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6th November 2017

To be a critic: David Jenkins

In appreciation of a magazine and an art form

“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it.”

— Roger Ebert

Since 1896 with the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train, films have been at the forefront of culture. An art form that transports us from our own lives, so we can see things from another’s perspective. In any artistic domain, be it painting, or sculpting, or filmmaking, the greatest artists take risks. They dare to do what no one else thought possible. The possibilities limited only by the imagination.

Film criticism has been bred from this, and has become art form in its own right. The role of the critic is to inform the uninformed, to paint a picture specifically tailored for their readers. Some critics, such as André Bazin and Roger Ebert, wrote with such flair and eloquence of prose that often they created something greater than that which they were commentating on.

Most great critics reside in newspapers, but are marooned in their publication, surrounded by those whose interest lays elsewhere. Film magazines developed and become a hotbed for aspiring critics wanting to rub shoulders with the best, to glean what they could to progress. In recent years though the love for cinema seems to have all but died from those magazines, with each page attempting to advertise rather than enlighten.

Few remain that hold such passion from cover to cover, Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinéma and Little White Lies stand out as the most distinguished. The latter, founded in 2005, takes the cinematic ideology one step further. Rather than simply each piece being a work of art, the entire magazine is an accumulation of reviews, interviews and illustrations. I recently spoke to the editor, David Jenkins, about his process as a critic and his involvement with the magazine.

“The biggest thing we learned, to give a magazine some sense of cohesion, is to create a colour palate and style sheet before you do anything, and make sure you ask all contributors to abide strictly by those rules.” By doing this each edition is a vision shared, different pieces seamlessly blend with each other, contrasted with the disjointed and confused layout of alternatives. 71 issues in the process, as with writing criticism, is a matter of refining.

“My technique for critiquing has evolved over the years to become more intuitive. As with anything creative, it’s a case of repeating a formula until you’re so familiar — maybe even bored — with that formula, that you feel naturally impelled to switch it up and do your own thing. I wouldn’t say I was much of an aesthete. And to be honest, I very rarely talk about acting and performance.

“I don’t really know what ‘a good performance’ is, as for me, everything is relative to the film. I guess, in its simplest form, I’m trying to ask what the film is trying to accomplish, or trying to say — its purpose — and then attempting to deduce how successful it is on those terms. How clear or how unique is it as a piece of pure expression.”

Each edition holds one film as its focus, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name is the latest, with the underpinning themes and tonality affecting the layout and style completely. Every page from front to back contains discussion about the best, and sometimes worst, the world of film has to offer. Although, the reviewer isn’t always right, and they occasionally hate a future classic. Roger Ebert detested Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and David Jenkins loathed Tarantino’s Death Proof.

“When I saw Death Proof by Quentin Tarantino in Cannes in 2007, I loathed it with an almost freakish intensity. I would rant at people about it (dark days). In the magazine, we even ran two reviews — one pro and one con, mine. Then, ahead of Django: Unchained, I decided to rewatch the entire Tarantino canon as deep research, and discovered that Death Proof was, in fact, his best and most radical film. I ended up writing an appreciation of it for Little White Lies, in which I acknowledged my U-turn. But this is a rare occurrence, as if you’ve seen a film that you hate, the impulse to want to return to it is often weak.”

The intention, regardless of opinion, is to explore film in an unconventional way, giving the reader a pleasure they can’t find anywhere else. While major releases naturally get minor screen time the priority is, and always has, and always will be, for the unorthodox and the independent. There is nothing novel in reiterating the same rhetoric as a hundred more, but shining a light on the otherwise tenebrous is a righteous cause.

Little White Lies is to film as the charming owner of a warm, independent bookshop is to books, a soothing calm in a world so chaotic. It strays away from the scandals, the revelations, the rumours and the lies, both little and white, to connect, to transport, and to share that mutual, unceasing love for movies.

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