Professional critics are an “endangered species”
Tom Aitken, in London, reviews another reviewer’s despair of a dying art
Chris Tookey: 1993 ‘Better Criticism – Ten Commandments for a Dying Art’ (Arena Books)
In December 2013, Christopher Tookey, who had been the Daily Mail’s greatly admired principal film critic for seven years, was sacked. His recently published book examines the reasons for his rejection and that of a number of other distinguished newspaper film critics.
The blurb summarises the situation:
‘Paid critics are an endangered species, and good criticism is a dying art. Editors are culling many, and frequently all, of their best critics. Especially on the internet but also in newspapers and magazines, there’s more bad criticism than ever before –– needlessly rude, ill-judged, poorly expressed or bigoted and sometimes all four.’
The 10 Commandments
Tookey began his years as a film critic on the Sunday Telegraph in 1985. He moved to the Daily Mail in 1993 and remained there for twenty years.
Read on to discover how that could happen.
Tookey’s Ten Commandments for a Dying Art provide an explanation of why and how this division between newspaper critics who set out to be honest and those who are virtually synonymous with the loud-voiced man on the bus or in the pub, came into existence.
The first commandment indicates that to become a critic is to expose oneself to criticism, much of it ill-informed and crudely hostile.
Writers and directors of films and plays frequently show critics meeting horrible deaths: hacked to death by tramps; a speared corpse dragged by a horse; drowning, decapitation, electrocution by hair-curlers. Despite being chairman of the film critics’ circle, voted Arts reviewer of the year in 2013, Tookey has been crudely reviled as a paedophile, a practitioner of bestiality… and so on and on.
The second commandment, Thou Shalt Experience the Thing Thou Art Reviewing, is easily justifiable. But accidents may alter cases. Tookey tells the tale of female critic who took her two children to a children’s film, hoping to get from them ‘cutesy reactions.’ She had, however, to leave early when her daughter said she was going to throw up, so the remainder of her review was guess-work…
Third commandment can upset the editors
The third commmandment, Thou Shalt Be Honest is baseline stuff. Write what you really thought. Without honesty and integrity a critic’s opinions are worthless. But such honesty anti- or pro a film, may upset your editor.
Tookey praised Pulp Fiction and was instructed to tone it down. He refused and the piece appeared as written. But the following day another journalist was given feature-length space to condemn the film. The instruction was complied with, but was hard to tell whether the writer had seen the film or not.
Thereafter Tookey’s column was moved from the colour section of the paper and cut to allow space for adverts. He retained his view that ‘without honesty and integrity a critic’s opinions are worthless’ but those qualities were liable to end up (or down!) on the cutting room floor.
Tookey’s Fourth Commandment is Thou Shalt Appreciate As Well as Find Fault.
Most critics would probably agree that eighty to ninety per cent of what they watch in any medium is derivative, boring or inept. (Many would add that the percentage in the cinema is higher than that in other artistic fields.) This can promote a tendency to overpraise anything that has good points.
Nonetheless, criticism is as much about appreciation as it is about finding fault. Going outside the boundaries of the cinema, ‘two constructive critics of the past stand out: William Hazlitt and John Ruskin.’
Tookey concludes his chapter by quoting John Simon:
‘The critic strives to do his imperfect best. And part of that is explaining to his audience what his values are… for though the critic and his readers need not stand upon the same ground, the readers must know where the critic is standing and then make the necessary adjustments.’
Egotism and GBS
The fifth commandment, Thou Shalt Avoid Excessive Egotism, seems beyond question. ‘Excessive’ is the key word. George Bernard Shaw said ‘The modest critic is lost’. More than 2000 years earlier Aristotle had written that ‘they who are to be judges must also be performers.’ A good critic recognises the artist’s intentions and judges the work by them rather than imposing his own objectives and preferences as if they were universal laws.
