Triple R presenter/cinephile Thomas Caldwell

Radio presenter and freelance film critic, Thomas Caldwell. Photo by Georgia Hill.
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“The beauty and the skill of criticism is that it’s about expressing and enhancing the film for the reader, making your enthusiasm and interest contagious.” Thomas Caldwell talks to Georgia Hill about his career as a freelance film critic and presenter on Triple R radio.

Q: What is the best thing about your job?

A: One of the things that I love about film criticism is sharing my passion for a film with other people. Being able to write about a film that is under-appreciated or may otherwise slip under the radar and have people discover it is exciting. I used to get calls or emails when I was on radio from people who said they would never have seen this film if it wasn’t for my review. That’s a buzz.

Q: What drew you to film reviewing? Have you always had an interest in film?

A: As long as I can remember I adored cinema. I was in that generation that grew up on Star Wars and the golden age of Spielberg-directed films, so I just love the magic of cinema. And when I was in high school I had a couple of open-minded English teachers who introduced the idea of film as literature. Having film treated as a legitimate art form was quite a revelation for me and I started writing about some of my favourite films. When you start writing about films and reading about them it just opens up the poetry and ideology of the film. Getting deeper into the text and realising it wasn’t just there to be witnessed passively was a real rush. You could really engage with a film and make your own discoveries. I really loved being able to communicate to other people what is so special about film. Having a career that meant watching lots of films just seemed like the way to go.

Q: Do you have a favourite director or film?

A: 2001: a Space Odyssey will always be my favourite film. I saw that when I was very young. After Star Wars I wanted to consume as much science fiction as I could, so I saw it when I was eight or nine and it went way over my head. But it’s a film that’s just lingered, and I revisit it every year. It transcends what film can do. It’s so overwhelmingly beautiful, inspiring, thoughtful and philosophical. Even today, it’s really hard to detect any of that film as being dated. In terms of my favourite director, I’m obsessed with David Lynch. I remember watching the original series of Twin Peaks on VHS and also going on a date to see Eraserhead. And it blew my mind, how cinema could make you feel, and how it was beyond explanation. I love how he tapped into some kind of emotional reality, sacrificing literal reality.

Q: Is it particularly challenging to make a career out of film criticism in this day

and age?

A: Yeah and I’ve got a horrible feeling it’s getting worse. In terms of getting paid work, it’s really hard. The thing about working in the arts is there are no direct pathways, it is so unpredictable. I’ve hit despair, and had a lot of moments of rock bottom. I’ve been on Newstart twice and thought I don’t know what I’m gonna do. There are people who will do film criticism for free and outlets know that, so they charge next to nothing or not at all.

There’s a real devaluing of criticism at the moment, partly because of social media. In one way it’s a great way of getting yourself noticed, and getting past publishing gatekeepers. But it’s dangerous when people think their opinion is enough. It needs to be an informed opinion. We really are in ‘hot take’ culture. Crude and blunt opinion pieces on film seem to be the majority. The beauty and the skill of criticism is that it’s about expressing and enhancing the film for the reader, making your enthusiasm and interest contagious. I don’t like the sort of exclusive or elitist aspect that can creep in. My thing has always been to try and use language that an informed, but not necessarily expert, person will understand. I’m torn between feeling hopeful that there’s avenues for new voices, and feeling like an angry old man because I see a lot of nonsense online. Like anything, it’s how the tool is used. Right now, it feels like it’s mostly being abused.

Q: You’ve worked in the mediums of both print and radio. How did you get into your work with Triple R?

A: I’d always done bits and pieces of radio and presenting, so I signed up for Triple R’s broadcasting course and I loved it. For about about a year I did graveyard shifts for them and I learned how to panel and practice speaking. Eventually I got the film review spot on the Breakfasters segment, and I had a couple of like-minded friends that I started the Plato’s Cave podcast with, and it became an on-air show. I reluctantly gave it up, but I miss it to death, I love radio. And my only outlet now is I have semi-regular segment on Radio National.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring film critics?

A: See as many films as you can, read as much as you can, do the writing and get it out there. The sad reality is that the industry is at a point where you’re gonna have to work for free a lot and put your pieces up on sites that don’t pay. But knowing that, be strategic about where you put it. Don’t give it away unless it’s somewhere that you’re really proud to be associated with. Be suspicious of anybody who asks you to work for exposure. And identify a point where you say you’re not willing to do this for free anymore. You’ll get less work but you’ll also get offered better gigs. Also, try to identify quickly if you’re the kind of person who can write to suit any audience or if you’re gonna stick to your own guns. I think a lot of the more successful writers will adapt their voice, even their opinion and style to whatever format or medium is required. That’s how to be a jobbing writer, in all honesty.