Meet the Critics: Evan Williams — veteran reviewer for The Oz, Walkey award winner and Order of Australia recipient
If film reviewers are a dime a dozen these days – at least outside mainstream media outlets – those with CVs that look even a smidge like The Australian‘s Evan Williams are anything but.
Williams, a critic for The Oz since 1981, has a particular fondness for political movies, even though he approaches them with a heightened sense of scepticism.
If the veteran cinephile has a keen interest in political speeches in film, it’s for a good reason: he used to write them. Not the ones in the movies. The ones in real life.
In addition to serving as Gough Whitlam’s press secretary from 1973 to 1977, Williams was one of the former Prime Minister’s speechwriters. He also wrote speeches for Premiers Bob Carr, Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally and worked as a consultant to the NSW Premier from 2001 to 2011.
“I am no longer involved in politics,” Williams tells Cinetology, “though for a while I feared that my friend Bob Carr would ask me to do some work for him.”
He says Carr (now Foreign Minister) has, to his knowledge, “never once used a speech written for him by me or anyone else. Like John Howard, he always writes his own.”
How, Cinetology asks Williams, has decades of working in politics affected the way he reads political films?
“I suppose working with politicians has made me more cynical…It’s so easy to spot the phoniness and exaggeration but I still love political films and wouldn’t miss one,” he says. “The old-fashioned idealist in me still insists that Mr Smith Goes to Washington is the best political film of all.”
Starting in journalism as a cadet for The Sydney Morning Herald in 1952, Williams won a Walkey award in 1970 for a series of investigatory SMH features about under-privileged people dubbed ‘The Battlers’. In 2006 he was awarded membership of the Order of Australia for service to public administration, especially in the field of the arts, festivals and the care of historic houses.
Williams doesn’t read a lot of film criticism – “there’s too much else I want to read” – and admits to never making the transition to the online sphere, either as a reader or a writer.
“I confess to being an incorrigibly print-biased, paper-oriented product of a lost journalistic age, ” he says.
Williams is the latest participant in Cinetology’s Meet the Critics series. Cherry picking writers from a variety of Australian media outlets and platforms, the series profiles the country’s leading film critics. For a complete list of interviewees, visit the Meet the Critics landing page.
Do you read much film criticism? If so, what publications and writers do you recommend?
I don’t read much film criticism. There’s too much else I want to read. I’ve just finished Alex Miller’s new novel and Anne Henderson’s superb biography of Joe Lyons and I’ve barely got started on the new Frank Moorhouse – all 700 pages of it. People often give me film books but I find much film writing academic and boring. The only criticism I read is in contemporary journals or anthologies. I’ve given up on Sight and Sound. I found a wonderful collection of Graham Greene reviews he wrote for the Spectator. There are excellent collections of David Thomson’s writing. Of contemporary critics I enjoy Anthony Lane and David Denby in The New Yorker. Both are better than Pauline Kael, who was widely revered but was a terrible sourpuss at times.
In your opinion what if anything is wrong with the current state of film criticism and/or attitudes towards film critics?
Is there anything wrong with the current state of film criticism? It’s probably no better or worse than it’s always been. In other words, we have a few good critics and a whole lot of others. It’s true that much of what passes for criticism is little more than infotainment, puffery and PR. But on the whole I think Australian readers are well served. Paul Byrnes, Sandra Hall, David Stratton, Lynden Barber, Tom Ryan would stand out in any company. As for public attitudes towards critics, I think we will always be treated with a certain healthy suspicion, combined of course with envy. People often say to me: “you mean you get paid to see films and write about them?” I get little sympathy when I reply that constantly seeing films and writing about them to deadlines can be a stressful occupation – however much we love movies.
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?
Unless I want to Google something to check some fact or other, I hardly ever use the internet. I don’t browse around on it. I don’t read bloggers. So I really can’t answer your question. I confess to being an incorrigibly print-biased, paper-oriented product of a lost journalistic age. I find it disconcerting that writers I once enjoyed reading in print now have to be sought out online. For example, I love reading my scurrilous friend Bob Ellis on anything to do with films, but can never be sure where his reviews appear. All that said, I think it’s probably true that the proliferation of writers makes it harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. Original and perceptive new voices can no doubt be found but you have to search for them. I suspect, as often happens, more means worse. When writers had to pass through multiple layers of screening and editorial filtering to find their way into print there was a rigorous system of quality control. We don’t get that now. Readers have more choices but not necessarily better ones.
How did you become a film critic and when did you know you wanted to be one?
