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about the panel

Klaus Eder has worked as a film critic since the mid-1960s and has written books on Andrzej Wajda, Luis Buñuel, Nikita Mikhalkov, Andrei Konchalovsky, Arturo Ripstein, Im Kwon-taek, and Nagisa Oshima. He is the programmer of the Munich International Film Festival and adviser to a variety of others, and has been General Secretary of FIPRESCI since 1987.

Julie Rigg is the Australian Broadcasting Commission Radio National's specialist film critic. In 1990, she won the BP Arts Media Award. She served on the executive of the Film Critics' Circle of Australia for four years, and was president for two. Julie has also served on FIPRESCI juries at San Sebastián (1990) and Toronto (2002). In December 2003, she was awarded the prestigious Geraldine Pascall Prize for arts criticism.

Richard Kuipers is a film critic for the international trade paper Variety and the Australian webzine Urban Cinefile. He reviews DVD releases on the Australian Broadcasting Commission Radio National's The Deep End program and co-curates the German Film Festival in Australia for the Goethe Institute. He produced The Movie Show on Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) Television from 1992-2000 and produced and directed the SBS documentaries The White Lady (1992) and Stone Forever (1999, Brisbane International Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival). He also produced the SBS documentary Missing Vietnam (2001, Asia Pacific Film Festival).

Adrian Martin is a film critic for The Age in Melbourne. He has written books on The Mad Max Movies (2003), Once Upon a Time in America (1998), Raúl Ruiz (2004), and several others. He has won the Byron Kennedy Australian Film Institute Award and the Geraldine Pascall Prize for critical writing. He is also co-editor of the book Movie Mutations (2003) with Jonathan Rosenbaum, and the Internet magazine Rouge.

Roslyn Petelin, who chaired this session, is the convenor of the postgraduate Writing, Editing, and Publishing program at The University of Queensland, Brisbane.

 

A Roundtable Discussion
How Film Critics Work

 

This forum, presented by the Australian Film, Television and Radio School as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival 2005, invited four prominent film critics to discuss their profession and share ideas about perceptive and informative film criticism.

Roslyn Petelin (Chair): My first question is: "What do you see as the role of the film critic?"

Julie Rigg: I see the film critic's role as to provide a response to a film and a context for it. I think context is really important. I'm lucky on Radio National at the Australian Broadcasting Commission in that I don't have to rate films with a series of stars, although there is sometimes a valid reason why people do that. So I don't have to function primarily as a consumer guide. There are few pressures on me to do that. And I can choose my films. So that's a privilege because I can range across different areas of world cinema as well as trying to shock members of the audience occasionally by suggesting that popular cinema can sometimes be really exciting and that occasionally there are some interesting ideas. So the role of the film critic I think is to provide a kind of context to guide your response to a film.

Adrian Martin: The role of the film critic is to write well, or speak well. A critic is someone who I think should try to tell a story about the film that they're reviewing. And the story can be the story of their response to it, the story of their coming to understand that film, coming to a position on it. I also have a more idealistic version of this. In some ways — in regard to being a film reviewer on a newspaper, for instance — what I do is very traditional, a very conventional kind of role. You go and see what's on at Hoyts or Village and do x number of words in which you give it a certain number of stars, and you say it's good or it's bad. That's the totally conventional and, for me, totally boring role of the film critic. The idealistic role of the film critic, the more elevated role, is bound up with creating a desire in people to see films that they can't see at Hoyts or Village. And to give them a desire to think about films beyond just saying "give it four out of five." You know this phenomenon called "tick the box" criticism. Tick the box for acting, photography, the story — does it have three acts? That's really boring to me. What's more interesting is when you can get outside of that, give the kind of context that Julie was talking about and try to suggest some way that's unusual, unpredictable, or illuminating in relation to that film, or to the way the marketers and the distributors want you to talk about that film. Try to talk about it differently from that.

