“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. we can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” – William Bernbach
“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.” – Oscar Wilde
So you want to be a film journalist? Only an insane person would answer yes to that question, which coincidently happens to be one of the most useful requisites of the job.
Having experienced the challenges of getting started (then restarted) in the field I've taken some pleasure answering advice-seeking emails over the years. That's not hand-wringing glee at pummelling another innocent soul with the reality they face. Given the general competitiveness of the business of journalism one would think the best thing you could do is dissuade any new freelancers from helping themselves to a slice of the pie. In fact, with that thought in mind I can hardly believe I’m gonna write the rest of this article…
Nevertheless, you expressed an interesting in becoming a film journalist. What comes first? Above all else a passion for film goes without say. It’s got to be even more than this though, there’s an extent to which you have to be obsessive compulsive about cinema, the culture and history, not to mention the personalities. It’s not the be all and end all, I’ve read critics along the way for whom film comes some way down the pecking order but whom can offer the most intelligent analysis of a film you’ll see anywhere. Some are just smart like that, unfortunately not I.
That isn’t the only purpose of a film journalist though, yours is to know the business and its players as thoroughly as possible. Hopefully as a consumer of a wide variety of media you will also have a strong grasp of society, culture and politics more broadly, if only so you can locate films within contexts crucial to their reading.
I’ve harked on about this previously, but it’s so important to get involved with your local community of filmmakers and give yourself a better understanding of what motivates these creatives to expose themselves to critical eyes. ‘Know your enemy’ is not really applicable because no filmmaker should be your enemy – with the exception of Lars von Trier for some, Michael Bay for others – the principle, however, is sound. A little humility goes a long way when it comes to reviewing the labours of so many; it’s a helluva lot harder to build something from nothing than to tear it down.
Assuming you have a grounding of knowledge the next thing is reading and research. Pick writers whose work challenge and entertain you, keep them in your regular cycle of weekly reads. Figure out what it is about their style and structure that works and experiment with similar variations in your own writing. Find a range of writers to follow from different publications, with different audiences because as a writer you’re going to have to adapt your style depending on who is gonna help you pay your bills (did I mention the year I was writing for a paranormal magazine?). Course, you have to find your own voice too, but be aware that no matter what it’ll have influences, better you at least know where some of them come from.
Reading a number of different websites and magazines will give you a broad knowledge of what’s happening in the world of film as a whole: from mainstream consumer magazines like Empire to industry websites such as The Hollywood Reporter and indieWIRE or blogs such as Deadline: Hollywood and /Film for news; in-depth critical analysis from journal magazine such as Sight & Sound to major broadsheets such as The Guardian and New York Times. The more you read the more equipped you’ll be to have an informed opinion.
As if that wasn’t enough homework to get you started my next suggestion is to know your local writing industry. It might be because I’m pretty anal about these things, when I first arrived in Australia I spent hours on Google navigating all the film content producer websites and blogs (I'm not going to tell who who they are, but there's a list of links to the right ----->), finding out who was who, where the talent was and, quite frankly, where the money was – because getting paid for your words is the one of the points of this exercise. Besides all that, I think it polite and professional to have an idea of your peers in the industry given that your voice isn’t geographically singular. Knowing who the other writers are will help you fill gaps in your contacts list (we’ll come to that shortly) and give you your own sense of community – it can be daunting going to those early screenings and junkets not knowing anyone. The advent of Twitter has made it a lot easier for us to communicate and meet each other in ways that might have seemed a little creepy before.
Part of the research you’ll need to do is wrapped up in the above, the rest has to do with building your contacts book from filmmakers, curators, screen organizations, publicists to editors. Hopefully by this point you should have stretched your legs with a bit of writing, a blog is a very helpful avenue to explore your style. So first up email all the editors of websites and magazines you’d like to write for explaining why and including samples (best is links) to some of your writing (short pieces only, no editor is going to read a 2,000 word essay on Bergman). Don’t forget, your email will be taken as a piece of writing so be engaging.
If you are looking at journalism as a fulltime option then work experience is definitely the way to go. Getting an insiders look will give you a big advantage when it comes to freelancing as a lots of writers who haven’t worked on a publication basically ignore a lot of the style points (filmmakers or film-makers?) which drives editors crazy when editing and formatting articles. It will also give you an appreciation for the amount of administration that goes on in putting together a publication, from purchase orders to invoices, flat-plans to forward plans, picture editing to transcription… all the really fun stuff... ahem.
Once you’ve got in with an editor and have an outlet to file your work for, next to contact are the publicists, which means figuring out all the distributors (Disney, Sony, Paramount, Madman, Hopscotch etc) and sometimes the PR firms who handle the press on their behalf. Bear in mind theatrical and home entertainment are two completely separate entities, so if you’re expecting check discs (or ‘screeners’) to start pouring through the front door that’s going to take a little more work.
As the online domain has grown exponentially it’s become a little trickier to get onto mailing lists for screenings, so when you email a publicist make sure you say who your editor is and provide them as a reference (don’t forget to let the editor know). There’s two or three tiers of screening, first is often exhibitors and marketing people. Next is ‘long-lead’ media (monthly magazines) and then finally ‘short-lead’ (online, radio, tv, weeklies etc), the latter of which comes around a week or two before the release date*. All distributors have slightly different styles and attitudes (embargoes etc), be prepared to adjust accordingly.
* Speaking of release dates, there’s heaps of info online, but the distributors also send around schedules. I try to use these to keep my own master release schedule for the coming six months so I can work on feature ideas in advance.
Back to editors for a moment, there’s a couple of things they are looking for from writers beyond being an entertaining read so keep in mind: clean copy will get you everywhere; formatted to magazine style; on time, on time, on time. Once you’ve started getting reviews in the bag and proved yourself not only as a writer but also for your reliabillty, it won’t be long before you get asked to do an interview.
You’ll be needing a microphone and some kind of recording device (or something that does both). For the past few years I’ve used my iPod with an iTalk, which is perfect for me. MP3 Dictaphones are also really good and for a while I’d use both after one heinous failure to record incident. Which bring me to another piece of advice, test your equipment before your interview and check intermittently during the interview the device is recording.
I interviewed Alejandro González Iñárritu for 21 Grams way back when, nervous fiddling caused me to pause my recorder right at the start and I didn’t check it once during. It was a 30-minute interview and as soon as I realised having got off the phone I had to write as much as I could from memory (aided by fact there were many stock answers from the director). Unsurprisingly it became more of a ‘mood piece’, which actually worked out fine for that particular film.
How do you record telephone interviews? Two ways, the first is by finding a bit of spyware which is simply a microphone that goes into your recording device then into your ear – look out for the Olympus TP-7. The second way is to use Skype and a recording program such as Audio Hijack or Pamela Call Recorder (HT @gerardelson).
These days 15-20 minutes are pretty standard interview slots, which isn’t a lot to work with so you got to be prepared. Research the hell out of your subject and be prepared with 10-12 questions – if you get a chatty subject you’ll be lucky to get in eight questions, while someone with jetlag might leave you with no questions left and five minutes to run. Be prepared to think outside the box or tear up your script. If the subject gets excited about a particular topic of conversation, stick with it. I was a door-to-door salesman one summer when I was 19 and they call it looking for the ‘Hot Spot’.
