Three Remarks on Film Critics
and Criticism (1991)


Introduction 2022: These are the notes I ‘spoke from’ for a 1991 “Australian Film Critics Forum” in Melbourne, organised by the Australian Film Institute. Held in a conference room of the plush Regent hotel, it was a bizarre affair, pitting me as the “maverick young cinephile” (I was 31) against two older Gentlemen of the Press: the Age newspaper’s then-reigning film critic, Neil Jillett (this was four years before I got his job), as well as its TV columnist, a beloved Melbourne University Classics professor named Dennis Pryor (deceased 2008), who (like Jillett) refused to take his position as reviewer seriously at all, but always had a memorised quote from Homer or suchlike readily at hand to get him out of trouble. The guiding topic/question of the session was, approximately, “What are the prerequisites for being a film or TV critic?”. Public discussion time afterwards got quite heated, with audience members including Freda Freiberg denouncing Jillett – and Jillett sneering at me as he hissed: “A film critic is someone who has … written for a magazine?!?” During the panel itself, I was allotted a grand total of three minutes, in which I made the following statement about some basic principles for film critics and criticism.


1. Where do I come from, what do I do? I teach film studies; I write for magazines large and small; I hang around the independent and experimental film scenes. I also read many kinds of film books and magazines; I watch older movies at film societies and rare movies on video.


Everybody’s history is different, but I believe that the prerequisites for being a film critic go something like this: a knowledge of film history and an ability to make meaningful connections between films; a knowledge of (and investment in) current debates here and overseas; and a sympathy for marginal and independent forms of cinema – short, avant-garde, documentary, theoretical, militant, feminist, specialist …


2. I absolutely reject the idea that a film critic is just a reasonably “all-round cultured” person with an average interest in cinema – plus, a person who is equipped with a set of noisy personal opinions (based on what Meaghan Morris has diagnosed as “gut reactions”), and an infinite, ever-renewed set of “good/bad” judgments to be dispensed on a weekly basis.


Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind opinions per se; and I can enjoy the public display of them, as a spectator or a dispenser, just like anybody. But I do take objection to the high levels of whimsy, of arbitrary and fickle judgement, based on nothing more than a vague feeling such as “that film just didn’t work”.


For instance, a current local case. Why do we read official praise for Ray Argall’s Return Home (1990) or Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof (1991) – and I personally like both of them myself – as “well made”; but, from those same, mainstream reviewers, harsh verdicts upon the “aptitude” of Brian McKenzie’s Stan and George’s New Life (made 1991, released theatrically in 1992)? What is a well-directed, well-made film? It’s most often a reflex, unexamined, assumed category.


It’s often said of critics that they “know nothing about filmmaking”; and some critics/reviewers respond in turn that they presume to speak as an “average filmgoer” – nothing more and nothing less. The “everyone’s a critic” line, and all that. But I believe that both these positions are wrong. The critic needs technical/industrial knowledge, and a distance or overview, a critical position. The critic should be someone in between, proposing something interesting and useful both to filmmaker and filmgoer alike.


3. Critics should know – and care – about where films “come from” in cultural terms. In recent mainstream coverage of the Melbourne Film Festival, for instance, two films not nominated for Australian Film Institute awards were either disparaged or simply ignored.


The first of these is Ross Gibson’s Dead to the World (made 1991, released theatrically in 1992, and later drastically recut for TV). Whatever one thinks of it (I have some problems with it myself), it’s not a “puzzle” (as it has been lazily described), so much as a film evidently emerging from a quite specific slice of Australian film culture: I mean, in this case, Filmnews magazine, the books and essays of Susan Dermody & Liz Jacka on Australian cinema debates, Sylvia Lawson’s column in Australian Society magazine, not to mention Gibson’s own writings …


The second case is Leo Berkeley’s Holidays on the River Yarra (1991). In interviews, the director has referenced Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948), Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974) and Jon Jost’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) as primary influences. Guess which one of those three citations would very likely be lost on most of our salaried newspaper film reviewers in Australia at present?


So, I find myself musing on the place that Jost’s masterpiece – and many other films like it – has in the intellectual and sentimental journeys of “my generation” of cinephiles (Berkeley included) … compared to the generally ignorant, dismissive press treatment that a local movie like Holidays on the River Yarra, growing from those same cultural roots, tends to (very predictably) receive.


In short, we need critics who know something, and care a lot more, about cinema in general  – and about cinema’s cultural place(s).


© Adrian Martin 31 July 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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