MaltaToday | 24 August 2008

Interview | Sunday, 24 August 2008

Scary movies

Although a self-declared introvert, once you get veteran film critic ERIC GERMAN started on his fallouts with The Sunday Times and KRS, there’s no stopping him. DAVID DARMANIN discovers why film reviewing in Malta may be a disappointing career choice

Woody Allen’s 2003 film Anything Else tells the story of a young writer befriending an ageing struggling artist, as the latter ends up acting as his oracle. Perhaps it was Eric German’s vague resemblance to Allen himself, but the scene at the location of choice for the critic’s career confessions, at a tea garden, was somewhat reminiscent of this film.
Asked whether there was anything else to his life besides the world of film, German smiled.
“No, not really. I feel so passionately about films that reviewing takes up most of my time. I care about it deeply. I give it a lot and it has also been a form of expression for me.
“I grew up in very repressed times, in the 1950s, and my father was extremely strict so I grew up as a shy and introverted person. But when I’m writing, then I become an extrovert. I think we all need to find a way of expressing ourselves.”
And that is exactly what, at 64 years of age, got him into trouble with Allied Newspapers.
“The Sunday Times,” he points out. “There used to a difference before, but now the Sunday Times has become a photocopy of the daily. When Laurence Grech was editor, he gave it a specific identity and one was proud to say he wrote for the Sunday Times.”
Things have recently changed according to German, claiming he jumped before he was pushed from The Sunday Times, for which he had been writing for a long 37 years.
“KRS released a film that had most of the reel badly scratched,” he recounts. “It was an eyesore, it was a distraction and I believe that in this day and age you shouldn’t take something like that lightly and release that kind of film to people who pay good money to watch it.
“I love my readers. Without them I wouldn’t exist, so I’m there for them. I would like to help KRS and I have frequently done so, but my first duty is to the readers, so I wrote about this very badly scratched reel. Because of this I was banned from KRS press shows and pre-screenings. In the circumstances, I explained to the current editor of the Sunday Times, Steve Mallia, that I was willing to do my reviews by going to the cinema. The problem with this was that I would have had to submit my reviews beyond my Friday morning deadline, so I asked for an extension. I also told him that if it was absolutely necessary I would be prepared to resign, but I never told him that I wanted to or was going to resign. There was a lot he could have done. He could have, for instance, taken up the matter with KRS. But he had an agenda. He wanted to get in another one of his own people, so he quickly told me, by email, that he had to accept my offer to resign. In less than three days, he sent a new critic at a KRS press show in my stead.”
Perhaps German is not too keen on how matters developed at The Times over the years, but he does admit that there have been several improvements in the film industry in general.
“We had a lot of problems with censorship in the past, and this used to hurt me. I would write about them and give out my arguments as to why they shouldn’t have acted that way and what they would have done abroad. I would praise the good about the most controversial films of the time, such as the Fellini ones.
“Incidentally, only two Fellini films reached Malta, and they were only shown at university. The KRS, then called the Malta United Film Corporation (MUFC), just couldn’t care less about foreign films, or what they call non-English language films these days. In fact, the French Nouvelle Vague came and left without us having seen a single one of them, which is an absolute shame. Malta was always exclusively interested in British and American films. If we did get any of the so-called foreign films it would be a very badly dubbed version of some Italian superhero stuff, like Hercules throwing off papier maché pillars.”
Repressive systems of censorship in the 1950s and 1960s in Malta have at times verged on to the ridiculous.
“They used to actually time a kissing scene with a stopwatch, and if it lasted more than two or three seconds they would just cut it,” he said. “So a scene such as the one in Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, where they kiss for more than three seconds, was cut abruptly. Since at the time the MUFC didn’t have an editing machine, you would abruptly see the couple at opposite ends of the screen as if lightning struck and separated them by the mighty hand of God.
“There was also the time when, in parliament, a particular minister refused to provide the titles of the films that were banned in a particular year. Can you believe it?”
But 50 years down the line, German agrees that the policy to issue every single film uncut, adopted by the censorship board, is praiseworthy. So it is not all doom and gloom, but almost.
Audiences have changed drastically over the years, and German describes this paradigm shift as: “very bad and very sad”.
“What depresses me a lot is that before you had an audience for every type of film, for every genre. Granted, there was always a bigger audience for the Ten Commandments type of blockbuster, but it was unheard of that a film would be released and nobody would go to watch it at the opening night. There were times in more recent years when a film would be released and I would be the only person in the audience. A lot of films are taken off the screens after three days for lack of support. Mind you, this is also the fault of the film industry in general, not just locally but also abroad. All the money is invested in publicity for the really big films. The others are given a pittance for publicity, so besides being given a limited release, very few people get to know about these films unless they follow film critics.”
