|the international federation of film critics|
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For the Love of Movies:
The last several years have seen the lay-offs of many film critics in the United States, while the amount of space allotted to film criticism in American newspapers has dwindled. Concurrent with these trends, Gerald Peary, a film critic for the Boston Phoenix, has also noticed a steady decline in the influence of film critics, especially in comparison with the 1960s and 1970s, when the New Yorker's Pauline Kael and the Village Voice's Andrew Sarris, among other writers, dominated a film culture that followed their opinions with keen interest.
With film criticism evidently in crisis, Peary thought it was time to make the first feature-length documentary on what he sees as "a profession under siege." His new film, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, examines the past, present, and future of American film criticism through interviews with many of its practitioners. An engaging film that raises many issues that are crucial to film criticism, For the Love of Movies should be of interest to any reader of Undercurrent. I interviewed Peary by e-mail in April.
CF: Congratulations on completing this much-anticipated film. What is happening with it now?
GP: For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism had been "much-anticipated" practically forever! Our first shooting was at a New York Film Critics meeting in the World Trade Center, a few months before 9/11. It took eight years for the film to be completed. Our world premiere was at the SXSW Festival in Austin in March, and I've been hopping from festival to festival since, including going to Hong Kong and showing the movie to the Hong Kong Critics Association. The European premiere will be at Edinburgh in June.
My hope is to show the film around the world, and for it to be distributed everywhere, including European television. Mine is the first documentary ever to attempt a filmic history of film criticism of one country. May critics in other countries be inspired to make movies detailing their histories..
CF: The question of what qualifies a film critic is a nagging one throughout the film. The rationale that seems to emerge most powerfully is that of John Powers ("getting paid") and Harlan Jacobson ("I got the job"). Such a response of course answers the question, "By what right do you call yourself a film critic?" But it doesn't answer the more important questions, which are, "What is a good film critic? What should a film critic be?" How would you answer those questions?
GP: Every critic is a reviewer, but only some reviewers qualify as critics. Everyone reviewing a film does a bit of a consumer's report, advising the reader whether to see a movie or not based on the movie's surface aesthetic merits. But these expressions of opinion are often all there is with someone who is only a reviewer. "This movie rocks!" (positive) or "This movie sucks!" (negative).
The true critic goes farther and deeper in contextualizing the movie, He/she situates it in a framework of other films, but also sees it in its relation to history, politics, philosophy, economics, literature, etc., whatever seems relevant. As director Richard Linklater says in my documentary, "You can smell it by the second paragraph" if the critic knows what he/she is talking about, if the critic can place Linklater's film against other films Linklater made, or relate it to other works within the genre in which it is made.
A film critic is an educated, life-experienced person, with, at best, an unusual, original way of looking at film art, and of regarding the world. He/she is also an estimable writer and stylist.
CF: In your film, Owen Gleiberman reduces (or expands?) the difference between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris to "Dionysian-vs.-Apollonian." What do you suppose he means, and do you see any problems with putting the difference between them in these terms?
GP: The Dionysian does kind of describe Pauline, or at least Pauline's "macho" persona as a slangy broad who hung out with hard-living, hard-drinking Hollywood rebels like Altman and Peckinpah, and who, anti-Puritan, stood up for overtly sexual movies like Last Tango in Paris. Owen equates "Apollonian" with an academic perspective, and placing films in categories and lists. With this odd definition, Sarris, a Columbia University professor and an obsessive list-maker does somewhat qualify. But Sarris's appreciation of cinema breathes with heterosexual erotic desire, though he's a bit more Hitchcockian-voyeuristic than Kael. They've both had the hots for movie stars, and said so in their essays.
CF: What can film critics who are starting out today, who may know nothing of the battle between Kael and Sarris over the so-called auteur theory, learn from it, and from them? Or is there really anything to learn there?
GP: I spend a long time in my movie on the Sarris-Kael wars, and I do think they are immensely important. So much of the way people watch movies, the way American critics review movies, the way American directors see their mission, comes from Kael and Sarris, though few realize it. I'd like to get young critics to read these titans: Sarris's American Cinema, Kael's earliest books like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and I Lost It At the Movies. Of course, I also love the insane passion of the Sarris-Kael debates. It's amazing that critics battled over directors and movies as if they were fighting over countries. And that critics once made friends and enemies based on how they stood with Sarris or Kael. What a different world!
CF: Regarding the Kael/Sarris battle, it is quite obvious that in one sense, Sarris won, since all the directors he championed in The American Cinema are now canonical masters in any film history book or film studies curriculum, and the basic tenets of the "auteur theory" are, practically speaking, so little in dispute that the most routine hack director gets to have a title card on his film that says "A So-and-So Film." But in another sense, Kael still seems to be holding on to a different kind of victory, represented by the fact that her acolytes dominate some of the most widely read outlets for American film reviewing. What are your thoughts on the way the Kael/Sarris battle has played out in American culture and American publishing?
|Andrew Sarris at work|
GP: Sarris was an overt auteurist, Kael a covert one, but between them they changed cinema into what is now widely regarded as a director's art. That's great when the director is talented, personal, deserving of recognition, obviously indulgent and decadent when the director is a self-absorbed hack. I don't understand how Kael can dismiss John Ford and Hitchcock, but then I can't understand how Sarris still has little respect for John Huston, who I think is the greatest director ever of literary adaptations. It's not so clear to me who "won." I think they've both been greatly successful in pushing their director favorites into some kind of canon. Well, maybe not Kael's favorite, Ron Shelton, or Sarris's, Robert Benton.
