Philip French, who has died aged 82, was the doyen of British film criticism. In 2009, in the run-up to the Oscars, he discusses the demise of cinema as an art form with Standpoint's critic Peter Whittle and editor Daniel Johnson
Daniel Johnson: To make a film has always needed the traditional virtues of faith, hope and charity, but the real gods of the cinema these days seem to be money, sex and celebrity. Was it always thus, or have things got a great deal worse?
Philip French: Well, people who make films have always been interested in money. Those who see them have, for much of the history of the cinema, gone to movies to be entertained, taken out of themselves, given a kind of pleasure that is not available to them in their daily lives, and sometimes something a good deal better than that. In the last 30 years or so, the audience has become – and this goes for the critics too – less interested in the quality of the movies, or indeed in the movies at all, than in the money that is made from them, the money that is spent on them. Oscar Wilde said that a cynic was a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Nowadays, you would say that a movie buff is a person who knows the gross of everything and the value of nothing.
Peter Whittle: There is definitely some truth in that. What we should always bear in mind, though, is that, particularly when it comes to American films, as I think Pauline Kael said, the essence of America’s cinema is “kiss, kiss; bang, bang”. And it always has been, I think, about sex and stardom.
The big mistake that’s made now is to assume that the audience is more sophisticated. You hear this a lot, people say that audiences are more sophisticated now, but in my experience they’re less sophisticated than in my parents’ generation, in that they can’t and they don’t want to stay with a story. They want the visual sensationalism, which in some ways goes right back to the very beginning of cinema, doesn’t it?
PF: Yes, right at the beginning of cinema people found it very difficult to distinguish between film and life itself – that is to say, when the first film was shown, in 1895, The Train Coming Into the Station at La Ciotat, in the very first Lumière show, people thought that a real train was coming into their faces, and they ducked, or jumped back, and people were shocked by “Broncho Billy” Anderson firing a pistol directly at the camera, in 1903, in The Great Train Robbery. The distributors of the film said this shot could either be placed at the front of the film, or at the end – they said: “This is bound to startle the audience.” And then one particular attraction of the movies was to get into a simulated train, and there would be back projections, and audiences thought that they were travelling around the world. The first job of the Lumière cameramen was to go around the world recording sights that people had never seen, only dreamt about or seen on postcards.
The cinema has developed in two particular directions, which also correspond with the way people perceive art: the Lumière brothers were observing the world, just recording it, and Georges Méliès was exploring the magical, mystical and – before the term was coined – surreal aspects of cinema. So cinema has had these two parallel tracks, which we still go along, and sometimes they intertwine, interestingly and usefully, as you see in Slumdog Millionaire, a likely Oscar contender, which manages to combine the mysterious, the magical and the surreal, and the escapist, with a very realistic, almost unflinching look at the violence and poverty of everyday life in India.
PW: You mentioned the Oscars there. That’s one huge change that I’ve seen even in the last 15 years: the tail now seems to wag the dog. Everything in the movie industry is now basically arranged around the Oscars and people seem quite obsessed with awards – you mention the movie buffs, knowing about the money and everything – there’s also been a change in a way that people look at films, they come out and say: “I thought that performance was great, and wasn’t it beautifully edited?” It’s almost as if they’ve picked up a kind of language. You think: yes, but did you like it?
My father was one of those kids who went to the movies throughout the 1930s and 1940s – and that’s where I got my love of movies from – but he never really knew a director and he certainly wouldn’t have known what an editor did, but the emotional connection to the films was far greater then.
PF: There’s a surprising lack of interest in any ideas or in the moral content of a film, or what would make a film worthy of discussion, worthy of provoking ideas, having some direct influence upon society, or upon someone’s own spiritual development. There are films like that, but on the whole they aren’t the films that, as you say, are particularly popular.
This obsession with prizes is part of the whole celebrity culture in which we live, which has taken over the movies. It is having a deleterious effect on British cinema as well. I think that Bafta has taken them too seriously and has set out to compete with Hollywood, without ever having either the resources or the industrial clout to match Hollywood. And the same thing, even more so, has happened with the failure of the Euro awards that have been going on since 1989, 1990, which have made very little impact and attract very little attention.
