Fade to black? Gerald Peary's "For the Love of Movies" looks at a crisis in film criticism. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Gerald Peary on the Rise and Fall of the Film Critic

Susan Gerhard November 14, 2009

Will the last film critic please turn out the lights? For a century, film critics have separated the wheat from the chaff and made the case for great films. But who will make the case for them? Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary takes the task for this dying breed of writer in his feature-length documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. The film tours the rise, fall and reorientation of film criticism in the United States, from early silent-era plot summarizers who make way for the daily newspaper reviewers of the ’30s, who are replaced by auteur-theory debaters of the ’60s, who are succeeded in turn by the alt-weekly thinkers of the ’70s who, finally, face end times via the past decade’s upsurge in bloggers. What’s most interesting about the film is its take on the changes in public consciousness of both the movies and criticism itself. (And to his credit, Peary prioritizes the wry over the dry, even giving Andrew Sarris the opportunity to dish on his adversary Pauline Kael, who was not above gay-baiting her rival in the early stages. Sarris’s retort: "I took one look at Pauline, and she was not Katharine Hepburn.") In addition to the iconic Sarris, interviewees include The New Republic’s stately Stanley Kauffmann, self-starting phenom Harry Knowles (aintitcoolnews), pop-and-academic theorist B. Ruby Rich, Boston Globe daily reviewer Wesley Morris, the Los Angeles Times’s sometimes embattled Kenneth Turan and breakthrough newspaper-to-TV critic Roger Ebert. SF360.org got a chance to sit down with Peary first in his visit to the San Francisco International Film Festival last spring (where he spoke on a panel I moderated) and more recently, in the storied lobby of the Roxie Theater, where the film opened Friday. A few excerpts from the discussion follow.

SF360: From a reader’s perspective, should we be sad about the disappearance of that particular style of film criticism that has dominated for the past 30 or 40 years. What I thought was most interesting about your film was that it showed writing about films has changed so dramatically in this century. Do people care?

Gerald Peary: A few people care, but not too many. It’s mostly critics bemoaning their own demise, unfortunately. The world seems to go on perfectly fine for most people without film critics weighing in and being part of the debate. For me, that’s unfortunate, because when the public chooses on their own, they don’t really ‘choose on their own,’ because all they have to guide them is advertising bombarding them on their television. And so they don’t read the words of wise critics who, while they may not make you go to a movie, at least contextualize films. I continue to believe that film critics are a very vital part of the dialogue about movies. They are the necessary bridge to art films, foreign films, independent films, revival films, and without them, those films flounder and die very quick deaths. If critics don’t do the homework for them, people don’t find them.

SF360: What’s the landscape for film writing right now versus where it was a few decades back.

Peary: When I locked my film, I began with a sentence saying ‘Film criticism is a profession under siege. Twenty-seven film critics have lost their jobs in the last several years.’ Since I’ve locked the film, it’s gotten worse worse worse worse worse, and there seem to be 50 or 60 film critics that have lost their jobs. People keep telling me about this masochistic web site that keeps a tally of everyone who is out of a job. There is no reversal to the trend. It’s beyond film critics. All kinds of critics are being thrown out. I noticed that between Washington, D.C., and Miami, there are no local critics writing for newspapers. Some use wire services. It’s a vast wasteland. My film is a last stop-gap attempt to get people to read film critics. It’s a very pro-film critic movie. People thank me very sincerely at the end of the movie, they are happy to make the visual connection with the critics they’ve been reading for years. I celebrate the thousands of critics writing on the web, but there are also people who claim to be critics on the web who are cowardly types, opinion-makers who delight in writing mean-spirited opinions. I have a chapter called ‘When Criticism Matters’ in my film and it’s the ’70s and ’80s. Some people say that’s reactionary—criticism still matters. I think it does matter in the sense that on the web there are many critics who have wonderful conversations among themselves and it’s a great community, but the most important thing to me is that the public has lost critics sending them to great movies. That doesn’t seem to happen anymore.

SF360: Do you think there’s a decline in literacy that accompanies the loss of the professional film critic?

Peary: Absolutely. A world in which everybody is excited that there’s a new Dan Brown novel is a pathetic world. The fact that many adults only read Harry Potter books is also sad. There’s no doubt when we read that serious literary fiction is completely disappearing there’s a pretty direct correlation with people who read film reviews. It sounds very elitist and maybe it is. But there is this ‘educated audience’ for really good writing and cultural writing that does seem to be disappearing.

SF360: What year did you start making this film?