Klaus Eder: Well first of all, as far as I can see, I'm the only foreigner here. I do hope that you understand my very German English. About the role of the film critic, I think it's one of the most useless professions. I think the best work the film critic can do, and I'm thinking here of a French critic called André Bazin, is if he manages to convince one single person to see a film, then he has done his job. I think we should see it for a moment in historic terms. Italian neo-realism was founded after the war by Antonioni and Fellini, who started the whole movement as a film critics' movement in a magazine called Cinema, founded, by the way, by the son of the dictator Mussolini. The French New Wave started as a film critics' movement in a magazine called Cahiers du Cinéma. There was a close connection between making films and writing about them. If we talk about Polish cinema or even Russian cinema, the context always was very very close. I think today this doesn't exist any more, these schools of cinema, of film criticism. I don't see it anywhere. I'm afraid that the role of the film critic today is marginalized. The film magazines that played a big role when I was young don't play a big role any more, at least not in most European countries, maybe in France where you have two magazines that do quite well — Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif. I'm always in favor of film magazines because I don't think that daily criticism can contribute a lot to real film criticism. It's too close to all the pressure of the editors, of the film industry, and you know that kind of tendency in film criticism in the mass media to give a service, to give it points, to say "yes, see it" or "no, don't see it." That's not film criticism. The disappearing, the vanishing of the film critic, depends of course on the minor role that art cinema plays today and of course the dominance of Hollywood cinema. I never had a big pattern of writing on Hollywood. I always much preferred to write about national cinematography, but the need for that and the possibilities also to see the films diminished and is still diminishing. So my perspective on the role of film criticism is, let's say, a little bit pessimistic.

Richard Kuipers: Well I'm definitely with Klaus and everyone else on the idea of what we do as a film critic. It's really tied up with your own passions, your own feelings. It's about keeping film culture alive because, as Klaus said, we are at a time when the steamroller of Hollywood has never been stronger. I think it's part of our job to keep film culture, and to keep the history of cinema alive as well. I have two main outlets that I write for. One is Variety, and that's very much a business-oriented paper. If you've ever read it you'll know that the first paragraph that goes in that review, not always, but quite often, has a direct influence on that film's chances, that film's commercial history. So when you approach a review you know that potentially there's a lot riding on what you say. That's a really important responsibility. And on the other side, with some of the work I do as a film critic dealing with DVDs and retrospective cinema, I think it's important to get very excited about films that people may never approach in their normal lives, things that are hidden on the bottom shelves of video stores but actually are really important, that are landmarks of neo-realism, of French New Wave cinema, and to keep alive an art form that has been around for 110 years and the essential way it's manufactured has not changed that much. The technology's changed a little bit, but really, it's still about an industrial process that hasn't changed a great deal in 110 years.

I think there's not much any of us can really do about the massive Hollywood blockbuster film. Those films are really critic-proof in many ways, but it's sort of underneath that level that you try and get through and be enthusiastic and keep film culture alive and keep forgotten directors alive and keep work that needs to be seen, because we don't really have that much of an arthouse tradition and we don't see films on the big screen like we used to. As a boy growing up you could go to the cinema and see wonderful films — the history of cinema playing in double bills every night. You can't any more. DVDs and plasma screens have just about killed off art cinema in a big way. That's the things I get passionate about and the way I think a film critic, wherever possible, should approach their job. As Julie said, put it in a context. In an historical context and in an immediate cultural context of where we are and the times that we live in, reflect as much about the times that we live in. So there are many facets to it but I try to provide, where I can, my personal passions right up front and hope that that enthusiasm generates something in the audience. In whoever's reading or listening, hopefully.

RP: Just to push that a little bit further, you talked about the role of the critic, what do you see as the task of a critic in a specific review? Anthony Lane, one of the critics for The New Yorker, published a book a couple of years ago called Nobody's Perfect. He says: "The primary task of the critic, and no one has surpassed Miss Kael in this regard, is the recreation of texture, filing a sensory report of the kind of experience they will have if they decide to buy a ticket. A review should give off some reek of the concession stand."