This is reflected in the more general culture. I’ve just heard part of the Bafta shortlist, the main actor and actress, announced on the Today programme. Forty years ago Today had reviews, serious reviews, two or three times a week, of major movies. I remember once, in 1960, somebody came on Today and spoke for four minutes, giving a very serious appraisal of Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers. That would be unthinkable today, they would say that’s a very boring thing to do, boring compared with talking about who is being tipped by the bookmakers to win the Oscars, to win the Baftas.
PW: The Baftas, have changed – this upgrading of the Baftas was just one act. They simply moved the ceremony from after the Oscars to before. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles, I was quite involved in Bafta LA, and there was a huge excitement about who you were going to get along to the ceremonies. The ceremonies themselves used to be concocted around who was going to come, basically.
Although we live in this age of celebrity, people often say that Hollywood doesn’t produce any glamorous people any more – we know too much about them. But I wouldn’t say it’s anything to do with that, we still don’t know an awful lot about the celebrities of today, because they’ve got good PR people. It’s because the cult of youth which happened in general culture and basically stripped stars of the possibility of being glamorous. Glamour was about being streetwise, about being worldly, a man of the world, or a street-smart woman, and now it’s all about projecting youth, and youth is the antithesis of glamour.
I think Joan Collins once said there’s no such thing as a glamorous baby. She’s absolutely right. If you look at Tom Cruise, when he was in Mission Impossible, he was roughly the same age as Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, and yet one is a Peter Pan character, and one is a sort of man of the world that you would aspire to become. It’s youth, that’s what’s killed stardom.
PF: It’s the new movie moguls: the old ones used to play their hunches, they were in touch with a world from which they had come, which was working class, blue collar, immigrants, a wider range of people. Now, the new group have just discovered sociology and demographics, and they talk like business men in the making of their films. They aim their films at 18-24-year-olds, or another film pointed at people in their late twenties and early thirties. They’re not thinking of what a film expresses, they’re thinking in terms of how it could be pitched to a certain stratum of society.
The big thing that’s changed is that the cinema was part of the general community. There were the local cinemas, which were often of a modest kind, the high street cinemas, almost all of which have disappeared now, there were the grand cinemas, which were palatial, they’re mostly gone now. People went as a kind of routine experience, there wasn’t the competition of television, for most people, until the 1950s. People would go as a common exercise, families would go together, movie-going was relatively cheap.
Nowadays, there’s just one film shown in separate performances, with trailers that they should pay people to see rather than have people pay to sit through. Back then, they would go and see a double bill, they would have the news on with it. It was connected with the world – there would always be a newsreel from Pathé or Movietone. It was where people saw a bit of the Grand National or the Cup Final, where they saw the coming on, then the process, of the Second World War, and at the end of that, one of the great impacts that the cinema has ever had on a wide audience, was that newsreel in 1945 showing the opening of the extermination camps, particularly of Bergen-Belsen. This had a profound effect on the way people saw the world, indeed, viewed human nature, the human condition, what man was capable of doing.
Also, going to a cinema was a balanced meal in some ways, with a cartoon and newsreel, and one or two feature films, and films of general interest, and often a short documentary, up to 20 minutes or so. So the three things people went to the cinema for – entertainment, art and instruction – were often contained within the same programme.
But on the Oscar issue, there was a figure, Lindsay Anderson – I don’t know what influence he has among younger people, if any at all – but as a critic and then as a filmmaker, he had a double impact. He was a moral conscience of serious movie-goers through his writing and the films he made. He came from a Scottish Presbyterian background, and had a very serious idea about movies, but on the other hand his favourite director was John Ford, whom he thought one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, something with which I agree. But he first made documentaries, and he won an Oscar for a film that cost a couple of hundred pounds to make – a 20-minute film about the teaching of deaf children.
He had a sort of shibboleth, which he would test people on to see their probity, and he would say to you, when Oscar time came around, “Philip, you don’t take the Oscars seriously, do you?” and it’s one of those questions demanding agreement from you, and if you took the alternative view it would put you beyond the pale.