CF: Is there really any such thing now as American film criticism? I ask this because it seems to me that on the Web, nobody cares what country you're writing from.
GP: Maybe a reason that Kael is little known in other countries is that her writing seems to foreign critics, and to me, very braggart, big-canvas, egotistic, self-assured, high-modernist American. I don't know if Kael ever traveled to foreign film festivals. She wouldn't have felt the need. It seems to me that, today, the most appropriately valued American critics around the globe are people like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Jim Hoberman, who themselves have global perspectives about cinema. And you, also, Chris.
CF: Do you know anybody who cares what A. O. Scott says about anything?
GP: Sorry, but I think he's a thoughtful critic and a really fine writer, though not as wild a thinker as his compatriot, Manohla Dargis. Of course, everyone watching the film will be annoyed at someone I put in, perturbed by someone I left out. The Variety review chastised me for bypassing Judith Crist. The opinionated French producer Pierre Rissient stopped watching my film in the middle, and won't watch it ever, because nice things were said about The New York Times's Vincent Canby, whom Pierre considered an idiot. He ordered me to cut Canby out of my movie!
CF: Among the missing are Dwight Macdonald, Parker Tyler, and Susan Sontag. Could you comment on these particular absences?
GP: There are just so many critics you can have in one movie without it becoming a tiresome compendium of clever talking heads. I think I hit the limit, with both live and dead critics. Dwight Macdonald was enormously important in forming my own aesthetic. I read him avidly in Esquire in the 1960s, and went to see the films of European masters whom he recommended. And I live by his attacks on Masscult and Midcult. But there was no room for him. I adore Sontag, but she was an essayist rather than a working journalist-film critic. Parker Tyler was also an essayist, but John Waters talked about Tyler so wonderfully and vividly [in interviews that were cut from the theatrical version of For the Love of Movies] that I'm sure that discussion will be featured on the DVD. Tyler is Waters's favorite!
CF: Are there other critics whom you would have liked to focus on, but for some reason chose to omit?
GP: I would have liked to include Manohla Dargis, but she won't appear on film or even have her face on the Internet. Too bad! Also, there are probably twenty American critics currently writing whose work I admire but they didn't make the documentary. The reason: they weren't in the places I was shooting. At some point, I had filmed enough critics who were where I was shooting to shut down production.
CF: Your film makes a link between the rise of home video and the popular postulate that "everyone's a critic." This connection is provocative, but is it really valid? For one thing, "fanzines," usually poorly distributed, existed for a long time before home video. Probably there were people in many places and at many times who were doing things that we would now call fanzines, that no one knows about. And did people really not say "everyone's a critic" before home video?
GP: There might always have been fanzines, but those with significant distribution proliferated in the 1980s, the same time that video came in. In my view, there's a direct connection, that so many videos led to many fanzines, and that fanzines were the link to the "everyone's a critic" vantage of the Internet.
CF: Harry Knowles, speaking in your film, would separate critics on the basis of age, claiming that older critics have problems with Michael Bay films and Fight Club but younger ones understand those films intuitively. Is there any validity in this at all? To put it another way, it's certainly true that there are many films made that find enthusiastic audiences but generally get panned by mainstream critics; but is this a situation that has purely (or even mainly) to do with age?
GP: There is a great validity to Harry Knowles's point that, regarding certain movies, there's a generational split, and that older critics can't really relate to these pictures which young folks so adore. I'm one of those over-60 critics who loathes action movies, most comic-book adaptations, fantasy quests, Judd Apatow gross-outs, etc. My answer is that, at the weekly Boston Phoenix, I don't review any of the above, and I stick to my artsy ghetto of foreign-language movies, documentaries, and odd American independents. But daily critics don't have that luxury, and must review whatever comes to town. Sometimes, aging daily critics aren't the right persons to review movies aimed at teens, tweens.
Harry Knowles doesn't talk of the problem in reverse: how so many younger critics can't relate to classic cinema, silent cinema, foreign-language cinema. Maybe they shouldn't review these films either!
CF: Knowles's remark might suggest that there is some underground of young rebel film critics who are occupying a similar position now to that which Sarris occupied in the 1960s, defending contemporary films that were despised by traditionalist critics because they were commercial films, genre films. Are you aware of such a trend?
GP: When I have time to jump about the Internet (not often enough), I am constantly surprised by how many learned, sophisticated young critics are writing on the Web. And certainly the best of them are doing what fine critics have always done, discovering overlooked films and making a case for them.
CF: You give Sarris and his wife, writer Molly Haskell, a privileged place in your film. Can you say something about why you wanted to do this?
GP: I met Kael twice, and she was very nice to me. But Sarris and Haskell have a privileged place in my aesthetic life. Discovering Sarris's American Cinema transformed my movie watching more than anything else I have ever encountered. And my most thrilling experience as a reader of film criticism was picking up the Village Voice weekly in the late 1960s and early '70s, where Sarris and Haskell reigned. As the kids say, Andy rocked! I've been a "male feminist" film critic for thirty years, and my POV comes directly from my consciousness-raising reading of Molly in the Voice.
issue #5 (5.2009)