Jonathan Romney is Deputy Film Critic at The Guardian and one of our sharpest, most insightful writers on film. His criticism for The New Statesman has just been collected in Short Orders (published by Serpents Tail). He talks here about the state of contemporary film criticism, the rampant subtext and his hopes for British cinema.
Chris Darke: I want you to track your trajectory for me.
Jonathan Romney: I was certainly never planning to do journalism or to write about film. I was at Cambridge doing French and Russian but my real obsession was music. I was an obsessive NME reader and had to hear everything. I was doing was a music fanzine, that was my thing.
CD: When was that?
JR: I started in '76, so I actually started writing around '77, '78. The college I was at, Trinity Hall, had a really good film society.
I think it had the first ever British screening of Kings of the Road. There was a huge Herzog retrospective in '76 and a Third World season as well. So, suddenly I was exposed to a whole range of non-Hollywood cinema that I just didn't know existed. Then I went to UEA for a year and got tangentially involved in Film Studies. I was actually doing an MA in Comparative Literature, I wasn't actually studying Film. I had to write about Hitchcock and saw a lot more films there.
CD: So you were the product of a particularly fertile moment in that kind of samizdat journalism which was the fanzine thing in the late 70s, the punk ethic of people writing for themselves?
JR: That's right. But it wasn't strictly a punk thing. Obviously there was an explosion with punk – Sniffin’ Glue and whatnot. But people had been doing it before in Britain. I started writing for the NME in '84. At the time, people could get a ground floor entry through Melody Maker, NME and Sounds and get a training but also develop an individual voice. There were writers there who I was inspired by. But you also had City Limits then. I lived in Paris for a year and that was the point I got obsessed with film. I came to film as an obsession really late and I think I got that typical Parisian cinéphile thing where suddenly you find yourself watching three Rivette films a day, five days a week and realising that you really like living in the dark. When I came back I started writing the odd film piece. I was doing a PhD. at that time and realised that I wasn't very keen on spending that much time and energy immersing myself for something that only five people would ever read and that would take four and a half years. I was allergic to footnotes and I became addicted to the quick turnover of writing a piece, getting it in, getting an LP in the post, turning it over quickly - a completely different speed of writing and reaction. It's a polarised experience because, on the one hand, there's a style of film writing where you have to react quickly and there's the type of film writing where you have to react to things slowly, take a step back and remember something that you saw five years ago. Of course that's the writing that, outside academia, there aren't really many platforms for.
CD: There are two things in what you've said. One is the question of your residual Francophilia and the other is the issue of different 'speeds' of writing.
JR: Now you mention it, the Francophilia is to do with speed as well. What I've always liked in French cinema is the idea that there's a constant onslaught and that people make low budget films there that will be out for a week and if you want to see it you'll have to go and dig it out – at the Action Christine or somewhere. But there'll also be some forgotten gem from 1963 that's come and gone in a flash, which is how I got into Raùl Ruiz. I think he had four or five films out that year, everywhere you turned there'd be another Ruiz film that would come and go. I really love that idea of output, of films arguing with each other. I like the idea that films could be coming out all the time, not necessarily all good films but somehow reacting to each other in an atmosphere. What's always disappointed me about British cinema is that it seems very much piecemeal, a cinema of isolated cases.
CD: You studied literature and in your writing you try to balance the need to read a film with the need to see it. How do you feel about that – is it a tension?
JR: Someone did once accuse me of being a literary film critic, which I found quite upsetting and which I think I'd deny. But it's possible to write about film with the same attention and seriousness that you'd write about literature. I've never studied film theory as such. I've studied literary theory and I suppose I'm prepared to unpick a film in the way you'd unpick a text. In fact, I'm told that someone complained to Sight and Sound about my Lost World review that I was 'over-reading' and I don't think you can over-read in a way. The films that encourage you not to read are precisely the ones that you've got to compensate for by over-reading.
CD: The essays in the collection display a desire to read a film in terms of what it reveals about the workings of cinema. Is this a way for you to shift the task of 'reviewing' towards 'analysis'?
JR: I'm not sure what 'reviewing' is. Each review has a specific task, depending on where it's published. In listings magazines and most newspapers it's about 'is this film worth a fiver or not?' Elsewhere the question is different. I had a luxury in the Statesman reviews, when I went into it Boyd Tomkins, who was the Arts Editor at the time, said to me 'we want something different with the film reviews here'. It's primarily a political magazine so there's room for ideological and cultural analysis, all those things which are more interesting than saying 'Julia Roberts is as good in this film as she's ever been.' The pressing questions are how does this film work? Something like Outbreak is interesting from many angles but, as a plague movie, it's strikingly derivative of other plague movies. Or it's considerably less radical or disturbing, with a much more reassuring sense of closure, than something like Romero's The Crazies to which it owes a lot. Which, of course, are completely different questions to 'Do I want to spend a fiver on this Dustin Hoffman movie?'. There is this general assumption, and I've heard critics say this onstage, that it's about telling people whether to spend a fiver or not. But the quote that I use from Judith Williamson in the book, which seems to me to make absolute sense, is that to ask a film critic which films are worth going to see 'is as inappropriate as asking a geographer or a geologist why they don't tell you were to go for your holiday.' The point is that there is fewer and fewer spaces for critics to be 'geologists'.
