Critical Condition


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.

harryThe 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.

for-the-love-of-moviesAndrew 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.

24 Responses to “Critical Condition”

  1. Well, whatever critics think of blogs, here’s my opinion: where else in the world you get a public service (i.e. as the one I get through this post), strictly for the love of movies?

    I just grinned at reading this “I got tired of actors — I hated actors, hated working with them —”, for I always had the impression that hating actors is a pre-requisite of the critical professional (though, you know, I have a strong pro-actors byas myself).

    However, anybody rooting for “Land of the Pharaohs” is a soul brother to me (i have a family story related to it, too long to elaborate), heck, it’s got one of the creepiest, and at the same time coolest (coz everyone ends hating La Collins there) endings of the story of film.

    Blast, it even has James Robertson Justice daring to go beyond his James Robertson Justice film persona!

  2. I too was at the EIFF screening of For the Love of Movies and started out broadly sympathetic, but by the end (and especially of the post-screening discussion) my irritation level was pretty high for exactly the reasons you outline, i.e. print=good, online=bad. So jobs are lost because of technological change; that’s been the way of the world for centuries, otherwise we’d still be employing people to illuminate manuscripts.

    I await a published history of film reviewing with interest. In the meantime can I recommend American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now edited by Phillip Lopate which contains extracts from many of the early writers mentioned in Peary’s film.

  3. The Forum at “The Auteurs” is a perfect example of the decline of serious thinking about film. I can barely post over there. it’s full of smart-asses. All I end up doing is attacking them. But they’re like ants at a picnic.

    Harry Knowles is indeed the enemy. He’s a fat ugly slob chewing his way through cinema — as if it were a giant bag of “sliders” and nothing more.
    He gives fat ugly slobs a bad name.

    His site, “Ain’t It Cookl News,” takes its name from a line Travolta spews in Pulp Fiction — hence Tarantino’s link to the destruction of cinema.

  4. I would be very interested in seeing a documentary history of film criticism; I hope James Agee got his due from Mr. Peary.

    It sounds as though Mr. Peary’s view of the blogosphere is a bit circumscribed. Karina is indeed a very good blogger, but I believe she herself would be uncomfortable being the sole representative of responsible blogging. If all Mr. Peary does is come back regularly to Shadowplay, I believe his opinion of film blogging will improve a great deal.

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Let me say that I am at least 15 years younger than Mr. Knowles…and I reject him as any representative of my generation and our movie tastes. I am totally on the side of the old farts of movie criticism rather than Mr. Knowles eternal post-adolescence.

    I like blogs as much as the next guy but I don’t desire it as any replacement for the old and the good print journalism.

    And ditto to Mr. Peary…it is the mission of all civilized people to admire a masterpiece such as LAND OF THE PHAROAHS. Only I don’t necessarily see Joan Collins in that film as a “bitch”.

  6. david wingrove Says:

    While I enjoyed the LOVE OF MOVIES documentary up to a point, I did feel it rested on a false dichotomy – i.e. print vs online criticism.

    Can we not just accept the fact that the bulk of writing in any medium, on any subject, tends to be pretty bad? A small proportion (if we’re lucky) may turn out to be stimulating, intelligent and worth reading? The medium in which that writing occurs is almost beside the point.

    Yes, Harry Knowles looks pretty ghastly. (Mind you, I didn’t even know he was before I saw the film, and the portrayal of him may well be unfair.) Let’s not forget, however, that for every Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris there were at least a dozen columnists like Louella Parsons or Hedda Hopper – who were as ignorant as Harry Knowles but infinitely more bigoted, malevolent and destructive.

    Of course, it is true that it’s more difficult to be paid these days for reviewing movies. However, having had several years of experience as a paid movie critic, I really do wonder if the hours of godawful cinema I was forced to sit through were in any way worth the (pitifully small) amounts of money I was paid.

  7. I must watch Pharaohs again, I remember feeling some sympathy for Joan!

    I’ve heard about the Lopate anthology and do intend to pick it up. I have a book of his own critical writing which is very nice. And I’d like to read some of those early guys, pre-Agee, whom I know nothing about.

    Forums are tricky because they attract people with such disparate tastes and temperaments. The dialogue on a blog is usually quite civilized because it’s a self-selecting group who take part because they get on. The readers I’ve met have been just as delightful in person!

