I’ve never been what you might want to call a great critic. But, whatever limited facility I might have once had for that kind of thing, now seems to be getting less, less and, yes, less. These days, I tend to either ‘like’ things or ‘not like’ them and, interesting enough, I tend to ‘like’ quite a lot of things. These days, as a critic, and I hope you’ll pardon this expression, I tend to be something of an easy lay.
Maybe this is not such a new development. Even when I was in college, and we were required to be incisive and judgemental about architectural stuff, me, and a pal of mine just tended to default to the view that either something was ‘Nice’ or it ‘Wasn’t Nice.’ I think our blatant use of this rather simplistic critical technique was only forgivable because we tended to do it a slightly ironic way, as if we intended to imply that all criticism was tosh and we were too big to even play that game. This wasn’t the case - we were actually just useless - but I think we mostly got away with it. We’re still here, anyway.
So why is this in my mind in this week of all weeks? Well, there’s a couple of reasons. One reason is that I met two very good friends of mine at different times in the last week. These are people whose critical antennae and very finely tuned and to hear them expound on whatever is currently under discussion is invariably to see that thing anew from some other angles and, also invariably, to learn a thing-or-two that one did not know before. So, while I would throw in my tuppence-worth about how the thing was ‘nice’ and ‘good’ and that I rather 'liked' it, my wonderful friends would engage me and enlighten me with their ever-incisive views.
Another reason that this kind of stuff is in my head is on account of a review of ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ that appeared this week. The review appeared in Slate Magazine and it was written by Marc O’Connell, himself no slouch in the writing department. It gained some considerable traction on Twitter and that’s where I saw it and read it. Reading it got me thinking about criticism and how I’m not any good at it.
This review, in my considered opinion, is very good (There’s that critical thinking). If you care to click on the title of the film in the first sentence of the last paragraph, you can read the review for yourself. I recommend you do. It's very good. (Um). I said hello to Mark O’Connell quite recently, after he introduced Sally Rooney at her T.S. Elliot Abbey Theatre lecture on Ulysses. I think he might have thought I was about to try to bum one of his rollies because we didn’t get much further than that on the evening. Nonetheless and regardless, he is an admirable writer and his critique of ‘Banshees’ is insightful and finely-formed. I may not 100% agree with everything in it and I’m sure he’d be cool with that, in the unlikely event that he was even slightly bothered about what I might think.
For me, for all the well-made points, it doesn’t quite credit McDonagh with being the very good writer he certainly is. Perhaps that’s not the point, perhaps the point is what is written rather than how good the writer is. I don’t know. There is much I don’t know and the art of criticism seems to show up these chasms more than most other things.
As for me, I went to see ‘Banshees’ and I liked it pretty darned well… It’s not much of a review is it? Not a terrible insightful analysis. You fucking liked it? Is that it?
This kind of internal dialogue makes me try to think a little harder about the film. What did I really think? Come on, Ken. Suppose the fact you liked it simply wasn't good enough? Suppose it didn't cut the mustard? Tell us something more. Delight us.
I liked it...
I liked it initially because I liked the trailer, which set me up for a rematch of In Bruges', which I really liked. It set me up for more of the sharp, quirky dialogue, devil-may-care incorrectness, and edge of the seat unease that I experienced in both ‘In Bruges’ and in ‘Three Billboards’ too. Perhaps 'Banshees' didn’t deliver on the trailer as thoroughly as I might have liked but it still did plenty. The cast were great, the story had a coherence, the script, as one would expect, was deft and skilfully wrought. The scenery was lovely and… let’s stop and take a personal moment with the scenery.
One Summer’s Day, my friend Simon Ricketts came all the way from London to visit me in Mayo, where I live. The little excursion we made, that wonderful day, took us through much of the scenery in which ‘Banshees’ is set. We stood against the sky and the sea, as Colin and Brendan did, and he and I drew air and cigarette smoke into our respective lungs. We talked and gossiped and 'politicked’ and looked… and we didn’t fall out. Simon isn’t with us anymore and that day plays large in my memory. To see those places up on the screen, there to be admired and envied worldwide… that rather did me a good turn.
I realise that's a little beside the point of criticism but perhaps that’s what criticism can sometimes be: the deeply personal injected into the deeply impersonal.
McDonagh gets some stick for writing in his heightened Irish dialect. This criticism harks back to his theatre plays, which is understandable as the film is very much a part of that earlier 'oeuvre'. But he has also shown that he can set his stories elsewhere and that he can tell them in other voices just as well. Except of course the people from those other places tend to take issue with his subverting of their language and culture too. I would be disappointed if he ever apologies for this and I would eat my hat if he ever did. His work is, by its very nature, ‘heightened.’ Heightened in practically every respect; action, interaction, morality, dialogue, simplicity, complication. Everything is bigger than in real life and so it’s never going to seem real or authentic. He has to go somewhere to do this, why not here in the West of Ireland? Somewhere inside me, I've always viewed Mcdonagh's work as owning much to cartoons. Smart and adult but, yes, cartoons. I welcome the entertaining ‘cartooning’ of us. Please just don’t mistake it for real life. John Wayne wasn’t really a Wild West cowboy and neither are we.
I think Martin McDonagh is, technically, a writer of great skill. He creates gripping, engaging, shocking, funny stories and he realises them well. I rather think he gets more ‘Art’ imposed on him than he ever intended to garner and I imagine that amuses him and drives him onward to his next escapade. Write a fine script, throw in a little artistic existentialism, pepper the stew with a few Civil War bangs and crashes. The chattering classes will almost certainly come lowing… and they do.
I think he loves a great story, a great film, a great experience. I don’t think he’s bothered all that much about being the next Leonardo da Vinci. I think he's just looking to make a great flick.
Isn't this what all artists do? They don’t set out to make a masterpiece or to save the world. They just do the work that they are driven to do, for whatever reason. And the world and the people and time and history will decide if that thing they ended up making is of incalculable value or whether it is just another piece of landfill.
That's probably the best I can personally do. Not very good. But I do respect the people who can delve deeper and mine levels of success or failure that I, on my own, would simply never have found.
I did rather like it though… didn’t you?