For The Love Of Movies: The Story Of American Film Criticism

For The Love Of Movies: The Story Of American Film Criticism


Reviewed by: Chris

Showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, this film preceded a panel discussion which was one of the best things I’d experienced all week. That it should spark off such animated dialogue is only one of the good things about For The Love Of Movies. I also adored the title, promising a documentary that has never been done before. The only other thing I liked was the last of the end-credits, after the rest of the film had instilled in me the excitement level equivalent to reading an ingredients list on a packet of Cup-a-Soup.

The audience and distinguished panel were less enthusiastic. Less enthusiastic than possibly the world’s most renowned popular-press critic, Roger Ebert, who apparently said: “I enjoyed it immensely, I learned a lot. Very well done, edited and researched – and narrated!” Roger Ebert does, coincidentally, feature quite heavily in this film. And presents himself better than most, it must be said. One critic not featured is Gerald Peary, who writes for the Boston Phoenix. But he is a member of the National Society of Film Critics, whose president says on their behalf, “It’s marvellous: the interviews, music, good humor. I had a terrific time watching it.” Pearce, however, is the movie’s director.

So there are different views. It compels me to explain that this film is not to be avoided lightly. Make a determined detour, if necessary, to avoid it forcefully. At all costs. Petition your local cinema to show it only on condition that noted academics discuss the subject afterwards. Then go along for the discussion alone.

EIFF’s discussion featured critics who are in a different category to newspaper opinion-makers. Editors of Sight & Sound, and of Screen. Both industry magazines. Both devoted to analysis rather than popular criticism. And both rather good at their jobs. One espoused the view that ‘preview’ criticism – the sort that newspapers publish – is dead. The future for critics is more one of post-viewing analysis, where a filmgoer might want a deeper understanding of certain aspects. Preview reviews can suffice as a short paragraph: Is it your sort of film? Is there a consensus for or against, or an alternative reading you might relate to? Stuff you can get online without buying a paper.

For The Love Of Movies takes a different approach. Pearce asks, would more people read the critics if they could see them? Personally, I am unable to convince myself of this. And Pearce doesn’t really bother, apart from parading them. Critics are not film stars or catwalk models. They are hardly objects to idolise. Many are neither charismatic in the flesh nor easy on the eye.

As online media takes hold, many critics lose jobs. This is presented as regrettable. Hard as it sounds, I'm not sure I agree. If no one pays money to read their columns, such critics might find more productive work. From the film, most do not even seem great graduates of film studies. They are fans. People who love movies and are lucky enough to get a nice job. There's no serious analysis of how they disseminate cinema. The film is a mere descriptive showcase in historical lecture format, a collection of soundbites and trivia.

The film would not make me respect the likes of James Agee and Susan Sontag had I not read them. The simplistic description of Agee as ‘an early proponent of auteur theory’ says little (there are better proponents). No mention is made of his deeply humanistic, everyman approach, or his bravery in dismissing a whole week’s worth of films as unwatchable. (Newspaper critics, of course, generally provide a set number of words, however bad the current crop is.) Susan Sontag, one of the greatest American thinkers of recent times when it comes to analysis of the arts (and many other things, including the nature of criticism) is here reduced to a mere name flashed onscreen (“Goodbye Sontag”).

It feels like an ill-judged attempt to hold on to jobs for newspaper hacks. A woman in the audience asks if the film is meant as provocation. Pearce appears not to understand, even after repeating and elaboration. I ask him why he has chosen to present the subject – one surely of most interest to hardcore filmgoers – in such a lightweight manner. He apologises that “it is not to everyone’s taste”. I agree, but it hardly answers the question. There is nothing wrong with lightweight films, it just seems an inappropriate approach. My interest is justification, or insight into the film, more than whether it is to my taste. There have been good and entertaining movies made about air guitar: why present film criticism as if it is even lower down the food chain?

“My first desire,” says Pearce, “is for an audience to become intimate with the reviewers behind the bylines, so it can be understood how critics think about and see movies.” This is well-intended, but the film doesn’t show it. Knowing that Roger Ebert loves films so much he watches them in his spare time doesn’t tell me how he writes about them, how he structures his reviews entertainingly. It might have given him immense narcissistic pleasure to see himself on the big screen, but this particularly self-serving Love Of Movies really presents him rather shoddily. (Roger – with respect – if you thought this horrendously slapdash editing was a job ‘very well done’, you must have seen a different cut. Or been on a lot of medication.)

It goes on. With Molly Haskell, who championed women film directors, it is still only descriptive. No feminist insights. Just soundbites.

For The Love Of Movies is an incredibly unlovable, boring movie, excruciating to sit through. The Friday Night With Jonathan Ross chat show is Pulitzer Prize material by comparison. The editing has as much bite as a bowl of soggy cornflakes. Ironically, Pearce does seem to have interesting ideas. He suggests in the discussion how film criticism can help to contextualise and make foreign-language films more accessible. But his good ideas are not contained in his film. If Mr Pearce is hoping to change careers any time soon, for whatever reason, I sincerely hope he finds a job more suited to his ability than directing.

The post-film discussion winds up with a rather cheap parting shot. Pearce, obviously aggrieved by the lack of enthusiasm, somehow infers that good critics say nice things about his film while those lacking in taste say nasty things. Apart from the rather pathetic psychological blackmail implied (even if unintentional), or the fact that ‘good’ critics quoted in the trailer have conflicts of interest, my duty is not to Mr Pearce and his estimation of my taste but to the filmgoer who might get little more than a torn-up ticket stub as reward for spending money on this poorly made effort. As a nice gesture to the director’s friends in the business, it might go down quite well. As a defence of why we need film critics at all, I am rather less convinced. I deeply suspect it is less successful on that score.

Reviewed on: 03 Jul 2009
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An introduction to the critics behind US film reviews.
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Director: Gerald Peary

Writer: Gerald Peary

Starring: Patricia Clarkson, Roger Ebert, Harry Jay Knowles, Mike Szymanski, A.O. Scott

Year: 2009

Runtime: 70 minutes

Country: US


EIFF 2009

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