Making a Meal of It: Writing about Film

Making a Meal of It. By Brian McFarlane.

Photo: Supplied

By Brian McFarlane

Monash University Publishing, $29.95

One of the most prolific writers on film currently working in English, Brian McFarlane is also one of the most knowledgeable and wide-ranging. Making a Meal of It is a selection of McFarlane's occasional writings dating from the 1970s through to the present taken from an array of respected publications both local and overseas. The book provides an impressive sample of McFarlane's vast journalistic and academic output. It will appeal to readers who have enjoyed his work over the past four decades as well as being useful to anyone who writes seriously about film and filmmakers.


As Ian Britain points out in the eloquent introduction, McFarlane takes film seriously, "as a medium in its own right with its own distinctive language, but not solemnly, as a refined art form divorced from the rest of life".

In terms of subject matter, Making a Meal of It showcases the extent and depth of the author's engagement with British, Australian and American film and his interest in exploring the complex relationship between literature and cinema. I know of no critic who has written more insightfully about the negotiation – both the subtle and less subtle aspects – between a screen adaptation of classic work of literature and the original text.

Unlike those critics who seem to decide that a particular era, director or actor defines all that cinema is capable of achieving, McFarlane's appetite for cinema-going appears inexhaustible. Although obviously he has some firm favourites among directors and actors, we don't get the sense that McFarlane assumes he has seen it all before.

Like any critic of quality, McFarlane is well-informed and prepared always to consider views that differ from his own even as he presents strong, often outspoken opinions. He is well aware that, in relation to film in particular, emotional response and aesthetic appreciation go hand in hand.

Cinema, perhaps more than any other form of entertainment with mass appeal, is both intensely actual in the sense that the people we see on the screen really do live and breathe, and they also inhabit much larger and more vivid versions of themselves as characters they create through the techniques and power of film art.

The famous question posed in the Yeats poem about the impossibility of separating the dancer from the dance applies to film, and especially so since cinema is a permanent record of something that in real life might have been done on the spur of the moment if not altogether by accident.

The last section in the book features some more personal pieces, including an entertaining account of the author's fascination with the legendary movie star Merle Oberon, which began as a film-goer's crush when McFarlane was 12 years old. McFarlane, who writes that his wife "looked like Merle when we were married", jumped at the chance to visit the actress at her home in later life after Oberon had all but retired from the screen. It seems McFarlane's wife was content for her husband to go to the meeting by himself.

McFarlane's evocation of Oberon as an enchanting screen idol of his youthful daydreams who also turned out to be a real person has a correlative in the pictures she permitted him to take during the meeting.

Even those amateur snaps were affected by Merle Oberon's cinematic aura: "My resulting photos are only a little blurred, and are in fact as good as you could expect from a shaking hand."

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