Ten minutes of interview transcription will normally run you around 1,000 words (you will certainly use only half of the material you get). Transcription, as you may come to discover, is what you will do more of than anything else as a journalist, perhaps with the exception of chasing money. I regret not keeping up with my shorthand, but our NCTJ teacher was a scary.
Which reminds me, Media Law – you do well to at least teach yourself a little about libel, slander, fair comment and do your best to afford the first two. I’m not, however, going to tell you how to write an article other than offering a couple of tips:
1) Avoid quote dumping to pad your article out, the point is to tell the story in your own words with a few quotes to qualify them or when something is particularly interesting. Anything else is laziness and if you don’t like excessive exposition in your films, imagine how readers feel about excessive quote dumping.
2) Give your editor a couple of headline ideas to use and a standfirst – they will love you for it.
3) Try keep your first par down to 80 words and drop your first quote in the second or third. It's by no means a strict formula, but it's a good start to habitualise. Struggling to lose words? Chances are the first and last pars are surplus to requirement.
4) Never, ever, write in the first person for any publication other than your own blog, unless you are Roger Ebert, then you can pretty much do whatever the hell you like.
5) Always try to sleep on any article before submitting. A bit of distance helps proof-reading immensely, otherwise you just read whatever you intended to write.
Back to interview technique, I really want to say this and can't state how important it is: do not be afraid to ask tough questions of your subjects. You're not there to fan their ego, that's what they have assistants, agents and fans for. Your job is to get the story, find something of value for your readers that 20 other daytime television faces at the junket didn't bother looking for. Be challenging and ask difficult questions, especially if the content matter of the film provokes it. If you're interviewing Cameron Diaz about her latest rom-com it's probably not necessary to resort to waterboarding in the hotel bathroom. A smart filmmaker will respect you for being engaged while the assholes will give great colour for your piece.
Point is, if you've got a burning question in mind but are scared the interview with be cut short or turn competely pear-shaped, earn trust from the subject by warming them up and build toward that tricky question. Save enough time at the end of the interview so you can follow up. Chances are if you're scared to ask something, you're probably on the right track*.
* I will not be held responsible for any loss of earnings as a result of this advice.
And I highly recommend reading as many interviews with the subject as possible to find out what makes them tick and what their default answers are. Read the production notes for the film and as soon as the subject falls into retelling quotes you've seen elsewhere, cut them off as quickly as possibly and ask a question that throws them off guard.
Feels like I've given you plenty to get started, so some final thoughts. Journalism takes perseverance, film journalism is no exception to that rule. Other useful tidbits: try and join a trade union, they will help you out when errant publishers aren't paying you; and only sell first serial rights, never sign-off on ownership to your work.
The little issues matter, you are a part of the film industry in your suburb, your city and your country. If faced with the choice between Avatar 2 opening weekend and your local single screen cinema closing down, guess which is the biggest story?
As a journalist you have influence, however small. Know that even with only a little power comes great responsibility. This post is by no means exhaustive, I'm could write a book about the magazine's I've written for, the ones that folded, the maniacal publishers, the dastardly accountants, the brilliant editors and the alcoholic writers. It's hard work, but it's damn fun too.
Good night, and good luck.
This article was written as part of the #OzFilmBlogathon.
Monday, December 13, 2010
“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. we can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” – William Bernbach
Monday, December 6, 2010
"I am out here for you. You don't know what it's like to be me, out here for you. It is a pride-swallowing siege I will never fully tell you about." Jerry Maguire
As proud as I am of my profession, the older I have gotten the more reticent I have become about telling people. Without fail the next up question is a variation of the following: "so you get paid to watch movies?" Well, yes, but no. Not at all in fact. If I did get paid to simply watch movies I'd probably have been able to retire by this point.
The same as any type of journalist, I get paid for producing words – literally, seen as most publications pay by the word and not by the article. Sometimes those words are about a specific film (criticism), sometimes a news story (reportage), and the rest are usually interviews or profiles (features). Each article type is very particular and demands very different writing skills. A great news writer cannot necessarily turn around a great feature or review and the same is true in reverse.
I never enjoyed news writing that much and truth be told I've never been particularly good at it. I enjoy reportage, chasing a story and getting interviews, it's the formality of the write-up that gets me. My strong suit isn't really in criticism either. This is my confession, I don't particularly think I'm a very good critic. What I do think is that I can tell a story well and with a nice turn of phrase. As such, I love meeting filmmakers, actors, musicians, cultural curators, festival organisers and telling their story to the world, or at least the very small population of Planet Earth who frequent the pages of my publications.
These are still the glamour parts of the profession, and even then sometimes writing can become very unglamorous. I can't remember ever having written so much and enjoyed writing so little as I did for the most part of 2009. It was my first full year in Sydney, although I'd initially arrived in 2008 I'd also spent some six months living and working on the mountains of New Zealand and a farm in Victoria.
Returning to Sydney in January of 2009 I began setting up a film journalism career from scratch and by the time the year was out I'd written enough words that printed out in Helvetica Neue size 12 they would reach from here to the moon and back*. I'm a pretty fast writer, but at that velocity you don't get much time for proof-reading, pleasure or watching movies (although I actually watched 230).
* statistic maybe factually inaccurate.
It was a far cry from my heady heights as a commissioning editor on DVD Review. What I loved about that role was working with other writers, coming up with ideas, collaborating with the magazine designers and refining feature articles so they read the best they possibly could. Across from the DVD Review desk was the Hotdog team, where my best friend Tristan Burke was the Deputy Editor. After Hotdog folded, Tristan moved to Sydney and onto music journalism, eventually being made Editor of 3D World.
Hard as this might be for many here in Sydney to imagine, but that was one publishing company (Paragon Publishing) with two film magazines and around 10 full-time film journalists – there were at least six monthly consumer film and four DVD magazines in the market at the time (not to mention academic and B2B titles). The pay was dreadful but we didn't give a shit. All we cared about was putting out the best magazines possible and what interviews we were getting.
I fought hard to realign DVD Review a little closer to the cinephile side of our readership rather than the multiplex-in-their-living-room types that was our core readership. Two of the proudest moments in my career were the Jim Henson feature I ran, which included dynamite interviews from The Henson Company – including Steve Whitmore, discovered by Henson as a 16-year old puppeteer and who would eventually takeover as Kermit – and the black and white Martin Scorsese cover that to this day I still can't believe our Editor Paul Morgan signed off on.
Paul was very mainstream with his taste and correctly resolute in keeping the magazine in that territory, but he trusted his team and was willing to take chances if you argued a good case. To this day he is still the best editor I've ever worked with even if he flat refused my arguments for a Shawshank Redemption cover when the special edition was released (I so wanted the rain-drenched hero shot to be our cover that month).
The relationship between journalist and editor can be amazing in the right circumstances. I made a point of engaging with my writers, believing every feature article to be a collaborative effort. Like a sportsperson and their coach, it's all about helping a talented individual reach their potential – God knows I can used all the help I can get. Lately I've had more bad experiences with editors than good. Lucky for me I still know a few good ones.
