Writing the Cinema Experience:
How might we best understand the film review, its standing and its character? Movie reviewing explores the relation critics and audiences have to their experience of the cinema as a cultural, aesthetic and social object. This involves a particular kind of cine-aesthetics. Cine-aesthetics refers, in a dual sense, to both reviewing’s negotiation of cinema’s aesthetic dimensions, and its progressing of criticism’s own aesthetic priorities. Movie reviewing is a commodious instrument; it has to be in order to recognise cinema’s multifarious nature. Depending on the movie, these can range from film art, to film’s art-like character, to film as an everyday object with aesthetic dimensions, to other dimensions that also exist independently of the film world.
Movie reviewing not only serves a range of cultural, social, economic and aesthetic ends, it also comes to us in a range of guises. The review in a trade publication such as Variety is interested in the commercial value of movies, connecting the consideration of a film’s aesthetic dimensions to these priorities. In a specialist magazine like Sight and Sound, the review is written for the cineaste or cinephile interested in film’s several aesthetic dimensions (film form and genre, intertextuality, adaptation, creative personnel’s oeuvre) and the relation of these to the public matters raised by the movie. Reviews in a magazine like The New Yorker are ‘generalist’ – in that they are not directed at a specialist audience like Variety’s or Sight and Sound’s – but make great demands on the cultural/educational capital of readers, and appeal to far fewer people than day-and-date reviews in other generalist contexts: on radio, television and in capsule reviews on entertainment pages. This variety of forms and contexts mirrors how cinema presents itself to us. Film reviewing’s priorities and modes of address are as wide-ranging as cinema’s own.
What unites these otherwise disparate forms of film review is their publicness and contemporariness. They attend to movie titles entering into public circulation, most often for the first time as new theatrical releases or on film festival programs, but sometimes upon their re-circulation on TV, streaming services, home theatre releases, or revivals. They each have a common orientation and attention to cinema as event and prospective experience. Each is accountable to a ‘readership’ (understood here to include a viewership and listenership) conceived of as a (larger or smaller) segment of a general public. The reviewer here is a particular kind of authority guiding the relations that readers and audiences have with a particular instance of the cinema. They provide tips, advice, contexts, evaluations and interpretations that readers can take up or cast aside. This publicness carries with it accountability: critics have a social responsibility not only to their readers, to the parent publication or program, but also to the ‘film beat’ of which they are a part. Inasmuch as movie reviewing is a form of public ordering, it is also a form of journalism or public intellectualism.
We will have already put some readers offside with our suggestion that the sort of response to a new movie produced by a critic like Roger Ebert on television in At the Movies, (1) and the sort of response to a new movie produced by Pauline Kael in the pages of The New Yorker, might both be usefully thought of as ‘film reviews’. For these readers ‘film reviewing’ is a highly circumscribed object. As the oft-cited distinction between ‘criticism’ and ‘reviewing’ makes clear, the former is usually either characterised as an abject part of criticism, or a different species of discourse altogether. (2) For these readers, film reviewing’s formal constraints see it as lacking the developed exposition and sustained deliberation of film criticism while being against the use of words such as ‘genre’ and ‘mise en scène’; it is too compromised by needing to negotiate extra-filmic matters of celebrity, and social and political comment.
This is the perspective advocated by Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan in their edited collection The Language and Style of Film Criticism. (3) In a welcome move to reconceptualise film criticism beyond public and scholarly distinctions, they achieve this by limiting it to only some qualifying forms. (4) The reviewing of ‘the opinionated journalist’ is particularly singled out for exclusion. (5) Their work does, however, usefully insist upon the important continuities between some public and much scholarly film criticism: a shared set of emphases upon coherence and extended argument, creative response to movies, levels of abstraction, critical independence and self-reflexivity, explicit focus on film as art and cultural form, and attention to films worthy of such evaluation and interpretation. (6) However, such comparisons of the humble review with ‘proper’ criticism casts the bulk of reviewing as limited or under-achieved.
This creates a yawning gap within film reviewing between those reviews and reviewers we might see as practicing ‘film criticism’ and the bulk of ordinary reviews and reviewers. This leaves us with the difficulty of accounting for the range of activities and attractions of that which the general public understands as film criticism: a film reviewing enabled by journalism. But what if film reviewing’s several ‘failings’ could be recast as attributes of the practice itself? What if we see movie reviewing as routinely managing – in both its more fully achieved and slighter forms – two connected, but jostling, experiences of the cinema: the experience of cinema as an art-like work in a relatively self-contained film world; and cinema as an everyday object in our social world? What if the connection with journalism was productive and enabling rather than troubling and diminishing?
