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For the love of irrelevance

30 April 2009 941 Views One Comment author: Brian Jewell


Film critic Andrew Sarris at work.

It almost seems mean to criticize For the Love of Movies, Gerald Peary’s documentary on American film criticism. It’s very well put together. The movie has nice music, interesting clips from other movies, and warmly quirky narration by actress Patricia Clarkson. All those critics we only know from their bylines are given time to say a lot of cute things.

It’s a very nice movie. It’s too nice.

The affectionate doc certainly makes a great primer on the history of film criticism; and Peary, with 30 years of experience as a film teacher and critic, is eminently qualified to act as tour guide. Covering about a hundred years of history in about 80 minutes, Peary does an admirable job of balancing efficiency with thoroughness. There isn’t time to delve into anything in depth, but the movie crams a lot of information into its short running time (be ready to take notes): the most notable figures in American film criticism, the evolving role of critics, the debates over auteur theory and the impact of the internet on criticism. The doc drips with nostalgia but acknowledges the unflattering side of the profession, like the nastiness of the Pauline Kael-Andrew Sarris feud over auteur theory and the shamelessness of “junket whores” who give automatic raves to studio dreck.

Peary and his editors, Aleksandar Lekic and Sabrina Zanella-Foresi, alternate the long voice overs and talking heads sequences with quick sound bites from current professional critics, and weave in bouncy music by Bobby B. Keyes, archival photos and footage, and some fun scenes from classic movies. The results are engaging, if not thrilling–think PBS.

When it comes to history and theory, Peary clearly knows his stuff. But he’s vague on what’s happening right now. At several points in the film we are reminded that the profession of popular film criticism is in trouble – that with print media going down the drain thanks to the internet, there simply aren’t as many jobs as there used to be. But this film never tells why we should care.

You have to go to Peary’s website and read his director’s statement to learn that the film is meant to be “an unapologetic defense of a profession under siege.” If Peary is trying to tell us that professional film critics are important, he’s failed. (Or as us newfangled bloggerwizards like to say in the chatty rooms, Unapologetic defense: You’re doing it wrong.) This doc gives the impression that nothing much has happened in criticism since the late 60s and early 70s – “when criticism mattered,” according to a title card – and the debates over auteurism.

Disagreements about auteur theory apparently are also a historical footnote; we don’t hear what current critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum or B. Ruby Rich, say, think about auteurism – or what they think about anything else. None of the 25 or so contemporary critics interviewed are allowed to say anything substantial about their own critical or theoretical approaches, or film movements or the state of the movie industry, or what they think about their contemporaries’ work. Instead we learn that they’re nice people who love movies and get to see them for free; as portrayed here, our current crop of critics aren’t trained professionals – they’re lottery winners.

And as for the cultural revolution sparked by the internet? Peary seems to see it simply in terms of lost jobs. Sure the internet is kind of neat, maybe, but what about all those poor laid-off critics who have to pay for movies now? With the web connecting and empowering viewers, and the concurrent devaluation of “expert” opinions, we’re in the middle of a vast negotiation about criticism – what it is, what it’s for, who it’s for and who makes it – and you only have to look at this doc’s parade of white, male, middle-aged critics to see one of the things that’s exciting about all the new voices clamoring that they, too, are critics.

The downside of this democratization is the pervasive idea that because everyone is equally entitled to their opinion, all opinions are equally valuable. Online you’ll find find thousands of people chattering about the latest blockbuster, but precious few capable of situating that blockbuster within a larger context. Anyone can write about film; but a critic engages, informs, excites, and challenges.

So Peary is basically right: expert opinions still matter. It’s a shame that he neither embraces the challenges and opportunities of the internet age and the emerging models of criticism, nor effectively sounds the trumpets to defend his beloved profession. Instead, with its glib nostalgia and sometimes weary tone, For the Love of Movies waves the white flag of surrender.

For the Love of Movies is making the rounds on the festival circuit. The anthology , edited by Phillip Lopate, makes a nice companion. For more on the currrent landscape of criticism, see Cineaste magazine’s symposium on Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet.

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