As a dance writer, I recently took part in a seminar on criticism at the Place Theatre. It so happened that I’d also recently seen a number of films that feature critics – and far more than any pithy quip about criticism, these cinematic portrayals had stopped me in my tracks and made me think not only about criticism but, more personally, about the life of a critic. I recommended these films at the seminar, and I list them here.
Ratatouille (2006, USA) Surely the only film in which the final transporting moment is figured through a speech on the nature of criticism. Supercilious restaurant critic Anton Ego, who has stalked the film like a bloodless grey vampire, reconnects to his multicoloured childhood self with the help of a revelatory bowl of ratatouille. “In the grand scheme of things,” he reflects, “even the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” The happy ending sees him spending his evenings in a cosy cafe, not as a critic but as a lover of food. He chooses life.
Theatre of Blood (1973, UK) If Ratatouille offers the critic the carrot of life, Theatre of Blood brandishes the stick of death. It’s a grand guignol revenge fantasy, with Vincent Price as a hammy actor (the role is beyond parody) who sets about killing each of his critics in the manner of a Shakespearean murder. Talk about “acting out”. The critics, meanwhile, are as pompous and hammy as the actor they deride. It puts the stab in backstabbing. Words become weapons.
My Kid Could Paint That (2007, USA) An unexpectedly affecting documentary that keeps pulling the rug from under your feet. At its heart is a four-year-old girl who painted modernist abstracts. Though not directly about criticism, the film reveals much about the implicitly corrosive influence of the media and about a network of vested interests that includes press officers, curators, buyers, art lovers and artists. Crucially, it shows that our opinions, actions and values are as much to do with the position we occupy in the web – gallery owner, journalist, documentarist – as any sincerely held conviction. The only innocent party is the four-year-old.
Crime Delicado (Delicate Crime, 2005, Brazil) A brilliant, devastating film about an unstable triangle between a theatre critic, an artist and his model. The model is a woman with an amputated leg; the artist paints erotic canvases of her faceless body, his own phallus often figuring as the missing limb. Whatever else he may be doing he is at least creating something of aesthetic value; but the critic simply destroys. A solitary, deluded man, socially and sexually inadequate, his search for perfection in art means that he is, to the contrary, obsessed with imperfection (which is, after all, the human condition); and when he finds it, he exploits and violates it. You could gloss one of the film’s many layers as “the rape of art by criticism”.
There are other films featuring critics (All About Eve, The Man Who Came to Dinner). They are seldom praised, often lampooned, occasionally attacked; and theatre critics appear to be the commonest target. Clearly none of the portrayals is remotely close to a positive image.
At the screening of Crime Delicado someone said to me, “You’re a critic, aren’t you?” I nodded, mumbling that it was only part of my life, and anyway, I wasn’t even a theatre critic. But I still felt ashamed. Afterwards, I consoled myself with the thought that even if the film gives critics a bad press, I was critic enough to appreciate that it was a good film, and to say so. Then I got on with my life.