The French collection
A selection of Philip French movie reviews, edited by his family, entertains as much as it educates
27 September, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
“Dorothy Parker,” wrote film critic Philip French, “subscribed to communism and succumbed to alcoholism, and said the only ‘ism’ Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.”
Such a line sounds like it came from Parker’s famed wit: but as a film reviewer for more than six decades, Philip had the knack of not only writing columns that entertained but placed each weekly released film in a cultural and contemporary context.
The above line was an opening sentence in a piece that considered post-modernism in film as a way to discuss The Hudsucker Proxy by the Coen brothers. He looked at how directors referenced each others’ works and indulged in what he called “intertextuality” – “the process by which authors incorporate into their own films, plays and books – by parody, pastiche or direct quotation – the work of other artists”.
In 1978, while working at the BBC as a radio producer, he was given permission to write film criticism for The Observer for a year – a job he did for the rest of his life.
Philip French’s wife Kersti and three sons Patrick, Carl and Sean
Now a collection of his work, edited by his family, has been published – and it is a reminder of a man who would tease the central point out of a film, a point that after reading his column seemed so obvious but without his help might have remained invisible. His column was about getting to the crux of the matter in a circuitous and entertaining way. His criticism would take the reader on a journey that placed the film into a context of our lives, throwing open the foyer doors and letting the light of the outside world wash into the theatre.
Philip wrote his first review in 1953 and an Oxford undergraduate, and his final review – a piece on a DVD release of The Ladykillers – the night before he died in October 2015. This collection is a joy from the opening page to the final credits: to open it at any given page is to soak up Philip’s range of interests, terms of reference, knowledge, understanding and humour.
Of the film The Warriors – seemingly a New York gang movie – he wrote: “The Warriors is a graceful irreverent film, uninterested in individual psychology and conventional morality. In what sense, it asks, are Ulysses and his crew, Jason and the Argonauts, Xenophone and his 10,000 Greeks, superior to any New York street gang, save in the way their deeds are commemorated…?”
In the introduction, the editors – his wife Kersti and three sons Patrick, Carl and Sean – provide an insight that makes his mastery understandable.
They estimate he wrote over three million words for The Observer, and another few hundred thousands elsewhere, giving the family a huge, if happy, task to decide what to put in to the 120,000 word collection.
Carrol Baker and George Peppard in How the West Was Won
Philip was always enthralled by one genre in particular, they add: “There is no such thing as an uninteresting western,” they quote him as saying. And when reviewing Kevin Costner’s cheesy Dances With Wolves, you sense he is returning to his favourite topic.
“How The West Was Won was perhaps the last western that could be regarded as an unqualified celebration of the making of America, the fulfilment of manifest destiny,” he writes. “By then westerns had become a highly critical forum for reviewing the national past and appraising the present and by the 1970s the essentially pessimistic character of the best movies had alienated large popular audiences.”
Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves
Not so with Costner, he cites, referencing how westerns became counter-cultural in the 1960s but this is a wholly positive film “that reminds us of the optimistically liberal James Stewart movie, Broken Arrow…”
Other pieces are “extended works of reflection,” and “dialogues with his own past views and the filmmakers developing careers”.
We are also offered a peek into Philip’s writing practices.
“He wrote his reviews in the back room of his house crammed with movie reference books and also, oddly enough, a large collection of poetry,” they add. “In the 1960s his desk accommodated a portable Olivetti typewriter, an ashtray, cigarettes and as often as not, a gin and tonic.
For the French family the early articles in this book will always be seen through a blue haze accompanied by the clacking of two-finger typing.
“Philip was never entirely comfortable in the world of the MacBook and Internet Movie Database. For him, journalism should be something in the style of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. And what do you need the IMDb when you have Philip’s brain?”
• Notes From The Dream House, Selected Film Reviews 1963-2013. Edited by Kersti, Karl, Patrick and Sean French, Carcanet Press, £19.99.