by Rochelle Siemienowicz
With her spiky blonde crop, enormous earrings and throaty laugh, Margaret Pomeranz is no doubt the most recognisable and beloved film critic in Australia. In an amazing feat of television longevity, Pomeranz has been appearing on screen with her fellow reviewer (and friendly sparring partner) David Stratton, for 25 years now. They first appeared together in 1986, when they established and hosted The Movie Show on SBS. In 2004, the duo moved to the ABC, where the show was renamed At the Movies, and is still going strong today. In fact, to celebrate the 25th anniversary, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne is now staging an exhibition, ‘Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies’ (17 August – 4 December 2011).
Pomeranz fell into movie reviewing completely by chance. As a producer for SBS, she was casting The Movie Show and needed a female host as conterpart to established film critic David Stratton. There didn’t seem to be anybody else available, so Pomeranz stepped in, sat down on the sofa, and as they say, a star was born.
An Arts graduate with a major in German and Pyschology, the young Margaret had spent time in Europe, worked as a journalist for the ABC and the Bulletin, and had become an enthusiastic supporter of the new wave of Australian films in the 1970s, alongside her husband, filmmaker Hans Pomeranz . After attending the Playwright’s Studio at NIDA she began writing for television, radio and film, and then moved to screenwriting and television producing for the newly established multicultural broadcaster, SBS – where her experiences included excecutive producing the AFI Awards and the IF Awards.
A passionate and outspoken advocate for the freedom of speech, Pomeranz is currently vice-President of Watch on Censorship. She’s also served as a member of the Advertising Standards Board, and is a past President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia.
In our interview, conducted earlier this year at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival, Pomeranz was as warm, funny and intense in person as she is on screen. She enthused about her new hot pink iPhone (‘Now I can finally find my phone in my handbag!’), reminisced about her early years on television, and discussed the complexities of reviewing the Australian films made by colleagues and friends. And just in case you think her job’s a dream, she lets us in on some of the minor irritations of having to see every single film released each week.
Celebrating 25 years of sparring on the couch: Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton. Image courtesy of ABC
AFI: Congratulations on 25 years of doing The Movie Show – or versions thereof!
Margaret Pomeranz: It’s been incredible. I can remember way back, at the beginning, when I’d only been doing it for four years, I remember saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just do it for one more year.’ It’s always been one more year, one more year. And then all of sudden, you go ‘Oh wow, it’s ten years!’ And then it’s 20. Now it’s a quarter of a century and it sounds pretty heavy duty.
AFI: When you were saying ‘one more year’, was that because the pace was so intense that you didn’t know if you could keep it up? Or were you thinking that the show wouldn’t be supported for more than one more year?
Margaret Pomeranz: Well, I suppose in those days, programs only lasted a certain number of seasons. You expected that they’d want to go on and make something new. I think because we started on SBS, we sort of worked our way in from the edge. People who liked film made an effort to find us, and then the show became established. Films keep coming out every week, all year round, so they need reviewing. It just keeps on keeping on.
AFI: When the show started you were producing as well as presenting. What was it like performing both those roles?
Margaret Pomeranz: It nearly killed me! It’s not actually an ideal balance of roles, because, you know, I had to learn to shut up in the studio, to let them call the shots from the control room, instead of me trying to do it. I’m such a control freak! That took a while.
It’s a small country, and it’s actually quite a small industry, so you actually do personally know a lot of the people in these films you’re talking about and you know that if you are critical, it’s terribly hurtful for them, and terribly damaging.
AFI: In Australia, you and David are our most recognisable film critics, and you’re very much part of the debate when a new Australian film gets released. Every Australian filmmaker is interested in how their work is reviewed on your show. They’ll be watching and caring about what you think. That must be quite a consideration for you.
Margaret Pomeranz: It is a consideration. It’s a small country, and it’s actually quite a small industry, so you actually do personally know a lot of the people in these films you’re talking about and you know that if you are critical, it’s terribly hurtful for them, and terribly damaging. I must admit that I really liked it when our show was a little niche program on SBS without that responsibility. I don’t particularly want that responsibility. But unfortunately, it’s been thrust upon us and I’m very aware of how important it is for filmmakers when their work is reviewed on our show.
AFI: Your show was the first of its kind in Australia, wasn’t it?
Margaret Pomeranz: Yes. We were the only program that tried to cover every film in a week. You had Peter Thompson on the ABC and gradually, on cable television, there were a few shows as well. But for free-to-air, I can’t actually believe that no one had ever thought of this before. And even with SBS, you know, we really had to fight to get it up. There were movie review shows that were well-established in America at that time, but there was nothing here, and there continued to be nothing. I don’t know whether it was because the commercial television channels here were so aligned with some of the studios – the output that they took from Paramount and Warners and stuff like that, so that they thought it would compromise them if some of their material would be criticised on their own station – but the ABC and, well, public broadcasting in general, has that absolute freedom to not owe anything to anyone, which is healthy. It’s why I believe in public broadcasting.
AFI: The film critic or reviewer has to be absolutely autonomous, otherwise it’s a pointless exercise.
Margaret Pomeranz: Yes. At the same time, I wouldn’t downplay the major newspaper critics in this country either. I’m sure every city has at least one reviewer who is very important and would consider themselves to be thoroughly independent.
AFI: As someone who’s been doing this for so long, do you get the feeling that the quality of the debate about cinema and film culture has improved in the last couple of decades, or has it changed in any way?
