Inter-review with Stephen "Spling" Aspeling about his book, The essence of dreams: An anthology of film reviews

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Review by Janet van Eeden: I learned about Spling’s work through my colleague Diaan Lawrenson, the dean of AFDA Cape Town. Diaan always invited Spling to review their end of year films at the annual graduation festival. Spling would write reviews and choose his best student films of the year. I reached out to him to include our Durban students’ work for review and was highly impressed with his insightful reviews of our top films. We felt very honoured when he chose one of ours as one of his top five student films of the year.

Spling also wrote an assessment of one of my screenplays which I’d sent him for feedback, and his comments were insightful and helpful. When he published this book of his best reviews earlier this year, I was delighted. Spling really is South Africa’s answer to Roger Ebert with his encyclopaedic knowledge of films.

The reviews in this book include films which Spling scores 8/10 or higher, and which have made an impact on the world of cinema in the past few decades. They range from South African excellence as seen in District 9 and the more recent and sublime Toorbos, to Oscar winners Once upon a time in Hollywood, The wolf of Wall Street, Parasite, Everything everywhere all at once, and many others. An example of his review from the last-mentioned film, shows his perspicacity:

Summoning up a myriad of emotion and entertainment in transporting us through its many stages and parallel lives at high speed, we come to realise that as universal as it is in its world-building, its core truths dial back to its human essence. The climactic finish elevates it from the realm of pure popcorn roller-coaster of the highest order into something deeply moving and special. (80)

Dip into this book to find out more about your favourite film, or read it from cover to cover to gain insights into what makes a film worthwhile in the eyes of this astute film critic. I recommend it highly.

Janet van Eeden interviews Stephen "Spling" Aspeling:

Spling, this book is a love letter to cinema. Your reviews embrace genres across the board and really celebrate the art of film. When did you fall in love with film?

I recently put together a talk called “Behind the scenes of dreams”, which is a biographical retrospective of early influences and what led me to become a movie critic. A nostalgic undertaking, it forced me to think back to my childhood and unpack where my love for film began. I recently learned that I was able to operate the VCR at the age of three, according to my mother, and this really explains part of where this journey began. My aunt gifted us a video with Dumbo and Dot and the kangaroo, two impactful animated films that had a profound influence. The psychedelic elephant dance in Dumbo was way ahead of its time, even in 1941, pushing the bounds of 2D animation to some abstract places. Coupled with this stunning Disney classic was the eclectic Dot and the kangaroo, a hybrid animated feature with live-action backdrops, that was mostly scary for the rock paintings and mythology around the dreaded bunyip. I’m also told that I used to cry my eyes out after watching The ugly duckling, demonstrating just how moved and engaged I was by animation and film in general.

So, this is when I developed a healthy respect and love for storytelling, the juxtaposition of images and the multidisciplinary art form that is film. Growing up with movies like The goonies, Robin Hood: Prince of thieves and Romancing the stone, I found I was compelled by adventure and disturbed by horror. Much like the advert with the child having scenes projected onto their face while they sleep, I can attest to the shock value of watching films not meant for children. These daring feats were the exploits of sleepovers at more “open-minded” households at the dawn of M-Net, where kids could access inappropriate content more easily and readily. I recall watching Child’s play, When a stranger calls and It, a miniseries that had its age restriction escalate from 2-10 to 2-16 with each subsequent movie guide. These scary movies demonstrated the power of dread, imagination and suspense at a time when horror movies dotted the video store.

I have fond memories of attending the characterful Odeon cinema when I was at school in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), where I saw iconic films such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet and the edge-of-your-seat crime drama LA confidential, as well as comical Bruce Campbell in his third outing as Ash in Sam Raimi’s warped time travel horror thriller, Army of darkness. Having nurtured this love for film throughout my childhood, I had no choice but to carry it over into my adulthood, as the dream of becoming a full-fledged movie critic started to take root.

How did the idea of a book come about?

Writing a book has long been a personal aspiration. I initially started a biographical novel about my school days, envisioning a blend of Spud narrated from John Cleese’s perspective. However, after completing 60 pages, I realised I needed a compelling narrative to avoid mere memoirs or potential legal issues involving real individuals.

Instead, I decided to shift gears and compile 16 years of film criticism into an anthology, selecting films I’d scored 8/10 or higher. As I am a long-time fan of the Smashing Pumpkins, David Lynch and even Salvador Dali, dreams have always captivated me, explaining my fascination with cinema’s illusory nature.

