The Freefall Death of the Cultural Critic and Other Related Matters, or, the Art of Nonchalance

By Chris Petit

Chris Petit introduces Ian Penman  

‘Silents are a dead duck, Mickey.’ Hitchcock to Powell. Mickey took the advice. Today one might ask, what isn’t? The main job of television is the ecologically sound but dull one of recycling rubbish. Writers like David Thomson regularly argue the death of cinema, but this is an extension of that old cultural chestnut about the death of any form, and just as irrelevant and boring. More interesting is the fact that Thomson’s recent spell as a film critic in the United States was terminated because he was too negative.

His dismissal raises the question of the disappearance of the cultural critic. (Two thumbs up in that it got rid of a lot of pompous opinionators; there were many false critics). In a way someone valuable like Ian Penman was always writing towards decommission because he cared about things people generally no longer did: he was a curator of the overlooked, of the vanishing. The past isn’t date-tied, there’s no hook. So, outside of the graveyard of academic studies, whole chunks get washed away (e.g. R-W Fassbinder). Of course what has changed are the systems around the critic. These days what passes for cultural comment is largely confined to columns in Lifestyle sections and amount to variations on a solipsism. (Alison Pearson on why hers is the first real generation of mothers.) Penman’s writing is always able to see beyond himself. His film essays are in a way the missing full stop to the history of B cinema. He was always going to look out of place in an increasingly sleek world of magazines.

Now of course most film and television reviews are filed reports, stirred from time to time by a manufactured controversy (Crash, Lolita), which in the absence of any agreed set of moral values invariably involves an hysterical element. Hysteria seems to be playing an increasingly large part in proceedings (the funeral of Diana and its opposite, the recent Mary Bell controversy) and I would point this out as interesting material for any moviemaker.  

Cinema and TV (p)reviewing has largely become an extension of sponsorship partly because of the ownership of related mediums by single companies (e.g. the careers of Murdoch and the devil’s apprentice Branson not so far behind).  

The role of any reviewer working for one segment of a larger whole will inevitably grow vague and be reduced to one of approval. It is well known that one English film critic of international standing was given the boot because he wrote too much about non-Hollywood films. The apotheosis of this change is the in-flight magazine.  

Penman fell to earth somewhere around the beginning of the eighties and wrote for the NME where colleagues included those famous careerists Burchill and Parsons. Unlike most of his generation he failed to acquire a career or syndication. (The distance from punk to Thatcher was much shorter than it looked.) Commissioning editors never quite knew what to do with Penman, which makes his work rather valuable (and necessarily erratic). If the last ten years has seen most critical writing turn into acts of corporate endorsement then Penman’s stands apart. Essentially what he has done is think seriously (and entertainingly) about popular forms, eschewing the obvious and looking for further meaning: he can find real value where others see none. Penman has always been irregular, writing on the edge of disappearance: behind the writing is the ghost of the Cheshire Cat’s smile; Penman knows what he does is essentially absurd, and too late. It is therefore a deliberately wayward career, a mixture of men behaving badly via Bukowski and Higher Theory. Unlike the rest, Penman never cleaned up: in some late night never-written-down scenario I cast him as Tina Brown’s conscience and assassin. His prose has remained obdurate and worked at, and leads with ideas, which is the last thing most editors want. (Interestingly it’s his confessional pieces that have brought him the most attention.) Whether dealing films or drugs, his writing is about growing up, which again puts him at odds with contemporaries who still behave like they are the Bash Street Kids. The anarchic classroom is an increasingly common model for post-adolescent lives and is apparently extendable ad infinitum right up to signing in at the Virgin home for the elderly. The rules of the ungoverned classroom relate very much to Chris Evans, that exemplar of our times. What he offers is what you used to get when the teacher was out of the room: bravado, backchat and an underlying streak of nastiness. Evans is a minor lord of misrule, a bully boy with a gang of sycophants, and proof, if it were needed, that we live in an age of unparalleled arse-licking. Evans is an interesting and inevitable mutation – media fluent, with no discernible gap between on and off-screen personality. This overlapping is crucial to understanding how things have changed. It means that difference is gradually being eradicated, and it is precisely that lessening of difference on another level that allows for Evans-type mob rule; in a previous incarnation he would have been a shop steward.  

If Penman’s film writing belongs to any tradition then it is to one of strays rather than orthodoxy – Manny Farber, Raymond Durgnat and Gilles Deleuze over Pauline Kael and Sight & Sound. Penman’s taste in cinema is similar, eschewing the humanist and symbolic in favour of the cruel visions of Fassbinder or Peckinpah. If it is the role of the cultural critic to point out things – what is of worth and not just of the moment, and what is not – then Penman’s finger was a better indicator than most. 

But where is/are the Penman(s) of the future? Probably not writing about cinema or music as we would know it, but working the fissures that are developing between various disciplines. One significant change in the future will I think be that writers like Penman will have to be sought out: the reader will need to find them. Good criticism will be found underground. Their role will become more covert, in contrast to all those syndicated columnists. (In a sense he’s already not that easy to find and one of the big surprises of his book is the volume of work.) One sees an example of this kind of subterfuge already in the United States with the leaking of confidential audience preview reactions.  

