Jack Mays Interviews Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke Sketch by Tom Galvin originally for Film Ireland

Donald Clarke is The Irish Times’ senior film critic and author of the ‘Screenwriter’ blog.

Having once been a student in Trinity, do you have fond memories of your time here?

Indeed I do.  Like many of your readers, I got somewhat distracted by extra-curricular activities — not that this is a bad thing. I was heavily involved in Trinity Players and was occasionally seen in pubs such as – how predictable – The International and The Stag’s Head. The main change I detect now is that the Northerners seem to have vanished. TCD was crawling with them in the 1980s. (As a Belfast man myself, I am allowed to use the word “crawling”.)

You were a member of the now-defunct Trinity Film Society. Did you know then that you wanted to be a film critic?

I wouldn’t say that. But I certainly would always have liked to be a film critic. The Film Society then was amazing. It screened at least three films a week and the variety was superb. One day you could see Blade Runner. The next you could view Tarkovksy’s Mirror or Passolini’s Teorema.  That’s where I first caught up with foreign language cinema. I grew up before the VCR became properly ubiquitous, you see.

Before you became a film critic you had a go at filmmaking, writing and directing a couple of short films. Having had that experience, would you say it affected your film criticism?

I think it does help a tiny bit. But most of the very best film critics have never sat behind a camera. So, it is far from essential. It is good to have some knowledge of the technical language. You do not, however, need to make a short to acquire that information.

Any plans to one day return to filmmaking?

Not at present. Raising the money is too much trouble. I don’t rate my talents much, anyway,

Do you have a particular reader in mind when writing a review?

It depends what you are reviewing. With, say, Transformers, you should remain aware that the film has a core, fanatical constituency, but, at the same time, you should make sure to stay true to your own feelings. That’s to say, if it really is awful, you should say so.

You must see a lot of crap as well. Are you still as enthusiastic about films as you were when you started out?

I think I am still as enthusiastic. Obviously there are particular types of film that fill the heart with dread. I always liked Pauline Kael’s line when asked if there was anything she looked forward to after retiring from The New Yorker. “Never having to see another Oliver Stone film,” she said. Quite right.

How important is it that a critic not only writes well but also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema? Can you judge a film on face value or should you benchmark a film against touchstones of the genre?

I think it’s very, very important. You are doing a job many people would like to do. So it’s nice if you know what you’re talking about. Mind you, I’m not sure there is such a clear distinction between judging something at “face value” and setting the picture beside predecessors. I think you have to do both.

Do you ever read reviews before seeing a film, or do you go into a screening with an open mind?

Well, keep in mind that these days a lot of films open at the same in the US as here. So, quite often there aren’t any notices. Some critics are very firm about not reading reviews. I am quite relaxed about that. I am stubborn enough in my own views not to be swayed.

2010 was the year 3D really took off. However, like many critics, you’ve been quite skeptical about it, arguing that it detracts from the experience in many cases. Are you excited about what the likes of Martin Scorsese and David Lynch are going to do with the new technology or do you think they’re just bowing to studios’ demands?

Sadly, I am not excited. But, with those guys – both of whom I am lucky enough to have met – I would never claim they were giving in to pressure. I am sure they genuinely believe in the technique. Who am I to question? What does (almost) excite me, however, is Werner Herzog’s decision to use 3D for his upcoming documentary on cave paintings. Now that could be something.

On the subject of 3D, I saw on your blog that you’re chuffed with your new clip-on 3D specs courtesy of Disney. Of all the freebies you’ve ever received, what’s been your favourite?

My Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy dressing gown. Unlike the rest, it is actually used.

You’ve interviewed an array of famous actors and filmmakers. But if you had to be trapped in a lift with one, who would it be?

Well, if we’re talking about people I haven’t yet met, then it would have to be one of the few surviving icons of the old Hollywood. I don’t think Kirk Douglas can speak that well, but, if he could make himself understood, then he’d do very nicely. Of the folk I have met, Herzog, Scorsese or Cronenberg would all be acceptable. They are, as well as being great filmmakers, very interesting to chat to.

Of course, you can’t be interviewing Angelina Jolie or swanning around Cannes every day. What are some of the downsides of being a film critic?

I’m not falling for that. Even the slightest complaint triggers a volley of sarcastic “Oh poor you” emails. (Understandably enough, I should add) So, I’ll just keep my few moans to myself.

You’ve said of yourself “I am one of the few critics who regularly complains that there is not enough violence in contemporary cinema.” Do you not believe that violent movies have the power to desensitise, especially when seen by the young?

I’m not sure what this much-discussed “desensitisation” means. I have always been a fan of exploitation films. Just as Shakespeare’s audience lapped up the eviscerations in Titus Andronicus, contemporary cinema fans will continue to have fun watching nicely violent shockers. Go to a horror festival and – as at heavy metal events – you will encounter the friendliest folk in the world.

Filmmakers sometimes admit that sitting in on public screenings to judge the audience’s reaction to their film. Don’t you think it’s sometimes hard to gauge the success of a film at a press screening? Particularly comedies?

It works both ways. When people are chattering, scoffing popcorn or kicking the seat – as they do at public screenings – then it can be very hard to remain happily objective. I’m not sure laughter from others in any way affects my opinion of a comedy.

Finally, do you have any pieces of advice for any aspiring film critics out there?

It’s old-fashioned advice I am afraid. Watch a great many films and make sure to view them from all eras.  Learn to write good English. That makes me sound like an appalling old fogey. But nothing antagonises editors more than bad prose.

Questions by Jack Mays for Trinity News