CD: There are two passages in your book that broach that problem: 'Cinema culture is increasingly dominated by monolithic received wisdom' and 'Movies are being increasingly pitched at the makers of smart think-pieces, as if Hollywood had latched onto the sign-chasing intelligentsia as the missing part of the demographic jigsaw.' What are the consequences of this for a film critic?
JR: What struck me was how much of the work was already done for you. The traditional discovery of film theory in the Sixties and Seventies was that films had an unstated unconscious, and that you could analyse the film noir for something that didn't appear to be on the surface. The real meaning of the film was latent and the pleasure for the analyst was actually unpicking those things that the film 'did not know' because Hollywood was supposedly too dumb to know it or that there were simply social taboos governing the disclosure or non-disclosure of these things. Seeing a whole spate of films, like Bram Stoker's Dracula, Outbreak, Disclosure, Wolf, I realised that they all seemed to be made with the unconscious worn very flamboyantly, or just brazenly, on the sleeve. You could pick off the topics. Is this film really about AIDS? Yes, of course it is. The films covered these issues in remarkably uninteresting, obvious ways, leaving the critic with nothing to unpick. You couldn't discover anything about these films that wasn't already told you, so that itself became interesting. It struck me as significant that Bram Stoker's Dracula was inspired by a critical edition of the book which covered all this stuff in its footnotes. But in the film it came across as easy footnotes... like Coles' Notes.
CD: When cinema starts to be produced with the think-piece writers in mind what that does is to dictate and control the cultural economy that follows. The majority of those who then have to engage with the film will take the rampant subtext, as it were, on its own terms. What that produces is one of two things; unadventurous criticism or, and it's just a step from that, the all-purpose commentator who's able to sit around a table and discourse on any piece of culture that they're faced with.
JR: It's become an industry. I think these films have been made by people who, ten years ago, were at whatever Californian seat of education who were studying all this stuff. They're not made by dumb moguls who know nothing about psychoanalysis. It's probably made largely by people who've had to do it in their film studies classes in the way that the generation before was getting excited about Kurosawa or Ozu. It's all in the films, there's nothing to find. Columbia Tri-Star put out this amazing press release for Men in Black which is two sheets of feature suggestions for ways in which the film could be covered. 'Why not run a piece about the history of Ray Bans in the movies?' 'Why not run a piece about how women just go crazy for men in suits?’ Forty or so suggestions and you almost think, why don't they go that step further and suggest 'Why not do a piece on the Alien as the Other?' Because someone's bound to and it's in the film if you choose to look for it and if you find it, it's more than likely that they've already put it there because it's predetermined.
CD: What part does your Francophilia play in your critical attitudes? How useful or detrimental is it for a British film critic to be a Francophile?
JR: I'm not sure in what sense I'm a Francophile other than having studied French literature and seen a lot of French films and I've briefly bathed in that atmosphere where you can imagine that film is 'as important as your life'. There's something very inspiring about the original Cahiers du cinéma and nouvelle vague people sitting in the Cinémathèque looking intense, being impassioned and angry and calling down the apocalypse. Somehow the idea of a bunch of people in London going to screenings every night doesn't have the same romanticism about it. It's a lovely myth to guide you, in a way.
CD: Judging from the essays, the French critical tradition still has some resonance for you, if only in the shape of Serge Daney.
JR: What really struck me about Serge Daney was the idea of it being a continual process. At one point, he was writing this column in Libération where he would just watch what happened to be on TV and write around it and that's part of the critical life, to respond to whatever happens to come along. You go to some screenings here and everyone's whinging, 'Oh God, why are we sitting through this'. But you become a film critic because you're willing to sit through whatever you're given, and then it becomes something that you work with, in the way that a meteorologist would work with the weather.
CD: In your essay on Toy Story you write 'It's only the natural universe that looks as if it was knocked up on a computer'. There's a sense of anxiety about 'the real' being supplanted by 'the digital' and it's an issue that you treat in terms of a kind of ethics of cinema spectating. Is that a fair characterization of your position?
JR: Toy Story is a special case. It was marketed not so much as a breakthrough in the way it was produced and perceived, but as a cuddly Disney movie about toys. That whole other issue which is, let's face it, not terribly marketable, was just occulted. This being the way that a film like that questions your basis of seeing the image, which can no longer be naturalised or regarded as being reality or even being simply another sort of animation. It seems to me that’s an absolute quantitive break in the sort of images that are produced on computers, the sort of visual textures, the sort of hyper- realism in which everything is determined, calculated, quantified and mapped-out. What struck me as really exciting about Toy Story but also disturbing, was there was a kind of hermetic feel that I’ve seen in very few films.
CD: You’re also equally interested in conventional animation - if one can call the Quay brothers conventional animators. Is there an overlap between the interest in animation and CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), or does one leave the other behind?
