Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. You can also find this interview on The Varsity website. If you like this, subscribe on the right!
Critics occupy an odd and often awkward position between the audience and the artist, playing both observer and judge to the latest cultural output. Asking the right questions – and adjusting your idea of objectivity from text to text – is a fine line to walk. The Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey returns again and again to Goerthe’s criteria: “what is trying to do? Does it do it? Does it matter? The last question is obviously the most tricky.”
It’s refreshing to dissect the dissector, to ask questions to the person with the job of anticipating our questions. Lacey is candid and unpretentious, able to see the merits of Hobo With A Shotgun and the shortcomings of Abbas Koriastami’s arty Certified Copy. He pauses to stare at the table before readying his words and then begins anew, hand moving across the surface. The spiked sprout of white Beckettian hair above his forehead and the red-rimmed glasses complete the image of slightly hip thoughtfulness.
“We’re not academics, we’re not in the business of scholarship. There’s an evaluative aspect of our job. When it boils down to it, we say whether something is good or not.” Nevertheless, he looks up to thinkers he calls “heroic critics”. “When I came to U of T, Frye and McLuhan were still here. They were social philosophers who made the role of the critic more attractive. They were creative critics.”
Lacey took only one film course – Bart Testa was his TA – when he did his English BA. In 1979 Testa helped him land a job as a rock critic at the Globe, a position he held until 1993 when the late, great Jay Scott passed away. Rick Groen took over and Lacey helped pick up the slack. Now they divide the reviews between them, and Lacey readily admits “it’s an ongoing learning curve.”
Neither is it a job that needs an obvious set of skills or knowledge. “You could spend a lot of time learning Japanese cinema, or even Japanese cinema from the 50s, but that doesn’t have much to do with your day-to-day job. You have your 3-5 stories thrown at you week-to-week on a regular basis.” In the early 90s he was given the genre pictures, the leftovers other critics didn’t want to take. That type of art is a whole different animal from the (self-)important art film, and takes a different set of tools to pass judgment.
“I don’t know what my standards are sometimes,” laughs Lacey. An unsure critic is often the best kind of critic. “Standards shift from film to film. There’s no cookie cutter model or moral grid that I use. I’m reviewing Certified Copy, and it’s interesting but less substantial than Koriastami’s Iranian work. Hobo With a Shotgun is a well-done spoof of a genre film. Jason Eisner, the director, has a great eye for the subject, the editing, the humour.”
If going against critical consensus has consequences, Lacey shrugs them off. “You can give a negative review of a film well-regarded by elite critics. But if I dismiss Copy, it’s not going to ruin my life. I’ll get called bad names. It’s easy to get away with being anti-highbrow.”
Lacey’s influences include the usual suspects: Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Pauline Kael, David Kehr, David Bordwell (“always very useful”), Jay Scott and music guru Robert Christga of the The Village Voice. He quotes his colleague Rick Groen: “It’s true everyone’s a critic, but a critic isn’t everyone.” However, the internet has arguably made a critic out of everyone with an IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes account.
“You used to have to read the local critic to know what was good. I think the gatekeeper role is over. You don’t have authority anymore just because you have the job. It’s more honest, in a way.” There’s an ambivalence in his voice, as if the future holds both good and bad.
“There used to be a hierarchy in journalism. Some newspapers would publish the consumer report, basically an unambiguous judgement. Other were entertaining in themselves, taking the art at a distance and try to look at it in terms of wider cultural forces.” Publishers are leaning to the report. “They want smaller pieces with more evaluative statements.”
I mention how the print version Globe is starting to like a website. “The big push is to work graphics and charts into the text, but this isn’t the same as actual critical discourse. The film enthusiast doesn’t lose out; the internet can take you to some very sophisticated criticism. You’re not trapped in IMDB forums. But we’re not, I think, moving in a high-end direction.”
As to the state of film-making itself, Lacey has a nuanced outlook. “There’s something interesting happening. Hollywood cut back from around 160 to 148 films a year. Emphasis is more on tentpoles and sequels and all of this would seem to counter the idea of making medium-sized dramas and art films. But Black Swan, True Grit, The King’s Speech – each made over $100 million. So audiences are looking for alternatives.” This may actually be because of changes in media distribution. “When there’s a glut of alternatives, people might be looking for something smarter. The internet could be producing a smarter, more discerning consumer.”
If North Americans are flocking to see dramas, why aren’t Canadians going to see Canadian films? “The problem is the thinking that box office is the same as profit. Passchendaele made four million but it had a twenty million dollar budget. That’s an abject failure by any objective evaluation, but people called ‘high performing’. I would like to see the Canadian industry operate like it did in the 90s, when we scored at international festivals with cheaper art films and didn’t go for pseudo-commercial projects like Score.”
When asked about his favourite period he says French historical films from the 40s and 50s are a continuing revelation. “Melville, Renoir – I keep going back to them. You see lost skills, lost methods of acting, of filming a scene.” He smiles, maybe coming to the node of what criticism means for him. “I think the hardest part is telling myself that one film is never exactly the same as the other. It’s a question of sharing that experience with the reader, to try and get different people to see different films.”