Saturday, 24 March 2012

FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES: THE STORY OF AMERICAN FILM CRITICISM - Review by Greg Klymkiw - Veteran Boston film critic Gerald Peary has generated a fun, fascinating, breezy, well-made and superbly structured history of film criticism in America that will not only inform, but entertain.

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009)
dir. Gerald Peary
Starring: Patricia Clarkson (Narrator), Roger Ebert, Jim Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Jami Bernard, Rex Reed, Elvis Mitchell, Harlan Jacobson, Pauline Kael, Bosley Crowther, David D'Arcy, Molly Haskell, Leonard Maltin, Janet Maslin, John Powers, Richard Schickel, Michael Wilmington Lisa Schwarzbaum, David Sterrit, Mike Szymanski, Lisa Nesselson, B Ruby Rich, A.O, Scott, Kenneth Turan, Karina Longworth, Harry Knowles


By Greg Klymkiw

In a day and age when an alternative weekly like The Village Voice fires Jim Hoberman, one of the world's greatest living film critics and, like so many other publications, replaces him with young, underpaid, know-nothing-to-know-little scribes straight out of journalism school and/or publications of dubious merit and/or their basements in a pathetic attempt to woo young readers to bolster their demographics and dwindling readership, it's clear that one of the noblest literary traditions is, like most everything in this world, under attack.

Given that corporate bottom lines are destroying the very fabric of civilization, it's especially disheartening to see publications of supposed repute, like The Voice, once a bastion of quality, playing by the same rules as institutions they built their foundations on decimating as a matter of course. It's especially disingenuous of The Voice to remove all vestiges of serious discourse from their pages when the company's fortunes are, these days, rooted in ancillary enterprises like which earns its huge profits by providing an easy outlet to exploit women who, in many cases, are victims of sexual slavery.

Canada is certainly not immune from this horrendous move to strip away serious film criticism from its pages, but as per usual, it's just taking longer up here in the Great White North since it's a country that's almost never properly aligned behind the eight-ball. It's not long coming, though. In recent years, Canada's largest daily newspaper, The Toronto Star, relegated another of the world's great film critics, Geoff Pevere, to a subordinate beat in the entertainment department and now, his writing appears not to grace the pages at all. We're left there with the mediocre meanderings of a genial, readable, but ineffectual veteran, a passel of utterly bland know-nothings and worst of all, ever-shrinking column inches/word-counts.

Even film criticism in the United Kingdom, that bastion of all things cultural, has not been spared from this new trend. Recently, The Guardian had one of the best film sections in the world, but internal restructuring led to the loss of regular columns from such brilliant film writers as David Thomson and Anne Billson. (Well, they do have Peter Bradshaw first-stringing, but that's hardly what one would call a win-win situation for readers seeking top drawer film writing.)

I suppose my near-insane love of film - right from early childhood, is part of why these recent changes in the landscape so alarm and depress me. Yes, I was clearly out of my mind. When most kids - especially of the Canadian variety - were hip-checking each other on skating rinks and slap-shotting their hockey pucks into the teeth of goal tenders, I sat in dark movie theatres, in front of the TV and in my bedroom with my nose burrowed into all manner of reading material (everything from comics to classic literature and yes, film criticism.

I started to read film criticism at about the age of eight (give or take a year). In Winnipeg, there was a great store that carried almost every English language periodical known to man and it was there that I spent long hours perusing every movie magazine I could, including the once-great, but now-dreadful trade publication Variety (which, incidentally, is now on the chopping block and, like many other publications, turfed one of its best critics).

I also fondly remember the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) had a local movie review program every Saturday morning on their AM service and during a phone-in trivia quiz at age 12, I won a copy of V.F. Perkins's great book Film as Film which was probably my first real taste of "serious" approaches to watching movies. It was also around this time I discovered the inimitable Pauline Kael and scoured the pages of the New Yorker weekly for her insightful and, often downright hilarious film reviews.

It is, based upon the aforementioned geek memories, probably no surprise that I wondered when someone was ever going to make a documentary film that examined the art and history of film criticism. I am pleased to report that this prayer, if you will, has been answered.

