Eternal sunshine of the critic’s mind

And isn’t that why we are doing this?

The idea for this collaborative article stems from a conversation me and Eva Krizkova had at the last Berlinale, when I was telling her about writing for a certain outlet which is dedicated to promotion of films of a certain geographic origin, and thus does not publish negative reviews. Basically, if a film is not very good but isn’t totally terrible either, the outlet in question points out the good sides of a film and skips the really bad aspects. Also, from the day-to-day work aspect, in Berlin a critic does not have much time to decide, as various publications run at up to five new reviews every day, so the critic has to make the decision if he or she is going to cover a film based on its distribution prospects rather than its quality. And so here we have four stories by four film critics about their festival experience. One of them is very established, while the three others are young, eager and aspiring. We believe the readers, who are most probably experienced festival-goers or at least well-versed in film critique, will easily recognize who is who, and will have the chance to find out who are the new talents in the field to watch in the future.

vladan petkovic
Serbian correspondent for Screen International and Cineuropa. Eternal film critic friend of Kinečko.

Juggling film critic
A freelancing film critic, otherwise also known as the “juggling writer”, faces a rather demanding, yet ambitious challenge whenever he/she writes for more than one media outlet at a film festival. The frustration starts when the self-content critic sends out pitches here and there, thus entering the highly aggravating waiting period during which the editor should – or should not – reply to his/ her pitches, without however indulging immediately in sending mass e-mails all at once. What then ensues may be deemed as equally harsh (and no offence to the editors): whoever responds first, gets the story. And, take it from me, it is so terrible to wait several interminable days for a rejection and then to pitch to someone else and resume the wait all over again. When the pitching nightmare is over and indeed positively results in writing for various media, the frustration continues with the prioritizing of the media in question and involves, of course, multiple deadlines, a situation that puts the critic to many tests on a daily basis over the course of the festival. Also, logically enough, each medium should be tackled in a different way and auto-plagiarism is obviously not an option. In my humble opinion and experience, the film critic who chooses to be a juggling writer should be very talented, versatile, adaptable and ready to meet all sorts of different and diverse requirements, needs and tasks his various editors in chief expect of her/him. In that sense, and unfortunately, the downside of this ambitious undertaking is that because one is so concentrated on his/her endless tasks, one might lose out on many films and not even get a realistic idea of the festival, especially a big one like for instance the Berlin International Film Festival. This regularly happens to young aspiring film critics at early stages of their career in an attempt to assert themselves in this somewhat harsh environment. So, being aware of this should definitely help them. I also found that, usually, sleep and food deprivation as well as preposterous amounts of caffeine and discipline do the trick. But, on a more serious note, freelancing for multiple outlets is a very stressful and disheartening endeavour but also an immensely stimulating, enriching and fruitful experience that gives one a valuable and unique opportunity to test one’s skills, limits and affinities and opens new horizons and interests as well as the possibility to work with more than one editor, who, in the end, are our most valued allies. After all, we do what we love most: write about Film.

tara karajica
Freelance film critic who contributes with film reviews and festival reports to Tess Magazine, Festivalists, Indiewire, Screen International among many other media outlets including her own blog, The Film Prospector and FRED fm. Editor in chief of CINEmagazin, the only film magazine in Serbia, and a member of Criticwire and the International Cinephile Society

