Event Summary: Meet your Frenemies (The Role of the Critic), Auckland Writer’s Room, 27th March, 2012
Samuel Goldwyn once said, “Don’t pay any attention to the critics – don’t even ignore them.” With this in mind, taking time to understand the role of the critic could be a good investment for those working in our screen industry. When reviews are good, they’re our best friends – but when their opinion is not in our favour, the critics can take on a fearsome persona. Just how much influence do they have in our local screen culture and do their words hold value for the movie-going public?
“Whether you make films or TV shows, these are the people most likely to review them,” said Writer’s Room MC Gavin Strawhan as he introduced an evening of lively discussion with Peter Calder (NZ Herald), Sarah Watt (Sunday Star Times), Chris Philpott (On the Box – Stuff.co.nz) and Helene Wong (The Listener).
The first question of the evening was an all-important one: what is the critic’s job?
“Not simply to pass judgement,” said Helene, “but rather to try and give the reader an idea of what the experience of watching a particular film was. Youassume they haven’t seen it so you want to give them a feel for it, an idea of your own experience. A movie is emotional, so what emotions did I experience watching it? I also try to put the film into a context. How does it fit into the filmmaker’s body of work, or current culture, or concepts of filmmaking? It’s nice to be able to position it somewhere if you can.”
Peter felt he wasn’t really a ‘critic’ but more of a ‘reviewer’. “A critic is someone you would read when you have already seen the film. You’d be interested in their discussion of it. As a reviewer, I have only 350 to 500 words and I try to insert key words, ‘triggers’, into the first three or four paragraphs to make it clear what we are talking about. My primary role as a newspaper reviewer is to tell people what my experience of the film was and they will either find my writing reliable to the extent they have in the past or they’ll stop reading.”
Sarah pointed out that cinema-goers pay a high ticket price for the movies and the average New Zealander will go just three times a year. “Some of my friends can’t afford the time to go to the movies a lot and so when they do, they call me and ask what they should see. I can’t let them go see something that may not be worthwhile for them. Yes, we are telling people what we think they will enjoy and context is important. For example, you have to be able to say, ‘This is the director’s first film and they have career in music videos’ and that sort of context is good.”
And is it also the role of the critic to provoke an argument over a film?
“I write a Blog and so that’s not really a printed review,” said Chris. “The primary format of a blog is to invite a discussion. I think of what people might want to talk about with regard to a particular TV show and then I figure out the rest. A lot of television springs from what is happening in society at the time. It’s a reflection of what society enjoys. Some TV is almost escapism and film is not quite about that to the same degree.”
Gavin posed the question of popular cinema vs. art house and the audiences both attract can be quite different. Is there a value in critiquing a film in the context of what its intentions were?
“I have a responsibility to offer feedback to a filmmaker,” said Helene. “Any artist who puts something out there wants feedback and I feel a responsibility to say, ‘Well, here’s what I think you were trying to do and there’s how I think you managed it, or not. Here is my judgement, but there are my reasons for it. I appreciate what you are trying to do. Some things you did well – but others, not so well.’”
And when it comes to the local industry, what responsibilities does a critic have? Should they be as objective about local productions as they are about overseas film and television?
“I don’t think we should be kinder to anyone,” said Sarah, “but there is a dilemma. It is a very small industry here and you may know someone who is involved in a film that you thought wasn’t so great. It can be quite hard but you have a responsibility to the audience. It costs a lot of money to go to the movies so we cannot afford to be patronising or parochial about local films but the conflict is we do want our industry to succeed and if we write a damning review and no one goes then the film does not make money and so it’s tough for that filmmaker.”
Do critics see themselves as the audience by proxy or the filmmaker? Peter answered, “It is impossible to assess or offer an opinion about something unless you measure it against what you think that film was trying to achieve. I see myself as me, not the audience by proxy. My duty as a responder is to be consistent so that people can measure their response against that.”
A number of local films have had success here but have not translated well into the overseas markets. Gavin asked the panel to air views on the universality of NZ films and whether they could critique a local film favourably, knowing it was probably not going to do well internationally.
