Thursday, April 23, 2009

SFIFF52—For The Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism

I take two big gulps of black coffee this morning. First, because the Cannes line-up has been officially announced (and it's downright thrilling), and second and most immediately, because the 52nd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival launches this evening at San Francisco's majestic movie palace The Castro Theatre with the West Coast premiere of Peter Bratt's La Mission, followed by an opening night party at Bruno's and a rare opportunity to party among the ruins of El Capitan, one of the jewels of yesteryear's Miracle Mile. I take a third gulp to chase those two down.

Although I've already offered a few previews for SFIFF52, I'd like to officially begin my coverage with comments on what I consider to be one of the most prescient, fascinating and must-see selections in SFIFF52's line-up: the West Coast premiere of Boston Phoenix critic Gerald Peary's For The Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, presented in association with the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and in conjunction with the related panel "A Critical Moment", convening on Sunday, May 3, 6:00PM, following the 3:45PM screening of Peary's documentary.

SF360 editor Susie Gerhard's cogent program capsule warrants replication in full: 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 these bleary-eyed, ink-stained devotees? Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary sharply evaluates the history of critical-analytical writing on moving pictures in this stimulating tour through the rise, fall and reorientation of film criticism in the United States: Early silent-era plot summarizers give way to the daily newspaper reviewers of the '30s, replaced by auteur-theory debaters of the '60s, succeeded in turn by the alt-weekly thinkers of the '70s who, finally, face extinction via the past decade's upsurge in bloggers. Peary's documentary begins by calling film criticism "a profession under siege," but this is no strident whine from a victim class. It's a smart look at key figures and how they've changed public consciousness of both the movies and criticism itself. 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. (His 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. Few opinions are shared, but all stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a broad and abiding love of film.

As one among the "upsurge of bloggers" prevailing among film commentary, For the Love of Movies' first appeal was the opportunity to attach faces to names; an opportunity amplified by the film's own website. Some of these individuals—Molly Haskell, Elvis Mitchell, B. Ruby Rich, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Richard Schickel—I've had the great honor of meeting, interviewing and in some cases—dare I say?—befriending. Further, in contrast to the misguided notion that bloggers are out to usurp the critical establishment, I hold these writers in great regard, have learned and continue to learn from them, even as we all move forward into the uncertain (and exciting, precisely for that) future of film criticism.

Past the who's-who allure of Peary's documentary—and much more importantly—the film structures its examination of the history of American film criticism in a thorough and engaging manner, situating the practice such that—as David Bordwell asserts—"In all, For the Love of Movies offers a concise, entertaining account of mass-market movie criticism, and I think a lot of universities would want to use it in film and journalism courses." Bordwell caught the film at the Hong Kong International and—apart from its topical interest—the film set him thinking: "Is love of movies enough to make someone a good critic? It's a necessary condition, surely, but is it sufficient?" In contrast to The Beatles' optimistic insistence that "all you need is love", Bordwell counters that "Exemplary critics try for more: analysis and interpretation, ideas and information, lucidity and nuance." He emphasizes that "the problem may be that film criticism, in both print and the net, is currently short on information and ideas. Not many writers bother to put films into historical context, to analyze particular sequences, to supply production information that would be relevant to appreciating the movies. Above all, not many have genuine ideas—not statements of judgments, but notions about how movies work, how they achieve artistic value, how they speak to larger concerns. The One Big Idea that most critics have is that movies reflect their times. This, I've suggested at painful length, is no idea at all."

One of the film's most arresting examinations is the well-known "conflict" between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, which Bordwell argues matters because "they represented alternative ideas of cinema. Sarris wanted to show, in the vein of Cahiers, that film was an expressive medium comparable in richness and scope to the other arts. One way to do that (not the only way) was to show that artists had mastered said medium. Kael, perhaps anticipating trends in Cultural Studies, argued that cinema's importance lay in being opposed to high art and part of a raucous, occasionally vulgar popular culture. This dispute isn't only a matter of taste or jockeying for power: It is genuinely about something bigger than the individual movie."

Jonathan Rosenbaum concurs to the educational value of Peary's documentary but objects to one particular chapter heading—"When Criticism Mattered (1968-1980)"—which he reads "as a generational marker of sorts" and that—though he and Peary belong to the same generation—suggests there is a world of difference in how they relate to that fact. Though Bordwell asserts an argument could be made "that print reviewers, by becoming less idea-driven, paved the way for DIY criticism on the net", Rosenbaum carefully avoids setting one against the other. "My own experience, for whatever it's worth, is that criticism matters a great deal to some young hard-core cinephiles today, and in very much the same way that criticism mattered to some young hard-core cinephiles between 1968 and 1980. Among the key differences are the facts that this criticism is often found today in different places (i.e., on the Internet and much less often in libraries), that there's considerably more of it (including academic stuff, omitted from Peary's survey), that whether or not it's American is of little consequence (though whether or not it's in English is vital), and that it's about many more films than anyone could have possibly had access to between 1968 and 1980."

Of the many interesting personalities profiled in Peary's documentary, I was particularly struck by the comments of Lisa Schwarzbaum who came to film criticism after successfully pursuing other careers and who—in offering advice to up-and-coming film critics—extolled the value of acquiring genuine life experience to temper one's critical appreciation of film, sagely cautioning for a healthy balance between immersion in film and non-film-related interests. It amused me that she valued friends who had little interest in film, precisely for the variance of perspective they could bring to the table of friendship. Her experience at film writing perhaps speaks best for mine.

I'm excited to catch For the Love of Movies at a public screening to witness what, I imagine, will be a fruitful discussion afterwards, as Peary is accompanying the film to San Francisco, and will be taking part in the panel "A Critical Moment" afterwards. That panel will address the now-familiar downsizing of daily newspapers and the disappearance of the most prominent voices in film criticism who are (allegedly) being replaced by the democratizing discourse of the Internet. "What will the future of criticism look like in the blog-and-Twitter era?" the panel asks, as it looks at both the crisis and opportunities brought about by the transformation in written media content and delivery, how this transformation will effect audiences, the art itself, and the people who've been practicing film criticism professionally for the past decades.

Along with Gerald Peary, panelists will include John Anderson, David D'Arcy, Jonathan Curiel, Dennis Harvey, Mary F. Pols, and B. Ruby Rich, moderated by Susan Gerhard. My only regret is that the panel—in its focus on the travails of the old guard—fails to include individuals from the online sector. Contrary to presumption, this is as much a critical moment for them.

05/14/09 UPDATE: It didn't time out for me to interview Peary while he was in San Francisco accompanying For the Love of Movies, and—though we talked some about following through with a phoner—I'm willing to concede to Chris Fujiwara's interview with Peary for the current issue of Undercurrent. I doubt I could possibly improve on that conversation.

Cross-published on


Adam said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your thoughts on this film, the first of only 2 I'll get to catch at SFIFF this year, since I'm spending most of the run in Cleveland taking care of my mom after routine knee surgery. I too wish they'd have some online representation at the festival, particularly you, Brian Darr of Hell on Frisco Bay, or Kyu Hyun Kim of since you all are local and have a considerable impact online regarding film criticism in the Bay Area. Alas, they missed a play within a play opportunity for their panel.


Michael Guillen said...

Adam, thanks for stopping by to comment and I hope your Mom recovers swiftly. I'm aware that some of the writers on the panel have an online presence; but, I think they primarily consider themselves as print journalists adjusting to the online medium in order to survive. That voice is a different one than those who favor the online medium to promote film coverage and cinema literacy.