Where once the contrary but charming banter of David and Margaret was an authoritative guide to modern cinema, the ABC has replaced it with uninsightful postmodernism and lame jokes. By Helen Razer.

ABC TV’s ‘Screen Time’

‘Screen Time’ panel members.
‘Screen Time’ panel members.
Credit: Courtesy ABC

Twenty-five years ago, critic Margaret Pomeranz awarded the Australian film Romper Stomper four-and-a-half stars and declared it “one of the finest films to be made in this country in recent years”. Her co-host, David Stratton, did not agree. He not only refused to rate the film, which had depicted neo-Nazi skinheads in Melbourne’s west, but cautioned viewers of The Movie Show against its very consumption, as this was “a dangerous film”.

Those of us who watched Margaret and David, first on SBS and then on ABC’s At the Movies, were not only habituated to such conflict, we adored it. For 28 years straight, they were the Rock and Doris of popular critique. Even in a farewell press release, issued in 2014, their charismatic sniping did not cease. Pomeranz said Stratton was “stubborn at times”; Stratton said Pomeranz was “only occasionally irritating”.

Theirs was not an odd coupling, but one very evenly made. The Romper Stomper fight typified one facet of their telegenic complementarity. Pomeranz, once detained by police for her anti-censorship activism, had a permissive streak wider than any multiplex screen. Stratton, for all his acquaintance with French film, was essentially conservative. She believed that in the act of art’s creation, there could only be virtue. He believed in the concept of vice.

In the space between conflict – and there were others, just as fundamental as the paternalist versus libertarian brawl – viewers could find themselves. First, we were warmed by the belligerent sun of their conversation. Then, we could navigate from within their critical extremes, or even beyond them. Was Margaret right to fight, without conditionality, for full freedom for the artist? Was David correct to say that Geoffrey Wright’s skinhead film legitimised brutal racism, and should therefore be refused classification? Were they both wrong?

Wright, by the way, found something very wrong with the Romper Stomper non-review. When the director faced Stratton at the Venice Film Festival, he doused him in a glass of wine. In one reading, this is an act of aggression. In another, it’s a memory of a time when Australian screen criticism was provocative enough to send itself to the drycleaners.

No one is making a mess on the new panel show Screen Time. Hosted, as so many ABC programs seem to be, by an alumnus of The Chaser, it looks set to get as dirty as a Disney flick for tweens.

Screen Time is perky and awful. But its awful perkiness is, perhaps, exaggerated by the memorable act that it followed. And the ABC sure didn’t help. In what was, we must suppose, an unintentionally reckless act of housekeeping, all online records of At the Movies were deleted just weeks after its successor’s debut. This permitted the Margaret and David fan to hyper-idealise their memory. To say, “These kids. With their YouTube reviews. They know nothing.”

Still, Margaret and David, whose passionate echo can still be heard and seen at SBS, are an impossible act to follow. This is down not only to Pomeranz’s charming candour, Stratton’s erudition and the genuine spark that flew between the two; it is, in large part, the work of time.

Criticism has changed, and this new show, which seeks to critique any moving picture that can be found on any screen, could never be an At the Movies copy. New objects for criticism – and on Screen Time these can include internet memes and, apparently, must include a nod to genre every week – demand new forms of criticism. The humorous panel show format, however, is about as fresh as a Twilight vampire’s breath.

In 1998, I enjoyed the spectacle of an outraged Kate Langbroek and the imperious sound of a gag from Rob Sitch. The casual, fast-paced and fun format of The Panel was tailored to its era. At the turn of the century, viewers had new, more interactive media beckoning. TV succeeded, as it did with The Panel, when it offered a good simulation of a real conversation to an audience with a then-endangered attention span.

Today, large numbers of us watch shows about zombies, alchemists or middle-class meth cooks for days at a time. It is clear that many viewers have lost both their longing for a representation of the real and their impatience. We have had sufficient reality. Still, ABC promotions for the show strive to look like a bunch of real friends gathered for a real conversation, and refer, in this time of immersive, fantasy viewing, to “surfing”. Does anybody “surf” anymore?

It seems incongruous to address a mesmeric Netflix hit such as Stranger Things in under five minutes, as they would on Screen Time. And it seems actually pointless to try to be real and matey about a tale of psychokinetic children. This is not, by any means, to suggest that a spooky Halloween special is beneath criticism. Given the increased popularity of genre film and television, surely, criticism could only serve to elevate it, enrich the experience for eager viewers. But Screen Time offers very little actual criticism. Its pace, along with its nostalgic belief in the “surfing” audience, allows little beyond a thumbs up or a thumbs down response.

