Crit­ics in cri­sis

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Robert Nott

“Movies old and new are re­viewed by real peo­ple!”­a­teur­moviere­ 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.ain­tit­ 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.ger­ald­ 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

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