Amanda Duthie (ed.), Margaret & David: 5 stars (#BookReview)

Amanda Duthie, Margaret and DavidMargaret and David, the subjects of this delightful, eponymously named collection of reminiscences and essays, do not need last names here in Australia. They are just “margaretanddavid”. But, since we have an international readership here, I should formally introduce them. Margaret and David are Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, Australia’s best-known and best-loved film critics who retired from their television movie show in 2014 after 28 years on air! There were to us as Siskel and Ebert were to Americans. Their influence was immense.

This book, Margaret & David: 5 stars, is essentially a tribute book produced on the occasion of their being awarded the 2017 Don Dunstan Award, an award established in 2003 to commemorate the late South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, who was a major champion of the arts, including film. The book contains mostly short reflections, but also an extended essay, on Margaret and David’s contribution to Australia’s film industry and culture, and, in fact, to world film culture. The pieces are written by a wide variety of industry people, from producers like Jan Chapman, through actors like Geoffrey Rush, and directors like Cate Shortland and Gillian Armstrong, to film business people, journalists, film festival directors, and even, Margaret’s son, Josh. It’s a delightful read – but a provocative one at times too.

Of course, I enjoyed the insights into Margaret and David’s personas and working relationship – and won’t go into these. If you’re looking for gossip you won’t get it here because Margaret and David were professionals, and were, and are, we are told, good friends. Sure, they disagreed, sometimes vociferously – we all remember Margaret’s “Oh, David!” exclamations – but these arguments always teased out ideas about film. Gillian Armstrong says, “they formed a lively, fiery, passionate, laughter-filled relationship.” If, on the other hand, you’re looking for insights into the history of the Australian film industry, you will get some here. This is not an academic work, but many of the reflections on these two can’t help but comment on the Australian industry and on film culture more broadly, from the mid 1980s when they started on television to the mid 2010s when they finished. Their contribution – and impact – was not only qualitative but, in some respects, quantifiable.

This all interested me, but what I want to focus on in the rest of this post is what the book offered me regarding …

The practice of criticism

… because, fundamentally, criticism is criticism, whether you are discussing film or books, drama or ballet. I enjoyed some of the commentary on this.

Director Gillian Armstrong, while teasing (and forgiving) David about his poor review of her Oscar and Lucinda film, describes perfectly the art of the critic, when she says

It is important to have serious discussions that actually discuss the craft of the director. They shared a real appreciation of the vision behind the camera angles, the lighting, editing, music and casting. But most importantly, their reviewing was about the very heart of those films, the content and ethics.

Leaving aside the terms “review” and “criticism” which tend to be used somewhat interchangeably in the book, I think this statement contains the guts of what criticism or, shall we say, serious reviewing is about: marrying analysis of technique with exploration of content (and ethics). Journalist Sandy George, in her extended essay, puts in this way:

They actively engage in talking about the narrative, the history of the production, what the filmmaker was trying to achieve, and how the film affected them; they don’t engage in reductive talk such as “this is good”, “this is bad”, “see this”, “don’t see that”.

There’s one memorable review they did which several writers commented on: their review of the violent R-rated movie Romper Stomper. Margaret gave it 4.5 stars and David refused to rate it. This review is now famous – and part of this is for the way their discussion was conducted. It was respectful, and considered. You can see the review here.

Other practical issues are teased out – such as reviewing works you don’t like, and reviewing works by friends. On the former, Sandy George quotes David Stratton on writing reviews for “the extremely influential” Variety:

‘I never gave a glowing review to something that didn’t deserve it … but knowing how important a Variety review is, I sometimes went out of my way not to review a film.’

A valid decision I think, though purists would probably say that you should review such films regardless.

George also quotes Margaret about reviewing works by friends. They tried, she said, “not to be friends with filmmakers, but it’s impossible”. She also says:

“I’ve always been kind to Australian films because I’m such a wimp … “

Indeed, one person said that because of this, a good review from David carried more weight!

