Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Critical Moment at The Auteurs Notebook

Earlier this year the San Francisco International Film Festival screened Gerald Peary's For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, which I wrote up here, and followed it up with a free-to-the-public panel entitled "A Critical Moment", moderated by SF360 editor Susan Gerhard. My thanks to Daniel Kasman and The Auteurs Notebook for generously picking up a partial transcript of that panel. However, waste not want not, as they say. Here are the remaining perspectives.

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For Variety, Dennis Harvey has dispatched from film festivals, often introducing filmmakers to an industry to which, otherwise, they would not have access. One could argue that Harvey's opinion foments opportunity for distribution. But Variety has been cutting back on staff drastically and Gerhard wondered if Harvey could talk about that and what impact it's having on the industry?

Dennis Harvey: Traditionally, the role of Variety—beyond reporting on the mainstream industry and reviewing the mainstream industry—has also been as the industry trade publication of record where everything is covered. When I first started writing for Variety, basically any feature-length film at a film festival that hadn't already been reviewed, was eligible for review and probably would be reviewed. That was before, admittedly, the start of digital technology that has made movies much less [difficult] to make. Even if the economy was doing really well, even if the Internet hadn't happened, there still would be too many movies for Variety to review, as a combination of that proliferation, simple budget cuts and the shrinking of print media.

We all know that the Bay Area has the largest single concentration of film festivals probably anywhere in the world. It has the oldest and largest of every kind of film festival. Even the International Film Festival is the largest in the Western hemisphere. It's a ridiculous embarrassment of riches for a relatively medium-sized metropolitan area. So it was a great place for me to be covering festival films for Variety; even better in some respects than it would have been in L.A. or New York. Until January 1st, when the new budgets were levied and I'm now covering from about 20 annual festivals in the Bay Area—which is still only a fraction of the ones that exist—I'm covering four. It's unfortunate—as a living, for me it's a personal concern—but, Variety had always been a place where filmmakers could potentially get distribution from all the visibility they would get from a Variety review, which would often be the first public review they would get. Now, unfortunately, it's going to be a situation where the films that are reviewed in Variety will only be reviewed because they have distribution. I don't want to say that's an evil, moral choice on Variety's part; it's more reflecting the reality of things.

There is a website and they always run more reviews on the website than they can fit in the publication; but, that doesn't affect the overall numbers. They're still reducing the number of reviews assigned in general. So there will be fewer web reviews as well.

It's luck of the draw. One angry filmmaker whose film I reviewed at Sundance left a message on my home phone—there's always a question how people get my home phone—saying, "Why can't you be like Roger Ebert? He supports young filmmakers." The answer is that Roger Ebert has the luxury if he wants of going to a film festival and only supporting starting filmmakers, and only writing about the young filmmakers that he likes. Whereas, I'm assigned a number of films, some of which I asked for, many of which I didn't.

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As a full-time staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle—which has recently expanded its film coverage, in contrast to so many other dailies—Jonathan Curiel was asked by Gerhard to "report on the ground" to the pressures of working within a daily newspaper.

Jonathan Curiel: Let's look at the bigger picture here. The pressures experienced by film reviewers are the same pressures on other journalisms, as it were. In some ways, cinema and film reviewing are in a good position at The Chronicle because they're devoting more coverage to film reviewing. It's only been in the last several months that movies on Friday now have their own separate section. That's a good thing—there's more space devoted to movies—but the question is why did they devote more space to movies? One could say—and I'm not privy to this, thank God, because I don't work in the upper echelons of the paper—but, one could say it's because of advertising. That's why there's a separate section. Not because there's a dramatic need for a range of film reviewing of foreign films and independent films, etc.; but, because advertising—in a sense—requires this separate section. Again, that's one theory.

Regardless, it's a good thing that's happened at the San Francisco Chronicle, though—at the same time this is happening—they have cut back dramatically in other ways. One of the areas I used to cover a lot of was foreign affairs. Two years ago a top editor of the paper called me in and essentially said, "We are not going to be doing foreign affairs coverage from local staff writers." No way. That was a dagger in my heart, I would have to say. I write about a lot of different subjects—used to write about a lot of different subjects, including foreign affairs—and cinema is one of my subjects. At the same time that movies are being put on a pedestal—in a way—at the Chronicle, other areas are not. The paper's getting thinner.

It goes without saying that journalism has taken a big hit and particularly the San Francisco Chronicle. Those of you who have followed the travails of the paper know that the Hearst Corporation has threatened to pull the rug out from underneath the paper. That threat—as far as I know—still exists. There are rumors. You asked about what it's like to be in the trenches, well, I can tell you what it's like in the trenches. When you have rumors floating over your head that, in effect, say the Chronicle may not exist in five months, what do you think of that? Well, a lot of people are running scared. And it's not just the people who are writing about cinema or the local news or whatever. It's the people in the upper echelons who actually have to make these cuts. They will not admit that they're scared; but, they are scared. People at the bottom are scared. It's a bad time to be a journalist. You could say existentially it's the worst time in the history of the Chronicle.

In some ways, though, the Chronicle is in a good position because—even if the physical paper were to disappear—its website (which is one of the top 10 websites in the country) will be there and film criticism and film reviewing will be a big part of that. That's not going to go away, partly because there's a demand for this. …There's a definite market for a substantial San Francisco Chronicle that does write about foreign affairs and film intelligently. …I'll leave it at this: at the Chronicle, as elsewhere, there's optimism and pessimism and sometimes they're in the same moment.

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Mary Pols took a buy-out from the Contra Costa Times and said that she was leaving film criticism to start a new life as an author. Since then, however, she's been pulled back into film criticism through a gig at Time.com. Gerhard asked Pols to talk about her transition to writing online.