The veteran Boston-based film critic Gerald Peary took the plunge and has generated a fun and fascinating feature documentary focusing on this very subject. For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism takes us from about ten years after the dawn of cinema when scribes began writing about cinema through to the aforementioned contemporary sad state of the medium of film reportage and reviewing.

For the Love of Movies is an apt title. Sure, everyone loves the movies, but who REALLY, REALLY, REALLY loves the movies? Nine times out of ten, it's the best filmmakers and the best film critics. What's great about Peary's movie, first and foremost, is that it DOES manage to have its cake and eat it too. Anyone who is passionate and pathetically geek-like about the movies - in particular, the scope and breadth of movie history - will be fascinated, delighted, tantalized and instilled with enough gooseflesh to last a lifetime. For the rest of the plebes, it's a breezy, well-made, superbly structured history of film criticism in America that will not only inform, but entertain.

One of the reasons this picture works so well is Peary's superb writing. People often forget that documentaries are more than just getting the right footage, the best interviews and choosing a good topic - someone actually has to WRITE the film. In this case, Peary is ideal. Even as a film critic, he's endowed with a punchy, humorous and knowledgable writing style which he puts to great use here.

Blending skilful research with clear writing, the narration he's created for the great actress Patricia Clarkson to intone over the film is always first-rate - guiding us in all the right directions, gently delivering subtle slanting to always place us in the right time and delivering the necessary perspective to move us from section to section.

This is another superb part of the writing - the various title cards and arrangement/progression of the sections. What Peary's script finally achieves is an extremely strong narrative arc with all the necessary twists, turns and connective tissue to keep an audience firmly gripped with the subject matter, the subjects themselves and the genuine story of American Film Criticism. Working with a fine team of editors is also part of the "writing" process and the cutting of the film is one of its major attributes.

As a director, Peary has lined up interviews with a who's who of America's finest critics. We hear about their beginnings, their process as writers, their loves and inspirations. All of this is woven into a historical narrative and we get various critics' perspectives on the art, the history and even many of the greats who have long since passed on. Peary's film includes some utterly amazing footage of Pauline Kael and my only regret is that it was so cool to see that I almost wish someone could eventually just cobble together every existing piece of Kael on camera and just let it play, unexpurgated.

For me, the current state of film criticism (and media in general) is a sad one, but Peary spins a wonderful, positive, forward-looking perspective that managed to temper even my normal curmudgeonly dismissal of some of those youngsters who are taking up the torches of the tried and true. A good part of this actually unfolds in Peary's film at an earlier juncture when we learn about the new voices of film criticism in the 60s, 70s and early 80s that challenged the status quo of traditional mainstream criticism and, in a sense, mirrored the excitement of the very movies the writers were covering during that special time in film history.

My only minor quibble with the film is the lack of attention paid to American critics-turned-filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader. I'll charitably assume those two just decided - for whatever reasons - to not be involved. That said, a documentary connecting film criticism with filmmaking and perhaps covering the entire history of those who both wrote about film and made them - world wide (the Russian theorists, the nouvelle vague guys and, of course the Americans) - is a documentary waiting to unleash itself upon the world.

For those living in Toronto, the gorgeous, new Hot Docs Bloor Cinema will be hosting two screenings March 25 and March 26. On March 25, Director Gerald Peary will be in attendance to introduce his film and participate in a post-screening panel discussion moderated by film journalist Jason Anderson. The panel includes local film critics Liam Lacey (The Globe and Mail), Adam Nayman (The Grid, Cinema Scope Magazine, Metro News), Norm Wilner (NOW Magazine), and Kiva Reardon (Torontoist, Diegetic Sound).On March 26, Peary will be present to introduce and do a Q and A. The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema is located at 506 Bloor Street West. Tickets are $11 ($8 with discount card; $6 with membership) and are available in advance at the box office or online HERE. Copies of the film on DVD can be purchased directly from the film's website HERE.

Here's a clip: