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

Monday, November 16, 2009

For the Love of Movies interview

When critic/filmmaker Gerald Peary set out to document the history of movie criticism, his subject's story had a beginning. Now it seems that the story may have an ending too, and not a happy one. Or is it merely a rebirth? Nearly a decade after he initiated his project, For the Love of Movies: The Story of Film Criticism is completed and showing around the country (the next screening will be Thursday evening at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH). Print criticism is rapidly disappearing (since the release of the film, which already featured dire warnings of a crisis in criticism, the number of fired critics has grown enormously). Meanwhile, the rising presence of the Internet seems to be shifting the definition of criticism - but towards what exactly? Last week, I spoke to Peary about the past and the future of criticism, and also about his own work, both as critic and creator. Most of the discussion is contained here, with some slight edits for clarity and space. My words are in bold, Peary's in regular. Clarifications are offered in italics throughout.

[For background on the film itself, you can read my review of For the Love of Movies, published back in September.]


Just to begin with, could you give me a little bit of background on your interest in criticism and what it was that led you eventually to the Boston Phoenix (and the other publications you've written for)? I read your conversation with David Cairns, so I got a little sense of what made you love movies, but what brought you specifically to that profession?

As I said [in Cairns' interview] I always watched movies since I was a little kid and I had, I guess, really good taste without even knowing it! All the movies I liked when I was 5, and 6, and 7, and 9 years old turned out the best ones; almost all invariably are by "auteur" directors. I didn't even know who they were, but they turned out to be by, you know, people like John Ford, or Howard Hawks, or Nicholas Ray, it's quite strange. So I guess I always looked at movies differently. And I think from the age of about 15 I was reading criticism without any thought of being a film critic ... I was influenced by critics [as to] what movies I saw, and I liked the way that they looked at things, so I think all the vocabulary was sort of absorbed by me before I ever ever wrote anything. ... It wasn't till I was I guess in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and ... I was writing finally a PhD in film and I wanted to stop. I was going too fast and I started writing reviews for the school newspaper in Wisconsin called the Daily Cardinal. I was the arts editor and I wrote reviews. And that's the first time when I was, I guess 25 or something like that. And it was more just to stop my PhD and go slower, and just a bit of being a slacker. I ran a film society and I wrote reviews, but I don't think I thought that's what my profession would be.

So what were you getting the PhD in?

Well it turned into ... I only took a couple film courses in my life. I was getting into drama but because I got sick of drama (I couldn't stand directing actors anymore) somehow they allowed me to switch my dissertation. I wrote my dissertation on the rise of the American gangster film, about silent gangster films. ... This was an unpublished dissertation but I was just doing research and reading plots and learning things about movies that seemed to have been lost. ... You can see it in my film because I'm a film historian and that's really fun for me to try and put film history together. That was actually - I didn't think about it till this second, it's the first time I've ever thought about but, it's a pretty analogous story trying to invent a history of the gangster genre and in this case invent the history of film criticism.

So, during your history as a movie buff, where it was not a professional duty, and then becoming a professional critic, did you ever find that your love of movies and your duty to report and review them for the public ever clashed?

I've always been kind of a social worker film critic - that's my term that I like to use. I like to find films that people don't know about, find underdog movies by, you know, young filmmakers that nobody's ever heard of and try to get them seen by people. That was the first thing I ever did with the Daily Cardinal. We had ten film societies on campus and I would write little blurbs about movies playing that night, and so ... getting butts into seats is what my object has always been, for odd movies, rare movies and it still is.

At what point during your career as a critic did you take an interest in the history of criticism, or had it just been something you accumulated by reading so many critics in your youth?

I guess I read contemporary [criticism] when it came out. But I remember reading the [older] criticism like the books of James Agee reviews when I was probably about 17 years old. Those were about films from the 40s and that was an amazing book, beautiful writing, and it literally led me to see films from, you know, a critic's perspective, historical perspective. So that was the first time I read about John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It was written about with great enthusiasm by Agee. ... And I think for a while John Huston was my favorite film director, and that was because of, not contemporary criticism, but from critics writing in the 40s about how wonderful John Huston was.

So at what point during the process either of this documentary, or just being a critic, did you feel that you started to see the writing on the wall, in terms of a demise of print criticism? Because that certainly seems to be a subtext, or even an overt text of the film. When you started to make the film did you have that in mind or did it just happen?

