It’s a common perception of film critics: that they’re a bunch of insatiably word-hungry devourers of all kinds of cinema-related writing. But if your job involves writing about film, can reading other people’s commentary feel too much like work? A bit like you never left the office? Erin Free, editor of Australia’s longest running independent movie magazine, FilmInk, says yes.
“I don’t read much film criticism at all,” he tells Cinetology. “I certainly love watching movies in my spare time, but reading other reviews is too close to being work.”
Free, who also reviews films on ABC 702, is the perfect embodiment of the old “write for free then one day you might get paid for it” ethos. He has contributed to FilmInk for nearly two decades, writing for the mag since its embryonic years. Back then Free was happy to contribute for nix “while washing dishes and cleaning toilets to pay the bills.” He was later offered the job of Contributing Editor, then Editor.
“Sometimes working for free can pay off in the end,” he says, installing at least a modicum of hope into the minds of any film blogger currently reading this post. Free believes the internet has achieved great things for the culture of film criticism but is wary of the quality of the writing and who is creating it.
“There’s no filter now – anyone can be a critic – and sometimes that’s not such a good thing,” he says. “At least in print media, you have to be able to string a couple of sentences together and you can’t be thirteen-years-old.”
Free is the fifth participant in Cinetology’s Meet the Critics series, which spotlights the attitudes, viewing habits and cinematic diets of the country’s leading film reviewers. Previous participants are the Triple J’s Marc Fennell, Sydney Morning Herald’s Sandra Hall, ABC’s Margaret Pomeranz, The Age’s Jake Wilson and The Australian’s Lynden Barber.
Do you read much film criticism? If so, what publications and writers do you recommend?
No, I don’t read much film criticism at all. I certainly love watching movies in my spare time, but reading other reviews is too close to being work. Plus I don’t like to second-guess myself, and worry about why I’m the only person who liked or disliked a film. That said, I do have enormous respect for some critics, such as Sandra Hall, Peter Galvin and many others.
In your opinion, what if anything is wrong with the current state of film criticism and/or attitudes towards film critics?
We need film critics. That will never change. If a punter is willing to spend twenty bucks to see a movie at the local multiplex, they’re entitled to a little guidance if they choose to seek it out. Outside of reviews, all the cinemagoer can rely on is the film’s advertising campaign and media interviews with the cast and crew. Both of these come with a rather large helping of bias and self interest. The critic is usually the only individual talking publicly about a film who doesn’t have a vested interest in it and the importance of that can’t be under estimated. Just as checks and balances are instituted in other forms of business, so the critic stands outside the process and offers an evaluation untainted by direct involvement. That’s of vital importance. As I mentioned previously, I don’t read a lot of film criticism, so I can’t really comment about the state of it right now. All I know is that paying moviegoers are entitled to an unbiased opinion about a film if they so choose.
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 been great in terms of democratising the world of film criticism. Film is a great populist art form, so this is wholly appropriate, and everyone can now have their say. While some of the internet film writing that I’ve read is great — for example dvdverdict.com has some excellent reviews — a lot of it seems to be about the sizzle and not the steak. The internet is all about ‘the buzz’, and I think people give the web too much credit in terms of making and breaking films. Did internet geeks have anything to do with the success of films like Mamma Mia, Fast & Furious 5 or The King’s Speech? Probably not. The internet is great, but it can also be pretty stupid, especially when it comes to movies. A lot of internet discussion around movies tends to be snide, inane, reductive and immature — probably because a lot of it seems to emanate from teenage boys. There’s no filter now – anyone can be a critic – and sometimes that’s not such a good thing. At least in print media, you have to be able to string a couple of sentences together and you can’t be thirteen-years-old. Wait a minute…am I sounding old and bitter? Oh my god, sorry about that.
How did you become a film critic and when did you know you wanted to be one?
