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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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....
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
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).