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SXSW '09 Interview: "For the Love of Movies" Director & Film Critic Gerald Peary

by Erik Childress

The “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism” Pitch: The engaging history of American film criticism as told by the critics themselves.

What was the impetus to begin documenting the history of film critics? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post.

GERALD: I had no plan at all to make such a film. I’d worked as a kind of informal story editor for Canadian producer-director, Ron Mann, and he was impressed with my talents, and generously offered to meet with me and to think together about a project that I could direct, that he would executive produce. We met over lunch in Toronto and I told him my dream project, still my dream project, a documentary about barbecue. (Any producers out there with $$$$?)

Ron thought about it, and suggested instead that I make my film about something I really know. Film criticism and film critics. I was skeptical: “Film critics don’t do anything except go to movies and write about them. What’s cinematic about that?” Eight years later, I still don’t know what else they do, and yet somehow I found a kind of narrative for my film which, I think, works.

And Ron Mann? For a while, he was the Executive Producer. And he put a crew together, and we started to shoot. And it was Ron who came up with the title for the documentary, For the Love of Movies. But at some point, Ron realized he couldn’t raise the money needed to make this documentary, and especially not in Canada, which is mandated to keep culture in the hands of Canadian filmmakers. There was no way to get funding there with an American director. So, Ron sold me the film, I took over, and my wife, Amy Geller, became the film’s producer. And for years and years, we struggled with the tiniest bits of money to make this documentary, piece by piece. It’s too depressing to give all the production details, but we finally finished in Fall 2008. And here we are at SXSW in the best place in the world for our world premiere—Happy Ending!

When did you first realize you wanted to be a film critic?

GERALD: I’d always always loved movies, and I always, from my teens, read criticism. But I was an English major undergraduate, and then a drama director in grad school. I started writing film criticism, for The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin, as an act of procrastination, so I wouldn’t have to write my Ph.D. dissertation. But criticism seemed fairly easy at first, in my bones from so much reading of it by others. I guess I stuck to it. I just celebrated thirty years of being a critic in Boston with a night of films and festivities at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Your documentary couldn’t be timely a salute to a profession that has come under siege thanks to numerous firings. It’s a story I believe has been unfairly labeled as “the death of the film critic” when it’s really about the declining health of the newspaper industry. Truth is there are probably more professional film critics than ever before. They may not be rich, but they’re working –nd many of them do assist the film studios in their publicity through interviews and online buzz. Why do you think many critics have buried the lead on the subject and just gone along with what is being said about their demise?

GERALD: I don’t agree with you. Certainly, print critics are being removed right and left, and that’s a fact, I’m not sure what you mean by a “professional film critic.” Does that mean making a kind of living by criticism? Well, that’s the ideal, and there’s no doubt that less people today are collecting living-wage salaries from film reviewing then, say, five years ago. As for “assisting film studios in their publicity,” when was that ever part of the critic’s definition? And, sorry, “online buzz” is also not criticism.

I wasn't referring to online buzz as being any kind of film criticism, but it IS publicity. And whether or not many film critics admit it or not, most interviews they are offered are for puff pieces that can generate buzz. Granted, there are several that can make the most out of a roundtable or a 15-minute one-on-one, but generally these are the types of pieces that don't adhere to critical opinion as part of the conversation. Isn't this a greater risk that placates the Chicken Littles out there who believe that more and more "no-screens" for press are a sign of things to come rather than just an increase of bad movies?

GERALD: I just never buy anyone’s excuse for regularly doing puff pieces. Everyone does something sucky once in a while, but REGULARLY? A 15-minute one-on-one can have a bit of substance, if the interviewer is really prepared, and says, “I’ve only been given fifteen minutes, so I’m going to cut to the tough questions right away.” I know it’s harder to get interviews if your outlet isn’t respected by the publicists, and publicists seem to especially keep in line the critics whom they don’t respect. The lower you are, the more you are expected to write only sycophantic stuff. Still, if you have integrity, don’t do these vacuous interviews! Don’t rub up against a star. Just write a review!

Do you lend any weight to those who believe a time will (or even should) come that studios will stop advance screenings for press altogether? And could critics rebel in that time by having their outlets refuse any other sort of coverage, advertising, etc...?

