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
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
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
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
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
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