George goes on to report one distributor’s comment that

one way the pair went above and beyond for Australian films was how carefully they chose their words when one fell short.

Notwithstanding my above comment about not reviewing at times, I also like this approach. Honest reviews are important, but there are ways of being honest. The arts are tough enough, without demoralising those working hard within it, don’t you think?

Anyhow, I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read but not a frivolous one. I’ll close with a comment made by current SA Premier, Jay Weatherill:

Their love of cinema is real, undiminished and contagious, and they have helped me and countless other Australians to understand the critical role can play in telling our nation’s stories and presenting our values.

AWW Badge 2018Amanda Duthie (ed.)
Margaret & David: 5 stars
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743055137

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

23 thoughts on “Amanda Duthie (ed.), Margaret & David: 5 stars (#BookReview)

  1. I only ever watched them once or twice, partly because I don’t watch much TV anyway, but mainly because they didn’t review the kind of films I wanted to watch: I’ve never really been interested in mainstream cinema.

    • Fair enough Lisa … they didn’t, though, only review mainstream cinema … but the whole gamut. Many of the writers in the book comment on the support they gave to independent films. They say that Arthouse cinemas in particularly would often use positive “quotes” from Margaret and David to promote their films and that such support (which they didn’t always get because some films were not liked) would make a huge difference to the success of those films. Margaret and David’s positive reactions at Cannes for example, could decide whether a distributor would bring an indie film to Australia.

      One writer says that in fact some Hollywood distributors would try to avoid Margaret and David previewing their films because they feared a negative review.

      All this said, I missed years of them because I was out on the night they went to air – though eventually we started recording them.

      • Perhaps it was only the mainstream ones that featured in the ABC’s promos?
        But, BTW by ‘independent films’ in the context above, do those commentators mean Australian films? They would nearly all have been independent until fairly recently, wouldn’t they?

        • Oh yes, that could very well have been the case, Lisa, you’re right. I don’t recollect the advertising because I was interested in film anyhow. But it’s very likely they promoted the show with titles people might know about.

          But re independent film, no, in most cases they were talking about forcing films, such as the risk of bringing in independent films from overseas to a small market. Sometimes, when the writers said independent, they meant ALL independent including Australian, but mostly if they only meant Australian they would say Australian. Margaret and David had (have still, because they are still heavily involved with film) ecumenical tastes.

          (BTW On another subject, you have me doing Lovatt’s crosswords most days now – darn you!)

  2. Your post took me by surprise this morning – because I’m a Margaret and my husband is a David! But of course this book is not about us. Actually I’ve come across several Margaret and David couples over the years – but none of us are the subject of books. As I’m British I hadn’t heard of this Margaret and David, but I was interested to read what you say about the ‘practice of criticism’.

    • Yes, I miss them too Pam. I saw them open the National Photographic Portrait prize a couple of years ago – probably the year after their retirement, and it was such fun to see them related it real life. They were pretty much the same as they were on TV!

  3. The whole concept of art criticism is interesting. Though it may seem odd, sometimes good reviews are just as pleasant to read or watch then experiencing the art itself. I had never heard of Margaret and David before but it sounds like they presented some very entertaining, insightful and worthwhile reviews.

    • Fair point Brian. I tend to not read reviews until I’ve read the work, but I have read the odd review just because and know exactly what you mean. Good writing is good writing isn’t it?

  4. Just in relation to your comment to Brian, I enjoy reviews independently of the piece being reviewed, and feel that I ‘keep up’ with film culture through reviews despite only seeing one or two films per year. As a student I followed US film culture almost entirely through MAD magazine. I never watched M&D but of course frequently saw them referenced and am happy that your review brings me elements of the discussion around them.

  5. Too late ? 🙂
    G’day from M..R., someone whose book benefited from a short quote of approval from David – a lovely man. And not just because I nearly always agreed with him !
    Still love yer work. [grin]

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