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Newsletter 290

Published June 10, 2019
Opening night of the Sydney Film Festival at the State Theatre.. an entire audience smiles through clenched teeth

This impossible month just keeps getting busier. This week I’m filing not one but two art columns, because the Sydney Morning Herald has suddenly got excited about the visual arts. I’m assured it’s only a passing phase but the immediate result of this enthusiasm was a request for a review of the National Gallery of Australia’s blockbuster, Monet: Impression Sunrise, on the same day as the media preview. This necessitated a quick trip back to my Canberra hotel and a column written under exam conditions!

The plus side was that the review would run in the front part of the SMH and The Age, as opposed to the weekend supplement. The received wisdom is that it’s better to be in the news section because this is the bit everybody reads, whereas the Saturday pages are the domain of peculiar arty types. As an arty type myself I’ve never been convinced by this claim but I’m happy to go with the flow for a while.

What I wasn’t happy about was the need to cut short my Monet reading, and start writing at once. I always like to do my homework, even though with some artists there is an almost infinite amount that one could read before sitting down to write a review. More often than not it means I’ve got far too much information for a regular-sized column, but in the long run nothing is ever wasted.

Besides the Monet piece I’m also posting a column about the Salon des Refusés at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, which brings together works rejected from the annual Archibald and Wynne Prizes at the Art Gallery of NSW. The problem with this show is that I could virtually reprint last year’s review, changing only the titles of the paintings. The same artists keep turning up, year after year, as the Trustees of the AGNSW banish them reflexively to the Salon. The sad part is that these artists are by no means untalented in comparison to the ones who are accepted. Surely something’s got to change. I just hope it changes for the better.

As if June wasn’t busy enough, the Sydney Film Festival has just commenced, although I don’t know how many of the 250 films on offer I’ll be catching. I’ve got a small core list and a long list of desirables. What I don’t have is time. The opening night movie was Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach, an Australian version of The Big Chill, in which we watch a succession of baby boomers behaving badly. Everyone in the audience was more than polite, as befits the occasion, but I suspect that feelings of creeping embarrassment were pretty widespread.

The hip hip hooray moment on opening night was the SFF congratulating itself on the large number of women filmmakers included in this year’s bill. There was even a pledge to ensure 50/50 representation between male and female directors, but I honestly can’t see how this kind of affirmative action will ensure the best films are being shown. Palm Beach demonstrates that female directors can make dreadful films just as surely as their male counterparts. Ideally the onus should be on a director’s actual work, not their gender.

It’s possible to imagine years when there are more good films made by female rather than male directors. Would a quota system therefore mean that mediocre ‘male’ films must displace better quality ‘female’ ones? Unless the disparities are really glaring we should be wary of such well-intentioned but poorly thought-out policies. At a time when more and more female directors are making their mark, a 50/50 quota detracts from honest achievement by making it appear that the system is rigged in their favour. Sexism may be an ugly thing, but if gender (or race, or religion) becomes a major factor in selecting movies for festivals we are placing ideological restrictions on what should be a field of unlimited possibilty.