Sandpit spats: when and when not to tear a film a new one
At Northeast England’s biennial AV Festival in March 2012, I met a filmmaker whose documentary I had just reviewed. I’d given the film three stars out of five, and wrote what to my mind still reads as a fairly balanced critique, highlighting positives before addressing some of the problems I had with it. A jovial evening ensued in the company of colleagues and said filmmaker. Later that night, my review was brought up, as if it had until that point been an elephant in the room. The filmmaker’s qualm — voiced civilly enough, by the way—was that producers wouldn’t even read my review, and that those three stars were all that mattered. The rating I’d given this film could potentially dent the filmmaker’s chances of securing funding for the next one. My reply, half-joking: “Then you should have made a better film!” I don’t even like stars. Not because I think they’re meaningless, but because I think the opposite: they have meaning, only the meaning’s slippery. It’s a more interpretable meaning than the opinionship and analysis expressed in the article proper. Whereas for me a three-star grade is the right side of positive, for others anything less than full marks might denote an odious, hot stink. Some critics—too many, in fact—have submitted to the moneymen: a film is now either a five-star masterpiece or a one-star disaster. These same critics are also too eager to assume their mantle as tastemakers, whereby a person’s artistic career is in their hands — and their own career is seemingly dependent upon being quoted in the trailer for next summer’s blockbuster. Often, such behaviour reeks of under-the-rock, keyboard-warrior fandom, where a critic’s enthusiasm for one film acts as a kind of tent-pole under which more routine stuff brews: hatchet jobs, character assassinations, dismissive snark and hyperbolic, polysyllabic, ad hominem, smart-alecky drivel. Some universal advice always applicable to the sandpit: if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say it. Right? Yes and no. As enjoyable as tearing into a new film can be, vitriol is a wasted emotion — not only because of its capacity to hurt others, but because it brings the aggressor down too. I know plenty of people for whom the glass is always half-empty, but I stay clear of those for whom the drink inside the glass is piss. When did we begin to think bitterness was a human prerogative? Taking a film’s failures personally: I’ve been there. But I’m not the centre of this world, and artistic weaknesses are often conditioned by wider pressures. Criticism is surely healthier when it approaches films as products of social and historical forces. A film is sometimes shit in spite of good intentions. And, the reverse is also true: strengths are often accidental, or a result of a subject matter that compels an otherwise weak filmmaker down an atypical path. Perhaps in the purportedly more adult sand- pit of film criticism, then, the advisory placard should read: don’t write anything about a film that you wouldn’t say to its makers in person. I, for instance, look forward to the day I get to tell Bruce Willis that Die Hard is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and that A Good Day to Die Hard is down there with the very worst.

