On Wednesday afternoon, I went to a screening of For The Love Of Movies: The Story Of American Film Criticism, a charming documentary from veteran film critic Gerard Peary. The film had some dodgy editing and fell into some overfamiliar stylistic decisions (during talk of Hollywood in the 40s, oodles of stock footage made up most of what was going on on the screen) but was a commendable film, with some great anecdotes about the long-time rivalry between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Sarris followed the auteur theory practised by the critics at France’s Cahiers du cinema. Kael argued it was ‘anti-art’ and thus the rivalry was born. What has really stuck with me was the panel that followed straight after.
Unless you’ve had your head under a rock, you’ll have some kind of idea that the media industries are going through some pretty rough times at the moment, with newspapers and various other outlets haemorrhaging jobs, and this is something that Peary’s film touches in its opening titles and its last minutes: film critics are losing their jobs and the times they are a-changing for what the job entails. As the final part of the film touches on the impact the Internet and writers like Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, there’s visibly a line drawn between those who have decided to adapt film criticism to match the changing media landscape and those who believe that the Internet is, well, ruining it for everyone. For The Love Of Movies ends on a cautiously optimistic note, noting that while veteran critics are getting laid off day by day, such writing will be necessary for certain films to make any sort of impact.
Not that some members of the audience were listening. While the panel – led by Peary, John Caughie of Screen and Nick James of Sight and Sound – acknowledged that the internet was now more important a media outlet than ever before and that there were great writers to find out there in cyberspace. Questions (I say questions, I mean statements) were raised that pointed the finger of blame at the rise of Web 2.0, where critics “can not write or think”, to quote one of the peanut gallery. People still believe that the downfall of serious film criticism – or at least the public diminishing of it – is the fault of a kid and a keyboard, and that’s an unhealthy view to have.
The problem with people who subscribe to this school of thought and their attitudes towards the new turks is that they are built on truly reactionary opinions. Veteran critics are fired from jobs and now it is a usual sight to see them replaced by a younger critic with far less experience, as detailed in Peary’s film. This does not make it right to tar young critics with the same brush, a move that I believe teeters close to reverse ageism. And plus, wasn’t Pauline Kael part of the new school that helped move aside out-of-touch critics such as Bosley Crowther?
I guess what I’m saying is that this is all cyclical. At the start of film criticism, there was no real art to criticise or comment upon like there was with theatre, leaving only synopsises to be written. We are facing a switch back to these days, and if you pick up your local newspaper, if you are like me, you will read jaded, uninformed and dull reviews of recent releases that are description and little insight. There are people waiting in the woodworks, new and exciting talents ready to take what has come beforehand in new and exciting directions. Just like beforehand.
You have to realise that the ‘golden days’ is just a byword for someone’s youth. Nostalgia is potentially dangerous if used too much, and it is a drug that is making the peanut gallery at Wednesday’s screening the way they are, because they know no other way but to accept this defeat that doesn’t even exist! If there’s a problem, it is in the programmers of cinemas (anybody else notice how few foreign language and arthouse films Cineworld shows these days?) and the people who run studios who are putting out the same product.
Great critics, young or old, have always taken the ball and ran with it when it comes to the smaller pictures that really need it – and they still need it. Before I came to the festival, I read an editorial by James in Sight and Sound which challenged filmmakers to provoke, not only other critics, but to influence film. I am optimistic that a new generation of critics can do this, and if it will take years, I will wait. We need these new voices and we need them now.
So were any of you at the screening? Please let me know what you thought at twitter.com/sitartattoo because it’s a great thing to debate about, and check out For The Love Of Movies if you get a chance. It’s an entertaining and big-hearted history of film criticism and is definitely worth your time, if only even for the conversation you’ll have afterwards with your friends.
Til next time I check in…