The Critic as Censor

By Julian Petley

In recent years, European film critics have become increasingly concerned at the pressure on them, especially if they work for national newspapers, to cover Hollywood movies at the expense of those of other national cinemas. Writing in Felix in November 1994, Klaus Eder, the head of FIPRESCI (the International Federation of Film Critics), stated that ‘of all the different obligations that film criticism finds itself exposed to, the worst is the maelstrom of the mainstream’, and the Guardian’s Derek Malcolm complained that ‘a critic’s job on a European paper is getting harder and harder, unless he or she is a staunch supporter of American film. And there are, of course, such critics. Perhaps too many of them’. The TimesDavid Robinson was not among their number – and he was demoted from being The Times’ chief critic for that very reason.

For some British critics, however, it is not enough to privilege Hollywood above all else, but to take every opportunity to slag off European (including British) films as well – especially if there’s public money in them. Of course, one has come to expect this kind of thing from a press which becomes more shrilly xenophobic and stridently nationalistic with every day that passes. Thus, for example, last August the Sunday Express attacked the British co-production Suite 16 under the headline ‘The Home Secretary, the porn film funded by Europe and the secret world of the censors’; the ‘story’ was hung on the most tenuous of hooks (apparently the Home Secretary had asked to see the film then changed his mind) and was basically a pretext for editorialising about how a ‘handout from Eurimages’ had helped the making of this ‘subsidised sleaze’, and for attacking the allegedly over-liberal British Board of Film Classification.

Typical sentiments from the jingo press, where ‘news’ and editorialising are routinely and inextricably intertwined. Now, however, they seem to be insinuating themselves even into the film review columns of certain newspapers. Take, for example, the reviews of Suite 16, Barnabo of the Mountains and Butterfly Kiss in the Daily Mail and Evening Standard by Christopher Tookey (himself a FIPRESCI member, in which capacity he has been a member of several critics’ juries at international film festivals) and Alexander Walker respectively.

Suite 16 was described by Tookey as ‘yet another disastrous product of the European Script Development Fund’ and Walker as ‘financed by a bushel of international companies and (of course) one of those European organisations which, instead of funding one dud movie after another, ought to pay film-makers not to work, on the same principle as the EU pays farmers not to plant certain crops’. At the end of his review of Butterfly Kiss Tookey noted that ‘distribution of his film is supported by the Media Programme of the European Union, so you may be doubly depressed to learn that you have put your hard-earned cash into it’ whilst, coincidentally no doubt, Walker ended his review by observing that ‘the cash for this confused and squalid little item came from the taxpayers’ own production company, the Government-funded British Screen, and another public body, Merseyside Film Production Fund. Its distribution is subsidised by the European Union. In the sense that we all made it possible, we are all guilty.’

The ideological and political cat really comes out of the bag, however, in Walker’s review of Barnabo (described by Tookey as ‘a wickedly deadpan satire on co-produced art-house movies, a visual pun on the EU’s rapidly growing European film mountain’) where he writes that ‘this Franco-Swiss-Italian co-production is part-financed by funds from the Eurimages and European Script programmes of the European Union. By now I’ve seen enough of these subsidised duds, movies that are neither art nor box office, to feel that if all such schemes to provide a living for bureaucrats and hand-outs for deadbeats were wound up tomorrow I should not shed a tear. Mrs Bottomley, our new Heritage Secretary, achieved an unenviable reputation as Health Minister for planning to shut some of our best hospitals. She can redeem herself if she closes some of these other expensively maintained homes for the partially talented.’

And, at the end of 1995, to a mixture of rage and sheer disbelief within the film industry, the Department of National Heritage announced that it was indeed withdrawing its membership of Eurimages, which was worth £2m a year, thereby placing its much-respected British head, Barrie Ellis-Jones, in an impossible position and forcing him to proffer his resignation. Now there’s no evidence to suggest that this was down to Tookey and Walker’s squalid little campaign (although Bottomley did ask to see Suite 16 in January this year). However, the circulation of such tendentious rubbish in national newspapers is extraordinarily unhelpful – to put it mildly – when it comes to arguing for any kind of financial measures to aid European film production in the face of American hegemony in the supposedly ‘free’ global market. This is especially true given the present government’s grotesque playing to the populist press gallery in any matters pertaining to Europe.

So, these dubious ‘reviews’ raise at least two issues. Firstly, should newspapers’ film critics use their columns to play politics – tempting though it may be to score brownie points by parroting the editor and proprietor’s well-known Europhobic views? And secondly, should film critics act as censors? For make no mistake, that is what they are doing. When European production funds are in such desperately short supply any reduction, however small, seriously threatens to diminish the number of films that can be made. This is economic censorship which, short of killing creative artists, is the most effective form of censorship of all. And as the on-going rows over GATT and Télévision Sans Frontières all too clearly demonstrate, this is the kind of censorship that the American media industries want Europeans to impose on themselves. In all this, of course, the British government, with its obsession with deregulation and letting global market forces rip, is the Trojan Horse or, to use one of its own favourite phrases, the ‘enemy within’. In its crusade against what it likes to represent as ‘unnecessary meddling’ with the market by Brussels it is, of course, aided daily by the jingo press, behind whose ravings about ‘standing up for Britain’ lie North American owners such as Black and Murdoch, whose rabid anti-Europeanism has nothing to do with patriotism but stems from their fear that EU media policies will stop them from expanding any further into Europe and could even, eventually, lead to the dismemberment of their ‘British’ empires.

In such a context, French opposition to GATT being applied to the European media industries was absolutely bound to be misrepresented and caricatured as the usual Gallic cussedness, and the fact overlooked that the media are the second largest contributor to America’s balance of payments, with the EU being their largest single overseas market. (See ‘What Was GATT About?’, Michael Chanan, Vertigo, Spring 1994). Nor were the British press exactly keen to report that, in February 1995, five Americans – four of them CIA officers – were accused by France of conducting economic espionage against France. In particular, as the Guardian reported rather belatedly in October, ‘at least part of their mission was to determine the strength of the French bargaining position in television and telecommunications trade negotiations’. The American ambassador to Paris was summoned for a dressing-down, the CIA officers were allowed to leave the country (before being expelled), and the CIA had to suspend virtually all its operations in France for a period. That’s how important the European media market is to the Americans.

That the Americans should want to dominate the European media market is, of course, from their point of view, entirely rational and proper. That they should be aided even one scintilla by mischievous coat-trailing by British film reviewers quite frankly beggars belief.