JR: I suppose it goes back to literary theory, in that a lot of the stuff I read when I was studying theory was about the way literary texts give you gaps and the reader works around those gaps and plays with indeterminacies. Obviously mainstream cinema is about filling in as many indeterminacies as possible and giving you as little work to do as possible. I’ve got the Quay brothers in the book and Priit Pärn, the Estonian animator whose work I find completely mystifying but incredibly exciting. You don’t get this so much watching his stuff on video but seeing his films on screen there’s this very disturbing kind of excess of sensuous material, of texture. With the Quays, their films are about the mechanics of the eye and about the shifts in focus. Watching a film should be an adventure in perception, which Pärn and the Quays give us. What troubles me about a lot of CGI is the very completeness of it and the way the construction of the image is something that we don’t have access to. It attempts to bypass those processes of perception. There’s not very much sensuous pleasure you can get from watching a standard action movie that happens to use a lot of computer imagery.
CD: How does it feel for you to be a British film critic at the moment?
JR: It's frustrating. Let’s say that the job is going to have to be reinvented. We’re all going to have to be militant about it if we regard it as an art form, which may mean going underground and writing in peculiar magazines. It's got to open up again, somehow. More and more it's becoming PR-led showbiz journalism. Look at all the monthlies which are simply touting big pieces about films which their writers haven't been to see. Look at all the coverage Batman and Robin got, the coverage Men in Black has been getting before anyone has been able to see the film here. It becomes inescapable that these films get covered as cultural phenomena before they have actually become cultural phenomena, even before they’ve become hits in the States. They become foregone conclusions but only because we know that Warners or Columbia or whoever have decided that these are going to be foregone conclusions. Surely it's the critical job to put spanners in the works.
CD: Is it getting harder to do this because there’s not the writers' will to do so or because they fear it's too late to find an audience again for that kind of writing?
JR: I think distributors have that fear. Most of them don’t have the means and certainly most of them don’t have the will to market those things very aggressively. It's an enormous fight to get a Kaurismäki or a Xavier Beauvois onto major screens. The multiplexes supposedly have room, but with an art-movie on one of their eight screens they’re not really doing it. The multiplex idea of an art movie is The Piano. I don’t know how this fight's got to be fought. What it calls for is some argumentative and high-profile film magazines that will make a profession of faith out of covering something other than The Fifth Element – another major case of things being predetermined. It would be nice to think that film critics and audiences formed a community that could conspire against having these things rammed down our throats.
CD: What do you think about British cinema at the moment? Is there recent work that you’ve been inspired by?
JR: What’s the lottery given us so far? True Blue? I’m very suspicious of the 'boom' because what it suggests at the moment is a lot of theatre directors jumping on cinema as a fashionable gravy train. I’m not particularly looking forward to the films of Stephen Daldry because it strikes me that these people have got important jobs they should be doing in theatre, which is another threatened form.
JR: Yeah, I think they will be exceptions because not that many people are that imaginative. But every time a single, straggling British film came along that was quite interesting it had a lot of hopes pinned to it. I’ve always thought, well, wouldn’t it be great if we just had a massive output of films of all standards, including a wash of complete pulp. That’s the way interesting things get made. If you look at all the stuff that came out in the 70s, right down to the Confessions films, the tail-end of the Carry On series, the last few Hammers, there was always stuff that was climbing up and a lot of it didn’t seem very good at the time but it created a context in which things had their own purpose and their own sense. Their importance didn’t have to be leapt on at that moment. It's almost as if individual films acquire too much attention. Every film's got to carry the weight of everything and constitute a renaissance or a dying. They should just be there and there should be a lot of them.
CD: It's almost as though we’re currently waiting for that profligacy of production to take place. And while we wait we’re clock-watching for the first film to turn up to then launch that diagnostic question – what does this represent of British film?
JR: But they’ve got to come out of completely different thinking habits. I don’t see films in Britain being made with the same kind of imaginative boldness as the films which, say, Paolo Branco produces in Portugal, or Julio Medem makes in Spain, or Lars Von Trier in Denmark. If we get a British Von Trier or Medem, then we’re really talking.
CD: These are the directors that you rate at the moment?
JR: I’m really interested in Medem, the way he transforms the Spanish landscape and the Spanish world and makes it something entirely his own. There’s still the obsession with realism in British film and the demand that films should reflect Britain as it is this week, which obviously Andrew Kötting, Patrick Keiller and Shane Meadows are doing in very distinctive ways. It's obviously the reason everyone got very excited about Trainspotting, which I absolutely don’t want to disparage because I think it's really exciting and important in many ways. What I don’t see are films that make me think that the British landscape is really interesting in itself, I mean the whole cultural and social landscape. I’ve been very indoctrinated by American and foreign cinema. Like most British film viewers, I’ve got the habit of thinking that elsewhere is more interesting and Huddersfield and the M1 and NW5 are complete turn-offs for me. I’m really waiting for the film which makes me see them in completely different ways. I think all those directors I’ve talked about do that but they’re all dealing with the real world in particular ways, Kötting rather less in some of his shorts. I think those are great examples of taking familiar indigenous imagery and completely putting them through the imaginative mincer. I think we desperately need to see more people doing that, as well as inventing new realisms.