“The really good critics have that quality of illumination to them,” says Margaret Pomeranz. Though she’s referring to other critics, this description could easily be applied herself. For 25 years, Pomeranz and At The Movies co-host David Stratton have entertained and illuminated countless Australian viewers bickering amiably – and thoughtfully – over the latest cinema releases.
It’s delightful to discover there’s nothing contrived about their on-air dynamic when speaking to the pair in person. “We can irritate each other,” Pomeranz admits, “but there is that substrata of affection that gets us through it.” As a case in point, when Stratton chides Pomeranz for refusing to divulge any regretted reviews, she puts him firmly in place. “I’m not going there,” she says before unleashing her trademark gravel-truck laugh.
Of course, there’s more to the pair’s longevity than entertaining squabbles. It’s their unique insight, knowledge and consideration that’s rightly earned them industry-wide respect (Stratton has twice been the president of the International Film Critics Juries at Cannes, and both of them have been past presidents of the Film Critics Circle of Australia). Sharing a mutual passion for the art of cinema, they approach their roles as critics as a duty of care. “A critic is something for the audience or readers to trust,” says Stratton. “Someone to guide you towards the most interesting films.”
It’s a feeling echoed by Pomeranz. Though they give some time to Hollywood blockbusters, she believes people continue to look to them for something else. “What is more relevant,” she says, “is to draw attention to more littler-known films.”
On the current state of cinema, both worry that current Hollywood trends –typified by the growing commoditisation of film – are making it more and more difficult for small films (particularly of the Australian variety) to remain viable.
“Cinema has gradually changed. Most mainstream films are aimed at a younger audience,” says Stratton. He reels off the sequels, superhero franchises and cartoon characters currently dominating silver screens with an air of defeat. “I look back with nostalgia on a time when major studios made films for grown-ups.”
These are far from the sentiments of an ageing conservative, however. When he arrived from England in the 60s, Stratton was appalled at the level of censorship he found in Australia (“I can’t even begin to tell you how bad it was,” he says). During his tenure as Director of the Sydney Film Festival from 1966 to 1983, he instigated a campaign that would have a profound effect on Australian cinematic culture. Though unable to stop the process of banning films altogether, his efforts eventually saw the exemption of Australian film festivals from mainstream censorship laws and the implementation of an R rating which put an end to the process of banning or recutting films not deemed family friendly.
“David was a major fighter in the 60s and 70s,” confirms Pomeranz, obviously proud of her long-time collaborator. And she would know. An outspoken anti-censorship advocate herself (she’s currently Vice-Chairman of Watch on Censorship, and was awarded the Order of Australia for her efforts towards freedom of speech), she was briefly detained by police in 2003 for attending an attempted protest screening of the banned Ken Park.
“Most people I speak to in this country want to make up their own minds,” she says. “They don’t want a nanny or a government telling them what they can read, see or enjoy.”
To celebrate their careers, ACMI will open Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies on August 17, an exhibition featuring iconic reviews, interviews and highlights of their ongoing support for the local film industry, anti-censorship campaigns and contributions to film criticism.
Comprising archival and previously unseen footage, personal treasures and a series of live events and talks, this exhibition promises to be a must-see for anyone who loves film.
Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies shows at ACMI in Melbourne from August 17 to December 4 2011. Visit acmi.net.au for more info. The 25 year anniversary episode of At the Movies screens on ABC1 on October 26. More info at abc.net.au.