‘Pan’s Labyrinth is like bad M Night Shyamalan’ – the Peter Bradshaw interview
In a rare interview given to Ross v Ross, The Guardian’s film reviewer Peter Bradshaw insists critics know nothing about movies, takes aim at Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece and tells us why this website should be shut down…
Peter Bradshaw’s reviews in The Guardian are some of the most entertaining around. But what does he really think about critics, Tom Cruise and Jonathan Ross? And what did he make of the questions you readers submitted to him last week? Ross McG went along to meet him to find out.
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Ross v Ross: What is your earliest movie memory?
Peter Bradshaw: Going to see The Jungle Book with I guess it would have been my mum and my sister and being very scared by Shere Khan. My sister said the other day that Shere Khan is the first great evil Muslim in our movie-going history.
RvR: What was your favourite movie when you were little?
PB: When I was really small it was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which I actually watched some of the other day with my little boy. It’s actually quite impressive, the opening credit sequence, the continuous travelling shot of the car zooming through the countryside, presumably with a camera mounted on the back of a truck following on. Things like The Railway Children, a lovely little film really with that wonderful ending on that misty railway platform.
RvR: When did you find yourself wanting to write about films?
PB: This is the weird thing. I was for a long time before I had this job a general journalist. I was on The London Evening Standard for ten years, throughout the 90s basically. I was kind of a general guy and funnily enough films were one of the few things that I didn’t write a lot about. I wrote about politics a lot and books a lot and TV. I wasn’t one of those people who came out of college and got gigs writing for, as it were, Sight & Sound and Total Film and whatever. That wasn’t what I set out to do, although it’s great and wonderful to be able to do it.
RvR: What is the best thing about reviewing movies for a living?
PB: The best thing is you get to do what you love doing and somebody pays you for it. I mean, I sit there in the cinema and the lights go down and I keep thinking, ‘I’m getting paid to do this, this is unbelievable, this is some terrible mistake and any minute now a clutch of people, including my old headmaster and my mum and dad, are gonna come in and grab me and say this has been a terrible mistake, and how dare you not alert us to this mistake that was made. Now go back to some sort of stupid office job which is what youre supposed to be doing.’ I think like that all the time. It’s great, it’s an incredible privilege in a way to be a film reviewer at somewhere like The Guardian. It’s an extremely well-read newspaper and you get to write about what you love.
RvR: What are the worst films you’ve ever seen?
PB: There are some terrible films almost every week unfortunately. One of the worst films I’ve ever seen was Freddy Got Fingered, the Tom Green film. I think that’s still the most staggeringly bad film. They are almost too numerous to mention. My kind of rule of thumb is that the truly bad films are not the kind of honest rubbish, the honest schlock that is churned out but the sinister kind of middlebrow hardback cinema – you get more enraged by them. The worst film I think in that sense was Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center which pulled off the incredible trick of being (a) very boring, (b) very sanctimonious and (c) insidious and reactionary. And Gigli with J-Lo and Ben Affleck, I would say those are the big three.
RvR: What are your guilty pleasures?
PB: I actually have a lot of guilt-free pleasures that should be guiltless pleasures. I love the Austin Powers movies. I was virtually sacked when I first joined The Guardian, almost, for giving five stars to the second Austin Powers movie, which I absolutely loved and think now is very, very funny. I’m interested to see that a lot of people have sort of come around, if I may say so, to my way of thinking. I was virtually thrown out of the critics club for that one. I love comedies, actually, and it’s kind of a bee in my bonnet that comedies get a bad rep from reviewers because they are audience movies and they’re never seen the way they’re supposed to be seen. Like anything else, they get shown to a bunch of grumpy journalists on a rainy Monday morning at ten o’ clock – well, guess what? No one’s in the mood. You also can’t be funny at the expense of a comedy. If a comedy’s already been funny it’s difficult for you as a journalist to kind of make your mark, and that’s another reason. I love movies like Dodgeball and the Will Ferrell movies, Anchorman, and The Hangover. People don’t give them enough respect for how much work is involved in contructing a comedy and pumping in gags. I’m prepared to cut a lot of slack to comedies everybody else seems to hate.
RvR: What is your favourite film quote?
PB: I always liked the quote that goes just before ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns’ in Casablanca. It’s a fantastically mad quote that Humprey Bogart says… ‘I bet they’re asleep at home now, I bet they’re asleep all over America’. I’m not quoting it right but I think it’s a brilliant quote, slightly more interesting than the ‘gin joints’ one. More desolate and sad. And I love the Joe Pesci ‘Funny how?’ monologue from Goodfellas. It’s quite a lost talent is Joe Pesci – he mysteriously vanished and no one knows quite why. Almost anything from Kind Hearts And Coronets and any line from Withnail & I. ‘Have you got soup? Why don’t I get soup?’