Mary Pols: I did think it was the end of my film criticism career, which made me very sad because that's what I wanted to do since I was a small child basically. Like many other people in this room, I read Pauline Kael because her reviews were the only thing in The New Yorker that were digestible besides the cartoons. I was eight or nine years old. When I took the buyout last March from the Contra Costa Times, I had become the de facto film critic for the Oakland Tribune as well because the person who owned the Oakland Tribune bought the Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News. My reviews were also appearing in the Mercury News and a bunch of other little papers in the Bay Area. This guy has a monopoly in the Bay Area on the alternative weeklies. When I left, I knew I wouldn't be replaced but I also thought, "If I don't go now and take a buyout, I'll get laid off soon." It was clear to me. The amount of space I had for reviews was shrinking and the publisher who clearly loved movies—and clearly loved me—was on his way out too because they were kicking out anybody who had been around for a while and starting "fresh" with God-knows-who.

I spent about six months not even going to movies after the buyout. I tried not to be sad about it. It's a remarkable rhythm to have in your life being a movie critic. It's usually five movies a week at least, a lot of hopping on BART trying to get places on time, strange times: 2:00, 4:00, then again at 7:30. You might see three movies in a day. You might see four. It's an odd rhythm to live with but—once it's taken away from you—it's very strange. You hang out at home in your pajamas pitching to people who don't know who you are, don't care who you are, and I thought I would never get another movie gig again. The way it came to me was sort of surprising. An editor read something I wrote about my scandalous love life—which was about having a one-night stand and having a baby [Accidentally On Purpose]—in the "Modern Love" column that runs on Sundays in the New York Times. Through that, an editor at Time found me. Seriously, she sent me an email the Monday after that ran, asking if I wanted to review for them. I thought, "This is a really cruel hoax being played upon me by those assholes at Gawker who, every Monday, make fun of 'Modern Love', right?" What a great thing to do. Find this poor soul who wrote about her tragic love life and taunt her with the idea of working for Time.

I googled her and she seemed to be legitimate. Anyway, I picked up that gig, usually one review a week, and I started in January and it's really great to be back in that rhythm. I will say that for the most part I have been going to mainstream movies and—as Ruby was talking about—if you're writing for an outlet like that, you can't [indulge] your tastes, and you have to accept the fact that you'll be seeing mainstream movies because most national publications cater to what's coming out on Friday that had a big ad and that people are going to be curious about….

I will say it's very depressing to be a journalist right now; but, I'm just trying to roll with it and remember that for me it was always an incredible gift to get to go to the movies and be paid for it; to spend hours of the day in the dark; and—if anyone will let me do that now for money—I'm going to jump upon it and I'm going to hold on as long as I can. I hope there are people that care to read reviews. That was my introduction to magazines and newspapers and I hope that when I'm 85 I'll be saying, "Bring me the New York Times so I can see what Manohla Dargis has to say." I really hope it's out there. I am heartened by the fact that there are more than 10 people in this theater. That's a good sign, right?

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Noting the historical structure of Gerald Peary's documentary, Gerhard wondered—if Peary could choose an era of film writing to bring back—which would it be? She asked him when was his favorite moment of American film criticism?

Gerald Peary: I don't like to be some boring nostalgic—which is what we all do when we talk about this "golden age"—but there was one chapter entitled "When Criticism Mattered", which was about the '60s and '70s. I meant that truly, but I also meant it with quotation marks around it. Critic
Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote an interesting attack of the film because he's an up-to-date guy, today's a great period, and I'm being an old fart by talking about that period. I half agree with him. I know the time that I read film criticism with great fervor was definitely the Sarris/Kael period. The Village Voice in the late '60s was the single greatest paper. It had Molly Haskell writing feminist criticism, Sarris writing his auteurist stuff, but it also had the late Stuart Byron who was one of the many film critics who died, an AIDS victim, and he was the first person to write about being gay—maybe even before anything in San Francisco. I remember a column he wrote about a guy who picked his pocket while Byron was giving him a blow job. I remember thinking, "God, what a great critic!"

To repeat a point: there are plenty of really good critics today—there's no problem with that—but, there is the problem of the power and the influence of the critic waning. Film criticism is not just an ego thing. It's not just masturbatory. We actually want people to go see movies that we care about and that clout is mostly dying, I feel. That's what depresses me.

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Addressing the entire panel, Gerhard elicited their commentary regarding 3D technology.

Pols: 3D! Coraline was wonderful. It was one of the first times I enjoyed a 3D move. But Monsters vs. Aliens, which I took my five-year-old to, had him clinging to me the whole time. I'm curious to see what Pixar's going to do with Up. I think they're re-releasing Toy Story in 3D in the autumn and I figure—if anybody can do it well—they can. But, in general, I feel 3D is this awful menace coming off the screen. I hope that not every child's movie that's made in the next five years features 3D because the glasses really give me a headache.

David D'Arcy: But it's the nature of any trend that too many examples of it will be made before the trend dies.

Ruby Rich: 3D, I'm afraid, is going to be not just for kids' movies. Every studio—whatever's left of the mini-majors; I think even Focus has several lined up now—they're all making 3D movies. But you have to remember that—every time there's a technological challenge—the movie studios do this. When television came out, that's probably when they first went to 3D and started going to Cinemascope. When video and DVD came out, that was the rise of film festivals and the rise of special events, the rise of 70mm and all of these kinds of things. I'm sure 3D is a response to download. I'm sure it's, "How do you get people out of their home entertainment systems?" To that extent, I think it's predictable. Hopefully, we'll be happily surprised; but, I doubt it.

Cross-published on