michael pattison
sight & Sound and Fandor correspondent

In dreams begin responsibilities
“They say time is the fire in which we burn!” rasps Malcolm McDowell’s nefarious Soran in Star Trek: Generations, the 24th-century El-Aurian scientist somewhat incongruously quoting the 1938 Delmore Schwarz poem Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day (from the collection which provides this text with its title). Soran’s motivation in this, the most underrated and most discombobulatingly Tarkovskian of Trek pictures, is returning to the ‘Nexus’, a trans-dimensional realm formed entirely and infinitely by one’s desires. “Time has no meaning there — the predator has no teeth” he remarks of a paradisiacal mini-cosmos whose powers exceed even Stalker’s Room and Solaris’s eponymous planet. In 2001, aged 30, I belatedly obtained access to my own personal version of the Nexus—by somewhat less drastic means than the apocalyptically solipsistic Soran’s star-zapping, planet-annihilating approach. In Manchester, I boarded a FinnAir jet to Helsinki — and a short hop took me to Tallinn: the Estonian capital where Tarkovsky shot Stalker, and since 1997 host-city of Pimedate Ööde (Black Nights) Film Festival. I’d been to some fair-sized UK festivals but this somehow seemed like a new level of concentrated cinephilia: five/six films a day, for a week; the chance to hear, perhaps even hang out (= drink) with filmmakers, critics and programmers, and experience an exotic city far from home. I was hooked. Ball: rolling; die: cast. From then on I went to at least three foreign festivals a year; by 2009 I was up to a dozen. By 2011— I quit my horse-racing job that January — the tally had reached an unsustainable 16. I’ve now been to well over a hundred—home/overseas—including 15 jury services. And I’d like to think that by now I can, as with films, discern good from bad, identify whatever greys exist between extremes and defend my stance in person and print.
But it isn’t simply a case that the longer one spends on the circuit, the sharper one’s judge- ment becomes. Obstacles to overview are a constant hazard; objectivity is easily occluded. Take the matter of independence. It’s no secret that many journalists are ‘paid’ to attend certain festivals by organisers—not in terms of Euro-bulging envelopes, rather the provision of gratis hotel-rooms (b&b, unless the festival is Dutch!), maybe flights. And it’d be disingenuous to claim that accepting such generosity is free of risk—even peril—and that no journalist has ever devoted herself to milking the cow for all it’s worth.
I once breakfasted with a smart young critic visibly revelling in the opulent hospitality of a wealthy festival who’d flown him in (business-class). It was his debut there, and he was very keen to be invited back. How “honest” should he be in his dispatches, he asked? I told him to be as frank as possible—and bugger the consequences. Just as, when reviewing films, a critic should call it as he sees it, likewise any festival report should be motivated by honesty, fairness, objectivity (though it never does any harm to take soundings from colleagues and interpolate same into one’s encomium/dia- tribe). Otherwise the writer can one day wake up halfway down a nastily slippery slope…Then there’s the nagging, guilty sensation, very common inescapable? at the larger festivals—that you somehow haven’t seen the right films. This is often a problem at events like Rotterdam, where even if a critic saw six features a day for ten days she’d still have sampled less than a third of the catalogue. Enough to gain a feel of whether this is a “good year” or a “bad year”, but insufficient to deliver a conclusive verdict. Try, however, we must. Meanwhile the last temptation, as a bloke from St Louis wrote, remains the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. J8ust as it’s easy to get carried away sticking the boot into some hapless, useless waste of “celluloid”, puffing oneself up into a righteous fury amid noxious clouds of vitriol, there’s likewise the risk of losing control when jeremiading away against a deeply disappointing film-festival.
The big ones in particular make for extraordinarily easy targets, and it’s very difficult to express anger in a way that’s sufficiently different from complaints that have been directed against the same organisations for years/ decades (there’s always the danger of being labelled an attention-seeking “contrarian”). This stuff can become as dull for the reader as it is for the writer—and there’s also the lurking worry that decadent cinema-standards for too long, the cumulative effect will be to repel audiences altogether. Why bother traipsing in the rain to the local picturehouse for the latest “buzz” subtitled film, when there’s Borgen, True Detective and/or Les Revenants on the telly? It’s common to hear our century described as a golden age of serious-minded small-screen drama; but if any critic’s been talking about current cinema in such a glowing way, they’ve not done so within my earshot. David Thomson, for one, never misses a chance to point out the downward spiral into which his preferred art-form has (in his view) become irrevocably locked. Things were, of course, so much better in the olden days. Back then, let’s say in 1964, there were a dozen film-festivals worthy of the name, and an assiduous critic could keep reasonably abreast of global film-culture past and present. The expansion of digital and the medium’s fabled “democratisation” have hastened ongoing expansions in film-production, which post-2008 readjustments have only marginally dampened. And the ratio of lousy-to-worth-while films never seems to budge an inch.
Trekking from festival to festival, sitting through (or walking out of) one time-wasting misfire after another, it’s easy to lose heart. And the wild thrill of entering the ‘Nexus’ for the first, second, or sixth time will necessarily lose its energising ardour after the twentieth, fiftieth, seventieth visit to the altered state of advanced cinephilia which the film-festival world, for all its frustrations and flaws, still provides. For many of us, indeed, it’s still the case that film festivals are “the fire in which we burn”. And if we’re lucky, “the school in which we learn”.

neil young
Lives in Sunderland, Northeast England, and reviews films for The Hollywood Reporter.

Published in The KINEČKO nr. 4/2014

Slovak Cinema and the world

Each era has its favourites, interpreters and prophets. It is no different in cinema. A walk through the history of cinema shows how the favourites and tastes varied, how some works were praised over the others depending on time, how facts and criteria varied according to taste and orientation, but also according to factual knowledge, that is, in the case of the history of film, often extremely complex and not transparent enough.



Festival life in Slovakia

Events such as film festivals represent a very important part of the cinematographic landscape. They are the countries’ celebrations, which are not only keeping their cinema alive but representing it to the outside. It is important for national cinematographies that film festivals would regularly celebrate all genres and sorts of cinema.


Blurring of national and local specificities

as a side effect of successful festival distribution of contemporary Slovak film.

“The effect of global growth of the phenomena of festivals and the increasing importance of prestige and marketing completed the alienation of ‘nation’ from the ‘national’. The national became a free-floating semantic unit used within the festival discourse in order to market new cinematographies.” Marijke De Valck