Making magazines about movies was such an immense and rewarding pleasure that I can't accept the thought of the industry's demise and nor do I. My suspicion is tablet devices are the future of publishing, they may even usurp the world wide web, however I am unshakable in my belief there will always be room for great niche magazines in the same way I suspect vinyl will outlast the CD. And besides, there will always be something special about paper and ink.
* Random aside: 5 favourite interviews in my career (in no particular order and apologies it's so guy-centric):>
1. Michael Ironside
"My dad turned to me and said you had a game plan there for a while, which was I’d do a large studio picture and then go do a few small ones; one for my wallet and a couple for my heart. I gotta a funny feeling this one will satisfy both." We talked for around an hour and half, though scheduled for 30 minutes on Total Recall, only reason we stopped was he'd promised to pick up his gran kids from school.
2. Michel Gondry
"I’ve had my heart broken two or three times since. It’s hard, but sometimes it makes me happy because it helped me make this film." And hour and half late, terribly hungover after a night out in London with John Malkovich, Gondry and I lamented our failed relationships while discussing Eternal Sunshine.
3. Danny Boyle
"I think the scale of the film was too much for me, well, not too much, rather I just didn’t work at my best at that kind of scale. I’m good at inspiring people on a one to one basis, and you can’t do that when you’ve got a crew of 300 people, it’s just insane. So after I finished I went to Manchester and made a couple of really small films on mini-DV. What brought that technology onto 28 Days Later, it was like a training exercise." Very intelligent and honest, Boyle was open to any question including those on The Beach.
4. Paul VerhoevenJust cos he was so damn cool and directed some of the best science fiction films in history. This was my fanboy interview.
5. Christopher Doyle
"The resonance of cinema is the extrication of the personality of the image-maker with the person behind the camera.... The whole reason people makes films is to try and share something, to engage and celebrate some idea that is so basic and integral to who the person is that they have to make a film about it. Writing a book is a little bit easier...." Drunk as a skunk, sharp as a whip, completely brilliant.
Greatest missed opportunity? Oliver Stone, who I was due to interview for Alexander. This interview meant a lot to me, I'd written my undergrad thesis on Stone and the day before we were scheduled for a one-on-one he'd been at the film's press conference at London's Dorchester on Park Lane. I decided to pass on introducing myself, you know, because I was playing it cool. Sadly, irritated by the critical pounding his film was taking Stone jumped on a plane with Colin Farrell bound for Ireland, no doubt to get pissed on the best Guinness in the world.
Despite the above, remember the words of Bob Sugar: "It's not showfriends, it's showbusiness."
If you survive long enough you will inevitably become more familiar with some filmmakers, maybe even an actor or two (probably not, they are a different breed from most humans). Mostly though you are just a tool the studios and their publicists use to spread word about the products they wish to sell, and to be able to do your job as a journalist you need to see things from a distance as much as humanly possible. Seeking filmmaker approval by Tweeting your positive reviews @them in hope of carrying future favour is unsightly – try to avoid this.
I'm pretty hardline about such things. If you don't like seeing American 'journalists' on Fox News pander to Republican politicians, asking easy questions so they'll come back on the show, then always be aware there is supposed to be a line that divides us. This is not the barrier of celebrity and audience, which Twitter has seemingly destroyed. It is that of journalist and subject, especially if you are to be trusted as one.
"Critics are the only thing standing between consumers and advertising," says Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com.
I couldn't agree more. And when people doubt the role you play as a critic they fail to realise the extent to which every waking moment of the day they are beset on all sides by omnipresent marketing devices. How can you seek to address the balance if you're not completely 100 per cent honest with yourself, let alone your readers? See Bill Cunningham New York and you will understand.
The above may or may not apply to you, it depends on your goals are as a film journalist. I've certainly been far from perfect in my career: swanky hotels, junket gifts, promise of access, all little sub-conscious brides I've taken alone the way. That's just how the system works, doesn't it?
In the words of Lester Bangs: "You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That's what's important. If you're a rock journalist - first, you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company. And they'll buy you drinks, you'll meet girls, they'll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs... I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it."
So very true. But I realise I've digressed significantly.
The reason I raise these issues is Sydney seems, to me at least, to have exploded with film writers in the past two years. Given the lack of outlets and the old timers who are entrenched at the crease, as it were, it is very difficult to make a living profession out of this trade unless you are extraordinarily talented, impossibly hardworking or exceptionally lucky.
Where you see yourself in the spectrum is entirely your own business and there should be room in this country of 20 million people for a range of writers and outlets in this industry. But like Australian films, producers of film commentary are in danger of being sidelined by our cousins in the UK and the US. It makes sense given the marketing budgets of studios in those countries are significantly bigger. The internet means they will always be the first to get access, while we are lucky to get access at all.
The import of foreign magazines make it even harder for Australian publishers to compete. That some of the major publications syndicate content (probably at a higher price than paying a local writer) is just ridiculous. If Australian film is to flourish it is imperative publishers and publicists support local writers. Publishers need to recognise the importance not only of discovering the talent at their doorstep, but allowing them to fill a niche that the US and UK cannot compete by extending focus on Australian film.
In parallel, Australian film journalists must realise for the industry to grow and for opportunities in this field to expand, we must play our part in nurturing film in this country from the grassroots up. Limiting ourselves to reposting American casting news, American trailers and American film reviews we stunt the growth of the local industry and our own jobs as a result. Where the internet gives the world access to US and UK journalists with their geographical advantage, Australia will always be a poor orphan, begging for celebrity scraps and falling over ourselves when Hollywood movie stars of the latest stale rom-com, desperate for coverage, grace us with a press conference once a blue moon.
In the same vein we should not allow ourselves to be cheerleaders of mediocrity, but champions of creativity; constructively commentating on local happenings, building prestige through diligent analysis. We should challenge Australian filmmakers and industry bodies to do better and shout as loud as we can when good and great films come our way.
Proportionally I'm certain as much Hollywood junk lands on our shores as is produced here. The difference is that junk tends to make far more money. Why? Because we can't help but feed the obsession with American celebrity and those vacuous faucets already have enough column inches without our help.
Earlier on Twitter I mused what would happen if Australian journalists committed to a complete blackout on American films for a week. What if we made it a fortnight? I'm curious how publicists would react and whether release dates would adjust accordingly. What if we were more like the French? If we want our filmmakers to continue to raise their game we should do so ourselves as film journalists.
Where is Australia's Social Network I read today? Well, where is our Sight & Sound or Cahiers Du Cinema? We had Senses Of Cinema, but for reasons beyond understanding Screen Australia has chosen not to continue funding the journal.
We cannot merely compare Australian films to the best five films from America every year because with every hit come a dozen pieces of shit – though each with enough stars to warrant endless publicity. In such circumstances what chance do we give Australian films? What chance do we give ourselves?
One enduring characteristic of journalists is our love for an underdog, lost causes even more so. Australian film seemed for a long time the latter, these days it is the former. As the nouvelle vague of film journalists just finding your feet in the new media world, I can only encourage you to make your mark by forging a niché and raising the quality of dialogue and engagement with the local industry and community. We can all become big fish in a small pond if we choose, or we can remain minos in an ocean.
In the next couple of days I'll write my third instalment in this series serving up that practical advice I promised on how to get started on the path to film journalism glory and assured unending poverty.
