He­len Razer on what’s wrong with the ABC’s Screen Time

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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, writes He­len Razer.

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.

HE­LEN RAZER is a writer and broad­caster.

She is The Satur­day Paper’s tele­vi­sion critic and gar­den­ing columnist.


Time panel mem­bers (above) and

At the Movies’ Mar­garet Pomer­anz and David Strat­ton (fac­ing page).

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