Critic Peter Bradshaw insists books are more influenced by film than ever beforetwitter/camfilmfest

Content Note: This article contains discussion of online abuse.

Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw’s new compilation of essays and reviews, Films that Made Me…, has chapters devoted to almost every conceivable feeling. There’s ‘films that make me squirm (in a good way)’, ‘films that make me want to run for the hills’, films that remind him of his late parents. One all-too-common emotion that’s missing in this collection is boredom.

I’m talking to Bradshaw on the phone, but it’s hard not to picture the former Footlights president gesturing most of the time we’re speaking. Bradshaw has strong reactions – he insists films have made him feel bad before, sometimes even alienated. He laughs ‘all the time’, and is still deeply moved by cowgirl Jessie’s abandonment in Toy Story 2. But bored? The word doesn’t seem to feature in his self-made job description.

Despite doing the job for over 20 years, he still barely believes his luck – “I get paid to do this!” While some films aren’t in themselves fascinating, Bradshaw shows no signs of ennui after seeing "an average of a film a day". He feels his work is surprisingly like what he did at university (English, although he wishes there were an undergraduate film degree here at Cambridge); you just have to find something to say, quickly, week in week out.

The emotion that critics find hard to write about, Bradshaw finds, is laughing out loud – finding a film genuinely, riotously funny. “I feel like lots of writers think it’s their job to be funny, often at the film’s expense, so if they end up really loving its comedy, they find themselves a bit stuck.”

He thinks they find it uncomfortable when they can no longer pretend to be detached observers. Laughing can be complicit, involuntary. It feels like something being done to you. Sure, you have to be able to think critically, but Bradshaw thinks that, in a way, detachment is letting yourself go, to let a film make you feel things.

Something else that makes Bradshaw feel things (you sense that, in the best possible way, most things do) is when I ask him whether he reads the comments section on his articles, or his Twitter mentions. “I’ve never blocked anyone in my life!”, Bradshaw announces, but he confesses that online abuse has only got worse. “We’ve reached a crisis point in online commentary”.

“I completely understand why other writers do it, especially women and my colleagues of colour. They tell me I don’t know the half of it, and they’re right – I don’t”.

In his own job, Bradshaw’s realised that certain concerns, like worrying about spoilers, have become far more about the writer as a person than any legitimate complaint. “Comments about spoilers have just become excuses for trolling. I bend over backwards to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but at this point so much online criticism is just bad faith it’s hard to engage with any of it anymore”. You think they’re just upset about the latest Marvel film, and they just segue to personal abuse. Bradshaw admits he occasionally reads the comments on his work, but puts himself through it “less and less often” as he likes to engage with readers but no longer finds it worth it to sift through the vitriol.

Films that make me scared...twitter/strayydog

Bradshaw will be introducing clips from classic films at the Cambridge Film Festival on Monday, and talking about what they mean to him. After this selection, we’ll be watching his chosen feature, Black Narcissus (1947), about a group of Anglican nuns sent to live in an old palace on a Himalayan mountain. While he does find it hard to narrow down a definitive list, this film is definitely one of Bradshaw’s all-time favourites. What is it about this film that remains so compelling? Chris Peachment of Time Out says “you could show it backwards and out of focus, and the control of colour, composition and movement would still look brilliant.” To Bradshaw, it’s a transfixing, disturbing account of imperialism, a darker version of the Forsterian plot device of the confused yet captivated English abroad. Incredibly, the lush, technicolor landscape was almost entirely created at Pinewood Studios near London. The film is still, even in our days of CGI, visually stunning. Having watched the trailer, I’m in awe when he explains how they painted flowers and mountains onto matte glass to create parts of the set.

It “looks like a film”, one of Bradshaw’s biggest badges of approval. He means not only does it avoid looking too much like ‘real life’, but it also doesn’t fall into some of the film-making traps some modern films do, he argues. I have to admit, some of his technical explanation went slightly over my head. He tells me about how the “mental lag rate” between frames means that in a matter of seconds, our brain decides whether we are watching a film or something else. Bradshaw has a very specific idea of what looks like a film, but how soon will our brains ‘read’ newer ways of making film?


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As well as countless reviews, Bradshaw has also written several novels and a couple of radio plays, as well as writing and appearing in a sitcom with David Baddiel. While he’s never written a feature screenplay, the writing he’s most excited about is on the screen. Streaming giants like Netflix, he explains, have started a “gold rush” for writers, and directors like Martin Scorsese are being offered creative control most could only dream of in the more established industry.

What he’s really excited about is the increasing influence of what’s on screen on some of the best current literary writing. Not only are plenty of books being made into films, but it’s now going more the other way.

Bradshaw’s personal theory is that Margaret Atwood would never have written the critically-acclaimed sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, if it hadn’t been for the highly successful TV series starring Elisabeth Moss. Of course whether this is true or not we will likely never know, but it is nonetheless an interesting point to ponder. What he finds energising and exciting is film being a more equal creative partner with other art forms, getting the respect it deserves. Film is not just the moneymaker at the end of the ‘real’ creative process, but something that sparks ideas for more art in the minds of those like Atwood.

Black Narcissus is showing at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on Monday 21st October at 6pm.

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