JR: Well, that's why people read him anyway — he has a gorgeous way with language. I'm fortunate because I work in radio and I do two kinds of reviewing. Richard and I both do bits on the daily art show where we're asked to go on and chat and this is either fun or not depending on who the host is, and how well informed they are. But I am also able to write my reviews for my weekend program Movietime, and there I can play with sound and texture from films. I mean, what I'm trying to communicate often, as well as the kind of context that this director has, their history, where the film's from, are some of the essential qualities of film. In the last year I've been having enormous fun because I've got a terrific sound artist working with me so we can use that as one of our elements of storytelling. So I guess when I'm trying to communicate not only a story, as Adrian said, and its context, but my own personal response to it, I'm often quite subjective in that I will interweave one of my own personal stories. I'm not particularly worried about bringing those personal concerns to a review, because I think in many ways we do. I'm trying to recreate some sense of the pleasures, the texture, because we can't do the image. So I have to use words and sounds to describe that. There was a lovely letter that I was sent, back in the days when people sent letters. A woman from Kings Cross. She said: "I love movies. I can't get out any more and I don't have a television so your reviews are the next best thing. Please play more." And I thought, "Is it because she can't see? Would she be offended if I got her a television?'

AM: I think that one very particular thing that a film critic can do — it's part of the task of writing — is description. But a very particular kind of description. I don't mean plot description. I think far too many film reviews have far too much plot synopsis in them. Which is boring. I mean, who wants to read five paragraphs of plot synopsis? If I want to see the plot I'll go see the film. I want the motor of that plot, I want something about the hook of that plot to get me interested. But, beyond that, I want something that is more a quality of what I think of as a sort of sensuous description of the film, of the rhythm of the film, the color of the film, of the mood itself, of the changing moods of the film. Something that gives you a feeling, a really experiential feeling of the film that you try to translate into your own language, whether it be on radio or in print or a television segment or whatever it might be. One of the biggest lessons I got about writing about film was at an earlier point in my dalliances with journalism. I was, briefly, a film critic for Business Review Weekly. I did my first review. It was on Jane Campion's film Sweetie. I thought: "Okay, I'm a journalist now so I've got to do this tick-the-box thing. I'll do one paragraph on plot, I'll do one paragraph on the actors." And my favorite paragraph of all was where I talked about the camera, the use of the camera angles and some of the fascinating effects of the editing. I really worked hard on that paragraph. And, of course, it was the one that didn't get printed. And so I rang up my subeditor and I said: "You took out the best bit! You took out the bit about camera angles and editing!" And he said: "Who gives a fuck about camera angles and editing?" Well, I do! A film is camera angles and editing, or it's nothing! And he replied: "Our readers don't care about that, mate. They want to know the plot, they want a rating, they want to know if Meryl Streep is in it."

And then I realized that I wasn't about to give up writing about camera angles, editing, and color. So I began to use — this is one of my biggest trade secrets I'm going to give you now — I started to use a style of writing where in every paragraph I say something about the story, something about the style, and something about the acting. And then some editors have to work too hard to get out the bits about the camera angles. It's too much work for them — "Ah, you can leave it in." The moment you know you have got to a relatively safe level with a newspaper or magazine is when your personal style, your voice, has been accepted as an element, a given. Once you get to that plateau, they're not going to chop out your references to camera angle so quickly, because that's the thing that makes you "you," that gives you your voice. It's that you talk about these things that other people don't talk about. It's a good position to get to as a writer.

KE: So you see, one of the natural-born enemies of the film critic is the editor. And just to explain this, there's a rather well known British colleague, David Robinson, who, among others, wrote a history of cinema, and a biography of Chaplin. Every week he had this column presenting the most important films of the week being released in London, and one week he started with a big paragraph on An Angel at My Table, and then some regular Hollywood movies, and then the rest. And he opened the newspaper the next day and he found that the Hollywood movie was put first, the Angel was shortened, and then came the rest. And he went to his editor to ask what was happening. The editor told him: "Oh, we changed it and you are fired." And this happened not to an unknown person but to one of the most respected film critics in Europe.