This is a pity, not only for the rotating panellists, several of whom are extraordinarily bright, but for those who ache for the critic’s direction. While it is true that many of us will look to the thumbs of the crowd for cultural guidance, or to the more mediated version of this in the TV-show-about-people-watching-TV Gogglebox, it is true that we can also yearn for an authority. There’s not much of that permitted on Screen Time.

It is plain that panel guests Marc Fennell and Nakkiah Lui, for example, know a lot about cinema and television. It is plainly irritating when their observations are cut short by the need for a middling joke by the host, or the compulsion to “surf” another topic. The aggregate result, no matter the quality of observation, is that every criticism is flattened, ’90s style. Any of my age-mates who suffered cultural studies as an undergraduate will know this agony: you say that every single “text” is equal and intimately related to every other. How dare you maintain that a three-second YouTube cat gag is not deserving of the same discursive attention as The Wire, you cultural imperialist? I swear. David Stratton would have kittens.

Instead of an authoritative guide to what we should see at the cinema or on Foxtel or “surf” on “the net”, we have before us a self-conscious postmodern soup long since passed its “best before” date. If this were 1998, I imagine I would look forward to this aggrandisement of the trivial and this trivialisation of the grand. But it is not 1998. It is 2017, and I find myself enraged by criticism that purports to be democratic in its view, but is plainly a poor, even condescending, simulation of what “real” people might think.

Those on the panel who may actually claim to be screen critics are coerced into being wide-eyed fans. Those who are just wide-eyed fans must overreach. And in the odd case that anyone of any sort with a decent insight has time to utter it, this is followed by an adequate joke. Or is interrupted by a peculiar segment in which Chris Taylor sounds off independently about the thing he despises the most this week. For the past four episodes, this has been something that all expensively educated midlife people would agree is contemptible. Which is to say, the postmodern “everything is equal” view does not apply where infomercials or other cheap distractions for the lumpen mass are concerned.

Sci-fi, fantasy, superhero franchise or anything, no matter how acutely dreadful, that depicts “strong women” is embraced, as are memes, animation or medium-to-highbrow cinema. Programs such as The Bachelorette, however, function simply as a class filter. Which is not only a postmodern hypocrisy, but a great shame. Sophie Monk is, I suggest, an essential “text” for our times. The ABC arts message is as clear now as it long has been: there are things that people like us must not touch with tongs.

I would watch happily a full hour of Nakkiah Lui talking on Sophie Monk. I would watch Nakkiah Lui talk to Sophie Monk. I have little doubt that this would hold both a good part of the national attention and perceptions not previously broadcast on femininity, the depiction of “reality”, and race. Instead, we watch good minds turn to poor topics on a set that looks as if it were intended for a children’s quiz show.

The authoritative arts critic has all but disappeared. This is, of course, due in great part to revenue: arts criticism just doesn’t generate much of it. But even market societies, as any honest economist will tell you, are not a matter of only supply and demand. Often, we find good use for things that can generate no profit. Like a functioning national broadband network, for example. Or a park. Or arts criticism.

Arts criticism never really made a profit. It has always been subsidised, and always was our common property. If we had let the market decide the fate of Robert Hughes, he’d never have written any books or made a show such as American Visions, which provided me, and so many other non-aesthetes, with a grounding not only in visual culture, but in the glorious, hateful, liberal, hegemonic contradictions of United States history.

Screen Time is not common property. Nobody wants to claim a part of that. Instead, the national broadcaster could give us Marc and Nakkiah. It could give us Sophie Monk. It could give us some way to address this moment in time through unashamed analysis of art. If not for the common good, then at least in the memory of the recently redacted Margaret and David. But it didn’t. It gave us Screen Time – a show that speaks to a viewer who no longer exists, in a language nobody ever truly spoke.


Arts Diary

VISUAL ART Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 18

MUSIC Mullum Music Festival

Venues throughout Mullumbimby, NSW, November 16-19

MULTIMEDIA Project Banaba

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 18-December 17

MUSIC Melbourne Music Week

Venues throughout Melbourne, November 17-25

THEATRE Poppyseed Theatre Festival

Theatres throughout Melbourne, until December 9

LITERATURE Coleridge's Masterpieces - Rime, Christabel & Kubla Khan

Mitchell Theatre, Sydney, November 14

MUSIC Classic Album Sundays & Afrobrasiliana present Fela: Zombie / Expensive Shit

The World Bar, Sydney, November 12

Last chance

CULTURE Arab Festival 2017

Elizabeth Quay, Perth, November 11

CABARET Benn Bennett: Occasional Suburban Witch

The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, until November 12

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2017 as "Critical morass".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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