Margaret Pomeranz, along with her equally famous television co-host David Stratton, is as close to film reviewing royalty as one finds in Australia. Her jangling earrings, funky fashion sense, endearing laugh and opened-minded approach to film criticism have become synonymous with cinema discussion Down Under since her impromptu debut on SBS’s The Movie Show in 1986.
But despite occupying a revered chair in an industry overspilling with hopefuls and have-nots, Pomeranz’s mantle as one of Australia’s preeminent film critics is not one she ever wanted, or even feels comfortable with.
“It’s the unfairness of television,” she says. “You reach a lot of people and we’ve been doing it for so long. I don’t think I’m the best critic in the world and I don’t think I’ve got the best insight into film. So I’m very uncomfortable with that preeminent position.”
When Cinetology suggests to Pomeranz her humility only feeds into her celebrity, making her more likeable, she responds with “oh shit!” and that distinctive laugh squeaks down the phone line.
Pomeranz is the first to participate in Cinetology’s Meet the Critics series, which every week submits a set of questions to a high-profile Australian film critic. Cherry-picking critics from a variety of media outlets and platforms, the series will shine a light on how the country’s most widely-exposed cinephilies approach film going and the craft of criticism — from who they read and respect to what they munch on in the cinema.
Do you read much film criticism? If so, what publications and writers do you recommend?
I subscribe to Sight and Sound and I go into paroxysms of anxiety when my subscription is about to run out because I think it’s one of the best film magazines. For in-depth stuff Senses of Cinema is wonderful as well. David swears by American Film Comment but I actually prefer Sight and Sound, the British take. I love reading others people’s opinions and absorbing their take on a film. I like seeing what I’ve missed out on.
There have been some critics like Evan Williams who have been able to articulate — in a way I haven’t been able to — thoughts about a film that I’ve been intensely grateful for. Adrian Martin has always got an interesting take on films, although I don’t always agree with him. I also used to love Kenneth Turan in the LA Times.
In your opinion what if anything is wrong with the current state of film criticism and/or attitudes towards film critics?
It’s sad that with all the pressure on newspapers at the moment and the subsequent rationalising of expenses, reviewers are becoming scarcer. Reviews from Melbourne are syndicated to Sydney; there are less voices in the press. There have never been many on television but at the same time, on the other side of the spectrum, there is a proliferation of voices on the net.
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?
The trouble with the net is finding stuff you want to read because there is a lot there that’s not very interesting. It’s a matter of searching amongst the dross for engaging material. The volume of information on the internet is unbelievable.
How did you become a film critic and when did you know you wanted to be one?
I didn’t ever know I wanted to be one and I was basically forced into taking on that role in 1986 when The Movie Show first went to air because I could not find anyone that David was prepared to appear with who was a woman. We both really wanted those different voices: male and female. I kept on saying “I’ll just see this year out” (laughs).
I came back to Australia just when the film industry was taking off. I went to NIDA and took screenwriting and I started out as a writer. I went to all the AFI screenings in the ’70s so that was sort of in my blood stream. When I was made David’s producer we would talk about films and exchange different opinions over lunch, just as a shared interest thing. It only became sort of official when I was made to sit in that seat by both the head of programming and David.
Do you ever walk out on films, or always feel an obligation to stay? And if you do, what was the last film you walked out on?
The only one I can think of was when I saw the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I saw it after it’d been released, in a daytime screening. I went in and there were about five blokes in the screening, all sitting separately. I’m not a great fan of torture porn and I just felt so uncomfortable in that screening that I walked out. I never walk out of a film. Never. Unless I’m in, say, Cannes or Venice and I’ve got an interview and have to leave early. But then I have to see the whole film again, which is a bit of a nuisance. For me to voluntarily walk out of a movie is a rarity. It never happens. I think you have an obligation to stay, and if you are David Stratton you have an obligation to stay until the absolute end of the credits!
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?
