Not This Old Shit Again

We go on and on about this so often even we’re sick of it. No, not Josh Thomas: the twin evils of Australian criticism – critics siding with their mates instead of the viewing public, and critics who think the best way to support the local industry is… oh wait, since when was “supporting the local industry” even part of a critics job? Now retiring film critic Margaret Pomeranz has come out swinging against the harsh hand the local press dealt Josh Lawson’s recent sex comedy The Little Death:

The latest manifestation of our apparent cinematic self-hate has been around The Little Death, Josh Lawson’s take on sexual fetishes. Australian critics have almost universally condemned the film, which stands in contrast to its rave reception at the Sydney Film Festival, where it premiered and was second-most-popular film with the audience, and at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was launched – and widely sold – internationally.

Among those Australian critics who have “universally condemned” The Little Death were, um, us:

It’s basically a collection of lame sketches that’re only slightly better than The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting, in that once they explain the basic set-up (they’re all based around couples with a specific fetish – one woman is turned on by her husband crying, another has a rape fantasy, a guy only gets turned on by his wife when she’s unconscious, etc) they just wander around for a while then fizzle out. Off the top of our heads, of the four main storylines two end in a pregnancy, one ends in marriage and one in divorce. They might be legitimate relationship milestones but they’re hardly surprising or funny.

So yeah, not big fans.

The thing to pay attention to in Pomeranz’s somewhat incoherent article – first she talks about local films that received solid reviews but were shunned at the box office, then she blames poor reviews for the bad box office of Australian films… so Australian films should be given good reviews even though by her own argument good reviews don’t help at the box office? – is this bit that comes a mere ten paragraphs after she starts defending The Little Death:

A disclaimer is in order here. I was unable to review the film because my elder son was one of the executive producers. But that connection means I can see up-close the anguish of putting a film out there only to have it so dumped on locally.

So she’s not speaking here as a reviewer, or even as a supporter of the local industry: it’s the mother of one of the producers saying “stop picking on my son’s movie”. Why did this even get published?

Only kidding: we all know that blaming reviewers for when a local movie or TV series tanks is a national pastime. No matter that when critics do come out in force to support something that the audience clearly isn’t interested in – oh look, more articles on how Please Like Me is “the best show you’re not watching” – it makes fuck-all difference. Critics should side with the local industry at all times, even if that means (as has arguably been the case with the career of Margaret Pomeranz) the general public becomes aware of their bias and ignores them. Because hey, if the public are ignoring critics, they’ll probably pay more attention to actors and film-makers telling them how great Australian films are, right?

We’ve been doing this long enough to know just how much power critics have in the real world, and it’s pretty much bugger-all. The only time we can influence anyone’s decision is when they’re a): open to the idea of watching something but b): haven’t made up their mind as to what to watch. When it comes to Australian films, after years of duds – duds critics like Pomeranz talked up hard for “the good of the industry” – the audience has made up their mind. Unless it actually looks really good – and honestly, how many Australian films can you say that about – they’re not interested*.

As for Pomeranz, turns out she’s just another “critic” who sides with the big boys instead of the viewers who turn to her for advice. It’s no surprise that she came out with this twaddle having already announced her retirement; now she doesn’t even have to pretend to be objective about what she wants to peddle. This is the kind of ingrained bias that puts people off both critics and the media they shamelessly promote. At this stage of her career, she’s doing more harm than good.



*other real problems with getting people to see Australian films include: poor marketing, limited availability, and lack of audience drawcards. C’mon, we’re talking here about a middle-class sex sketch comedy with Josh Lawson as the star: it’s a wonder they got anyone out of their houses to see that.

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  • EvilCommieDictator says:

    Oh Margaret. I found this awfully unfunny due to my lack of sense of humour of anything after 1950. 1 star.

  • Billy C says:

    Do sketch movies ever really work? The Turning had a limited release and you know Tim Winton…
    Josh Lawson’s just not a drawcard. Who is supposed to see this Sea Patrol fans?

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I have some sympathy for those who work in ‘show business’ in Australia because the reason can’t be for the money and fame it must be the passion. That being said NZ seems to have a decent film industry.

  • Rutegar says:

    Okay, I haven’t seen THE LITTLE DEATH.

    I didn’t feel sufficiently compelled to see it, but then I suspect I’m not the intended target audience (and if it turns out the producers insist I am in the intended target audience, then whoo-boy they bombed some fundamentals in convincing me) …

    But putting aside the whole (increasingly tedious) argument about how unwatchably god-awful at worst and staggeringly mediocre at best Australian TV shows, movies, and theatre productions continue to be* … the Pomeranz article worried me for a few reasons.

    Firstly, that the piece itself was so poorly structured. As noted above, trying to bury a disclaimer about personal bias and conflict of interest in the middle of the piece was the kind of bush league stuff you’d expect from Andrew Bolt (if he ever admitted his personal conflicts of interest).

    That actually annoyed the hell out of me.

    Pomeranz should have declared her maternal interest in THE LITTLE DEATH right out of the gate; in the very first paragraph; the way grown-ups should do (and anyone working for the Murdoch Press doesn’t).

