Everyone has that one golden insult, don’t they? I’ve heard tale that my great-grandfather, a charismatic man of great humour would, when pushed past the point of control, be known to call someone a ‘dirty dog’ with a venom and ferocity that could stop a man in his tracks. My dad uses the word ‘cretin’, he spits it with bile. I’ve never heard another human being say that word, let alone with such conviction.
My most contemptuous put-down is ‘Empire reader.’
I should give you some background context to this. I grew up the son of a film enthusiast (they weren’t called geeks then and it was pre-Star Wars so that pop culture culture wasn’t really prevalent) my dad had big boxes of Films and Filming Magazine, paperbacks about film history and a constant willingness to take me to the cinema. I became a major film geek. I then went to film school. I worked in about a billion different video shops and then ended up working in and around the film industry in various capacities ever since. Most of my friends are film geeks, film-makers, film bloggers and film critics. Most of my day’s conversations revolve, in some way, around film.
Empire is the UK’s most visible film magazine. When it launched in 1989, it was tremendously exciting. Up until that point, British film magazines were fusty, highbrow, review-based and completely lacking in enthusiasm or colour. Empire exploded to life with gusto. It was full colour and glossy, it had interviews, amazing retrospective pieces and spunky, conversational reviews. I fell in love with it hard and probably loved it up until I hit film school in the mid-nineties. At that point, I started to notice some things I didn’t like about it. It had become very ‘establishment’, it had always boasted interviews with big stars and directors but as the quality of these people’s work seemed to decline, the sycophancy of Empire’s coverage seemed to increase. I was noticing that pretty much every big film was getting a good review. It struck me, and this is just a suspicion, that Empire was starting to use its integrity as currency. To secure the biggest interviews, the most exclusive on-set access and the big cover photo shoots, it was perhaps prepared to forego both journalistic bite and a certain amount of honesty in reviews. The interviews were all fawning and the reviews of the bigger films optimistic. I was also noticing that when the same films hit their video release, the star rating had dropped markedly. This was highlighted by the brief appearance of a magazine called Neon which was intelligent, witty, honest and basically the great British film journalism. I heard that Empire’s publishers bought Neon out and shut it down. I could be very wrong about all of this this. But, if I am, it means that – with the exception of Kim Newman’s monthly video review column – the general journalistic and critical quality of their team has for a long time been just pretty sub-par. I still flick through it when I see a copy lying around at someone’s house. It’s got worse over the years.
But that is, of course, a judgement call. For some people, it’s exactly what they want. And I hate those people. With an ire most folks reserve for Daily Mail readers. For me, the term ‘Empire Reader’ means you’re a feeble-minded person who thinks they’re a film fan but actually has an incredibly narrow perception of cinema and what it’s capable of. The kind of person who thinks having watched Oldboy or a John Woo film makes them somehow exotic and a fan of world cinema. The kind of person who celebrated Martin Scorsese finally winning the Best Director Oscar, despite the fact it was for his worst film. The kind of person who genuinely thinks the Oscars are anything more than a major studio marketing exercise. The kind of person whose analytical skills allow them little more than to admit The Phantom Menace wasn’t very good, yet who bought the blu-ray of it on day of release. The kind of person to whom Quentin Tarantino is the zenith of indie edginess. Even though he is neither indie nor edgy.
That’s why I use the term as an insult. If I call you an Empire Reader, I’m saying that your opinion isn’t even worth entertaining. You’re not culturally or intellectually aware and, worse than that, you think you are and will spraff on about Robert Rodriguez being a ‘maverick’ or Schwarzenegger ‘returning to form’ and pollute any film-based conversation with your uninformed mediocrity.
I like to prefix ‘Empire Reader’ with ‘fucking.’ I tend to drag out the fucking, so it sounds like ‘Oh, what does he know? He’s a ffffffffffffucking Empire reader’. The long ‘fffff’ conveys that I haven’t yet even decided if the target is worthy of being spoken about. Sometimes, I’ll end at the ‘ffff’ – ‘Oh, he’s just a ffffffffffff’ and change the subject because that Empire Reader isn’t even worth wasting words on.
So, why do I expose this vile, intolerant and detestably arrogant side of myself to you today? Because I’ve just seen the ultimate Empire Reader’s film and I felt I had to define what was wrong with the people who love it whilst explaining my issues with the film itself.
The film is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
We live in a bit of a strange cinematic landscape at the moment. Hype, generated by the studios and propagated by both the mainstream and independent media compels a lot of us into the cinema to see films that we might not actually ever want to see. It feels like everyone is talking about them and that if we don’t see them, we will somehow be missing out. Hyperbole is also scaling new heights. It seems that every film that is above average (and the average quality of films is not terribly high these days) is being hailed as a masterpiece. I’ve spoken to several people who felt they were conned by Life of Pi, which is a good film marketed as a work of genius. It can be confusing to people and prey upon their insecurities as to their own intelligence.
I’ll nail my colours to the mast right now about Lincoln. It’s the single most tedious experience I’ve ever had in the cinema. I found it actually boring. I thought there was an unfair burden of expectation on the audience to have a pre-existing knowledge of the subject matter and understanding of the political system it existed within. I found it frustrating that so much of the film was shot in wide or medium shots, which is fine for a kinetic film, but for a film constructed mainly of very long, slow, dialogue scenes, to be denied a close-up to see the actor’s eyes as they talk is inexplicable. The performances were good, not great. Good. As they should be from professional actors. The writing was shockingly bad. It was written like a stageplay. Film is a visual medium primarily, the camera should be telling the audience far more than the dialogue. This film is just endless talking. Not just talking. Endless oratory. There is no character development and no feeling of story structure. Whereas the dialogue and staging are more suited to the stage, the storytelling is little more than a historical document. There’s very little real emotion invested, save for a few melodramatic scenes which feel very much wedged in there. You just find out how, technically, slavery was abolished. Only towards the end of the film does Spielberg give us any visual poetry and by then it’s too late. I came out of the cinema just not understanding what Spielberg was trying to do. The film didn’t seem to be making a point. It didn’t seem to be challenging a perception or conveying a message. I didn’t understand it. I suppose I have enough confidence, or arrogance, in my own intelligence to know that if a film, for which I am clearly in its target demographic, bores me or doesn’t make sense to me then it’s a failing on their part more than mine.
I got home and went online to see what other people were making of it. Luckily, quite a few reviewers were giving it only the patchy praise it deserved but so many people on Twitter were treating it with a reverence that I still struggle to fathom above the idea that – to them – a long, historical film directed by Spielberg and starring Day-Lewis must be empirically good, therefore they chose to love it. Its this strange blindness which seems to be eroding the quality of mainstream cinema. This acceptance of below-par work, which baffles me. In the past year alone, we’ve had The Hobbit and Prometheus, both films which were terribly badly written and overlong yet were massive commercial successes and, despite some critical feather ruffling, have not been perceived as any kind of failure to the average cinema-goer. As much derision as I have for the Oscars, if you take the time to compare the films and people nominated in the last 20 years to any single ceremony in the 70s, I think you’ll see what I mean. The Best Film nominees from that decade are still all hailed as classics. Even the winners from the following two decades have already been forgotten. Perhaps film is becoming more disposable Perhaps it’s not even about the films themselves anymore, maybe it’s all about the endless manufacturing and partaking in cultural phenomenons. The trick seems to be to stage one every few weeks so we’re always looking forward to the next rather than questioning the value of the last.