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Have your say: should film critics be more forgiving and ‘kind’ when reviewing Australian films ?
By Andrew L. Urban

It was predictable and understandable that the Nine Network edited out of its broadcast of the AACTA Awards, Stephan Elliott’s controversial rebuke of Melbourne based Fairfax critic Jim Schembri over Schembri’s scorchingly negative review of Elliott’s A Few Best Men. But it’s a pity it wasn’t given the public airing in that context, because the remarks go to a subject which should be debated. 

Needless to say, other media picked it up and ran with it in various forms, not least last weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald, where film writer Garry Maddox wrote a wrap piece around the subject (SMH, Feb 4-5, 2012- Cinema isn’t the place to pull punches.)

"It was “hate” that he detected in the Schembri review"

On the stage while berating Schembri for being poisonous in how reviewed A Few Best Men, Elliott said he saw his own film as “a big dumb, stupid piece of entertainment.” It was “hate” that he detected in the Schembri review.

Maddox quotes Phil Noyce, who says audiences need to trust reviewers. “We return to the ones who inform us with honesty and passion. We avoid those who obviously don’t enjoy movies.” That’s a diplomatic backhander to Schembri, I suspect.

But the media’s role in supporting Australian films and filmmakers is not via reviews: it’s in providing a platform for films and filmmakers to be visible to the audiences amidst the onslaught of Hollywood. It is to give as much space and attention as possible to profiles and background stories on our own filmmakers. It is to make known the craftsmen behind the camera. 

Such a shame then that the only AACTA Awards to be broadcast are those deemed to be of populist interest. The so-called ‘technical awards’ are not broadcast. The names of our best cinematographers, screen composers, editors, production designers and sound engineers remain unknown to most people because they are not deemed interesting enough for commercial TV viewers. This perpetuates and endorses the dumbing down of screen culture in Australia; here is where media support is needed.

Like Paul Byrnes, as quoted by Maddox, I believe reviewers have a responsibility to their readers, to frankly and honestly – and without bile – review movies on their merit. What Elliott responded to was what he perceived as the bile - the tone of Schembri’s review. (There were other negative reviews of A Few Best Men, notably in some US trade papers; Elliott didn’t take them to task, although he was unhappy about them.)

Sydney Morning Herald’s Sandra Hall’s told Encore magazine (May, 2011) ‘the local industry simply doesn’t need the concessions it may have invited in the past. “While the budgets here are naturally smaller than that of the commercial Hollywood film, the industry’s grown up enough to absorb candid criticism. Anything less would be condescending. Australian filmmakers proved long ago that they can compete internationally, no matter the size of the film.”

"We owe our readers an informed assessment as to the film’s success at achieving what the filmmakers intended"

It is not the job of a film critic to like or dislike films; it is our job to evaluate each film in the context of all the films we have seen and in the context of other films in its genre. We owe our readers an informed assessment as to the film’s success at achieving what the filmmakers intended. It would be absurd to suggest that I thoroughly enjoyed every movie which I review positively. There are movies meant for 8 year olds, for example, that I review not on the basis of how excited I got or how scared I got but on how well the film achieves its own ends.

That’s the difference, surely, between amateur critics who blog their opinions based purely on how they ‘enjoyed’ a movie – and professional critics whose craft lies in a more sophisticated review, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.

As for reviewing Australian films, I believe reviewers should be just as demanding as we are of any other film. It would be patronising and insulting to Australian filmmakers to pull our punches, implying that we have to assess their films on a lower scale of merit. Imagine an art critic at the Archibalds declaring ‘Not bad … for an Australian artist.” 

For example, I began my unhesitatingly negative review (“it fails dismally as a movie”) of Marc Gracie’s You and You Stupid Mate (2005) with this note:
“Disclaimer: I am on good (professional) terms with several of the cast and crew, some producers and one of the writers of this film. I have met them in the course of writing on Australian film for the past 20 odd years. This is unavoidable and the silken threads of these relationships make it painful to publicly unravel their work here. But then if I can't be frank with my opinions about Australian films, I am insulting their intelligence and their professionalism. And I'd be doing a disservice to the craft of film criticism.”

Full review

"Professionals don’t want to be working in sheltered workshop mentality"

Professionals don’t want to be working in sheltered workshop mentality. 

As Paul Byrnes so rightly tells Maddox at the weekend, “Boosting the film industry may be something I’d like to do but it’s not my job.” Likewise, when people talk about me being in the film industry I remind them that I am actually in the publishing business.

Published February 9, 2012

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