PW: People like Lindsay Anderson – you say that they’re the moral conscience, and the implication is that they’re somehow more serious in their attitude. Growing up, my love of films came from mainstream Hollywood, and by that I mean An American in Paris, the sorts of films I saw through my parents, and those kind of British, very solid literary adaptations of the ’60s. But I find it hard to take Anderson seriously. When I saw his films, they didn’t really expand the possibilities of film, so much as push a particular political line. Particularly If now looks to my eyes immature and just destructive.
PF: Well, immature compared with what? On the other hand, he was bringing in to the cinema continental influences. Like Karel Reisz, his close associate in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and some later films, he was challenging the very crude kind of English realism, but he was also in fact challenging what had been the dominant middle class ethos of the British cinema. I think Anderson’s influence is probably greater in terms of his moral conscience, in stirring people to think about the potential of the cinema, the responsibility of filmmakers, but he wasn’t entirely against entertainment – though he did have this very strict notion of personal behaviour and a kind of moral seriousness, as opposed to what he criticised in others, a sort of moral pomposity.
DJ: What role do you think politics plays in the cinema now, and is it on the whole benign, or is Hollywood in particular, or perhaps also European cinema, conformist, tending to say the same thing, whatever the subject may be?
PW: I would say that it is incredibly conformist; there’s an orthodoxy that pretty much exists in other artistic areas, so you roughly know what you’re going to get. It doesn’t stop you enjoying a film, but you do know what its attitude is going to be, broadly speaking. It’s not a crude thing necessarily, I’m not just talking about documentaries, but I saw one this week called The End of America, which is a Naomi Wolf thing, rather like the Al Gore documentary, in which you pretty much knew what the argument was going to be: America’s an incipient fascist dictatorship, and so on.
But when it comes to general movies, in Hollywood movies I find it interesting that on the one hand you will have the American Beauty tendency and the Ice Storm tendency, which is that traditional suburbia is somehow incredibly dysfunctional, that it’s wrong, that it should be criticised, and somehow should be deconstructed. But to me that is not really challenging at all, it’s what you expect; if it’s going to be a film about a family you expect that it’s going to be very critical, do you not feel, Philip? I feel that there is a certain sort of attitude that goes through…I don’t think it’s some kind of conspiracy, I’m not saying that, and I’m certainly not taking a religious point of view. But you do know, on the whole, what you’re going to get.
What interests me particularly at the moment, about Hollywood, is we’ve got these extraordinary issues happening, not least with such things as the rise of Islam, and Hollywood just stays completely clear of this. It was interesting seeing the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, which was not a very good film – the first one was a fantastic film, very counterintuitive and all the rest of it – but the second one, if ever there was a case for putting forward that in fact there was some entryism, Islamist entryism into the American establishment, they could have done it there, but no, they sidelined that and went for big business, yet again, and I thought: this is somehow very predictable. This is what they would do. And that is frustrating to me, to which you might say in that case, people with other views should make films. But when they do, they are often very bad. The Zucker brothers have made something called American Carol recently, which is meant to be a movie from the centre Right. I imagine it’s terrible, because it always comes down to just poking fun at political correctness, which is very silly and very trivial. But usually like in the theatre, you do know you’re going to get a certain viewpoint.
PF: Well, for a great many years, particularly from the mid-1930s up until 1967, the American cinema, and through it much of the world, was dominated by the Hollywood Production Co, which insisted upon the observation of certain values. They came from two particular sources, the people who devised the code; one was the Catholic Church, and the other was the middle class. These were the values imposed on movies, and the intention of films was to inculcate particular social standards and values.
It then became a contest for the filmmakers to try and subvert these values, without people understanding what was happening, like the films of one of the greatest satirists and social commentators of Hollywood cinema, Billy Wilder, and the way in which, say, genres were used to criticise society. I think there has been a general sense among American artists, this goes right back to the time of the Civil War, that the artist was in an adversarial position to the general culture. This is what has informed the best of American literature and the finest critics, people like Edmund Wilson, people who have at various times been associated with aspects of the Left, and in some cases with communism.
