Film Critics: Everyone's a critic
Trent Griffiths spoke with six of Australia’s leading film critics to find out how they approach their craft, how their role has changed in the modern media landscape, and what they think the future of film criticism holds.
The evolution of digital media, social networking, and the global information society has ushered in a brave new world of possibilities for the film industry. The 3D revolution, downloading and DIY filmmaking have all been widely discussed, but the concurrent change in the nature of film criticism has received scant attention.
At Encore, we decided it was high time film critics had the chance to talk about the shifting sands of their place in the industry, so we contacted Marc Fennell (Triple J, Hungry Beast, The Circle), David Stratton (At The Movies, The Australian), Margaret Pomeranz (At The Movies), Louise Keller (Urban Cinefile), Sandra Hall (The Sydney MorningHerald), and Leigh Paatsch (The Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph) to discuss the changing role of film critics.
AN EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE
“Everyone’s a critic” was the gleeful tagline for the Melbourne International Film Festival a few years ago. Triple J reviewer Marc Fennell even joked, “I’m just a guy who sees movies a couple of weeks before you do.” And while that is absolutely true in many respects, the job of the professional film critic is still a fair bit more involved than sermonising in the foyer post-screening.
Like all writers, film critics take a highly individual approach to crafting their words, and there is nothing accidental or unconsidered in the allocation of stars. While the opportunities for analysis and personal touch varies vastly between each media outlet, there is a common focus on communicating the personal emotional experience of the film.
“I had a moment well over ten years ago now, when I just decided not to take notes in a film anymore,” confessed Leigh Paatsch. “And my logic there was that if you can’t remember what you liked or didn’t like about a film two or three days down the track, then it probably wasn’t worth remembering. Because I think the touchstone films that we see – whether they’re good or bad – they’re the ones that kind of burn into your memory.”
While that may seem like an extreme approach, the ideal of capturing only the most resonant part of a film in the review is certainly shared by Paatsch’s colleagues.
Working across several formats (and having been in the game for longer than most) David Stratton is a little more circumspect, but no less motivated by a commitment to convey his personal emotional reaction. “I sometimes found myself writing about the same film for Variety, for The Australian, and for The Movie Show,” he explains. “Obviously my opinion about the film would remain the constant no matter where I was writing the review for, but equally obviously the approach would be different… So if you looked at those three reviews of that same film, the essence of all three would be the same, but you would be couching it in quite different terms for the three different audiences.”
Marc Fennell uses his immediate emotional experience as the launching point to make his reviews compelling for his audience. “I want it to be that feeling that when I look down the barrel of a camera or I look into a microphone is that feeling like ‘Oh my god I saw this amazing film and I really want to tell you about it.’ And all the analysis that goes into film reviewing actually has to be filtered through that, ” he says. “Don’t get me wrong – I love getting into the semiotics and the intellectual relevance of film criticism, but in order to get that conversation across to an audience you need to pull them in first.”
Even more intuitive is Louise Keller, who looks to her feelings to spark her review writing: “I know for me, I’m a very sensitive, emotional sort of person, so tears are a barometer – my emotions are very much a barometer of my enjoyment of the film on a personal level, and whether or not it has moved me in some way.”
DEALING WITH THE LOCALS
When the emotional experience is such a key part of reviewing films, there are bound to be some highly charged exchanges. The most obvious for critics working in the fishbowl of the Australian industry is the thorny issue of how to treat local films.
Not surprisingly, the local issue is where the critics we talked to had the most divergent approaches. Noted Australian film industry advocate Margaret Pomeranz happily admits that she tries to be “kinder” to Australian films. “They don’t come with that massive publicity that American films come with,” she explains. “They’re trying to find a niche in a very competitive market. It’s the quick and the dead these days – if they don’t work in a week or two they’re out of there, and it’s cruel.”