By the way, as we're talking about the British, one of the worst things is that they have to review in The Guardian and The Evening Standard every film being released in London every weekend. And if it's ten Hollywood films, if it's ten miserable Hollywood films, they have to review them. My colleague Derek Malcolm is running every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday to one press screening after the next. And then he writes. It's not a life. I mean, how can you do this? It's terrible.

Coming back to the question about texture, I'm afraid I can't answer this because you start, as a film critic, on a white sheet of paper or an empty monitor and it's always painful to find the first sentence, to write something. And you write about yourself. I'm deeply convinced that, if you read film critics, you'll probably understand more about the critic writing it than about the film. About his personal humor of that day. You slept, you didn't sleep well, you had some problems with your wife or your lover. I mean, it's all in there. And my experience additionally is that someone doesn't go to the cinema because you tell them to see the film. They read between the lines. This means that your own attitude as film critic towards the film you are reviewing is in your review. And this is what the reader or the listener learns from that, and they get it and they say: "Oh, this critic has an enthusiasm for that, so I have to see it." And if you follow — I don't know if you have it here in Australia as well, these points given by critics — you don't go after the films, you go after the critics you trust. So it's the person of the critic who is the trustworthy thing, and not what they write about the movie.

JR: Well, they're part of the same thing. What the critic writes is part of the critic.

AM: Yeah, it's their voice. And the trademark that they put on that. Like Pauline Kael. Like David [Stratton] and Margaret [Pomeranz].

RK: I worked with them for a long time in the 1990s and their style, their rigor, their trustworthiness was what got them through. We used to talk about it: "you know, it's ten years since the show started; maybe we should finish it on a high note." But it's nearly twenty years now and I'm sure they'll die on the air and they'll be happy. And I mean that in the best possible way — they're great. But it is about that voice and having a personality and being willing to put the courage of your convictions on the line and your enthusiasm. On this radio spot that I do on Radio National....

JR: Which is called The DVD Cinématheque.

RK: The DVD Cinématheque. And they're wonderful. They let me run riot every week with films I know a lot of the listeners have never heard of, never seen. But I've been so encouraged by the responses of people. They've been ringing up and they publish the list of what I say on the website. Because of the kind of energy you put into it. And you're just putting a bit of personality into it. Like when I told people I jigged school so I could go and see The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle and all these other disreputable kinds of films, which are actually films that everyone should see. You know it has a response, so I think it's really important to give something of yourself. And, as Klaus said, it's reading between the lines. It's not what you say, but the manner in which it's done. The way it's shaped, the way it's formed, the way — if you're speaking on radio — it's the shape of the sound of your voice as much as what you're actually saying. In writing it's the feel of it and the flow of it and what people get emotion-wise as much as they get information-wise. You try and do what you can.

KE: May I add something? What films do we critics write about? Let's say we go to a festival like Cannes or Berlin or Venice or Toronto. I think our editors request that we write about the big events at Cannes, the stars, the competition. And if we want to write about the parallel sections, which are much more interesting from a filmic point of view, they say, "oh, no space." Do we review the films being commercially released in the city this week? Yes, we have to. It's our job. So, what is with the rest? What freedom do we have, what possibility? You buy an old film on some beautiful DVD. You fall again in love with the film, you want to write about the film. You go to your editor and say you want to write about it. He says "who?", without having said "is this good?" So the problem we are faced with, at least if you work in that part of the industry, is that it doesn't give us the possibility to write about what we want to see and what we want to write about. That we write about this film and not another one, is dictated by the strategy of the distributors. They decide if and when to release a film, and we react and become a part of their strategy, whether we wish to or not. Specialist magazines fortunately have a bit more freedom and distance from the marketing system.