It is also the role of the critic to move on, to anticipate, the difficulty being that it is very easy to get it wrong, get lost or disappear altogether for the lack of a map, and there is an element of Penman’s explorings that brings to mind a Glen Baxter cartoon of some absurdity in the jungle. Maybe the cinema of surveillance is the new avant-garde, the art of machines; maybe not. Denominations break down. I am sure that in the close future the distinctions between different kinds of image (film, tape) will be seen as the equivalent of some strange theological squabble. Thanks to changes in technology, music fragmented and went underground to reinvent itself – whole areas of it unreported and off limits – and now that tape technology is getting cheaper the same will happen with the image. We see the start of the mutation with gallery installations, and the willingness of the art establishment to embrace video as the new form, never mind that most of it is of little consequence yet.  

Perhaps we are moving towards a system of American social democracy where any notion of opposition is pushed further towards an edge, where all opposition is portrayed as psychotic, where the idea of asking for something that is not available is seen as perverse, dangerous, and ungrateful even, when so much else is. It is not by chance that the serial killer is a principal bogeyman for this society. (Isn’t the real threat of Hannibal Lecter that he represents dissenting ideas?) What happens then with these systems is that whole areas are annexed: the rise of American independent cinema is related to the demise of world art cinema, essentially an act of cultural carpetbagging by Miramax to bring art cinema to the supermarket. An inevitable part of this easing is that anything difficult is eradicated. Art comes to be about entertainment, about consumption, becomes about comfort, and that comfort is insidious. Given the choice between an undemanding multiplex film and something subtitled at the Everyman, nine times out of ten I’d take the one with the better seat. But it is more complicated than that: the multiplex offers an experience, as though the act of going to a film is no longer enough. What the multiplex offers is a replication of the process of air travel with none of the anxiety (My God! This cinema is going to crash!) The product becomes only part of the experience.  

One sees this levelling out everywhere in Britain now, in politics, in cinema – heritage, the arts, football punditry, arms dealing, it’s all the same and interchangeable. A film like The Full Monty is Ken Loach plus the feelgood factor, and it is the latter which allows it to translate in America. In such a culture everything becomes about admissions. Audiences up. It is of course also about admissions in the commissioning system – saying yes, but who is allowed in? Rage, argument, disbelief – even investigation – are not part of the equation unless related to deceased royalty. Everything has to ‘up’. (I watch television news endlessly for signs of depression in newsreaders.)  

Increasingly I wonder if we weren’t in fact taken over by a hostile ruling power, circa 1979. I believe we are now entirely familiar with moral collusions and evasions of the kind that Marcel Ophuls would have no trouble recognising. I believe the inherent unpleasantness of Noel’s House Party is a reflection of a wider selfishness and insecurity (his, ours). Now that the notion of a job for life has been removed, except in Noel’s case, it means that we all become more like actors, hired and fired for individual productions. Loyalty no longer counts. We become actors. We can in a sense do anything (and get away with it). Rosie Boycott’s recent move from The Independent to edit the Express would have once been seen as a move of profound cynicism – a move away from values and idealism towards a lottery mentality – but not anymore. Today the move merely says: it’s all the same and interchangeable. And it comes with a kick in the tail in the form of the question: were the values of The Independent worth fighting for anyway? We are just actors: Boycott attended her first Express editorial with a personal publicist, a TV documentary crew and an American profile writer. Over the past twenty years one has had to watch over and over again people who once took the moral high ground in everything from journalism to cultural studies sell out. Former intellectual terrorists turned circus ringmasters or commissioning editors. We live in a world where novelists aspire to be literary tycoons. (It has to be said there is an element of fun and entertainment to all this, but, again, the dangerous thing is that one has learned the art of nonchalance.) We live in a world of lottery culture. We live in a world where the process of making television programmes has become a combination of over-decision and sharp practice learned from the building trade: television has become all about sub-contraction and its attendant corruptions. But who in fact needs television or the multiplex? I would have thought the obvious hope for the future lies in the people who learn to negotiate their way round those systems. Along with almost everything else the method of moviemaking has become more available to all of us. In twenty years it has moved from a highly industrialised and overmanned system to one which is technically within reach of most of us. Even three years ago one had to go to expensive post-production houses for effects that are now commonplace in desktop editing. If there is a cinematic Rimbaud out there cataloguing the changes in Britain – seeing what is and is not really important – either as critic or moviemaker, then that report will be far richer and stranger than anything we have been used to seeing.   

It is possible that the forgotten medium in all of this is radio, whose clandestine, intimate nature may well give it a new lease of life in the next phase. Radio would in many ways be an ideal form for Penman; the lone voice on the solitary critic, an unstructured late night grave-yard shift, concessions, monologues and sermons, altered states, twenty-four minute music tracks. The spirit of Fassbinder and of the whole renegade culture would live in such a programme. Radio is the true medium for insomniacs; it also travels in a way images can’t.  

We are on the edge of the big shift. It is waiting to happen and waiting to be catalogued. The infrastructure is ill-equipped to deal with these changes. Godard proved that with a handheld camera and guerrilla tactics cinema could move on. With advances in digital technology and the unbelievable cheapness of much of the equipment there is now no excuse not to make a movie. In the past you could always blame someone else (‘They turned down my script’). Now there is only yourself to blame. Which is precisely what is both good and bad about the way things are now. The good and bad of it is, you’re on your own.  

Chris Petit is a filmmaker and writer. His and Ian Sinclair’s film The Falconer will be shown on Channel 4 this Autumn.