Film · Uncategorized

Barry Norman, Canons and Criticism

On the 30th of June this year, Barry Norman the well respected film critic who presented BBC’s The Film Programme between 1972 and 1998 and continued his role reviewing films thereafter for The Radio Times, died. Without meaning to sound callous or disparaging, perhaps it is time now that we can call into question that Barry Norman was a critic of merit. For too long now, criticism has become conflated with promotion to the point where the two spheres have become seemingly inseparable. If a critic is defined as someone who merely recommends movies to see based upon someone else’s (the market’s) definition of what a ‘movie’ is, then Norman certainly qualifies as a critic and one who did a lot to ratify popular audience tastes. But I would argue that merely reflecting the demands of big business and restricting oneself to viewing films from a narrow spectrum makes one a promoter of a certain kind of cinema, a kind that reaffirms what kinds of films are not only worth seeing, but worth talking about and all the other cultural presuppositions that feed into and flow from this.

 

Now, I understand that the political economy of film journalism works in such a way  as to prevent individual journalistic autonomy and is ran by the dictates of commerce hiding behind the false alibi of ‘common sense’ (and this is true of journalistic practice in general). This would mean someone like Barry Norman would have to review all commercial movies, even if he did not want to as they are automatically deemed important by way of economic imperative, and if he were to be listened to or taken seriously, he would have to frequently recommend some of those films in order to facilitate and demonstrate that the film show he presented as providing a useful function, namely, recommending what we should see. If one were to genuinely express a negative opinion to all mainstream films for even a few weeks, they would simply not be reviewing for much longer. This crippling position has become increasingly evident in our over saturated age, whereby critical inflation lowers general expectations and results in some films getting more praise than they deserve based upon their relative merit to the other films that one is coerced into talking about and seeing, based upon market imperatives dictating what is culturally important in the first place.

 

In this sense, one can certainly defend Norman for merely reflecting audience desires and tastes in a bid to keep his job yet in a profession that is supposed to be free from such influences in order to enable free and truthful expression, I find that position cynical and hopeless. If this were simply the case, then surely Norman’s ‘true’ taste for cinema would come through in his other works? Well, as it so happens Norman released a book naming his 100 greatest films that he had seen. Here is the list:

 

 

Barry Norman’s 100 Greatest Films

Adventure

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

The Dark Knight (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Jaws (1975)

Gladiator (2000)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Seven Samurai (1954)

 

Comedy

Airplane! (1980)

Annie Hall (1977)

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Bringing up Baby (1938)

Duck Soup (1933)

Groundhog Day (1993)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1948)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Ninotchka (1939)

Some like it Hot (1959)

 

Drama

All about Eve (1950)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Citizen Kane (1941)

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Raging Bull (1980)

Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

12 Angry Men (1957)

 

Family

Bambi (1942)

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

Great Expectations (1946)

Mary Poppins (1964)

The Railway Children (1970)

Shrek (2001)

The Jungle Book (1967)

Toy Story (1995)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

 

Horror/sci-fi

The Exorcist (1973)

Frankenstein (1931)

Halloween (1978)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Alien (1979)

Blade Runner (1982)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope (1977)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

 

Musical

Cabaret (1972)

Chicago (2002)

High Society (1956)

Kiss me Kate (1953)

Moulin Rouge (2001)

My Fair Lady (1964)

The Red Shoes (1948)

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Singin in the Rain (1952)

West Side Story (1961)

 

Romance

A Brief Encounter (1945)

Casablanca (1942)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

The Graduate (1967)

Gregory’s Girl (1980)

I Know where I’m Going! (1945)

It Happened one Night (1934)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)

When Harry met Sally (1989)

 

Thriller

The Big Sleep (1946)

Chinatown (1974)

Dirty Harry (1971)

The Godfather (1972)

Goodfellas (1990)

L.A. Confidential (1997)

North by Northwest (1959)

Psycho (1960)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Third Man (1949)

 

War

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Cruel Sea (1952)

Dr. Strangelove (1963)

The Great Escape (1963)

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Schindler’s List (1993)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Shoah (1985)

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

 

Western

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

High Noon (1952)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Red River (1948)

The Searchers (1956)

Shane (1953)

Unforgiven (1992)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

 

I suppose my first observation is how conservative the list is, by this I mean how few surprises there are, by how little of a sense I get of Norman as a person from glancing at it and perhaps most importantly how Norman offers us nothing to challenge both critical orthodoxy and his audience’s perceptions of what constitutes ‘a good film’ in the first place (if a critic really just exists to reaffirm taste then what is s/he for? It is this position that gives credence to the oft asked question ‘who needs critics?’).

 

Perhaps the biggest sin of the list is that it is simply boring, in the sense that it reads like a fashion parade of greatest hits, much like the American Film Institutes’ 1998 list which at least had the defence that it as an institution represents only American cinema. Norman has no such excuse for his omission of foreign language films; he list only 3 films in the 100 which are not made in the English language (that I have highlighted above), all of which he has nothing particularly interesting or illuminating to say. He says of Seven Samurai that “it is a great film by one of Japan’s greatest directors”, a statement that lacks any qualification or weight whatsoever seeing as no other Japanese movies appear on the list, Norman even fails to justify  why he chooses Seven Samurai over other Akira Kurosawa films, such as Rashomon, Ikiru or Ran.

 

The sheer absence of non-English language cinema again reinforces the restrictive, racist view that no films outside of America are worth seeing and talking about, that their innate qualities are always subservient to what the best of American cinema is capable of, an idea that is further reinforced by Norman’s curious use of demarcation by genre. By limiting only ten entries per genre, and ‘genre’ remains an essentially much contested and instable notion itself, Norman effectively rules several modes of filmmaking out of inclusion and discussion including art cinema, experimental cinema and third cinema. His inclusion of a token three ‘foreign’ films only narrowly avoids the dubious association that there is American cinema and ‘world cinema’ i.e. ‘the rest’; a false binary which ‘others’ every film outside of America and the cultural particularities they depict.

 

Perhaps Norman would have argued that the films he includes need to be available for audiences to plausibly see on television, but this denies that certain vicissitudes regarding availability exist, that a priori decision making as to what constitutes a film worthy of air time in a bid to meet ‘audience tastes’ (a slippery notion that is always used to defend business interests) is already in place and helps influence taste formations. So, if this list functions as a shorthand for Norman’s taste as a critic and with it what he likes to promote and say about cinema (and several publications reprinted it after his passing as an epitome of Norman’s value as a critic it seemed) then this is rather symbolic of our film culture as a whole: an obsessive compulsive fascination with canons and lists that reveals an endlessly depthless, anti-intellectual, non-communicative shorthand of validating commercial practice which fosters the impression that there is no alternative.

 

 

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