Real Film Criticism Cannot Be Taught – Hassan Muthalib

Image Credit: Wall Street Journal

Our friends at CQ Magazine spent some time with Hassan Muthalib in March 2016, talking to the noted film guru about the art and scene of film writing in Malaysia.

Greetings Encik Hassan! Thanks for your time to speak with us. Let’s start at the start. What motivated you to start writing about Malaysian films?
Well, I had been compiling material on Malaysian cinema since the 1980s. But it was only in 1998 after my return from jury duty at the Pyongyang International Film Festival that I wrote my first piece.

What was it about?
I did two articles in the form of a dialogue between two persons. It was a humourous critique of the Malaysian delegation that attended the festival. It was accompanied by two cartoons that I did of the jury proceedings.

That sounds sensational. After all, you do have a strong background in animation…
True. My first real writing only came about when I was the coordinator for The Film Forum of Kuala Lumpur that was set up in the year 2000 by Dr Anuar Nor Arai. He was a film lecturer at Universiti Malaya, and he wanted to seriously talk about cinema. More importantly, he made sure that we had our talks in writing so that it was a record and also could be published.

What kind of role did he play in your career?
He became my unofficial mentor wherein he critiqued my writing. I also learnt from the way he wrote and presented his papers. In fact, he was the first person to motivate me to talk publicly on film. In 1985, he invited me to debate his paper at his university. I was thrown into the deep end of the pool for my first ever presentation!

Every writer remembers the first time they were published. Tell us about yours.
My first article for publication only came about when I was asked to write for the book ‘Being and Becoming: The Cinemas of Asia’, published by Cinemaya in India in 2002. It was from here on that I began to be serious about writing critically.

Speaking of critical writing, how critical were writers on films and filmmaking back then?
I think the only real film critic was Anuar. He was looking at film as film, not looking at it from the perspectives of communication, cultural studies, psychology or anthropology. I, too, am interested in the cinematic aspects of film – how technique, in fact, is narrative. This is not found in the articles of all those who have been writing on film, and those who have the temerity to call themselves film critics!

How would you categorise them, then?
Most of them are no more than film reviewers. Most speak outside the text, rather than sticking to what is in the text. Others are ‘in love’ with what they write and so become pretentious. What comes out is not what they are saying about the films but more of how they are ‘knowledgeable’ about films, which can actually amount to very little. These are, in the words of Dr Anuar, ‘Internet Critics’. They pick up bits and pieces of information from the internet and piece them together.

How should such criticism have been presented, then?
Real film criticism should come from the mind and feelings of the writer, something subjective that is ultimately put across objectively with sound arguments, references, and also intertextuality, where necessary, that comes from a wide range of disciplines that include, among others, literature, theatre, music and philosophy.

When it comes to intertextuality, though, I suppose a fair amount of interest in films is driven by off-screen gossip…
There has been no proper film culture and film criticism in Malaysia. In the 1980s, a start was made, spearheaded by Anuar and Johan Jaafar, a literary and theatre stalwart. The group included myself, Nasir Jani, Mansor Puteh and a few others. Articles came out in the papers written by Anuar, Hatta Azad Khan and Nasir. But it fizzled out, as did the Film Forum of Kuala Lumpur. We still do not have a proper movement like Cahiers du Cinema as envisioned by Anuar.

Can’t I argue for the case of mainstream newspapers here?
The mainstream newspapers mostly accept articles that are light, written for a working class audience, and slanted towards the popular actors and directors. And when there’s some controversy attached to the film, the creatives, actors or crew, then the newspapers go to the town with it. It’s all about selling newspapers, and continues perpetuating a horizontal film mentality.

There is that history, though, of space given for film criticism. You mention the likes of Hatta Azad Khan and Mansor Puteh. I raise you Dr Norman Yusoff, who wrote recently about Indonesian cinema for Utusan Malaysia.
Even Utusan Malaysia that has been supportive of serious writing sometimes does not publish or edits articles that are ‘too critical’. The Star, I think, provides more in-depth writing but it is still not film criticism in the real sense of the word.

