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Nigel Floyd: the relevance of film criticism today

The biscuits are out. A glass of water is half full. It’s fair to say that Venue has been treated worse.

The man we owe a debt of gratitude for such fine hospitality is Nigel Floyd, film critic for BBC Radio 4 and 5 (where you may have heard him voice his opinions while standing in for Mark Kermode), Time Out magazine, and UEA alumnus.

When we catch up with him, he’s just returned from Film4 Fright Fest, a festival dedicated to horror, comprised of “five days of disembowelment and rape … an awful lot of rape.” Such are the stresses of a film journalist.

For many in Concrete Film, Floyd’s position is exactly where one would want to be, and thus the conversation is full of admiration (think Peter Parker meets Doctor Octavius in Spider-Man 2). If there are two things that are clear, this is a man that after a 30-year career (something he jokingly describes in three words as being full of “misery, misery and misery”) has made a home within the industry and, like any critic should, not only knows cinema but loves cinema.

He regards the best film he has ever seen as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, and the worst to be the ludicrously titled Oversexed Rugsuckers from Mars. His career highlight remains, to this day, an interview he wrote with David Cronenberg for 1988’s Dead Ringers, a man he considers a hero.

In all honesty, our interview takes a good while to begin. Venue is extremely content to pass time by listening to tales about bonding with Guillermo Del Toro, discussing DVD collections and the obscure amount of swans that happen to be outside the window of his Mistley home.

We could talk for hours, but an interview needs to be done, professionalism needs to take hold. Floyd would understand this more than anyone. We stop talking about films and get to the serious stuff … talking about films.

Venue: On a whole, and it’s quite a broad question to ask, what makes a good film? Is it a case of technicality? Is it about cinematography and the work that goes into it on that side of things, or is it more about narrative? Or even a combination of both?

Nigel Floyd: It’s nice to have the technical stuff but frankly I would forgo that if there’s an interesting idea and if there’s an interesting story. I love story. I love narrative. Though there’s nothing wrong with films pushing technical boundaries, it’s just I’d rather have a low budget movie with a strong story, like Memento. There are films I like which have failed to live up to their intentions but at least they have a bash at it.

V: In terms of criticism is it important to look at both those aspects, the technical and the narrative?

NF: I think it is, but the key thing is: review the film not the budget. There’s no point in saying: “Here’s a bunch of people. They spent three years making this film. They only worked at weekends and had to max out their credit cards, work at supermarkets for two years, in order to realise their vision.”

In the end, if you’re a punter going to see that film and paying whatever you’re paying, you’re not interested in how much suffering the people went to, you’re just looking at the film on the screen. So, as a critic it’s my job to review what’s on the screen. You have to review the film as it stands.

V: What attracted you to film criticism as a profession? Was it a desire to explain a love for cinema?

NF: I have a lot of opinions. That always helps. Being opinionated is a good start. I always loved films. I always went to see films, certainly from my teenage years onwards.

V: How has the industry changed since you entered it?

NF: The industry itself has changed quite radically. The most obvious change, and it’s going to sound quite banal, though it is true, is that when I got started very few films came out each week. There would be four or five films. Now, in London, there will be fourteen films out some weeks. I don’t know where they all go. It’s incredible to me.

In terms of the job, the thing that has changed everything, as far as film criticism is concerned, is online social media. It’s completely changed the entire way that the industry works.

I got a job on a small magazine in Norwich and I was very lucky to get that break. I worked my way through in quite a methodical way. I’ve always been freelance, but I managed to get various jobs here and there and pieced together enough to make a living.

Mine was a very different way in. It was like you served an apprenticeship and worked your way through. Now, anyone with a laptop in their bedroom can get online and write anything they like. There are various opinions on the value of that.

To some extent I have a problem with the fact that people can offer opinions that aren’t informed. I would say that my opinions, for what they’re worth, are at least informed by a knowledge of the history and content of film. They are different opinions to those offered by somebody who is much more of a fanboy, who offers an enthusiastic response, rather than a critical engagement – not that they shouldn’t be allowed to do that.

V: Is there a battle going on between the fanboys and the critics?