Peter pointed out that quality alone is not a guarantee for international success. “Often the money needed to promote a film overseas will exceed the production budget. For example, Taika Waititi’s Boy may not work too well in the US simply because he doesn’t have the budget to publicise it.”
Helene said she writes for a NZ audience. “But I don’t think they are any different from an international audience, except that they come to a local film with local knowledge.”
Chris said he loves all the NZ shows. “American shows have bigger budgets and talent pools, more resources which NZ cannot really match. I don’t think it’s fair to hold a local production up against a huge budget show like Game of Thrones which has a huge cast and multiple locations. I review it as it is: what the people behind the show have been able to do and whether they have succeeded at that.”
Getting down to the nitty-gritty, the panel was asked to speak about why they ‘do it’.
“For a start, I am a movie junkie, fascinated by the structure and form of storytelling,” said Helene. “I transitioned from theatre to film because I was far more moved by what I saw on screen than I had ever been in theatre. The whole acting technique connected far better with me than actors on a stage. Watching movies is like an education and I am always trying to find how writers can play around with the craft and structure. There is an analytical part of me that watches the film but then there is the emotional experience. What is it making me feel? Do I cry, laugh? A movie is supposed to give you a vicarious view of life in someone else’s shoes so you can live that life. If they have done that then I want to know how they have done it and communicate that to readers and the filmmaking community.”
“I love the way film captures people,” said Peter. “Someone said to me once that we never got over the fact that pictures moved. When you think of the transition from two dimensional to three, it really is nothing when compared with the day that the pictures actually started to move. We became so pulled into that.”
A review will often mention the director but the writer is seldom included. Helene said she got ‘smacked on the hand’ many years ago by the then-executive director of the NZ Writer’s Guild for not mentioning the writer in a review. “’You always mention the director, why not the writer?’ she said to me. So I do try to find ways to mention the writer but often people won’t recognise the name and so it’s irrelevant.”
“It doesn’t matter to me who has had their hands all over it,” said Sarah. “As far as the writer and the script goes, for me it’s ‘has a good story been told to me and told well?’ The whole craft thing is going on in my head, sure, and sometimes the script – the dialogue – is the joy of the film. The story may be very straightforward but the script is pacey and good. I write reviews for people who generally go to the movies three times a year and they are looking for points of connection they can identify with. I usually mention the director but I’ll only include the writer if it can create a good, interesting connection – for example, if the film was Brad Pitt’s first attempt at screenwriting. For me it also comes down to word count. I have to be judicious with what I say.”
Peter said he never reads scripts, adding he sees a film as ‘originated by a writer and created by an editor with the director holding the collaboration together’ and Chris said, “I don’t think about dialogue too much but if the writing is noticeably bad, I’ll mention it. I will single out a writer of a particular episode if I think it is a good one but I do understand it is a collaborative effort between a lot of people.”
During question time the panel was asked the extent to which they are influenced by the responses of others in the movie theatre. Peter said he usually attends screenings where the audience is predominately media and ‘moderate reacting.’ “We have an unwritten code where we don’t say to each other, ‘That was a load of s***.’ We all walk out in our own space and go do our jobs. If audiences are erupting with delight around me and I think the film is s*** that won’t change my mind. It’s not our job to report the audience’s reaction. I have to stick to what I am thinking and report my own reaction.”
All panelists except Chris agreed they would rather be critics than filmmakers. “I’m in awe of people who write and make films,” said Peter, “but would rather have been a great test batsman than a movie-maker.” Chris said,” I began writing my Blog because I love television and would rather be working on the shows than writing about them.”
And can a critic also be a filmmaker? “Having experience can add to your style and what you focus on,” said Chris. “I think creativity and criticism are flipsides of the same coin.” Sarah added, “It could even be desirable because when you are creating your art, you have already cast a critical eye over films in that genre so you could be more mindful during the creative process.”
To end the evening, Peter had the last word in answer to a query about the usefulness of the star rating system. “For us, 5 is a life changer, 4 is a really good film, 3 is a good film, 2 is not a good film and 1 is a crap film. But the industry thinks anything less than 3 stars is a critical slaughtering and 4 is ‘now you’re talking.’”
So … you be the judge!
Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen