Pearl Harbor, wrote the late Roger Ebert, “is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle”. Here he is on another cataclysmic blockbuster, Armageddon. “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”
Foolishly I went to see both those films. Ebert’s exquisite dismissals entertained me more than either of them. That’s not simply because the films were so bad, it’s because the dismissals were so good. But then, that’s one of the great overlooked truths of our culture: art criticism, when it’s done well, can offer more pleasure than the art it’s criticising.
Almost invariably I enjoy reading Clive James’s review of a TV show, now appearing in this paper, more than I enjoy watching the show itself. The same goes for The Sunday Times’s John Carey on books and The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane on films. I enjoy reading Kenneth Tynan’s reviews of plays, even though I’ll never see those productions – they were staged decades before I was born. I love reading Philip Larkin’s Telegraph reviews of jazz – and I can’t stand jazz. It’s purely his writing on it I like. If Larkin had reviewed brands of cat food I’m sure I’d devour that too. (His criticism, I mean. Not the cat food.)
I mention all this because on Thursday, Ebert – America’s best-known film critic, the first to win a Pulitzer – died. On these occasions it’s customary to say we’ll never see so-and-so’s like again. But this time, I wonder whether there might be some truth in it. It isn’t so much that Ebert was unique and irreplaceable. It’s that criticism as a form is changing – as is our understanding of what it’s for. There’s still good criticism around. But it isn’t so often heard.
Today, thanks to the web, criticism is everywhere – whether of films, music, books, restaurants, makes of electric razor. Amazon teems with customer reviews. If I can possibly help it, though, I don’t read them. That’s not because I think the verdicts of customers are less valuable than the verdicts of paid critics. It’s because the verdict, far from being the most important aspect of a review, is the least.
don’t read a review as a potential buyer, hungry for pointers and bargains. I read it as a reader. I read it for pleasure, amusement, enlightenment. And while anyone in the world can award a star rating or a mark out of 10, not just anyone can amuse and enlighten. Not just anyone can describe Miles Davis’s trumpet (as Larkin does) by saying his “lifeless muted tone, at once hollow and unresonant, creeps along only just in tempo, the ends of the notes hanging down like Dali watches”. Not just anyone can describe a restaurant lasagne (as A A Gill does) by saying it was “like emptying Vesuvius into your mouth, turning your tongue into a Pompeian pumice mummy”. Not just anyone can describe Brad Pitt’s acting (as Anthony Lane does) by saying, “There is honest panic in his eyes as the big speeches approach, and he pronounces ‘Machiavellian’ as if Machiavelli were one of tonight’s specials.”
And no one but Clive James could have described the Seventies TV series The Incredible Hulk as follows:
“Hulk does his action numbers at glacial speed. Emitting slow roars of rage, Hulk runs very slowly towards the enemy, who slowly attempt to make their escape. But no matter how slowly they run, Hulk runs more slowly. Slowly he picks them up, gradually bangs their heads together, and with a supreme burst of lethargy throws them through the side of a building. Hardly have the bricks floated to the ground than…” But I’d better stop there before I earn us a copyright suit.
A good critic is more than someone who happens to have an opinion. He’s more than someone who happens to have an expert knowledge of his field. He’s a performer. Because a good piece of criticism isn’t a buyers’ guide. It isn’t facts and specifications and pros and cons, on the one hand, on the other hand, three out of five. It isn’t best ever, worst ever, all-time top 10.
Instead it is, in itself, a form of entertainment, and anyone writing it should go about his job the way comedians or scriptwriters go about theirs: by remembering at all times that there will be an audience, and that this audience must be made to laugh, to listen, to think. The critic’s audience will be vastly smaller, the medium less glamorous, the payment next to nothing, if there’s payment at all – but still, the principle stands. The critic’s opinion isn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s. But his writing should be.
Not that a critic need be a clown. He can be a sage, like John Carey. A book review by him is a cold shower of common sense.
I’m not saying “professional” reviewers are always better than “amateur” ones. The professionals can be dull, stiff, jaded. And nothing in magazines makes me wince more than Entertainment Weekly’s policy of awarding not star ratings but grades, as if the reviewer were the teacher and the Oscar-winning director his humble pupil. (“B minus. Must try harder, Scorsese, or I shall write to tell your parents about your lack of application.”)
Probably the most famous thing Roger Ebert did was his silly gimmick on the TV show he co-presented: thumbs up for films he liked, thumbs down for films he didn’t. But, except perhaps to Hollywood publicists, his verdicts didn’t really matter. What mattered was the way he expressed them in print. In his own right he was box-office. The best critics are.