In my first contribution to the Oz Film Blogathon I warm up by discussing how I got started in film journalism. Part two which I'll have ready tomorrow will look more specifically at the role of a film journalist...
As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a film journalist…
Not quite Henry Hill, I’ll give you that. But the sentiment remains. Growing up there were two things that dominated my world: football and movies, and I devoured both with equal relish. Football was what all the kids were into. Movies, however, well they came from my Grandpa.
The two earliest films I remember seeing at the cinema were E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial around 1983 with my mum and Basil The Great Mouse Detective with my Grandpa around 1986. The memory that holds the most water though is of the Global Video shop my Grandpa took me to whenever I stayed with him and my Gran, which was frequently.
Duncan McKinnon was a tech savvy guy and a diligent video pirate. Anything we rented deemed of decent quality and of high rewatchability was 'doubled' using the two VHS recorders he owned (one of which used old cartridge loading dock on top of casing). Furthermore, he numbered all the tapes and maintained a record in a little notepad of the two or three films recorded on each video (depending on whether they’ve been dubbed using Slow Play or Long Play). Of course he was also taping lots of films off the telly and pausing during the commercial breaks – there were always a few films where he’d forget pause was on and the film would continue five minutes after the break had ended. He would have loved PVRs.
The other thing my Grandpa did was buy cases for all his dubbed films, the kind of cases that looked like hardback covers of anthology books from a stately library. Those cases were bigger than regular packaging, about the size of the rental cases.
The Global Video shop in East Kilbride’s village was the greatest place on Earth as far as I was concerned. Filled with posters of the most amazing American movies I was no-where near old enough to watch. Gremlins was an early favourite of mine along with, I’m not ashamed to admit, the Police Academy series. My Grandpa though also instilled a taste for older cinematic offerings in me. As a singer he was a big fan of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, as such films like Top Hat, Swing Time and, of course, Singin’ In The Rain have always been a part of my film vernacular.
His other favourite was the Westerns, which seemed to be uniformly on daytime television at the weekends in the 80s, perhaps because of the rampant popularity of Reagan-era Americas at the time – he had, after all, been a star of the Westerns. It comes as no surprise, looking back, that stories of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ were my first great cinematic love and probably played a large part in my decision to study American Studies at university.
It’s impossible, however, to quantify how much of an influence my Grandpa had on my career as a result of those first 11 years of my life, for which he was the biggest part. My mother was a single mom those first three years and I’m told I called my Grandpa ‘dad’. Duncan McKinnon passed away on 14 December 1989, but his presence is still very much felt by my book shelf, my DVD collection, the words you’re reading right now and the boxes of dubbed videotapes in my parents' attic.
After my Grandpa passed my Gran picked up the slack, lying about my age to get me into all the films I wanted to see at the cinema but wasn’t old enough. There was JFK at age 12, rated 15 by the BBFC – I honestly had never heard the word ‘fuck’ so many times in my life. My Gran slept through a good portion of the film. I think she’s wishes she’d slept through Event Horizon, during which I was more scared of her having a heart attack than I was by the film (which was terrifying) itself.
People often ask what American Studies, was all about. I always thought the answer to that question pretty obvious, what I will say is I did a lot of film studies as part of the course. How could one even pretend to have an understanding of American culture without understanding film, its history and its mechanisms?
In 1999-2000 I lived and studied at Utah State University as part of my exchange year where Prof Jay Anderson's film classes were a highlight. When I returned for my fourth and final year at University Of Leicester I took the opportunity to write film reviews for The Ripple, our student newspaper (the film editor, Nikki Baughan, went on to become the editor of Film Review). My first published criticism, if you could call it that, was for a reparatory screening of Natural Born Killers and boy was it horrible. Reading it back today at least offers encouragement that time has afforded me some improvement. Excessive plot description, and a fusion of standard critic clichés and academia speak are what’s most notable about the review – some might argue little has changed.
There were other opportunities, Legend Of Bagger Vance was my first 10am screening inside an almost empty Odeon Cinema, and although I had never heard the phrase ‘magic negro’ before, I certainly recognised his presence. Pay It Forward and Gone In 60 Seconds were the other gems I was unleashed upon in my spell for The Ripple. If I wanted to be cynical I would suggest those four films represented a microcosm of nearly every year in my cinematic life since. The truth is, every year since I’ve experienced moments of transcendence in the movie theatre.
* 5 randomly selected moments of cinematic transcendence in my life:
1. The Ecstasy Of Gold, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (Sergio Leone)
2. Prejudice, 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
3. Interrogation, Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
4. Welcome wagon, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Steven Spielberg)
5. Four million-year match-cut, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
* 5 randomly selected moments of cinematic transcendence in the past 10 years:
1. Train to Zaniba’s cottage, Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
2. Corridor fight, Oldboy (Park-Chan Wook)
3. Ratatouille, Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
4. Chicken run, City Of God (Fernando Mirielles)
5. Ceasefire, Children Of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)
Leaving university I knew had to be a journalist, and more specifically I wanted to write about film. I really had no idea how to get started or what to do, and after my first failed attempted to live in London I ended up back in Leeds. There I wrote a couple of reviews for excellent local magazine The Leeds Guide while Laurence Boyce was Film Editor, mostly I temped at a variety of banks and published poetry on websites that shall go unnamed. It was a difficult beginning during which I nearly lost hope of becoming a writer, let alone a film journalist.
One year after graduating university I signed up to study an NCTJ post-grad in magazine journalism at a college in Brighton. It was the best decision of my life if for no other reason than it awakened a journalistic instinct for storytelling and gave me confidence to approach publications for work. Soon after I was putting together a section focussing on the local digital filmmaking scene in street press mag The Insight. I was launch editor for the new section and was very proud to compile stories each month for my little page in the magazine.
One of the first interviews I ever did was with a filmaker called Simon Wilkinson who ran an independent production company called Junk TV along with Paul Dutnall. It was a formative interview for me, opening up the world of short filmmakers, their dedication to the form and their communal nature. Junk TV not only made short films, but they organised screenings and worked as educators encouraging and training at-risk youth to make films. I've never been far from like-minded people since and it's my firm believe that any film journalist worth their salt should engage with their local community of short filmmakers.
At the same time, along with my friend Jonathan Crocker, I tracked down publicists for all the major studios and got onto their regional media screening lists. I started getting invited to previews at private cinemas in London such as Mr Young’s (later known as Soho Screening Rooms), and to press conferences (the earliest I can remember were 25th Hour, City Of God, Solaris, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and The Quiet American). Jon went on to become Contributing Editor of Total Film, Associate Editor of Little White Lies and Film Editor for ID, among other prestigious titles.
As any film writer will tell you, it's quite a moment going to your first movie in a private screening room early in the morning. Coffee and biscuits usually awaited your arrival at Mr Young's, along with the film's press notes and a friendly publicist to welcome you.
At the time I was more excited about the venerable critics in my midst than the celebrity press conferences. To see films with the likes of Peter Bradshaw, Kim Newman, Mark Kermode or whoever was something of a privilege and also an affirmation of my career aspirations.
