Film Podcasting: One for the Fans

Martin Scorsese on the set of Goodfellas

After nine years, one of Australia’s longest-running film podcasts, Hell Is for Hyphenates, has called it quits. The monthly hour-long show was the brainchild of two obsessive Melbourne film buffs and friends, comedy writer Lee Zachariah and filmmaker Paul Anthony Nelson. The heart of Hyphenates, which started back in 2010 when podcasts were still a rarity, was its ‘Filmmaker of the Month’ segment, in which a prominent guest would enthuse about their favourite film director, covering their entire filmography: Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino on Maurice Pialat, Australian author Christos Tsiolkas on Pier Paolo Pasolini, Australian filmmaker Sophie Hyde on Jane Campion, and so on. In laborious preparation for the recording of the podcast, the guests and the hosts would watch or rewatch as many of the director’s films as possible. I know this for a fact because I hosted Hyphenates alongside Zachariah during the show’s final two years. It often felt like cramming for a stressful exam.

The huge amount of work involved – all done purely for love – is part of the reason why Hyphenates has wound up, much to my own personal relief. But Zachariah himself feels that podcasting as a form has moved on. ‘There are just so many innovative podcasts out there now that incorporate sound design, actors and creative postmodern concepts,’ he tells me. ‘I do feel like Hyphenates got taken over. It’s almost like making silent films after sound has come in, after The Jazz Singer [Alan Crosland, 1927], or still making [Charlie] Chaplin shorts while MGM is making musicals.’

Auteur theory underpinned the whole Hyphenates project (as it does for many a film podcast – One Heat Minute or The Senses of Cinema Podcast, for instance): the idea that a director is the author of a film, and that certain preoccupations or themes can be traced across their body of work. And so our show’s grand finale – released in late April – was a mammoth three-and-a-half-hour edition devoted to Martin Scorsese. Around fifty previous guests contributed prerecorded segments talking about their favourite films or moments from Scorsese’s fifty-year career: Ozploitation legend Brian Trenchard-Smith on the director’s entire oeuvre, filmmaker Kriv Stenders on the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Chaser’s War on Everything’s Chris Taylor on the famous garlic-slicing scene in Goodfellas (1990). This was highbrow fandom at its best.

Which brings us to the fact that fandom drives the majority of film and television podcasts, both internationally and in Australia. This is both the strength and weakness of the medium. Like blogging before it, podcasting is democratic; anyone can have a voice to obsess in as much detail as they like about anything, from Seinfeld to Sergei Eisenstein to Married at First Sight. The nature of the form, divorced from the strictures, deadlines and gatekeeping of traditional screen criticism, allows for complete indulgence in fandom.

At its best, this means that deep thinkers and great communicators can explore screen culture outside the churn of daily journalism, with its ties to what’s on at the movies that week or to what’s on TV. Strange and beautiful things can flourish when obsession is given such freedom. At its worst, though, the fandom that drives much podcasting means that any criticism offered is likely to take the form of disappointed ranting, spiralling further and further into niche nonsense.

The recent explosion of podcasts in all areas of entertainment, from sport to self-development to true crime, is evidenced by the fact that, as of 2019, there have been three editions of the Australian Podcast Awards, held in Sydney every May. According to its website, 339 self-nominated podcasts participated in this year’s ‘Popular Vote’ category, accumulating a total of 20,000 votes. There were also twenty-four other categories judged by experts in each area.

I find it surprising to note that, in the ‘TV, Film & Pop Culture’ category, not a single one of the six finalists dabbled, in any way, in traditional film or TV reviews or analysis. Nor was there anything like the sophisticated yet engaging application of theory to pop-culture products that we saw in the brilliant, but now defunct, podcast The Rereaders, hosted by critics Mel Campbell and Dion Kagan. Instead, these finalists were bright, chatty shows like Mamamia Out Loud, Chat 10 Looks 3 and Shameless – a ‘pop-culture podcast for smart women who love dumb stuff’. Interestingly, it was in the category of ‘Best Fancast’ that cinephilia finally emerged. Driven by fandom again, these shows – including One Heat Minute (in which film critic Blake Howard devotes an episode to every minute of Michael Mann’s 170-minute 1995 heist film Heat), Eyes on Gilead: A Handmaid’s Tale Podcast (co-hosted by SBS Movies managing editor Fiona Williams) and Club Soderbergh (a show devoted to the films of … you guess who) – embody the adoring and niche concerns of most screen podcasting, for better or for worse.

Even as a former podcaster myself, I remain most wedded to the written word when it comes to considering and analysing screen culture – even if it’s just for fun. Yes, there’s a vitality that can arise when multiple voices bounce off one another, sparking new ideas and connections. But there’s also a tendency to talk too much about too little.

For this column, I’ve taken the opportunity to ask the ultimate cinephile, world-renowned film critic Adrian Martin, whether he liked and listened to film podcasts. ‘I listen to almost none, on a regular basis,’ he replies.

One thing that does turn me off very swiftly is what I think of as a compulsion for everyone involved – especially when they’re having group chats – to fall (almost without thinking) into a kind of ‘radio patter’, with a lot of forced jokes; short, sharp retorts; and attempts at snappy screwball rhythms of overlapping speech … like a bunch of bad stand-up comedians.

Yet Martin won’t write off the form completely: ‘I like them when they go deep,’ he says. ‘Podcasts can actually be more intimate and more unique. I’m still looking for the perfect example that fits my idea of this!’

Personally, I’m all ears for that too.