For the Love of Movies: Feb 12 on the Documentary Channel
(Above: Andrew Sarris, at work.)
by Richard von Busack
Naturally, the subject of film critics is one of earthshaking importance, a matter than should have been taken up by documentary makers years ago. For the Love of Movies is Boston Phoenix critic Gerald Peary’s affectionate, talking-heads heavy, Eastern seaboard-oriented study of a century of film criticism, narrated by Patricia Clarkson.
The movie is a model of how to work low-budget. Peary multitasked by buttonholing some big name film critics at various film fests (Cannes and what looks like Telluride, particularly). The problem of expensive licensing is solved by using public domain theater trailers instead of film clips. These turn up during For the Love of Movie‘s most enjoyable section: the sequence where the critics interviewed describe movies that first made a mark on them. It’s a pleasure watching the ever-likable Elvis Mitchell recall his memory of seeing the Civil Rights-themed gorefest 2000 Maniacs as a kid…and literally not being able to trust his memory that such a film existed. Happily, Peary was able to afford a clip of the “roll out the barrel” sequence from Herschell Gordon Lewis’s atrocity.
The documentary is most useful in the way it sketches the history of film essay writing. Peary follows the chain from early literary critic Vachel Lindsay to critic turned screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood. Peary glances on the ‘40s style as epitomized by Otis Ferguson and James Agee. Here’s a bit of Manny Farber, whose inimitable prose matched tough guy lingo with an abstract-expressionists’ confrontationalism. Once you’ve heard Farber describe a certain French actress as “Jeanne Morose”, you’ll never really see her look happy again.
As a Bostonian, Peary goes regional, mentioning the area as a hotbed of critics (strangely, Michael Sragow isn’t mentioned as one of them). Excerpts of a fine, rare indie movie Between the Lines illustrates the alternative newspaper scene of the 1970s. Ultimately, Peary gives the last word to Roger Ebert, who tells a rich anecdote about the problem of getting readers to watch something challenging.
It’s hard to make dynamic visuals out of the the lives of people who are either sitting in the dark or writing something at a keyboard. And the problem of getting the rights to these writer’s words is probably also expensive. Legal clearances confound today’s documentary maker. When he doesn’t have photos, Peary cuts to drawings: caricatures of various critics, including one of Harry Knowles of Ain’t it Cool News, throned, crowned and ermined.
For the Love of Movies suits its affectionate title; it’s relatively non critical of the industry as a whole. There’s not enough Jonathan Rosenbaum and far too little Stewart Klawans, one of the sharpest and most under-appreciated critics around. And where was David Thomson? The documentary looks over the less-known careers speedily: Ferguson is characterized as a literary hardboiler. There was a lot more to this writer (and war hero) than his occasionally pugnacious style in The New Republic from 1934-42, as we see in his essays (available here)
Keep an eye out for this book when hitting the Friends of the Library sales…
For the Love of Movies is most frustrating during its summing-up of the dispute between the strict auteurist Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice and the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. Sarris was a builder of imaginary pantheons for directors. He was opposed in this technique by Kael. She preferred a subjective, very personal, and non-systematic approach for translating the film-watching experience into prose.
Eventually, it seems Kael has been seriously ganged up on here by colleagues who outlived her. The TV clips of her at the time don’t do her any favors. Television wasn’t Kael’s métier; she didn’t condescend to the camera, or cheer up for it, and she looked quite patronizing explaining herself. Still, Peary explains the importance Kael once had by showing a clip of Woody Allen describing going to the movies with her.
What we don’t hear is how the matter ended; when Allen got serious in such movies as Another Woman, Kael went after him in print. You could either call this Kael’s betrayal of a friend…or her fulfillment of a duty to be honest to the readers, even at the cost of glamorous company. It’s another lesson of why friendships between filmmakers and critics are hazardous.
For the Love of Movies’ addresses Kael’s tendency to praise young critics and create a cadre. These were the notorious “Paulettes,” in interviewee Owen Gleiberman’s phrase. This is commented upon by Mitchell, whose career was advanced by Kael. The New Yorker‘s David Denby already told the sad story of being pressured by Kael in his youth, in an essay Greil Marcus characterized as Denby’s “exorcism of the spell the witch cast on him even in death.”
Kael’s lionization of Brian De Palma proves–or seems to prove–that Kael eventually succumbed to Sarris’s auteurism. (Fondness for De Palma is to Kael what fondness for Jerry Lewis is to the French: an evergreen putdown.)