NF: I think there is. There always has been to some extent, because there were always fanzines. That’s a whole other animal, which is very different to what I aspire to do, and still aspire to do.

The people I admire have seen one or two films more than I have. They provide an opinion that’s worth something. When I first read the Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema by David Thompson, I just thought: “Here’s a guy who has seen every film, loves cinema and is unbelievably opinionated” – but it’s all informed by a knowledge of film history, where it comes from, where it’s going and how the industry works.

V: So, it’s almost a blend between a love and a care for cinema and an understanding of it?

NF: I hope so. [It’s important] to establish that you’ve seen a few films, that you know where a film fits into the jigsaw of a genre. You’re just trying to position a film for people.

V: The internet, as mentioned, is a massive thing. It’s almost diluted the playing field. I’ve read in a lot of articles people suggesting that film criticism is dead, so how would you respond to that kind of statement?

NF: I don’t think it’s dead, I think it’s mutated into something else. The thing I find most problematic was summed up by something that Peter Jackson said to me about Lord of the Rings. I remember doing an interview with him when the first film was about to be released, and I was talking to him about the way that he had had to accommodate to fan enthusiasm. He basically said to me: “The trouble now is that people want to see the film before you’ve even thought of it.”

There’s this incredible enthusiasm for the film before it’s been made: “Here are the first stills from … such and such a film. Here’s the first poster from this new horror movie. Here’s the first teaser trailer for such and such.” All you’re doing there is buying into the marketing of the film. Basically, you’re jumping into the studio’s conspiracy to make you give up your money.

My attitude is: yes it’s kind of interesting to see trailers etc., but why be the first when you can be the best? Why publish articles on a not quite finished version of a film when you could wait, see the film when it is shown to the press, and write a proper, well thought out, meaningful response. It doesn’t have to give anything away about the plot or the major character shifts, but it could allow someone to understand what that film was, whether it had lived up to expectations, and take it from there.

V: Again it’s quite a general question, but what do you feel is the true purpose of a film critic? Especially when you consider that a person’s experience of a film is subjective.

NF: Inevitably all film reviews are subjective, and frankly thank God for that. I would rather hear somebody like Mark Kermode come on the radio and, in an entirely subjective manner, talk about a film that he absolutely hates and that I personally think is good, in a passionate and informed way, than listen to somebody who knows nothing about film.

The things that you have to have are three-fold. You’ve got to have context, you’ve got to have information, and you’ve got to have opinion – but in that order. You can’t have an opinion if you don’t have the context.

V: I believe Mark Kermode has also argued before that it’s about entertainment. Is that something you’d agree is important, to entertain an audience like a film would?

NF: I think it’s important to entertain people with your writing. The problem with that is, and I’ve been guilty of it myself, you can start to write a review where you get clever with the language, at the expense of talking about the film. It is tempting. There’s a certain vanity that can creep in, a certain clever kind of quality. Occasionally you can do that, especially if you don’t like a film. Then you can get away with constructing clever metaphors or puns or whatever, but you’re not really helping people to understand what the film’s about. You’re sort of becoming a little bit concerned with your own image, as it were. You’re sort of just being a bit too self-conscious about it. I think that’s a bad thing, because I think you do have to maintain some sense of distance.

V: Oscar Wilde famously said that criticism is sometimes about educating the public. Is there ever an elitism involved? If so, is that a bad thing?

NF: I don’t think so, but that’s because I’m an elitist … apparently. I, for example, hate star ratings. The whole concept of star ratings is despicable, lazy, pointless. When they first introduced them at Time Out, I wouldn’t put star ratings on my reviews. I would just send them in and say: “Put as many stars as you think there should be.” In the end they read the riot act, which is fair enough, but at least I tried to resist.

To me that’s not really film criticism, just saying “FIVE STARS”, because every film sheds five stars if a publication runs an 18-page, full colour, all access article on the latest film. If that’s the case then of course it’s going to get four or five stars. Even if it was the worst film in the world it would have to get four or five stars because they’ve expended so much time in getting you interested in it and negotiating exclusive deals. Evidently, they’re going to have to review it in that context.

