Very much like a survey course for college freshmen, “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism” briskly covers a great deal of ground, and often engages with illuminating insights, but isn’t designed to offer anything more than a cursory overview. Pic actually could wind up being a valuable teaching tool for educators in film studies programs, and might also attract receptive auds in cable and pubcast venues. Trouble is, Gerald Peary’s once-over-lightly approach may disappoint the very people who’d be most inclined to view a doc on this subject in the first place.
Peary, a vet film critic and historian, spent several years conducting interviews with dozens of reviewers (and a few of the people they’ve reviewed), which he supplements with archival material and, only occasionally, readings from the work of key subjects.
Pic overall is structured as an era-by-era chronicle, beginning in the early 1900s and ending in the early 21st century, but often interrupts its march of time for comments from critics about their work habits, early influences and hopes (or fears) regarding the future.
Peary does a fine job of balancing gray eminences and young Turks in his lineup of interviewees. Stanley Kaufmann is authoritatively eloquent while describing the earliest reviewers (circa 1909-29) as writers who “were discovering film as they were writing about it.” But Elvis Mitchell is all youthful exuberance while recalling his first gig as a critic: “The idea of going to the movies for free? That was like the express train to heaven.”
Docu pays due tribute to such early masters as Frank E. Woods (who went on to co-script “The Birth of a Nation”) and Otis Ferguson (whose brilliant career was cut short by his death in WWII), and allows some contemporary writers to speak appreciatively and sometimes amusingly about their peers and predecessors.
Stuart Klawans praises the idiosyncratic Manny Farber for writing “nothing that could be considered standard English.” And John Powers can barely contain his laughter while recalling his first visit to a critics’ gathering where those who had chosen sides in the long-running feuds between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were, quite literally, seated at opposite ends of the room.
In his own interview, Sarris is just classy enough to muffle any remaining animosity he might harbor toward the late Kael. But he and others make little effort to hide their disapproval of another deceased scribe, Bosley Crowther, the longtime New York Times critic whose “moralistic view” of movies drove him to repeatedly pan “Bonnie and Clyde” (a vendetta, as legend has it, that ultimately cost him his job).
For all its attempts to offers an expansive and exhaustive historical account, the docu is riddled with glaring gaps and facile transitions. Some notables are extremely conspicuous by their absence. Inexplicably, there’s absolutely no mention of Judith Crist, even though her prominent outlets — “The Today Show,” New York magazine and TV Guide — made her, arguably, the most widely known U.S. critic in the 1960s and early ‘70s.
On the other hand, Peary dutifully hits most of the right notes while recycling much of the conventional wisdom, predictably if accurately singling out 1968-80 as the era “when criticism mattered.” But while he tries to be balanced, there’s no mistaking the disapproval in the docu’s tone as it details how, in the Internet age, eager young upstarts are either democratizing or dumbing down film criticism.
Right from the start, “For the Love of Movies” cautions that film criticism currently is “a profession under siege,” as newspapers and magazines pinkslip experienced scribes to slash expenses and/or skew younger. Ironically, the docu is even more affecting than it might otherwise have been because, since its completion, far more vets have been dropped from papers and periodicals. For anyone who has kept track of this critical condition, comments by the more wistful interviewees will sound almost painfully melancholy.
Production values are uneven, suggesting the pic was a labor of love cobbled together with pinched pennies. It will be interesting to see if any copyright holders complain about the abundant use of clips from classic movies.