Ten Questions for Travis Johnson – Film Criticism, Harsh Truths, and Marmaduke

Travis Johnson is an Australian film critic who has written for various publications around Australia, such as Filmink, Empire Magazine, Metro Magazine, Flicks.com.au, and this here website. He also runs his own website, Celluloid and Whiskey, where you can find links to his work. Andrew put forward ten questions to Travis to find out who he is, what his view on cinema is, and most importantly, what his view of film criticism is.

  • Who is Travis Johnson?

What, existentially? That’s too big a question. For our purposes here? Film fanatic. Writer. Whiskey fan. Conflicted nerd.

  • What does cinema mean to you?

Cinema is the highest and most complex artform yet developed by humanity at this point in our collective history. It is sublime, combining all other pre-existing artforms under new processes and devices that, until the advent of cinema, simply did not exist. I’m principally talking about editing here.

Now, it may be overtaken by emerging forms at some point. Gaming is a contender and watching the grammar of virtual reality emerge right now is fascinating. But those are artforms in their infancy – at this juncture, cinema is the big dog.

Of course, it’s a broad church, and the battle always rages between the vulgar and the divine, art and commerce, populist and singular, and on and on. But in terms of sheer, realised artistic potential, in a broadly accessible and popular format, cinema and its descendent formats (TV and, yes, gaming and VR) have done more to foster human communication, education, and empathy, than any preceding artform.

I like it a lot.

  • Narrowing down a bit, what does Australian cinema mean to you?

As a nation and a culture, it’s simultaneously our most important artistic field of endeavour and our most tragically neglected. I am very proud of our Australian screen industry, and I think anyone who belittles the importance of being able to tell our own stories in these media needs their head read. Still, given our population, our location, and the changing way that media is distributed and disseminated both nationally and internationally, we must acknowledge that our screen endeavours need public funding, and now more than ever.

Now, that has almost always been the case, and the only reason we have a modern screen industry is because of funding decisions made back in the ‘70s. Prior to that we barely had an industry except for a few bold pioneers, but afterwards we had an explosion, both of respected dramatic – what you might call “arthouse” – fare, and Ozploitation stuff. And both of those streams inform and enact our conflicted national character – we tell these stories, and these stories tell us who we are.

Now we have access to stories from around the globe, and while I wouldn’t change that at gunpoint – there’s no better, easier way to learn about other cultures than to watch their cinema – it’s very difficult for us to compete with the dominant Anglophone cinema of the age, which is American. They just brute force us out of the way with the sheer size of both their output and their promotional budgets. We are in danger of being swamped in a cultural sense, and the stories we base our modern identities on are no longer our stories. This is why the Australian industry needs support, not just in terms of production funding, but in distribution, exhibition, education, and even criticism – to make sure that our ears are open to our own voices.

So, long story short: important, vibrant, endangered, and worth fighting for.

  • What kind of education does it take to be a film critic?

Anyone can do it, but they need to want to do it. I don’t know that I could in all good conscience encourage anyone to study film at a tertiary level unless they really benefit from a structured learning environment – there’s no guaranteed job waiting at the end of it, and right now study is so intrinsically linked to economic outcomes that it’s irresponsible to argue that a grounding in cinema is worth the catastrophic debt you’ll be saddled with in order to earn your sheepskin. If you have an internet connection and a library card, you can teach yourself.

But I will say that being a critic is a lifelong course of study, and I think you do need the right sort of mind for it, and that’s a mind that is always trying to look past boundaries. It’s not enough to like one sort of movie, or to just be into popular cinema. I don’t need another middle-aged adolescent telling me what he thinks about Marvel movies, because the internet is full of them – and I say this as a middle-aged adolescent who quite likes Marvel movies.

What I do need is people telling me about the cinema I might have missed: the indies, the movies from emerging filmmakers, underrepresented voices, nascent film cultures like Wakaliwood (Google that and have your mind blown). I need people digging up forgotten filmmakers from the past and telling me why they’re worth tracking down, and I need people pointing out voices from the future and telling me why they’ll be worth knowing about in a few years’ time.

Look, this will sound incredibly pretentious, but to study film, to really grapple with it, is to get an inkling of the infinite – it’s eternity in a popular format. You will never run out of cinema to experience, and you will never experience it all – there’s an vast body of work stretching behind you, new works being released every day, and film cultures around the world sitting outside your current field of vision that you haven’t even considered looking at yet. So if you’re going to do it right, you need a kind of obsessive curiosity that is quite rare.

  • Who were some of the foundational voices that you turned to when you started out writing? And, who do you look to now?

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz on Australian film culture. When they were on the box we had one of the most vibrant cultures of film criticism in the world – they made mature, exotic, interesting, provocative cinema accessible to every Australian with a pair of rabbit ears, and I really think we’ve lost something vital to the ongoing cultural conversation around cinema now that the two of them are off the air (Margaret is on Foxtel and doing great work, but that’s not the same as being on a state channel).

