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Nine Things I Like as a Reader of Criticism

On Criticism & Critics

The Things that Stick , Writing on Arts & Culture , December 20, 2013
On Criticism & Critics by The Things that Stick A reviewer is more a reader than a writer. These are some qualities in the writing that I like. In no order of priority:

1. Praise that is informed and expands.

Gush and hyperbole flow freely in an arena where budgets for public relations out-strip journalism by six or more to one. Praise that is rooted in authority is not easy.

This is how John Peter saw the lead performance in Rebecca Gilman’s ‘Spinning into Butter’. It covers a lot.

‘Emma Fielding gives a performance of technical virtuosity and hard, unsparing emotional self-exploration. The accent is excellent, and the trim body language suggests someone seriously, if not very sophisticatedly, sexual who needs to be seen as energetic, efficient, serious and relentlessly bright. You assume that she works out, regularly and ferociously.

Fielding has also perfected the American professional woman's smile: purposeful, aggressively sincere but slightly vacuous. Under it, she gradually reveals a profound moral and intellectual unease.’

2. Elaboration not dismissal

An unfavourable review needs time, and effort, to get the selection, the detail and the balance right.

London’s theatre on occasion pays out, and earns, big money by bringing Hollywood A-listers to Shaftesbury Avenue. Kenneth Lonergan’s play ‘This is Our Youth’ had three considerable actors from film. John Peter again took trouble to explain the demerits.

‘The three stars’…CVs suggest that they have no stage experience, and if this is true, they are doing pretty well. Each personality is clearly defined: the actors have got the picture, and they can put it across…all three have good stage presence, which is a big advantage, but their bodies seem untrained. They do the same set of gestures…likes to saw the air with his arms, and keeps bending his trunk forward when he is angry, which is often. None of them is very good at acting against the others, at handling response and silence, which is why the performances sometimes lack continuity, as if they were acting in takes.’

3. Concision & compression

Lyn Gardner wrote of ‘Waiting for Godot’ that ‘it is both non-specific and incredibly concrete, endlessly elusive and yet ­universal.’ That is Beckett and it is done with twelve words.

4. Wit & playfulness

Wales Arts Review did not much take to BBC Wales’ selection of authors for a series on great Welsh writers: Ken Follett, Philip Pullman enrolled as of Wales. Not a good year for the Corporation, sympathised the writer, ‘victimised, demonised and belittled. And, now, it seems it has had its dictionary stolen.’

5. Insight & getting to the essential

Pauline Kael is a member of a small group of critics, those whose every written word have deserved re-issue in book form. The books are riddled with sharpness of detail and distinctiveness of observation. A line of hers from ‘Trash, Art and the Movies’ is characteristic.

‘In foreign movies what is most often mistaken for ‘quality’ is an imitation of earlier movie art or a derivation from respectable, approved work in the other arts.’

6. An eye and an ear for the telling detail

The telling detail speaks volumes in suggesting the whole. John Peter was in Mold to see Hedydd Dylan play Eliza Doolittle.

‘Ms Dylan also employs some sharp physical detail as the ingénue in the Wimpole Street study with a jaw that juts and a lower lip drawn under her teeth. Shaw specifically wrote ‘horribly dirty’ and dirty she indeed is, as well as scratching actively after a flea or a louse.’

7. Depth

In 2002 Philip French saw Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Laissez-Passer.’ His review begins with a summary of the French film industry during the years of the Occupation and the escape by a few like Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier and René Clair. Before addressing the film itself, and its predecessors ‘the Sorrow and the Pity’, Lacombe Lucien’ and ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ the review includes
‘I was almost in tears when listening to the great Jewish designer, Alexandre Trauner, a fellow juror at Cannes in 1986, telling me of hiding out in the hills above Nice and sneaking down at night past German guards to the Victorine Studios to examine his great outdoor sets for Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis. However, at the Liberation several filmmakers were jailed, a few were barred from working, and the film historian Robert Brasillach was executed.’

8. Distinctiveness & personality

Christopher Hart went to see Joe Penhall’s ‘Landscape with Weapon’ and wrote ‘this play’s political sensibilities strike you not so much as right or wrong, but as seriously lacking in complexity, maturity and breadth; emerging from a tiny, tiny little world where everybody thinks exactly the same, agrees with each other ardently and credulously reads the same newspaper. It is not a good recipe for political theatre.’

Agree or not, he has a view.

9. Skewering bias and falsity

Philip French was already a critic during the period of the pirate radio stations’ flourishing. ‘The Boat that Rocked’ he terms ‘mirthless, feelgood farce’ that depicts Britain as ‘an infantilised country in a series of cringe-making vignettes’.

The adversary in the film is ‘cabinet minister Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), half Raymond Huntley-style Whitehall warrior, half Nazi functionary. His stiff-necked assistant is called Twatt, a somewhat unusual name that amuses Curtis no end.’

French puts to rights the makers’ falsification of politics. Of the commercial radio stations: ‘Harold Wilson's Labour government sought to suppress them, its chief agent being the postmaster general, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, then as now something of a zealot.’

A version of this article appeared in Wales Arts Review 2nd September 2013

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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