A director’s ability to translate their vision into an authentic and immersive cinema experience is to live vicariously through their eyes or within a dream. This absolute escape forms the basis for The essence of dreams: An anthology of film reviews, showcasing a selection of world-building films that will transport and potentially haunt you long after the credits roll.

What made you decide to become a film critic?

After I had watched the prolific Barry Ronge flex his gift of the gab on SABC and then the M-Net magazine and movie shows, the idea of being a film critic as an actual job started to formulate in my mind. This, together with Leon van Nierop’s round-ups on GMSA, must have been why I began to think that the job would be the perfect amalgamation of my passion for creative writing and art at school. While I didn’t really think this dream could materialise, I think there was no escaping the inevitability of it as destiny unfurled, first by way of my academic honours based on my results for art and English. This helped motivate a Bachelor of Arts degree when my father wanted me to follow in his footsteps with a much more sensible BCom. I completed a degree at the Cape Technikon in order to gain access to a business information systems master’s degree, but I wasn’t able to find a supervisor to oversee my dissertation.

In hindsight, disembarking was a blessing, enabling me to steer away from a study in productivity solutions and into the more creative role as a copywriter at an online gaming company. After a year, I’d gained enough confidence in my conceptual, creative, online and writing abilities to launch a blog and review a film a day for a year as a side hustle. Starting to see whether I was passionate enough to follow through with the “experiment”, I realised I still wanted to do it after the year came full circle, and I used the platform to secure regular “gigs” writing for other websites.

Are you able to make a living as a film critic?

There’s no financial model for being a film critic in South Africa, so I just had to make it happen. The closest thing we’ve got is the generalist role of an entertainment journalist. In most cases, film writing is a freelance pursuit or has a presenter function more than being a speciality.

There’s no financial model for being a film critic in South Africa, so I just had to make it happen. The closest thing we’ve got is the generalist role of an entertainment journalist. In most cases, film writing is a freelance pursuit or has a presenter function more than being a speciality.

Even the great Barry Ronge made up his prolific career from a variety of income streams, whether it was on screen, in film magazines, writing newspaper columns, broadcasting on radio or hosting events.

I’ve followed Barry’s example in collating numerous opportunities across multiple media and platforms. As an entrepreneur, this has been coupled with turning SPL!NG into a brand and an umbrella company. It’s actually been quite surprising. At first, I thought I’d only ever be writing about film, mostly reviews. However, over the years, this role has come to encompass a spectrum of film roles, including: broadcaster, features writer, copywriter, host, judge, script editor, film consultant and now author with The essence of dreams: An anthology of film reviews.

You offer a script reading service, too. Did you study film or does your love of film give you a natural instinct for knowing what works for film writing?

I completed a BA degree in cultural and literary studies at a time when UCT was offering a film, media and visual studies programme. This enabled me to create my degree based on a variety of subjects. While I didn’t have to pick majors, I focused mostly on English and history, but appreciated an array of subjects from psychology to social sciences. Two first-year humanities subjects equipped me with all the skills I needed to dissect media and write compelling arguments. While the degree was less hands-on than a film school qualification, I think that coming to film from an “end-user” perspective has allowed me to immerse myself from the audience’s perspective rather than unpacking the language of film from a more technical standpoint behind the camera.

I think some people just have a natural intuition for what works when it comes to film, and after watching and criticising as many good and bad movies as I had, I couldn’t help but develop, refine and upskill. I stumbled into creating after being approached for feedback by a production company working on a second edit of their film. The calling was underlined by a director who contacted me for assistance, saying he’d prefer to get my review when there was still an opportunity to make changes.

As I have gone deeper into the art of screenwriting and have participated in numerous courses since then, my creative flair, understanding of nuance and knack for problem-solving have gradually improved. I read scripts as if they’re playing on screen, which helps me gain a bird’s-eye view and activate my critical skills to determine what improvements can be made. I love helping people and seeing their scripts reach their full potential, so it gives me great satisfaction when some of those scripts realise their final form as films or series.

Your reviews cover a wide range of genres. If you had to choose just one, what would your favourite genre be and why? Or if not exactly your favourite, one of your top three. Which films of this genre are your favourite?

This question immediately makes me think of my favourite films of all time. It’s not because they’re all under the umbrella of one genre, but more because they accurately portray the stomping ground of my favourite film genres. I think I’ve got a natural affinity for fantasy, medieval and science fiction – all genres where there’s a strong degree of escapism and world-building. I want to be transported when I watch something – engaged beyond the point of a story’s contrivances, where I can really lose myself.

