Issue 131 – Absolutely Critical

Donald Clarke, caricature by Tom Galvin

The professional film reviewer is critical of film but are they critical to film? David O Mahony talks to The Irish Times’ Donald Clarke.

Say what you want about the current state of the film industry, but there is certainly no shortage of choice out there; more films are released than ever before, on a dizzying array of platforms. Faced with this surfeit of content, how do we make informed choices about what we watch? The internet is an untrustworthy cacophony of opinion, so it falls to the professional film critic to navigate a path through the dross.

How has the role of the ‘proper’ film critic (or indeed a critic of any artform) evolved in a climate where consumers’ attention spans are continually eroded by the snap judgments of the popular media and social networking sites et al.? Do we read the review, or the star rating?

The answer, sadly, to the second part of your question is ‘too often the latter’. Most critics loathe the star-rating, but, being realistic, admit there’s no escape from it. Very frequently, somebody will rant about you giving a film too many or too few stars, but, when you press them, they are unable to mention a single specific point made in the text. Maybe that’s the reviewer’s fault. Who knows? That said, I think – though people are besieged by reviewers on the net – many filmgoers do still pay attention to newspapers and magazines. It’s to do with getting to know a voice and learning its owner’s prejudices and preferences. Even if you hate a critic in a paper, by reading him each week you learn to calibrate his assessment. There is just too much noise on the internet and it’s hard to stick with one reviewer long enough to know what he or she is about. They’ve generally vanished a week later anyway. In fact, writing old-fashioned, lucid, longish reviews probably helps a critic distinguish himself or herself from the majority of online critics. Not all of course. There are many brilliant writers on the web. The problem is finding them.

Are there practitioners of the art of film criticism that have inspired you?

Oh certainly. It is painfully obvious to bring up Pauline Kael, but I do so anyway. I have always liked her and not just because Alan Parker hates her guts. She was asked, when retiring from The New Yorker, what she was most looking forward to. She replied: ‘Never having to see another Oliver Stone film.’ She sounds like my kind of woman. When I was a kid, my parents got The Observer every week and I read Philip French with enthusiasm. I still do. Like Roger Ebert – who’s too easily pleased – he went off for a while in middle-age, but has come back a bit. Funnily enough, the newspaper critic I most savoured on film only did the job for a short while. When Adam Mars-Jones was at The Independent he wrote beautifully about movies. I very often disagreed violently with him, but always enjoyed the review. That’s a real measure of good critical writing, I think. Who else? J. Hoberman, Colin MacCabe, Kim Newman, Geoff Andrew and Mark Kermode all have their virtues. The current king, however, is the mighty Jonathan Rosenbaum. I still try to stand by David Thomson, but, since he went gaga for Nicole Kidman, that’s been a difficult position to hold.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 131.

Special thanks to Tom Galvin for his caricature of Donald Clarke, you can see Tom’s work at


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