Against Empire

Empire is one of the few publications I regularly buy. But this once-decent magazine has collapsed into a self-parody, which each month takes less time to read. Gradually, Empire has less and less to do with films. Each issue seems to have a new irrelevant section, reviewing CDs, computer games, or god help us, beer. Is this freebie whoring at its most pathetic? If I want to read about music, I’ll buy ‘Q’.

The editor must take the blame for this dysfunctional deviance, happy to commission and publish tedious, opinion-based lists of “100 best”, letting his writers stuff their views down our throats. Pieces such as “100 best opening sequences” grind film into snippets for multiplex idiots with no attention span. Almost inevitably containing the complete works of Tarantino i.e. both movies, Empire (The Mag That Believes The Hype) and Quentin (The Man That Believes The Hype) jerk each other off with tiresome regularity. He says what a great magazine Empire is; they reciprocate, using some feeble excuse to tell him what a great film-maker he is. The January 1996 issue (“100 Greatest Films Ever Made”) does both: “Empire readers salute their favourite movies”. Note the logic: “favourite” = “greatest”. No actual film criticism here in Empire, populism rules. The “Greatest Film Ever” is, surprise, surprise, ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is #3. If these people picked the England football team, Tarantino would be captain, striker and manager. Then there’s the quote from him, completing the circle-jerk: “I’m thrilled that ‘Pulp Fiction’ has been voted the best film ever by Empire readers”. Yeah, me too.

However, it tells us about the reader to whose tendencies they pander. The sole concessions to world cinema were five foreign-language movies in the top 100 — and I suspect most who voted for ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ didn’t know it was Italian. These handful damningly highlight the readers’ ridiculously Anglocentric view. But how should they know otherwise? When Empire sent a reporter to Japan to write about ‘Ghost in the Shell’, he demonstrated his ignorance by interviewing a ‘Byuichi Tezuka’. Bad news, guys; Tezuka died years ago. Do they perhaps mean Byuichi Terasawa? Seeing such slipshod journalism in an area I know a bit about, gives me no confidence in their accuracy elsewhere. Screw facts, let’s have another list.

Such as “Top 100 Sexiest Movie Stars of All Time” — or rather, “Top 100 Sexiest Hollywood Movie Stars Now”. Bar token Eurobabes like Beatrice Dalle, that list again spurned everyone off the London-LA axis, illustrating the obsession with current hip (it’s amazing QT wasn’t #1), and regardless of the fact that cinema just had its’ centenary. Have the 90’s seen an exponential beauty surge? Suggesting Johnny Depp has more anything than Marilyn is ludicrous, even allowing for personal taste. Needless to say, being neither from Hollywood nor currently fashionable, Kinski didn’t merit a place. Harvey Keitel did. But he helped Tarantino get his big break, which must make him very sexy in Empire‘s eyes.

It’s relentlessly predictable: January rolls around and there will be a review of the past year; February, they will look forward to the next one, and six months later, there will be a summer preview. Plus (yawn!) inevitable reports from Cannes and the Oscars. Perpetually pushing the Hollywood publicity wagon, you can usually guess who’ll get the cover. The only mild interest is when megahype movies open simultaneously: Judge Dredd or Batman Forever?  Zzzzzz…

A further example of their editorial courage happened when the Empire editor had the last interview with Hugh Grant before his evening out. This could have provided an important insight into Grant’s mental state but their chat mysteriously only appeared when Grant’s movie, ‘Nine Months’, needed the hype. Things like this give the impression Empire has its tongue jammed right up the bum of the marketeers, and runs scared from doing or saying anything that would upset or annoy them, for fear of (shock!) not getting any more interviews.

Frankly, this’d be no loss: their technique is so blandly non-confrontational you might as well read the press releases. “How much is a pint of milk?” may be a ‘joke’ question but is no worse than many they ask. These ‘profiles’ have been occupying increasing space but if all else fails, they reprint a transcript of a press conference. This scores high for lazy journalism, as does the ‘classic scene’ feature: an easy way to fill a page by copying dialogue from a script.

There are occasional flashes of honesty and wit: publicising Tarantino’s theft of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ from ‘City on Fire’, a sharply aggressive demolition job on the plot of ‘Waterworld’, though these hardly repay the acres of publicity both got. Some writers do know what they’re talking about, with Kim Newman an especial aberration in this department, but this makes things worse, showing what Empire could aspire to. Few of the rest display any individual personality or approach, churning out nothing but homogenised pap. Anything slightly more challenging than the latest studio product is ignored or treated with feeble attempts at sarcasm.

The very first issue I bought had as its cover stars two relatively unknown actors, starring in a quirky low-budget film, with a no-name director, from a minor studio. Those young newcomers were Christian Slater and Winona Ryder; the film was ‘Heathers’. If that film was to be released today, the chances of it making the cover would be very, very slim indeed.

Empire is the leader in its field, undeniably, but that’s only because of the lack of competition. Take Premiere, a hodge-potch of elderly reprints from its American parent, held back until the film’s British release. Beating that should be at best a light thrill, like taking your grandmother on in a bout of full-contact karate. I’ve little doubt that there is a market for a film magazine that would provide intelligent criticism, without toppling into the self-indulgent masturbation too often found in Sight and Sound. I’m 100% certain that I’d buy such a publication. And I’m just as sure that Empire isn’t it.