Well, it was there. The movie took so long to make - it started now literally nine years ago - so when it first began there was nobody being fired on the job. I did feel that critics were being less read and that was one of the objectives ... it's kind of fallen by the wayside because of the big crisis, but if people actually saw critics' faces and saw how they talked, that they would therefore take more interest in at least reading the critics they had. And now it's changed into, they see the faces, they see they're interesting, but those critics are disappearing right and left. This really was in the middle of the movie, it's only, it's been the last 4 years that this is happening. I just saw Elvis Mitchell (and I interviewed him three or four years ago) and we just said, at that point the crisis didn't exist, we were just talking in general. It's too expensive - but for a while I kept changing the word "critic" [onscreen] to ex-critic, ex-critic all the way through the movie. The last bunch of ex-critics are just still listed as critic because we can't do anything about that.

Yeah, there aren't going be too many critics left there especially with Andrew Sarris [the legendary critic who was recently laid off from the New York Sun]. That happened right after the film was completed, right?

Yeah, so the fact that Sarris isn't there anymore. ... The thing with 27 critics at the beginning is long, long gone. You know, twice that much or three times as many critics have gone since I wrote the warning at the beginning about 27 critics having lost their jobs.

Yeah, that's pretty amazing. Or unfortunate. Or both.

Yeah.

When you were interviewing the critics, or seeking interviews, was anybody resistant to the idea, were there some people who didn't want to do it, or was pretty much everybody on board with this thing from the get-go? 'Cause's there's so many, so many critics in it.

Not everybody. Manny, Manny Farber I didn't interview. I think I have clips of Manny Farber but he was pretty old. [He died about a year ago, in his nineties]. His wife, who was also a critic named Pat Patterson, was trying to urge him to be in the film but he wasn't interested. I actually just called him randomly on the phone in California and I think he said two words: I think they were "Go away!" That's all! And the other person that's clearly missing, these are print people, is Manohla Dargis, the New York Times critic, and she just will not - she had nothing against the film but does not want to be seen publicly in any kind of medium. If you even look on the web there's no picture of her, it's for that reason she would not do the movie. But other than that everybody was...I think everybody said yes.

The one other person who pops to mind, obviously a very contentious critic, doesn't have the best relationship with other critics it seems, is Armond White. Did you ever consider interviewing him, did you approach him?

I did. Well, he was actually on a list to be interviewed at a point that we ran out of money completely. 'Cause we had one guy who was the executive producer for a while and then I bought the film from him and in that little gap ... he had a lot more money than I did to work with, so we just kind of cancelled the interview. But I would have loved to have Armond in the film.

Would have been very interesting I think. Maybe the sequel.

Yup, I mean contentious people are fun in movies and he's just a complete loose cannon and who knows what he's gonna say! But it would have been interesting, yeah.

When you were creating this film how did the process of seeking and organizing the material go about? Did you write any narration beforehand or did you just do the interviews and then see how you would pull it together afterwards? Or did you have an idea at the beginning of the structure?

Yeah, it's a much more edited film. I had some idea it would be critics today talking about earlier critics who influenced them and the most important thing was to see the history. So the last chapter ... is the part about the rising of the Net and the changing of the Net and whatever that means. That was the last few years also, trying to make more sense of that and still, it's still very hard to make sense of it because we're right in the middle of it. It's too early to have a perspective on what's going on, but you know… So yes, so the answer is yes, the film developed as it went along, and it's been edited [a lot]. I think there are thousands of cuts and thousands of choices, so the editing room is really, really important in putting the film together.

Now, at what point did you come up with the idea to show The Passion of Anna and play Vincent Canby's words? Because I thought that was one of the most effective pieces in the movie and I was sort of wondering what was the process, the thought process and the execution behind that? [In For the Love of Movies, a clip from Ingmar Bergman's 1969 film is shown while the New York Times review is read on the soundtrack. There were some similar sequences, with different films and different critics, used throughout the film.]

I mean, I can't say that was any different than any other one. I think, yeah, that one worked better than some of the other things. No, the thing is, the important thing is that we used "Fair Use" for the film. Which means that we can't use long [clips] and I didn't have to pay for many, many of those clips. They're all connected to using them with the critic's voice over them. So so I think that particular clip goes a little bit longer, or is more contemplative -

For some reason, it's stuck in my mind...

Yeah, I agree.

I can't get it out - I liked it a lot.

There's a guy from German TV who watched the movie, hated it, thought it was the worst movie, except he liked that. It was the only thing he liked in the whole movie!

Well, you can't go wrong with Bergman and Canby, but I thought you put it together really well and I appreciated that. But also in terms of what you're speaking about - the fair use and the use of the clips - is there a possibility with a DVD release... Which is actually a separate question but you can answer that here as well, when it might be coming out on DVD. Is there a possibility…

It is coming out. It actually is coming out, you know we just did a recall 'cause we sucked out one thing on the DVD, but the DVD is officially out in a few weeks.

Great, I was wondering then ... how many special features were you able to include in terms of lengthier clips, I suppose, from past - like Pauline Kael on television, things like that, or were those all unavailable?

