It took almost three decades, several thousand star ratings and countless hours of good-spirited argy-bargy, but yesterday news finally arrived that beloved Australian film reviewers David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz have officially decided to end their long-running TV program At the Movies (formerly The Movie Show). Their last episode will be filmed on December 9.
It came as a surprise to nobody who has been following the show, which since mid-2013 has experimented with replacement hosts. Almost exactly two years ago, on this very publication, Stratton floated the idea of moving on. “We finished up 25 years last year, and this is our 26th year,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”
It depends, of course, whom you ask. Some would answer “maybe”. Others — the many of us who tune in regularly or semi-regularly to watch this likable pair deliver their verdict on the week’s releases, taking guilty pleasure in the knowledge they’ve been forced to sit through the latest Transformers movie or shaky-cam blockbuster (David hates them) — would probably say they’d be happy to dip in and out of David and Margaret’s conversations from now until approximately the end of time.
Margaret and David, as they will be affectionately remembered, are film-reviewing royalty. Pomeranz’s squeaky laugh and Stratton’s sensible demeanour are synonymous with discussions of cinema in Australia. They are, in the best possible way, as familiar as the furniture (though considerably more opinionated).
With royalty comes longevity. Pomeranz and Stratton began their television legacy on SBS 28 years ago, when Pomeranz — formerly a producer — sat in the chair next to Stratton because she “could not find anyone that David was prepared to appear with who was a woman”. Their chemistry developed over time, as is to be expected, although from the very first episode they exhibited a familiar style and appeal.
That style was nuanced in a chatty and mostly unpretentious way (give or take — every critic deserves a splash of holier-than-thou from time to time) that connected with the general public. There was always something unashamedly old-fashioned about the structure of the show. In the tradition of American critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s program, also called At the Movies, the format for David and Margaret was simple: two chairs, two voices, some clips, some discussion.
That format never really aged, but the culture of film reviewing around them certainly did. Stratton and Pomeranz began their television careers when “the internet” sounded like something from a Philip K. Dick novel. Like Roger Ebert, in his lifetime probably the world’s most famous film critic, their careers crossed over from a period in which the internet didn’t exist to a period in which it dictates, from a publishing perspective, virtually everything.
Anybody who has been critiquing films for a long time will tell you that the state of play in the movie reviewing industry has changed. For starters, hardly any critics write exclusively for print these days; almost all are online in one form or another.
It is a popular view among the film criticism community that the evolution of digital publishing has resulted in less work and ever-smaller pay cheques. The logic is that in an online universe where any Joe or Jane can easily create a professional-looking publication and get his or her voice heard, the craftspeople who used to own this space are being drowned out in a sea of so-and-sos.
Those advocating this position have a point, or several, but there’s a flipside: with more low-quality film criticism available than ever before, the best stuff is more easily noticed and appreciated (and, critics hope, circulated). Anybody can write about films, but few people can write about them well, and editors of publications worth writing for understand the difference.
If the retirement of David and Margaret marks the symbolic end of the golden age of traditional film reviewing in Australia, maybe it also marks the start of a new one. While Hollywood blockbusters aimed at adolescents — films that rely on strong opening weekends (and achieve them by saturating the media industry with advertising) — are generally invincible when it comes to bad reviews, there are signs areas of the industry are heading towards lower-cost business models that could re-emphasise the importance of film criticism.
This week Richard Harris, CEO at South Australian Film Corporation, urged producers to “go big or small” and avoid the so-called dead zone for feature films: budgets between $5 million and $15 million. If the polarisation of budget levels increases, it could result in more smaller films hungry for critical acclaim. Likewise, the advent of video-on-demand as a distribution model (recently used for Australian films The Reckoning and Fell) could place a renewed emphasis on word-of-mouth and, in turn, the opinion of film critics.
Margaret and David were instrumental forces behind the success of writer/director Dee McLachlan’s excellent 2007 drama about sex slaves in Melbourne, The Jammed. The film was slated to open on a single screen for a two-week run; their reviews led it to a wider release and subsequent attention from the Australian Film Institute Awards (it was nominated for seven). The importance of film criticism in the context of spreading awareness are rare these days, but who knows? That might change.
In addition to throwing their weight behind art they believed in, Stratton and Pomeranz also demonstrated to critics (and aspiring critics) the potential for viewing their role as more than filing for a deadline or recording a weekly segment. Both, for example, have a history in opposing film censorship. As director of the Sydney Film Festival, Stratton spoke out against censorship in the 1960s and sparked a debate that ultimately led to the introduction of the R18+ rating. In 2003, Pomeranz attended an illegal screening of Larry Clark’s banned film Ken Park at a Sydney town hall. It was raided by police, who swooped to the stage seconds after she pressed play.
Australians won’t see their king and queen of film reviewing every week, but hope remains. Like every great dynasty