Critics should also take account of the pressures that operate when films are being made. Tookey argues very interestingly that Casablanca was for a long time underrated because it had been ‘made not by auteurs but by craftsmen at uncomfortable speed, within an authoritarian studio system…’
The sixth commandment, Thou Shalt Develop a Style, is an attack on those who have pretensions to be serious critics but are incompetent writers. The Review of Bugsy Malone by Rex Reed, a prominent American critic, is demolished by the ‘irascible veteran,’ John Simon.
Reed announced that as you watched the film ‘your heart is likely to hum with huggable good humour’. The veteran Simon asks, irascibly, ‘Have you ever tried to hug a humour, good or bad?’ And how does a heart hum good-humouredly?’
This chapter on style is centred upon a plea for conciseness and offers examples of over-egged wordiness. Tookey cannot resist quoting several put-downs by himself and others.
Fay Weldon version just too fey
As a New Zealander and for four years a Wellingtonian, I cannot resist this paragraph about Fay Weldon, an author, essayist and playwright who spent her childhood in Wellington:
Tookey writes ‘Of my own one-liners, I look back with most affection to one about Puffball (2007), which struck me as an unwatchably pretentious, tirelessly whimsical thriller by director Nicholas Roeg, poorly adapted by Fay Weldon’s son Dan from her 1980 novel.
I summed it up in the sentence: ‘This Fay Weldon is fey but not well done.’
In a densely textured discussion of his seventh commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Have Perspective’, Tookey puts before his readers a number of writers who may be regarded as forerunners of serious film and drama critics today. At the same time he warns us against taking too much, too literally from such predecessors: Aristotle, Castelvetro, Dryden, Thomas Rhymer, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Martin Amis and Ronald Bergan.
Having discussed these writers, Tookey raises, somewhat sadly, the possibility that a great many of today’s critics, haven’t seen much that predates Star Wars.
‘See what isn’t there’
Commandment the Eighth: Thou Shalt See What Isn’t There
Tookey quotes with hearty approval a pronouncement by Kenneth Tynan, ‘the Observer’s most distinguished theatre critic’, announcing that all other theatre critics should take it to heart:
‘A good drama critic perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening’.
Tookey’s discussion treats of this issue in film criticism by examining three films (A Taste of Honey, King’s Game and JFK) that set out to portray the time in which they were made while neglecting to portray or at least hint at other relevant elements in the political and social conditions of that time, recognition of which would, in Tookey’s view have enriched all three films.
He concludes: ‘Kenneth Tynan’s adage still holds true, and it doesn’t only apply to the theatre. To be a good critic, don’t just look at what’s in front of you. Be careful to check out what isn’t there –– and do your homework.’
‘Don’t do it for the money’
The Ninth Commandment is Thou Shalt Not Do It For The Money
Professional critics rarely agree about anything, but at this time they all recognise one thing, that critics are being replaced by feature writers, who produce copy as bland as a press release, or sycophantic interviews about the subject’s celebrity status.
Hence, therefore, the tenth commandment: Thou Shalt Remember Why Criticism Is Important.
I shall not reproduce in toto Tookey’s reflections on this tenth commandment. Rather I shall mention some of his thoughts on why those who attend cinema and the theatre will very likely continue to be interested to some degree in what critics have to say even when they think of some at least these utterances are quite barmy. What is on offer is not so much guidance as bemused wonder about the ways and degrees in which other people’s opinions may differ and seem strange.
‘The truth, which may make some critics uncomfortable, is that many people who attend films, plays or art exhibitions have a well-justified scepticism about whether the critics are right, and wish to check out for themselves things they feel they might enjoy. That’s the good news about our culture.
The bad news for anyone hoping to become a professional critic is that a lot of people have no taste and amazingly debased values, so they’re likely to ignore you even if you’re talking and writing good sense. Let’s not forget that ‘vulgar’ is a word derived from the Latin vulgus, meaning a crowd.
Some people proudly prefer junk food to haute cuisine, and who are we to say this is wrong? Maybe it’s right –– for them. Similarly, if they want to watch a mindless superhero movie or We Will Rock You, they are free to enjoy it. Critics are offering advice, not issuing instructions.’