My journey though would next take me to Bournemouth. After a stint of work experience on late, great cult film magazine Hotdog, I was offered a job on Essential Home Cinema (I actually wrote one of the first consumer articles in the UK about HD) and less than a year later I was the Features Editor for DVD Review, the best home entertainment magazine in the UK and third highest-selling film magazine behind Empire and Total Film. I couldn’t believe I’d finally scored my dream job of being paid to write about movies as a full time job.
Okay, I suspect this article is starting to get a little bit boring now. There’s a lot I want to share about my experiences as a film journalist and how I came to be plying my trade in Sydney, but I think it’s nice to leave some things to mystery. Needless to say in the last eight years I’ve seen many magazines come and go, written a few hundred film reviews, conducted a few hundred interviews with filmmakers, actors and musicians. But the best part has been the dozens of wonderful film journalists just mad passionate about their work, despite its economic challenges.
When I return for part two of this article I'd like to give more insight and guidance in how to get started, advice on good journalistic practice, the challenges we face as film writers and some perspectives on the differences between the trade in Sydney and London.
I'm building towards some things I want to get off my chest about the importance of local content production. We often talk about Australian film, the quality of, and audience's disposition to see those local productions. Similar quandries apply to content producers of film criticism, and although Australia is only my adopted home I believe passionately in the need to have a strong, independent local film press, supported by distributors. More than this, I believe we have a role to play in the development of quality local cinema, from the grassroots of digital shorts to the big league production companies.
The Oz Film Blogathon begins today. If you have anything you'd like to submit as part of the film writing marathon post the link in the comments sections and I'll collate the pieces all together on this page.
Remember, the thematic framework proposed is: 'The Things We Think But Do Not Say'.
All you need to do is write something about the local industry and post it on your blog, submit the links to me (scott.journalist[at]gmail.com) or post them in the comments of this blog. I will aggregate all the articles here. Aim high and be as fearless as you can muster. Articles on local and national industry issues are of highest value.
• Write (or record) something about Australian film industry that's been on your mind.
• Contribute links to old articles that might be a little 'touchy feely'
• Participate by commenting or generally spreading the word.
Articles will all be linked in this post and I will create a button for the home page too.
Oz Blogathon Announcement (3/11/10)
Oz Blogathon Update (19/11/10)
'Confessions Of A Film Journalist: Pt 1' Scott Henderson (6/12/10)
'They Watch Pictures Don't They' – I offer some guidance on getting started as a film journalist... for whatever that advice is worth. (13/12/10)
'The Ugly Truth' – Sarrah Le Marquand offers her take on Australian film industry in The Daily Telegraphy (though one wonders if she has seen half the films released the past two years)
'Massage The Message' – Lynden Barber says we need to figure out how to out how to better sell Australian films to Australian audiences (New Matilda, 31/10/09)
'This Mission Is Too Important For Me To Allow You To Jeopardise It' - More Australian sci-fi, cries Lyden Barber! I'm not sure he was talking about Tomorrow When The War Began, but I know what he means (New Matilda, 23/10/09)
'Please, No More Ocker Comedy Flops' – when SPAA President Anthony Ginnane suggested Australian film producers should be shot it caught Lyden Barber's attention. Fortunately he hasn't reached for his gun yet (4/12/09)
'Is Dark The New Quirky' – one year on and the conversation hasn't changed much (LB, New Matilda, 25/09/09)
Friday, November 19, 2010
A quite remarkable call to arms just hit the internet curtesy of an Australian film icon, one Margaret Pomeranz. The fairer half of ABC's At The Movies gave a powerful keynote speech to the Screen Producers Association Of Australia (SPAA) conference currently taking place in Sydney demanding support from both the Australia Government and cinema-going public for local talent. I can think of no better rallying cry for the Oz Film Blog-A-Thon, The Things We Think But Do Not Say, initiated on this blog a couple of weeks ago.
Unfortunately, life has rather a way of happening and delaying personal projects when they are dependent on spare time, something I've not had a lot of just lately. The juggling act of job hunting, freelancing and report writing for Play Now Act Now (the festival project I completed a couple of weeks back) proved a little overwhelming. The good news is I scored a job and finished my report.
Fear not, I want reassure you that the Blogathon will go ahead as planned, I simply want to push back the start date by one week to 6 DECEMBER in order give myself time to promote and write for this project.
Part of this reassurance comes in the form of a preview of a few articles I'm committing myself to writing over the next couple of weeks and some ideas I'd like share. Also I'd like to remind you of the purpose of this blogathon and how you can participate.
What's it all about?
Spurred on by the AFCA 2010 Film Writing Awards the Oz Film Blog-A-Thon is intended as an opportunity for all Australian film writers to make a insightful and constructive contribution to our industry beyond reviews of local films.
All you need to do is write something about the local industry and post it on your blog, submit the links to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or post them in the comments of this blog. I will aggregate all the articles here. Aim high, genuine pieces of journalism is what we're looking for. Articles on local and national industry issues are of highest value.
• Write (or record) something about Australian film industry that's been on your mind. Most of all be fearless with you opinion
• Contribute links to old articles that might be a little 'touchy feely'
• Participate by commenting or generally spreading the word
Here's four articles I aim to contribute to the marathon:
1) 'What's Up Sydney' – One of my biggest frustrations living in Sydney is the lack of choice and the limited range of programming by local exhibitors. As such I'm going to put together a compendium of what's on in Sydney and draw a side-by-side comparison with similar international cities. I'll offer my observations on what's missing and suggestions for what could make it better.
2) '15-Minute Friends' – A article taking a closer look at the publicity machine, how interviews are allocated and the journalistic limitations of the junket system. I'd also like to take a look at he embargo system and try to figure out how publicists and local content producers can better work together.
3) 'Reflections Of A Film Journalist' – Hard to believe, but it's over 10 years since I had my first article on film published. I'd like to reflect on this experience and offer some guidance for those new to the business: how to get started, good journalism practices, the pitfalls and the pleasures. I might also humbly offer some suggestions for the future of our practice.
4) 'Top 10 Game Changers' – Who are the 10 most inspirational figures in the local industry? This is a call to all those participating to help come up with a list of Australian film pioneers whose innovation and vision will propel us into the future. Submit to me your top 10 (or whatever you can muster) figures/organisations from the Australian film scene including: exhibitors, curators, journalists, producers, funders, festivals. NO film directors.
For this last article I'd like to compile an ultimate list of 10 Oz Film Inspirators (think of the Guardian recent and rather silly power list), with a view to interviewing these people about their perspectives on the future of the local film industry.
So that's it, slightly new date, same aspirations. Can't wait to get started.
UPDATE: here's what I'm getting at...
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The Things We Think And Do Not Say
It looks like I just jumped up on my soapbox and started shouting on Twitter: "let film journalism be done, though the heavens fall." Well, if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, a duck it must be. Just not a lame duck, that wouldn't be much use at all (see Democrat's White House as of tomorrow).
News just broke that the Australian Film Critics Association is seeking submissions for its 2010 Film Writing Awards, which is all fine and good, but wouldn't it be even better if we looked upon the 31 December deadline as an opportunity to light a fire under journalism and criticism in the Australian film industry? When I say on Twitter we don't have that much to be proud of, I didn't mean we don't have many writer's to be proud of, we do. From Luke Buckmaster's Cinetology to Tara Judah's Liminal Vision, Thomas Caldwell's Cinema Autopsy to Matt Ravier's A Life In Film – all homes to damn fine writing and, of course, not alone.