Now, if it’s elitist to say that that’s wrong, to be in the pockets of the studios and to be so beholden to your audience that you can’t actually express a true opinion, then yes I’m elitist.

I believe my job is to express a proper opinion, and if you think the latest Chris Nolan Dark Knight Rises film is actually not all that then you need to say that, and you need to say that very clearly. That’s your job. You’re the only person standing between the studio, the PR industry, and the public. Without a film critic that’s all there is: there’s only publicity. There’s only what you’re being spoon-fed.

V: The relationship between the critic, the film and the marketing machine is a really interesting one. It’s fair to say it is love hate, but is that the way it should be?

NF: To be fair, we work with people in the PR companies, and the people who represent the film industry, so many of these people are friends of mine. If you’ve been doing this job for 30 years, then obviously you have a relationship with people who may move from a PR company to a film company, or move somewhere else.

People now don’t stay in the same job for 30 years, but they’ll be in the same area. So, there is a certain understanding between people that will allow you to have the access and the interviews, if you deliver, if you write a sensible, well considered review. Even if it’s a review that’s not positive, at least they can rely on you to write something.

You’ll concentrate on the film and talk about the film and, in that sense, promote the film. That is what you’re doing, there’s a trade off there. Increasingly, though, with social media that relationship has become much more difficult because now a lot of it is about damage limitation.

If you’ve invested $250m in a film, then you want to have some control over how that film is positioned in the market for the target audience – and you therefore might want to say, “Well, we want it presented in this way, we want it presented in that way.” So there’s a certain amount of strategy and positioning that goes on – and you understand that, we’re part of that game. There’s no pretense about that.

V: As we’ve mentioned previously, you’re a UEA alumnus. What are your memories of the University?

NF: It was odd being in Norwich. I came to UEA to do an MA, and it was the first year of the course, the first ever taught MA in the UK, so that’s how long ago it was. If you think about how many media and film courses there are now, it seems like the Stone Age.

There were five of us and we were the guinea pigs. The big thing for me about Norwich was that I spent an awful lot of time at Cinema City. I was quite involved there. But it was just that sense of being in a city that was quite small and very manageable, where you could have tight relationships with people, which I quite liked.

It’s about having that nice little arrangement, of knowing everybody, more or less individually. Many were a great help to me, like projectionists who taught me more about projection than anybody else has since.

V: What advice can you give the aspiring film critics at UEA?

NF: I think that the best advice I can give to anyone who wants to be interested in film is to get something down in writing. There are many, many options for people. They can set up their own blog, they can write for Concrete about film, they can involve themselves in the local film scene, perhaps through Cinema City.

All these are things you can do from very early on, you’ve just got to find an outlet, or with social media make yourself an outlet.

Follow people on Twitter who are involved in film, watch lots of films. The one advantage that your generation has now is that all this stuff is available. We lived in the dark ages with VCR, where stuff just wasn’t around. There was little opportunity to see films. Now, it’s all out there: stuff from America, stuff from Hong Kong. Get it wherever you can, but make sure you watch it and get involved.

V: Finally, what do you think the future of film criticism is?

NF: If I knew that I’d be a much richer man than I am now. I think that criticism has changed and it will never go back to what it was before. Now there is a myriad of outlets available. I’m envious, in some ways, that this is the case, but the downside of that is that it’s quite amorphous.There’s so much of it out there. How do you choose between what’s good and what’s not? There is much less quality control on the interweb.

It’s daunting, a lot more daunting for you than it was for me when I started, because there was always a sense of career trajectory that would end in earning some money. The terrible fact is you can now get yourself online but you may not get paid for it. People have got so used to young people who are so enthusiastic and want to get a start that they are prepared to write for nothing.

Everybody is undermined. Websites think they can get away without paying their contributors, which means: yes, you have an outlet for your ideas, and yes, you can parlay your enthusiasm into some kind of writing position, but are you going to get paid for it? For everybody’s sake, I hope so.

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August 2022
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

If you would like to get in touch, email the Editor on L.Hargreaves@uea.ac.uk. Follow us at @ConcreteUEA.