Edited by Ian Jack
Granta 86: Film

By James Rogan

From handling rats on Werner Herzog's Nosferatu to a peek into Lana Turner's bedroom, the new Granta collection (somewhat heavily titled Film) brings together an interesting if incoherent array of essays on cinema. With the exception of Atom Egoyan's cheeky piece on the career of Paul Thomas (promising actor turned prolific porn star), filmmakers do not really get a look in. Instead, Granta have assembled a collection of writers who pitch their views as bemused outsiders to the strange workings of film.

John Fowles offers up some extracts from the diary he kept during the production of the French Lieutenant's Woman. His dry insights are fascinating in their noncommittal approach to the medium. As various different cinematic luminaries wrestle with the prospect of filming the project, Fowles gradually seems to lose interest and becomes a passive cynic, giving some great pencil sketches of the contradictions and characters of the actors, writers and directors he meets on his way.

He is frank to the point of brutality. Initially he's impressed by Michael Caine's professionalism on the set of The Magus, but when he sees the film his judgement is unreserved: 'Caine's performance... remains wooden and hopelessly without depth.' He finds Dennis Potter 'beyond dealing with' and observes with annoyance that Fred Zinnemann repeats the same anecdotes about Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy over and over. Harold Pinter, who ended up writing the final script, is a sad and isolated figure only comfortable after a couple of drinks. Fowles picks up on the air of sadness that permeates filmmaking: the compromises and imperfections of committee decisions and financial imperatives. These things must be foreign to the isolated novelist, as perhaps are the huge cheques he gets for doing very little as each draft is churned out by other writers.

Thomas Keneally's story of the genesis of Schindler's Ark, 'The Handbag Studio', bolsters the sense that this is a novelist's book on film. Only remotely connected to cinema by the fact that the book was later turned into a film, it remains nonetheless a beautifully etched description of the beginning of a story. It also serves up an alternative portrait of Los Angeles through the shop of the endlessly energetic Leopold Page. Page, it turns out, introduces Keneally to the story of Schindler and talks of him as a demigod. The sheer force of this holocaust survivor's praise refreshes Spielberg's sentimental story in an instant and begs revisiting as one of the great human miracles of the 20th century.

Alongside these two centrepieces, Granta serves up an art gallery of paintings by filmmakers (worth a flick through in the bookshop) and a variety of middle-of-the-road criticism. Most of the criticism is framed in personal vignettes about the writers' lives and can be vainglorious and not particularly insightful. Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight and Sound have more to say.

But Granta should be praised for representing that curiously english brand of film criticism – the 'total hatred of all things cinema' school – in Andrew O'Hagan's essay 'Two Years in the Dark'. It would be a shame if history does not record the utter condescension with which it has become fashionable to approach film in the mainstream press. What is so odious about someone like O'Hagan, who spent two years as the Daily Telegraph's film critic, is that he does not attack the bad in film (he admits he likes bad films better because they lack pretension), but the films that set their sights on being good.

Two of O'Hagan's particular bugbears during his two-year tenure were Russell Crowe and Miramax. Russell Crowe can be judged by two standards: the tough-guy, beer-swilling, Meg Ryan-seducing, BBC-threatening media jerk – or by his performances. Match Crowe, as a new mainstream star, performance for performance with recent offerings from Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford and you'll see an actor who takes on more difficult roles and brings to them more depth. I'm not saying that he's perfect – but at least he tries (Ford and Gibson palpably do not). That is why O'Hagan hates him.

Miramax is the same. One way or another they made Hollywood wake up to the independent movie. Sure, a lot of their output is over-marketed tosh, but they have shown a genuine commitment to trying to make good movies. Why does that bother O'Hagan so much? The answer is that Miramax is just an easy target for his style – a style that depends on derision and condescension. The idea that there were no good films over the two years in which O'Hagan was reviewing is so absurd that, when you look at the movies released during that time, you wonder whether he was blind. For my part, I'm thoroughly glad he quit.
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