RK: But then you try — and I've tried sometimes unsuccessfully — to try and use the context of a presently released film to maybe give a bit of a history lesson. I just reviewed Land of the Dead and it turned into half a thesis worth of the decline of Western civilisation. I went over the word limit by three times and my editor said: "That's great. I had a gap to fill this week so it can go there." To me that was a classic example of being able to use something. I mean it's not a Hollywood blockbuster but it's a Universal film that's got stars in it. It's a zombie movie, but it's much more than that and that was my opportunity to take what's happening in 2005 and then tell a little bit of a history lesson about cinema and society at the same time and then bring it back to the movie at hand. If you're lucky, your editor won't chop you. If you're unlucky, you might miss out, but that's where — depending on what your editor's attitude is — you can actually keep things alive that you want to be kept alive. Keep issues alive because the Hollywood product promotion publicity steamroller is so strong and they've got so many critics in their pockets. You know these reviews that you see, these quotes that you hear are either critics who don't exist — and that's happened. Sony got caught a few years ago using a critic who didn't actually exist, a person who didn't actually exist. And then there are other ones: if someone gives them lunch, they haven't seen the film, but they'll walk out and they'll give you a quote to put in. So you're flying a bit in the face of that. It's a very sophisticated machinery. Hollywood studios aren't run by filmmakers or by people who've started off as artists of any sort. They're run by bottom-line — mostly — by bottom-line sort of people whose only interest is making as much of the product that they have. So you are flying in the face of that sometimes and trying to kick against it.

RP: How kind do you have to be when you don't particularly like a film? Can you do what Pauline Kael did in an interview reported in The New York Times in 2001 and compare Russell Crowe in Gladiator to one of the Three Stooges?

JR: I disagree!

RP: Oh, do you?

RK: Oh come on; he's Shemp down to a tee. He's Shemp.

JR: No you don't have to be kind and you shouldn't be. You know this argument breaks out frequently with local critics reviewing Australian cinema and there are all kinds of pressures on us.

KE: For example?

JR: Well, let's see. The last time the row broke out was around a film called Somersault. I liked that film. Richard's colleague on Variety, Russell Edwards, didn't. He wrote a review in Variety that came out at Cannes at the same time that a lot of critics in Cannes were writing positive reviews. It hit the deck and it was negative. I thought it was too negative and I stand by my review. But then this sort of ferocious "what is the duty of Australian film critics?" row broke out yet again. I think that you do people no favors. We shouldn't run a sheltered workshop for filmmakers just because they're local. I do try to be constructive with some first-time filmmakers that I respect. First-and second-time filmmakers that I respect if I've seen their short films and I've liked them. You know, if the film sort of works in part for me. But at the same time, we've had a string of absolutely dire Australian films, mostly comedies that I felt were extremely patronizing, written by people in cities on old "Dad and Dave" stereotypes of country humor.

RK: Well this is the malaise in Australian cinema because there are so many practitioners. I'm a great believer in formal film education if people want to be film practitioners. There are people like Quentin Tarantino who just pop out of nowhere, but they're one in a million. We do have a "cappuccino in one hand, camera in the other" mentality among a lot of people who want to be filmmakers and too many of them, in my opinion, have actually gone on to make feature films when they should never ever have been given the chance.

JR: Well in this case it's the writers and producers and the bureaucrats funding them that I collectively blame for this dire run of Channel Nine comedies. And indirectly a change of climate, a change of federal government which funds the funding agencies, a change of people who commission these films kind of going along with a "let the free market reign" kind of mentality.

RK: Because their first loyalty is to the bureaucracy.

AM: On the general question of reviewing Australian films, I certainly think, for all the reasons that we've been saying, that a film reviewer's contract is with their reader. The contract is not with the film industry, it's not with filmmakers, it's not with the film funding bodies, it's not with the film industry in any way, shape, or form. In other words, the reader has to believe that I am telling the truth about what I felt about that film. And the moment that I start fudging and going through this thought process "oh, it's not such a good film but Kylie was okay and I can sort of make it sound half interesting".... It's just so obvious in the writing. The writing becomes weak. All strength and all persuasive qualities fall out of the writing and you read mush. You're reading mush that you cannot believe. And it's at that moment that the personality of the critic, the voice of the critic, is distrusted and no longer counts for anything, if you feel that person is no longer telling you their truth about what they really felt. People debate the question of the "gut response" in criticism — that moment when you watched the film and you loved it or hated it and you felt something in your stomach about it. Now the gut response is not the be-all and end-all of film criticism, but you've got to start with the gut response. Hopefully, it travels from your gut to your head at some point and you write something intelligent — but you've got to trust your own gut response. You've got to say "I had a feeling for or against that movie." A critic can do no more than that. To start compromising yourself in terms of the industry, to start worrying about that letter you're going to get from the filmmaker or from the distributors; that's the beginning of the end. Being blackballed by film distributors and film exhibitors — it sometimes happens — is no fun. Makes your job a bit harder. But at the same time it's a bit encouraging to be blackballed by film distributors — you know you're doing your job. You know you're doing something right there. So they're the kind of weekly struggles we have to struggle with.