Cinema as Art and Everyday Practice
Audiences certainly do experience films as both art-like and as a form of art. We talk of a well-made movie and of excellence in performance, staging and cinematography; we debate the relative merits of prizes and award winners. We talk of movies as being challenging and provocative in form and content; we memorialise movies and directors in film seasons. As Thomas Elsaesser has pointed out, we increasingly experience the cinema integrated into exhibitions and art museum installations. (7) Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) and Madrid’s Arte Reina Sofia (Spain’s national museum of 20th century art) are two galleries where art and film work closely together, as in GOMA’s ‘David Lynch Retrospective’ and Arte Reina Sofia’s incorporation of film into many of its exhibition spaces. (8) We consider film aesthetically, familiarly recognising its status as an art form with its own procedures, sense-making strategies, priorities and canons.
At the same time, we also experience movies and the cinema as an ordinary social fact. This aspect of the cinema has been well registered in recent film-historical scholarship, which has given us accounts of movie-going, historical audiences, and the circumstances in which these audiences experienced the cinema as an event, connecting it with their lives. (9) Here the cinema is acknowledged as a sociological, urban fact enmeshed in the organisation of the street and the home. It is about the exercise of various kinds of film watching habits in public and domestic spaces. Over time, these details range from the theatrical attendance in the 1930s-1950s – which was so routine that there would be regular reserved seating for entire families at the neighbourhood cinema – to today’s array of multiplexes, online streaming, home theatres, mobile devices, broadcast and pay television, and home video experiences personalising and negotiating both current cinema and the back catalogue. (10) Cinema viewing gets tied up not just with particular films but with distribution, exhibition, and broader reception contexts: the cinema in which it is watched, the experience of watching, the kinds of audiences with which it is watched and the critical discourse that is read alongside it. (11)
Cinema is also social in another related sense: movies negotiate content that exists outside the film world. They are involved in visualising the social, representing order and disorder, monitoring, commenting upon, and taking up cultural matters and the public record. We see this in the contemporary adaptation of the Chris Kyle story in American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014); (12) in the appearance of a celebrated set of quintuplets in Henry King’s A Country Doctor in 1936, (13) and in the replay of important national political events such as the 1975 execution of five Australian journalists in East Timor in Balibo (Robert Connolly, 2009). This makes filmmaking often akin to a form of extended journalism, with the same common emphases upon personalisation, the event, the part standing for the whole, focus on ‘bad news’, on procedure and straying from it, and a campaigning orientation addressing social problems, marginal behaviours, disasters, crime, drug addiction and child custody. (14) Just as film seems journalistic in its visualising, noticing and reflecting, so too the critic, in a parallel move, is herself involved in visualising, noticing and reflecting upon ‘bad news’ and its filmic representation. (15)
It would be tempting to cast these two ways of experiencing the cinema — the film as art-like and the cinema as social and political fact – as different experiences requiring two different kinds of writing: criticism and review. This would mimic the division of labour in the academy, where attention to film form and the relation of movies to each other is the métier of film studies’ more aesthetic ends, while cinema’s social, political and cultural uses for its audiences, viewers and makers is film studies as cultural history, as cultural studies, or media anthropology. According to these critical apparatuses, it seems we are either having something we could call an aesthetic experience or something we might call a socio-cultural experience. But as viewers, our experience of the cinema is more one of continuity than disjunction. As viewers we seem to have no problem with the duality of Citizen Kane (1941): it is at once a thinly veiled exposé of the life and times of William Randolph Hearst, press baron, and a filmmaker’s artistic vision, cinematically expressing the quest for power and influence, betrayal, regret and loneliness. Film reviewing inhabits this continuity, reconciling film’s dual attentions.
Memorialising Film Criticism
Examining how we memorialise film criticism can tell us more about how film reviews work upon this duality. Anthologies of film criticism usually consist of reviews that were initially composed in the midst of a movie’s first season. Such anthologies are typically published well after the movies to which they refer have disappeared or become difficult to source. Editors make concessions to contemporary readers by focusing on pieces that travel better through time, are more accessible, and less tied to day-and-date considerations and references to now forgotten contemporaneous events and debates. For example, Philip Lopate’s edited collection American Movie Critics (16) positions its film critics as contributing to American letters, arguing that each included critic and work constitutes an important but neglected contribution to prose writing. Indeed, the vast bulk of his contributors would be best described as literary journalists. It is therefore more on the ‘film as film’ and ‘film as art-like’ spectrum – just as the writing is, in being ‘notable writing’, art-like itself. In this way such memorialising only selectively remembers, or potentially misremembers, the nature of everyday film reviewing.
A critic who would fit well within Lopate’s collection – if only he were American – is Graham Greene. (17) At one level, Greene’s film criticism is important because he is an important writer; this criticism makes up a significant part of his literary prose output. His novels also lend themselves to film treatment, and continue to be much adapted, suggesting Greene’s own debt to the cinema in his novels. Greene therefore not only takes us to a place of great writing on the cinema – as a form of letters – but also invites us to a consideration of an acute critical intelligence on cinema. However, he also does something else: he points to that other kind of engagement with the cinema – the cinema as a socially, morally and politically ambiguous fact, to be addressed as such.
