in conversation about Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, a screening of which one of the pair had attended earlier that morning.
*Brief note to the organisers of the 67th Venice Film Festival: the ramshackle, silent comedy-style prelude to all the movies was unforgivably useless. Irritating music, and the guys in the old footage looked completely different to the actors standing in for them in the modern section – the duo in the blink of an eye transforming from old man and rascally young blonde boy to two geezers in their 20s, both with black hair. For a pointer on how to do these things witness the ident at Cannes this year, the gravity-defying ascension of the magic staircase tantalisingly suggesting entry into a realm of genuine cinematic wonder in a way that horseplay with a hosepipe can really never hope to match.
The geezer who had already seen the Portman-starring drama asked his friend if he would be catching a later screening of the film. No, no and no again was the sentiment of the reply, as the second critic made clear his intense dislike for the work of the Requiem for a Dream director. Okay, fair enough, I thought as I earwigged in. Not an opinion you hear on a regular basis, but one which the dude is perfectly entitled to hold and indeed, given that one of the crappiest things about modern professional film reviewing is a colossal homogenisation of opinion, perhaps you could argue as a refreshing crosswind of in the hot gusting face of near-universal praise for Aronofsky.
However what came next was more eyebrow-raising, seeming as it did to say volumes more about the complainant's puffed up view of himself than it did about any genuine shortfall in Aronofsky's abilities as a filmmaker. The critic who had seen Black Swan reflected in disparaging terms that the movie was essentially “The Red Shoes meets Repulsion”, prompting his friend to suggest that Aronofsky was such a philistine that he in all likelihood wouldn't recognise the two films referenced.
Now to recount a little about my own film-watching background in slightly circuitous route to mounting a defence of Mr. Rachel Weisz; I grew up as interested in movies as the next kid, loving the likes of Ghostbusters, and the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. But by the time I was 11 or so, I was devouring books on science fiction and horror cinema which introduced me to different directors - Cronenberg, Kubrick, Carpenter, and so on - even if age restrictions meant I didn't get to see a lot of the films I was reading about till several years later (the version of Videodrome that existed in my head from age 11, when I read a plot synopsis and saw some stills, till age 16 when I saw the movie was quite possibly the greatest sci-fi epic never made).
Then when I passed my mid-teens and could pretty much get my grubby paws on whatever movies I wanted, I began to develop a fuller understanding of A) cinema as a whole, and B) what actually goes into the making of a film. And I knew even then, uncommunicative youth that I was, that if I wanted to be involved professionally in the world of cinema, it would have to be from the one-string perspective of a critic, rather than as a maker of movies myself, that latter vocation clearly needing a cocktail of technical, organisational and motivational skills that many simply do not possess.
The point I am fumbling around in my bid to make is that even as a 16-year-old who couldn't butter a slice of toast without making an international incident out of it, I could already tell that a huge amount of variables went into the making of a film and that these variables were such that it was more of a miracle than a matter of course if the results turned out to be halfway decent. While critics - and I have not an ounce of doubt in my mind that I have done this too, on more occasions than Jamie Oliver has slagged off someone else's hot dinner - regularly refer to unfavoured directors as idiots, morons, halfwits, sheep-defilers and every other term of abuse under the sun, in truth the majority are intelligent, high-achieving individuals trying their darnedest to do a very difficult job – one that often requires the plugging of hundreds of leaks with only eight fingers and a couple of thumbs.
So for a reviewer to so contemptuously dismiss the filmic education of Aronofsky, already once a Golden Lion winner lest we forget, seemed to me at least to indicate a fundamental lack of respect and an imperious conceitedness; particularly galling coming from someone whose most taxing professional engagement is to conjure up items to match the amounts on their expenses claims against. Dislike the output of Darren Aronofsky all you want (and I will go to my grave moaning about how crap The Fountain was and hoping that its surprisingly surplus number of apologists will eventually wake up and smell the poop on Giant Floating Space Baby Hugh Jackman's bottom), but to fancy your keyboard-jockeying self as the cinematic encyclopedia compared to a mere maker of movies seems really rather astonishing.
This critical narcissism flared again in an incident witnessed by Emma on the final day of the festival, during her interview session with director Monte Hellman, whose in-competition offering Road to Nowhere ultimately secured him a special prize from the Tarantino-led jury. As was the case with most of the interviews at Venice, the Road to Nowhere chats were organised junket-style, with the various personnel from the movie speaking simultaneously to groups of journos at separate tables in the one location, in this instance that location being the back terrace of the Excelsior Hotel. So as our revered editor was due to meet Hellman and screenwriter Steven Gaydos, other journalists were gathered to interview the film's lead actress, Shannyn Sossamon. While Emma was waiting for her slot, another writer arrived and was asked by the PR coordinating the sessions who they were they for. “The actress,” was the curt response. Okay... would they like to speak to the director as well? “[derisive snort] No.” Sigh again, as we contemplate the sheer unadulterated self-infatuation of some hacks, so ready as they are to mistake stringing a few words together on a computer screen for an act that can stop planets spinning and cause whole galaxies to implode.
I stress again that it would be erroneous in the extreme to interpret the actions of the most obnoxious critics as suggesting that all in that profession check their humanity and humility at the door the second they receive their press card. However it is by no means inaccurate to note that plenty of them seem to suffer from some deep-rooted maladroitness when it comes to basic manners (and hygiene. The theatres at Venice really hummed). Out on the Lido, one easily lose count of the sheer number of occasions that some flatulent jerk bundled past you in the queue as you waited to go into a film, they apparently regarding it as a matter of course that they should be admitted first, so manifest was their importance. However once in the screenings, people seemed to desperate to distract themselves in any way possible from the movie itself, with incessant chatter and alighted mobile phones proving constant thorns in the side of those actually attempting to watch the fucking film.
My final thought for this blog post is one I touched upon earlier - that these prime offenders seem to have lost sight of one of the underlying facts of professional film reviewing in this day and age. They are not paid critics because their writing ability and understanding of cinema completely outstrips those of the rest of the global populace, identifying them as a superhuman species who claim divine right to act in snooty and high-handed way, but rather that they are simply very fortunate. There is no doubt in my mind that there are millions of people around the world with both the sufficient mastery of words and movie knowledge to easily deliver reviews to a professional standard, but that perfect conflux of circumstance – maybe slightly greater determination to land that first gig, maybe a lucky break through a friend of a friend – lands a certain few in their ostensibly enviable roles.
Consequently for certain film critics to take the view that they are unique, irreplaceable, and the apex of cool, for them to think that they and they alone can do what they do, that their ultimate verdict is the alpha and omega in the filmmaker's mind, is a heaving mass of blood, puke and excrement. The reality is that their occupation is a charm, and when they awake each day they should give thanks to God, Allah, Lucifer or whoever, or even just toss it out into the ether, that they continue to get to do what they do.