Thursday 16 November 2017

Colin Bennett - Reflections in the Dark - Film Writings 1952-1980 - Part Three - A Critic's Life at The Age

Colin Bennett (photo: Bronwyn Murphy, NFSA)
Editor’s Note: On 16 October Peter Hourigan and I interviewed Colin Bennett on behalf of the National Film & Sound Archive’s Oral History Program. The interview took place at the NFSA office in Melbourne. It occurred after the publication on this blog of some memories recalling the contribution Colin made to Australian film culture.

Colin Bennett was a film critic based in Melbourne. During the interview Colin revealed he had written a memoir of his life in film. In this extract from that memoir he recalls the tribulations of his work for The Age, his broadcasting and television career and the beginning of his role as a Board Member and Chairman of the Australian Film Institute. 

This is the third and final extract from that unpublished memoir, written in 1995 and titled Reflections in the Dark - Film Writings 1952-1980. Part One can be found if you click here, Part Two if you click here

Having tried most jobs in journalism, from the police rounds to the stock exchange, I soon found that film criticism (the Age demanded far more from its critics than superficial ‘reviewing’) was the easiest of all to do badly and by far the hardest to do well. I struggled always to convey the experience of seeing a film, the feel of it; to get to the kernel or nub of it, as well as imparting information about it. I suppose I was saying in effect: ‘Here is what I think the film is like; what it is; its essence.  Now go and see it -- if it is likely to interest you. And maybe there is something here that will give you greater insight into it . . . .’

W H Auden
Although the poet W.H. Auden wrote commentary for two famous documentaries of the Thirties, he had no interest whatever in the cinema; yet he always read the critic James Agee. It was good for me, too, to learn that some people who had no interest read my column regularly. Others who disagreed with me continued to read me because they knew where they stood. No critic should ask more. He cannot be “right” or “wrong”. His are opinions, like everyone else’s. The most important critic is still Time.

The popular media invented “star ratings”, an absurd shorthand that is meaningless in this context, for it negates half the point of written criticism, which should leave the individual reader to award his own stars. (I fancy my rating system would be somewhat different. One star if a film contains no car chases, two if it also contains no special effects, three if it boasts not one drop of blood. But that, of course, would take all the fun out of it).

There is no more tiring or exacting work than criticism. You certainly need to be a jack of most trades. Ideally you need not only a broad grasp of film history and the widest possible experience of film viewing, so that each work can be seen in perspective; you also need a background in the other arts, because cinema can make use of all of them.

Kenneth Tynan
Of course one hopes for some inbuilt taste and sensibility, especially from those I like to call litmus critics -- those who, like me, react first, then analyse the reasons for their reaction afterward. One hopes for the quality of courage, courage to be fearless in the face of producers, exhibitors and the public itself. And just as important to me is a point of view. I cannot conceive of reviewing in a vacuum, divorced from all but art for art’s sake. The critic needs commitment to certain values, which readers are free to accept or reject. As I’ve said, the important thing is to know where they stand with him or her. “If a man tells me something I believe to be an untruth,” wrote Kenneth Tynan, “am I forbidden to do more than congratulate him on the brilliance of his lying?”

I think it was Tynan, too, who suggested that a critic is someone who knows the way but can’t drive the car. But whether that way is your way or diametrically opposed to your way is not so important.

At any rate, I sought to avoid the two extremes of film appreciation and criticism, the pop and the esoteric.

At the easy end of the scale lies cheap, smart, jokey writing at the expense of the medium I love. This is always a terrible temptation, especially if you have little background knowledge. The poet Horace said it best: we condemn that which we do not understand.

One French critic, in a rather sweeping generalisation, believes
The media no longer ask those who know something (or love something, or, worst of all, know why they love something) to share that knowledge with the public. Instead, they ask those who know nothing to represent the ignorance of the public and, in so doing, to legitimate it.

But the idea of the critic representing the ignorance of the public is nothing new. I knew one critic who actually took her holidays at film festival time to avoid having to review the festival films. Another was notorious for leaving every film screening at least half an hour before the end. So much for their respect for the medium on which they presumed to comment to the public. So much for their respect for that public.

I remember one morning in the 1960s spotting a reporter from a rival newspaper standing, bewildered, in the foyer of the old State cinema in Flinders Street. “What’s up, Bob?” I asked. “How do I get a complimentary ticket?” he wanted to know. “I’m our new film critic”. I introduced him to the manager and sat with him through the film to explain things.

It transpired that Bob’s predecessor had just been sacked for his notorious failure to sit through more than 15 minutes of the films he reviewed. (The exhibitors had finally stationed ushers at the exits to spy on his movements and clock his departure time). Bob was unlucky enough to be passing his editor’s open door at the very moment of the sacking. “Bob, got a moment?” shouted the editor.

“How long since you’ve been to a picture show?” Bob thought hard. “About two years.” “Great,” said the editor. “You’re just the man we need. You can see the pictures from the man and woman in the street’s point of view”. He was appointed there and then.

Even if a reviewer does know something of his subject, he can be tempted to write smart and superficial stuff to entertain the uninformed. While I have always tried to be constructive, never malicious, I have not always avoided the quip-laden review. I thought myself clever in suggesting that one film had been revived so that those who missed it the first time could miss it again. And a couple of similar light-hearted remarks about two Christmas attractions actually led to one cinema chain withdrawing its advertising.

'saccharine little grandmother'
Cary Grant, Cathleen Nesbitt, Deborah Kerr
An Affair to Remember
I wrote of An Affair to Remember that Cary Grant’s saccharine little grandmother praying in her private chapel went a long way towards making it an affair to forget. Then I suggested that Snow White and the Three Stooges could have been worse: there could have been seven of them. Amazingly, Hoyts cited these two remarks as a reason for pulling its advertising from the paper. I will not forget Sir Harold Campbell’s response. In a letter to Hoyts, he defended my role, then added: “I regret that you are withdrawing your advertisements, but that is a matter for our advertising department and I am passing on your letter to them”.

'there could have been seven of them'
Snow White and the Three Stooges

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