My life-time interest in the cinema, although it began simply because films were a central element in the TV schedules of my youth, was significantly developed by two particular publications at two different times.
The first, when I was still at school, was a series on cinema which ran for about ten weeks in The Sunday Times magazine. Among other things, this introduced me to the concept of film genres, and to my first film lists. So, on different weeks, there were articles about the thriller, the musical, the comedy, the epic, the fantasy, the documentary. Alongside these chapters, a critic had chosen ten great examples of that genre.
Within the first few years of my reading it, I had seen several of their exalted films, like one of their top thrillers, Double Indemnity, and one of the top documentaries, Battleship Potemkin. It was exciting to compare my observations and responses to those of the published critic. Although, even now, I am waiting to see The Mask of Dimitrios to assess whether I share that writer’s enthusiasm!
Film tastes change of course, which is one reason perhaps why I long ago discarded those fraying magazine pages. Those lists compiled around 1970 mentioned directors who are seen and discussed much less often now, such as the silent- era pioneers D.W.Griffith and Charles Chaplin, or foreign language film-makers like Kenzo Mizoguchi and Luis Buñuel. Fantasia is no longer so highly rated among Disney’s output. However, some films from those days are still highly regarded, like La Regle du Jeu, Rio Bravo and 2001 : a Space Odyssey.
The second publication which influenced me was Time Out. The Sunday Times series had first introduced me to the auteur theory that, although a film was a team project in the way a novel wasn’t, a film’s director was its overwhelming creative spirit, and this was definitely emphasised in Time Out’s film reviews.
In the first half of the 1980s in London, alongside the West End cinemas showing the new releases from Hollywood and elsewhere, there still seemed to be independent cinemas which showed regularly changing double and triple bills of films from previous decades. In Time Out I was introduced to such lesser known and ignored films, and especially to the Hollywood genre directors who were being promoted within the critical pantheon : Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk. Many Time Out reviewers had a fondness for theory and for social and political context which, although easy to mock, I still find invaluable for the maximum appreciation of any film.
I was able to read the magazine because my brother was living in London at that time and often brought copies back home, but its film reviews were later compiled in book form. I have retained an increasingly battered copy for twenty years which is still an indispensable bible.
What about this example of the “confrontational” style of Time Out film criticism (to borrow the term used by Geoff Andrew in his foreword to my edition) : Paul Taylor writing on Once Upon a Time in the West? “Leone’s timeless monument to the death of the West…rivalled only by Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for the title of best ever made. We’re talking favourite films here, so only superlatives will do… Morricone’s greatest score, handing Bronson his identity with a plangent, shivery harmonica riff…Counter-casting (sadistic Fonda) and location choice (Monument Valley) that render an iconic base for Leone and collaborators… to perform their revisionary/revolutionary critique of the Classic American …Creation Myth… Critical tools needed are eyes and ears – this is Cinema.”
Sometimes, especially in your own youthful enthusiasm, is such dogmatism not irresistible? It certainly provides a clear signpost. That Sunday Times series has vanished into the mists of time and memory, but, happily, the influence of Time Out is still strong.