I think I always wanted to be one. I was about five or six when I fell in love with the cinema – not just movies and stars but the whole magical technology of films. My parents gave me a tiny clockwork movie camera for my 13th birthday and it more or less transformed my life. I showed 9.5mm films on a hand-cranked projector at home. I loved putting on shows – and still do. When I was 17 Harold Levien started an independent magazine in Sydney called Voice – politics, criticism, that sort of thing – working out of a little room in Clarence Street. I went in one day and offered my services. Harold was prepared to give me a go and I was tremendously proud when he ran my first review of a Swedish film, One Summer of Happiness. Later when I worked on the Sydney Morning Herald, the editor, a delightful fellow called John Pringle, let me stand in for Charles Higham for a few months in 1968-69 and again in 1970. I reviewed some great films in those years – Midnight Cowboy, Rosemary’s Baby, and I was hooked. I put up my hand to be film critic for Australian Playboy in 1979, and Mark Day gave me plenty of space until the mag folded. But my big break came in 1981 when Maria Prerauer, then the arts editor of The Australian, invited me to be Geraldine Pascall’s successor and review each week in the Oz. I’ve just notched up 31 years on the job.
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?
I can honestly say that I never eat or drink during screenings. My wife and I saw a film in a multiplex the other day while a woman a few seats away consumed a whole packet of sweets, each one noisily retrieved from a bag and noisily unwrapped. Accusing stares and hisses had little effect. The practice of eating in cinemas has been encouraged in the multiplexes by having admission tickets sold only in the candy bar. One rarely finds a separate ticket office in cinemas now. Invariably when films are previewed for the media in a multiplex people will wander in after the advertised starting time bearing buckets of popcorn and coke. What’s happened to good manners?
Do you take notes in the cinema? If so, how extensive are they?
I like to write down what I call my little memory-joggers – the odd word or two to remind me of something, a fragment of dialogue. I never try to compose any critical thoughts or reflections. One problem is that I have great difficulty reading my own handwriting, especially when I’ve written in the dark.
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’m not sure about the last time. I’ve probably grown hardhearted and callous in my mature years. But I remember the first time. I cried at the end of Lassie Come Home, and a few years ago, when I showed the film to my grandchildren I may have had another quiet blub. The great Hollywood tearjerkers – Random Harvest, Mrs Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives – usually had me misty-eyed, and a remember a moment in A Night to Remember when a father says goodbye to his infant son before going down in the Titanic. That moved me more than anything in James Cameron’s picture.
What are five of your favourite Australian films of the last ten years?
I hope I’m allowed to include Lantana, which may be just outside the time-frame, but I once named it as my favourite Australian film of all. Samson and Delilah, The Tracker and Ivan Sen’s first film, Beneath Clouds, were all wonderful in their way. Snowtown was a brilliant piece of work, as was Wolf Creek, if you like that sort of thing, and I admired The Eye of the Storm, especially for the acting of Judy Davis and John Gaden. There have been many others. I’m not sure if The King’s Speech was an Australian film – if so, I’d certainly include it.
What is your first memory of the cinema?
Seeing the Disney short The Three Little Pigs at the Star Theatre in Bondi Junction. It was the start of my infatuation.
Looking back over your filmic life, what is the cinematic experience you recall most fondly?
I’d have to say, seeing Olivier’s Richard III at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne in August 1956. I’d met my wife two days before, and yes, it was our first date. She’s put up with a lot of awful films since.
Do you ever walk out on films, or always feel an obligation to stay? If so what was the last film you walked out on?
I’ve never walked out on any film I’m reviewing, though I’m not one of those who remain conscientiously seated to the very last frame of the end-credits. When I was a boy I walked out of Rhapsody in Blue because I was too young or too stupid to appreciate Gershwin, but I’d rate it now among my favourite musical biopics.
There’s a common assumption that critics have a very large home collection of films. Is that true for you?
I wouldn’t have more than a few hundred, and I’ve never collected compulsively, or even very seriously. I tend to go for particular genres or names – musicals, Shakespeare films, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, the sort of stuff usually sold in boxed sets. I don’t see much point in collecting current films that can be borrowed from the local video shop. These days, of course, a lot can be obtained, legally or otherwise, through the internet. For Christmas a friend gave me a downloaded copy of So Long at the Fair, the charming 1950 film with Dirk Bogarde and Jean Simmons. I put it on for some friends at home and it looked great on a big screen.
With regards to philosophy re sitting in the cinema, are you a back row sitter? A front row sitter? Why?
No strict preference. Too close and the definition can get fuzzy or the picture can seem disproportionately large, too far back and one loses a sense of involvement and immediacy. I like to feel I’m an average member of the audience so I go for the middle distance. When I was a kid we had seats in row K for our Friday night family outing to the pictures, and even now, if I see row K in a cinema, I’ll probably go for it.
Finally, what advice would you provide to a) aspiring filmmakers and b) aspiring film critics?
There are no easy roads. If you’re an aspiring critic, keep practising the craft, see all the films that matter, post your own stuff on your website, and read the best work of the best people. Be yourself and be honest. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, look for a good story and tell it with economy and clarity. And keep trying.