On the other hand, you have Lionel Trilling, who was torn between trying to uphold or see what was good about America, and at the same time feeling compelled to criticise the popular culture. This idea that Hollywood is dominated by the Left, which is claimed to have happened as one of the results of the ethos of the 1960s – there’s something in it, but compared generally with the drift of American society it doesn’t seem to be particularly or interestingly of the Left. The only truly left-wing film maker is John Sayles, who operates on the fringe of Hollywood and is quite open about his politics.
When talking about such large issues in film I’m greatly reminded of a moment in 1959, when Ken Tynan was first flirting with Marxism and Brecht and went over to America to work on the New Yorker. Ken was at a public forum discussing culture and the future of the arts, and he was going on about his Marxist ideas and interpretation of society. The chairman of the panel turned to Philip Rahv, who was a former Trotskyist and one of the editors of Partisan Review – formerly leftist, and at that time very much a part of the anti-communist, liberal wing of American politics – and asked him what he thought about the questions that Tynan had raised. And Rahv turned round and said “Young man, the questions you raise are so old, I’ve forgotten the answers.”
PW: I don’t even think that it’s necessarily that Hollywood’s run by the Left. In my experience it’s not quite like that. It seems to be much more the remnants of a kind of rather teenage rebelliousness, a desire simply to take a pop at things. It’s as simple as that. I think that from what we’ve seen in recent years, there’s a lot of posturing. So we have George Clooney making Good Night, and Good Luck, which I enjoyed as a film, but which was essentially going back and refighting the battles of the past. It wasn’t really addressing anything at the moment which might even be risky. I mean, God save us from that. There’s nothing risky about it.
There’s a kind of a self-aggrandising posturing that goes on in Hollywood. I think that it simply comes down to a sort of rebelliousness which has grown out of the ’60s mentality. The worst thing that you can be called in an American movie is a Republican. I remember there’s a line in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, when the woman in it is about to tell the man something very important, and he says, “Oh you’re about to tell me you’re a Republican.” And the thing is, this isn’t even a funny line – it’s somehow accepted that this would be a terrible, terrible thing.
DJ: Philip, you mentioned earlier that once upon a time the Church and the middle class had a stranglehold over Hollywood – that doesn’t seem to be the problem now, does it? I’m not sure that anybody does actually. For all the faults of Hollywood (whatever they may be), it still dominates. It still brings people in. If you go down to the cinema and see what’s on, the vast majority of films will still be whatever Hollywood has produced. So why is that? How has Hollywood maintained its hegemony?
Is there a difference between what Europeans think cinema is about, and what Hollywood thinks it’s about? And just to throw into that mix the role of the critics, since you’re both critics – have the critics in a sense become too powerful? Have they forgotten what it is that the public still go to the movies for?
PF: I think that critics have very little power. The only power that they really have is in giving a certain encouragement, which can be profitable in a small way at the box office, to small films and minor distributors. For the most part, the people who are working on the big distributors’ films that are going out in thousands of prints in America, hundreds in this country, don’t read what the critics say. Or lesser people in the office go through them just to underline favourable quotes. Most of them just look at the stars that are given. I fortunately work for a paper that doesn’t award stars, and has kept this at bay. It will come into the paper over my dead body. Hollywood cinema, in my view, is not American cinema. There is American cinema, which is independent and has its own newly-minted clichés. Hollywood is world cinema. It came to think that it was providing entertainment for the world. People in Hollywood now think in global terms with most of their films. So much of the money comes from overseas distributions, and this has a definite effect on the nature of the films they make, the controversies they embrace, and more often in the ones that they deliberately avoid. As William Dean Howells said to Edith Wharton to encourage her after the failure of one of her plays, “What the great American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Which is what has been provided incidentally by Slumdog Millionaire. And then there are the national cinemas which are a lot smaller and, in international terms, less significant over the years.
PW: There is this argument made that American products – and people say American but mean Hollywood – tend to go straight into the multiplex and quash any kind of national cinema. I don’t really see it like that. It seems to me that anything like that, McDonalds or whatever it is, will come into a vacuum, and that’s the problem. And when the native culture is going through a weak period, something quite powerful will come in and fill the void. I don’t really think that Hollywood has destroyed, or is somehow edging out, French or British cinema.