Today there is considerable reporting of child abuse, and debate about the robbing of childhood and the sexualisation of children in dress and deportment in film and TV programming. Greene was concerned about such matters in his film writing and, in particular, that they were blatantly happening in cinema. The phrase ‘child abuse’ was not used then (18), but that is what we would call what he saw as the dubious pleasures afforded by Shirley Temple in John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie (1937). In his review in Day and Night on 23 October, 1937, Greene assessed Temple’s appeal as follows:
Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of the story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desires. (19)
The review was notorious. Greene fled to Mexico under threat of prosecution for criminal libel. These charges were upheld. Greene had to pay damages to Shirley Temple and Fox because of his contention that the studio was acting as a kind of pimp procuring the child star for ‘immoral purposes’. This is decidedly film criticism as social and political comment, cultural criticism and journalistic campaigning. In the 1972 edition of Greene’s collected film criticism, where the review of Wee Willie Winkie should be, the reader is directed to the appendix where there are pages on the Shirley Temple libel action. These include an extract from the libel settlement in which the British Lord Chief Justice describes Greene’s statements as ‘a gross outrage’. (20)
We have seen that film reviews focusing on social, cultural and political commentary can be edited out of the memorialisation of film criticism. But this is not always the case. Australia’s longest serving film critic, Sylvia Lawson, had a small selection of her criticism anthologised in An Australian Film Reader, and in an edited collection of notable writing from the fortnightly publication, Nation, for which Lawson wrote in the 1960s and early ‘70s. (21) In An Australian Film Reader, her general essays on Australian movies are presented as important documents of the campaign to secure governmental support for the reestablishment of a local film industry. In the Nation collection, her cinema reviews are presented by the book’s editor as exemplars of the publication’s most important cultural, social and political commentary. Her reviewing is decidedly an integral part of a broader tapestry of social, political and cultural engagement, reporting and comment. For Lawson, reviewing is an extension of her journalism and cultural activism (the title of her most recent book is Demanding the Impossible). (22)
But Lawson, like Greene, represents more than one side of this duality. In Nation, The Australian and other national publications including the cultural quarterly Quadrant, Lawson wrote on the cinema with a precision and elegance, and at length, in her own distinctive critical voice – sufficient to see her described as ‘Australia’s Pauline Kael’ and the country’s ‘first film critic’. (23) In the 1960s she was also briefly co-director of the Sydney Film Festival, as well as a contributor to the ‘serious’ cinephile publication Sydney Cinema Journal; in the 1970s and ‘80s she played an important role in the development of screen studies in Australia. (24) Lawson’s criticism is both a way of doing journalism and a way of recognising and giving due regard to film’s aesthetic dimensions. (25) Take the opening of her review of Robert Connolly’s Balibo:
What follows here isn’t so much review as comment on a film as public event. As directed by Robert Connolly, Balibo is a vivid, undismissable revival of collective memory, a convergence of argument around unhealed wounds and political conflict still unresolved after nearly 35 years. It is directed and edited with great energy, with several excellent performances and one great one, Anthony LaPaglia’s as Roger East. It is framed in recollection and testimony, and haunted throughout by the music of the place we’re in, Timor; it is at once beautiful, purposeful, and relentless. (26)
Lawson’s prose here connects historical events, politics and aesthetics. She sees Balibo as a form of journalism, documenting and intervening in national and international affairs; and as an artwork of a certain kind notable for its direction, its performances, and its use of music to create an overall effect. Here, reviewing is a response to and a frame for film viewing, making assessments of its significance based on multiple criteria. (27)
Our ways of more generally memorialising the film review and public film criticism usefully point to reviewing’s important joining together of the movies as art and as social fact. But such memorialisation also affirms Clayton and Klevan’s push to distinguish among film critics and kinds of film criticism, in that it selects and points to outstanding examples. In this way, ordinary reviewing is still at risk of being rendered not only as inferior, but also simply not on a continuum with these outstanding exemplars. We do not memorialise more humble and limited movie reviews. (28) We do not celebrate the reviewing which is more obviously tied to commercial considerations such as those of the trade, or the publisher more interested in providing consumer guides and ratings. In these forms of reviewing, the audiences can seem ‘pandered to’ rather than challenged and educated. The review is, at best, providing a signalling service to ensure that the right target audience is reached for the film in question. Such movie reviewing is less concerned with schooling our satisfactions in the way in which Lawson and Greene seek.
But movie reviewing is a broad church. We need a way of thinking about this continuity between film as art and film as ordinary object that might accommodate the range of reviewing. Rather than finding ways in which some of it might float free from other, less well achieved kinds of reviewing, we want to be able to put together the extraordinary and the ordinary to illuminate their commonality, to find continuity among works of varying achievement – and to find ways of accommodating our experience of the cinema as the dual dispositions we have observed in our most notable criticism.
