The annual Pascall Prize is not a misspelling of the surname of the 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal. Instead it is a memorial to Geraldine Pascall, a Sydney critic who died suddenly from an aneurism in February 1983 at the age of 38.
It is Australia’s only major award for arts criticism. It carries with it a large cash prize, and the honour of joining a hall of fame which includes Andrew Ford, Bruce Elder, Roger Covell, Adrian Martin, Sandra Hall, Andrew Riemer, Joanna Mendelssohn, John McCallum, Alan Saunders and Elizabeth Farrelly. The award is concerned with criticism in all its forms — food to film, music to architecture.
This year’s winner is the Sydney Morning Herald film critic Paul Byrnes. In accepting the prize for 'always distinctive, mature, incisive and argumentative' work, Byrnes declared that serious film criticism was in trouble. 'The biggest reason is that the most powerful parts of the film industry want it to die and they always have … Since Star Wars and Jaws, the balance between audience, critic and film has shifted to the extent that much of the public now believes that a great film can't be great unless the box office makes it great.'
He has a good point. Take last year. The top ten box office films were:
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest $38m
- The Da Vinci Code $27m
- Ice Age 2 $24m
- Casino Royale $21m
- The Chronicles of Narnia $21m
- Cars $17m
- Borat $17m
- X-Men: The Last Stand $16.59m
- The Devil Wears Prada $16.55m
- Over the Hedge $16.3m
While I think we should take this list very seriously in terms of the cultural themes and value formation it suggests, Byrnes does not draw attention to the largest group of cinema-goers in the country: 13-30 year olds. The list indicates their desire for escapist and accessible fare, with science or animation fantasy leading the charge.
As a catholic film reviewer I note that this age group may well be absent from the pews of any or all religious collectives, but that their thirst for metaphysics. metaethics, transcendences, other worlds and other forms of being is satiated not in churches defined by such enquiries, but by less demanding, but infinitely more entertaining, celluloid temples.
My hunch is that for the majority of teenagers and young adults, the Hollywood blockbuster has always had greater appeal than the work of Godard, Eisenstein, Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Cassavetes, Truffaut, Lubitsch and Lang. There is nothing new in this, and good film criticism has survived.
It all depends on which public we are talking about; and every art form has a variety of them. For a spectator who falls in love with the cinema as art, the experience of film is a world away from the punter who likes going to the movies. Both have their place.
Even our own notoriously difficult national market can give us hope. If we look at the top 20 box office films in Australian history, adjusted for inflation, the list includes:
- Crocodile Dundee 1986 $47.7m
- Babe 1995 $36.8
- Moulin Rouge 2001 $27.5
- Crocodile Dundee II 1988 $24.9
- Strictly Ballroom 1992 $21.8
- The Man from Snowy River 1982 $17.2
- The Dish 2000 $16.8
- Priscilla, Queen of the Desert 1994 $16.4
- Muriel’s Wedding 1994 $15.8
- Young Einstein 1988 $13.4
- Gallipoli 1981 $11.7
- The Wog Boy 2000 $11.4
- The Piano 1993 $11.3
- Mad Max II 1981 $10.8
- Shine 1996 $10.6
- Green Card 1991 $10.6
- The Castle 1997 $10.3
- Lantana 2001 $10.1
- Looking for Alibrandi 2000 $9.9
- Phar Lap 1993 $9.2
With Chopper, Crackerjack, Kenny, Rabbit Proof Fence and Breaker Morant in the next five places, I think the public has struck a decent balance between flocking to see engaging and quirky films that are thoroughly entertaining and socially revealing, and serious films on serious topics by serious directors. There are only a handful of important Australian films that cineastes could argue should be there.
It is also good to remember the power film critics still have in Australia to set up some very pleasing box office results: As It Is Heaven, The Lives of Others and Romulus My Father are recent examples. We hope the recent searing Australian drama The Jammed will soon join them in not sinking without a trace because film critics kept saying they were too good to so do so.
I am more hopeful than Paul Byrnes about the balance between audience, critic and film. Maybe Pascal’s wager resonates for in me on many levels, but, with some titanic exceptions, and given the multiple audiences the cinema plays to, I think the box office usually gets it more right than wrong.