But let's face it, a lot of our actual debate takes place on Twitter, outside of which the most provocative discussion of late was Lyden Barber's rally against games as art (I'm sure he hates me bringing it up again, but it's certainly a conversational highlight of the year). As we all know 140 characters is hardly conducive to thorough conversation and the number of those exchanges cut short by the protagonists admitting 'too complicated for Twitter' is impossible to count.
So what am I proposing? Well, with a 31 December deadline plenty of time away, I suggest an Australian Film Commentary blog-a-thon. If you've never heard the term 'Blogathon' before Filmsquish offers an nice explanation here (also lists a number of past blogathons), but basically it is a marathon or a festival of writing on a particular subject, with all the works submitted and compiled on a host blog.
It is my contention that we Australian film writers, whilst creating many insightful reviews and providing spirited Twitter commentary have failed to raise our game to coincide with the increased quality local filmmakers have served up. We have failed to challenge distributors and exhibitors with provocative analysis of decisions that affect our community. Whilst busy serving up a great volume of movie reviews and regurgitated news from American productions, we've failed to engage with local issues.
Let's take the opportunity to write something about the local industry that contributes something genuinely constructive and insightful to our cinematic landscape. If you could change one thing about the Australian film industry in 2011, what would it be and why? Saw an Aussie film in 2010 that inspired you? Saw an Aussie film with controversial themes that were brushed over? Local picture house closing down? Failure of distributors to support local content producers against tidal wave of American websites? Embargoes drive you mental when US reviews already live? Making friends with directors on Twitter – what are the boundaries of film journalism? Scared to ask tough interview questions in case you don't get asked back? Sick of same five films playing at all your local cinemas every weekend?
And it doesn't have to just be gripes, what locally has inspired you but never gets press? How about the fact local magazines and websites favour American films first, Australian films second and local film culture somewhere around council meetings. Perhaps you want to create a compendium guide to alternative Australia film events. When was the last time YOU wrote about Australian short film? Maybe you want to write about the diversity of the Australian screen in 2010 and the lack there of come Awards time.
This is your chance to write those Things We Think And Do Not Say, this is the Oz Film Blog-A-Thon. I will post an article here myself 29 November, one I've been mulling over a while, and I'd ask anyone who cares to join me to aim for then too. I'll also aim to serve up a couple more pieces over the course of the week.
If you'd like to take part, all you need to do is email your links to email@example.com or post them in the comments of this post and I'll update the site. Participation can take the form of ALL MEDIA (video, audio, written word). You can even send the links for old work and we'll repost the link. If you don't have somewhere to post your writing, email it to me and I'll host it here.
Most of all, be fearless.
Oz Film Blog-A-Thon
Start: 29 November – NOW 6 DECEMBER
End: 5 December – NOW 13 DEMCEMBER
To ape Culture Snob's contribution criteria:
• Write (or record) something about Australian film industry that's been on your mind
• Contribute links to old articles that might be a little 'touchy feely'
• Participate by commenting or generally spreading the word
With that, I hope you all take this in the spirit it's proposed. I value the film community I like to think I'm a part of here in Australia and I'd love for us to come together and create a debate and provoke change worth talking about.
White Elephant Blog-a-thon
The Misunderstood Blog-a-thon
Short Film Blog-a-thon
Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blog-a-thon
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
The news we feared is upon us. It's been confirmed by Benjamin Zeccola, executive director of Palace Cinemas, that last ditch attempts to save Academy Twin Cinema have failed.
After days of speculation, reports and an online campaign by Sydney cinephiles, the news Academy Twin will indeed close its doors for the last time 27 June, 2010 is of terrible of disappointment to a city which has already seen so many closure inflicted on its celluloid landscape. I don't have much time to ruminate on what this means to film-going culture locally in any depth right now, but bellow is a transcript of the conversation I just had with Mr Zeccola...
DH: I understand the verdict has arrived?
BZ: [The Greek Orthodox Community] has come back to us, finally, asking for an astronomical rent, marginally less than they’d originally asked for, but still an astronomical level that just cannot be sustained by any stretch of the imagination.
Does this mean the end for Academy Twin?
Yeah. We thought with all this pressure that was being brought on them by the community and probably, I would have thought, by their own constituents that they would opt for a very solid rental offer and income versus no income at all. But it looks like they’ve gone for the latter. It’s over.
Do you know if they’ve talked to any other chains formally?
I think they’ve tried but I don’t think there’s anyone interested. [editor's note: confirmed as of yesterday morning Dendy Cinemas had not had any talks with the GOC regarding Academy Twin's lease and it is highly unlikely it will be taking over the venue any time soon]
It’s hard to imagine other chains such as Events, Hoyts or Reading going into without the possibility of a significant margin…
No. Those companies in particular wouldn’t run a site in [Academy Twin’s] condition. Maybe the nightclub downstairs will extend, but who knows, it could be any number of uses. I suppose it’s not for me to speculate, but it’s not going to be a Palace Cinema and I think it’s highly unlikely it’ll be a cinema at all.
In terms of Palace Cinema in Sydney this means you’ll be focusing now on Verona and Chauvel for the future?
The Chauvel is a historic cinema in its own right, so we’ve got a focus there.
That's it folks, sorry to be the harbinger of bad news. You can say your own goodbyes on the Palace Cinema website and spare a thought also the the 15 staff members who now find themselves looking for work. If you have any stories you'd like to share of experiences you've had visiting Academy Twin down the years please feel free to share in the comments section below.
I'm going to be writing an article soon on the history of Academy Twin so would love to hear from anyone who was there when the cinema reopened in 1974.
All that's left is to encourage you all to make sure the cinema's last four days are sellouts. Shouldn't be hard given the current selection which includes Animal Kingdom, Mademoiselle Chambon and Academy Award winner The Secret In Their Eyes.
To read my original article which includes comments from GOC President Harry Denalis click here.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Palace Cinemas has announced Paddington’s Academy Twin Cinema is to close its doors indefinitely at the end of the month, one year short of its centenary. It is savage blow to film culture in a city that has already endured so much hurt by the closure of arthouse cinemas.
Commentators were quick to point at a presumed lowed audience attendance, but according to executive director Benjamin Zeccola the reason for the closure is the failure of lease negotiations between Palace and the building’s owners, the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW.
“Without exaggeration, we’ve been putting proposals to them for nigh on five years,” says Zeccola. “There maybe six months or a year between proposals but you spend a lot of time creating the plan, strategy and how you are going to execute it... It’s all been rejected."
According to Zeccola, Palace continued to make attempts to secure the lease until 5pm, Wednesday, 16 June, but fear the doors will be locked come 30 June demand the arthouse cinema chain take action to secure and remove the equipment owned and installed by the company including seats, projection units, screens and the soundsystem. “It just too late and I can’t believe we took it up to less than two weeks from when the doors will be effectively locked.”
