Don’t you hate critics? Especially the ones who never agree with you. They’re obviously wrong. Or stupid. Worse, they don’t even write criticism, they write “reviews.” (Kidding,*sigh*)

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The latest provocation from the Wheeler Centre’s wicked head of programming, Michael Williams, is a week-long series titled “Critical Failure” with panels on Film, Books, Theatre and Art. (Mm, no Music. Was ever thus, as Morrissey has said. BTW, those who aren’t able to attend due to unfortunate commitments, eg living in Subiaco, Darlinghurst, North Hobart etc, check the Wheeler website in a week for the videos.)

Last night’s group comprised the critics Fenella Kernebone, Mel Campbell and Adrian Martin, with the Christian in the lion’s den being the director Gillian Armstrong. (Kernebone, Art Nation; Campbell, The Enthusiast; Martin, author and Assoc. Prof. at Monash; Armstrong, My Brilliant Career) The moderator, RN’s Peter Mares, directly addressed Martin: Is there a critical failure in film criticism? Yes! proclaimed Martin. And the panel went on like this:

Film criticism is dead.

No, it’s not! It’s alive and well on the Web.

Hah! Call that criticism? Nobody can be a movie critic unless they (a) write for print publication; (b) have been doing it for X years; (c) are a member of a critics’ professional society; and/or (d) get paid for it.

Well, the track record of the official movie critics isn’t that great. Most are forgotten the minute they’re published.

Infinitely more awful is what you read on the Net. At least print critics kept up standards.

When has a print critic of recent years equaled the greats of the past ?

Same thing goes for the Net. What I see is amateur hour.

Yeah? Well, bloggers and netwriters have passion!

But not a passion for using Spellcheck.

So if print criticism is so valuable, how come all those professional critics are getting fired?

Film criticism is dead.

(Repeat as often as you like.)

Okay, I made that up. No, actually I extracted it from David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema (where he talks about and demonstrates film criticism to a high order). But the ouroborosian dialogue above did sort of take place — with better manners and more salient points as to the arrest of old mass media writing (and very little defence of it), but with equal pungency.

No prisoners

The three critics pretty much agreed that newspaper criticism was dead and that the great magazine writing of the past had migrated online. It was forty minutes into the hour when moderator Mares let his hair down and cut to the chase, daring to ask the combative Adrian Martin why he no longer reviewed films (1995-2006) for the Age. Martin said, I quit! And I’m not going back. He said it became a terrible place to work for where you more or less had to devote big positive spaces for things like a new Tom Cruise flick. That is, pressured ultimately by distributors and corporations. Martin also remarked that when supposedly serious journals like the Monthly, or the Australian Literary Review, or the Australian Book Review did film they trotted out the “same old literary types for the 1950s view.” Finally, splendidly: “Why waste time talking about the Age? Forget the Age! I did!”

Haute criticism

What the critics were talking about and were looking to was Haute Criticism. Borrowing from Bordwell again:

A review is a brief characterization of the film, aimed at a broad audience who hasn’t seen the film … They track current releases, and so have a sort of news value.

A critical essay … [is] longer than a review, but it’s usually more opinionated and personal than an academic article. It’s often a “think piece,” drawing back from the daily rhythm of reviewing to suggest more general conclusions about a career or trend. [Eg] Pauline Kael’s “On the Future of Movies” … Critical essays can be found in highbrow magazines like The New Yorker and Artforum, in literary quarterlies, and in film journals like Film Comment, CinemaScope, and Cahiers du Cinéma.

Therefore the 100-200 word compressions that Kernebone writes for Limelight and that Campbell writes for twothousand.com.au (and 3 and 4 and 5 and sixthousand) are “reviews.”  Martin’s 3,300 word essay on Terence Malick for Rouge is criticism, the kind that’s so haute right now at the Wheeler.

I love the idea of criticism — it greatly enhances moviegoing. The first thing I do when I get home is surf for crits; reading a dozen of them can even salvage a bad night at the movies. But, of course, what I’m consuming like chips are merely reviews. Fast food for slow brains. Criticism plays on a whole other plane.

Conflicts of a director and moviegoer

So it was really interesting to hear from Gillian Armstrong, who likes reviews as a moviegoer — though she might only read the opening and the finishing line to avoid ruining the movie experience. But as a filmmaker she explained how reviews can be painful, and how those dead tree/TV reviews could destroy a movie in release. She told a story about how her film musical, Starstruck (following My Brilliant Career and a couple of docos), was misunderstood by local critics, and how one critic wondered if she should be making this kind of frothy frivolous film, instead of say, a socially conscious feminist movie. And how reviews like that had killed it at the box office while it was much more successful overseas, becoming a cult classic in the States. And Armstrong told of how, years later, under the influence of a bar tab she pinned down that critic — David Stratton, stand up — and … had a chat. Apparently Stratton had changed his mind about the film, recanting and apologising. Much too late, alas. “Not that it has affected me,” remarked Armstrong about the reception of her film only thirty years ago. “I got over it.”

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The critics’ critics

An audience member asked usefully which critics the panel liked to read.

Mel Cambell mentioned Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline, whom she likes even in disagreement, Philippa Hawker and Roger Ebert, because he’s really honest about his reactions.

Adrian Martin nominated two online: Chris Fujiwara says what he thinks and backs himself up but is willing to contradict himself, like writing three different entries on one film. Also Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Fenella Kernebone put forward Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers, very brief and “funny,” and the New York Times’ A O Scott, though her friends didn’t think much of him as a critic so is there something wrong with her taste?

Gillian Armstrong chose, among others, David and Margaret at the Movies. Not surprisingly, “I probably go a bit more with Margaret than with David.”

Departure

“Critical Failure: Film Criticism” was a great success as an event; the room was packed on a 12º night. Evidently, Melbournians are critically engaged. But with the caning of the old dead tree critics in mind, I did see one of them, Tom Ryan, who has reviewed movies for the Sunday Age since it began in 1989 (and who is also a “serious” critic) leaving the building. It’d have been good to have asked what he thought of the discussion but he walked without companion or umbrella into the rain. The corners of his mouth were gently pursed downward. It was dark and wet.

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