If you ever find yourself transcribing an interview with Marc Fennell, here’s a useful tip: slow the audio down. A lot.
“I talk fast at the best of times,” the Red Bull guzzling broadcaster tells Cinetology over the phone while he sits on a hammock, at a family gathering for his grandmother’s 80th birthday.
“I should warn you my phone battery might die at any moment. If that happens — and hopefully it doesn’t happen during the middle of a very awkward question — I don’t want you think I’m hanging up on you because I’m an arsehole.”
The phone does indeed conk out halfway through, and no — Cinetology doesn’t think he’s an arsehole, despite what he (jokingly) says next. “I mean I am an arsehole, but please don’t assume that.”
Anybody who has worked with the personable and self-deprecating Fennell, film critic for Triple J and Channel 10, is likely to describe him using very different terminology. The mainstream media in Australia offers no greater evidence against the blanket existence of the stereotypical critic — snooty, sombre, grey-haired and high-brow — than Fennell, whose style is loose, bouncy, chatty and unpretentious.
Fennell kicked off his career as the DVD film reviewer for the short-lived version of At the Movies without its stars, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, which the SBS launched in 2004 after the famous pair migrated to the ABC. The general public weren’t the only people sceptical about an SBS film review show sans Stratton and Pomeranz. Fennell was too.
“I kid you not, my first thought was: that’s a terrible idea! Why would you recast The Movie Show without David and Margaret? It is David and Margaret!” he says.
“I like to joke that when they cast the (new) show they thought fuck me, they’re all white, we need somebody vaguely ethnic looking. Where’s that kid with the audition tape?”
Unlike the three other members of the rebooted At the Movies — Megan Spencer, Fenella Kernebone and Jaimie Leonarder — Fennell’s career in film criticism has subsequently taken off. In addition to his gig on Triple J and regular appearances on Channel 10’s The Circle, Fennell has recently become a published author, with the release of That Movie Book. He is the fifth participant (after Margaret Pomeranz, Jake Wilson, Lynden Barber and Sandra Hall) in Cinetology’s Meet the Critics series, which profiles the country’s leading film reviewers.
Do you consume much film criticism? What outlets and reviewers do you like, and why?
I try not to read specific reviews of films before I see them and even then I am very wary about reading other people’s opinions. In my early days as a film critic I was vehement that I wouldn’t read anybody else’s, and then after a while you become confident enough in your own opinion that you can use other people’s writing as a barometer against your own, but only after you’ve formed your opinion. What I do love reading is interviews and feature pieces. I’m on a couple of email lists I really love, a couple of email lists that combine some great stories from outlets like The LA Times and The Guardian. I love reading feature interviews, profile pieces on filmmakers and actors. Different people in the industry. I find that really interesting.
Reviewers I find interesting reading around the traps include Roger Ebert. It’s always really good to read him, not because I necessarily agree with what he’s saying but because he’s so wonderful at arguing his point. Even when I disagree worth him, which is frequently, he argues his points so well. I love the dexterity he has.
Within Australia, there are people who I quite enjoy, including Giles Hardie’s and Gary Maddox’s stuff from the SMH. In terms of the broad mainstream media that is kind of it.
Twitter has become one of the key ways I consume new media. A lot of it is feature interviews and a lot of it is news. I definitely go to places like Dark Horizons and I am a big fan of TV Tonight even though it’s not strictly speaking film. At various points I have tried to get into various film podcasts but nothing has really stuck with me, with the possible exception of a really good podcast that comes out of the UK called Director’s Notes. And there are two radio shows I can’t recommend enough: they are both from a radio station in the states — one is called The Treatment and the other is called The Business. They are both from KCRW in Santa Monica.
What if anything do you believe is wrong with the current state of film criticism and/or attitudes towards film critics?
OK, so there are two parts to that question: one about the state of Australian film criticism and the other about what’s wrong with the way film critics are perceived. I think they’re connected. I think film criticism suffers from a perception that film critics are not film fans. With a really great film critic, it’s very clear from the moment you read, see or hear them that they genuinely love film and want you to care about it. I think as a group sometimes we fall down and don’t seem passionate enough, seem too distant from our passion, which is plainly untrue because nobody becomes a film critic for the money! People do it because they love it and I think as a group we could do more to demonstrate our passion. In broadcast it’s a bit easier for me because you can kind of hear it in my voice, and often I’ve had way too many Red Bulls. I think the biggest problem with film criticism it that it sounds like a douche bag career.
