Critics in crisis
“Movies old and new are reviewed by real people!” www.amateurmoviereviews.com declares in its tag line. Reading that, you might think that professional film critics aren’t real people. But they are, and as Gerald Peary’s documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism makes clear, critics care passionately about film even as they bemoan their fate— print media is cutting both space and jobs, and the Internet really does give everyone the chance to be a critic. “Nobody’s quite accountable for what they’ve written,” critic Molly Haskell says in the film of her blogger counterparts. Throughout For the Love of Movies, the print journalists agree that theirs is a “profession under siege,” as a title card informs us early in the movie. On Monday, March 8, Variety announced that because of “economic reality,” it was firing its lead movie critic, Todd McCarthy, who had been with the magazine for 31 years.
Peary’s film runs at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 13, at the Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque, 1050 Old Pecos Trail. It’s 80 minutes and is followed by a panel discussion with Peary. Tickets range from $7 to $9.50; call 982-1338.
The documentary not only covers the history of film criticism, but it includes on-camera
A good critic contextualizes a movie and puts it in its place in terms of politics, history, the other arts, the community.
— Gerald Peary
interviews with many of the major critics of our time, including Roger Ebert, Stanley Kauffmann, Richard Schickel, Andrew Sarris, Haskell, and even blogger Harry Knowles of www.aintitcool.com fame.
Peary, who has been a film critic in Boston for some 30 years, writing for The Boston Phoenix among other journals, worked on the movie with his wife, producer Amy Geller, for eight years. “I was movie crazy from the time I was a little kid,” Peary said by phone. “I was a precocious reader of film criticism by the time I was 14 or 15, but that was never my intention as a profession.” He studied English, directed some theater, and started writing film criticism for fun for an underground magazine in Madison, Wisconsin, where he went to college. He moved to Boston in the mid-1970s.
Peary’s film examines the role of early film critics, how the routine of rating films with stars (or chiles) began, and when and how criticism developed from just being a recap of the plot to a serious exploration of the themes inherent in the film.
What qualifies someone to be a critic? The answer may amuse or annoy you, because most of Peary’s subjects admit there are no real criteria. The fact that someone pays you to do it is enough, as Harlan Jacobson of USA Today notes: “What qualifies me? I got the job.”
Peary’s film looks back at once-famous critics like Robert E. Sherwood (who later wrote plays and screenplays, including The Best Years of Our Lives), Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, and the highly influential New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who, according to the documentary, called the auteur theory of criticism “silly and dangerous.” In the 1970s, she championed the work of many directors, including Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme, and Steven Spielberg. For the Love of Movies emphasizes the fact that all of these writers loved film, though some saw it as strictly entertainment and others viewed it as the dominant art form of the world.
One interesting common thread comes to light when Peary asks critics to recall their first moviegoing memory. Almost all pick a horror film— Herschell Gordon Lewis’ infamous blood fest Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) is chosen by Elvis Mitchell, Knowles remembers the 1933 classic King Kong, and Haskell picks the taut 1955 French thriller Les diaboliques. “It’s consistent that critics whom I spoke with had some trembling moment early in their childhood that is still with them,” Peary said. “This love of genre films is not about escape but how deeply movies get into blood and bones.”
Peary’s own first movie memories? A surrealistic version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Joseph Losey’s The Boy With Green Hair (1948), and a film in which “Typhoid Mary comes up to a public water fountain and drinks from the fountain, then walks away, and this innocent little boy comes skipping up, takes a drink, and obviously gets typhoid as a result.”
A first-time filmmaker, Peary has taken some hits from critics with For the Love of Movies. He admits that he’s “annoyed and sometimes hurt by reviews that are not just negative but seem wrong-headed and spiteful, so I understand why people hate critics based on the reviews I’ve received.”
Peary thinks that “the opinion of the reviewer is the least interesting part of a review, it should go far beyond whether you like it or not. A good critic contextualizes a movie and puts it in its place in terms of politics, history, the other arts, the community.”
As film critics get cut by newspapers and magazines nationwide, is Peary worried about his own position? “I don’t know if I’m in danger,” he said. “The paper [ The Boston Phoenix] has really suffered, gotten smaller and smaller, but we still continue to have good critics writing for us. I’ve been downsized over the years. For 10 or so years, I had a weekly column, but about a year and a half ago, my column was removed from the paper. [See www.geraldpeary.com for Peary’s column and reviews.]
“My space is much smaller, and my influence even smaller. Critics have very little authority anymore. The anti-intellectualism of America is one reason that critics are faring so badly. People want to drink a beer with George Bush. Nobody wants to drink a beer with a critic, and who wants to listen to a person you don’t want to have a beer with?”
The unkindest cuts: director George Peary with narrator Patricia Clarkson