But the overriding appeal of Hollywood and the reason why Hollywood does dominate is that, simply, and this sounds very corny maybe, it does speak to aspiration – and not in an overtly political way of the individual overcoming great odds. But it is about dreaming. And it seems to be that European cinema is certainly not about dreaming. It tends to be about recording and trying, often, to get to a bleaker reality. And that’s why Hollywood will always tend to be more popular. I don’t think it’s down to money in that sense: it’s something that goes through the approach to film.
PF: Well, we do see Hollywood in its totality. We tend to see other national cinemas only in a very selective way, unless you carefully study them. When I grew up, Hollywood was generally, excepting a few individuals, held in contempt by intellectuals and by most critics, or at least was looked on with a certain disdain. If I was involved in any particular movement or had any influence, it was around 1960, when I first started to write and was sympathetic to the aims of the magazine called Movie. It introduced the auteur theory into this country and was trying to change, in fact all too successfully, the appreciation of American films. I had always preferred in my heart of hearts American movies. I began to realise that they were as good as the best elsewhere, and in many cases, a good deal better, and that Hollywood was misunderstood. This critical campaign helped to break down the distinction between what people call “film”, and “movie”.
One of my first books was about Hollywood, was about understanding the nature of the people who created the studios, how genres developed, and the particular strength of these in Hollywood cinema. Then I talked about the idea of authorship. As long as you provided what was popularly entertaining, you could within obvious limits put in critical and social ideas of any particular political stripe.
For me, the greatest period of the cinema was roughly from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, when you had the great Hollywood filmmakers at their peak – in many cases people who started off in the silent cinema – and one thinks of Hitchcock, and Ford and Hawks, who were doing fine work then. At the end of the period, you had the new American directors coming out of film schools. Some of them had done graduate work at the informal school run by Roger Corman, making B-movies. You had the Godfather films, you had the arrival of Scorsese and Spielberg. Suddenly Hollywood really came back as the dominant fashion. The landmark would be 1975 and a new kind of distribution with Jaws, and then with Star Wars.
In between that period, there had been a time, say in the 1960s, when we believed that the British, European, Asian cinema, as a result of some giant figures who arose at that time, would be accepted by the public. That they would accept all kinds of cinemas: arthouse and popular. It was a time when Antonioni, Fellini and Francesco Rosi arose in Italy, and Kurosawa in Japan. There was a more widespread reception of Japanese cinema, and the discovery of Ozu and of Mizoguchi, who’d just died. You had the French New Wave, who in a sense were turning against their cinema and feeding on Hollywood, but doing something which seemed uniquely European. This in turn fed back and had a major influence in America. And one saw this great intellectual and cultural interchange.
But then this came to an end in the ’70s. We went back to an arthouse cinema, which is a general idea about European cinema, and which was looked on among young Americans with a kind of contempt, or not even considered at all. You had a retreat from culture by the educated and intellectual classes of Britain. A kind of cultural trahison des clercs which has continued and is seen in the way people now prefer to watch Strictly Come Dancing rather than a demanding TV drama.
I think that cinema has run its course. I think that in these hundred years the cinema really has been exhausted – as in the third law of thermodynamics, that the world is running down – everything has been tried, everything has been done, all that remains are a few technical changes. Like one of the most dangerous changes which is coming: the introduction throughout the country of digital projection, which will put even more cinemas out of business, and play into the hands of those whose only concern is making money. What remains is repetition. I’m just describing this – this is the nature of what is the present situation. There are two critics I greatly admire who are slightly younger than me, and who take a similar view and perhaps an even more extreme one. They’re both British and have in a sense stepped aside from British or English culture. David Thomson, living in San Francisco, and Gilbert Adair, who’s British-Scottish, are more at home on the Continent. They have an almost despairing attitude towards cinema, which is an attitude devoid of cynicism but full of sadness.