What I like to do is treat the listener and the audience as a mate, essentially, as in ‘my god I just saw this film and I want to talk to you about it.’ As a strategy that’s worked OK for me and I think that with a lot of my favourite Australian film critics, that feeling is there. The critics I don’t like, they have this sense of sit back, a sense of remove, I suppose, for lack of a better word, and I think that feeds into a perception problem about what it means to be a film critic. But it’s hard because this was kind of a leading question. I think film criticism is better now than it was five years ago. The internet has opened this up in a massive way and there’s a bunch of really interesting, really good Australian film critics coming through at the moment. When I started doing film criticism in 2003 I was very young and it felt, at least in Sydney, that I was the only person my age doing it. When I walked into screenings it would be full of 40-year-olds who all knew each other. These days though there is a really strong culture of new young film critics and a lot of them are writing for online and for new publications. Things like Tresspass Magazine and Concrete Playground and people starting blogs. I think film criticism has been reinvigorated.
I also think more people are consuming film criticism. Places like Dark Horizons, Cinema Blend and countless other websites are dedicated to film. In a sense those websites have in some ways picked off where the mainstream publications have left off. These are places where you can, frankly, nerd the hell out. If you are a hard core nerd fan, there has never been a better time to exist. There are so many places on the net that are really dedicated to film criticism — from high brow film criticism and nerdy geek boy film criticism to everything in between. The flip side of that is there’s never been a better time to be a movie fan in the sense of access. It’s not just cinemas and VHS now – is are DVD, which has kind of come and gone in a way; there are countless devices that can hook up to your TV and give you more than a hundred years worth of cinema. In Australia, we have the second highest rate of illegal downloaders in the world. That’s one of the reasons I decided to write my book (That Movie Book), because I suddenly realised we have so many access to cinema that you don’t even need to leave your freakin’ couch to access it. But we always still gravitate towards new releases and wouldn’t it be fun to give people a reason to consume films from other eras? That’s how writing my book came about — to find a way to let young people access older film culture in a way that made sense. Anyway, I’ve totally digressed. Did I answer the question in any way, shape or form?
Yes, absolutely. When you said you have memories of being quite young and going to media screenings surrounded predominantly by males with grey hair, that resonated with myself. I started going to media screenings when I was 16. But now, you’re right, the tide has turned. And on the subject of film critics, how did you become one and when did you know you wanted to be one?
When I was in school, one year, I think at the end of year 9, I decided that I would go see every film that’d been nominated for an Oscar, and I did. I spent a ridiculous amount of money and I saw everything. It was the year American Beauty, The Insider and Magnolia came out and it was such a rich year for American films. I walked out one day having watched three films back to back and I was exhausted. I thought I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m definitely going to work in film. I was determined. So you know, I dug around. I went to producing school and I did lots of stuff involving the web and making short films. And they were terrible short films! Heaven help me if anybody ever finds the Tropfest film I made in 1999. Oh fuck, it’s terrible. But I got to the end of high school and the AFI run a young film critics competition. It’s the only time they’ve run it because they ran out of money immediately thereafter. I entered four times, because I’m half Asian and that’s what we do — have an overly active work ethic. After I graduated from school I got this phone call from my english teacher and she was like “you remember this thing you entered?” And I was like “yeah, I think so” and she said “you won.” I won for my age group. So there I was with this film criticism award from the AFI. I then wondered: can I now say I won an AFI award? Probably not.
I thought I was going to be a graphic designer by day and a filmmaker by night. As you do when you start off as a graphic designer, you look for good websites to plagiarise and I came across a website for a community radio station, FBi. I sent them an email saying hey — I can do graphic design and I can also review movies! I did some awful, I mean truly terrible graphic design for them. I am not a great graphic designer. They turned around and said “soooo let’s have a movie reviewing thing.” I think I did a review of Donnie Darko and they were like “great” and they brought me in and taught me radio and broadcasting from scratch.
They taught me to really think about your audience. Everything you do, you need to think about who you’re talking to and that simplifies any multitude of questions. After a year of doing these little packaged up reviews that played between songs I got a call from this producer at SBS. I went out and had a drink with her and we talked for three hours about everything and nothing. When I left I thought “why the hell did I meet her?” and the next say David and Margaret announced they were leaving SBS to go to the ABC. She called me up and said “you should send in a video application.” I was such an idiot I thought: a video application for what? She said “they’re recasting the show” and I kid you not, my first thought was: that’s a terrible idea! Why would you recast The Movie Show without David and Margaret? It is David and Margaret. And yet I sent in a video application anyway and did a screen test in David’s chair. It was funny because I talk fast at the best of times but back then I was ridiculous! I sat there and read the auto-cue and it was a three minute script but I swear I knocked it down in 30 seconds flat. The director looked at me and I was like: sorry, did I sound a bit fast? And he was like “YEP.”