KE: I think this personality of the producer coming and saying, "you know I put my last money in this film and if you don't support it I'm going bankrupt," we know about it. We have it every day. We have also the opposite. We have some distributors coming to some critics and asking, "What do you think of that film?", and if the critic says "nothing particular," that film will not be distributed in that country. This happens as well, and I think this is extending the influence of the critic. And I learnt — I was very surprised to learn — that there is a rather difficult relationship between Australian films and Australian critics. I can confirm that this is in most other countries exactly the same way. If you talk to German filmmakers, then they will tell you the worst people in the world are German film critics. And I think it's okay that local critics put the wall a little bit higher for their own national product. I had the pleasure to accompany Fassbinder for a long period of his career, and I think he was one of the very few who accepted some criticism. On the other hand, most filmmakers don't. They're terribly offended if you dare to criticize them. I think, on the other hand, there's one thing that I insist on. As a critic, you should have a certain respect for work done by others. It's not that a filmmaker wants to make a bad movie, not at all. It happens. But, nevertheless, they invest a work with a lot of people trying to do their best and this you should recognize. You don't have the moral authority to sit there and say "no." One of the worst forms of criticism is the Roger Ebert "thumbs up or down." This for me misses the sort of respect towards the work of others. I think this you cannot do.

RP: I would now like to give the audience a chance to ask some questions.

Audience member: So, continuing that discussion, does the background of the making of the film have any place in the review?

AM: Background? Well, look, it can. It doesn't have to in the sense that most people watching the film come to it "like a virgin" — as Madonna says. They don't know the background of the making of the film. So sometimes it's interesting to know something; for instance, that a film started life as one kind of project. For instance, Abbas Kiarostami's film Ten, which is the one in the car with the woman having the ten dialogues. It started as a film — I learnt this because Kiarostami told me when I interviewed him — it started as a film about a psychoanalyst in a room with ten patients, one after another. But then he thought, "no, it would be much more interesting if it was a woman in a car," and he took this principle of the ten discussions and transformed it into another movie. Now I found that an interesting thing to say about the film because it tells you something about the movie that isn't immediately obvious from watching it. It brings out another level to know that background. But I don't think there's any rule about knowing the background information. Sometimes it helps; sometimes it doesn't.

Audience member: So what if it's a bad film? Like that abysmal thing that Kevin Costner did, that Waterworld thing.

AM: I'd defend it, frankly.

JR: I saw it in Italian and I loved it. It's kind of Swiss Family Robinson with Mad Max gadgetry on water. It worked beautifully in Italian.

RK: That's an example of a film — to use a bad pun — that's sunk before it's opened. What's happened before the film has gone into the cinemas, it's attracted so much attention. You know, the budget's 200 million and there are all these problems. The film could've been a masterpiece and it wouldn't have been all that well received. Although, interestingly enough , Waterworld has turned a profit over the years. It did actually make money. But that's a good example of where the background of a film can either play for it or against it.

JR: I think the bad word on it meant that people weren't actually looking at what was left by the time it got to the screen and that can happen.

KE: But in general I would say it's your job as film critic to know as much as possible about all different sorts of backgrounds, not only backgrounds concerning the film, but also the country, its history, its culture. For example, I have problems understanding certain Japanese films because my understanding of Japanese society is not perfect. I think you should know about everything around a film, the conditions it was made in, the script, where it came from, the subject, as much as possible. What you use for your writing is another thing.

Audience member: How do you get qualified to be a film critic? What's your background? Why should we trust film critics with what they say?

