The last of my Edinburgh International Film Festival interviews from this year. I met Gerald Peary, critic and director of the documentary FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES: THE STORY OF AMERICAN FILM CRITICISM, which is a combined history lesson and elegy for the days in which critics could really stir up some popular debate about movies. The tracing of film criticism’s development in the States was very interesting to me, since I knew virtually nothing about the early days, and as Gerald hoped, it was also interesting to see and hear from the people behind the bylines — the movie features a large cast of contemporary writers, from Jonathan Rosenbaum to Elvis Mitchell, Molly Haskell to Kenneth Turan.
The week of the screening, Andrew Sarris, as close as the film has to a hero, had just lost his job at the New York Observer, lending credence and urgency to the film’s argument that serious movie discussion is under threat.
My main issue with the film is that it located the internet as a primary source of that threat, rather than perhaps offering a place of refuge for serious cinephilia. Harry Knowles makes an easy target (hard to miss), and is cast as more-or-less as the film’s villain (with Pauline Kael representing a different sort of malignity). I saw my mission as being to talk Gerald round to the joys of cyberspatial film discourse, at least a little.
DAVID CAIRNS: I wanted to ask how you became a film critic.
GERALD PEARY: Well, I did not intend to be a film critic. I guess the preconditions are (1) that I was a total movie lover all my life from the time I was like three and four years old. I remember my mother and I would walk down the street and I would run into a theater and my mother would be , “Where’s my boy?” and I would be sitting there, having somehow sneaked past everybody, watching images. So I always watched movies avidly. And then, really pretty early, aged about fifteen, I started reading film critics. And I learned incredible amounts from critics long before I was one. Critics sent me to movies I wouldn’t have gone to, and they also increased my consciousness about cinema and did all kinds of good things.
But I was an English major, I think I was going to be an English professor, and then I was a drama person and I directed plays and acted in plays. [...] And at some point I got tired of drama, I got tired of actors — I hated actors, hated working with them — and I was in graduate school and I started writing film reviews for the school newspaper and found it really interesting. And I guess I’ve continued to do that forever and ever since. And here I am.
DC: So it makes sense that you’d make a movie one day, since you’ve been involved in the practice of drama…
GP: This is the first movie I’ve ever made and certain parts of it seemed easier, maybe because years ago I worked with actors, I know how to put actors at ease. [...] I guess it was easier for me to talk to people, I think the critics in the movie are pretty comfortable on camera. That’s what most people say, they really enjoy the critics, they say what they want, they’re not inhibited.
DC: So, why did you decide to make this film? And why make it as a film?
GP: There is no film history, to this point, of American film criticism. There is no book. Whether this is the right way to make it or not, I don’t know. I’d be too lazy, and overwhelmed, and have too many things in my life to write the history, because even now, people say, “Well, you’ve done the movie, why don’t you do the book?” Nooo! That just sounds SO overwhelming to do. So this was, it wasn’t easier, because this took eight years to make, but it wasn’t sitting at a table all day long reading and writing, it was a different phenomenon, and there’s something a bit social about making movies. Which is kind of fun, being with editors and doing interviews and things.
DC: Yeah. I’ve made some short films, and that’s what I would be doing if people were queuing up to give me money to make films…
GP: Well they’re not queuing up to give me money either, believe me…
DC: How did you manage it?
GP: Well it was practically impossible. People never realise, because obviously America’s so rich in so many ways, that there’s no government money at all, for anything. We have this idiotically self-reliant idea that the arts should not be paid for at all by government. “That’s your job.” So I think in other countries this movie could have been financed, because it’s a cultural history of my country. This was completely private money. And there’s no reason for anybody to invest in this movie. Actually, we don’t have any investors. My wife was the producer of this movie, I’m the director, and it was just trying to beg money thousands of ways, over many, many, many years. We actually did — which really worked quite well — we did a campaign, sending out letters to friends and acquaintances, asking for $100 per person, and we collected $18,000 that way, which at a certain moment was unbelievably important in keeping the movie barely going. I’m amazed it’s finally finished.