I’d loved movies from a very early age and had always wanted to talk about them. I first wanted to be a film reviewer in my teens. It actually happened in my early twenties when a friend of mine, Dov Kornits, started FilmInk. I worked on the magazine for free for many years while it was establishing itself, doing reviews and other things. I loved the magazine and what it stood for – I still do! – so I was happy to write for nothing, while washing dishes and cleaning toilets to pay the bills. When FilmInk became more successful, I was eventually offered the job of Contributing Editor, and then Editor, which I’m still doing now. I’ve been involved with FilmInk now for nearly twenty years. Sometimes working for free can pay off in the end.
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?
Cinema candy bars are the biggest rip-offs on the planet. I try and avoid them at all costs. Sometimes I’ll get a violently over-priced choc-top, but that’s about it. My tip is, go to Woolworths, buy a backpack full of cheap lollies and chips and sneak them into the movies. Or make your own popcorn at home, and smuggle that in. It’s much cheaper!
Do you take notes in the cinema? If so, how extensive are they?
No, I don’t take any notes. I’m too busy watching the film! How can you get swept up in a film if you’re taking notes? If a film’s good, you should be able to remember it, right? When I see other critics taking notes, I usually wonder what the hell they could be writing. “George Clooney, geez, that guy’s handsome’? Note taking is for universities, not cinemas. At least for me, anyway.
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 never cry in movies. Ever . I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m just an arsehole.
Who are five of your favourite living directors?
Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn and Quentin Tarantino.
What are five of your favourite Australian films of the last ten years?
The Proposition. Australia. I can already hear the groans for picking Australia but I don’t care! It’s a gorgeous film. Not Quite Hollywood. Kenny. Oranges And Sunshine.
What is your first memory of the cinema?
I got lost in the middle of the city when I was about four-years-old after seeing the Disney classic, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. I was returned to my distraught mother about three hours later after finally being picked up by the police. It’s weird that my first memory of the cinema is such a traumatic one! It certainly didn’t stop me. Or my mum! She pushed movies onto me all through my childhood, and continues to see just about every film released in the cinema. A lot more than me!
Can you describe the strangest experience at the cinema you’ve ever had?
Yeah, I vomited when I saw Kramer Vs. Kramer in 1979. I was nine-years-old and the scene where the kid fell off the monkey bars and cut his head made me sick. I think it was the sight of a little kid lying there bleeding – something that I could relate to, I guess – that made me so nauseous. I literally chucked up all over the carpet outside the cinema, but then went back in and watched the rest of the film. My mum wasn’t very happy. She was paranoid about me spewing at the sight of blood again at the movies, so we had to deliberate at length over every flick that she took me to. It was tough convincing her to take me to Mad Max 2. When I watch Kramer Vs. Kramer now, I can’t believe what a wimp I was. Great film though.
Looking back over your filmic life, what is the cinematic experience you recall most fondly?
It’s a big cliché – every film-loving guy my age would probably say this – but seeing Star Wars on the big screen in 1977 really did blow my mind. It inspired a deep love of movies that continues to this day. I even loved the prequels! Shoot me! And I don’t care that George Lucas continues to grind every last cent out of the films that he can. Star Wars was great, is great, and will always be great.
Do you ever walk out on films, or always feel an obligation to stay?
I’ve never walked out of a film. Even if it’s terrible, I like to give a film the benefit of the doubt, and hold out some hope that it might get better. If someone has put their blood, sweat and tears into making a film, the least that I can do is watch it until the end, even if it sucks. I came close to splitting on A Shark’s Tale, but I stuck it out.
With regards to philosophy re: sitting in the cinema, are you a back row sitter? A front row sitter? Why?
I always sit about three or four rows from the front. My eyesight’s not the best, plus I like to feel immersed in the film, and have it almost wholly surrounding me. I just don’t get that when I’m sitting too far back from the screen.
Finally, what advice would you provide to a) aspiring filmmakers and b) aspiring film critics?
Sorry to end with a cliché, but I’d suggest having a backup plan. Both filmmaking and film criticism are tough professions to break into, and even if you do break into them, they’re often not very lucrative financially, unless you make it to the top. I’d suggest entering into it as a hobby, and if you actually end up making a living out of it, then that’s an absolutely massive bonus.