Philosophical aesthetics provides a way of understanding this dilemma. When we talk about aesthetics, we tend to reflexively associate it with art and art-like experiences. Most of the writing on aesthetics is concerned with art of various kinds. (29) Yet there is a stream of aesthetic thinking that sees the aesthetic as a particular kind of experience or set of experiences. It is a way of apprehending and encountering things, and is not limited to art objects. Whether it is John Dewey’s democratisation of art in Art as Experience, (30) Richard Shusterman’s deliberations on live performance and transient art in Pragmatist Aesthetics, (31) or Yuriko Saito’s deliberation on everyday practices and objects in Everyday Aesthetics, (32) there is a longstanding body of work that sees an aesthetic dimension in our encounter with everyday cultural objects and experiences.
For Dewey, aesthetics is properly part of our desire to have our ‘designs of living … widened and enriched’ through experience. (33) His task was ‘to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience’. (34) Extending Dewey, Saito emphasises the ways our experiences of everyday objects and practices, for all of their functional uses, have an intrinsic aesthetic dimension to them. She writes that ‘an aesthetic reaction can also be a seemingly insignificant, and sometimes almost automatic, response we form in our everyday life. It can be our response to everyday phenomena’. (35) Aesthetics and aesthetic considerations are intrinsic not only to those things we single out as art or those parts of our social world that are most like art. Rather, they include objects we experience and practices we undertake as a matter of course, which are not necessarily a lesser kind of aesthetic experience. For Saito, these everyday aesthetic experiences are worthy of judgment and evaluation in their own right.
Saito’s theorisation licenses a different kind of attention to cinema and film reviewing. The movie review provides evidence of a continuum of aesthetic attention, just as our movie experience is on such a continuum. Viewers do not stop having an aesthetic experience, and critics do not suddenly stop undertaking an aesthetic exposition, when film is approached as an everyday, quotidian artifact useful for comparison, instructions in living, facilitation of social interaction, or political comment. (36)
The film review, tied as it is to day-and-date screenings, is not designed to take its readers and viewers away from the cinema, but to supplement and amplify their viewing. It is like other everyday aesthetic objects in that it propels its readers ‘towards everyday decisions and actions’. (37) Sometimes this takes place without contemplative appreciation, as in capsule review guides and ratings (which encourage a response similar to movie advertisements). But sometimes it comes with considered appreciation. Film reviewing is a way of sharing experiences of cinema just as our viewing provides one of the ways we have of exploring and discovering one another. (38)
For reviewers and viewers alike, cinema is a mix of art-like, notable, and run-of-the-mill movies; a commonplace reality undergirded by extensive cinema consumption. Its reach as a cultural phenomenon permeates other cultural, social and economic worlds in news, fashion, society and politics. We can positively value both aspects – cinema as art and cinema as quotidian cultural object, where even ‘bad films’ deserve (dis)respect (39) – recognising in their combination our routine, cinema-going experiences. These embody different but connected kinds of aesthetic experiences of the cinema event – perhaps a distinct cine-aesthetics of reviewing.
Film Reviewing’s Cine-aesthetics
While the sustained development of this cine-aesthetics of reviewing would require a larger study involving many different critics covering several decades, we can illuminate aspects of it by examining how one particular critic negotiated these different orientations and experiences of the cinema. As the film review, in its contemporary form, arguably began with the coming of sound, early sound critics writing for commercial general interest publications make for instructive reading. They were not only writing at a time when their readership was closely attending to the cinema, but critics and audiences alike were also going to movie theatres as a central public event in their lives. Consequently, these critics often reflected on the continuum of aesthetic experience we have identified. Because they were self-consciously writing about film in a new way, they made explicit the reviewing standpoints that are now implicit and taken for granted. Reviewers also felt able to move among perspectives and orientations to film that would later become the subject of a more elaborated division of labour, as reviewing came to be featured in a broader range of publications, including specialist ones.
Rather than continue to use an already ‘memorialised’ film critic, we want to shift attention to an exceptional reviewer whose criticism has not only been largely forgotten, but who was also reviewing for a populist and, at times, disreputable weekly publication noted as much for its publicity stunts and sensationalist journalism as any serious contribution to public affairs. Unlike Greene’s reviews, Kenneth Slessor’s movie reviews were neither for a ‘quality’ newspaper nor a cultural magazine, but were conducted in the unassuming everyday aesthetic context of Smith’s Weekly, an Australian weekly national newspaper. His reviews also went no further than their immediate readership in Australia and New Zealand. By contrast, C.A. (Caroline Alice) Lejeune, the long-term critic for The Observer (1928-1960), like Greene later for the Spectator (1935-1940), at the time attracted notice beyond Britain. Their readership included other journalist reviewers; one of them was Slessor, who made reference to Lejeune’s reviews in Smith’s Weekly. (40)
Slessor ‘conducted’ the film pages of Smith’s Weekly from 1931 until the advent of World War II. (41) He self-consciously situated the cinema in the swim of everyday life, connecting it with Smith’s agenda and the public concerns of its readers. (42) Film, here, was a decidedly everyday aesthetic object to be attended to as such. (43) But Slessor, an important poet and literary journalist in his own right, combined this with an attention to film as art and as art-like in character. (44) As in other general interest publications in Australia in the 1930s, movie reviewing systematised, regularised and extended a newspaper’s attention to film, and Slessor’s pages were pioneering in this regard. He made the cinema an object of regular and sustained attention, treating it in a dedicated section. His criticism encompassed the whole movie, examining staging, camera work, performance, direction, scripting and genre. He insisted that each kind or genre of movie offered different pleasures, and required its own critical standards. He examined film in terms of how and to what extent it was similar to other art forms. Slessor was evaluating, rating and noting movies.
