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For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism
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by Jay Seaver

"As a blogger, I'm just glad not to be cast as a villain here."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2009: "For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism" takes on a century of its subject in less than ninety minutes, and as is almost inevitable, feels a little uneven. There are places where seems to do little more than scratch the surface, and even when filmmaker Geary Peary does dig a little deeper, it often doesn't seem deep enough. Whether this means the movie should have had a tighter focus on some specific thread or been expanded (and then, perhaps, broken into six half-hour chunks, as a PBS series), I'm not sure.

Aside from being a film critic for the Boston Phoenix, Peary is also a college professor, and he structures his film like a college course. "Dawn (1907-1929)" focuses on the early days of cinema, with particular attention paid to Frank E. Woods, the first critic of note who went on to co-write Birth of a Nation. "Cult Critics and Crowther (1930-1953)" shows film reviewing evolving into the form we recognize today, with star ratings and the championing of worthy independent and foreign films. "Auteurism and After (1954-1967)" introduces us to the rivalry between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, which carries over into "When Criticism Mattered (1968-1980). That time period overlaps with "TV, Fans, and Videotape (1975-1995)", which covers the rise of the fanzine. Finally, the film finishes up with "Digital Rebellion (1996+)".

With a scant ten or fifteen minutes with which to cover each of these segments, there's some limitations on what Peary can include. Some are right up there in the title - this is the story of American film criticism, so the groundbreaking work being done in France is mostly excluded, except in terms of how it pitted Sarris and Kael against each other. Perhaps a more subtle selection bias is how much time is how focused the film is on newspapers' reviews of new releases. Criticism that emerges from academia gets very short shrift, and while "TV, Fans, and Videotape" mentions Siskel & Ebert and how video led to the revisiting of older films by enthusiasts as much as professionals, it doesn't do much more than that, even though these are factors which would have a major influence on the film's concluding chapter.

Give Peary credit where it's due - "Digital Rebellion" is far less antagonistic toward the internet than one might expect of a movie by someone who has spent his life in print (and I don't say this because this website appears once or twice). Sure, we do get the usual cliched bits from a newspaper writer who seems perversely proud that he doesn't know how to find his reviews on the internet and the blogger who looks just out of college (if that) saying that, like, all our opinions are worth the same. Still, he doesn't dismiss the medium as many newspaper writers facing unemployment by papers closing or downsizing does, although he clearly has more affection (and time) for the writers who wound up on the internet because their print outlets closed down than those who started out here.

The relatively narrow focus isn't exactly a bad thing; I got a couple pages worth of interesting facts written down, and the film is mostly populated by genial figures. There are a couple of interesting stories, particularly Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and the rise of amateur online criticism versus paid print. Either of these could easily have been expanded to be the focus of the entire film, with a little fleshing out.

I kind of wish Peary had gone that way. For the Love of Movies is not bad as a high-level overview, and more general knowledge is always nice to have. The film is fine as a collection of facts, but never describes what a critic's purpose is, especially if you separate those reviewing the weekly new releases from those looking at the medium as a whole. The film also doesn't make a strong case for film criticism's value, even as it spends the last act lamenting the disappearance of the traditional film critic. Given that the film's audience is likely to be festival-goers and, maybe, boutique-house patrons who are predisposed to finding them valuable, maybe he doesn't have to.

Obviously, I think it has some value, or I wouldn't be writing this. Since you're reading it, you likely do, too. If you'd like to know more about the history of this activity, "For the Love of Movies" is a good place to start. It won't make the subject interesting otherwise, but for most watching the film, it doesn't have to.

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originally posted: 05/16/09 13:06:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 RiverRun International Film Festival For more in the 2009 RiverRun International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Oxford Film Festival For more in the 2010 Oxford Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/20/14 Charles Tatum Definitely needed a better focus, but still interesting. 4 stars
5/07/10 James Jones Peary's neither a critic nor a director. CRAP 1 stars
1/04/10 Jonathan Blitzstein Definition of BORING 1 stars
6/04/09 Robert Crappy doc: Peary's a clueless non-director 1 stars
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