Diary of a Film Reviewer

Intimate Reflections on Writing about the Screen for a Popular Audience

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All critics declare not only their judgment of the work but also their claim to the right to talk about it and judge it. In short, they take part in a struggle for the monopoly of legitimate discourse about the work of art, and consequently in the production of the value of the work of art. (Pierre Bourdieu 36).

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As it becomes blindingly obvious that ‘cultural production’, including the cinema, now underpins an economy every bit as brutal in its nascent state as the Industrial Revolution was for its victims 200 years ago, both critique and cinephilia seem faded and useless to me. (Meaghan Morris 700).

3The music’s loud, the lights are low. I’m at a party and somebody’s shouting at me. “How many films do you see every week?” “Do you really get in for free?” “So what should I see next Saturday night?” These are the questions that shape the small talk of my life. After seven years of reviewing movies you’d think I’d have ready answers and sparkling rehearsed tip-offs to scatter at the slightest quiver of interest. And yet I feel anxious when I’m asked to predict some stranger’s enjoyment – their 15-odd bucks worth of dark velvet pleasure. Who am I to say what they’ll enjoy? Who am I to judge what’s worthwhile?

4As editor of the film pages of The Big Issue magazine (Australian edition), I make such value judgments every day, sifting through hundreds of press releases, invitations and interview offers. I choose just three films and three DVDs to be reviewed each fortnight, and one film to form the subject of a feature article or interview. The film pages are a very small part of an independent magazine that exists to provide an income for the homeless and long-term unemployed people who sell it on the streets of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. And no, homeless people don’t go to the movies very often but our relatively educated and affluent city-dwelling readers do.

5The letters page of the magazine suggests that readers’ favourite pages are the Vendor Portraits – the extraordinary and sobering photographs and life stories of the people who are out there on the streets selling the magazine. Yet the editorial policy is to maintain a certain lightness of touch amidst the serious business. Thus, the entertainment pages (music, books, film, TV and humour) have no specific social justice agenda. But if there’s a new Australian film out there that deals with the topic of homelessness, it seems imperative to at least consider the story.

6Rather than offering in-depth analysis of particular films and the ways I go about judging them, the following diary excerpts instead offer a sketch of the practical process of editorial decision-making. Why review this film and not that one? Why interview this actor or that film director? And how do these choices fit within the broad goals of a social justice publication? Created randomly, from a quick scan of the last twelve months, the diary is a scribbled attempt to justify, or in Bourdieu’s terms, “legitimate” the critical role I play, and to try and explain how that role can never be fully defined by an aesthetic that is divorced from social and political realities.

August 2004

7My editor calls me and asks if I’ve seen Tom White, the new low-budget Australian film by Alkinos Tsilimidos. I have, and I hated it. Starring Colin Friels, the film follows the journey of a middle-aged middle-class man who walks out of his life and onto the streets. It’s a grimy, frustrating film, supported by only the barest bones of narrative. I was bored and infuriated by the central character, and I know it’s the kind of under-developed story that’s keeping Australian audiences away from our own films. And yet … it’s a local film that actually dares to tackle issues of homelessness and mental illness, and it’s a story that presents a truth about homelessness that’s borne out by many of our vendors: that any one of us could, except by the grace of God or luck, find ourselves sleeping rough.

8My editor wants me to interview Colin Friels, who will appear on the cover of the magazine. I don’t want to touch the film, and I prefer interviewing people whose work genuinely interests and excites me. But there are other factors to be considered. The film’s exhibitor, Palace Films, is offering to hold charity screenings for our benefit, and they are regular advertising supporters of The Big Issue. My editor, a passionate and informed film lover himself, understands the quandary. We are in no way beholden to Palace, he assures me, and we can tread the fine line with this film, using it to highlight the important issues at hand, without necessarily recommending the film to audiences. It’s tricky and uncomfortable; a simple example of the way in which political and aesthetic values do not always dance so gracefully together. Nevertheless, I find a way to write the story without dishonesty.

September 2004

9There’s no denying the pleasure of writing (or reading) a scathing film review that leaves you in stitches of laughter over the dismembered corpse of a bad movie. But when space is limited, I’d rather choose the best three films every fortnight for review and recommendation. In an ideal world I’d attend every preview and take my pick. They’d be an excitingly diverse mix. Say, one provocative documentary (maybe Mike Moore or Errol Morris), one big-budget event movie (from the likes of Scorsese or Tarantino), and one local or art-house gem. In the real world, it’s a scramble for deadlines. Time is short and some of the best films only screen in one or two states, making it impossible for us to cover them for our national audience. Nevertheless, we do our best to keep the mix as interesting and timely as possible. For our second edition this month I review the brilliant documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky), while I send other reviewers to rate Spielberg’s The Terminal (only one and a half stars out of five), and Cate Shortland’s captivating debut Australian feature Somersault (four stars).

10For the DVD review page we look at a boxed set of The Adventures of Tintin, together with the strange sombre drama House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman), and the gripping documentary One Day in September (Kevin MacDonald) about the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. As editor, I try to match up films with the writers who’ll best appreciate them. With a 200-word limit we know that we’re humble ‘reviewers’ rather than lofty ‘critics’, and that we can only offer the briefest subjective response to a work. Yet the goal remains to be entertaining and fair, and to try and evaluate films on their own terms. Is this particular movie an original and effective example of the schlocky teen horror thriller? If so, let’s give it the thumbs up. Is this ‘worthy’ anti-globalisation documentary just a boring preachy sermon with bad hand-held camera work? Then we say so.