Such extended and focused writing heightened the film experience for the reader, leading reviews to become an aesthetic event in their own right. Slessor seized on meaningful movies to provide these writing opportunities. It had now become possible, much to the chagrin of filmmakers and the trade, for the review to be more interesting than the work being reviewed. Slessor actively colluded with his readers, extending their engagement with particular movies to create an organic, conversational readership. (45) The vehicle for this sense of community was their shared appreciation of and pleasure in the cinema, its films, its ways and byways of exhibition and social uptake. This social uptake was abetted by other kinds of journalistic film discourse on the Smith’s pages: short capsule reviews, industry journalism, gossip, ludic commentary, film-themed light verse, cartoon panels humorously and satirically summarising the movies of the week, and sometimes flattering and often unflattering caricatures of actors and industry figures. The reviews were thus in conversation with these other kinds of movie attentions. Editorial staff and writers alike sought their interconnection.
Just as Slessor’s treatment of movies oscillated between these different kinds of noticing, so did his aesthetic lens shift between ‘art’ and ‘everyday’. Yes, Slessor did approach some films – especially those he saw as good or just interesting – through an explicit ‘aesthetic of art’ lens. Here, readers were shown that they were in the presence of art of a particular kind: that of the sound film. At other times – and even in reviews when he was attending to movie art – Slessor would take pains to also situate the cinema in everyday life, drawing attention to the audience’s experience of and intersection with the cinema. Slessor’s review of China Seas (Tay Garnett, 1935) notably combined these attentions in the one review. Slessor begins by situating the film experience in the life of the viewer/reader, pointing to the ways in which viewing is tied to, and used to reflect on, its relations to the everyday world of the viewer.
After a steady examination of this picture, I have decided against taking a rest-cure in Chinese waters. Woy Woy will do me. What with the typhoons, hurricanes, pirates, torture, and sudden death which seem to be chucked in with a pleasure-cruise in China Seas, it must all be very galling and exasperating. The remarkable thing about the travellers in this film is that, having survived the typhoons and pirates, they don’t seem to care two hoots – no more than travellers on the Bellevue Hill tram-line care about such minor annoyances as a hold-up at the power-house. (46)
Here we see a double movement in play. In his meditation on entertainment, Richard Dyer has pointed to cinema’s propensity to provide both a time away from our daily affairs and chores, while at the same time engaging with those affairs and chores. (47) There is a pointed comparison made between the two through reference to their shared experience of journey-making within the film and by audiences, holidaying domestically (Woy Woy) or taking public transport (Bellevue Hill tram-line), the latter often being a necessary part of cinema attendance. With these references and comparisons, Slessor is refusing some of the distance implied by the idea of art as ‘something different from our daily affairs, even if it is meant to illuminate or emulate some aspect of our everyday life’. (48)
By keeping close to the everyday experience of film and the viewer’s relation to film as diversion, entertainment and instruction, Slessor can be seen to be delivering a faithful account of this experience and attending closely to the profound consequences of our everyday attitudes and responses. (49) In this way, cinema has an indeterminate status: sometimes it has a significance not found in everyday life; at other times, it is just an aspect of that life; sometimes, as in China Seas, it works as both. Slessor continues:
… a popular player appears in each new role trailing clouds of ancient glory behind him, so that it is hard to dissociate him from the last two parts, or last half-dozen parts, in which he has acted. It comes as a bit of a shock, certainly, to find, when all the passengers have marched up in the gangway here, that the boat holds in close proximity none less than our old friends, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, and C. Aubrey Smith. You feel like saying, as each remembered face comes down the deck, ‘Fancy meeting you’. (50)
This is not only a comment upon the nature of the star system and its effect upon film viewing; it also shows how a review permits audiences, readers and critics to forge a close connection with each other. By comparing what is normal in the cinema with our common, face-to-face encounters, the viewing itself becomes, in in turn, a shared ‘fancy meeting you’ moment akin to that of the face-to-face encounter.
Elsewhere in the same review, Slessor considers China Seas as a ‘film in a film world’. He identifies it as a movie of certain type, evaluating it in terms of this type and how it builds on previous movies. He talks of the dramatic range of the performers and evaluates their performance. He discusses the work’s pacing. In such moments, Slessor was ‘making’ the 1930s cinema audience in the form of Smith’s readers, who were conscious of their participation in an artwork; the artistic import of this work was to be understood through the movie’s situation within its respective cinema genre, its performances, its direction, its antecedents and precedents, and its relation to the novel being adapted. In these moments, he was constructing for cinema the sense of a film’s membership in a film world, as well as an artistic practice in its own right, with its own affordances.