You do have a phenomenon, I’m sure it’s all over, of all kinds of fake producers, bullshit producers, who keep coming in and claiming, “Oh, we’re gonna make your movie,” and after all their baloney, the one thing they don’t do is put any money into the movie. They want to change it, they want to influence it, they have big ideas… Over the years we had lots of fake producers who came in and out, and in the end the movie kept coming back to me and to Amy Geller, the producer, my wife. And so, in the end, we actually made exactly the movie we wanted to make. Which is really good. So I’m glad all those people went away, because at certain points I would have been tempted — anything, just to finish the movie.
But eight years really is a long time.
DC: I guess one of the things that happened during that period was the so-called decline of print journalism, these firings and redundancies of senior film critics –
GP: One of the many ways that the film changed form over the years is that eight years ago, film criticism still seemed a viable profession. Even then, obviously I want more people to read criticism and take it seriously, so that’s always been an objective, but I had no idea then that everybody in America was going to lose their job; by now, there are over fifty critics who are “made redundant” as you say over here — we say “fired” in the States. So the movie has an urgency that it didn’t have when it was conceived. I guess dramatically that helps the film. Or melodramatically. But it’s not a happy melodrama, because I’d rather critics were employed and doing well.
The world’s biggest blogger, Harry Knowles.
DC: And parallel with that is the rise of the blog, and people getting their criticism on the IMDb, or from blogs or from Harry Knowles — who’s almost the villain of your film, but not quite, because he’s so affable.
GP: Much more than trying to vilify anybody in the film, I sort of lay it out, and I do want people to decide for themselves; Harry Knowles or not Harry Knowles; the internet or print journalism; or Pauline Kael versus Andrew Sarris. So people read Harry Knowles in different ways. In general, I can say, the older the person is, the more they want to strangle him –
[But how would they get their hands around that redwood of a throat? -- DC]
GP: — and the younger they are the more they identify with him. Certain kinds of web critics resent Harry Knowles because he comes their representative, and that’s not the way they write or the way they think.
DC: He is sort of the representative in your film. If I was going to pitch in with a defense of the blogosphere, I guess I would say that I wouldn’t want him — I don’t hate the man — but I wouldn’t want him necessarily to stand for all of what’s going on on the internet.
GP: Right. We have Karina Longworth also in the film, who is [...]definitely an up-and-coming critic in America. Critics in print who read her work tend to respect her work. She knows her stuff.
DC: And she’s a writer, not a typer. So… it still feels to me sometimes that I’m doing what I do for free, and while I feel fine about doing that, on the other hand I could be taking food from your children’s mouths by providing free film criticism… All this free material is definitely a contributing factor to the crisis in print. I don’t imagine that newspapers are going to disappear [as Jonathan Romney put it, So people are going to carry their laptops everywhere?] and I think those that remain will still carry some criticism. But what’s your take on that?
GP: I think it probably depends on the country. I think you’re right, I mean, most of the papers in America that have lost their critics still have reviews but they tend to be consolidated, they tend to be wire service and they don’t pay particularly. So Roger Ebert is in more places than ever, whether that’s good or bad… Maybe it’s different here, maybe America was very good this way, that it has a long tradition of local critics who are in each city and can write about things from the perspective of somebody in that city. When a filmmaker from that region shows a movie, good or bad, that filmmaker will get some space in the paper, and I think that’s nice, and certainly that’s going away with the homogenization. [...] The Village Voice is an egregious case of a great newspaper just being dismantled. That’s what I grew up on, forty years ago, was reading the Village Voice, which had the best critics in the world, and that’s where my consciousness came from, and so the idea that it’s just part of a conglomerate today, just one cog, is really very disheartening.
Andrew Sarris in FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES.
DC: It seems your film is a bit of a lament for the days “when film criticism mattered,” as it says in the film. What I wondered is, do you feel that film critics should have power — in the way that Pauline Kael had power and people said she could make or break a film — ? Do you think that is a wholly positive thing?