11For our film feature article this edition, I write up an interview with Italian director Luigi Falorni, whose simple little film The Weeping Camel has been reducing audiences to tears. It’s a strange quiet film, a ‘narrative documentary’ set in the Gobi desert, about a mother camel that refuses to give milk to her newborn baby. There’s nothing political or radical about it. It’s just beautiful and interesting and odd. And that’s enough to make it worthy of attention.

November 2004

12When we choose to do a ‘celebrity’ cover, we find pretty people with serious minds and interesting causes. This month two gorgeous film stars, Natalie Portman and Gael Garcia Bernal find their way onto our covers. Portman’s promoting the quirky coming of age film, Garden State (Zach Braff), but the story we run focuses mainly on her status as ambassador for the Foundation of International Community Assistance (FINCA), which offers loans to deprived women to help them start their own businesses. Gabriel Garcia Bernal, the Mexican star of Walter Salle’s The Motorcycle Diaries appears on our cover and talks about his role as the young Che Guevara, the ultimate idealist and symbol of rebellion. We hope this appeals to those radicals who are prepared to stop in the street, speak to a homeless person, and shell out four dollars for an independent magazine – and also to all those shallow people who want to see more pictures of the hot-eyed Latin lad.

April 2005

13Three Dollars is Robert Connelly’s adaptation of Elliot Perlman’s best-selling novel about economic rationalism and its effect on an average Australian family. I loved the book, and the film isn’t bad either, despite some unevenness in the script and performances. I interview Frances O’Connor, who plays opposite David Wenham as his depressed underemployed wife. O’Connor makes a beautiful cover-girl, and talks about the seemingly universal experience of depression. We run the interview alongside one with Connelly, who knows just how to pitch his film to an audience interested in homelessness. He gives great quotes about John Howard’s heartless Australia, and the way we’ve become an economy rather than a society. It’s almost too easy.

14In the reviews section of the magazine we pan two other Australian films, Paul Cox’s Human Touch, and the Jimeoin comedy-vehicle The Extra. I’d rather ignore bad Australian films and focus on good films from elsewhere, or big-budget stinkers that need to be brought down a peg. But I’d lined up reviews for these local ones, expecting them to be good, and so we run with the negativity. Some films are practically critic-proof, but small niche films, like most Australian titles, aren’t among these Teflon giants. As Joel Pearlman, Managing Director of Roadshow Films has said, “There are certain types of films that are somewhat critic-proof. They’ve either got a built-in audience, are part of a successful franchise, like The Matrix or Bond films, or have a popular star. It’s films without the multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and the big names where critics are far more influential” ( Pearlman in Bolles 19). Sometimes I’m glad that I’m just a small fish in the film critic pond, and that my bad reviews can’t really destroy someone’s livelihood. It’s well known that a caning from reviewers like David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz (ABC, At the Movies), or the Melbourne Age’s Jim Schembri can practically destroy the prospects of a small local film, and I’m not sure I have the bravery or conviction of the value of my own tastes to bear such responsibility. Admittedly, that’s just gutless tender-heartedness for, as reviewers, our responsibility is to the audience not to the filmmaker. But when you’ve met with cash-strapped filmmakers, and heard their stories and their struggles, it’s sometimes hard to put personal compassion aside and see the film as the punter will. But you must.

August 2005

15It’s a busy time with the Melbourne International Film Festival just finishing up. Hordes of film directors accompany their films to the festival, promoting them here ahead of a later national release schedule, and making themselves available for rare face-to face interviews. This year I find a bunch of goodies that seem like they were tailor-made for our readership. There are winning local films like Sarah Watt’s life-affirming debut Look Both Ways; and Rowan Woods’ gritty addiction-drama Little Fish. There’s my personal favourite, Bahman Ghobadi’s stunning and devastating Kurdish/Iranian feature Turtles Can Fly; and Avi Lewis’s inspiring documentary The Take, about Argentine factory workers who unite to revive their bankrupt workplaces.

16It’s when I see films like this, and get to talk to the people who bring them into existence, that I realize how much I value writing about films for a publication that doesn’t exist just to make a profit or fill space between advertisements. As the great American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has eloquently argued, most of the worldwide media coverage concerning film is merely a variation on the ‘corporate stories’ that film studios feed us as part of their advertising. To be able to provide some small resistance to that juggernaut is a wonderful privilege.

17I love to be lost in the dark, studying films frame by frame, and with reference only to some magical internal universe of ‘cinema’ and its endless references to itself. But as the real world outside falls apart, such airless cinephilia feels just plain wrong. As a writer whose subject is films, what I’m compelled to do is to come out of the cinema and try to use my words to convey the best of what I’ve seen to my friends and readers, pointing them towards small treasures they may have overlooked amidst the hype. So maybe I’m not a ‘pure’ critic, and maybe there’s no shame in that. The films I’ll gravitate towards share an almost indefinable quality – to use Jauss’s phrase, they reconstruct and expand my “horizon of expectation” (28). Sometimes these films are overtly committed to a cause, but often they’re just beautiful and strange and fresh. Always they expand me, open me, make me feel that there’s more to the world than expected, and make me want more too – more information, more freedom, more compassion, more equality, more beauty. And, after all these years in the dark, I still want more films like that.

Endnotes

18As of August 2005, the role of DVD editor of The Big Issue has been filled by Anthony Morris.

19According the latest Morgan Poll, readers of The Big Issue are likely to be young (18-39), urban, educated, and affluent professionals. Current readership is estimated at 144,000 fortnightly and growing.