In the space of the one review, we see Slessor traverse a gamut of critical attentions, consider aspects of the film – and the audience’s appreciation of and negotiation with the cinema in their daily lives. The film here is decidedly both an everyday aesthetic object and an art object in a film world. The cine-aesthetics of the movie review notably adopts both approaches.
Proposing that film reviewing adopt a solely art-centred approach would set unacceptable limits on the scope of criticism, and the kinds of aspects of a movie that could be taken up. It would lose sight of the rich array of aesthetic values (51) that Saito insists are integrated with the utilitarian contexts of our cinematic experience. Saito’s wager is of the ‘what if’ kind: what if we thought of ‘aesthetics’ more broadly? She (with Arnold Berleant) asks us to recognise that ‘how we engage with the prosaic landscapes of home, work, local travel, and recreation is an important measure of the quality of our lives’. (52) Movie reviewing’s cine-aesthetics is a balancing act between film as everyday aesthetic object and film as art and art-like aesthetic object.
The connection with journalism in reviewing is notable. Like most movie critics until comparatively recently, Slessor worked for a newspaper or magazine. Dismissing film reviewing as ‘mere journalism’ misses what is important and useful about the review as a platform for aesthetic negotiation. Journalism is the métier for dealing with, noting and organising everyday contexts and practices. Its strictures enabled reviewing to take cinema up in several respects. It was open to seeking and noting cinema’s diverse artistic sources and qualities, even where these were not paradigmatic art. Journalism focuses on the dramatic, singular and sensational because it is interested in news value. In this way reviewing, like the cinema on which it reported, was identifying something that was unusual and special, and therefore reportable as such. But journalism also focuses on the ordinary and mundane. The reviewer likewise has to parse everything that is released, and not everything works intellectually or aesthetically – but it may work or be interesting in other alternative registers that may be more mundane and ordinary. This is precisely what can give reviewing its perceived lesser status. But it constitutes the very interest, capability and reach of film reviewing.
The reviewing of movies is thus best seen as an extension of journalism and its practices of audience- and world-making. Its form and content, its interaction with sources and the film beat, all mean that, in order to create its independent space of interpretation, review and commentary, reviewers need to be in a perennial dance with their sources (cinema distributors, filmmakers, publicists, other film reviewers and now blogs) and the publics to whom they are accountable. The sometimes vexed relation of reviewers with the trade and the general public is a version of the typical hostilities that attend any relation between journalists, their sources, and their readers and viewers.
Thus, film reviewing has a particular aesthetic interest in that it routinely engages different kinds of aesthetic satisfactions. It approaches film for its achievement as an artwork; and as an everyday functional aesthetic object. Central to movie reviewing is its ability to assay the porous boundaries and vocabularies of these orientations.
Consequently, in those moments when viewing and criticism are attending to the cinema in its social uses and its ordinary variety, when we are paying attention to run-of-the-mill films, when we are addressing and thinking through the serious issues Balibo raises, we are participating in an aesthetic experience. Such hybrid aesthetics allows the reviewer to find interest in the unexceptional, routine and ordinary film as well as the more achieved film.
Without this common thread of aesthetics, we would be left relating some movies and movie reviewing to art, while seeing others as mere entertainment – closely associated with journalism, publicity and promotion. Reviewing is a vehicle for facilitating just this kind of engagement with our prosaic landscapes of the cinema. The reviewer illuminates, more or less well, the cinema’s art world and its evanescent world as a comportment of the everyday. In so doing, the film reviewer remains truthful to cinema’s diverse dimensions. (53)
1. Of course
Roger Ebert in his written film
reviews might be regarded as Kael’s equal. We use his example here to point to
the constraints of television reviewing generally, with Ebert providing a
prominent, internationally recognisable case of what is often still a
nationally-based form of television programming – one for
which there are many national exemplars. An Australian exemplar was the team of
David Stratton and Margaret Pomerantz, who for 28 years had their own movie
shows, ending in December 2014. For a sample of Ebert’s contribution to
extended forms of film criticism, see Roger Ebert, Awake in the Dark: Forty Years of Reviews, Essays and Interviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Hodsdon, in his homage to the Australian film critic John Flaus, cites his
oft-repeated distinction as residing in two related propositions: (a) ‘If all
film production ceased tomorrow, criticism would continue but reviewing would
not’; and (b) ‘Reviewing assumes that the reader hasn’t seen the film;
criticism assumes that the reader has, will or should have seen the film’. See
in a Coffee Cup: The Film Criticism of John Flaus’, Senses of Cinema, no. 72, October 2014. For his part, David
Bordwell distinguishes between three kinds of film criticism: film review,
academic article or book of criticism, and critical essay. See Bordwell, ‘In
Critical Condition’ in Minding Movies:
Observation on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 55.
3. See Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, ‘Introduction:
the Language and Style of Film Criticism’, in Clayton and Klevan (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism (New
York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 1-26.