GP: No. Well, I’m not sure Pauline Kael could make or break a film. Of the two, I suppose “making a film” is much more positive than sending it scurrying away. I guess several Pauline Kael reviews, like her NASHVILLE review and her BONNIE AND CLYDE review were two, her LAST TANGO IN PARIS review, seemed to have a great effect on the films. It’s in-between. I like the idea that critics can help a good film. I wouldn’t be doing this otherwise. There’s nothing more pleasurable than sending people to a movie that you like and find worthy, and people see it and thank you because they saw it, and they now have joined the crowd and also like that film. That power is completely diminished, and perhaps completely gone, and that’s far from the idea of power-brokers. The New York Times used to be the paper for the foreign language film, if the New York Times critic didn’t like a foreign language film it was absolutely gone. If he liked it, it might do OK. And that really is far too much power for any one person to have.
[It occurs to me that powerful critics, even if they're not a universal good, might still be a useful balance against the publicity power of the studios, which is almost all we have left. Well, that and the capricious will of the audience, which does still seem to reject a few of the blockbusters shoveled in its direction, although it's not clear to me on what basis LAND OF THE LOST is rejected while JURASSIC PARK is accepted, or why TRANSFORMERS is somehow less hideous than PEARL HARBOR. -- DC]
DC: In that case, is there something to be said for the “cacophony of voices” on the internet, because people will find their favourite writers — one hopes people will seek out writers whose tastes correspond roughly to their own. There might still be powerful critics but each one is powerful to a much smaller constituency.
GP: I think you just said it. That constituency is so small that in terms of theatrical releases it doesn’t matter, practically, at all. Do you know of a case where an internet reviewer has influenced — “box office” sounds too vulgar — but brought lots of people to see a movie?
DC: Probably not. I know cases where I’ve gone to see a film because of something I’ve read on the internet that intrigued me…
[Here is where Harry Knowles is a significant figure, because he has probably had a positive effect on some smaller films, provided they’re the kind of entertainments he likes. Because he has, it seems, literally gazillions of readers. — DC]
GP: Well that’s good, the fact that you do that is good. I come from print, obviously, but you should seek good critics, somebody who has your sensibility, wherever you find them. Perhaps in the future there might be some sort of falling off, and people on the web who are just more dilettantes will go away, the more serious critics will stay, and that there will be less of them. Because less probably will be more influential than more. And there might be a time when certain web critics are good and valuable and might send readers to good movies. That would be nice.
DC: [...] I’m just happy if a couple of people read a piece and that might lead them to a film. There’s that warm feeling you get…
GP: You got it: the warm feeling. I like that phrase: “the warm feeling.” Because why are you doing this unless you’re sending people to movies.
DC: And sometimes you might want to warn them off something that was a horrible experience, or at least report that you had a horrible experience and say “You decide for yourselves.” [A strange "cold feeling" actually comes when somebody tells me they won't be seeing a film as a result of reading one of my pieces, however much I hated the film. I'd still rather people saw and decided for themselves...]
GP: Well that’s it, “You decide.” Pauline Kael, there wasn’t any “you decide” for her. She used the term “You the reader,” she used this rhetorical device where she told you what YOU thought about the movie, and it was very bullying and intimidating. I don’t tell what someone will think, I never could tell. That’s part of her critical arrogance.
DC: I guess it comes down to also what you consider the purpose of criticism to be. Whether it’s a consumer guide to help people find the films they might like, or whether it can be more than that and illuminate a film — even a film that somebody doesn’t like, they might find something in it…
GP: You’ve said it very well. People make that critic/reviewer distinction. I guess I believe in all the good things about criticism, but I guess that little part of me, the consumer part — because it’s such a bad moment right now, because everybody’s just going to all the bad movies — I do wish critics had a little more influence putting pants in seats. But obviously the most important part — opinion is the least interesting part of the reviews, contextualizing is what’s really good…
DC: One thing that’s probably hurt the business of reviewing is studios producing films that are so pre-packaged — you don’t need to read a review of TRANSFORMERS II to have an idea of what it’s going to be. Who needs an analysis of that?
GP: The thing is, people do need analysis of that, but they don’t care about it. It would be really nice if people read some good — instead of fanboy garbage — analysis of a Hollywood product is interesting stuff if it’s written well. But nobody wants to know that kind of stuff who goes to see TRANSFORMERS.
