He has been writing science fiction film criticism since the turn of the century, beginning with his William Atheling Jr award-winning column in Borderlands and continuing through his podcast Bad Film Diaries and more than 900 posts at The Angriest. This year he launched a long-form reviewing project atFictionMachine.
After blogging criticism for many years at Angriest, you’ve launched a “serious” film criticism blog at FictionMachine, saying you want to “engage in longer-form filmmaking articles and criticism”. You’re running a fundraising campaign to back the blog. Why?
I’ve always loved writing lengthier pieces, which generally involve more considered thought and proper research. I used to write them for the SF journal Borderlands, but when that magazine closed down I lost that avenue to have them published. I did put a few longer pieces up on my personal blog, The Angriest, but they generally got lost among the shorter, more superficial posts. FictionMachine is basically an exercise in demarcation: it highlights that these are longer essays that the reader isn’t going to get through in 60 seconds, and that these are more considered pieces of criticism than the off-the-cuff Star Trek: The Next Generation reviews I indulge in at The Angriest.
As for crowdsourcing, the short and boring answer was that several people asked me to set up a Patreon campaign so that they could give me money. The longer answer is that I’ve always been fascinated by crowdsourcing, which is to me an amazing blend of something very new (social media) and something very old (arts patronage). I think we’re hitting a stage, culturally speaking, where the 20th century methods of commercially funding the arts are failing: online piracy is making everything immediately available and with no value attached. While piracy is very damaging to a lot of arts industries I also think at this point it’s fairly inevitable; a patronage system where people re-attach value to art by voluntarily giving the artist money is a possible, although by no means inevitable, replacement.
One of the things that has always struck me about your criticism is that you take a variety of approaches to your work – not just looking at the artistic merits of a film or television series, or placing it its social and cultural context, but also looking at the commercial thinking behind the decision making. Your ‘Judging the New 52‘ series on DC, for example, looks at the underlying commercial as well as an artistic success of a comic series.
Looking back at your reviewing as a body of work, are there any underlying themes or premises to your reviews you’ve deliberately tried to develop over the years?
Have you, for example, tried to focus on aspect of reviewing in response to what else is being published elsewhere out there? Or are you largely doing what takes your interest on any given day, and letting those themes emerge as they will?
To be honest I think any trends or themes in my critical work has emerged organically, based on which pieces I liked the most, or provoked the best reactions from readers.
People really seemed to dig my “Bad Film Diaries” column in Borderlands, which more than anything probably dictated the style of my work going forwards – a sort of cross-breed between a “making of” article and a critical review.
I think context is always key when writing film criticism: there’s no point in looking at a movie in isolation because that will tell you absolutely nothing about it. I’m currently writing an essay on a 1937 Japanese film called Humanity and Paper Balloons. It’s a fairly sad, cynical period drama directed by Sadao Yamanaka. Now taken in isolation it’s a solid, entertaining film, but when you learn that Yamanaka directed it between learning he’d been conscripted into the Imperial Army and getting shipped off to the Manchurian front it suddenly takes on entirely new, immensely tragic dimensions. Then when you remember the fierce militaristic nationalism that was getting whipped up across Japan in the 1930s, and the way in which Paper Balloons actively paints the samurai as corrupt and the bushido code as morally hollow, and you discover there’s another dimension to the film as well. So on the surface it’s a period drama with neat sets and costumes, but underneath it’s a fierce left-wing protest against a dangerous form of nostalgia packed full of mournful introspect by a man fully aware he’s got three months to live. That’s the film worth writing about.
I do think that understanding the commercial side of art is key: art for art’s sake is a pretty rare phenomenon, since if you’re not making your art for an audience then why make it at all? The business of art – particularly Hollywood – fascinates me. If we’re going to drown in an annual swarm of terrible studio blockbusters, we may as well understand why they keep making them.
DC Comics’ New 52 reboot continues to interest me for a number of reasons, chiefly because I think it was a great idea in principle that has been so poorly executed in so many ways. There’s a sort of schaudenfreude to be had in watching the company flail about in the water, making one mistake after another simply because the people in charge don’t have the artistic instincts of the people who work for them.
Certainly a 2,000 word essay (or even a 5,000 word one) isn’t going to grab the casual reader, but it does seem to have an audience. At the moment that audience seems to be about 80 people per essay, based on website hits, but it’s early days and that will hopefully grow. I think there’s definitely a fan audience for this kind of essay, they just need time to find that they’re out there.
I haven’t abandoned The Angriest at the same time, but that really is a top-of-my-head collection of reviews without any long-term strategy to it. Hopefully people enjoy reading both website for different reasons.
4.) What Australian works have you loved recently?
A lot of the other respondents in this Snapshot have much broader exposure to Australian literature than I do, so I’m probably better off sticking to films.
A few years ago Tony Krawitz directed an outstanding adaptation of the Christos Tsiolkas novel Dead Europe. It’s a fairly short, dark drama about a man travelling from Australia to Greece to scatter his father’s ashes, while being pursued by the ghosts of the past. I loved the film for many reasons – not the least of which is a great central performance by Ewen Leslie – but I particularly liked how ambivalent the film is over whether its protagonist is haunted by the past or actually haunted by ghosts. I only saw the film for the first time this year, but it made a huge impression on me. It’s this outstanding Australian genre film that’s just slipped past almost everybody.
5.) Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
Digital printing has been an eye-opener: it’s suddenly a lot easier for someone to publish their own books if they want to, at a production quality that’s actually fairly reasonable. Generally this sort of democratisation of the market just leads to a lot more shit being peddled by self-published authors, but I do hold out hope that some really interesting alternative fiction might get published.
Or non-fiction: I’m hoping to get my own book of film essays out sooner rather than later.