RK: Well, I was just at the train station one day and someone said, "hey, we've got five minutes to fill." No, it's a good question. You don't go to a film critics' school. You can write for a community paper, get a spot on local radio. I mean there's no formal way in which it happens. I came through. I actually started out being a filmmaker. I made a few things and then fell into this by accident and decided that that's what I liked more than anything else I'd done. But no, there's no standard way. People like us come from all sorts of different backgrounds. You're quite right to ask why you should trust any of us....

RP: Klaus?

KE: Unfortunately, a film critic is someone who declares himself or herself to be one, opposite to the traditional theatre critic or music critic. If you go to an editor and you tell him you are a literature critic, he will say, "So what's your education?" But if you say you are a film critic, they will say, "Okay, that's perfect." There are two things: first, you should know film history. You should take every opportunity to see films. I think it's absurd that film critics and filmmakers studying these days discover the whole world of film anew. A lot of things were made before. You must know film history. See whatever you can. And second: I'm very sorry — you must know life. Someone said — one of the French guys — I was very much influenced by the writings on cinema by André Bazin and by François Truffaut. Their writings were my bible. You always come to a point where you say, "How do I write about this?" There are films you write very easily about and there are films that are very difficult to open somewhere. So you go back to the bible, and I always discover myself picking up Truffaut's writings. A genius. And one of those guys once said, "if you understand a lot about cinema and nothing about life then you also don't understand anything about cinema." And I think that's somehow true. So you should know as much as possible about everything. We had a big discussion in Germany about a book by the writer Heinrich Böll called Irish Diary. The question was should someone reviewing the book know Ireland to be able to review the book. This is probably a little bit too extended, a little bit exaggerated, but in principle you have to know as much as possible.

AM: I'd like to answer your question. From my point of view, the best thing about Australian society is that anyone can be a film critic. The worst thing about Australian society is that anyone can be a film critic. And that means that in Australia I think we have a very healthy distrust of that sort of certified knowledge. You know, the professor of music who gets the job as the music reviewer. Australians instinctively distrust that sort of certified university knowledge. In a way, what we honor more is the person who can just sit down in front of you and impress you with what they say. With the proof that they know something, that they've felt something, that they've studied something, in their own way. I mean I'm an autodidact. I've basically taught myself everything for most of my life. I've never had a university degree. I've read a lot, I've watched a lot, I've written a lot. But what that gives me as the thing that I've always got to live up to is that I know that the contract between me and my reader, between me and you in this sense, is something I'm going to have to prove to you every day so that you can trust me. I've got to stay at the top of my game. I've got to keep being alive in my writing. But that's a good thing. I can't just sit back and say, "oh, I'm a professor of cinema so you better believe me," because that doesn't work in this country — it probably works in no country, but it definitely doesn't work in this country. So it keeps you on your toes.

JR: But there was actually a scheme to train people, to provide courses, wasn't there?

AM: Oh yeah. That was a wonderful initiative at the Victorian College of the Arts. It was going to be these courses in training critics, not just in cinema but in all the arts. But nobody enrolled! I'm not kidding you! Almost no one enrolled. There was a big story on Australian Broadcasting Commission Television about it. I was interviewed. John McDonald attacked the whole thing, saying, "You can't train people to be critics." Well, he was right, I'm afraid, in the sense that, obviously, no one wanted to train to be a critic! So that went the way of all academic, bureaucratic folly. But one of the most influential critics in the world at the moment is the guy from "Ain't It Cool News." It's hilarious, because he's a very bad critic.

RK: He is.

JR: But he's. I would say he's a blogger really.

AM: A blogger with a lot of power.

