Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): For the Love of Movies

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

For the Love of Movies

Andreas Winkelman … is repairing the roof of the cottage in which he lives as a literate hermit. At one point, he stares off at the sun that hangs low and dim—with its edges made ragged by a telephoto lens—in the Scandinavian sky. Suddenly the sun disappears into the gray-blue haze, but it’s as if Andreas had willed it invisible, much as he has tried to will himself invisible without taking the ultimate step. With this lovely image, Ingmar Bergman begins The Passion of Anna…”
Vincent Canby, The New York Times, May 29, 1970
A little more than halfway through For the Love of Movies, Gerald Peary’s enthusiastic and authoritative documentary about the history of film criticism, the above passage is quoted. While the narrator reads Canby’s words aloud (and they are as “lovely” as the film he’s describing), we are treated to Bergman’s images and even more importantly, the evocative, delicate soundtrack – Andreas’ hammer on the rooftop, the sheep-bells tinkling – which the critic does not describe. Prose – at once intelligent and impressionistic – is fused with solid yet elusive image and simple yet vaguely abstract sound; criticism meets art and the two shake hands in the light of Bergman’s, and Canby’s, disappeared disc. All in all, it’s a stirring tribute to the movies and to those who love them, both being the subjects of this film.




Although the film is titled For the Love of Movies, one desires an extra "the." In the documentary's weakest sections, individual critics attempt to describe a particularly influential movie (the charms of which tend to escape us), but overall the emphasis is not on specific movies, but on the movies, that great, romantic, semi-lost object of desire. Such a description conveys the magic which captivated both the early years of cinema (when what you saw mattered less than the wonder of seeing anything at all on that dark screen) and the Indian summer of giddy movie-love, the 1970s, an era Peary captures in the phrase "When Criticism Mattered," a bittersweet moniker with forebodings for the film's troubled conclusion.

In distinguishing between the cinemaniac and the cinephile, and after noting that the cinemaniac usually only likes certain kinds of movies, the film scholar David Bordwell writes, "The real crux, I think, is this. The cinephile loves the idea of film." That observation may strike at the heart of Peary's deep-seated ambivalence - if not antipathy - toward bloggers and other amateur film-writers, though he himself never says so much (focusing instead on more troubling and stereotypical stigmas). At any rate, Peary's unease with the contemporary state of cinematic celebration only rears its head near the end of the film. Prior to that, For the Love of Movies is bright-eyed, thorough, and surprisingly ecumenical.

Even Bosley Crowther, who wrote for the New York Times from 1940 to 1968 and was the bete-noir of many edgy up-and-coming critics, gets his due, albeit more for his liberal politics and playfully verbose stylistics than for his critical insight. The two critics who largely replaced - and easily surpassed - Crowther in the public eye are also given their due, as is, inevitably, their rivalry. Peary pays respect to both Pauline Kael, the feisty and extremely gifted critic for the New Yorker from the late 60s to the early 90s, and Andrew Sarris, who wrote for the Village Voice around the same time and was recently "retired" from the New York Sun (adding one more, particularly gargantuan, name to the roll-call that closes Peary's film on a worried note). The two are even allowed to discourse across time, as Peary juxtaposes particularly emphatic and controversial statements of Kael's with Sarris' present-day rebuttals - no counter-rebuttals allowed, as Kael passed away about eight years ago.

Inevitably then, Sarris seems to come out with the upper hand, which may also reflect a preference on Peary's part (since Kael's heyday, there's been a bit of a backlash towards her take-no-prisoners, extremely impressionistic style). But it's clear, as it has been for years, that Sarris relishes the memory of his rivalry (he even refers to Kael as a fallen enemy, ala ancient Rome). Not only did it bring the two of them to greater prominence than they may have otherwise received, but it also reflected a deep and passionate love of the movies - at the time, the cinema seemed something worth fighting over, even to the extent of building up alternate armies who would clash at yearly critics' circles (Kael's followers were dubbed "Paulettes", Sarris' "Sarrisites" - and no, I'm not making this up).

The mutual loathing began when Sarris imported, and modified, the "auteur theory" beloved of French critics (which held various Hollywood directors responsible for the achievements of their work, treating them - despite the collaborative nature of filmmaking - as the equivalent of painters and novelists). Kael responded with "Circles and Squares," a withering take-down not just of Sarris' ideas, but of Sarris himself - implying that the auteur theory was little more than a way to make intellectual, immature young men seem tough and assertive. The essay's arguments have not aged well, particularly as Kael herself became something of an auteurist (wags referred to Brian De Palma as a "filmmaker by Pauline Kael"), but it continues to delight and provoke for its sparkling prose and withering wit, and for, as always, the germ of truth contained within its unfair assumptions and ungenerous bad faith.

Lost in the dust-up, and unfortunately in Peary's film as well (despite occasional caveats, usually offered by Sarris himself), is the fact that Kael and Sarris agreed on a great deal, probably more than they disagreed on. Since enough time has been spent on the two for this review, we won't go further with this observation (I've discussed the matter elsewhere), but their most important connection was, of course their extreme passion for movies and for the movies. At one point, Sarris describes himself as an "amateur" in the classic sense of the word - he writes about film for the love of it, not for the money (which doesn't hurt, but was not forthcoming for many years before he hit his stride).

