“For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism” directed by Gerald Peary
“The new Disney cartoon ‘Bambi’ is interesting because it’s the first one that’s been entirely unpleasant,” is the unforgettable opening line of Manny Farber’s film review written in June of 1942. It’s the kind of review that makes film critics envious–focused, funny, written with verve and calling upon a deep visual intelligence. I mention Farber because he and his writing appear prominently in For the Love of Movies, a documentary about the history of American film criticism directed by Gerald Peary. Mr. Peary is himself the film critic for The Boston Phoenix, so you would be correct in surmising that, given its maker and subject, the documentary offers a cornucopia of film critics. (I struggled with the collective noun for such a gathering: perhaps I should have settled on a confusion.)
The heavyweights are included--Roger Ebert (*The Chicago Sun-Times*), A O Scott (*The New York Times*), J Hoberman (*The Village Voice*), Richard Schickel (*Time*) and Lisa Schwarzbaum (*Entertainment Weekly*)--as are the featherweights--Harry Knowles (*aintitcool.com*), Mike Szymanski (*zap2it.com*) and Scott Weinberg (*cinematical.com*). For the most part, this latter group has little to say about the history of film criticism, since they are its irredeemable present. They measure their success in website hits and the number of times they have been quoted. When Jonathan Rosenbaum from the *Chicago Reader* says that, "the best thing that can be said of a critic is that what he writes is so singular and interesting that you can't turn it into advertising," you are aware he has drawn a line in the sand and the boy from *zap2it.com* is decidedly on the other side. One of the more appealing aspects of the documentary is the respect paid by present-day critics to their predecessors. So A O Scott delightfully recounts how Bosley Crowther described a John Ford movie as "a dilly of a calvary picture" ("I could never write that sentence but I kind of wish that I could," says Scott), while Stuart Klawans, the critic for *The Nation*, enthuses over Farber's jazz-inflected and allusive style of writing. *The New Republic's* Stanley Kauffmann, who is a figure in the very history he is defining (he has been writing about film for over 50 years) is eloquent about Vachel Lindsay's *The Art of the Moving Picture*, "the first serious book about film in America." Lindsay was infatuated by Mary Pickford, whom he compared to a Botticelli, and saw film as "painting in motion, poetry of the eye." The most compelling critics in the film are those whose writing reflects the widest aesthetic sensibility. Lisa Schwarzbaum is spot on when she says that the best training a film critic can undergo is to have the most broadly based experience and interests. In comparison, film nerds live only for film and as a result tend to write busily one-dimensional, nerdy reviews.
The film opens with a lament for the decline in the number of film critics--we are told that 28 have recently been dismissed form their positions--and it is a disturbing trend. But the news is worse than that number would indicate. What the documentary also shows is that in place of serious film critics, the Internet has facilitated (and I'll have no trouble with the collective noun for this group) a plague of bloggers. There are those in the film generous enough to view this development as a healthy democratization, a state where everyone is a film critic. They're welcome to that opinion. What the film makes clear is that one Stanley Kauffmann is worth a hundred Harry Knowles. "What I see of Internet reviewing," says Richard Schickel, "is people of surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves in the medium."
*For the Love of Movies* aspires towards the surpassing. In one way, it suffers from its own ambition. The film wants to do everything; in telling the story of film criticism in America, it also wants to say what criticism is, who critics are, and why they write. Peary is a sort of documentary D W Griffith, attempting not only the birth of a discipline but its history and demise as well. Because he has so much content, he inescapably becomes a filmmaker in search of a structure. His solution--to use chapter headings tied to periods of time for the history segments, "How I Began" testimonials to introduce the critics, and a series of written questions about reviews and reviewing--is an awkward one. It gives the film velocity but no shape. Inside that shapelessness is a series of ideas, any one of which would have made an engaging and layered film. The distinction between termite and elephant culture first articulated by Manny Farber parallels Kauffmann's two-part division of film criticism into popular newspaper writing and the kind of intellectual inquiry that turned up in small circulation magazines like *Theatre & Film and Close-Up*.
A further connection can be made to the pitched battle between Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael and their respective followers, the Paulettes and the Sarrisites. Sarris is still alive and is especially present in the film while Kael, who died in 2001, appears courtesy of film clips and through quotations from her reviews. But their professional relationship tells its own layered history of allegiances and reformations. While Sarris and Kael fought over the auteur theory, they were united in their opposition to the later criticism of Bosley Crowther, the aging film critic of the *New York Times*. " Pauline, Andrew and I," says Richard Schickel, "looked at movies in an immoral way," and the difference between that perspective and Crowther's was profound. The watershed film was Bonnie and *Clyde*, 1967, which Crowther thought completely immoral and Kael regarded as a work of genius. Her description of the gangster couple's "ragdoll dance of death" as "brilliant" is itself just that: simple description raised to the level of a critical poetics.
It is also an example of how effective Peary can be in his choice of film clips to support what the critics are saying. While he has a tendency to be too literal in his marriage of clip and text, one of the delights of the documentary is that we get to see a fairly wide selection of film greats and not-so-greats, including *Birth of a Nation*, 1915, *King Kong*, 1933, *Swiss Miss*, 1938, *La Strada*, 1954, *Rosemary's Baby*, 1968, *A Trip to the Moon*, 1902, *Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend*, 1906, and *Two Thousand Maniacs!*, 1964.
Critical disagreements, like the dispute between Sarris and Kael, are matched by other complicated developments, from the rise of feminist film criticism and the ascendancy of women critics at mainstream newspapers to the battles between critics and directors, represented by James Cameron's assault on Kenneth Turan after his review of *Titanic*, 1997, appeared in the *Los Angeles Times*. Cameron lobbied unsuccessfully to get Turan fired from his "bully pulpit," a case, if ever there was one, of a director pot calling a critic kettle black. Any and all of these are worthy subjects, but their treatment in *For the Love of Movies* underlines how much Peary skims over the surface of American film criticism's history.
Beyond the problems of form, he is vexed by the double-edged sword that hangs above all documentaries, and not just his own: it has to be a film of substance and it has to be entertainment. This latter requirement directs him to personalize the film critics and to privilege the anecdotal over the substantial. The most curious instance of this tendency leads into the first chapter on the history of film, where the narrator asks, "Would criticism be more valued if their faces and voices were known, and their back story and history?" The testimonials that punctuate the film are attempts to give those back stories, and they are often self-effacing fun. Molly Haskell wickedly connects the relationship in *Les Diaboliques*, 1955, between Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzot, with the women teachers in the girl's school she was attending, while Sarris understands that the terror he felt watching the shower scene in Psycho, 1960, was somehow related to the fact that he was still living with his mother in Queens. "I was very susceptible to that maternal figure looming in the doorway with a big knife. I literally screamed. It scared the hell out of me." These stories are charming, but Gertrude Stein was right when she said anecdotes weren't literature. She would have been just as right if she'd said they aren't criticism either. *For the Love of Movies* keeps promising more than it delivers, until you finally realize that it will never be more than an entertaining necklace of loosely connected ideas. It's one of those movies whose shortcomings make you realize how much movies can do.
In his splendid 65-year-old review of *Bambi*, Manny Farber did have good things to say about the comedies in which Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, held down by nothing human, generate what he calls terrific pace and action. "It was a wonderful movie shambles." If you edit out the adjective, that last line pretty well sums up the present history of *For the Love of Movies*.
Robert Enright is the film critic for Border Crossings.