Peary: The first shooting we did in the movie, which is also the last scene in the film is the New York Film Critics Awards Dinner which is at the World Trade Center. There’s a scene we shot a few months before 9/11, and I don’t reference it in the film because it has nothing to do with what’s going on, but that’s how long we’ve been shooting. The film has taken eight-nine years to complete. The narrative evolved from my first thoughts—a general respect for history. I wanted film critics today to talk about critics who influenced them. But as I went along, at some point, I start connecting it to a whole history of criticism. There’s no one book of American film criticism, no one text. Recently Phillip Lopate did an anthology of great film writing through time. But there was no book to make this movie from at the time. At some point I decided I would invent what I thought the 100 years of film criticism was. It’s subjective, but seems to have credibility with critics who watch the film.

SF360: You have other ‘jobs’ in the world of film criticism, right?

Peary: I’ve been a critic for 30 years (for the Boston Phoenix and other publications) but my day job is I teach at Suffolk University in Boston, I teach film studies. I’m the same person making the movie as I am as a professor.

SF360: Are you seeing big differences in student populations now re: movie-watching/going?

Peary: I’ve taught forever. I was in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late ’60s, as was Bill Banning, who runs the Roxie Theater, where we’re sitting right now. And I ran a film society as did Bill Banning. Every weekend there were ten 16mm films showing. There was a war between film societies. Bill’s was the best and most lucrative. It was an age when everybody cared about new and older movies and certainly seeing movies in foreign languages was just a part of being a cool college student. Everyone saw the French New Wave and the German New Wave. Clearly there is a completely different world which I don’t quite get. The Internet is so global, but why is it that all the global people on it don’t also love films from foreign countries, don’t seem to see them at all. I ask my students and there’s silence.

SF360: Moving from being a critic of film to a maker of one, what were some of the biggest challenges and lessons learned?

Peary: Before I made the movie, I worked on several people’s films as a story editor. I’m good with structure; editing is very akin to writing. This is a heavily edited movie; I completely micromanaged the editing without touching anything. I’m a Luddite: I don’t even have a cell phone. I trusted my camera person. I’d look at the framing, but other than that…. My wife is the producer of the film—she’s a professional producer—Amy Geller, and her expertise is the reason the film actually got made. It’s been hard for her having to deal with me, an amateur making a film.

SF360: The film covers a lot of high points in criticism in the past 100 years. What are the most key moments?

Peary: The moment when there’s a ‘first film critic.’ I talk about Frank E. Woods in the movie, who was also D.W. Griffith’s screenwriter for Birth of a Nation: In the beginning of film criticism, people were not critics at all. They were basically salesmen who wrote for these trade magazines; they wrote the plot of the movie [then pitched the selling of an ad on the film to its makers]. There was no aesthetic judgment at all. If there was any model at all, it was drama criticism, which did exist. But Frank E. Woods, who was one of these salesmen, was the first to me who started to regularly make aesthetic judgments. It hit me today, it was like when the Greeks, when the first person stepped out of the Chorus and you have the first Dialogues. He’s a terrible writer, he has no style at all. But he did two things: He saw that film and theater were not the same. He was the first person to notice the different style of acting for movies and theater, that film acting should be more subdued, underplaying was what it was all about. The second thing he noticed was that there was someone behind the camera who was the decision-maker.

I then move ahead in my movie, to Robert Sherwood in the 1920s. Sherwood later on was a very famous playwright. He wrote The Petrified Forest and he wrote the screenplay The Best Years of Our Lives and wrote political books about Franklin Roosevelt. But he started as a film critic in the ’20s for Life (not the magazine we think of today). He was a stylist. He was urbane, could be very tongue-in-cheek. He noticed some films in Hollywood were crass and commercial and liked some art films in Russia. Hollywood noticed this guy and courted him; paid his way to take a train across the U.S. and talk to actors, Harold Lloyd. Which was a new thing: Hollywood caring about a critic. They’ve cared ever since.

SF360: You locate Boston as a hotspot for film criticism, but I would argue San Francisco has been traditionally home to some of the heaviest hitters in the industry….

Peary: To me the most important San Francisco critic is Judy Stone, who wrote for many years for the San Francisco Chronicle, and is an extraordinarily important critic. [Judy Stone currently writes for SF360.org, among other publications.] At one time, she was one of the only women critics. As an independent, progressive, leftist voice, she—maybe more than critic in America—had a global view. She sought out filmmakers from every country, from China, from Iran, from France, Eastern Europe. She did really educated interviews that showed she understood the history of a country and its political situation. She showed that being an educated film critic meant you were knowledgeable about the politics of the world. It is not alright to just know lots of movies. I learned a lot from her approach. She really saw film interviews as being more important than the reviews. They were not celebrity interviews; they were interviews about important issues. A good film critic is someone who contextualizes movies—who sees films in terms of politics, history, language and arts—and Judy, especially about politics, is as good as it gets. I really like her independent, skeptical way of looking at the world.