Rare is the opportunity to talk to someone we look up to professionally, and it is even rarer for the interaction to live up to what we hope it to be. Meeting for coffee in Holborn, London, my hour with Peter Bradshaw was a genuinely delightful one. Drawing on his experience as a film journalist for the past two decades, our conversation ranged from what the role demands and where it can go wrong, to the now very strong presence of Netflix and what this means for the future of cinema culture, to the importance of writing about film for the audience, not the industry.
Peter Bradshaw. Photograph taken by myself, following the interview.
As The Guardian’s chief film critic, Bradshaw’s weekly workload involves what he calls “old-fashioned reviewing”. Every Friday, like clockwork for the last twenty years, he must publish an eight hundred word lead review of a film of his choice, followed by a string of five or six shorter reviews. Whilst the film review template has not changed much, Bradshaw’s time in the film reviewing community has given him enough time to see many film journalists retire, “and indeed, die”. Giants such as Philip French, who died three years ago, or Bradshaw’s predecessor Derek Malcolm, legendary film critic for The Guardian from 1970 until Bradshaw’s arrival in 1999. “A fascinating and really engaged guy”, Bradshaw still sees the 86-year-old Malcolm at film festivals. As stressful as it can be, film journalists never cease to experience joy from their work, and furthermore, at times “you can’t quite believe someone let you do it in the first place”.
Bradshaw had opted to study for a degree in English, being “of the generation where Film Studies were rare at university, if not unheard of, and I was at Cambridge where you’d basically get hit cross the knuckles with a ruler for even suggesting Film Studies”. In fact, Bradshaw has always been very interested in reading and writing about cinema, as he remembers that Stephen Heath ran a selective entry module at Cambridge called something along the lines of “Appreciation of the Screen”, for which ironically, Bradshaw was not selected. Heath and Colin MacCabe were huge names at Cambridge in the eighties, as Bradshaw described them as “the vanguard of bringing a kind of disciplined, rigorous, analytical approach to film”. Before that time, Film Studies were not seen as a subject that could be taken too seriously academically speaking, however, Heath and MacCabe helped develop the concept of “reading” film.
Going as far as a PhD specialising in the Renaissance, Bradshaw was very much an “eternal student throughout the eighties” in his run-up to being a journalist for the Evening Standard, covering almost anything but cinema. This experience served him well, as it inducted him into “the world of professionalism, working to deadlines, writing stuff quickly”, something not particularly covered at Cambridge, where the approach to work was a more leisurely “write it out on A4 pads of paper, and type it up later” approach. On his first day at the Evening Standard, Bradshaw was asked to write a story. As he got his habitual pen and paper out, the editor quite brutally grabbed them out of his hands. “What the fuck are you doing” had scolded his editor. Bradshaw attempted to explain the method to his apparent madness, that he would complete the work faster this way. “No you won’t, you’re just pissing everyone off, just learn to type it”. So he did.
Soon in the position of a general editorial writer for the Evening Standard, Bradshaw had the chance to interview various people of interest, including the likes of Jude Law, for example. Bradshaw explained that he simply never had the opportunity to review films at this point, which perhaps had something to do with the established Evening Standard cinema critic not openly welcoming anyone new to “elbow into his territory”. What really paved the way to becoming The Guardian’s main film critic was the bizarre episode of the Alan Clark Diaries, which Bradshaw parodied in The Evening Standard as though written by the notorious right-wing member of parliament. The resulting legal case brought against The Evening Standard by an oversensitive Clark prompted
The Guardian’s editor at the time, Alan Rusbridger, to phone him and offer the position of The Guardian’s film critic. Luckily for us, he did not hesitate to accept.