Margaret Pomeranz: I actually don’t think television is the arena for really in-depth debate about film. All I wanted to do with our program was make a guide to cinema, the current cinema. But what I did notice over the years is this absolute explosion of interest in cinema. And I imagine it’s because cinema is taught in schools and kids have the ability to make their own short films with the technology these days. And it is a magic art. No wonder they’re so enthused about it! Nowadays many young people are extremely cinema-literate, so that has certainly changed over the years. When we started, we were the first people to go out and actually cover Australian films shooting on location. A lot of the early stories that we did, no one else had ever thought of that. Then the idea of creating EPKs [Electronic Press Kits] came up and we pulled back from that. But I hope that by giving those kinds of insight into this struggling, poor little industry that we’ve got, an industry that throws up so much talent, that we can be part of the process of developing enthusiasm for what’s happening in film in this country.
I walk the streets of any city in this country and people greet me with a smile. Now, that’s not a bad way to go about life, actually, to have that sort of genuine response – people smiling at you as if you’re a friend.
AFI: You travel the world’s film festivals and watch films for a living. What is the hardest part of your job?
Margaret Pomeranz: I suppose the fact is that you’re completely at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. It’s very hard even making a doctor’s appointment that you know you’re going to be able to keep. Or a dinner appointment. Recently I said to [theatre director] Neil Armfield, ‘I’m giving up on theatre. I can’t go to the theatre anymore because I don’t know when I’m going to have to go to a six o’clock film screening. And I’m never going to make the theatre by eight.’ The number of theatre tickets I’ve had to swap or abandon! It just gets to be very frustrating. It’s really difficult, trying to have dinner with the kids, who seem to want to get up early and go to bed early. It’s a minor irritation. But the rest of it is great. Everybody is so lovely. I have to tell you, I walk the streets of any city in this country and people greet me with a smile. Now, that’s not a bad way to go about life, actually, to have that sort of genuine response – people smiling at you as if you’re a friend. It’s lovely.
AFI: You don’t get people coming up to you and saying: ‘How could you not have loved such-and-such a film?’
Margaret Pomeranz: No. Occasionally, very occasionally, people come up and take issue in a really engaged way. They’re not attacking, but they want to talk about a film that you haven’t liked and they’ve really liked. But generally, there’s just great enthusiasm for the program. It’s surprised me, it really surprised me. But we’ve been in people’s lounge rooms for 25 years. You know, there are 25-year olds who’ve grown up with us. We’ve been part of young people’s lives for all their lives if they’re interested in film and they’ve been following the program, and a lot of them have. It’s incredible. We’re an institution, we’re institutionalised!
AFI: In a good way! And what advice would you have for a young film reviewer who’s trying to make a start?
Margaret Pomeranz: I suppose it’s the same advice that you give a filmmaker. Just watch a lot of cinema. See how the good ones do it. See how the bad ones do it. Have a film education. We’ve introduced this ‘Classics’ segment on At The Movies, and the response to that has been really extraordinary. I mean, people want to learn about cinema. They do want to be led towards really fantastic films of the past. And I think good filmmakers know what the greats have done in the past and they can learn from them.
AFI: You said something very interesting in your 2010 Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture, bemoaning Australian filmmakers’ traditional reticence to pack an emotional punch and to explore things like sex and intimacy. Do you think we’re heading away from that tendency or is it still a problem?
Margaret Pomeranz: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t want to make blanket criticisms, but I think it is a trend. And I noticed it in Canadian films too. Perhaps it’s because we’ve inherited that ‘Britishness’, that reticence, which the Americans just shrugged off, embracing their new world and everything that was free in it, including emotion. But I do think that it’s not an area that Australians feel competent to explore – ideas of intense emotion, intense love. But, I have to say that I’ve just recently seen Griff the Invisible, and it’s beautiful. It is really a compassionate, wonderful little film. So, you know, with films like that, maybe things are changing.
AFI: From an AFI perspective, you’ve been engaged with the AFI Awards in various ways for a long time. What are your memories of those early years when you produced the awards when they were broadcast on SBS?
Margaret Pomeranz: Oh yes, I pounded the floor backstage and wrung my hands whenever anybody went over their allotted time for their thank you speech! It was a massive undertaking. I had never done anything like that before, so it was a huge learning curve for me. But fortunately, Denny Lawrence was the AFI Chair at the time and I’d known him for a long time and we got on very well. I was able to speak up about things and become really engaged in the process, which was lovely.
AFI: From your perspective now, as a film reviewer now, what are the importance of the AFI Awards?
Margaret Pomeranz: I think they’re really important, because it focuses the nation’s attention on our cinema and highlights the grand achievements in the particular year. It’s good for individual films, but I think it’s also good for the country as a whole to have their interests pricked at certain moments and this is the big moment in the year for Australian film. In the early days when I came back to Australia from overseas, I’d go to the AFI Awards. Actually at that time I had a screen writing credit so I was able to vote in the screen writing category. And I’d go to the AFI Awards screening and you’d get to see all the films released in that year. Everybody in the film industry went. It was a great informal forum for the discussion of film. Now I’m looking forward to seeing the actual Awards being in Sydney for a change.
AFI: The glamour, the glamour! We look forward to seeing you there. Thanks for talking with us.
Margaret Pomeranz: My pleasure.
At the Movies screens on ABC TV every Wednesday night at 10.00pm and is repeated on Sundays at 6.00pm.
Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies is exhibited at ACMI in Melbourne from 17 August until 4 December 2011. The 25 year anniversary episode of At the Movies will screen on ABC1 on 26 October. Visit abc.net.au for further info.
‘Let’s agree to disagree’ – A great piece posted on the ACMI Blog, with David and Margaret offering their 25 most memorable and most forgettable film experiences. Also, some terrific photos from the early years.