A- A A+

Critics with the measure of a good film

1 Comment
Richard Leonard |  03 October 2007

Critics 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:

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest $38m
  2. The Da Vinci Code $27m
  3. Ice Age 2 $24m
  4. Casino Royale $21m
  5. The Chronicles of Narnia $21m
  6. Cars $17m
  7. Borat $17m
  8. X-Men: The Last Stand $16.59m
  9. The Devil Wears Prada $16.55m
  10. 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:

  1. Romulus My FatherCrocodile Dundee 1986 $47.7m
  2. Babe 1995 $36.8
  3. Moulin Rouge 2001 $27.5
  4. Crocodile Dundee II 1988 $24.9
  5. Strictly Ballroom 1992 $21.8
  6. The Man from Snowy River 1982 $17.2
  7. The Dish 2000 $16.8
  8. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert 1994 $16.4
  9. Muriel’s Wedding 1994 $15.8
  10. Young Einstein 1988 $13.4
  11. Gallipoli 1981 $11.7
  12. The Wog Boy 2000 $11.4
  13. The Piano 1993 $11.3
  14. Mad Max II 1981 $10.8
  15. Shine 1996 $10.6
  16. Green Card 1991 $10.6
  17. The Castle 1997 $10.3
  18. Lantana 2001 $10.1
  19. Looking for Alibrandi 2000 $9.9
  20. 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.

 



Comments

Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

My video shop tells me that The Jammed is due for a re-release under improved conditions. Lets hope it gets a better reception this time.

LENORE CROCKER 06 October 2007

Similar articles

No apologies for Howard's unjust war

7 Comments
Bruce Duncan | 20 December 2010

'Lazarus Rising', John Howard's memoirWith no hint of regret or apology, John Howard has defended his decision to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He gives no consideration to the just war criteria. This is not surprising, as on all these principles the case for a just war fails.


Andrew Hamilton and Peter Steele: boys with writing in their blood

Andrew Hamilton | 03 December 2010

The Gossip and the Wine, by Peter SteeleAs I reflect back now, I can see the difference between Peter's urge to write and my own. My hero was the master of terseness, Tacitus. But Peter wanted to find words, and ways of putting words together, that could unfold the shape of what lay beyond words.


Cinema: the secular temple

3 Comments
Barbara Creed and Richard Leonard | 18 March 2009

People have stopped going to church, but they still have an eye for and an expectation of the mystical. At the cinema, spectators, primed by the structures of the cinema itself, enter into a mystical experience with the shadow world being played out before them.


Hello, Newman

2 Comments
Andrew Hamilton | 10 December 2008Golden Years is a wonderful resource for reflecting on Catholic life over the last 60 years. The more than 70 former members who offer their memories of the Newman Society also reflect on the way in which their experience in it affected their subsequent lives.


Win: Stop-Loss movie tickets

staff | 04 August 2008In Stop-Loss, A decorated, young soldier returns to his Texas hometown following his tour of duty in Iraq, only to find his life turned upside down when he is arbitrarily ordered to return back to duty by the Army. Eureka Street has ten double passes to give away