A Critical Mauling

This is Willy Rozier defending an actress’s honour by fighting a duel with the critic who gave her a bad review in his film, 56, RUE PIGALLE.

Flash-forward decades, and schlockmeister Uwe Boll challenges an array of critics to a boxing match, and proceeds to WHALE ON THEIR ASSES, delivering an animalistic, fist-based drubbing that knocks each and every one of them for six. It looks as painful as watching one of Boll’s movies.

Inbetweentimes, we have a notorious confrontation between director Ken Russell and Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker, on live T.V. (the clip appears not to have been preserved). Walker, slamming Russell’s THE DEVILS, had listed all the violent and obscene moments in the film, charging “we see Oliver Reed’s testicles crushed.” “That must have been wishful thinking on his part,” says Russell, “because they certainly weren’t.”


Viewing the film attentively, it is clear what actually goes down: Reed has his legs placed between slats and crushed by Michael Gothard, who drives wedges in between the slats with a big hammer. I’m sure Walker would have found that pretty offensive too, but it IS based on solid historical fact, and we never see the hammer connect. Also, Aldous Huxley’s description of the scene in his source book, The Devils of Loudun, is explicit, matter-of-fact, and just as appalling. The censor had actually made Russell cut the hammer blows down to ONE blow, then said, “Oh no, that makes it WORSE,” and made him put some back.

Oliver red

Russell raised the inaccuracy of the review in the television discussion, but Walker didn’t acknowledge any error. Understandably frustrated, Mad Ken proceeded to swear violently and strike Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own review. “Should have had an iron bar inside it, but I didn’t have one to hand.”

Alexander Walker, curiously smackable

It’s pretty clear that the critics have invective sewn up. Artists can’t respond to criticism verbally without looking like buffoons. They stifle their hurt and grow ulcers. When James Cameron suggested that critic Kenneth Turan should be fired for not liking TITANIC — since this proved Turan was out of step with public opinion — he just looked like an arse.

But violence ALWAYS works! If Cameron had struck Turan in the face with a pie, like the Belgian “pastry terrorists” who creamed Godard and Bill Gates some years ago, a lot more people would have sympathised (though we knew in our hearts even then that TITANIC was basically manipulative piffle). This kind of thing satisfies our inner sensation-seeker, and makes us feel that a worm has turned, an underdog has had their day. A filmmaker writing to the papers feels like a worrying reversal of the natural order. A filmmaker throwing a ridiculous strop and shoving a dignified older gentleman into a fountain just seems right and proper.* Tony Richardson, once a critic himself, said that his former colleagues in that profession were “acidulated intellectual eunuchs hugging their prejudices like feather boas,” and certainly in these bracing physical encounters it’s the critics who tend to come out of it worst.

But it can’t be right, all this FIGHTING. Isn’t there an alternative?

The movie THEATRE OF BLOOD suggests one possibility. It’s a whimsical fantasy in which a ham actor (Vincent Price, arguably typecast) murders his way through the critics’ circle, appropriating his choice of weapons and methodology from the plays of Wm. Shakespeare. Much better to revel in IMAGINARY violence, which is, after all, what most filmmakers are used to doing. When director Quentin Tarantino and NATURAL BORN KILLERS producer Don Murphy got into a fight in a Hollywood restaurant, both claimed to have given the other a thorough thrashing, but a waiter who witnessed the scuffle observed, “It was obvious neither of these guys knew how to fight.” One pictures a hysterical BRIDGET JONES-style slappy fight, unbecoming of such maestros of cinematic mayhem.

THEATRE OF BLOOD upset me as a kid, when I saw it one Hogmanay night. It was a shock to see sitcom star Arthur Lowe getting his head sawn off in bed (and being murdered IN BED was particularly upsetting to a child). I’m still not even sure which Shakespeare play that was meant to be. A loose reading of Macbeth? Robert Morley being force-fed his own poodles in a pie, a reworking of Titus Andronicus, put one acquaintance off chicken pie for life. The appalling sadism savagery was inexplicable to a child, even one such as I who had been weaned on a diet of Hammer horror. Only with an adult’s experienced eye can we appreciate the satisfaction of slaying critics. It then becomes clear how the film was able to attract such an all-star cast: great names of British film, theatre and television were queuing up to be slaughtered wearing cravats: Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, Dennis Price, Harry Andrews, Robert Coote, with Diana Dors and Coral Browne providing female victims (Price seems to particularly relish electrcuting his real-life wife).

cook until Browne

As someone who both sits in the director’s chair, when asked, and sits in judgement, in this blog, I have divided loyalties on this issue, and naturally I don’t want to see anybody get hurt. I would be doubly at risk. So the idea of slaughtering critics through the medium of film strikes me as the most civilized and balanced option. Reviewers can continue to vivisect film-makers on the page, as long as the movie people can retaliate by hacking up the hacks on the screen. The public, who have always loved a Roman circus, are likely to be the winners.

