“For the Love of Movies” Looks at People Who Write About Them
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Being a movie critic is sometimes a lonely job. You sit alone in darkened theaters or screening rooms, or hunch in front of your TV set watching a screener DVD of an upcoming movie. And afterward you might want to talk about the film with a friend over a cup of coffee, but deadlines loom and you must put your thoughts on paper. A visual experience translated into a cerebral one.
So you can imagine how excited I was to talk with another film critic, Gerald Peary of the Boston Phoenix. Like Siamese cats seeking each other out in a room full of tabbies.
Like many critics, Peary plays a dual role: filmmaker as well as film aficionado. Peter Brogdonovich was such. So was Martin Scorsese. Even I’ve been involved in movies ranging from “Men in Black” to “My New Life” (which will premiere at the Tropic Cinema in March).
Peary’s new documentary “For the Love of Movies” – subtitled “The Story of American Film Criticism” – covers familiar ground for him. And is a tour of movie history as well. It will be playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.
Gerald Peary will be on hand to discuss his film. And I will be on stage with him, having a conversation about why we love movies and choose to write about them.
In his documentary, Peary traces American film criticism back to 1907 (“The Dawn of Criticism,” he calls it) with synopses of movie plots appearing in popular newspapers, mostly written by general reporters. The first to develop a point of view was Frank E. Woods, a columnist of the New York Dramatic Mirror.
“Woods was arguably the first movie reviewer in America,” says Richard Schickel, film critic for Time Magazine. Woods recognized that movies had the potential “for being art.”
An admirer of D.W. Griffith, Woods went to Hollywood to work with his favorite director. Perhaps this was the first blending of critic and filmmaker. Few people realize that Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was co-written by a dastardly film critic.
Another early film critic was Vachel Lindsay, “a poet bitten by the movie bug.” He wrote the first serious book about the subject, “Art of the Moving Picture.” He called film “painting in motion, poetry of the eye.”
Peary’s documentary tells us that Lindsay recognized that “The arrival of film was a key moment in the history of human consciousness. It was going to change the way people thought, dreamed, fantasized, the way the shaped their inner selves.”
In 1920 Robert Sherwood started a decade of film reviews for Life Magazine. Sherwood’s playful upbeat voice was in tune with Hollywood. A good-natured reviewer, he won multiple Pulitzer Prizes for his plays. He even wrote screenplay for the Academy Award-winning movie “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
“I would go to the movies even if I were not paid to do so,” wrote Sherwood.
Thus establishing the theme of this documentary that takes us through the emergence of Bosley Crowther’s film criticism at the New York Times to the word wars between Andrew Serris of the Village Voice and Pauline Kael of the New Yorker (“the Paulettes versus the Serrisites”).
A side note: Key West’s Kim Ramono is the voice you’ll hear reading Pauline Kael’s reviews in the documentary. She was a film student of Peary’s. Her son Cody is a local filmmaker in the making.
In “For the Love of Movies” many noted critics appear onscreen, each offering their observations and little chunks of film history. We encounter such vaunted names as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, Stanley Kaufman of The New Republic, Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly, Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, Stuart Klawans of The Nation, Andrew Serris of the New York Observer, his wife Molly Haskell of the Village Voice, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, John Power of Vogue, Richard Corliss of Time Magazine … and on and on.
We’re treated to the writings of such legendary critics as James Agee who managed to align both highbrow and popular taste and Bosley Crowther who championed foreign films with subtitles. We look at such early practitioners as Otis Ferguson whose sharp incisive reviews often praised fast-paced genre films and Vincent Canby who reigned as the most powerful film critic in the United States for a quarter of a century and Manny Farber whose “funhouse mirrors in his prose” appreciated low-budget crime melodramas, what he called “termite art.”
We follow the auteur theory espoused by the French members of Cahiers du Cinema, a philosophy not unlike Agee’s earlier viewpoint about strong directors. And Pauline Kael’s initial opposition to the theory (“silly, dangerous, anti-art,” she called it) before embracing it around her own set of favorite directors.
As bitchy as Kael could be, she was right about one thing. Previous film criticism hadn’t taken popular culture very seriously, even though it affected people more than high culture. And so the movie experience was returned to the people – where it remains today with bloggers and online critics weighing in just as vehemently about new movies as do the lineup of professional critics you find clustered together on Rotten Tomatoes.
“For the Love of Movies” poses the question to them all: What qualifies you to be a film critic? They seem to agree that there are no real qualifications. It’s mainly that someone will pay you to do it.
But that’s not true. I’m a film critic syndicated in five Cooke Communications newspapers throughout the South. And I do it pro bono, so I can get into movie theaters for free. I do it (as I think most critics do) for the very reason Gerald Peary’s title suggests – “For the Love of Movies.”
[from Solares Hill]