In this Kael/Sarris section, For the Love of Movies takes up a literary conflict. He turns it into a conflict of personalities, without addressing the points and counterpoints made. This might have been static on screen. But since For the Love of Movies sometimes has the elements of a high school educational film, with title cards and long blackouts, it could have stopped to explain the nature of the debate.
And the longest-lived participant has the last word: Sarris, now long married to Molly Haskell, claims Kael tried to pick him up. As Peary’s film can only nod in passing at the actual nature of the dispute between Kael and Sarris, there’s no room for lines like these from Kael’s “Circles and Squares,” collected in I Lost it At the Movies:
“It takes extraordinary intelligence and discrimination and taste to use any theory in the arts, and without those qualities, a theory becomes a rigid formula (which is indeed what’s happening with auteur critics). The greatness of critics like Bazin in France or Agee in America may have something to do with their using their full range of intelligence and intuition, rather than relying on formulas…a critic who follows rules will fail in one of his most important functions: perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping people to see.”
A legend in the critical community is the story of Kael who had the sense to love Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as opposed to New York Times Bosley Crowther, who found it morally horrific…just as Crowther had been disgusted by Breathless before it. (“A pile up of gross indencies,” he called the Godard classic.) It’s a key historical moment about the changing of the guard.
Yet Peary’s documentary implies that Kael’s preference for films of action, conflict and sex made her snub women’s directors of the 1970s and 1980s. A parade of photos of her favorite directors, Altman, Peckinpah and DePalma, seems to contradict Kael’s comment that male critics lionized film noir and gangster movies because they hadn’t grown up enough. Kael had “blind spots”, and she admitted it, in exactly those words; she was the first to admit she didn’t understand Fassbender, for example..
Evidence of what looks like anti-feminism could be found for example in Kael’s 1989 review of Beaches, directed by Gary Marshall but produced by Bette Midler’s All Girl Productions. Kael’s lead: “Sisters aren’t just doing it for themselves–they’re also doing it to themselves.” Kael was an enemy of what she deemed “the sappy side of the women’s movement. ”
Still, reading her essays, who’d accuse Pauline Kael of anti-feminism? Every passage is clearly written by someone who was a working woman and a single mother. And the way men still wince at the mention of her name shows she didn’t get where she got by being subservient.
A controversy For the Love of Movies discusses more successfully are the layoffs: the acceptability of sweeping out critics to make room for younger and less expensive writers. Ex-newspaperman Michael Wilmington asks “why is ageism acceptable?” in the print industry. And the young and indefatigable constant-tweeter Scott Weinberg complains about the jadedness of the elder critics.
Harry Knowles, who will be 40 this year, takes the market-friendly view that a new generation is upsetting old fogies. He gives as his example The Fight Club as something younger people loved and older people hated. A counterpoint to that exodus of aged critics from the ailing print media is Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. Turan got heat from James Cameron himself for pointing out that the Titanic script was badly written, a stance few young critics took even though the writing was, indeed, dismal. Ultimately, Turan was helped by letter writers who felt Cameron had no right to decide who should review Titanic.
Considering what delightful work it can be, film criticism is a tough business. “Love” is in the title of this documentary, but the people who practice it are used to getting hated. Rotten Tomatoes ought to be called Crabs in a Barrel, for all the flurries of denunciations between writers and readers, certain they’re more expert on the films discussed than the critics.
While the story of Crowther and Kael needs to be retold in such a study, does it reflect the problems we have now? Do we live in a world in which entertaining movies are not getting the recognition they deserve, thanks to spoilsport patrician critics? Not really. There’s enough trash for even the hungriest pig. Of 4000 bloggers or so, so few of them have a broad frame of reference to understand the way film sources all the fine arts, nor do they have the really independent viewpoints to recognize what’s good about popular work, and what’s popular about challenging, serious work. Meanwhile, the digital independent scene is rife with cronyism and log-rolling.
But don’t hate the change of technology, hate the tongue-bathers, the star-swivers, the dedicated barbarians. The passage of time sorts out the flirters from the serious lovers.
Interview subject B. Ruby Rich (someone else who could have used more time in this film) says that she’s optimistic. Her eye is on the next generation, the post-auteur critic, who will upend the old beliefs, recognize the new geniuses and reassess the classics. She’s probably right. This is a field in which you’d rather see a division between the ignorant and the learned, instead of the old and the young.