Friday, December 01, 2006

Powell and... Dwyer?

I'm departing from the movie diary format today to post a brief entry in Andy Horbal's film criticism blog-a-thon over at No More Marriages. I came to film in quite a different context - and through different critics - than many of those to whom Andy's blog is playing host. As a consequence, I'm taking a personal tack that pays tribute to two newspaper writers who first made me realize that film was something to think about rather than simply watch, even if I've moved on to other writers over the years.

Growing up in Ireland, the first place I turned for writing about film*, in the early 1980's, was Michael Dwyer's Friday review column in The Irish Times. One of my earliest critical memories is of him raving over a film he'd seen at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, a trifle by the name of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, which I then had to wait seven long months to see on my ninth birthday (on his ninth birthday, my friend John, who was apparently born with critical faculties already formed, was purchasing a Dead Kennedys LP). The following year, Dwyer wrote from Cannes about Fanny and Alexander; I confess that Bergman's work was not my 1983 birthday movie.

Dwyer's cinematic tastes are canonical for the most part (with a sometimes embarrassing weakness for any film with an Irish connection), but following his work week-by-week before I could see most of the films he wrote about (it wasn't until I was 14 that I moved to Dublin and could contemplate seeing anything beyond the most mainstream releases) already gave me a sense of the possibilities out there, of a world of film that went far beyond what was playing in the smaller towns where I lived. Unable to take in many of the newer releases, I turned to the capsule reviews he and others supplied for the TV listings page and began my education, checking out older movies on weekend afternoons and foreign or offbeat choices at night (while Britain's BBC2 and Channel 4, which we could receive, had the most consistently interesting options, films like Two Lane Blacktop or Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, the Irish channel RTE2 occasionally threw out offerings like Yaaba or Good Morning Babylon, all of it great fodder for a growing teen and, unlike American broadcast TV, presented without cuts).

Sometime in the late 1980's, I also became aware of the weekly capsule reviews in the British newspaper The Sunday Times. At that time, they were being written by the estimable Dilys Powell, a woman who casts a long shadow over mainstream British criticism but who's barely known in the US. Powell was the film critic for The Sunday Times for almost 40 years, from the late 1930's to the mid-1970's. She later worked at Punch magazine, and at The Sunday Times she wrote capsule reviews of movies screening on television right up to her death in 1995. Powell was certainly a product of her upbringing and time but unlike many other critics she remained open-minded throughout her writing life, interested in new films and willing to re-consider her old positions (most famously in her apology - an extreme example of the better late than never variety - to Michael Powell, whose Peeping Tom she and others had so comprehensively trashed in 1960). When I was 15, Ms. Powell's capsule review of My Life as a Dog prompted me to see that film on TV. I was so impressed - hardly a surprise that a coming-of-age film might appeal to a teen - that I wrote to her, thanking her for selecting the film as her weekly capsule. A few months ago, clearing out old things at my parents' home in Dublin, I came across her gracious note of reply, written in a hand spidery with advancing age; she had even taken the time to include a photocopy of the press pack for the film, dating from its original release.

The brief note seems like a small treasure now, but within a couple of years of its receipt, as a callow college student writing on the film page, I felt a vague sense of shame that I had followed the work of anyone so middlebrow; the newspaper crew had a highly-developed sense of its own worth. Such feelings notwithstanding, I was unable to fully conceal the sense of excitement I felt, as a 17-year-old student reviewer, at attending the same screenings as Dwyer and the remainder of the Irish reviewing establishment. My early reviews for the student newspaper reflect as much as anything else the novelty of watching movies for free, and first thing in the morning to boot (unfortunately, they also reflect the tendency displayed by too many critics to re-hash the plot ad nauseum rather than actually attempting anything approaching critical analysis).

In writing about Dwyer and Powell, I'm not attempting to add them to the pantheon (though both warrant more than just cursory mention in their respective national traditions, and for reasons that go beyond their weekly reviews). I am, though, pointing up the value, that hardly needs to be re-emphasized here but seems to be losing traction in the print world, of access, wherever you grow up, to film writers who have a truly broad and deep appreciation of cinema (in Powell's case, of course, acquired through her own longevity as much as anything else; she was writing crisp reviews in her ninety-fourth year), writers who have an appreciation of cinema that goes back beyond their own teenage years.

Perhaps most of all, Dwyer and Powell's work points up the importance of access to writers who are more interested in film - in watching film, and in participating in a dialogue on film - than in the sound of their own voices; neither critic's writing is ever a distraction from the business at hand. Over the past year the conversation in which many of these blogs (written by people more interested by film than in their own wit) participate has refreshed my sense of film as something worthy of analysis and thought in a way that reminds me of the thrill of first disagreeing with Michael Dwyer and Dilys Powell 20 years ago - and knowing why.

* I should note that the reason I turned to any writer at all was the influence of my father, a committed film watcher himself, who allowed me to stay up long past my bedtime on various occasions, as he opened my eyes to black-and-white cinema before my 10th birthday!

1 comment:

andyhorbal said...

Well said, sir, and thanks for contributing this lovely post! I'm not familiar with the work of either of these critics, but I know exactly what you're talking about here. The most important thing for a film critic to be is passionate, engaged, enthusiastic. This enthusiasm is contagious, and it encourages readers to become passionate and engaged themselves, to become loyal readers, and to respond with their own thoughts and feelings.

Even without impeccable taste or an infallible knowledge of film history or filmmaking, an enthusiastic film critic can create a local film culture by inspiring others to take up the serious study of film and filmgoing.

Have you read Edward Copeland's contribution to this blog-a-thon? It's about the death throes of this kind of film criticism culture.

Thanks again for participating!


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