I like to joke that that show, which had Megan Spencer, Fenella Kernebone and Jaimie Leonarder — I like to joke that when they cast the show they thought fuck me, they’re all white, we need somebody vaguely ethnic looking. Where’s that kid with the audition tape? I’m not sure that’s exactly how it happened but that’s what I like to tell myself. I signed my contact to join the Movie Show when I was 18. They didn’t realise my age. I rocked up on my first day and I casually mentioned it was my birthday. I was asked “oh great how old are you?” and they thought 22, 23. I said “I’m 19” and the executive producer, I swear to Christ, she went pink, blue, pink, green, a whole bunch of colours. Then she said “no it’s OK, we’ll call it the young Movie Show!” So I worked on that show finding cult films, did the DVD segment. It wasn’t a great show; I think anybody who worked on it would happily say that. But it was a great education for me. After a year of doing that I started to do a segment on Triple J. They asked me if I wanted to come on board as a film reviewer and I said “hell yeah.”
Moving onto a slightly different topic: movie munchies. What are your eating habits in the cinema? Are you a popcorn man?
Ever since I started being a film critic I don’t really do popcorn that often. Partly because my wife hates it. We used to go to the movies a lot and she used to really hate the smell of popcorn, so I stopped ordering it. But now every once in a while I do for a certain kind of movie. I’ll be honest: for Piranha 3d, I’m eating god damn popcorn! But most films I don’t. I don’t have hard and fast rules about it but I do think the people who bring in an entire freaking’ lunch into a film, I think it’s disrespectful to other people who are there to work. I think that’s important to remember: yes its an awesome job, and it’s a fun job, but you are there as a representative of the audience and there are things you just shouldn’t do, like bring in a garlic laden sandwich with crusty bread that’s going to make a noise every time you bite into it. To me that’s a douchie thing to do at the best of times.
Leave your buttered chicken and roti bread at the restaurant. I wholeheartedly agree with that. What about taking notes in the cinema? What’s your philosophy?
I have a notepad and I write little schizophrenic conversations to myself, as though I am a friend of me talking to me during the film. It’s psychologically disturbing, if you think about it. So I have a little ‘conversation with myself, ask myself things like ‘why the hell is so and so doing that’ and ‘did that plot point check with that plot point?’ and ‘is it just me or is Michael Fassbender’s cock massive?’ All of that stuff.
Basically a highly edited, highly reshaped version of that conversation is what makes it onto the air most times. I’m a big believer that broadcast film criticism should really feel like a mate has just seen a film and wants to talk to you about it. That was the best way of me getting that out, getting that sense of immediacy on the page. What I actually write is illegible, but the process of writing it down and getting those jokes and ideas crystallises it in my head.
The best kind of films to review are the kind that are interesting but flawed. You find yourself identifying what the filmmakers tried to do but didn’t work, and so on. There is meat there in the discussion. Sometimes the hardest films to review are the ones you flat out love.
Sometimes when you love a film the challenge is to try and obey the journalist love and try to fall out of love with your subject and get a little bit of distance but sometimes your love of cinema overpowers that and you come out gushing. Like you said before, reminding people that you actually love cinema is not a bad thing! Onto the subject of tear jerkers, when was the last time – if indeed you ever have – that you cried while watching a film, and what was it?
That’s a really good question. The obvious one for me was Toy Story 3 but I know there’s been another one since then. Trying to remember which one it was…as for the most recent one, well, Green Lantern made me cry because it wouldn’t fucking end.
Oh, in the last year: Super 8. There’s a moment near the end when a kid has to give away his mother’s locket, and it’s the most cheesy, Hollywood moment. But for some reason it broke me down to tears. I don’t understand why, it just did. Perhaps because the film felt like the kind of film I watched as a kid, so it was hooking into a degree of nostalgia. I cry in movies more often than you might think I would. I do it about 2 or 3 times a year. Do you cry in movies?
I generally don’t. I don’t know if it’s the hard shell outside me protecting my soft squidgy inner core but the last time I cried in a movie was during Iris, in 2001, with Judi Dench. Foolishly I saw that film about a week after my grandmother died, who I dearly loved, and it was about an old lady who dies, and it was done in such a convincing, melancholic yet haunting way that it totally – yeah, there was some salt water.
Who are five of your favourite living directors?
Wes Anderson, Hayao Wiyazaki, Danny Boyle, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.
What are five of your favourite Australian films of the last ten years?
Balibo, Lantana, The Proposition, Animal Kingdom. The last spot is a tie between Mary and Max and Moulin Rouge. Yes, I’m calling that last one an Australian film given it was eligible for an AFI at the time.
How about your first memory of the cinema? What was it?