DC: Yes. But the consumer guide aspect of reviewing goes away when the audience can just look at the poster and have a very clear idea of what the experience will be.
GP: I don’t know if they always have a clear idea. With certain STAR WARS movies, everybody heard they were terrible but they still went anyway. It just doesn’t matter.
DC: That’s a scary phenomenon. The movie that’s so powerful: society’s saying you have to see this. The logline for THE DA VINCI CODE was “Be a part of the phenomenon.”
GP: Oh that’s great, yeah. I read one page of the book, which I laughed at, so horrible, and then I never saw the movie.
DC: One of the things that’s really sweet in your film is your asking people for their primal movie experience, and since you don’t include your own, I thought I really ought to ask you what -
GP: My primal one. Well I think I remember the most ones that scared the shit out of me, so the movie — it took me years to figure out… one I don’t know: one was a film about typhoid fever, in which Typhoid Mary — and if anyone can identify this — Typhoid Mary at one point went to a water fountain and drank water from it, and then she walked away and then a little kid came along and got typhoid… And then, in the movie there’s this movie THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, which I saw as a child and didn’t sleep for a month, because I was worried that my hair would turn green.
But then there are more things like John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS, which I can say is my favourite movie, and I saw it when I was eleven years old. It was in a movie theatre and I saw it four days in a row. And then I wandered away and did other stuff in life, I saw foreign movies and Bergman movies, and then I came back to THE SEARCHERS and THE SEARCHERS is my favourite movie again.
DC: The Typhoid Mary thing rings a bell… [I was thinking of STARS IN MY CROWN, which has an infected well/outbreak subplot, I think. Suggestions welcome. - DC]
GP: And then there was another one about the Chicago fire which absolutely killed me.
DC: Could it be IN OLD CHICAGO?
GP: It might be, yes. I think I saw it years later and it was very benign, it wasn’t anything. My biggest disappointment as a child was, I lived in this town way up in the mountains in the States, and it was a snowy city, and at the university where my father taught I thought they were showing THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. I remember going through the snow two miles to get to this theatre walking in to see THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO but no, it was THE COUNTESS OF MONTE CRISTO, which was a Sonja Henie ice skating film. Complete disillusion, life was bad. I think that was the moment I discovered that…
DC: …that the movies can lie.
GP: But I have lots of childhood memories. I think Martin Scorsese is about the same age as me, and when I hear about his childhood movies they’re often the same as mine. LAND OF THE PHARAOHS is another –
DC: Oh, my partner was deeply alarmed by Joan Collins and the sand pouring in –
GP: Oh yes, the sealing up, that was alarming and fantastic too, because she was a real bitch and deserved it. Joan Collins, I remember. But that was another big childhood favourite. The movies that I liked as a little child almost always turned out to be by auteur directors. Somehow I had this eye, without knowing it. I was a child genius for picking great director movies.
DC: I haven’t calculated whether I had any particular knack for that. I know a lot of them did turn out to be interesting movies, but certainly a lot of them didn’t.
GP: Well there were some, I watched cowboy movies with Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers movies, and those are pretty terrible; FLASH GORDON, which seemed very real and is just hilarious now. But when I was seven years old I went to this movie about these kids who were lost — there was a plane crash, they were lost in the snows of Alaska, and their parents were divorced and their parents come looking for the children and got together, so it had everything. And it turned out to be by Joseph H Lewis.
DC: Wow, I’ve never seen that one!
Or heard of it. It turns out to be DESPERATE SEARCH. If anybody has a copy, I’d love to see it. I then recommend THE INVISIBLE GHOST, which GP hasn’t seen. By now, we’re getting one rather well, and Gerald tells me “You really know your stuff,” which is very pleasing. I agree to email him when this goes up, which I’m doing, and he asks me to recommend a few of my favourite blogs, which I’m doing. But I’m not sure I should tell you which.
Several of you will probably be outraged that Mr. Peary doubts the value of the blog — but let’s keep things polite: I want to win the guy over! GP’s own website, linked to at the top of this post, is an invaluable web resource bursting with reviews and fascinating interviews (great Sam Fuller profile!) and it’d be lovely if the man could be encouraged to update it and join the blogosphere.