Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stephanie Johnson says farewell to film reviewing

The 51st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the December 1995 issue and is by Stephanie Johnson, who had been our film reviewer for two years and had had enough. Not of the magazine, fortunately – she continued to review books for us.

To the artist, writer and film-maker, the critic is, figuratively, a kind of monstrous parent sitting in judgment. Among the artistic fraternity, critics are loathed almost as much as producers are by screenwriters. They are deemed ignorant, slow on the uptake and, most of all, unkind.
Theatre management have sound economic reasons for hoping critics will be magnanimous. Actors and playwrights read their reviews with trembling hearts, the spectre of cancelled performances looming in the dark of their mind’s eye. Painters scan theirs with the vision of an unpeopled gallery and vacant bank balance. As a young actress I had an idea that critics were all failed writers, hunched over in the gloom, their brains aflood with acid, waiting to deal the death blow with one swipe of their pens.
Someone once said that we become what we most fear. Given my early image of the reviewer, my incarnation as critic made me nervous even though I told myself that every time a book is read, or painting seen, or movie watched, then that consumer becomes – in that moment – a critic. The individual weighs up the worth of the work against their own standards and requirements, their own sense of aesthetics and ethics.
Most of us keep our opinions to ourselves, or share them with a few friends who have also experienced that book or film. As my reviews began to appear in print, I realised that publishing one’s opinions on contemporary culture is a strangely exposing pastime, more denuding even than publishing fiction.
The parent metaphor was one I discovered in my two years as film reviewer for Quote Unquote. It seemed the trick was not to allow a single weak facet, such as a less-than-confident performance, an over-enthusiastic designer or a clumsy script to overwhelm the otherwise delightful aspects of a movie. A film that was less than technically proficient may have a brilliant script; a miscast lead may throw an otherwise compelling film off-balance. It was important to “see the whole picture”: the making of a film, any film, is an enormous technical and logistical achievement.
What is most important to me, in the viewing of a film, is that it has a heart. This dawned on me slowly. Beautiful photography is not enough, just as it is wrong for critics to dismiss a film purely on the basis that it has a different morality from their own. It must go further than that. My sense of ethics suddenly seemed very conservative, as I grew more and more irritated with films such as Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction.
Quentin Tarantino, as we all know, is a gifted and interesting director, but to me he sells himself short. He is more than capable of making a film that does not take the easy way out of situations, a film that raises the human spirit rather than lowers it to a realm of cold, smart-arse glibness.
It strikes me now that it is not con­servative, or reactionary, for a critic to judge a film’s morality. In this secular age we have no doctrine to refer to, just a gut feeling that a film may have a negative influence on street life in the cities it screens in. In the late 80s we were all bamboozled, shocked and titillated by Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. A few brave critics and writers tried to ring alarm bells, to ask art-house filmgoers what they really thought they were going to see.
Around the same time I remember feeling nauseated by Greenaway’s ZOO, with its shots of slowly putrefying corpses. It all seems very innocuous now, less than a decade later. I watched Pulp Fiction surrounded by braying youths in black clothes. They thought it was hilarious, which it is, in parts.
As a terrified, gibbering young man on screen had his brains splattered all over the inside of a car, they wet themselves laughing. Myself, I failed to recover quickly enough from overwhelming pity for him to appreciate the joke in the next screen minute. I begin to wonder if we really are being hardened, that if youthful film-makers want to shock the establishment, they must try harder and harder to do so. The establishment these days is pretty thick-­skinned.
It has become commonplace now, especially in the US, for producers to hold a screening for selected audiences before the film’s final cut. The audience gives the producers their responses to the film, and from this the producers hope they will be able to foretell the movie’s success or failure at the box office. If the film-maker is present, then they must field questions and criticism from the floor, answerable already at this early stage to market forces.
High capital investment and the collaborative nature of film-making have made this seem necessary: no one would expect this of a writer with a half-finished novel, or a painter still to dab on the final brushstrokes. That audience’s response, in spite of how wide a cross-section of society the producers have assembled, will always be peculiar to the dynamic of that audience itself, just as the later critics’ responses will be subjective. The only subjectivity necessary to the creation of a work of art, film or any other genre, should spring from the artists themselves. Any criticism should come later, when the finished film opens for general viewing at the cinemas.

Over the last two years I saw films that delighted, educated, irritated and horrified me. There were films that sneaked up on me with their brilliance, sometimes one or two days after viewing them. There only two that I dismissed out of hand (Killing Zoe and Natural Born Killers) and many that I recommended wholeheartedly: Into The West, The Piano, Farinelli, Farewell My Concubine, Bad Boy Bubby, Muriel’s Wedding and War Stories, to name a few.
I determined early on, not always successfully, never to “tell the story”. Giving away the plot of books and films is not the job of the critic. It is a great failure, I think, and lazy too. Reviewers of books in magazines and the dailies often preface their crits with such brain-dead statements as “I liked this book” or “I didn’t like this book” before giving a not-always-accurate synopsis of the plot.
In her collection of essays, reviews and interviews A Small Personal Voice, Doris Lessing says that the creative individual longs for understanding and illumination from the critic, and is inevitably disappointed. She never reads reviews of her own work and in this she is not alone. Many writers don’t, but I’ll wager most do, longing for that parental approval.
Critics, then, are stretched on the rack between creator and consumer. It can be an uncomfortable place. And now, dear readers, I invite you to criticise the critic: “You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon sembable, mon frere!”


helenalex said...

"Most of us keep our opinions to ourselves, or share them with a few friends who have also experienced that book or film."

It really was a different world before the internet, wasn't it?

Stephen Stratford said...

Yes it was. Quieter and nicer. Less of what my friend John in Ngunguru calls "jibber-jabber". Now, everyone can be Michael Laws.

helenalex said...

On the other hand everyone can, to take a completely random example, have a literary commentary blog at virtually no cost, rather than suffer the logistical and financial problems of putting out a literary magazine in a small market such as New Zealand.

Stephen Stratford said...

Indeed, helenalex, and I can archive/make available to new readers bits of the little magazine that couldn't. Mustn't grumble.