Inglourious Twats: The Guardian’s film critics

Critics at The Guardian discuss Tarantino's latest release

I’m going to use this post to Heimlich-Maneuver out something that’s been sticking in my craw for a long time. Have you ever noticed that quite a lot of the film critics in newspapers don’t know anything and are shite? I have, and it gets me riled. It gets me so riled that I’m about to go on and on about it for a quite tediously long time. Reading this is going to be quite similar to being cornered by an excitable and strange man in a pub, who insists on telling you at length about his highly specific pet peeve which bothers him disproportionately, on a subject you have expressed no interest in, until you find yourself wishing all his enemies well and contemplating grevious bodily harm just to be allowed to escape to the loo. You’ve been warned, so now I’ll just dive straight in.

This extremely broad argument against newspaper film critics (obviously not all film critics, since that would be even sillier and quite a few good ones work for magazines and write blogs and so on) will be made by referring to one particular example, which set all my face-veins bulging last summer. There are a few directors whose personalities are so large they frequently overshadow their films, turning discussion about them into a judgement on the filmmaker himself rather than his work (or her work, but in this case I’m only going to be mentioning male directors, so, his work) – Woody Allen is one, and Quentin Tarantino is another. Tarantino films are highly distinctive, and he is stamped all over them, a fact which seems to distort the ability of reviewers to look at his films objectively. Already lazy and pompous reviewers, confronted by a Tarantino film, seem to go totally off the rails and, if I may mix my metaphors, head straight up their own arses, where they rest, squinting at the film through their flesh and intestines, working on a review, later to be shat out and published. The Tarantino film I’m thinking of here is Inglourious Basterds, and the critics in particular are the ones who work for The Guardian.

Not content with just one review, for some reason The Guardian decided to get an entire crack team of critics to deal with Inglourious Basterds (the ‘crack’ I’m referring to there being the one between the buttocks). It was previewed and reviewed at Cannes, and then reviewed again several times when it was released. You may have surmised that I really liked Inglourious Basterds and they didn’t, but the impression I’m trying strenuously to give is that’s not the reason the reviews so ticked me off. I mean I disagreed with the conclusion, but it was the content and the tone which I found so particularly objectionable. The opinions expressed have more to do with posturing than genuine insight, which results in a patronising tone, occasionally absurd hyperbole, and just plain terrible writing.

The first piece of strange Inglourious Basterds commentary to appear on The Guardian’s website was a mini-review of the trailer by Paul MacInnes. It is in fact a ‘teaser’ rather than a full trailer, shorter and concentrating only on one aspect of the film, in this case a rousing speech from Brad Pitt’s character to the rest of the titular Basterds.

The trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is well worth your time. Throughout the entirety of its 100 seconds I was engrossed. Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Surely, I reckoned, this is going to be the worst film ever made!

How does MacInnes come to this conclusion? He explains a bit later.

There’s going to be lovingly, lingeringly-choreographed gore galore and, what’s more, we’re going to be encouraged to cheer at it. Because, you see, the victims are Nazis and they deserve it.

MacInnes makes the mistake here of assuming that whatever the characters in a film are saying is what the director himself believes. Does he consider the possibility that there might be more to the film beyond what he imagines the trailer has told him?

I could yet be wrong. Perhaps there will prove to be a level of postmodern self-ironising to this new Tarantino offering … Perhaps serving up Kill Bill with the Holocaust as a backdrop will be a fabulously worthwhile endeavour?

By which he means, “I could yet be wrong… but I won’t be.” Despite being told almost nothing by the trailer, he thinks Tarantino is an idiot and therefore his film will be stupid. Why did he even bother to watch the trailer at all? He follows on with one of the worst sentences I’ve ever read:

If this film isn’t the work of a man who not only has nothing left to say, but is revelling in his ability to continue not saying it, then I don’t know what is.

I’m pretty sure no-one knows what that is. Basically this short article is a worthless waste of everyone’s time, and unfortunately it set a precedent. When Basterds appeared in Cannes, a slew of Guardian commentary followed, which was pretty much universally snide and irritating. In a couple of videos and a film report, various Guardian critics held forth on the film, mainly by employing a great deal of general adjectives. Xan Brooks declared it to be “flabby and indulgent, silly and sadistic”. Jason Solomons said it was boring, and “there are no characters in this film”, and Catherine Shouard ran away with the adjectives medal by dismissing the film as “terrible, it’s just awful. It’s clearly just [a] dreadful, embarrassing, offensive, unfunny, unrealistic pile of absolute rubbish.” Well all that may be true, but does it really tell us anything useful about the film itself? Lists of words separated by commas do not a critique make.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian’s official film critic, did no better. In fact, he did quite a bit worse. In one of the Cannes videos he describes the film as “humourless … [Tarantino is] overwhelmed by the solemnity of Hitler and the Jews.” Even from the trailer it’s clear that this comment is completely wrong, and also quite weird, since humourless war movies have a long and illustrious history. Did Bradshaw complain about the deficit of belly laughs in Schindler’s List?

He goes into more detail in his full review of the film from Cannes. The accusation of solemnity is repeated, although in this case Tarantino is “displaying a rather solemn Euro-cinephilia that his heart isn’t in.” If you think about that for a second you’ll realise that it makes no sense and doesn’t mean anything. The rest of the review is equally annoying, but it’s mere grit in the shoe compared to the scallop up the bum of his second review, written on the film’s release in August.