    Which is a pity because I quite like Pomeranze.

    But I’ll wager she lost some sympathetic ears when readers discovered she was actively looking to conceal personal interests in audience numbers for THE LITTLE DEATH until it became untenable.

    So BIG CROSS against the MP piece for employing kindergarten debating techniques when trying to influence an intelligent readership.

    But the bigger worry is what will happen now. ie the backlash against THE LITTLE DEATH (and possibly Australian films more widely) as a result of the MP article being published.

    Because a lot of Australians will have a similar response to that articulated above — ie. that producer Josh Pomeranz got his famous mummy to come out and tell everyone to be nicer to her son’s little film.

    Which — let’s be blunt — is NOT a sentiment Australians respond well to, and if anything makes it even LESS likely that an Aussie bloke especially will want to try out the film.

    If Josh Pomeranz wanted to bitch about his patently flawed film gaining no traction, he should have penned the piece himself under his own name and kept mummy out of it (even is she wanted to get involved).

    It was a SERIOUS tactical miscalculation.

    And I’d like to say it mystifies me how the spin doctors in the film’s marketing team did not realised that such a negative outcome to the piece was likely — even inevitable — but the ability for Australian cinema marketeers and publicists to spectacularly misread the Aussie psyche is almost legendary.


    * thank god we have some novelists, painters and musicians who can truly claim to create something of a more consistently world class standard

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    They probably pitched / sold it as more along the lines of VALENTINES DAY, NEW YEARS EVE, and the monster behind them all, LOVE ACTUALLY.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    As noted in our original review, the people behind THE LITTLE DEATH seem to have decided the way to promote their film is by slagging off every other film – and now, every other film critic – in Australia. They made an awesome film: if no-one’s going to see it, it can’t possibly be their fault.

  • Billy C says:

    I recently saw These Final Hours on a plane. What a waste of time even for a plane trip. Sure it was shot okay, but the story was very light and the characters almost entirely unlikeable on any level. When I like an Australian film I like it more than international films but they have such a bad smell about them that I’d want pretty good word of mouth before I saw one in the cinema. Last time I laughed? Probably Kenny.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Fairfax have continued their long-running tradition of first igniting controversy then fanning the flames by running a rebuttal to Pomeranz’s waffle from The Bazura Project’s Lee Zachariah:

  • Yeps says:

    Zachariah makes some fine points, but he was considerably more kind than I would have been to Pomeranz, and far more understanding than she deserves.

    Whatever her net benefits to the film industry over the years – her support for loosening the grip of the ratings board on banned films; her encouragement of young auteurs – this is a farcically ill-considered, and reputation destroying rant.

    The tricky thing with criticism has always been parsing out where the lines between ‘subjectivity’ and the illusion of ‘objectivity’ lie. Pomeranz, on a good day, is a perfect example of this. Inevitably when she is reviewing some animated film she’ll drop some throwaway line about how personally she doesn’t care for animated films (and then she’ll usually go on and award it four stars anyway – for someone who hates the form, she certainly lavishes a lot of them with high marks). She lets the viewer know that she has a subjective perspective that therefore colours her critique.

    Over time, a trust in these subjective opinions allows people to infer more ‘objective’ details: ‘Well, David says he personally hates ‘shaky-cam’ but he thinks that it is quite effective in this film – that probably means that it’s good…’

    Of course, everything is ultimately subjective, but we rely on the reviewers themselves being aware of that truth, and acknowledging it in their analysis, so that we can better judge for ourselves.

    Exactly as the original Tumbleweeds post said, in fudging the details of her familial bias, in excusing and encouraging lowering the bar for local product (essentially giving them mates rates) to con people into supporting films that she herself acknowledges can be flawed, she flushed her entire credibility away. All of it.

    And when someone literally doesn’t even know what the purview of their own job is anymore, it’s far past time that they give it away. If she wants to spruik for Australian films, then fine. Good luck to her. Apparently it needs all the cheer-leading it can get – but to try and alter the very definition of a critic, to blur critique and promotion in such an ugly, patronising way, is just a joke.

    And even if we did give in to such a vision, what would it all mean? Would her son really want his film to be smothered in gold stars and encouragement award from his mother and her friends, only to get panned by everyone outside of their little clique? For someone arguing that Australian films deserve more recognition, she has a tragically myopic vision of where that praise will ultimately lead.

  • Yeps says:

    I just realised that I made it sound like I’m not aware that she’s already announced her retirement.

    When I said ‘it’s far past time’ she gave it away I meant that she’s clearly already stayed on far too long, and this nonsense only retroactively sullies everything that she has said before.

  • saucy gibbon says:

    The biggest problem I think for The Turning and most Australian films isn’t marketing per se but distribution. How can people see a movie if there isn’t a cinema they can go see it? I was vaguely interested in seeing The Turning to find out even in Melbourne only three or four cinemas were showing it and they were charging $30 a ticket.

  • saucy gibbon says:

    I always preferred David anyway

  • Barney says:

    Yep, rock solid article. Agree.