*Nobody has actually done this to a critic yet but I’m hoping for a copycat crime to boost my circulation.

10 Responses to “A Critical Mauling”

  1. I think there are a lot of artists who would love to strap on the gloves and beat the crap out of their most vociferous critics. The problem is that certain critics lose their objectivity and direct their vitriol toward the artist rather than the work and THAT’S a no-no. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Louis Ferdinand Celine, was vilified for his anti-Semitism and he really was an unpleasant rotten human being. But that is entirely irrelevant when one is talking about the worthiness of his work.

    I recall that terrific quote an old English teacher of mine used to toss around: “A critic is a legless man who teaches others how to run…” or words to that effect…

  2. I’m as guilty as anyone of glossing over the distinction between critics and reviewers. Critical analysis is extremely helpful. Consumer guide reviewing tends to fail on its own terms, since we’re all different. And 99% of writing about film is “just one man’s opinion”, multiplied by thousands. I like it when the critic is at least able to extract something interesting from the movie.

    Artists are quite bad at taking criticism, but most mainstream criticism is Not Good — it is idea-light and cinematically illiterate. Not that that should justify actual bodily harm, but it should justify unemployment for a lot of the characters who perpetrate it.

    (The writers I know of who visit this site are FIRST CLASS and are in no way included in the above.)

    I *do* sympathise with people who write the weekly reviews, in that nothing is more calculated to put a person off cinema that having to sit through all the week’s releases and find something to say about them. Those who manage to do it and at least maintain enthusiasm for good filmmaking have my respect for that.

  3. Remember when Sylvia Miles dumped a plate of pasta on John Simon’s head?

    Love that Sylvia!

  4. Wow. As the youngsters of today say, this article is made of epic win.

    I’ve always found that an effective strategy of getting rid of critics (or at least confusing them) is to demand that they work harder. For example in film you point out a bad piece in your own flick that the critic missed, claim that it was far worse than what the critic noticed, and therefore the critic doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.

    Admit your faults, but revalue them to discredit your critic.

    There are few things as disarming as someone who admits they’re wrong.

  5. It should be like SPARTACUS:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, should the irritating critic get a good old fashioned fisting?”

    Audience (chanting): “TWO THUMBS UP! TWO THUMBS UP! TWO THUMBS UP!”

    (I chose my words carefully there).

  6. Chris — yeah, but there’s filmmakers you’d like to rupture also.

    Elver — EXCELLENT strategy!

    David E — John Simon is NO GENTLEMAN! Hope the pasta was hot.

  7. there is a good w.h. auden line about how it is impossible to write a bad review without showing off

  8. Oh, that’s VERY true!

    Smart guy, Auden. “This is the night train, crossing the border…”

  9. wytchcroft Says:

    oh to have been able to feed Walker to the lions… the big problem with ‘critics’/reviewers like Walker is they become the sorry stereotype of the conservative grump believing nothing but that their own opinion should hold sway – and proceed to vilify almost everything and for the same reasons, thus becoming more and more superficial in their actual viewing and analyses. Halliwell was another, but Walker slammed films down the years and was so often wide of the mark it just became embarrassing.

    At least Dilys Powell had the unique distinction of apologizing and retracting, in the case of Peeping Tom (if memory serves)

  10. Yes, Dilys retracted, and there have been a few others. Somebody changed their mind about Bonnie and Clyde, very publicly and quite usefully I think.

    It’s possible Dilys was soused when she first saw Peeping Tom, a lot of the critics had serious drinking problems in those days and would sleep through the films.

    The trouble is it must be a wretched job being a professional critic and having to see everything that comes out, sit through it and be fair. I only watch what I want to watch: plenty of films are so unappealing I couldn’t be fair about them, so I try to avoid those. I don’t envy them the job.

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