No, the thing is when you, we didn't do lengthier anything because, [while] we have really good extras the use of clips is also limited, just the way it would be on normal movies. So if you use the clip on extras you gotta pay what you would pay normally. The television stuff with Pauline Kael we paid for, so if we used more of it, we'd have to pay more money. So therefore it's not in the extras 'cause this is a low, low-budget movie; we don't have any money. But we have really good extras which are extensions of the interviews: an interview with me, a self-interview; a wonderful section with John Waters talking about his favorite gay film critic, a guy named Parker Tyler from the 40s, that's fantastic; and we have more Roger Ebert explaining "thumbs up" and where that came from, and what he thinks of it. And of course Stanley Kauffman, who's kind of the dean of American film critics, who's in his 90s. Also a section about women critics... Somebody I guess who just lost her job is on Spout, right, is ...

Karina Longworth? That's surprising. I hadn't heard anything about that ... That's very surprising.

Karina, yeah, I think... So she's an ex-critic too. It's even hitting the web people now.

I guess that's the state of professional criticism, in terms of [getting paid].

Awful, awful...

I was going to ask you as well in terms of the critics you spoke to, and what you included, was there anything you regretted not including in the film? Not in terms of something being in the extras like an extra clip of an interview but something maybe structurally. I know you had wished to interview more sort of articulate bloggers.

... The intention was to have more people. I do mean that, when you guys feel that it's anti-Internet it's not because you know … I just find people all the time and especially doing these interviews, I've actually found lots of smart people have interviewed me, they're writing on the Net and they're really good. I thought your writing was just great on the movie, it was just beautifully written ... So that's, you know proof, that you're out there.

No, yeah, I appreciate that and I think also, in the movie when you included the pieces with Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum at the end, I thought ... I'll admit there was a point sort of about two-thirds of the way in where I was getting a little [annoyed] but then it seemed like you balanced it out pretty well and I appreciated that too.

Well, what started the Internet thing was, the first three voices you hear are critics who are anti-Internet. That was on the cusp of when the Internet started and I think the first voices you heard were exasperation: who are these new people, they don't know anything. And then as the Internet goes on, it becomes clear that along with a bunch of illiterate ignoramuses who are writing out there, a lot of people are really good who are writing out there. My only thing is, I wish the Internet had more influence, and I wish the people who had good taste on the Internet could actually make people go to movies en masse the way that print critics used to be able to do it. That's - I mean we don't know that, but talking to theater owners and talking to distributers they're completely despairing right now. They don't say there's a lot of Internet [criticism] that's getting people to the movies. I don't think it is. You think it is? You know, a little bit, but…

Right now, what David [Cairns] says in his interview with you, on a small person-to-person basis, is it's like a film society I think, it's a more localized phenomenon. Which actually leads into [another question] ... I think one thing that's different about the blogosphere and print criticism is print criticism is very focused around daily reviewing. It's usually a certain format whereas it seems like the blogosphere embraces many different sorts of film writing, it sort of mixes them up. Do you think there's a separate film to be made, not just in terms of blogging but in terms of the long history of film writing outside of [reviewing]: historical, I guess cultural criticism? There's a little in the film but it seems more about where that interacts with film reviewing.

Oh yeah, absolutely.

And would you want to make that - ?

It's a very focused film - 'cause you just can't say everything in one movie, nor would I want to. If I did that it would just make my movie kind of stupid, so I would love to see other movies about other subjects - you know start the whole history from the whole different - outsiders writing about movies. That certainly is the great thing about the blogosphere, that you can write in all sorts of forms and that's fine with me. So, yeah, another movie - fine, excellent.

You said earlier that for your own part the love of movies and the broader interests and the daily reviewing kind of melded together, but how do you see the difference between reviewing and criticism? Because it seems like a lot of figures in the film, especially the older ones, especially in the period where you say criticism mattered - in the 70s - mixed the two. And it seems like since the 80s maybe, a bit of the higher-end criticizing, the polemicizing so to speak, has fallen off and there's been more of a focus on daily reviewing. Do you see that, and how do you think the relationship has played out over the history of criticism between a polemic and a review?

Well, one of the problems is it's hard to be a critic writing so short, which is what the story of the world today is. I mean the great thing about - this potential on the web is you guys can write as long as you want to write. And you know, I don't think you can really write criticism unless you can. I think I talked about this, every time it's about contextualizing, it's about seeing movies in terms of history, in terms of politics, in terms of genre, in terms of other movies ... maybe being autobiographical, bringing the writer in. Writer's point of view. But you need some room to play around, and some space to do all those kinds of things. ... One of the other things, obviously, is really good writing is about language ... a good critic is a great writer. Reviewing could be more about, question one: should you go to this movie or shouldn't you go to this movie and here's an opinion why you should or shouldn't; that's the narrowest part of the reviewing. And the criticism is all the other things, all the contextualizing the movie and seeing it in different mirrors and different ways of looking. That's criticism.

