Wednesday, February 3, 2010

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009, Peary)


Rating: **1/2

Rudimentary in its technique and pretty standard in its ominous-yet-hopeful conclusions, Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009) is just what its title promises it to be: no more, no less. Structured mainly by the off-screen narration read by Patricia Clarkson (and written by Peary himself), the film is interesting as a series of interviews – some of which are actually top-notch.

My chief reservation about the film is the narrowness of its scope, best seen in the omissions Peary decided to make. Of course, titling one’s movie a “Story” (as opposed to a “History”) is  a preemptive strike against all the nagging completists out there who like to point their fingers at what’s missing. Still, even the most sympathetic viewer must be astounded by how much For the Love of Movies doesn’t say.

To start with, it doesn’t draw any institutional context whatsoever as far as film periodicals in the States go. “Film Culture”, “Film Comment”, “Cineaste” – publications with great contributions to promoting critical thought – aren’t discussed at any length.

What’s more, by hastily passing through all the interviewees the makers didn’t manage to coax into cooperation, Peary skips large patches of high-quality American film writing of today. Elvis Mitchell is being celebrated for his African-American perspective on popular cinema, but how on earth could Peary have broached the subject and not even mention the stunning work of Armond White, is still beyond me. The LGBT voices in American film criticism are not mentioned at all, save for a tiny bit seen in the Extras section. What a shame: to have Rex Reed speaking to the camera and yet not inquire at all about how the gay perspective became acceptable over the years...

David Denby and Anthony Lane – great writers, whatever the controversies around them – are barely mentioned as Pauline Kael’s heirs at “The New Yorker” (Peary skips Terrence Rafferty’s brief reign there). John Simon is not discussed at all, save for one of the DVD extras. Parker Tyler – the same. Robert Warshow, for crying out loud – missing, too (I’m not counting a passing reference). Some of the interviewees aren't even asked about their specific ways of looking at films (a great loss in the case of J. Hoberman, who comes off mainly as a DeMille-influenced Sarrisite, with all of his striking output simply not discussed or even described).

Also, the rejuvenation of cinephilia that we owe to exciting DVD releases of late (and to writers like Dave Kehr, for example) - doesn't enter Peary's narrative.

Overall, it’s the eponymous “love” that saves the movie. One DVD extra reveals Perry as being truly passionate about his subject. Some of that passion seeps into his film – namely, the mere fact of its existence is joyous enough and while watching For the Love of Movies I felt giddy just because I felt someone may be so affectionate towards a topic I love so much myself. It’s too bad Peary didn’t shape his movie into a more coherent and more informative whole, but still – a couple of the interviews are great and it’s sort of a guilty pleasure to watch some of the imaginative “us” justifying their (“our”) trade and a way of living that being a critic ultimately is.

In a year which saw Michael Fassbender’s film critic blowing the cover by showing the wrong kind of “3” with his fingers in Inglourious Basterds (2009), it’s nice to see the profession celebrated and kind of redeemed, as well.

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