Kai B Parker: What do you think about the current state of comedy and what does comedy need to do to be a contender in the Oscar race?
PB: Ah… goodness. I think the current state of comedy is pretty good, in some ways. I’m seeing interesting films from Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell. The Hangover I thought was a great popular comedy and Sacha Baron Cohen has given us some great comedy, brilliant movies. British comic films have been great – Armando Iannucci and Edgar Wright are fantastically talented people that are translating the spirit of TV into screen terms in a brilliant way. I don’t think the Oscars are ever gonna really reward comedies very much – that’s what we look to the Golden Globes for because they have that musical/comedy thing. We have this wonderul tradition of telecomedy, Ricky Gervais, for example. Although Ricky Gervais has got this mindblowing Hollywood career now, absolutely extraordinary, although I still don’t think he’s quite translated the spirit of The Office into a feature film. But he has certainly translated his success into extraordinary clout and good luck to him. I look forward to his Cemetery Junction.
Cinema Scream: Which film critics interest you the most and why?
PB: I admire Philip French in The Observer, Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, terrifically funny and clever man. Mark Kermode is a terrific guy. He’s doing this brilliant thing. He’s doing what critics should do which is intervening pro-actively in the market. He isn’t just passively reviewing what’s in front of him. He’s got this campaign to get Ken Russell’s film The Devils released which is kind of brilliant. That is exactly what critics should be doing. Critics are paradoxically the most uncritical types of journalists because they eat what is set in front of them every week like good little girls and boys and they say ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ or whatever. What Mark is doing is saying you don’t have to do this – you can seek out films and try to make a difference and that’s what he’s doing. So I think Mark is absolutely great. I think Jonathan Ross actually is a brilliant film reviewer, never given any respect mainly because everyone is obsessed about how rich he is. But actually he knows a hell of a lot about film. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader is very good.
RvR: Are there any reviewers you don’t like?
PB: No, I don’t think there’s any critics I genuinely think I don’t like. What I’m struck by is how many critics I do like, critics like say, Chris Tookey in The Daily Mail. I read Chris Tookey and I think, ‘Golly, I kind of agree!’ I don’t have any problem with that, I agree. He maybe says it in a different way but ultimately I agree. I don’t think there are any critics I really don’t like – that’s rather wimpish of me.
Kai B Parker: How do you go about doing a review?
PB: I don’t sit down and structure mainly because I simply don’t have the time. This is the thing about one’s job, you sometimes wish you had more time, although sometimes if you had more time then what you write becomes more clotted and coagulated and doesn’t work. You know what, I just open up the computer and start writing, it’s just like that. Most writers and journalists will tell you that you need to have a good opening idea or opening line just to kind of kick it off, and certainly that’s true. It’s something people don’t quite get sometimes – you don’t have all the time in the world, in fact, you have very little time. It’s a weekly deadline, seven films a week to a hyper-alert readership. A readership which is now on a permanent DEFCON 1 state to spot mistakes you’ve made, which is kind of stimulating in a way but also a little unnerving sometimes.
RvR: What are the cardinal sins of reviewing?
PB: One thing everybody attacks me for is giving away the plot and spoilerism, and I’ve got to admit I have been guilty of that in the past. I try not to be but in my defence sometimes what you have to do as a critic is analyse narrative, so it’s very difficult. Sometimes you stop halfway through what you’re saying because you think, ‘I can’t give away the ending because that is annoying’, obviously it’s fantastically annoying. So you’ve gotta find a way of doing it.
Aiden R: If you made a movie what would it be about?
PB: I’ve often wondered about making a film. I’ve tried to write scripts, mainly television play scripts. I’ve written a few television scripts and I actually showed them to a few people in a slightly sort of pathetic way. I’ve also written a couple of short film scripts but anybody can do that. It’s like saying, ‘I’ve designed a new building on the back of a fag packet’. I think it would be very interesting to do an experiment similar to something which happened back in the 90s I think where Tom Morris, who is a theatre director, challenged a bunch of theatre critics to direct a short play and he put them on. It was a really interesting experiment. I think that would be really great to do with film critics. It would really open critics’ eyes to all these technical terms that we throw about very blithely. Do we really know what we’re talking about? When we talk about editing a movie or cinematography or directing or producing, which of us can put our hands on our hearts and say that we really do know exactly what all these jobs entail? The truth is we don’t, of course we don’t, until you actually try to do it you don’t. We’re as innocent as children about what these jobs entail, although we affect a manner of impossibly almost world-weary knowledgeabilty about it. If The Guardian would pay for me to do it I’d like to do one of these crash short film courses. I think it would be a great thing and I’m sort of just thinking about it now.