Well, one thing that struck me about Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, who are obviously sort of central to the film, inevitably, is that they were both reviewers and they seem to be talked about a lot of times as reviewers. But when you really look at what they are remembered for, it's the longer polemics like "Circles and Squares," The American Cinema, even when Pauline Kael would use a movie and sort of start with that, and then go off into this criticism. One thing about David Bordwell's discussion of your movie which interested me was the thesis that maybe a lot of the deeper thoughts went into academia and became kind of stultified there, and we lost a little bit of the mix between the journalistic, very reader-friendly approach and the challenging thought process that sort of combined with it. I was wondering if you felt that was true as well.

You said it well. Well, that's sort of the American - I like the European idea of the kind of public intellectual and that's I think what David is talking about. ... I'm a professor but I don't really hang out in professor circles, you know, I'm much more in the journalist world. But there are whole circles of conventions or professors giving papers on movies, and hardly any of them write in the public sphere - it's all kept in the academic sphere. And so it can get stultified, and it sometimes did, but I would love much more of a mix. I mean, David Bordwell himself is, I don't know if you've ever met him, like one of the friendliest human beings -

I haven't met him but you get that impression just from reading his writing online. Everything I've read on that blog is mind-blowing and it's written in such a readable, approachable way. It's fantastic.

Approachable - yeah, you said it well. He does - he's just that. Wonderful, friendly, completely open, you know, totally curious. I just saw him recently, had breakfast with him, he's just a super guy and he's not cautious and he's just completely excited about movies. And that's very different from a lot of academics who are sour, reserved people in a certain kind of way.

How would you describe the relationship between the reader and the critic, and how did that change making this movie? Because it seems sometimes antagonistic but they keep coming back and reading, or at least they did until recently.

Well, having gone through an earlier period where critics' awards were taken quite seriously... I mean I can say, as a critic, that maybe that gives you a swelled head, but it's sort of nice that you actually can feel that your words were read with some kind of thought and actually could send people to movies. I suppose the missing part was the link that people couldn't answer back like blogging, but on the other hand the answering back was that as you walked around and went in public, you'd find people that actually read your review and talked about it. And in the last bunch of years, at least as print critic, I almost never get anybody, ever, ever, ever who says they've read anything I've written, it's almost unheard of. I'd be shocked, you know, I write for the Boston Phoenix and there's a tiny letter column but we don't really get mail, nothing comes to us. I have no idea what anybody's thinking except I think they're not reading it very much.

So probably it's a much better world to, you know, feel your readers and talk to them, especially when they're intelligent people writing back on a blog vs. just people saying, "This bites." There's a lot of that stuff; a lot of cowardly people [with], I guess, no sense of power, decided to be powerful by writing anonymous horseshit at the bottom of people's articles. That's popular - there's a lot of smart people and a lot of stupid people out there and I guess there always have been. But...being connected to readers is what should be important to everybody. You're not just writing out to cyberspace or a newspaper space.

But there's no doubt that the influence of print is just diminished completely. I'll tell you, when I first came to Boston in 1978, thirty years ago, I came here to be a critic for the Boston Real Paper. There were two weekly papers, the Real Paper and the Phoenix, and they were 50 cents each. And literally on weekends I could like walk up to Harvard Square and you'd see people all over who'd bought both of them and were perusing both to see what to read. The articles were really long and the movie articles - there was competition. I remember once I was sent to New York one week ahead to see Woody Allen's Manhattan so we could scoop the Phoenix … what a wonderful world that was! I'm saying this as a print person. Because you know there was no web at all, so there's nothing else to read, all people could do is read print or watch I guess, you know, Ebert and Siskel or something. So as people say in the movie nostalgically, we had a lot of influence then. And there's a great line where Richard Corliss says, "Critics had the power to shape the debate." Unbelievable - to shape the debate about a movie! So that seems to be gone. So, yeah. It's a different world... You know, I talk as a print critic, so that's what I am.


Gerald and I continued to talk for a while after this; when I finished questioning him he essentially began to "interview" me, and and seemed genuinely curious as to what brought me to love and write about movies myself. For my part, I encouraged him to make the leap into the blogosphere like some of his peers. While he demurred for the moment, hopefully he'll reconsider, as he has a lot to say and seems to miss that connection to an "audience."

Meanwhile, his film will be showing at the Music Hall later this week, and possibly in some Boston-area theaters in the near future. It will also be available on DVD, exclusively through his website, within the next few weeks. Anyone with an interest in film and film criticism should check this documentary out - For the Love of Movies is fun, informative, and timely; hopefully it marks that rebirth, rather than the end, of writing with passion and knowledge about movies.

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