I don’t know how old I was, but I used to live in Canberra at the time. I know, judge me now! I saw Snow White and – mum loves to recount this story because I’m now a film critic – I really wanted to leave because of the wart on the nose of the Wicked Witch. I found it so disgusting I wanted to leave, which makes me sound really shallow. And you know what, I am! I really hate warts. Get that shit lasered, I say!
Now that you’re casting a eye back over your cinematic life, what about the film experience you recall most fondly? Your best cinematic memory? Obviously it’s not the warts.
No, it’s not the warts. It was three o clock in the morning, I was in high school and I was staying over at a mate’s place. He said ‘oh Marc, you love movies! You really really really need to watch this movie. It’s called Donnie Darko.’ I’d never heard of this film and I sat and watched it at 3 o’ clock in the morning, top to toe, which by the way is the absolute best time to watch that film. It was funny, it was mysterious, dark and seductive – and I had no fucking idea what was going on! It has stuck with me throughout my entire life. Every time I watch that movie I still can’t tell you with 100% what it’s about. Whenever I re-watch it I think it’s about something else. I think is really unique. It’s a film that keeps on giving.
Whereabouts in the cinema do you like to sit?
I like centre, slightly to the front, unless it is 3D in which case I am centre and maybe three of four rows back. If it’s IMAX, take me to the mother fucking back row because I can’t handle anything more than that! I saw the IMAX version of Star Trek, the JJ Abrams reboot, and we sat somewhere near the middle, and it just did my head in. I got nightmares about lens flares for the next week after that. But if it’s a DVD, I’m pretty much leaning into my television.
And that provides an excellent segue for my next question. Most people assume that film critics have a large collection of DVDs. Is that true in your case? How big is your DVD collection?
Nine thousand, eight hundred and forty five. OK, I made up the forty five part. It is something in the vicinity of nine thousand.
Are you serious?
We actually have to move into places that are two bedrooms because, you know, I have to have a DVD room. It started at SBS because I was reviewing DVDS, and it was around 2004, a time when everybody was releasing their back catalogue on DVD. It just meant that by the end of that two years I had at least three thousand DVDs and I didn’t know where to freaking put them. Gradually over the years it’s just kept on growing and growing and now I find myself with this awkward problem. To be honest, now I want to digitize them! If anybody wants to be my intern, well I don’t know what I could give you but…
Well you could probably give them a DVD or two.
That’s right! After it’s done they’re all yours!
Do you ever walk out on films, or always feel an obligation to stay?
When I saw Kingdom of Heavens, years ago, I brought in two coffees because I’d been warned about the running time. But what I hadn’t prepared for was the inability for my bladder to make it through that film. I don’t walk out of movies. I never do. Even if my bladder is pushing against vital organs because it’s that engorged, I still don’t do it. Which possibly contributed to how much I hated that film!
I feel a 100% obligation to stay. I’m being paid to be there and for all I know something amazing could be coming up in the last minute. You have to stay till the end. Plenty of times I have wanted to leave but when it comes to a film I know I am reviewing I will never walk out. I actually get really shitty when I see certain other people who work for certain other TV networks come in five minutes after a film’s started, leave ten minutes before it’s over then hop up on TV the next morning and talk about it. I find that really frustrating and I think it’s shit, to be honest. Seriously, we have one of the best jobs in the world. You get to watch movies for a living. Sure, it’s not the best paid job, but it’s a great gig and the least you can do is bloody well stay until the end. It’s not that hard. Because of this rule I have missed flights, I’ve missed dinners, and all sorts of things but it’s your job – you stay until the end of the film.
One more question, in two parts. What advice would you provide to a) aspiring filmmakers and b) aspiring film critics?
For filmmakers, always always always always always always think about your audience. Who are you making a film for? How are you going to talk to them? Do you know your audience? The Australian film industry produces amazing craftspeople, wonderful actors, amazing cinematographers and sound designers, production designers. Where we lack is we don’t seem to think about the audience. Often when you watch an Australian film the filmmakers are so caught up in wonderful craft they don’t think: how do I draw somebody into this world? What is the transaction here? When somebody enters a cinema, you have to give them something back. You have to give them an emotion, or a laugh, or thrill them – you have to give them something back. I’m not saying it has to be straight up entertainment but you have to give them something and it can’t just be a great performance or beautiful cinematography. I don’t get a sense that filmmakers are really thinking about the audience. And also, marketing: think about how to go about selling your film. So many films I come across and just think, you don’t know who you made this for other than yourself and the AFI.
In terms of film critics, start a blog. Start a twitter feed. Start a podcast. There has never been a better time to become an up and coming film critic. With the prevalence of social media now, you can motivate your friends to look at something and from there it gets bigger and bigger. If you’re an aspiring film critic, start something. Do something. You can build up a body of work.