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IVAN HUTCHINSON MEMORIAL LECTURE, 1999

THE SCOURGE OF CYNICISM
Presented by the Melbourne Film Festival in association with the Melbourne Film Critics Forum, the annual Ivan Hutchinson Memorial Lecture was given this year ANDREW L. URBAN, editor of Urban Cinefile and a writer on film and filmmaking for almost 20 years. This is an edited extract of the lecture he presented on August 7, 1999.

PART ONE
At its best, film criticism is enjoyable to read, valuable for insight and informative. There are several different forms of criticism, from deeply academic to cheerfully superficial.

My own film appreciation is somewhere in between, built on patchy personal experience rather than studied and structured analysis with a background in screen culture.

This evolution of film appreciation is similar to the experience of many of those for whom I write my reviews. It is a background built on a love of and interest in cinema – and resists cynicism, even when faced with the occasional cynical film. Cynicism, it seems to me, is a negative force that can castrate critical comment.

Sadly, in my view, the scourge of cynicism, together with its capsicum- spraying manservants, derision and desdain – have become today’s tone de rigeur - and not just in film criticism, but throughout our daily lives. It’s a shield that protects us from pain, perhaps - - - the pain of disappointment and the pain of vulnerability. But it also limits the range of positive emotions and responses that a film can generate in us. It closes the mind. It affects our objectivity.

Let me give you an example - here is one review of Saving Private Ryan:

"The film begins with the real hero of the story identified as this dear little middle aged lady in a world war typing pool, who recognises the link between the letter she is typing to a mother about her son. She has typed three others like it, to the same woman, about her other sons. All dead. Only a woman would notice. So what happens? We drop her like a dead rat and follow Tom Hanks on his cross country trek to save young Matt Damon (Ryan). If this faux pas in story telling weren’t enough, we are taken on to the Omaha Beach landing, so the real focus is no longer the human story of Saving Private Ryan, but of young men being killed in battle. Gee, that's original. Anyway, we keep going and soon it becomes a road movie, except the characters don’t drive very much. They walk. All three of these movies – the lonely spinster heroine as war hero; the waste of youth in war; the war-driven road movie – begin well and then wither away. But let’s be fair: it’s glued together well, with one reel following the other."

This is the same film that has been critically hailed elsewhere, the same film that enjoyed enormous popular success (not that popularity and quality are always embodied in the one movie) and the same film that moved people to tears. Who wrote that cynical review, I hear you ask. Well, I confess it was me. I wrote it for urban cinefile under the psudonym of Aacid Tung, an occasional alter ego whose task is to satirise cynicism in film reviewing. It is easy enough to do. It's just a matter of taking a certain attitude.

We introduced Aacid Tung as a sourpuss who goes to the movies with the forlorn hope of finding something to please him - nothing ever does. We created Aacid to provide entertainment. It's fun to read poison pen letters, and that's just my point about cynicism. It makes good copy, like bad news, but is it real criticism, or is it biased by the lure of applause from an audience that delights in seeing blood? The Romans knew a thing or two about entertainment, and we all know the lions weren't really the baddies.

The level of professional critical cynicism and perceived public cynicism have grown, in the face of a confusing world. But black and white positions are like black and white racism: unsustainable, illogical, emotive, destructive. And not very enlightening. The more these simplistic notions are rehearsed by film makers and us critics and the more they are repeated in the community, the more they feed our prejudiced assumptions.

And assumptions, as I've learnt, are often dangerous. A man is driving up a steep, narrow mountain road. A woman is driving down the same road. As they pass each other the woman leans out of the window and yells: "pig!" The man immediately leans out of his window and replies: "bitch!" They continue on their way and as the man rounds the next corner he crashes into a pig in the middle of the road.

I believe our communal cynicism is manifested in many ways, both in real life and on the screen, including the intense violence in film which fails to register the effects of violence on the victims. The cars, the buildings and the exploding vessels are destroyed in glittering detail, but the human cost is largely ignored. The pain and the sorrow are not conveyed in equal measure.

And I think this comes about because filmmakers are working from within society; they are drawing breath from the same societal air and are energised by the same cultural, socio-political ambiance as we all are.

The trouble with too much cynicism (a modicum of it is always healthy) is that it soon becomes the accepted and expected language of life – and of review, a flattening of the faculties.

My own objective is to write for the reader, responding to a film with regard for its intentions and its genre. I do not regard all films as equal and all things to all film-literate people. There are readers for every type of film – I am not the thought police.

One reader wrote to me at Urban Cinefile the other day saying:
"I'm rarely in sympathy with movie reviewers, who' re a pompous lot, mostly. (an exception is sandra hall). However, I was pleased to feel completely in sympathy with your reviewers of notting hill. No cynical bullshit about how improbable and silly it was at some level – fairy tales are always improbable and silly! I -- a rather jaded, 40-something divorced professional woman, was utterly delighted by Notting Hill -- "cerebral shortcomings" notwithstanding. The timing and delivery of an excellent script by the entire cast -- who all felt three-dimensional, no matter how small the part -- was an enduring joy of this charming movie. I need to see it again to catch up with the bits I missed as the audience was laughing!"

Attitude is all important because that is what we use to add flavour to our critical stew. It is also the element that we pass on to others in the guise of informed comment. Everyone’s a critic, of course, but only some of us get published and paid for it. There is a responsibility attached to that. And that is to approach each film on its own terms and within its own context. Lately I've been boring people to death with the phrase: truth is context.

In the context of real life, singing in the rain and tap dancing in the wet gutters is socially questionable conduct. In the pursuit of entertainment, it's magic.

And if we dismiss filmed entertainment as worthless or simplistic, we let ourselves down by reducing our response to a simplistic posture.

I am always suspicious of critics who stubbornly dislike and negatively deconstruct every film. I can’t imagine being a film critic if I am constantly disappointed by every film I see. It's a fair bet that the real agenda behind those reviews is a power game. If we confuse film criticism with just being critical, we are again just posturing.

Someone once said, it is not the things that happen to us in life that matter, but how we respond to them. The same can be said of the movies. And cynical responses can lead to confused objectives.

I think movies today are often expected to perform tasks way beyond entertainment, like psychotherapy, social work, political soldiering – and of course, crusading. Films are often seen as cultural avengers, in our case, fighting against the imperialist hollywood studios. But we in Australia seem a tad confused on this: many in this room will applaud australia’s feisty record in cinema and join me in hoping it will continue to thrive. But the cold and harsh reality is that the vast majority of Australians do not embrace Australian films per se, and have not supported them at the box office.

Is this a communal cynicism? Or is it well intentioned but unfounded patriotism? Or is it a confusion about the role of filmmaking?

MORE, SEE PART TWO

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Andrew L. Urban

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Your COMMENTS on Andrew's lecture are welcome; please indicate if they are not for publication, and include your full name and phone number in the email.

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Saving Private Ryan: sharp question

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"The trouble with too much cynicism (a modicum of it is always healthy) is that it soon becomes the accepted and expected language of life – and of review, a flattening of the faculties."

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"Lately, I've been boring people to death with the phrase : truth is context."

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"Why are we providing the funds for film production? Is it to prop up our home-made film culture – or is it to invest in profitable movies? Or indeed, can we do both – and if so, does the present system deliver that? I think we need to determine what is our collective attitude to this issue and decide why we should supports filmmaking. To allow films to fail? To sustain the industry despite its commercial failures. Or to build a commercially successful industry? And if both, we should explore how that is to be achieved: I don't think it is at present."

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