4. Clayton and Klevan, ‘Introduction’, p. 24.
5. Clayton and Klevan, ‘Introduction’, p. 1.
Carroll has also sought to demarcate the proper space of criticism, including
film criticism. In his On Criticism (London:
Routledge, 2009, p. 5), he sees criticism’s fundamental business as being
‘evaluation’; in this he sets himself against those, particularly from within a
cultural/critical studies tradition who would see its principal business as
developing ‘interpretations’. Clayton and Klevan (‘Introduction’) do not see what
they do as ‘abstracting’ from the work but as remaining close to the work,
contrasting their approach with the formalist approach of David Bordwell (‘In
Critical Condition’). All, however, see the necessity of movie criticism as
having independence from the film trade or any other institution that might
seek to secure judgement on favourable terms; and each presumes film as art or
an art-like cultural form with film being an object in itself – a film in a
7. Thomas Elsaesser’s reference to the film museum is
in his lecture ‘Cinema after Film: On the Future of Obsolescence of the Moving
Image’, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, January 10, 2014. Published on YouTube as ‘Thomas Elsaesser at CSDS:
Golden Jubilee Lecture’, May 25, 2014.
exhibition catalogue by Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), David Lynch Between Two Worlds, Jose da
Silva Curator and author. Greg Hainge author. Brisbane: Gallery of Modern Art,
9. See Daniel Biltereyst, Richard Maltby and Philippe
Meers, ‘Cinema Audiences and Modernity: an Introduction’ in Biltereyst, Maltby
and Meers (eds.), Cinema, Audiences and
Modernity (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 1-16, especially pp. 2-3.
10. See Karina Aveyard and Albert Moran (eds.), Watching Films: New Perspectives on
Movie-going, Exhibition and Reception (Bristol: Intellect, 2013).
11. This is the
aspect of our cinema experience that Roland Barthes pointed to when he wrote
‘whenever I hear the word cinema, I can’t help thinking “movie theatre” rather
than film’. See Roland
Barthes, ‘Leaving the Movie Theatre’ in The
Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984), p. 346.
12. Chris Kyle with Jim de Felice and Scott McEwan, American Sniper: the Autobiography of the
Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).
13. For a
contemporary review of this film see Kenneth Slessor, ‘The Country Doctor’, Smith’s Weekly, June 27, 1936, p. 14.
Ericson, Crim Baranek and Janet Chan, Representing
Order (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1991), pp. 341-344.
15. This is a point made by a number of the reviewers
Peter Malone assembled for his overview of Australian film criticism. See Malone
Watching: 30 Film Reviewers on Review (Melbourne:
16. Phillip Lopate (ed.), American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents until Now (New
York: The Library of America, 2006).
Russell Taylor (ed.), Graham
Greene on Film: The Collected Film Criticism,
1935-1940 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972).
18. For a discussion of the contemporary discourse around child abuse, see
Ian Hacking, ‘Kind-Making: The Case of
Child Abuse’ in Social
Construction of What? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press), 1999, pp. 125-162.
David Parkinson, ‘This Day in Cinema: This Day in 1937:
Controversial Graham Greene film review published’, October 28, 2013.
‘Appendix’, Graham Greene on Film: The
Collected Film Criticism, 1935-1940, p. 276-7.
‘Appendix’, Graham Greene on Film: The
Collected Film Criticism, 1935-1940, p. 276-7.
21. See Sylvia Lawson, ‘Not for the Likes of Us’
(1965) and ‘Australian Film’ (1969) in Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (eds.), An Australian Film Reader (Sydney:
Currently Press, 1985), pp. 150-157 and pp. 175-183. Also see K.S. Inglis
(ed.), Nation: The Life of an Independent Journal of Opinion 1958-1972 (Carlton: Melbourne Unibersity Press,
Lawson, Demanding the Impossible (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2012).
23. Quentin Turnour, personal communication, Canberra,
February 27, 2014. Turnour was, until recently, a key figure in the National
Film and Sound Archive.
24. Lawson’s involvement in screen studies began at University of Sydney in the late 1960s 7 early ‘70s when
she developed a course there with John Flaus and David Malouf. She then moved
to Brisbane soon after the establishment of Griffith University, and was
crucial to its development of film and television studies. See Noel
King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams (eds.), Australian Film Theory and Criticism, Vol. 1 (Bristol: Intellect,
2013). Lawson is also associated closely with Australian feminism; see her How Simone de Beauvoir died in Australia (Sydney:
UNSW Press, 2002).
25. Film reviewing was one of the ways in which the
cinema, a pre-eminently international form, was localised. Other kinds of localisation
were provided by newsreels and, in the silent period, performances of various
kinds accompanying exhibition of mostly international pictures.
26. Sylvia Lawson, ‘Half-forgotten
and Given Back’, Inside Story,
August 25, 2009.
27. For a more detailed and explicit treatment of
these multiple criteria see Sylvia Lawson, ‘Out of the Mid-Century:
History, Memory and Cinema’, LOLA,
no. 1, 2011.