David: Has there ever been a chance of your novel, Dr Sweet and His Daughter, making it to the big screen?
PB: I’ve written two novels. The first one was optioned for a movie twice, which is great for a writer, which means you get paid a lot of money for doing nothing. I got paid about ten grand for doing nothing at all and after the option expired the rights just came back to me anyway and I got to keep the money. That hasn’t happened to Dr Sweet yet. A film company in 2004 or 2003 approached me and said: ‘Would you be interested in writing a screenplay?’ And the answer is ‘No I wouldn’t – I would be interested in you doing it and me getting a lot of money for you doing the work!’ I think it might make an interesting three-part TV drama more than a feature film.
David: Ross v Ross did the Top Five Male Solo Dancing Performances recently and did not include Gene Kelly. Should this website be closed down?
PB: Uh… yes. Because I think Gene Kelly is one of the most masculine people in the history of cinema. He’s the most incredibly masculine figure, I think he’s more masculine than say, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I know it’s a crass thing to say but I love Singin’ In The Rain, more for the scene with Debbie Reynolds where she comes out of the cake. I love that song. Tom Cruise would be in there twice for Risky Business and then Tropic Thunder. I think he must be the only person who would probably merit twice in the top five.
Richard Rock: Can you explain how London To Brighton was ignored by critics listing the top 100 films of the decade when desperately-seeking-to-be-alternative reels of sugar-coated schmaltz such as Little Miss Sunshine were described as ‘defining’ by some?
PB: I am baffled by that. We had our top 100 films of the decade and it’s impossible to do because whatever you do you piss somebody off. We put There Will Be Blood at the top and I think that’s an interesting choice. If I had have been doing it on my own it would have been different probably. I love London To Brighton. I think that’s one of the times in my life when I thought being a critic is positive, because you’re not just snarkily and pithily slagging things off, you’re finding a film which you really love and thinking, ‘I can kind of make a difference’. I first saw it at the Edinburgh Film Festival and thought it was absolutely f**king brilliant. And came out really energised.
James Morgan: Is Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction still Peter’s favourite film? Can he say a few words about this bizarre modern classic?
PB: I love the Addiction. Abel Ferrara… he can’t get arrested these days. The Addiction I think is a brilliant film. It’s like an ultra-nasty low budget, pulp, black and white kind of classic – it’s easily my favourite vampire film. Yeah, in a Sight & Sound questionnaire ages ago I said it was one of my favourite films, tongue slightly in cheek but not much in cheek. People thought that was very eccentric.
James Morgan: Can you pick the three most overrated films of all time?
PB: The Piano by Jane Campion, a fantastically annoying film. I’m not sure if this is the most overrated film of all time… I know this will piss people off, is Pan’s Labyrinth. There, I’ve said it. I’ve come out and said it. When I came out of it people were virtually fainting in the cinema. I had to step over people who had gone into a Toronto blessing state. It’s a lovely looking film, lots of pretty pictures in it, but there’s lots of stuff in it I think is almost sort of late period M Night Shyamalan. I’ve got to say and I know this will piss everybody off who reads it: I think it’s a bit overrated. The third one… I thought Little Miss Sunshine was very overrated to be honest with you. I was baffled by how everybody loved that film. Uh… Babel.
(Ross McG doesn’t even think Pan’s Labyrinth is as good as Labyrinth)
RvR: What do you think is going to happen at the Oscars?
PB: I’ve got a feeling Mr Cameron will absolutely kick everybody’s ass for them. I think Avatar will suddenly swing back. I was delighted to see The Hurt Locker do so well at the Baftas but I’ve got a feeling Avatar will do terribly well.
Marc: Do you think the Baftas is aimed at garnering too much attention and publicity stateside?
PB: Sometimes I think a little bit. Not the results, I thought they were very respectable. The event itself has become very Hollywoodised. You can’t really be funny any more. Last year I thought it was very unrelaxed, it was slightly more relaxed this year. I mean, Jonathan Ross in his speech said he was dying, I think it wasn’t really his fault in a way, he was slightly reined in. The audience itself, they’re not ready to have a laugh.
For more from Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian click HERE
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