CULTURE by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
What is the point of criticism?
, January 31, 2015
A great critic is a moralist who strolls among books. — Don Colacho
It can be a messy business being a critic, as one has to balance personal taste with objective assessment. This messiness can come to the fore when there are awards coming up.
As my byline says, I am a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA). The voting has just finished for the annual awards, and the ceremony is coming up.
There was a good range of films to pick from this year, with comedies, sci-fi, thrillers, horror stories, and war movies all represented. Some of the films have even been commercially successful and are doing well overseas.
Here are some examples:
The Babadook is a psychological horror film about a struggling widowed mother and her troubled son, that William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, has declared one of the most terrifying films ever made.
Predestination was adapted by the Spierig Brothers from a short story by Robert Heinlein about time-travelling cops trying to stop a terrorist called the Fizzle Bomber. It’s a high-brow sci-fi thriller that has been tautly crafted.
The Rover is the latest film from David Michod, of Animal Kingdom fame. This time he’s written a post-apocalyptic drama with Guy Pearce as a very angry and determined man, and Robert Pattinson as a crook whose brother leaves him to die.
Felony is an elegant and restrained thriller about a cop who clips a bike-riding kid and then lies about it. The movie shows his struggle with his conscience and his struggle with the ruthless older cop who helps him, while another detective wants to find out the truth.
Then there’s Tracks, the biopic about Robyn Davidson’s trek across Australia with camels; Charlie’s Country, Rolf de Heer’s, typically political take on the Northern Territory intervention, but with the superb David Gulpilil as Charlie; These Final Hours, a redemptive drama about the end of the world; I, Frankenstein, a supernatural thriller inspired by Mary Shelley; and 52 Tuesdays, the “coming of age” story of a girl whose mother is undergoing gender-realignment surgery.
The standout films, for me, were The Water Diviner and Healing. These films were simple in their themes, and traditional — dare I say “human” — in their understanding of things. They have a clear moral compass, but one that is aware that life as lived doesn’t always align with that compass, and that mercy is needed for justice to flourish.
The Water Diviner is a beautiful film about a man, Joshua Connor (played by Russell Crowe, who also directed), who travels to Gallipoli to find his lost sons after World War I. While there, he becomes involved with a Turkish widow with a bright young son who’s in need of a father. It shows a rich understanding of how war is terrible, but can still be necessary, and how it is possible for different cultures to interact without compromise or conflict.
Healing takes place in a minimum-security prison farm in Victoria. Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving) starts a new program for prisoners where they assist with the rehabilitation of injured birds of prey. It is a simple film and an elegant one. There is no grand drama in it, only the drama of a man, Viktor Khadem (Don Hany), coming to terms with his life — the choices he has made and the way he has failed — as he takes charge of an injured wedge-tailed eagle to aid its recovery.
Criticism is the blending of different perceptions into a hopefully coherent whole. It involves reasoning and feeling, observing and reflecting. When it is theorised about, it tends to become overly political, and loses its role as a social conscience, becoming instead an instrument of irreligious dogma.
There are a series of reasonably objective standards that can be used when judging the craftsmanship of a work of art. At the very least, these standards provide a way to categorise a work of art and see what it’s trying to do, to place it within a context, and assess it against similar pieces.
Also, despite the protests of some, it is possible to assess the morality of a work of art. But to do this requires a great deal of sensitivity and knowledge — of art and morality. It is not enough to make a declaration based on hearsay or a gut reaction to themes or scenes.
The trick with criticism, and all such subjective judgements, is to recognise the craftsmanship, while also recognising if it is to one’s taste, but, most of all, to find the truth of the work.
Every one of us, being made in the image and likeness of God, provides us with a glimpse of God. Likewise, “Every work of art speaks to us of God. No matter what it says.” — Don Colacho.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).