If I am catching up with a film that’s had a release and I go to the cinema during the day, it’s popcorn. David hates the thought. I never do it when he’s around (laughing). But if I haven’t had any lunch I’ll get some popcorn.
Do you take notes in the cinema? If so, how extensive are they?
My memory is so bad I take notes. I’ve got to write them up fairly soon after or I find my writing completely illegible. I write certain factual stuff and if something strikes me during the film, either wonderful or execrable.
With regards to philosophy re: sitting in the cinema, are you a back-row sitter? Front row? Why?
I hate anybody’s head in front of me. I don’t sit in the front row but I sit in the first 10 to 12 rows.
Is that a staunch rule?
Pretty much. I’m long sighted, so I think when I was younger and just a moviegoer I would sit at the back. But now I want the experience to overwhelm me so much. I do not want to be aware of anyone else between me and the cinema screen.
When, if ever, was the last time you cried while watching a film and what was it?
I recently re-watched Samson & Delilah and that’s a film that breaks me up every time. I find that film so moving. It’s such a beautiful piece of cinema; so disciplined. I think Australian filmmakers find it really hard to tap into the emotional core of their films but I think Warwick Thornton did that superbly with Samson & Delilah. He gives you that catharsis at the end so minimally yet so powerfully.
There’s a common assumption that critics have a very large home collection of films. Is that true for you?
My collection size is nowhere near David’s. David’s got this amazing collection of stuff. He won’t lend me a single one; he’s so mean and anal about it. He’s got a fabulous collection. I haven’t. I’ve got a very random one.
Who are five of your favourite living directors?
Pedro Almodóvar. Paul Thomas Anderson. Ang Lee. Lars Von Trier — just to be controversial! And Michael Winterbottom. I could have chosen (Steven) Soderbergh. That fifth place is a hard one but I chose Winterbottom because, like Ang Lee, he takes on so many different genres and really succeeds. I loved reading your bit about Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me. It was a fabulous performance, but a hideous creation.
What are your five favourite Australian films of the last 10 years?
Samson and Delilah, Animal Kingdom, Chopper, Lantana, and for the last spot I’m torn between Burning Man and Snowtown.
What is your first memory of the cinema?
The one that stays in my mind, from I think the late ’50s, was I Want to Live starring Susan Haywood. It was about a possibly innocent woman who was executed for murder. I haven’t seen it since then; my memory is so dim. But it was a very confronting film and most probably not suitable for children. It really helped form my position against capital punishment at a very young age.
Can you describe the strangest experience at the cinema you’ve ever had? For example, I remember you hosted an illegal screening of Ken Park in 2003.
That was the strangest experience of a non cinema screening. We only saw the first 50 seconds of it, maximum. I had seen the whole film in Venice. It struck me that a major international film festival programmed this title and then it gets banned in Australia. Egged on by various colleagues, a snowball started with this illegal screening and unfortunately it got publicity and the police arrived. Everybody was very sweet about it, and the policeman was very handsome (laughs). I think they assigned a disarming squad to try and control us.
What about the cinematic experience you recall most fondly?
It sounds a bit boring to go over something I’ve mentioned before but I was astounded by Samson & Delilah. I walked out of that film and five minutes later it hit me like a jolt. I was in floods of tears; I was sobbing. That might happen during a film — when you’re emotionally affected by what you see on screen — but for a film to have that impact that much later I found absolutely extraordinary. I love the fact that an Australian film could do that to me. I love our cinema but it’s so vulnerable. I love it when we succeed.
Finally, what advice would you give to a) aspiring filmmakers and b) aspiring film critics?
For filmmakers: if this is your passion go out and do it. The technology is there for you to make a feature film for very little money and all you’ve got to have is the talent to capture it. I think you need to be able to find people with good judgment to mentor you, give you advice, script edit and so forth. But there is nothing like doing it and seeing your mistakes.
I think that goes for film critics, too. I have kids writing to me asking: “How do you become a film critic?” I say: “See lots of films. Write about them.”