GERALD: We’re on the way. The Weinstein Company wouldn’t send me a screener of Fanboys, which would allow me to make my Boston Phoenix deadline, because “you need to see Fanboys on the big screen.” I e-mailed back;”Baloney! Fanboys is not Lawrence of Arabia!”

Tell our outlets to stop advertising as a protest? As John Wayne said in The Searchers, “That’ll be the day!”

Do you have any favorite (or least favorite) film critics? And how important do you believe film critics are nowadays?

GERALD: In my late teens and early twenties, my favorite critics, in order, were James Agee, then Dwight MacDonald, then Andrew Sarris (the biggest influence), then Robin Wood, then Pauline Kael.

I have a lot of favorite critics today, and some of them are in my movie. Many of them are not in the movie,. Lots of very fine critics, including, for one example, Anthony Lane and David Denby from The New Yorker, were nevcr around the spots where I was shooting. I admire every critic whom I filmed, and yet it’s pretty arbitrary who is in my documentary. So many critics are vital, articulate, fascinating speakers and thinkers. I’m constantly explaining to critics not in the movie that it’s no slight, that I admire them as much as those on camera. And it’s not a line. It’s true.

How did you get Patricia Clarkson involved to do the narration? Did she present any of her own thoughts on critics and criticism?

GERALD: For years, we played around with the narration. I was the first narrator, and the worst. Yuck! Then we had a Boston actor who was fine but perhaps a little generic. Amy and I knew there was someone out there, in the back of our minds, who was totally right. But who? But who? Last summer, we did a follow-up interview with Owen Gleiberman, and he mentioned his good friend, “Patty” Clarkson. “Patty”? Amy and I looked at each other! Of course, she’s the ONE, and with the greatest voice in the world! Owen called Clarkson, and she agreed to do the narration, and for the most reasonable price. We met in a sound studio in New York, and that was one of the thrills of my life to have Clarkson read my words, And she was so nice, and so cooperative, and so prepared, and so intelligent. And one of the key reasons she wanted to do the movie was that she regularly reads criticism, and has a genuine respect for the critic profession. But she left the writing to me.

Thank you, Patty!

Jonathan Rosenbaum, now retired of the Chicago Reader, says in your film that “the best thing that can be said of a critic that what they write is so singular and interesting that you can’t turn it into advertising.” What do you like to see in the movie reviews that you read?

GERALD: I think Jonathan is on to something. Reviews should not be about blurbs and buzz. Sure, you need to say if a movie is worth seeing, but a great review contextualizes the movie, in terms of politics, culture, studio history, the career of the actors and director, whatever. There’s some teaching, some wisdom, somc credibility from knowing a lot, and having lived a bit also.

Sarris & Kael. Siskel & Ebert. Lyons & Mankiewicz. Something doesn’t quite seem right about that. Have you seen the new At the Movies and have anything to add to the discussion?

GERALD: I’m not much of a TV watcher anyway, except for Boston Celtics basketball. I haven’t seen the new show.

One of the things that perplexes about today’s TV culture is that we have countless shows dedicated to sports commentary, political pundits, video games and food; some with entire channels devoted to them and yet the only thing we can get on television to debate movies is the Lyons family. Why do you think that is and what can we do about it?

GERALD: Not watch, which is what I do. America is in many ways an anti-intellectual culture, and real critical thinking is not what most people are comfortable with. They think of “critic” as meaning”criticize.” I’ve gotten this time and again: “Can’t you ever just enjoy a movie without criticizing it?” No wonder TV has little room, for or sympathy for, real film criticism.

You actually interviewed me for the film years back about the quote whore phenomenon, at a time when guys like Pete Hammond and Ben Lyons weren’t even on the radar yet. While that footage doesn’t appear in the final cut (no hard feelings, I swear) and the topic is just a small portion of the film, did you seek out to interview many of the big names associated with this corner of the industry like Earl Dittman or Shawn Edwards? Anyone turn you down?

GERALD: I did interview a husband-wife team who were slightly notorious a few years ago. They met me afterward, and, angrily, thought I had set them up, It was pretty uncomfortable, and they aren’t in the film. No I never talked to Dittman, or Edwards, but there is one kind-of-quote whore interviewed in the movie. He stands in for lots of them in his attitudes and outlook, and his bragging about being in national ads.