28. Capsule reviews, however, are anthologised in the
many Halliwell Guides and in Pauline
Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies. But
these are more akin to the reference guide, the encyclopaedia and the companion
than they are to providing the literary journalism of critical virtuosi. See Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (New York:
Picador, 1982, 1984, 1991, 1992); and John Walker (ed.), Halliwell’s Film and Video Guide 2002 (London: Collins Reference,
29. See ‘Neglect
of Everyday Aesthetics’ in Yuriko Saito, Everyday
Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 9-53;
particularly pp. 14-15.
30. John Dewey, Art
as Experience (New York: Perigee, 2005).
Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living
Beauty, Rethinking Art, 2nd edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman &
32. Saito, Everyday
33. Dewey, Art
as Experience, p. 23.
34. Dewey, Art
as Experience, p. 2.
35. Saito, Everyday
Aesthetics, p. 10.
36. We can find some support for Saito’s view from
Noël Carroll, who points out that philosophical conceptions of art have not
been good at dealing with the communal aspects of our viewing and subsequent
social discussions. See Carroll, ‘Art and Friendship’ in his Minerva’s Night
Out: Philosophy, Pop Culture, and Moving Pictures (Malden, MA: Wiley
Blackwell, 2013), pp. 269-275.
37. Saito, Everyday
38. Carroll makes just this point in discussing art
and friendship. While his article uses a theatre play, Art, as his point of departure to discuss the way we use art to
‘forge our small-scale, face-to-face, everyday relations with others’, he also
acknowledges that ‘food, sports, fashion, humour, and politics are serviceable
in similar ways’. Carroll is echoing here Saito’s contention concerning the
importance of paying attention to the aesthetic dimension of a range of our
everyday practices and objects. See ‘Art and Friendship’ in Noël Carroll, Minerva’s
Night Out, p. 272.
39. Joe Queenan talks of the pleasures derived from
‘hating another Showgirls or Gigli’ in Queenan, ‘Why
bad films aren’t getting the disrespect they deserve’, The Guardian, August 21, 2015.
40. See Kenneth Slessor, ‘Great Films of 1932 that
Australia Didn’t See’, Smith’s Weekly,
August 2, 1933, p. 10. Slessor referred to Lejeune as ‘he’, not realising that
this foremost of British film critics of the period was a woman, Caroline
Alice, signing herself as C.A. With Australasia being at the end of the global
cycle of film distribution and exhibition, Slessor, as an Australasian
reviewer, had a need for the UK review; the reverse did not pertain.
41. As a senior journalist, Slessor wrote across the
newspaper, working variously in editorial and management capacities, including editorial
assistant, then editor and managing editor. Slessor left the newspaper to become the Australian military’s official war
correspondent with the outbreak of the WWII. See George Blaikie, Remember ‘Smith’s Weekly’? A Biography of an
Uninhibited National Australian Newspaper, Born 1 March 1919 Died: 28 October
1950 (Adelaide: Rigby 1966), particularly p. 49.
42. A small collection of Slessor’s movie
reviews has recently been made available. See Huw
Walmsley-Evans, Tom O’Regan and Philip Mead (eds.), ‘Kenneth Slessor: Selected Film Reviews,
1933-36’, Screening the Past, no.
an extended discussion of Slessor’s film criticism, see Huw Walmsley-Evans, Tom
O’Regan and Philip Mead, ‘Kenneth
Slessor and the Sound Cinema: The “Chief Film Critic whose Reviews are Accepted
as the Most Reliable in Australia”’, Screening the Past, no.
is best known in Australia as its leading poet between the wars, and as a war
diarist and literary journalist. See Geoffrey Dutton’s (Ringwood,
Victoria: Viking, 1991). Philip Mead, in his book Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing,
2008), connects Slessor’s engagement with the cinema to his poetry, arguing that the
latter is best understood as a response to – and a form of engaging with – the
cinema by other means.
45. The centrality of developing a ‘readership’ – a community brought together through the agency of
journalism and its vehicles – is at the core of
John Hartley’s consideration of journalism and its democratic functions. See
John Hartley, Popular Reality (London: Arnold, 1996), p. 31.
46. Kenneth Slessor, ‘China Seas’, Smith’s Weekly,
January 4, 1936: p. 29.
47. Richard Dyer has usefully described this combination
of withdrawal from everyday affairs and engagement in them as ‘entertainment’.
See Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment,
2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2005).
48. Saito, Everyday
Aesthetics, p. 35.
49. Saito, Everyday
Aesthetics, p. 8.
50. Slessor, ‘China
Seas’, p. 29.
51. Saito, Everyday
Aesthetics, p. 27.
52. Arnold Berleant, Living in the Landscape: Toward an Aesthetics of
Environment (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1997), p. 16, quoted in Saito, Everyday Aesthetics, p.
53. Saito, Everyday Aesthetics, p. 5.
from Issue 6: Distances
© Tom O'Regan, Huw Walmsley-Evans & LOLA, December 2015.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.