Barbarians at the Box Office
AFS Documentary Tour: 'For the Love of Movies'
So, it's come to this: Everyone's a critic. Been happening for a while now, the storming of the establishment citadel of print film critics, including the Rushmore of boldface names, by the great unwashed blogging masses with opinions. No one around here needs a documentary to tell us how Harry Knowles and his exclamation-pointed website, Ain't It Cool News, have fared.
But Gerald Peary – a film studies academic with 30 years of magazine and newspaper film writing under his belt, including The Boston Phoenix since 1996 – had been watching this changing of the guard, this disenfranchisement (and disemployment) of the professional film critic class with growing alarm. When he started work on his film, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, back in 2001, Peary says he was just beginning to worry that film critics weren't read as much or respected as much as in earlier decades. "So my first objective was quite modest," he recalls. "I thought that if viewers saw faces of critics and heard intelligent thoughts, they might notice bylines more and take criticism seriously. I had no idea the Internet would take over the world." The 28 print critics who got the boot at the beginning of his eight-year project has since grown to 70-plus, and at this point, Peary says, "My film, in 2011, is more a work of sweaty desperation: Please, please read critics! Please, please, keep those critics who are left employed!"
Peary and his wife and producer, Amy Geller, take us on a lively, Patricia Clarkson-narrated romp through the history and evolution of film criticism. In 1915, the same year that D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation was released, the poet Vachel Lindsay, an early proponent of film as art, wrote what is widely considered to be the first serious work of American film criticism. Over the next 85 years, film writers would argue about the proper approach to an evolving medium. Weighing in is everyone from Elvis Mitchell and A.O. Scott to Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris (who famously went toe-to-toe with the late Pauline Kael over his notion of the auteur theory). There's some hand-wringing about the untutored young Turks who swap hyperbolic ad-blurbs for access to the press junket buffet, but there's also acknowledgment that some of these bloggers have earned their places at the table.
Austin Chronicle: What are the components of an excellent film review?
Gerald Peary: Every critic must be a reviewer, but not every reviewer is a critic. There's the consumer role at the base of all reviewing/critiquing, offering an opinion to your audience to go to a film or not. But, as critics like to say, the opinion part is the least interesting part of an interesting review. What a critic does, and a reviewer does not, is contextualize the film, seeing it in terms of politics, literature, visual arts, history, etc, and, cinematically, placing it within a director's career, within the genre, etc. A good critic is also a really good writer. Writing style is at the epicenter of good criticism.
AC: You used so many clips – did you have to get the rights to all of them?
GP: No, for many we claimed "Fair Use," meaning that we used clips in an illustrative way, usually with voice-over, the way one puts footnotes in a term paper. All the clips were tested with a qualified "Fair Use" lawyer, so that we could get insurance. All of that is great for film festivals and indie theaters. It's not good for many television stations, which, thinking conservatively, refuse to recognize Fair Usage.
AC: And, what's it like for a film critic to have his own film reviewed?
GP: I would love to say that I'm enlightened and "Zen" about the process, but I probably acted like every other emotionally invested filmmaker. I'm far happier with good reviews than bad ones. I get really upset if the critic misrepresents my film in attacking it, or, several awful times, the critic righteously lectures me about what should be in a film about critics, and then attacks me because his wishes aren't in my movie. My annoyed answer: Make your own film!
AFS Documentary Tour presents For the Love of Movies on Thursday, Feb. 10, 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South (1120 S. Lamar) with filmmaker Gerald Peary in attendance. Tickets are $8, general admission; $5, AFS members and students with ID.
Following the film, University of Texas professor Tom Schatz will moderate a panel on film criticism featuring the Chronicle's Marjorie Baumgarten, Charles Ealy (Austin American-Statesman), Jette Kernion (Slackerwood), Korey Coleman (Spill), and Cole Dabney (president of the Austin Film Critics Association).