Louise Keller doesn’t frame the issue in the same terms, but agrees that being mindful of the production and distribution context of a film has a place in the reviewing process. “With Australian films, I think they aren’t approached differently,” she says. “But I think because the market is close at hand, and it’s a small industry, you have to bear in mind that the budgets and so forth are very different for an Australian low-budget film than a Michael Bay film from the US. You have to put it in perspective of like for like. That doesn’t mean you give it extra concessions, you just are just aware of what budgetary restraints it is under.”
From Sandra Hall’s perspective, the local industry simply doesn’t need the concessions it may have invited in the past. “While the budgets here are naturally smaller than that of the commercial Hollywood film, the industry’s grown up enough to absorb candid criticism. Anything less would be condescending. Australian filmmakers proved long ago that they can compete internationally, no matter the size of the film.”
At the other end of the spectrum are Leigh Paatsch and Marc Fennell. Both regard the implication of local favouritism as fundamentally contrary to their role as proxies for the audience.
“My job is to stand in the gap between a film and the listeners, and communicate a sense of what I think that experience is like. When a ticket for an Australian film starts costing less than it does for a British or an American film, I will start giving you different reviews because the comparative value is different,” explains Fennell.
Paatsch echoes the sentiment. “The very act of buying a movie ticket and deciding whether you like it or not as a punter is a completely emotional act, so I don’t think Australian film releases should be treated any differently to anything else that’s out there in the marketplace.”
It’s understandable that discussion of the local industry incites such passion – spending any time around film in Australia gives you a real sense of how fickle and challenging it is, and the inevitable personal relationships formed between critics and filmmakers makes the boundaries much blurrier.
What stands over and above any specific political position of these critics is their common belief in committing to a position one way or another, both regarding individual films and the enterprise of criticism in general. “If you don’t give your own opinion of the film, you’re shortchanging the reader,” Sandra Hall asserts. “By definition, criticism is the most subjective form of writing you can do. There’s no point to it otherwise.”
Louise Keller agrees. “I personally don’t like reading reviews where reviewers sit on the fence. I like someone who’s brave enough to give an opinion,” she says. “What I hope to achieve out of a review is that it’s a good read, it’s honest, it doesn’t sit on the fence – it actually makes a point and commits.”
As a reviewer of considerable experience, David Stratton is intimate with the difficulty of giving a personal response without being overzealous. “One of the things that always bothered me about traditional film criticism – and I do it too so it bothers me about myself as well – is that it appears to be this sort of monolithic, ‘I’m right and there’s only one way of looking at this film’ attitude. Which is part of the beast because you want to read reviewers who are certain in their opinions, but at the same time it can lead you up blind alleys.”
His colleague on At The Movies, Margaret Pomeranz, enjoys the immediacy of expressing her opinion straight to camera. “We are there, and we’re people, and people can see our responses, which are very spontaneous,” says Pomeranz. “And in my case – David is much more controlled than I am – but I do get my gander up quite frequently about a film, whether I’m passionately for it or passionately against it, and I actually think that’s what people have responded to – the reality of our response to a film.”
Leigh Paatsch is emphatic that committing to a point of view – and embracing the resulting public reaction – is the very foundation of contemporary criticism. “What should be an unspoken part of the film reviewer contract is that if the writer is going to be wrong they’re prepared to be spectacularly or flamboyantly wrong. And if they’re right they’re also prepared to go up and over the fence with their enthusiasm.” He’s not alone in his fervor.
“A little bit of film reviewing is a little bit about evangelism – you really want people to go and see the films you think they’re going to love and you really don’t want people to go and see the films they’re going to think are terrible,” says Marc Fennell.
“And so for me as much as possible I want to transmit the energy of watching a film.”
Working primarily on radio and television, he finds his personal filmic allegiances are particularly on show. “That’s something you can do in broadcasting that you can’t necessarily do as much in print… As a broadcaster I want to bring that immediacy of ‘this is what it was like’.”
SURVIVING IN A DIGITAL WORLD
Capturing that energy seems more and more important in reviewing for an audience saturated in sound bytes, hype and advertising through new media. Social media has also changed the expectations of film criticism, opening new possibilities for interaction and broadening the scope for discussion about film.