Other influences are fairly obvious: Pauline Kael for her political fearlessness, Kim Newman for the sheer depth of his genre knowledge, Roger Ebert for his enthusiasm, Mark Kermode for his style.

There’s also the guys who emerged out of the explosion of internet-native critics – Garth Franklin at Dark Horizons, Drew “Moriarty” McWeeny at AICN, and Devin Faraci at CHUD/BMD really had an effect on me. The best of the bunch made serious criticism conversational and accessible, and I definitely think we need more of that.

At the moment? It would be weird to name any of my friends, but they know I read them (Garth’s a friend, too, but he’s also an elder statesman, so the above stands). I love Film Crit Hulk, Amy Nicholson is excellent, David Ehrlich, A.A. Dowd. And there’s a guy who goes by VyceVictus who used to do stuff at BMD who is worth your time – he focuses on action movies for the most part and brings an energy, attitude, and thoughtfulness to criticism I’ve rarely seen anywhere else. Really love that guy’s work.

Two guys I really love as critics I don’t think consider themselves critics at all, in the professional sense – Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws of the podcast Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff. That’s a gaming/nerd culture-oriented project that frequently touches on film, and when it does it’s absolutely brilliant. They both possess a deep knowledge of cinema and just incredible enthusiasm, and I worry they don’t grasp how good they really are. So, for the record, they’re great.

  • Where do you see the future of film criticism going?

Down the toilet, obviously!

Ah, no, maybe not, but let’s face facts – the changing nature of journalism and publishing as a whole means that criticism as a profession is in danger, and the dedicated, professional critic – someone whose sole job is to review films – is probably not going to be a thing going forward. The part time hobbyist critic is the future of the pursuit now, and there is plenty of good work being done by people who hold down day jobs and write about cinema in their down time. That has its pros and its cons – on the one hand, if you’re not dependent on what your writing earns and you’re publishing your own stuff, you’re beholden to no one. On the other, you get good with practice, and eight hours a day or watching and writing is going to beat two hours of the same every time – it’s just time spent honing expertise.

But we do need to encourage film criticism, and critical thought in general. Perhaps more importantly, we need to teach – perhaps re-teach – the audience that the critic is on their side. A critic stands between the audience and the marketing machine. Studio marketing departments have a vested interest in getting you to see bad movies, because films need to earn regardless of quality. Me, I have no interest in tricking you into seeing something you don’t like. I just tell you what I like or dislike, and you can extrapolate from that, hopefully, whether Movie X or Movie Y is worth your time and money. All this stuff about critics as a homogeneous body being paid studio shills, or not knowing what “normal” people want, all this “Thanos Demands Your Silence” rubbish – that’s just movie marketing trying to encourage your brand loyalty. You’re just being coached not to think for yourself.

  • What is the film that has upset you the most?

Emotionally? In a good way? Probably Rust and Bone. I still cry during E.T., so I guess that left a mark. I don’t really get upset at gore or horror – I’m far too jaded for that. I do get frustrated at what I find cynical – not films that have a cynical view of the world, but films that are made cynically, with only the bottom line in mind. One of my early professional reviews was for the live-action Marmaduke film, and I said the best way to see it was through the bombsight of a B-2 destroying the cinema it was playing in, because it was clear to me that everyone involved was just there to pick up a cheque, and nobody cared what the actual cinematic result was. Movies are hard work, and there are people damn near killing themselves to try and get their mad visions up on the screen. If I get the inkling that you’ve made some pathetic dross just to pay for a new pool, I pretty much hate you in that moment.

  • What have been some of the most surprising reactions to reviews you have written?

I got a lot of hate for my review of Ready Player One, which as a film is a complete piece of crap. I also, after a lot of comments thread back-and-forthing, got some new friends out of that one, too – it’s a pleasant surprise when vehement disagreement can lead to mutual respect.

And of course, every time someone praises my work it’s surprising.

  • What are your ‘top shelf’ Australian films?

In almost no particular order: Breaker Morant, Mad Max 2, Animal Kingdom, The Adventures of Priscilla, Dogs in Space, The Proposition, Sweet Country, Pawno, Chopper, Lantana, Mystery Road, My Brilliant Career, Picnic at Hanging Rock. That’s a pretty obvious list, I guess. I don’t really like top 10 lists – it’s reducing criticism to math. I don’t like star or percentile ratings either, for much the same reason, but the market demands them.

  • What is one piece of advice that you would like to give Australian filmmakers or critics?

Let’s drop the “or” and go with “and”, so this is for both. Ultimately, we’re all in this together. Really, if you want to get philosophical about it, film isn’t just an industry or an artform but a conversation – the ultimate product isn’t the film itself, but the reaction to it in the culture. We’re all in dialogue with each other – creators, critics, audiences. That dialogue is what we’re here for. Let’s keep that in mind – it might get heated, but it should never be adversarial.

  • Finally, what question would you like to know the answer to?

Right now? Where my next commission is coming from.

Read more of Travis’ work at Celluloid and Whiskey, and make sure to drop by his Patreon as well to help keep his whiskey bottles full.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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