Dr Norman is one of the better writers on film. He has come very close to film criticism but I would like to see him go further into how the director uses his mise-en-scene to present his thesis or ideas. This is where you realise the true intentions of the director. As Ingmar Bergman has said: “If you want to know what a filmmaker is saying, look at how he is saying it.” The ‘how’ is the least explored aspect of film criticism.

Going back to the Internet, what kind of role do social media play here?
I think the social media is playing a big role in bringing about a film-literate audience. There’s a number of blogs and Facebook sites which have serious as well as general discussions and reportage on film. But still, most are not knowledgeable enough about what is cinema. It’s a start anyway.

Could this be because there’s less happening on the ground, relative to other nations?
I don’t think so. There are frequent film screenings after which discussions are encouraged. I think all this is generating interest to see film as film, especially in the last two years when a number of well-made alternative films have come out. The resultant comments herald something positive: celebrating cinema that will not be seen in racial terms, that it is a Malay, Tamil or Chinese movie, but a Malaysian film. Good examples are Jagat and Ola Bola.

Who do you write for?
Personally, unless it’s for an academic journal, I never have a target audience in mind. Most of the time, I write depending on the mood I am in at the moment of writing. I do not explain myself as I expect my readers to be knowledgeable enough to understand what I am saying. And when I critique certain people or the Establishment, I try to use wit, comedy, parody, satire and irony. But, of course, most of it goes over most people’s heads.

Kr8tif Express

What is your role, here? What is it that you are supposed to do?
A film critic should not write so that it is easy to understand. That means bringing yourself down to the level of your reader. The critic should maintain his or her status as someone who knows more than the reader, specifically about the cinema. The arguments, based on the film text, should be intelligible enough that it ‘forces’ the reader to do some thinking and create the ‘aha!’ effect, and maybe even have them reevaluating their earlier stance on a particular film.

I also do ‘entertaining’ film criticism by having two characters talking. This is parodying the form of a film script and film dialogue. Based on the feedback I received, this has become popular. But even though it seems humourous and very down-to-earth, there are many allusions and hidden barbs aimed at certain people, organisations and the Establishment. I also include many elements that are topical, using it to make fun of some of my friends.

There are some who say they disagree with what I have written. I ask them if they understood what I was saying. That usually flummoxes them!

Perhaps they were flummoxed by the term ‘flummox’. What’s the most difficult piece that you’ve written?
The difficult ones have only been those for academic journals and some overseas publications, where I have to do a lot of research and give references. Actually, I hate doing that but it’s a necessity. I like to sit and write and finish at one sitting. If I leave it and start again, it’s not the same feeling anymore. If I do, it’s mostly editing that is involved and some minor revisions.

How do you decide which films to write about? There’s plenty to go around!
I write only about the good films, that which show potential and those that I like. I don’t talk about the bad ones. No point in flogging a dead horse! Also, you will be giving them undue prominence.

My father said that without reading, there is no writing. How much do you agree with this statement?
Yes, indeed! I recommend lots of reading, both fiction and non-fiction, and especially autobiographies.

There’s been plenty of stinging words delivered in this interview. Any kind ones that might encourage people to explore this field further, either as a writer or reader?
Real film criticism cannot be taught. You can only learn some rules but true writing comes from within you. You may be wrong sometimes but if you are sincere, it will shine through. You can get personal but when you do, use parody, satire and irony. People will be confused at what you’re trying to say. And that’s where the fun is!

It’s good to watch the classic films, especially of the 1940s and 50s, a time when innocence and naivete were still around but were being edged out by a new and volatile era. Do travel a lot and meet all kinds of people and cultures, and be around people who are better than you are. All these will have an effect on you and make you a better writer.

Above all, look for gestalt, or form, in a film. When all the parts of a film are structured, patterned and organized well, the good gestalt will emerge and make it a film worth writing about. There are no two ways about it. That’s the secret to truly understanding film and the filmmakers’ intentions. Your writing will then be on the ball…

Great advice to get the ball rolling with. Thank you once again!

Images courtesy of Hassan Muthalib. First published in March 2016. The full interview could be read in the fifth issue of CQ Magazine, which you can read here or download as a PDF file. You can read more of Hassan Muthalib’s writings here.

Featured image credit: Medical Media Training

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