When the film reviewer for the LA Times was attacked for his less than favourable
review of Titanic, the power play between the production of movies and their reception was
brought into sharp focus. Millions of ticket buyers cant be wrong, the director argued in
public print, and so the reviewer must have missed the mark.
The writer responded with the astute suggestion that because many millions of people
eat fast food that, of itself, does not prove that fast food is good cuisine.
"an era of cultural levelling"
The problem we now face is that the distinction between good and poor cuisine is
decidedly blurred, and the suggestion that only a few masters of the kitchen have the
secret is looking decidedly elitist in an era of cultural levelling.
This debate of art versus commerce, which has been at the centre of the film culture
for decades, now brings with it the fear, amongst the more concerned writers, that an
essential balance between the needs of promotion and the intellectual or cultural
assessment of films, will be irreversibly compromised.
What is now being threatened is a system of critique which began when writers like
Andrew Sarris published The American Cinema in 1968, a book which provided a guide for
critics as to the declensions of film art, under rather awkward titles such as Pantheon,
Fringe Benefits, Less than Meets the Eye, Restrained Seriousness, etc. His book laid down
a template for the analysis of films, and in particular the role of the director, which
has proved to be valuable in the development of our understanding of the moving image in
all its diversity.
But at the end of the century, 30 years after Sarris, the ground has shifted so
significantly that the practice of film criticism, and its popular form of reviewing, is
under considerable strain to retain an authentic, independent position in the nexus
between studio and audience.
"the emergence of cult cultural interests"
The change has occurred for a variety of reasons, - the merging of film into a form of
multi--media;the dilution of the framework of genres; the effect of 100 years of film
history on the response to and often the pastiche of what we are most familiar with; the
emergence of genuinely new criticism - feminist and gay critique of cultural forms, a new
political aesthetic which does not recognise thesimplistic left/right dichotomy; the
emergence of cult cultural interests.
The effect of these changes is that where once writers knew how to asses a new film
within an accepted critical framework, they are now viewing films which no longer conform
to those long-held criteria, and are often in direct competition with the high pressure
marketing results of a film which now creates success where once there would be none. As
in the case of Titanic, unless the reviews support the market results a critic can be
deemed to be 'out of touch'...the only valid opinion is statistically supported.
The pantheon of movies once defined by critical (if personal) perceptions has been
replaced by box office results over time - the greatest, the highest recorded earnings
etc. and to some extent also replaced by popular submission - vote for the greatest film
of all time...the greatest 100 films of all time; audiences are being encouraged to
participate in a process that was once the exclusive domain of the critics and their
"the irreverence of form"
The dilution of genres proves to be the most difficult for reviewers. This is
particularly true when an industry, such as the Australian one, is truly an emerging
industry, with a short history and a strong desire to re-invent cultural forms.
This inevitably produces an irreverent attitude to the sacredness of genres. Early
hints of this was George Miller's Mad Max, and Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris: in
both cases the irreverence of form outweighed the recognisable allegiances to genre.
Oziwood, as the industry here may now be called, has evolved into a vibrant film scene
of local productions and location shooting for major international productions originating
in Hong Kong, LA and Bombay. Proof that Australian directors continue to defy convention
can be seen in recent releases such as Head On, Dark City and Welcome to Woop Woop.
The consequential problem for Australian reviewers is how to judge the local product in
the global film context? Where does an eccentric satire like Welcome to Woop Woop fit?
Alongside Waynes World? Is it social satire a la Barry Mackenzie, or camp pastiche because
of its Rodgers and Hammerstein score?
Head On has more in common with Savage Nights than 9 ½ weeks, yet neither of those
films match the insight director Anna Kokinos brings to the local ethnic milieux and its
"another path full of trap"
Assessing the local product in terms of its likely overseas equivalent is another path
full of traps for the critic. Dark City is one example – an Australian film with
international stars made at Fox Studios, and aimed at both local and the international
marketplace. Should we celebrate this film because its was made on the cutting edge of
special effects and clearly has the American market in its sights, or for its brilliant
appropriation of genre and stereotypes?
These are hard times for reviewers who want to do something other than reprint the
press kit. The landscape is difficult to navigate, few films look as they used to, and
critics have fewer reasons to refer back to the movies that have come before.
Where do we go from here? Back to film school perhaps, or into a more collective or
communal state of dialogue about the film business and the art of the screen - critics
have to re-assert themselves and re-define why they are necessary otherwise we all might
just be made redundant by the marketing departments of film distributors.