With all the consternation lately over the supposed death of film criticism, there’s been a lot of pushback from some quarters, from those who appear to consider themselves lovers of film and film criticism who nevertheless celebrate what looks like the end of an institution. Critics today are, these alleged purists maintain, too personal, too political, too damn opinionated, and this is why the art and craft is dying. If only all these critics who are losing their jobs had been like the objective, professional critics of old, these folks insist, criticism would be flourishing.
For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism should be required viewing for anyone who wants to comment on the state of film criticism today: as critic turned filmmaker Gerald Peary’s documentary demonstrates, the field has been chock full of personality clashes, political posturing, conflicts of interest, and damned opinionated voices since forever. From the very first critics — such Frank E. Woods, who went to work in Hollywood as a screenwriter with the artists he critiqued, and Vachel Lindsay, who couldn’t keep his crush on Mary Pickford out of his reviews — to Robert Sherwood, who in the 1920s defended movies against the “highbrows” who decried them as trash, to the battle of artistic wills that was the Pauline Kael-Andrew Sarris sparring of the mid 20th century, what we see here is that film criticism as an intellectual free-for-all is not something new to the Internet era but an inherent — and probably necessary — facet of the craft from the beginning. If criticism is “a profession under siege,” it’s not a result of critics somehow failing to live up to standards that have been forgotten.
Today, of course, film critics are the ones defending themselves against charges of being elitist highbrows, especially in the face of the rowdy brawl that is movie journalism online. If Peary only accidentally captures a sense of criticism as always having been as unruly as it is brainy — this is a staid film, all talking heads and static stills — well, that’s probably an unavoidable limitation of any project that’s an ultra-low-budget labor of love, as this was for Peary. I wish there was more of an exploration of the online criticism community today, but since this was a work in progress for most of the past decade, that couldn’t have been possible. It’s a bit disappointing to see the critics interviewed looking like a parade of almost exclusively old white men, from Stanley Kauffmann to Roger Ebert (pre his recent medical troubles), with just a few women and even fewer black men in the mix — while that undoubtedly an accurate portrait of film criticism of the past, it’s not the present and certainly not the future. It’s equally disappointing to see the online realm represented almost exclusively by Harry Knowles, and commentary on Internet film criticism from the old-guard critics limited to dismissive remarks about the ignorance of today’s self-made online critics. (Disclaimer: The film features a couple of screengrabs of an earlier iteration of FlickFilosopher.com in montages of film criticism Web sites, but I did not participate in the making of this movie, and was not contacted by Peary in any way during its production.)
Still, as a look back at what film criticism has been since the beginning of the film industry — and perhaps as inadvertant commentary on why some of the old guard don’t want to think about where it’s going — For the Love of Movies is well worth a look.