Everyone’s a critic
For the Love of Movies:
The Story of American Film Criticism
Written and directed by Gerald Peary. Produced by Amy Geller. Original Score by Bobby B. Keyes. Narrated by Patricia Clarkson. 80 minutes, released in 2009.
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Plenty of print journalists are interviewed: Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, Stanley Kauffmann, J. Hoberman, Owen Gleiberman, Elvis Mitchell, A.O. Scott, John Powers, and a vibrant Roger Ebert before his recent illness. Worldly scribes with no shortage of stories, they seem elated to be there. Prefaced with the grim news that many have lost their jobs to websites and recession, For the Love of Movies finds itself positioned — awkwardly, I think — between an old and new guard. Michael Wilmington and Rex Reed bemoan the changes and obstacles now facing print journalists; Karina Longworth explains how they’ve transformed from monolithic arbiters of taste into blog mediators and den mothers. “What I say is just the start of a conversation,” she says of her online reviews and the comments left by her readers. “Critics don’t have any authority anymore.”
This is the first major shake-up to hit the field since Sarris popularized the auteur theory and Pauline Kael argued with him every step of the way. The two came to prominence as the vanguard of a generation of critics who blasted the naiveté and parochialism of the old guard as typified by Bosley Crowther. That tumultuous epoch is poised at the center of Peary’s film. “Pauline and Andy and I looked at movies in a kind of amoral way,” Richard Schickel recalls, though Schickel was never noted as part of the famed Kael-Sarris battle except perhaps in his own mind. Other critics were part of that public debate, notably Dwight MacDonald, who is not mentioned in the film. Nor is John Simon whose contempt for everyone else’s opinion and relentless self-promotion placed him squarely among the best-known film critics of the 1960s and ‘70s. The film doesn’t mention them, but Peary may not have intended to make a comprehensive account in the first place. William Wolf, Judith Crist, Gene Shallit, Hollis Alpert, Archer Winston and Peter (“smart! hip! sexy!”) Travers, some of the most recognizable names ever associated with movie ad pullquotes, are absent as well.
What Peary does have is an assortment of erudite critics recounting their influences and career highpoints along with reflections on the accomplishments of others and theories on where it’s all headed — a goldmine of cinephile banter. When broaching the subject of the internet, however, For the Love of Movies feels curiously dated. Peary interviews Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News about online journalism in clips which, based on his topical references to Armageddon (1998) and Fight Club (1999), could be ten years old.
Recently, the internet’s been abuzz with reports of the death of film criticism. Like cicada swarms, it’s an ugly state of affairs that rises from dormancy every seven or ten years to rile up the natives. Some critics have written intelligently of this non-event (re: David Bordwell’s “Film criticism: Always declining, never quite falling”), others have opted to take the screaming mimi approach (re: “More (whingy) songs about film critics and paying work, and a dirty little secret” by Glenn Kenny). This time, it all came crashing down around the release of Peary’s film, which was shortchanged by critics eager to denounce rumors of collapse rather than examine his picture properly. Few recognize the twisted irony: one sure way for film criticism to die is if critics devote more time to speculating about its death rather than writing honest-to-goodness quality film criticism.
Thanks to Nelhydrea Paupér