The major impasse is the current rental rates demanded by Academy Twin owners the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW and Zeccola says the committee that manage the property has been unwilling to negotiate on this. “They will not discuss the rental level. They want a rental that is inflated, that’s above cinemas that are double the size of it. It is a ridiculous and unreasonable rental level and the condition of the building is appalling. It is just disgraceful.
“A camel is a horse designed by committee, sometimes you can’t get effective decision making through that sort of structure. It’s certainly not like dealing with an individual that has a goal. If you are dealing with one businessman who owns it or a company or any individual who wants to see the best for the property, or the property prosper into the future, that is a much more straight-forward negotiation.”
Harry Denalis, President of the Greek Orthodox Community committee that manage the property, says negotiations have not yet failed and it is Palace Cinemas making unreasonable demands with respect to the lease agreement between the two.
“We’re still talking with Palace and there will be a decision made next week. The difficulty is Palace want a drastic reduction in rent from the amount they are paying, well over a third reduction in rent to the rent they’ve been paying for the last four or five years. That’s the sticking point...
“Of course we’ve got other cinema chains that are interested and we are talking with them; as soon as the situation becomes clear with Palace we will start negotiating. We’ve already had preliminary talks and as soon as the situation with Palace becomes clear we start talking with the others with a view to retaining the cinemas as they are. Palace is not the only player in town.”
The back and forth between Denalis and Zeccola doesn’t bode well for the future of Academy Twin, which plays host to film festivals including the French, Italian, Spanish, German and Mardi Gras. What is especially disappointing about the situation is the fact audience attendance is not the ultimate threat to its immediate future, though certainly that plays a big part of what Palace can afford to invest in the venue, Sydney’s first twin cinema.
“The Academy has been effected by the openings of Bondi Junction [Events, Westfield] and Fox Studios,” admits Zeccola. “That has had an effect on the three cinemas on Oxford Street and that happens as a city grows, new competition comes in and that impacts the incumbents. That’s ok, but each individual business needs to maintain its competitive strengths and advantages and to adapt to the environment around it. Palace Cinemas is capable of adapting and we flourish under pressure.”
In this regard Palace Cinemas will certainly find a lot of support given its commitment to the arthouse industry and its role in saving the Chauvel Cinema, which it operates alongside the Verona and Academy Twin all on Oxford Street, Paddington. Zeccola argues Palace successfully show it is possible to operate all three cinemas in such close proximity by offering complementary programming and a diversity of choice for Sydney’s cinema-going community.
“That’s not actually the problem here,” continues Zeccola. “The problem here is it’s a dilapidated building and the landlord is demanding an exorbitant rent and it cannot be met. [The Greek Orthodox Community] have been taken through the figures over many years and they understand the Academy has actually been losing money substantially for a number of years and Palace cannot afford to pay them a ridiculous rent and lose money in the process.
“Palace’s responsibility is to its staff, its suppliers and the stakeholders in the business. It would be irresponsible of us to sign onto a bad rent deal. We can’t do that. The rental proposals we’ve put forward are based on a small loss and at best a break even position. There wasn’t even going to be any profit in it for this company and it was still met with the rejection of the Greek Orthodox Community.”
Despite Zeccola’s claims, Denalis is adamant the committee wants Palace to stay and it has told them as much, but that the rent demands are what they are for good reason. “Palace is not the only one that has to make money in this world. We run child care centres, hostels, churches, schools and they are just as important activities for us to continue with as it is for people to go see Hollywood flicks or whatever flicks that are showing.”
When asked whether he thought Academy Twin would suffer the same fate as Glebe’s Valhalla Twin Cinemas, Zeccola offered a bleak assessment.
“That’s what is looking likely. As it stands we don’t have a lease in a fortnight’s time. I don’t even know if in good conscious I can accept the support of people to pay an unrealistic rent from the landlord for no good reason for a dilapidated building. In order for it to be saved we need to come to terms with the landlord on a complete redevelopment.”
For his part Denalis understands Palace wishes to refurbish the cinema, but that the Greek Orthodox Community is unwilling to bear some of the cost by reducing the rent, saying “They are looking for us to invest this money in their cinemas.”
The truth, as always, may lie somewhere in the middle. What is without a doubt is that without some compromise being met between Palace Cinemas and the Greek Orthodox Community the doors to Academy Twin will close 27 June, 2010. Whether they will ever reopen once that happens should be of gravest concern to Sydneysiders as a whole and not just its cinema-loving community.
Follow Scott Henderson on Twitter for continuing updates.
Academy Twin's Facebook page to show your support.
Finally, please continuing tweet with #saveacademytwin.
Palace Cinemas announcement.
Sydney Morning Herald story.
Lyden Barber's post at Eyes Wide Open.
History of Academy Twin here and here.
DVD Bits coverage.
Boudist article by Time Out Sydney photographer Daniel Bould.
Jack Sargeant's 2005 article in Reel Time on saving Sydney's arthouse cinemas.
Chris Stephenson at MEDIAtion wonders if there's brands out there who might invest in such a media space.
Show May Not Be Over At Academy Twin – SMH Sat 20/6
Into The Shadows trailer CLICK HERE TO READ FULL POST WITH COMMENTS...
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
I was recently asked to participate in the inaugural Sydney Film Critics Best Of 2009 (cick to read SFC's top 20) poll organised by Matt Ravier of Last Night With Riviera. The following is my humble submission as to the movies that made my 2009 an unforgettable year in cinema...
How exactly do you measure the quality of a year in cinema? Top 10 lists sure are one way; for film journalists they are bread and butter as well as the staple we love to hate. There might be some truth, however, to the idea that a better measurement of the quality of a year in cinema is the films that didn’t make the cut, the ones painfully disregarded in the formation of one’s own subjective best of the best of the best. With honours.
Much maligned though it was Watchmen just barely failed to make my final list – years later it will be considered one of the great American literary adaptations. Or how about Rachel Getting Married? As genuine a portrait of a loving, dysfunctional family I’ve seen in several years. These movies made me laugh uncontrollably, cry inconsolably, boil with rage or otherwise reached into my soul, with their truth, importance or spectacle in ways that reminded me exactly why I love cinema as I do: Three Blind Mice, Avatar, The Girlfriend Experience, District 9, Public Enemies, (500) Days Of Summer, UP, Drag Me To Hell, Inglorious Basterds, Balibo, A Serious Man, The Cove.
Any one could have made my top 10, which is as reliable as a dead narrator.
TOP 10 FILM RELEASED IN AUSTRALIA, 2009
10. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, USA)
9. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
8. Moon (Duncan Jones, UK)
7. Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)
6. Che (Steven Soderbergh, USA/France/Spain)
5. Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)
4. Encounters At The End Of The World (Werner Herzog, USA)
3. Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, USA)
Probably the most satisfying slow-burner of the year. Solemn and melancholic for sure, but deeply emotional and personal also. Only one film made me cry harder and longer in 2009...
2. Milk (Gus van Sant, USA)
Van Sant didn't set out to reinvent the biopic here, only to tell the story of one man and his fight for quality. Inspirational might be a cliche term for such a film, but I dream of a world where 'leaders' in Copenhagen, Washington and Canberra had even a drop of Harvey Milk's dedication to social justice.
1. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, Italy)
An astonishing film that literally pulverised me into desperate submission with a relentless exposé of the violent, corrupt and bleak world that consumes a small Italian community in Naples, framing its inhabitant's very existence from which there is no escape. Never has the mob underworld be so unromantised, so grimy or so deadly.
TOP 10 UNRELEASED IN AUSTRALIA, 2009
10. Beaches Of Agnes (Agnes Varda, France)
9. 35 Shots Of Rum (Claire Denis, France/Germany)
8. Up In The Air (Jason Reitman, USA)
7. In The Loop (Armando Lannucci, UK)
6. Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, USA)
5. Humpday (Lynn Shelton, USA)
4. The Road (John Hillcoat, USA)
3. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, USA)
2. Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson, USA)
1. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigalow, USA)
NB: Anders Østergaard brilliant documentary Burma VJ was supposed to be on my final unreleased in Australia list but I somehow left it off (infuriatingly).
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Max Records, James Gandolfini
I don't want you to go, I'll eat you up, I love you so – KW
If Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic story Where The Wild Things Are is the year’s most anticipated film, it might also the year's most flawed work of art. On the surface it is a simple story about childhood angst and flight into fantasy, but beneath that rough irreverent topsoil lies something so deeply personal and individual no one person’s experience can easily be compared to another.
Feral child Max (newcomer Max Records) is a force of nature who literally consumes the screen; chaotic energy in wolve’s clothing, wrestling a canine companion. Jonze whisks the audience back to its childhood as Max builds an igloo, preparing snowballs for an assault on his big sister’s friends, a plan that that does not quite go accordingly. Igloo in ruins, the young lad is left to nurse a damaged ego, with only his imagination to provide comfort.
Herein lie the most prominent themes of Where The Wild Things Are: loneliness and fantasy. Max’s reality is one defined in by an absent father, a distracted mother and a sister who doesn’t seem to care. That we see so little of the later two and none of the former is crucial when Max takes flight into the unknown night, before discovering a sailboat and crossing an ocean to an island inhabited by giant furry beasties. Through a mixture of brash courage and childish naivety the monsters declare Max their king, thanks to the attention of Carol, a much-desired patriarch (voiced by James Gandolfini) who simultaneously embodies the film’s overlying sense of melancholy.
Taking a book which contains only nine sentences and turning it into an $80 million feature film is no mean feat and writer Dave Eggers retains the original’s erudite approach to dialogue. As a result the slow-paced second act struggles to find meaningful narrative for its protagonists while the film’s Wild Things never really seem that threatening, beautiful though they are realised. Despite the technical expertise at work, Jonze somehow fails to find penetrate the greater depths of his ambitions.
Yet as WTWTA speeds to its conclusion, whatever angst we've suppressed in our sub-conscious, whether our relationship with our parents or our own adulthood, is suddenly and unceremoniously exposed. It is not so much a nostalgic yearning for childhood that is evoked as a need, the burning desire to belong. Family matters; and while we might wish to escape from those closest to us, Jonze reminds us that saying goodbye can be the hardest thing of all.
Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark and, by all accounts, it is the mind of master provocateur Lars von Trier. When the filmmaker’s latest work debuted at the Cannes it was immediately guaranteed a place in the annals of the film festival’s history; booed and hissed throughout, Antichrist provoked numerous walkouts and sent a few more sensitive patrons into bouts of fainting spells thanks to scenes described by more than a few commentators as ‘needlessly graphic’.
That after all these years von Trier is still able to shock so effectively is impressive, that he is able to do so at a time when torture porn has reached the mainstream is surprising. For all the controversy and criticism dividing audiences down the middle, Antichrist remains a bizarrely beautiful film to watch. Hideous too, but there can be no denying that with the structural rigours of Dogme filmmaking set aside, von Trier remains a director of considerable artistry.
The film opens to a monochrome prologue in which Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (neither’s characters are given names, known only as He and She) make love (though thanks to the jarring insertion of a penetration shot there’s a implied sense of pure carnal fucking) in the shower as water droplets cascade in slo-mo over their bodies. Their lust (or is it self-absorption?) is inter-cut with the misadventures of the couple’s child who, escaping from his cot, climbs onto the window ledge as snow falls outside. As She and Him climax in erotic bliss and the child falls to the accompaniment of a Handel aria, it is difficult not to be intoxicated by the devilishly interplay of beauty and tragedy. It is also the first level of disturbing material von Trier toys with as the film ups the ante in each of the proceeding chapters entitled: Grief, Pain and Despair.
After a month in hospital, Dafoe’s professional therapist decides he knows best and takes his wife home to continue her recovery, after all, “no therapist can know as much about you as I do.” Fair comment maybe, but there’s little room for doubt where his arrogance is concerned as therapy becomes a synonym for control, allowing for an argument of sly feminism in von Trier’s babbling essay. To a remote cabin the woods they head to allow Her to confront her fears. It is here curiosity about the occult, nature as Satan’s church, talking foxes and infamous genital mutilation all occur.
Amid the controversy much fun has been made of von Trier’s final cinematic insult, dedicating his film to one of the greats, Andrei Tarkovsky, a credit not necessarily as glib or blasphemous as presumed. Antichrist might be an elaborate joke, but it is anything but a shallow one.
Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Sam Rockwell
The silent loneliness of space seems long forgotten in science fiction of the last two decades, more obsessed as the genre has been with the noisy theatrics of space opera since Stars Wars in 1977. A few films both before and after have defied that populist approach to big screen, high concept action, instead pursuing the conceit – in one way or another – where in space no-one can hear you scream when crazy shit goes down. Even before Ridley Scott informed us on this piece of trivia, film such as Solyaris (1972), Silent Running (1972) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had already warned that the infinite, black vacuum was not the safest of playgrounds for the fragile human psyche. And now here in 2009 we find ourselves propelled back to that golden age of hard space sci-fi with Moon, a film that wears its cinephilia on its sleeve, masking the brilliant manipulations is deploys.
Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a man incarcerated by his job on the far side of the Moon, the sole supervisor of a mining facility. At some point in the not wholly distant future, mankind (or rather a company known as Lunar Industries) has solved the energy crisis thanks to a Hellium-3, a substance extracted from lunar rock that provides Earth with a pollution-free form of nuclear fusion. The mining is all largely automated and so Sam’s role is to be the human fixer at the facility and he is fact approaching the end of his three year tenure where his only companion is Hal-9000 reminiscent Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a computer with emoticons to express sardonic empathy for his human counterpart when called upon. Not all is well for Sam though, he seems to be getting ill, hallucinations haunt his waking hours and a broken satellite prevents him from communicating live with his wife and young daughter.
As this remarkable debut feature from Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, begins to unfold with deeply satisfying and taut storytelling it becomes quite apparent that whilst derivative of its predecessors Moon has achieved a kind of cinematic self-awareness; and as a result stands tall as its own film, with its own ideas. Central to this is the highly talented, and wholly underappreciated Rockwell who is able to convey so much emotion with very little effort, wrinkled eyes masking an underlying well of sadness. For such an understated film, produced on a budget of merely US$5 million, Rockwell is the perfect star. Jones has made something akin to an agronomical masterpiece in filmmaking, with production, story and performance all in near perfect harmony, with a message that will resonate with thoughtful viewers for long after the credits have rolled.