Having Monty Python and the holy grail, Chinatown, Sunset Blvd and Excalibur as my four favourite films should give moviegoers a better understanding of my personal taste. The absurd silliness and offbeat cult dynamic of Monty Python’s brilliant comedy sketches resonates deeply; why else would I watch it three times in a row, the last time with the audio set to Romanian? While Roman Polanski has been a problematic figure for many decades, his gumshoe crime epic with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway seduced me and swathed me in its ethereal and captivating glow. Watching Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd made me realise where one of my all-time favourite directors, David Lynch, found his essence, leveraging otherworldly tension and the precarious balance between dreams and nightmares on the cusp of Old and New Hollywood. Then, the stellar Excalibur made an indelible impression – listening to Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” ring out against iconic visual splendour in the muck and mire at a time when John Boorman decided to go the way of Arthurian legend over Lord of the Rings.

You review a number of South African films, including District 9, in your book. Which South African film is your favourite?

I love District 9 for putting South Africa on the map – it was a showcase for the untapped potential of our diverse and storied landscape that went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. District 9 tops a running article and list called “50 South African films to watch before you die”. While the title is edgy, it’s really a list of films ranked in order of my personal rating over the years.

I don’t have an obvious favourite South African film – yet – but there are two films that really stand out for me. Dis ek, Anna and Life, above all, complete the top five on my list, but it’s Toorbos and Meerkat maantuig that hold a special place in my heart. Both films have an immersive quality, which is important to me, and both managed to transport me. Toorbos (Dream Forest) held a steady poetic line when it came to its story integrity and convergence of fairy tale and history.

Then, I was invested in the emotional undertow and magical delight of the live-action “Studio Ghibli” imaginings of Meerkat maantuig (Meerkat moonship).

What do you think of the South African film industry? Do you think it’s grown stronger or weaker since democracy?

Right now, much like the rest of the world, we’re seeing a reset of the industry as technology and players re-establish themselves. The streaming revolution is reaching its outer limits, discovering the value of reinvestment, and this is creating a new middle ground. Everything’s in a state of flux as people wait for new trends to emerge. Being on the fringe, South Africa is only starting to feel the ripple effect of these changes.

Anant Singh, among other producers, has managed to put South Africa on the world stage with his slate of films from the likes of Yesterday to Long walk to freedom. While his efforts bridged the threshold into democracy, I think our industry has grown stronger in terms of story and talent, but more scattered when it comes to funding, over the last three decades. We’ve got a plethora of amazing stories waiting to be told, with South Africa serving as a microcosm for the world. We have some of the most beautiful vistas, inspired filmmakers, spirited performers and best crews, so there’s really no reason why we shouldn’t be making not just good but great films.

Our biggest challenge is self-esteem for our own talents – having to be told who’s world-class by international speculators, rather than realising this through our own people and media. Then, we’re also struggling to get the funding of local films right, performing miracles on shoestring budgets and being expected simply to rinse and repeat these miracles. There isn’t a formula, something playing out on a global platform at this moment, yet it seems that the local film industry has been forced to survive by its own wits, not getting the same funding or support necessary to grow like other more prominent international film industries.

If you weren’t a film critic, what would your dream job be?

Continuing on the organic journey that my career seems to have taken me on, I seem to be gravitating naturally more and more toward filmmaking. Having worked on numerous screenplays and film projects as a consultant, I’ve come to realise just how incredible and fulfilling it is to have the influence to enhance and improve creative visions. Seeing my fingerprints, however slight, on the final product is a thrilling prospect.

I’m currently angling towards doing more in the way of screenwriting and creative producing. I do have “make a film” on my bucket list, so there’s a good chance that this is where I’m headed. I’m sure this experience will give me a renewed and fresh appreciation for the struggle that filmmakers go through for their craft. The prospect of realising creative endeavours seems like a pipe dream to me, but there was a time when I only dreamed of becoming a movie critic; so if I stick at it, perhaps I will eventually be able to cross this off my bucket list!

Also read:

Cut to the chase deur Janet van Eeden: ’n goeie wegspringboek vir jong draaiboekskrywers

Janet van Eeden discusses A Shot at the Big Time

Cut to the chase: Scriptwriting for beginners – an interview with Janet van Eeden

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