In his August review Bradshaw writes a number of things which make me want to sick up my pelvis. The review might as well be replaced with a video of Bradshaw snorting derisively and rolling his eyes, because that’s how illuminating it is. That would actually be an improvement in a way, because at least then we wouldn’t be exposed to some of his bizarre turns of phrase. “Solemn Euro-cinephilia” is gone, but it’s been replaced by a complaint about the “plonkingly conventional narrative order”. What? In what universe can a film be legitimately criticised because all the scenes follow on from one another chronologically? Does Peter Bradshaw squirm through 90% of films desperately wishing for more flashbacks? He must have almost died with joy the first time he saw Memento. Almost as dumb is his description of the film as “transcendentally disappointing” – presumably he means “very disappointing”, but it does sound a bit ridiculous to suggest that no-one can comprehend how disappointing this film is except perhaps God Himself.

Bradshaw is incapable of explaining himself. He does not understand that simply repeating the same thing over and over but using different words is not enough, and amounts to dismissive hand-waving. Basterds is “exasperatingly awful … a colossal, complacent, long-winded dud, a two-and-a-half-hour anti-climax … stuffed with dull dialogue … unendurably, unbelievably tedious” – yeah okay, you thought it was boring. Maybe you want to explain why? “The boringness is just boring, and the violence doesn’t get gasps of shock, just winces of bafflement and distaste – and boredom.” I’ve never winced with boredom, but I guess I’m not the boredom expert Peter Bradshaw is, judging by how it’s all he fucking talks about. Only once does he engage with a defence of the film, and it’s a complete straw-man:

Its defenders have claimed that the point of the film is that it is “kosher porn”: an over-the-top revenge fantasy for Jews. Well, erm, maybe. But it might simply have the highly un-porny effect of reminding us what actually happened. And if “kosher porn” was the point, wouldn’t it have been better to make the Basterds’ leader actually Jewish?

You could also ask the question, if the film is an over-the-top revenge fantasy for Jews, why are so many of the Basterds unlikable and occasionally incompetent buffoons and thugs? Why are several of the Nazi characters portrayed as noble or intelligent (for example, the officer who gets brutally beaten to death by Eli Roth)? Why are the British even in it? The answer being, obviously it’s not a Jewish revenge fantasy, and if you came away from the film thinking that was all that was going on in it, you are an idiot. And yet this is the only notion Bradshaw is prepared to contemplate in the film’s favour.

I wish I was finished ranting by now, since this has already gone on about as long as Inglourious Basterds itself, but there’s more. The Guardian’s website is filled with complaints about Basterds, no more thoughtfully written than Bradshaw’s review, and just as condescending. Xan Brooks, his forehead already stamped “moron” after Cannes, reappeared in August to say many dumb things, including this on the Guardian’s Film Weekly podcast:

[Basterds is] too smart, self-obsessed and solipsistic for its own good. It’s spoiled, it’s a bit brattish. And in a way, you’re saying it stuck out in Cannes, but it tried to cosy up to the Cannes jury I thought, with a obsequious tribute to French cinema and the auteur theory and the power of cinema to kill Hitler.

Okay first of all, in what sense is the film “solipsistic”? Does that word mean what Xan Brooks thinks it means? Secondly, he seems to be accusing Tarantino of making an entire film just to “cosy up” to the Cannes film jury. He then says for no reason that Tarantino doesn’t even like the filmmakers he references (GW Pabst, Henri-George Clouzot, etc):

Does he really like these films? He likes grindhouse-type movies, that’s his touchstone. So to have him loftily pontificating on how in France they respect the auteur, it struck a bit of a weird note.

Is it possible for someone to like more than one kind of film? Yes. Does the final sentence follow on from the others or make any sense whatsoever? No.

I’m starting to feel sick reading all this stuff so I’m going to have to stop here. I haven’t even mentioned Stuart Heritage’s obnoxious and childish Valkyrie vs. Inglourious Basterds article, in which Valkyrie does better because it’s more historically accurate (you remember how Tarantino said his film should be used in schools as a textbook? Me neither). Even if you haven’t seen Inglourious Basterds, even if you have and you hated it, surely you can appreciate that this is not an acceptable level of arts journalism from a respected national newspaper, and the only reason things are that bad are because these idiots are tolerated across the board. Is it too much to ask for film critics to be able to actually write and speak intelligently about films?

I feel I should mention that there are actually two not-bad Inglourious Basterds articles on the Guardian website. One is by David Cox, and isn’t particularly interesting but at least it doesn’t make me pray for a swift death. The other is by Philip French, and that one is quite good – why he doesn’t do all the things they get Peter Bradshaw to do is beyond me. That guy must have friends in high places. Finally, the best-written, most thoughtful, and most well-informed view on both Inglourious Basterds and its critics can be found on Empire’s website courtesy of Damon Wise (who is absolutely brilliant and is basically Mark Kermode without all those brain spasms which give Kermode the occasional crazed opinion). You should really have been reading it instead of this, it’s shorter and a lot better. Frankly I don’t know what you were thinking.

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    • DannyMoran
    • September 1st, 2010

    Genius Jb.

    Reading this it’s come to my attention that Bradshaw’s “plonking convential narrative order” comment is actually factually incorrect. In the second chapter, actually entitled “inglourious basterds”, the action cuts back and forth between the basterds being recruited, Hitler in his war room shouting, and then the whole baseball scene with the captured Nazi troops. What a fucking idiot.

    • Isabelle Hill
    • November 6th, 2014

    I am so relieved not to be the only person that thinks Peter Bradshaw is a huge douche! Hearing his comments on Film 2014 honestly made me want to want to shoot him in the face- his obnoxious arrogance would be even marginally dismissible if his opinions hadn’t been so laughably obtuse and archaic and all I can say is thank you so much for venting about his idiocy so I don’t have to.

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