Along with the training provided by working for The Evening Standard, his academic studies have added value to his film reviewing skills, but the balance lies in understanding just how much to use them in one’s journalistic writing. Academia of course brings context to the viewing and reviewing of a film, but Bradshaw convincingly pointed out that much background knowledge takes a backseat, as upon each new cinema-going experience “the viewers, and even I, come to the cinema with an almost amnesiac naïveté”. As new as a film can be and feel, what seems freshly made for this point in history, is actually an amalgamation of hundreds and hundreds of years of human history, through “theatre, pantomime, circus, musical, and drama”. Experiencing this sense of discovery on a weekly basis, Bradshaw encapsulates being a film reviewer as “living in an eternal present”. An example of this “eternal present” occurs to Bradshaw in the cases of films such as "American Beauty"or "Fight Club"(both from 1999), seen today by students as classic, old movies, “but for me, they still seem incredibly recent”.
The Guardian's offices in the 1970s. Image: theguardian.com
The past two decades have been quite an unusual time to be a journalist, as Bradshaw had to adapt to the arrival of the Internet and the huge demand for instantaneous information that followed. Bradshaw recalled that The Guardian was actually a sort of pioneer in “web content”, when the access to endless media and news was only just starting to increase. There was a tremendous acceleration of the rate articles need to be written and published, whereas Bradshaw recalls, “There was a time, when film festivals were almost like a licensed holiday. And they still are, but you’d go, with no pressure to instantly review anything, and would amble around almost like an Edwardian gentleman on holiday. Today, festivals are seen as opportunities for a huge amount of ‘content’. You stagger out of the film, and immediately have to write it up. I kind of like it because it’s exciting in a way, but it’s also quite exhausting”.
What Bradshaw describes as the most amazing festival experience of his life was at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival when Louis C.K.’s “I Love You, Daddy” (a spin on Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan) was the “hottest ticket, and at the time seeming like an interesting daring film”, just before all Louis C.K. rumours came out. “Now we must behave as if this film does not exist, which shows that we must question these films and question ourselves on what we find funny – and for who it is not, perhaps”. “When you’re writing the film review, your stance is going to seem to you one of utter sophistication and know-how, you feel as if you’ve seen everything you need to see, when in fact you may not have. It demands reviewers to question themselves”.
On the topic of festivals, Bradshaw tends to go to the same ones year after year, and always makes sure to spend 3 or 4 days at the Berlin International Film Festival. Simultaneously being the European Film Market, Bradshaw sees a lot of great film that never get a UK release, or are released at all. Upon asking if anything in particular came to mind, he gave the example of the Spanish film “Beautiful Youth” by Jaime Rosales in 2014. “I was almost thinking of starting a ‘Crouch End Film Festival’ just so I could show these films”. But of course, distributing films is in fact a very expensive and difficult business. “Critics tend to say ‘how outrageous that this film is not being shown! This wonderful film is not being released because of the philistine wankers who prefer to watch The Avengers over and over again’ and we behave as if there’s this Soviet command economy that is deciding not to do it, which of course is not the case”.
With many films not being picked up for funding or given a cinema release, our conversation then naturally progressed to discussing the home video giant that is Netflix. Now, we all know that films that do not get a cinema release cannot be eligible for Academy Awards (and whether we should or should not care about this, I am still unsure). However, with the amount of good content being funded by and released on Netflix, such as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” (2018), certain films will have releases in select cinemas, even if they are purely to showcase them and render them eligible for awards and such. “Netflix knows what they’re doing; they will eventually showcase their films more and more. If they have prestigious things, like the new Coen Brothers film (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, 2018), they will certainly want to have cinema releases”. One of Bradshaw’s favourite recent film releases is “Leave No Trace” by Debra Granik (2018), but he feels he “can only succeed in winding people up by talking about it”. “People say, that sounds great, where’s it on – it’s not on, really? Can I stream it online? No, you’re just going to have to listen to me going on about how great it is, and how great I am for knowing about it. And with Roma on Netflix, at least you can see it.”