PW: Yes, I don’t share that sadness actually. I might have done once, but cinema shows a quite remarkable resilience – first of all as a form itself, but also as a social function. It was back in 1984 that there were various city analysts who came out with a report saying, “Well, that’s it, cinema’s gone, cinema’s dead.” It was partly because the attendances here reached their lowest at about 50 million, also because movies were very bad at that time, and then finally because of video. Everyone said: “Oh well video, that’s it, the final nail in the coffin.” But in fact actually, quite counterintuitively, what happened was that people became more interested in film because of video and DVD. In terms of attendances they’ve gradually been going up. Now, I know that this is not the same as saying that the movies themselves are actually in a good way, but I just have to be true to myself. And the fact is that I enjoy, and am impressed by, a huge number of current films. Cinema’s ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat astonishes me actually. One of the reasons why I am more sanguine about it is because, even now with the massive resources that cinema, and particularly the Hollywood machine have to get people in, it still has to fight for its audience, in an odd way. Theatre has an inbuilt credibility – in the way that the audience take it on board, the way that they view it, and the way that they respond to it – which film still doesn’t have. I think that that is probably its strength. Because cinema will have to keep trying to get people in. So in other words, I see more dynamism there. But I think that ten years ago I would have thought that – there’s no question about it – films aren’t literate any more, that they don’t tell stories any more. But the truth is that over the past few years I’ve seen a lot of films that have been some of the best that I’ve seen.
PF: Certainly, 15, 20 years ago I thought that the cinema was dying, and was not alone in thinking this. I thought that critics would go the way of saddle-makers, and that it would be sooner rather than later, and probably in my lifetime. And things have changed. Just to look at my own position – I have far more space than any other critic. I get twice as much space on the paper as other arts. I have probably three times as many words as I had in the ’70s and ’80s. One of the reasons that this comes about of course is because as I get older, the editors that I work for get younger, and one can apply the old cliché that cinema has become the new rock ‘n’ roll and does attract more attention. I think that what has changed is that, technically, films seem a great deal better.
On the other hand, I think that throughout this history, most films have been terrible. But there have always been a lot of interesting good films. They have not always been recognised as such, and in fact a lot of what are regarded as classics are false classics and need re-evaluation and to fall by the wayside, whilst others need to be discovered.
And there are a great many films being made now of value, but there are fewer peaks I think. And also, it’s about the way that people talk about the cinema now, and I’d agree with something that you’ve actually said earlier, Peter – that people almost refuse to experience them deeply. A few tears perhaps on the right occasions, but not actually to make the cinema part of their spiritual and intellectual fodder.
PW: I think that we saw the absolute apotheosis of nihilism for me in the great Tarantino wave in the ’90s, and more recently the Coen wave. When you look at Pulp Fiction OK you can admire its cleverness. But what is it about? It’s so nihilistic. I found this, too, with No Country for Old Men. Ultimately, there’s a dislike of humanity there, there’s a kind of coldness, there’s a nothingness. That was the one time I felt alienated from the mainstream of films, or at least from the films that were critically very much in the frame.
PF: This idea that films are now about films, and the term that’s come up in the last 20 or 30 years, “cineliterate” – cineliterate really means seeing where someone stole the ideas from. Plagiarism has become homage and such like. I liked this when this movement first started: it now irritates me considerably. What gives me the greatest pleasure is suddenly to see an Algerian film maker working in France, who knows how to make films and is not concerned about referring to other films, but instead reveals the lives of people that one knows so little about. Not necessarily people who are the insulted and injured, but people fighting to survive or live decent lives. I wouldn’t want to see nothing but Iranian films, but some of the most interesting pictures are coming out of Iran.
One of the exciting things about this is the question of how these people manage to have the resilience to make films under such circumstances, when half of the films they make are banned in their country of origin. But somehow they have this extraordinary courage to persevere under these circumstances. A lot of the heroism that we once attributed to directors struggling in Hollywood, a lot of which was rather sentimental, should be reserved for people elsewhere in the world who are trying to make films in, say, Africa and Asia.
These films will never become widely popular and certainly they’re not something that would become my daily diet – I could perhaps survive on a desert island on just Westerns and musicals, and films noirs made in Hollywood.