The satirist William Donaldson, writing in his Dictionary of National Celebrity, defined Stephen Fry as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like’. It’s an ungenerous quip, but loaded with just enough truth to really sting – and by the same token, The Shawshank Redemption could be described as ‘the all-time favourite film of people who haven’t seen very many’.”
So begins Robbie Collin’s film review of Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, published by The Telegraph just two years ago. The semi-closeted snobbery of such an opening is a worrying example of our gradual regression back to an age of ‘high culture’. I don’t disagree with Collin that the film ultimately descends into slightly gooey sentimentality by its conclusion, but I object to his indirect association of anyone that lists the film as a favourite with the kind of ‘stupid person’ who considers Stephen Fry intelligent. For one thing, Collin’s role as a critic, whether a journalistic one or not, is to judge the film and not the people who watch it. But more importantly, why on earth is such flippant ostracism of a fundamental portion of film viewers still deemed acceptable and enjoy- able to read in the modern day and age? Even by The Telegraph’s standards, this seems a step too far.
In no other sphere of journalism or arts criticism is this divisiveness welcomed. In fact, since the mid-twentieth century, the notion of a superior ‘high culture’, a culture preserved for only the elite members of society, has been fiercely attacked. In 1948, T.S. Eliot argued in his essay Notes Towards A Definition of Culture, that “a national culture, if it is to flourish, should be a constellation of cultures, the constituents of which, benefiting each other, benefit the whole”. By this he means that no culture should be prioritised over another; popular culture should not be condemned but celebrated. His continued discussion of “a community of culture” highlights the importance of all culture being available to all sectors of society. Film, as an art, has the rare quality of being available and accessible to the majority of the British population. This, coupled with its diversity in content, makes film the perfect apparatus for bridging popular culture with culture previously considered elite. This is why it is such a crucial component of our cultural industry, and why its pollution by disruptive comments in the same vein as Collin’s is so damaging to it as an art.
The increasingly detached and disdainful persona of the film critic has not gone unnoticed. In a 2014 interview, Ken Loach described modern film critics as people whose reviews are fuelled by “preconceptions”, which, according to him, are largely conservative. His solution, “To sack the critics and get ordinary punters in. People experienced, who know life.” This is, perhaps, a little harsh. Not all critics are the “people who live in darkened rooms” of whom he talks. In fact, there are plenty of critics who have worked hard to render film criticism accessible to the masses – most notably the late Roger Ebert, whose criticism is characterised by its unfailing humility and humanity. But their progress is under threat, as is the preservation of film as a snob-free zone. So next time a Collin-esque comment crops up in a film review, rather than let a derisive smile spread across your face and chortle at the ‘stupid person’ who considers the condemned film in question a favourite, ask yourself: is this really the kind of culture we want to promote?