What film critic would you cast as your favorite cartoon character?

GERALD: Nobody reminds me of Pogo, Dagwood, Dilbert, or Zippy.

There’s a nice sidebar about the older critics being out-of-touch with new generations of filmmakers, which seems odd considering they should be professional enough to adapt to new styles, techniques and voices; particularly those who critiqued through the New Wave of the ‘60s, the rise of the American indie movement and eventual blockbusters of the ‘70s and through a lot of the trash of the ‘80s. What in your mind is more irresponsible of a critic? The elders who refuse to adapt and dismiss anything that might have a fresh perspective or approach or the younger up-and-coming critics who are quick to praise those styles by dismissing the pioneers that came before them or not even seeing them at all?

GERALD: Both are “irresponsible,:” if that’s the right word. I plead guilty to being that old fart myself., who has little interest in action movies, anime, stupid Hollywood comedies, etc. My way is to excuse myself from reviewing them. Luckily, I have a very specific beat at the Boston Phoenix that fits me perfectly: foreign-language movies, independent works, and classics. Hooray, I never have review Tyler Perry, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Judd Apatow, Kevin Smith.

Lumping Tyler Perry in with all of those might be the greatest compliment that subpar hack has ever received. Rex Reed over the years has been at the forefront of those critics discussed as being out of touch, going on record by saying “The egomaniacal young director-producer-writer David O. Russell is a member of the new group of anarchists that includes Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, freaky Todd Solondz and the dismally overrated non-writer Charlie Kaufman, who wins critical praise for writing incoherent movies about why he can’t write coherent movies.” Adding to that bit of nonsensical anti-auteurism, he makes a comment in your film essentially attributing the rise of the junket whore to the advance of the internet. In fact, that’s not the case as most of the junketeers are 3-minute mouthpieces on news programs and radio shows who seem to have never written a word in their life. Isn’t this a classic case of someone who isn’t in touch with the reality of today’s film industry?

GERALD: You could see it that way. I don’t tell anyone how to feel about what various critics say in the movie. Some people find Rex Reed wry and amusing, others see him as snobby and out-of-touch. He does write for The New York Observer, which demographic skews older. Probably he’s OK there.

While not far removed from the topic of being out-of-touch, isn’t it about time that studios and their publicists cut all the B.S. in the hierarchy of print and online? Any print outlet worth their survival got online years ago and print-or-no-print, movie reviews are probably read more online than any other facet of journalism that can be found in a newspaper. Isn’t it time they started recognizing that and dealing with critics as individuals, knowing whom they can trust to respect the embargoes and not plead ignorance every time they weren’t given a personal telegram about when to post?

GERALD: I understand your frustration. There are lots of terrific critics on the Web, and they seem to get little respect from the studios. Except for a very few like Harry Knowles.

Did you have any headaches getting approval of the film clips from the studios?

GERALD: We didn’t get approval. Some are public domain. For others, we are claiming Fair Use. And we have a great lawyer who has gone through all the clips, and we soon will have E&0 insurance to back us up. This has taken a zillion hours to do right, but we are within the law.

What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?

GERALD: That’s quite obvious. Blurbs mean nothing to me. Of course, I’m looking forward to my colleagues of talent, both in print and online, weighing in.

You’re headlining a panel about the decline of film criticism. What are you hoping to discuss during it and what are you hoping your fellow critics on the panel can communicate to those in attendance?

GERALD: The panel is both about declining and expanding. I’m hoping for a great dialogue between the print and online people on the panel. And what I want people to take away is the same as from my film: a respect for film criticism! I am very very pro-critic, and critics are needed, and should be read!

In closing, what are you looking forward to most at SXSW this year as a filmmaker as opposed to just being another journalist in the crowd?

GERALD: I speak also for Amy Geller, the producer, and Aleksandar Lekic, the editor, who will be there. We can’t wait to be at our world premiere! For me, without a notebook!

Gerald Peary's For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism will have its world premiere at the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival on Monday, March 16, 8:00 PM at the Alamo Ritz. It will screen again at the Ritz on Wednesday, March 18 (12:00 PM) and Saturday, March 21 (4:00 PM) at the Alamo Lamar. You can visit the film’s website here

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originally posted: 02/24/09 14:11:03
last updated: 02/24/09 14:12:20
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