JR: He's someone who has spies who tell him little bits of information. This whole thing about bragging rights to a film now, you know, "I've seen it two weeks before everyone else and it's the hottest new thing." And he's only interested in Hollywood anyway so he doesn't really worry me. My own background.. You know Robert Hughes isn't really in favor in Australia any more, but he's said some great things and he said that Australia's the sort of place where you can have your education in public and that's been my experience. I started sixteen years ago when Radio National wanted to reinvent its arts coverage and they brought in a whole lot of people from different areas to try and take it out of the kind of rattling teacups atmosphere that existed beforehand. I was one of the ones who'd been making radio documentaries and before that I was with the Australian Broadcasting Commission Science Unit and before that as a print journalist with a column in The Australian. So a very checkered career. And I was brought in primarily to talk about visual arts because I had been interested in and knew some art history, which put me ahead of the other five people. Not a lot, but enough. And as it went on, much as I love visual arts, painting, sculpture, and so on, I decided it was one of the most neurotic areas of creative endeavor in the country, because there are so many visual artists and they're competing for such small amounts of media space. The wars, the factional wars between curators were just vicious and there was something rather miserable about people who ultimately worked alone, whereas I liked the collectivity of filmmaking. It just was a more interesting and liberating area to write about, so gradually I inched myself towards cinema and once there came a critical point in the early 1990s where they wanted me to produce a visual arts program and I refused and we had a kind of baby rebellion behind the scenes at Radio National.

But that was a long time ago when I started writing about film, although I had been married to a filmmaker. You know, we had a hand-built animation table in the back bedroom. He was always trying to build his own animations. I had an enormous amount to learn and I'm still learning. I remember bursting into tears at one stage and thinking, "I cannot get a handle on some of this language." I think some critics are better than others at different ways of writing. One of my weak points is always writing about performance, finding the ways to describe how an actor does engage you on a screen and yet it is such a key thing. There are other critics who are much better at this and Adrian is one of them and Sandra Hall in The Sydney Morning Herald is another one. So I've had my education in public and I'm still learning. The nice thing about cinema — and, as Adrian said, everyone can be a film critic — is that people engage you in dialogue constantly.

KE: May I just add to your question another question? Why does someone wish to write about cinema? I mean, the question of how is okay, but why does one wish? You need talent for writing and you need love for cinema. Love for cinema. It may sound very conventional but this is my motive. I think everybody who wants to write about cinema must have a motive and the motive can't be to make a career in the hierarchy of a newspaper. You need a relationship to what you are writing about. And if you don't like cinema, don't write about cinema.

RP: We have time for only one last question.

Audience member: So, rather than going through perhaps a journalism degree and doing it formally, is it really just a matter of establishing a name for yourself by submitting an article to a film magazine and those sorts of ways? Finding your own way into film criticism, is that more pertinent?

AM: Klaus mentioned film magazines, not something we've talked about a lot here today, but incredibly important. Both print and now Internet magazines. And I did exactly what we're saying. When I was sixteen I just started writing reviews and sending them everywhere, to magazines. There were more print magazines about film in those days in Australia. Now it would be more on the Internet. The Internet magazines give a chance for another kind of expression that is outside this very circumscribed 300-word review of the new Hollywood film. I mean the Internet magazines. I'm involved with one called Rouge (www.rouge.com.au). We have short things, long things, we have obscure films, known films, we translate pieces from all over the world. And that's purely a labor of love, the kind of thing Klaus talked about. We do it not because anyone is paying us to do it. We do it because it's something we can't do, say in a newspaper, or in a more conventional format. So you make a career. It's not easy but you make a career just by doing it, by getting your work around and by getting known to people who are in a position to publish you. And if they won't publish you, publish yourself.

RP: In closing, I think you'll all agree with me that it's not only been an absolute pleasure, it's been an absolute privilege to listen to these four people giving away so much of their experience of life and film. Thank you all very much.

This text was originally published in a slightly different form in the Australian Journal of Communication, Vol. 32:3 (2005).

© FIPRESCI 2006

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bullet. # 7 (1.2011)
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bullet. # 5 (5.2009)
bullet. # 4 (10.2008)
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bullet. # 1 (4.2006)

 

issue # 1 4.2006

bullet. Contents
bullet. Marías on Guerín
bullet. Martin on Crowe
bullet. Fujiwara on Tsai
bullet. Klinger on Garrel
bullet. How Critics Work
bullet. Man's Favorite Short
bullet. Amengual Tribute
bullet. Leslie Shatz