Given that eloquent defense of a much-maligned term, it's a pity that Peary at times takes the easy road in dismissing latter-day amateurs. Such a tone first begins to suggest itself in the section on the 90s, when the narrator rhetorically contrasts the critics of yesteryear, "Pauline Kael" and "Andrew Sarris", with the critics of self-published, small-circulation fanzines, on a first-name basis with readers as "Max" and "Andrew." Ostensibly, the observation has to do with new-found informality, but there's a trace of condescension in the choice of two great names to contrast with the humbler ones. ("Max," incidentally, turns out to be my best friend, who has co-authored a terrific little fanzine called Samurai Dreams, now defunct).

When the focus shifts to the Internet, all masks are dropped and Peary's scorn reveals itself full-stop. Offered up as the representative of the blogging generation is Harry Knowles, the amiable, overweight, red-bearded proprietor of "Ain't It Cool News." Between his stereotypically disheveled appearance, the title of his website, and his passionate defense of Michael Bay's distracted and fragmented style, the very likable Knowles nonetheless makes a unfortunate - and unrepresentative - spokesman for the fast-developing world of online criticism. Some of the juxtapositions are also cheap shots in every sense of the phrase: alongside pictures of Knowles lying on a rug, with a laptop resting on his arm (triggering easy sniggers from the audience), a narrator informs us that Knowles started his website from his bedroom in Austin. (Would it be more legitimate if his first reviews were written from his mother's home, ala Andrew Sarris' celebration of Psycho?)

To be fair, in a Q & A following the screening, Peary stated that he had no intention of attacking the blogosphere, and that his major regret was not including one more interview with another articulate, erudite blogger (there are several onscreen already, including Spout's Karina Longworth, who seems to be the media favorite among her crowd). More importantly, the overwhelmingly negative introduction to online criticism is followed in the film itself by a rebuttal of sorts - print stalwarts like Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum (both of whom have become bloggers in the past few years) step in to defend the democracy and diversity of online discussions. Yet this line of optimism doesn't quite seem to be shared by Peary, whose heart is more in the mourning of professional print criticism than in the celebration of a new age.

The movie ends with the cautious note of hope barely holding out against the tributes to the fallen (one laid-off critic is shown at home, playing with her cats), the proper disgust with press junket whores who'll write a blurb on commission, and the correct sense that audiences are less reliant than ever on critics' voices. The melancholy mood is appropriate in a sense, since the world For the Love of Movies so eloquently encompasses between the silent-era moonlighters and the 70s gunslingers will soon be gone with the wind.

Or will it?

The very fact that this movie exists is encouraging and, truthfully, may not have been conceivable ten years ago, when critics were taken for granted: griped about rather than grieved over. The past few years have actually seen a glut of critical historiography, not least among them the evocative obituaries greeting critic Manny Farber's passing (a notorious prose stylist, Farber invented the term "termite art" to describe a filmmaker's exquisite and rewarding focus on seemingly extraneous detail). Then there was the anthology American Movie Critics, edited by Phillip Lopate. A marvelous round-up of critical voices from across the century, the book could serve as a kind of prose companion to For the Love of Movies.

What's more, the much-maligned (or at least skeptically observed) blogosphere seems to be fueling much of this hunger for the history of criticism; and not just by way of inferior contrast. Indeed, since we bloggers are supposed to be so self-promoting, I might as well turn your attention to my own site, which was the hub of a wide-ranging celebration of movie books this past summer. Point being, many amateur film writers are deeply aware of the tradition they're working in; the old world passes away, but not without fanfare. Indeed, perhaps we're witnessing a transfiguration rather than a death - an interpretation borne out by Ebert and Rosenbaum re-emerging online. The Internet certainly allows for new developments in criticism, including those which take Peary's inventive pairing of Bergman's images with Canby's words a step further. On Shooting Down Pictures, for example, Kevin B. Lee records critical narrations which are intended to be played over the image - like DVD commentaries, but allowing for selection of the particular clips moment to moment. This is just one among many concepts re-imagining criticism - and movie love - for the 21st century.

By the way, Gerald Peary himself is a critic, having written for the Boston Phoenix (his brother, Daniel, wrote the books Cult Movies and Guide for the Film Fanatic, both of which were very popular choices on the aforementioned movie-book lists). For the Love of Movies is his first film and it's an accomplished piece of work; he's made a film about critics - whose job it is to sit at a computer and fill up a blank page - which crackles with spirit and energy. Nonetheless, the documentary does have some organizational flaws. The back-and-forth between historic recaps and self-contained interviews (what film made you want to review movies? how did you become a critic?) is a nice idea. However, as executed, the pattern interrupts the flow of the material.

Such interruptions can become frustrating when you're getting wrapped up in a particular stretch of history; say, when we leave Pauline Kael's trajectory to the New Yorker to hear Liza Schwarzbaum rave about The Boy With Green Hair. The long stretches of black between such segments only hurts; Peary has stated that his intention was to allow us to digest what we just heard - but while this could work in theory, it comes off as an aesthetic misfire. Onscreen something either works or it doesn't - a fact which Vincent Canby no doubt understood with his delicate evocation of Bergman's subtle artistic triumphs. Yet despite the occasional miscalculations and intermittently overbearing pessimism, For the Love of Movies is a definite accomplishment and is highly enjoyable to boot.

As in Bergman's film - and Canby's review - Peary captures the disappearance of something we had taken for granted, an object (or an idea) whose vanishing haunts us more than its presence ever could. For the Love of Movies arrives at just the right moment to fix this ephemeral evaporation on the horizon, and for those of us interested in carrying on the tradition, in a new, perhaps isolated, and unfamiliar capacity - we "literate hermits," so to speak - there's something oddly soothing about the shimmering ghost of our ancestry, winking at us as it fades from the afternoon sky.

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