(Full disclosure: current Cinematical Managing Editor Scott Weinberg and Cinematical co-founder Karina Longworth, now editor of Spout.com, make brief appearances in this film.)
Some documentaries demand to be seen on the big screen; others are best discovered while channel surfing. Gerald Peary's For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism falls into the latter category.
On the film's official site, Peary declares his doc to be "an unapologetic defense of a profession under siege." It's filled with talking head interviews with critics whose bylines are more familiar than their faces: A.O. Scott, J. Hoberman, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Owen Gleiberman, Kenneth Turan, and many others. It's a treat to see the best-known film critic on the planet, Roger Ebert, give a never-before-seen interview. The sound bites are distinctive, the insider's perspective is refreshing, the historical overview is welcome, and the overall impression is positive.
Here's the sticking point: For the Love of Movies features an academic approach to the subject. Unless you have a great interest in film criticism, it feels like you're watching a term paper. Peary is both a long-time film studies professor at Suffolk University and a film critic for The Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly, and is obviously not the first film critic to direct a movie.
Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut were critics before they made movies; so were fellow French New Wave directors Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette. The difference is that they were younger men in rebellion; Peary is an older man more interested in defending his longtime colleagues from charges that film criticism is no longer relevant or needed.
As a history of American film criticism, the documentary proceeds in straightforward, chronological order, beginning in 1907 when the first reviews appeared. They were less "reviews" than descriptions of the one-reelers that were becoming increasingly popular. As such, they appear to resemble many "reviews" / product descriptions that appear today, a point that is not commented on. Perhaps Peary felt that such connections are so obvious as to be self-evident, or perhaps he wanted to avoid editorializing. In any event, it establishes a pattern: describe the period, point out the dominant film critic(s) of the day, cut to interviews explaining why.
Vachel Lindsay is cited as the first professional film critic; Robert E. Sherwood became the first to be courted by Hollywood, eventually becoming a playwright and screenwriter. Otis Ferguson and James Agee are acknowledged as film critics who were literary stylists, bringing new respect to the profession.
The late 50s and 60s brought the auteur theory into prominence and the public feud between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris (pictured) flared up, lasting for years. Longtime New York Times critic Bosley Crowther came under fire for not really understanding the "New Hollywood." Siskel and Ebert began their TV show. The film rolls on to cover junket whores, the "new age" of critics exemplified by Harry Knowles, and the thinning of critical ranks as print publications start cutting expenses and shutting down.
Peary mentioned at the screening that documentarian Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential, Go Further, Know Your Mushrooms) began the project before Peary took it over. I would have liked to have seen what Mann made of it. Chances are the result would have been less precise, less polite, more provacative, and more compelling for movie fans in general. Mann would have brought an outsider's perspective, which would not have been as refreshing as Peary's "inside baseball" view, but is badly needed for a profession that is far too often self-involved to the point of solipsism.
Peary also said that more than 200 hours of footage was shot over a period of eight years; on his personal site, he notes a number of sequences that didn't make the final cut, some of them might have added variety and, dare I say, much needed spark to the presentation.
As a film critic with only a few years under my belt, I'm very glad the documentary exists. And I think anyone with an interest in film criticism is well advised to seek it out. It's a good starting point, but certainly not the last word, on American film criticism.