Monday, March 22, 2010

Toiling in the Trenches: For the Love of Movies

People who toil in the trenches of film criticism know what it’s like to be courted or dissed by publicists and festival organizers. There’s also that love-hate thing with readers. Moreover, it’s a lonely line of work to sit for hours in a darkened theater and then tap away on a keyboard while staring at another screen. Your eyes and tush begin to ache.

Boo hoo.

Critics get to see motion pictures -- mostly for free! -- and express their views. This is a job description that a manual laborer assigned to sewers would no doubt envy. In For the Love of Movies, Boston Phoenix columnist Gerald Peary traces the history of the profession and examines current vicissitudes. And guess what? It’s a noble calling. Although the documentary periodically appears cobbled together in desperation, his low-low-low budget directorial debut offers a fascinating perspective on those who analyze the art form. Fascinating, that is, to those who analyze the art form. Odds are that members of the general public frankly, my dear, don’t give a damn.

Peary interviews a parade of talking heads, maybe even a few too many of them. It’s a dizzying array that includes J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, A.O. Scott of The New York Times, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly and Stuart Klawans of The Nation. Richard Corliss of Time magazine laments the passing of an era “when critics had the power to shape the debate.” Others address the notion that all of us are vulnerable in this time of attrition. We live in an age when newspapers have become an endangered species and even the Hollywood trade paper Variety fired the only full-time critic left there: Todd McCarthy was let go in early March, after 31 years with the publication. In this dismal milieu, For the Love of Movies promotes a worthy cause that might provide absolution for its weaknesses.

As Americans and other First World folks stopped reading, visual media became the ideal destination for short attention spans. Although both still wedded to print, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert started a television show that probably helped erode appreciation of the written word. Nowadays, bloggers have changed that dynamic even more, rendering everyone a critic in a democracy that rewards limited talent. Among them is Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool, a Web site allowing him influence way beyond his ability to write with what we commonly think of as correct grammar and punctuation. The film also features Karina Longworth, who suggests that, despite her master’s degree in cinema studies, “I’m no more qualified to blog than a teenager in Vermont who’s still in high school.”

What’s a sentient being to do?

Narrated by actress Patricia Clarkson, Peary’s overview of the situation might be ideal for students; he’s a professor at Suffolk University in Boston, after all. Youngsters may not otherwise grasp the distinctions between conflicting theories espoused from the 1960s onward by Andrew Sarris (now of The New York Observer) and the late Pauline Kael, who wrote for the prestigious New Yorker. He frequently stated his belief in directors as auteurs; she pooh-poohed his ideas, championing visceral filmmakers such as Brian De Palma and Sam Peckinpah. The argument, which got rather nasty, has echoed through the decades. Fellow critics who liked her approach are still ridiculed as “Paulettes” in some quarters.

Peary has been known to position himself as the anti-Kael. That isn’t necessarily the same thing as the anti-Christ, of course. In chatting with his peers from behind the camera, he attempts to come across as objective on the issue. But aren’t documentarians entitled to a point of view? At one juncture, the enemy camps were somewhat aligned in their dismay about Bosley Crowther’s 1967 denunciation of Bonnie and Clyde, which had premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival. The stodgy New York Times critic launched a tirade against what he considered an immoral celebration of gangsters. Kael deemed the Arthur Penn crime drama brilliant. Not as effusive in his praise, Sarris nonetheless heralded Penn as America’s answer to Francois Truffaut. Beyond that brief moment of togetherness, however, the feud festered for years and years.

The Kael-Sarris antagonism is legendary. When writing about her 2001 death, he referred to their collective identity as “a virtual figure of speech” -- kind of like Brangelina, perhaps. But it’s surely a meaningless episode for teens who flock to Avatar or the Twilight sagas. And adults attracted to the latest Jennifer Aniston rom-com have little use for, say, Oliver Assayas’ mesmerizing Summer Hours. No review on Earth is likely to deter them from their preference for escapist entertainment over thought-provoking cinema. Plus, studios and production companies regularly freeze out anybody who dares to publish an honestly negative opinion.

The role of a contemporary film critic remains cloudy. In terms of inspiration, Peary focuses on A.O. Scott quoting one of the greats, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist James Agee, about the nature of the beast: “It’s a form of journalism and a form of literature, and a way of talking about the world.” May the talking continue. To borrow some Grapes of Wrath rabble-rousing dialogue from Ma Joad: “We keep a ‘comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever...”

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Susan, for your thoughtful review of my film. My only argument is with one of your complaints, that I'm "objective" in the film about the Sarris-Kael debate. I hate being called"objective," but I do try to be fair-minded, giving both sides their best shots. And although I'm a Sarrisite, I think Pauline is an incredibly important critic. And at this point in time, it's better to honor both critics rather than use my film as a place to axe one, elevate the other. I do have a strong point-of-view, which is that audiences would do well to read real film critics, whether in print or on the web. Check it out by checking out my For the Love of Movies DVD, available at