Although there are plenty of documentaries on American directors, writers, actors, composers, producers, inept individuals with hearts of celluloid gold, iconic studios, film genres and cult films, there hasn’t been a feature-length doc on the people who write about the movies – those men and women specifically reviewing and criticizing a work so moviegoers have some judgment before plunking down cash on a blockbuster, indie film, foreign flick, or art film.
A leading critic for The Boston Globe, Gerald Peary probably felt compelled to make a film about his profession because it’s been in various states of transition since the first form of non-advertorial film writing – newspaper capsule breakdowns of upcoming movies meant to entice studio advertising – ran way back in 1907. That means capsule reviews, prosaic & poetic critiques, and lengthy essays & blatherthons about motion pictures is about 105 years old, and it’s still evolving as moviegoers aren’t just affected by the changes in movies, but the style of writing to which they’ve become accustomed.
Be it bite-sized capsules tightly clipped by editors to 200 words in subway-oriented newspapers, print publications and journals that encourage 800 words of thoughtful analysis, or blogs and review sites where (ahem) there are less stringent limits on word counts and style guidelines, there are more opinions, and more qualitative levels of writing than ever for movie fans to devour.
Some of the interviewed critics in Peary’s doc are pretty supportive of the so-called democratization of film writing, and others are enticed by the interactive qualities of having their work circulating print and digital forms – but how exactly did we progress from turn-of-the-century teasers for ad dollars to a massive body of critiques of blockbusters, indie, foreign flicks, and cinema’s most embarrassing detritus?
Peary’s doc is divided into six stages: The Dawn of Criticism (1907-1929); Cult Critics and Crowther (1930-1953); Auteurism and After (1954-1967); When Criticism Mattered (1968-1980); TV, Fans and Videotape (1975-1995); and Digital Rebellion (1996- ), with each segment generally comprised of a variety of interviewed pioneering and next-generation critics, a handful of younger & more contemporary writers involved in print and digital mediums, and discretionary use of film clips, quotes, and periodic narration by Patricia Clarkson.
The doc’s strongest chapters deal with the early history of film criticism and the two major movements between 1954-1980: the dueling philosophies between proponents of the auteur theory (a theory developed by French critics, and disseminated by U.S. critic Andrew Sarris), and the epic, heady essays by passionate, personally stylized writers such as Pauline Kael, whose fervor for film went hand-in-hand with the new generation of filmmakers determined to work their own style into each story, and reflect their own culture.
The Kael and Sarris rivalry does take up a chunk of the doc’s running time, but it doesn’t feel long-winded; it could very easily have been its own standalone half-hour installment in what could’ve been a multi-part series on film criticism (a format that could’ve worked if Peary had enjoyed more time and better success in contacting interview subjects).
There ought to be delight by film fans in seeing some iconic writers interviewed, including Sarris, Stanley Kauffman, Kenneth Turan, and my own favourite, Molly Haskell (author of the superb From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, from 1974). Moreover, many of the critics cite their own influences, and some viewers might be compelled to track down published collections featuring works by James Agee, Robert E. Sherwood, Sarris, and Kael.
The doc’s structure is a bit wobbly at times, however. Chapters are interrupted by sporadic Q&A cards (“Did you always want to be a film critic?”) which link together what feel like quick interviews with colleagues, snatched during assignments.
Worse, the chapter TV, Fans and Videotape (1975-1995) is given a fairly perfunctory summation. There ought to be interviews with the writers who were weaned on movies in cinemas and home video prior to becoming critics via fanzines, indie publications (where’s Film Threat?), and the key home video magazines during the late eighties and early nineties, which offered a blend of consumer tests, hardware reviews, and reviews of films ‘premiering’ on Beta, VHS, laserdisc, and DVD.
The burgeoning home video writers – tech-savvy, rabid cineastes who also devoured hours of films weekly – were vital to the successful convergence of gear and software, and Harry Knowles, whom Peary uses as a general representation of film criticism’s new wave, does not represent this generation.
Peary’s doc largely consists of interviews taped between 2001-2007. The doc first screened in at the 2007 Telluride Film Festival before it properly premiered at the 2009 Southwest Film Festival. The current DVD, which carries the final cut, is available from the official film’s website (see links at end), and includes an extra 40 minutes of additional interviews which are more anecdotal.
Among the bonus interviews, there’s Peary discussing his own background, John Waters on influential gay critic Parker Taylor, Roger Ebert on the set for the long-gone At the Movies series, and Stanley Kauffmann on his 50-year profession writing about movies. Segments with Wesley Morris (on a critic’s in person recognition factor), Stewart Klawans (regarding the newest wave of critically minded students and kids), and a few women critics mildly discussing the issue of gender relations are more or less deleted scenes probably from an earlier edit.
Perhaps For the Love of Movies will inspire other writers / filmmakers to examine some of the missed / marginalized periods in Peary’s doc, which still works as a historical primer to the evolution of film criticism.
Please visit the Big Head Amusements YouTube channel to hear audio excerpts featuring writer / director Gerald Peary discussing his film at a March 25, 2012 screening at Toronto's Bloor Cinema (pre-screening intro + post-screening Q&A).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan