Jake Wilson’s journey into the realm of professional criticism is a traditional one, in many senses: a talented writer and a bona fide film geek spends an inordinate amount of hours during high school planted in front of screens and some years later lands a job at a newspaper from a combination of skill, experience and happenstance.
Growing up as a teenager in a family without a television, Wilson developed a special attraction to going to the movies – especially without an adult.
“The bug bit when I was in high school, or maybe even earlier,” he says. “My best friend at that time – this was the late ’80s – lived just round the corner from the Valhalla cinema in Melbourne, now the Westgarth, which used to run Saturday matinees. They would show things like the Marx Brothers or 1950s sci-fi. Right away this was stuff that interested me, so seeing both old and new films was a big part of my life from then on.”
Wilson dabbled in film criticism in his teens and began reviewing regularly in his early 20’s. He writes for Australian Book Review and was a co-editor of Senses of Cinema. Some of his work is available to read on www.jakewilson.com.au
As a critic for The Age, Wilson’s viewing diet is partly dictated by editorial requirements. His wife of five years has grown used to watching things they probably wouldn’t have otherwise “but draws the line at Adam Sandler comedies.”
Wilson is the second profile in Cinetology’s Meet the Critics series, which looks at the moviegoing habits of the country’s leading film critics and how they approach the craft of criticism.
Do you read much film criticism? If so, what publications and writers do you recommend?
I read a good deal, yes, and much of it online. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but publications I’d recommend include Cinema Scope, Senses of Cinema, Rouge, Mubi, and Bright Lights Film Journal. Some of the critics I get the most from are Jonathan Rosenbaum, Bill Krohn, Adrian Martin, B. Kite, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Lesley Chow.
In your opinion what if anything is wrong with the current state of film criticism and/or attitudes towards film critics?
Film criticism is thriving in its natural habitat, but occupies a very marginal place in the mainstream English-language media compared with, say, celebrity gossip, chatter about box office statistics and other forms of thinly disguised advertising.
Here in Australia there are a lot of readers and writers who believe that taking film seriously is for wankers. That it’s just entertainment, you shouldn’t try and get too deep. There are similar problems in a lot of fields (and) the state of TV criticism is much worse.
Those kinds of anti-intellectual attitudes go along with a system where the films with the biggest promotional budgets tend to get the most coverage. It’s not that editors are always manipulated by publicists, but the assumption is that people want to read about what they already know. Criticism corrupts itself when it fails to fight against that. When it ignores film history for example or when it assumes that the films which happen to get a commercial release necessarily represent the best in world cinema.
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 internet has revitalised film criticism by letting a vast number of new voices into the conversation. Many of them belong to knowledgeable cinephiles who aren’t bound by the old restrictions on style and subject-matter. As a result, professional reviewers no longer have the kudos they used to, which is something I can live with.
How did you become a film critic and when did you know you wanted to be one?
I dabbled in film criticism from my teens onwards, first for student newspapers, then for websites, initially with little payment or none. Truth be told, I set out to become a freelance writer rather than a critic. If I hadn’t had the stupendous luck of getting a regular gig at the Age I could well have gone down a different path.
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 feel obliged to stay when I’m on duty, and the habit carries over to films I see in my own time. I remember walking out of a documentary about independent record stores at the Melbourne Film Festival a couple of years ago, but there may have been something else since then.
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?
When I bring someone with me, we might share a bucket of popcorn. When I’m by myself, I usually stick to coffee.
Do you take notes in the cinema? If so, how extensive are they?
I often start out trying to take notes but once I get absorbed in a film they usually aren’t very extensive. Ideally if I’m reviewing a film at any length I like to see it at least twice – the first time as a pure spectator, the second time trying to scribble down as much detail as I can. But given the realities of weekly deadlines this isn’t always possible.
With regards to philosophy re: sitting in the cinema, are you a back row sitter? A front row sitter? Why?
I like to sit about four rows back, where I can take in the whole screen comfortably while still being close enough to feel surrounded by the image. Some instinct makes me prefer an aisle seat, so if disaster strikes I can get away fast.
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 cry quite often, usually at happy endings, in good and bad films alike. Recent examples include Arthur Christmas and Hugo.
There’s a common assumption that critics have a very large home collection of films. In you case, is that true?
Since I started writing for The Age I’ve put together a largish collection of screeners sent to me for preview, mostly relating to film festivals and special seasons at ACMI. I don’t keep them all, but I hang onto the rarer and more interesting titles when I can. In general though when I want to watch something I’m more likely to rent than buy.
Who are five of your favourite living directors?
Abbas Kiarostami, Jerzy Skolimowski, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette.
What are five of your favourite Australian films of the last ten years?
The Tracker, My Year Without Sex, Nancy Nancy, The Room of Chromatic Mystery and Stargazers. That last one was actually completed in the late ’90s, but didn’t get a public screening until 2005.
What is your first memory of the cinema?
Oddly enough, another film by Rolf de Heer. It’s called Tail of a Tiger and I watched it as part of a free holiday program at the Essendon Civic Centre. I remember laughing when the bullies got covered in flour. Perhaps you had to be there.
Can you describe the strangest experience at the cinema you’ve ever had?
No, but the strangest cinema I’ve ever been to was the Panorama, Jon Hewitt’s ahead-of-its-time videotheque on Brunswick St, Fitzroy, which used to show Sam Fuller triple bills and documentaries on what was called the “modern primitive” movement back when body piercing was considered edgy. Now it’s a community credit co-operative. Unless I dreamt the whole thing.
What about the cinematic experience you recall most fondly?
The Australian premiere of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art in 2007. I’d dreamt about seeing this film for years, and it truly lives up to its legend. It’s this strange, rambling serial story about theatre and conspiracy in Paris, which runs for nearly thirteen hours. You really have to make a commitment, so it becomes an adventure for the audience as well.
Finally, what advice would you provide to a) aspiring filmmakers and b) aspiring film critics?
The same advice I give myself: work harder, broaden your horizons, try to come up with some new ideas. Also, if you’re not serious about art you’re wasting your time. There are easier ways to make money.