This is precisely where Bradshaw sympathises with people saying “if Netflix is really going to take over all these films that I am reviewing, and that people are talking about, then they should really have select cinema releases”, for the health of cinema culture. “It is concerning that cinema culture will drift away”, the risk being that in its place would only be independent cinema culture, and a Netflix culture. “It would be a terrible shame if they were to split in half the cinema industry – independent cinema gets a lot of energy from the mainstream giants, such as Marvel movies, that drive the industry, as colossal dilithium crystals powering through, and the independent world of cinema siphons off that energy. You’re making a real mistake as a reviewer if you don’t plug into that energy, as it’s one of the only universally followed, understood topic”.
Bradshaw shared an example of the need for perspective, analysis and criticism with films that are based on the premise that you are going to be emotionally drawn in. “I’ve got an attitude problem with ‘Beautiful Boy’ (Van Groeningen, 2018). Here’s this slightly whiny, self-indulgent film, a wilfully naïve film about drug abuse, that never acknowledges the privileged setting. What pissed me off about the film, what wound me up, isn’t that it was agonising for this father to watch his son descend into the hell of drug abuse, but if they’re going to be honest, has got to talk about where the money is coming from to buy the drugs. The son clearly doesn’t have to do anything as tiresome as a job, so he seems to be funding it from his allowance”. One approach some reviewers will take for this sort of film, Bradshaw explained, is to take this particular film at its own estimation of itself, as their approach to it will be that they are aware they are supposed to be moved, “so the gradation of their thumbs up or thumbs down will depend on if they’re moved or not”. The other approach is “to get into a critical response that gets behind the scenes as to why the film was made this way in the first place. This is one of the big demands of any critic – to simply refuse it, to ask what are the unacknowledged assumptions that this film is generically based on – you’d be surprised how many critics don’t think that’s part of their job at all”. In fact, he has noticed a very common mind-set towards film reviewing to be “I’m going to get aboard and see how many stops along the train I’m going to go before I get off”.
Again, balance is key, and Bradshaw is well aware of how boring cynicism can be. Having experienced many press screenings with an audience comprised solely of “whiny journalists”, Bradshaw has noticed that many film critics have a great deal of trouble with good comedy. “Their expertise is ‘laughing at’, not ‘laughing with’. It’s the critic’s job to be funny at the film’s expense, so when faced with a genuinely funny film, critics can feel nullified”.
Film reviewing is then ultimately and always about balancing one’s point of view amidst many different genres of cinema, as “participating in the energy from mainstream keeps you afloat as a critic, as it is important to be able to retain the same register for each film review”. By always making sure to take a balanced approach towards reviewing a film, it becomes easier to not fall into a pattern of overly cynical, or on the other hand, positive writing. Bradshaw’s understanding is that this is where the difficulty lies: “Part of the challenge is to write an exciting piece of prose that conveys to the reader what it’s like to watch it. Don’t take the film as an overestimation of itself”. Of course, impartially reviewing a film becomes near impossible “if you happen to meet the creators, become aware of the years and decades of work, and the sheer expended energy used to convince investors, that doesn’t make it on screen”. As a film journalist, it is then paramount to never lose sight of one’s purpose, the key being to “not get on board with the press release – you work for them (the public), not the industry”.
As the conversation came to a close, Bradshaw's advice to any serious, aspiring journalists, was first of all, to “’Write, write, write, until your fingers break!’”, to quote Chekov. On a more updated practical note, Bradshaw truly sees a lot of value in creating a YouTube channel as a journalist, critic, or reporter. “Showcase your writing to make it discoverable, practice discussing your ideas on camera. Work on consistency, every week, and link on twitter. It is about creating a shop window for when you pitch to people who, dare I say, will pay you for your work”.
Off to his next press viewing after our meeting and eager to find out this year’s Academy Award nominations that were to be released later that day, Bradshaw and I parted ways. No formulaic responses, no clichés, Bradshaw is utterly full of life, curiosity and passion.
Image: Sarah Lee for theguardian.com
Edited by Dimitrina Dyakova