Meet the Critics: SMH’s Sandra Hall — turning the page from literacy to films and back again
It’s a line of attack sometimes directed at film reviewers, usually by those caught in the cross hairs of a critical lambasting: that critics are failed artists, desperate have-nots, individuals with nary a creative thought floating through their sanctimonious minds.
Whilst Sandra Hall, who began reviewing films for The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996 and was literary editor at The Australian from 1983 to 1987, hasn’t dabbled in filmmaking, she has certainly nurtured her creative instincts and afforded them an outlet.
Hall is the author of two novels, Beyond the Break and A Thousand Small Wishes, and has just started preliminary research into a third. She has also penned a biography of press tycoon Ezra Norton and two books on the history of Australian television.
She believes her experience as a novelist has deepened her understanding and appreciation of art.
“It’s all storytelling. The business of putting a plot together certainly helps you when it comes to looking at a film’s structure,” she tells Cinetology.
“I think the best criticism comes from people whose work is informed by their knowledge of the world at large. That’s why I like (The New Yorker‘s) Anthony Lane‘s reviews so much. He can write equally well about films, art, books or how a piece of Lego is made.”
Like most critics, Hall is a freelancer, and while the job doesn’t come with the same regularity or stability as a staff writer, there are perks for people who wish to cast their net wide.
“I believe that we should all have a go at whatever interests us if we’re lucky enough to get the chance,” she says. “For me, that’s been one of the great joys of freelancing. You don’t earn much money but you can sometimes find the time to experiment with your own work.”
Do you read much film criticism? If so, what publications and writers do you recommend?
I do, although not as much as I used to. I grew up on Pauline Kael’s reviews, then I started collecting books of film criticism and discovered James Agee. These days my favourite is Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. But I never read him – or anyone else – until I’ve done my own review. Lane’s just too good anyway. I like reading him best on films I haven’t reviewed. It’s not so depressing.
In your opinion what if anything is wrong with the current state of film criticism and/or attitudes towards film critics?
As a print journalist I find it very sad that newspapers the world over are in trouble and that in the US, so many experienced film critics have vanished from the scene. Some of the best have migrated to the internet, which is great. I just hope that there’ll always be a place for the lengthy, considered piece, whether it’s in print or online.
The internet has irrevocably altered the media landscape. What impact do you think the proliferation of writers on the internet has had on film criticism?
It’s terrific that so much discussion is being generated. People these days are much more informed about what they’re seeing. They educate themselves with DVDs, director’s cuts, downloads — loads of stuff — and naturally, they want to share their opinions but a lot of it is very much off-the-cuff. I still think there’s place for the professional reviewer who really likes to craft a piece which gives the flavour of a film, puts it in context and backs opinion with argument.
How did you become a film critic and when did you know you wanted to be one?
My parents were great fans and always took me to the cinema because they couldn’t afford babysitters, so I saw everything from a very early age. I’m sure it was a very unwholesome start to life but it got me so firmly hooked on film that I started wanting to write about it when I was a teenager. And luckily, I got the chance. When I became a cadet — on the now defunct afternoon paper, The Sydney Sun — I used to fill in for the regular reviewer. Then years later, when I had my first child, I took it up regularly. It was an easier job to organise than the other journalism I was doing and I loved it. That was on The Bulletin. I switched to the Herald in 1996.
The general public love to munch away while watching a movie. What are your eating habits in the cinema? Are you addicted to popcorn, sneak in the occasional choc-top, or there strictly to watch the film?
Fortunately I hate popcorn because one of those tubs has as many kilojoules as four square meals. My preference is to see a film at five or six in the evening with the prospect of dinner and a glass or two of wine afterwards.
Do you take notes in the cinema? If so, how extensive are they?
I used to take extensive notes for every film. Then a couple of years ago, I hurt my shoulder and couldn’t and I found I could manage without. Now I only take a lot of notes when there’s going to be time gap between seeing the film and writing the review.
Moving onto the subject of eye moistening: when if ever was the last time you cried while watching a film and what was it?
I often cry – even when I know I’m being manipulated. In fact, that’s when I cry the most. The last time was in Spielberg’s War Horse, which is pure schmaltz.
Who are five of your favourite living directors?
Martin Scorsese, although I took a long time to come round to him. For a while I thought he was just out to make me suffer for his case of Catholic guilt. Then he started to show his sense of humour. By Goodfellas, I was a complete convert.
Michael Haneke. He terrifies me. Nothing will get me to see Funny Games but White Ribbon is a masterpiece and the other films I’ve seen of his are extraordinary.
Jason Reitman. I don’t fancy his latest, Young Adult, much but Juno, Up in the Air and Thank You for Smoking are all great. I like his wit.
Michael Mann. He’s had a lot of misses but his best - The Insider, Collateral, Heat, The Last of the Mohicans – more than make up for them.
Ang Lee. Another one who doesn’t always choose the best subjects i.e. The Hulk. But he’s given us some wonderful films. Great courage and a great range.
What are five of your favourite Australian films of the last ten years?
A tough question. It’s very hard to get it down to five. But here you go: Lantana, Chopper. Suburban Mayhem. Bright Star. My Year Without Sex. My other favourites are The Dish, Happy Feet, Beneath Hill 60 and Mrs Carey’s Concert.
What is your first memory of the cinema?
Burying my head and blocking my ears during some of the Warner Brothers crime movies. My parents were addicted to them.
Can you describe the strangest experience at the cinema you’ve ever had?
Probably the Calcutta Film Festival. The crowds surged in to see a film with the word, “kiss”, in the title. Then ten minutes later, realising how dull it was, they surged out again.
Looking back over your filmic life, what is the cinematic experience you recall most fondly?
Seeing Singin’ in the Rain the first time. It’s still one of my all-time favourites.
Do you ever walk out on films, or always feel an obligation to stay?
I always stay to the end if I’m reviewing a film no matter how dire it is. I don’t feel confident writing about it otherwise. But at international festivals you have to walk out sometimes because there’s something you’d rather see starting up across the street.
With regards to philosophy re: sitting in the cinema, are you a back row sitter? A front row sitter? Why?
No philosophy. Just need. I’m short and I hate having to peer round somebody’s head so I sit close to the front.
Finally, what advice would you provide to a) aspiring filmmakers and b) aspiring film critics?
My advice to filmmakers would be to first find a good script. My advice to aspiring film critics is to see as many films as you can and read critics whose writing you like.