Working with the demands of a range of formats, Leigh Paatsch is able to strikingly articulate the resulting challenges. “I think the advent of social media has brought about a seachange into where critics of any kind fit into the system, he explains. “The brand name film critic is no longer the first reporter on the scene telling you what a film is about or what it might be like. Part of the reason there’s been a shift towards review content being more punchy, shorter, and arguably more entertaining to the reader is a byproduct of that, because otherwise you’re just repeating what has already been fed into the public consciousness days and weeks before… It has to be not so much a declaration as an opening of the door to let more and more people come in to the conversation.”
An industry trailblazer in the adoption of information technology, Marc Fennell is understandably enthusiastic about its potential to draw more people into film appreciation. “I have to admit I love having Facebook and Twitter conversations with people about movies. People just go to town on saying what they did and they didn’t like.”
“Movies are at their best when they’re an orgy,” Fennell adds. “You pack 100 people into a theatre, everybody has a completely different experience and somebody is probably crying at the end of it. It’s a deeply personal medium because everybody experiences it individually, but it’s also an incredibly social medium because you have to walk out and talk about it. And I love that. And the internet has given me the opportunity to have that conversation with people in a way that I haven’t been able to before.”
Louise Keller agrees. “It’s such a good thing that there is so much discussion of film in different ways and people do have the opportunity to voice themselves. Information is power and the more information that is out there, the better.”
But the information technology revolution is also cause for concern for some critics – a threat to both the profession and the general flow of intelligent and constructive film analysis.
Following on from talking about the ‘monolithic’ authoritative approach film criticism, David Stratton draws the link between the benefit of multiple voices and the demise of critics. “It is a good thing that today there are so many people reviewing films in different forms. [But] film criticism itself may become less and less important as more and more people form their own opinion. So we may be looking at the last days of film criticism as we know it, but at the same time, people keep saying we’re looking at the end of cinema as we know it, so maybe it’ll all go out together!”
Joking aside, Stratton speculates further, “I just get the sense that to a wider public at least, reviews don’t really mean anything anymore. Maybe they never did. Maybe reviewers were only ever speaking to a small section of the cinema going public – a section that was looking for something different in terms of their film experience.”
Even internet devotee Fennell has concerns for the future viability of professional critics. “The downside is that we’re not paying anybody. There are so many people – some really, really good film brains who are really engaged – that just aren’t getting paid. Yet they’re putting these great thoughts and these great ideas and these great opinions out into the film ether. So in some ways it’s much better and in some ways its much, much worse.”
Veteran of the ‘traditional’ media of newspapers, Sandra Hall likewise embraces the new frontier but worries how anyone will get paid to populate it. “Most [critics] have migrated to the internet so the dialogue goes on. But the sooner somebody works out a way to finance online copy, the happier we’ll all be.”
A pioneer in internet film criticism (with Urban Cinefile), Louise Keller understands the changes the technology has ushered in, but isn’t ringing any alarm bells yet. “It makes people a little bit more discerning about what they read, because everybody has an opinion – and they’re entitled to it – but whether or not people necessarily care about everyone’s opinion is another question. There will always be a role for the professional film critic because I think they provide something different from social media.”
Margaret Pomeranz has similar faith in the place of informed and considered points of view. “There are always people who are going to want some kind of guide to cinema. And really that means the writers who give indepth analysis to films are always going to have their place. People read critics in the papers and they watch us as a guide to cinema going. Or, I’ve always said, you can watch our show, pretend you’ve seen a film, and talk about it at a dinner party!”
In the end it seems there is far more in common between the critics we spoke to than there is difference. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, experience and personal opinions, professional critics face the same set of challenges from new media technologies and an ever more film literate public. And hearteningly, cutting across all lines of difference, each critic identified the most important thing to preserve amidst all the changes as honesty – the honesty to approach their job without cynicism, and the honesty to offer their genuine opinion to the audience.
In the words of Margaret Pomeranz, “All we can do is call it the way we see it. Then people are going to pick the films that they are interested in and take note.” And that’s all we can ask.