As long as there have been movies, there have been critics. Those well versed in the language and art of cinema, explaining to even the most novice reader or viewer why they’ll like one movie over the other. Gerald Perry’s film, “For the Love of Movies,” follows American criticism from the birth of sound, to the revolution of the internet, stopping to pay homage at the altars of both Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.
Peary’s overall idea is a simple one- how has criticism changed in the last century? Are critics still necessary? What have critics brought to the table? If you look at early American cinema, you’ll see one of D.W. Griffith’s co-writers on “Birth of a Nation” was critic Frank Woods. François Traffaut started out as a critic, viewing thousands of films before making his own. And the conversations between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris are pretty well known now, with everyone taking a side.
Perry does a good job of staying on the sidelines, letting the critics he interviews, (and he interviews them all; Sarris, Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Molly Haskell, Rex Reed, Elvis Mitchell, and more,) tell the story. They name their influences and then we see the fruits of their labor, what each successive generation has spawned.
However, the movie also has a parallel storyline. It’s that of the fading critic in society. The movie opens up with a statistic from Variety about the number of critics who have lost their jobs in the past few years. As it reaches the present day, the movie shows the older critics being ousted by the younger critic. A younger critic gets paid less and, when things get tight, it is the last hired that get cut first.
And then the movie reaches the rise of the internet. The movie seems to be almost anti-internet, claiming that many of the people who post reviews on-line aren’t worthy enough critics because they don’t have the training that the previous generation of critics do. But if training is so important, why, when the question is asked early on, ‘what credentials do you need to be a film critic,’ does the movie use flippant sound bites from its subjects, laughingly answering the question with claims of having no credentials whatsoever? You can’t have it both ways. Someone who writes on-line, who’s seen 1,000 movies is just as valid a critic as A.O. Scott or Roger Ebert. Is their opinion worth taking as gospel? Maybe not, but that’s not what the question is.
But, “For the Love of Movies,” seems to want to play it both ways, celebrate the critic and then deride the new generation coming up, saying that they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s a shame, because before this point, I was enjoying the movie. It wasn’t the greatest thing I ever saw, but it was entertaining, and moved quickly enough, but never made you feel like it was paying lip service to any particular critic or style. And then it goes and ruins it all at the end by suggesting that those interviewed are worth considering, but it’s the opinions of the unnamed on-line masses that need to be ignored. Maybe an established critic can bring a trained eye to a subject, but one need look no further than Vincent Canby’s tenure at the New York Times to see someone who might have missed the mark on couple of occasions.
If learned criticism is important, than one cannot laugh off the question, “what makes you qualified to tell me what to think?” If anyone with a laptop and an internet connection is a critic, then it is incumbent for the reader to research whose opinion they will value. Internet criticism is not the bad guy, as this movie seems to say, it is another voice in a changing landscape.
“For the Love of Movies,” is a difficult one to sum up. It’s difficult because I enjoyed the first 85 minutes of the movie and disagreed completely with the last 5 minutes. Is it worth seeing for a history of American film criticism? Yes. Is it worth taking it’s message as gospel? Not at all. The makers should remember the old adage and take it to heart: everyone is a critic. -Sam