With internet came the availability of free downloads of both film and music. Many industry pundits would argue that while this free-for-all culture has severely dented the fate of music artistes relying on CD sales, it has effectively encouraged other artistes pinning their hopes on income generated from live acts – giving rise to a more discerning listening culture and increased creativity in the end product.
“The opposite has taken place in the film business,” German said. “Even if you look at it from a business point of view. If you have a film like The Dark Knight or Journey to the Centre of the Earth – it is pre-sold. You don’t have to spend all those millions on hype because people are going to watch it anyway. Internet has damaged the film industry because nowadays you have a situation where they can make a film for $125 million, which is relatively cheap by Hollywood standards, and then spend $120 million on campaigns to create curiosity months before the film is released. As a result, kids latch on to it and start writing on blogs without having seen a single scene of the film. Such advertising methods are really sly because they get their hooks into the kids and make them curious. An example of this was when they sold off the Blair Witch Project as a true story on internet... whereas this was just an amateurish film made by two people who had just left film school. They say piracy is killing the film industry, but although piracy should be fought against with every effort, the film industry has a death wish and it is slowly killing itself. If a studio produces a certain number of films then it should see to it that it interest is created in all of its product range. You shouldn’t leave out a serious film just because it doesn’t appeal to the 12 year old. Twelve, incidentally, is the average age of audiences – not just in Malta but everywhere else. Now, when I say ‘everywhere’ I mean the United States, because we tend to be copycats of whatever happens in the US. Everything is Coca-Cola. We, or rather KRS, invest all efforts into getting their big films, which is stupid. The more modest films and the better-quality films are literally thrown away because they are released after coming out on Region One DVD. There is a racket on family films and PG13 films. A producer in Hollywood would go to any length to get a PG13 rating even if he has to cut the film. This has happened several times, albeit at considerable costs – but because the average age groups of people going to the cinemas is 12, then everything must be either U, PG or PG13. This way, we’ve driven away anyone older than 18 from the cinemas into the DVDs. The film industry has suffered because people have been ignored. You are effectively telling people: ‘We don’t want you in our cinemas’.”
KRS has a notorious history of banning German from press shows. It is not the first time he had to resort to reviewing films at cinemas. In the 1980s, German himself experienced tragicomedies at first hand in Malta’s then-decrepit theatres. One story included being bitten by a stray dog after it had made its way into the cinema theatre.
“I have spent all of my life watching films at cinemas which were absolutely awful. Not only was The Savoy, for example, not only not air-conditioned, bu to cut down on electricity bills they would just put on a ceiling fan or two at the centre of the theatre. So you’d get this stupid situation where all the people in the theatre would huddle up together in a circle for air.
“There was this one time when I had gone to watch Little Lord Fontleroy, and the cinema was absolutely packed. In the intermission I got up to notice that the people in front of me had cockroaches on their back. Then I noticed that I had cockroaches on my back! It transpired that everybody was infested with cockroaches, so people started screaming and running out. It was as bad as that.
“Because I reported such incidents, KRS accused me of wanting to kill the film industry in Malta. I used to tell them that the way to revive the film industry in Malta was to open air-conditioned cinemas in clean surroundings, where people can watch a film in safety and in comfort. The De Cesare brothers then decided to open a multiplex, and the industry revived instantly. Of course the change in attitude of the censorship board had also helped a great deal in letting this revival come through.”
A revival for blockbuster thirsty 12-year-old bloggers? Perhaps the only exception was with the setting up of the cinema theatre at St James Cavalier, known for screening art house films, albeit often empty.
“Yes but St James doesn’t show new films,” he said. “And as much as I hate to say this, St James needs refurbishing badly, because even if you were to ask a doctor, the seats are in such a condition that you would ruin your back if you go there. St James would be ideal for a film club – and this would not necessarily involve many expenses. It just has to be tastefully done, as they do in London. KRS have to pull their socks up and release art house films on time, but on the other hand the St James management has to be ready to go in for this type of venture.”
In a closing comment on locally produced film, German pointed out that “some of the locally made films are really awful”.
“But some others show so much promise, so much imagination – especially when considering what they do with so little,” he added. “Some producers people do Malta proud and they should be behind an actual movie camera. Sometimes they ask me to be on the panel of judges for short film contests, both locally and abroad. At times it does become embarrassing because I love Malta and the Maltese. There are some young people who are so promising that I really wish that someone would have the guts to help them, and by someone I mean someone in government.”

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