    Indeed, following Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is crap, including both print and web writing. This doesn’t invalidate either medium (which is what they are — means of distribution for writing).

    I do think the print/web dichotomy is a false one, although I can certainly understand the anxiety of print journalists threatened with job loss. Peary spoke of the “cacophony of voices” on the internet, which to me is a positive thing: all you need is time or a little help to locate the voices you like to listen to. There’s no cacophony here (apart from the voices in my head).

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    The general problem seems to be that film criticism doesn’t get respect as a practise in it’s own right unlike literary criticism and music criticism. People think “everybody” can be a critic. No one tries to distinguish between Harry Knowles, who is ideally a survey man for a big movie’s publicity department, from an actual film critic like, say for the sake of argument, Roger Ebert. Then there are critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chris Fujiwara who are savvy about cinema as well as general life experience nd how cinema is important as a mirror for the latter. And who have an unpretentious sense of humour, similar to Andrew Sarris.

  9. Phil Lopate was a contributor to Moviegoer, a very small much loved film magof yore edited by James Stoller. It published Susan Sontag on Vivre sa Vie, Manny Farber, Roland Barthes, and others of serious interest.

    We have nothing of its like today.

  10. * As others have noted, Peary’s film is shallow on the subject of bloggers (the best of whom are better than the best newspaper reviewers), but the film itself really isn’t much more than a primer on the history of American film criticism, and I don’t think it could have been much more. I doubt if that subject–which depends so much on examining styles of writing and thought–can really be addressed in a thorough way on film, or at least in the very conventional documentary format used by Peary. Part of the usefulness of Lopate’s anthology is that it’s a much deeper look at the subject in a medium better suited to it.

    * I haven’t found Kael’s use of the impersonal you to be bullying or intimidating, since to me it’s a greater invitation to debate than simple use of the I.

  11. Well with Pauline it varies. Where she becomes really annoying is when she says “everybody knows” that North to Alaska is better than Hatari! — cause everybody doesn’t.

  12. That certainly sounds a bit like bullying to me. Too many of her statements always struck me as useless for those who disagree with them: she’s 90% opinion, and although she expresses her opinions forcefully and with some style, what good, ultimately, are they to anyone else?

    Not sure if the bets bloggers are better than the best critics — of all time? Surely not. Today? Possibly. I do think the job of reviewing all the week’s releases would be very hard to do well.

  13. I wouldn’t say best critics of all time, but best newspaper reviewers of today, a depressingly small number in itself. Some of the reviewers are now also blogging, so that complicates things…

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    I’ve been reading this interview and comments with great interest today. To begin with, let me confess my ignorance. I never heard of Harry Knowles until today. Secondly, some blogs and internet discussion groups can be appalling. On the other hand, this site (along with and,).is so stimulating since I can enjoy reading some very intelligent comments that I rarely find lack in the non-urban environment of Black Rock. Thirdly, I feel like giving David E. a virtual hug when I noted his remark about Tarantino’s “link to the destruction of cinema”! Working in a university with so many “film experts” in different departments with students who do not bother to explore the richness of cinema itself worshiping instead false idols such as QT makes me appreciate a site such as this with really insightful comments I very rarely hear.

    Yes, GP needs to extend his knowledge further as we all do in different areas of cinema and life.

    Finally, some concluding comments on LAND OF THE PHAROAHS. As well as being a trial run for Alexis Carrington, Joan Collins’s “wicked” Princess Nellifer is really a fighting against a male-dominated world that only accepts her for her body and not her intelligence. Certainly, the engineer background of Hawks reveals that he was really excited in the sequence showing how the tombs were sealed in that era but L0P has other merits as well.

  15. Dewey Martin in a tea towel for one.

  16. Knowles is just a passionate fanboy with a love of popcorn movies. I think it’s kind of tragic that he’s so widely read, but that’s not his fault. I don’t share his tastes much and his writing is a fairly basic, but he conveys enthusiasm. Likewise Tarantino’s tastes are adequate to his needs — I only wish his young fans would check out early Godard, Corman, etc. I think the reason the film course I work on is so enjoyable is an excessive love of Tarantino and his ilk is something we screen out in applicants! He’s fine in small doses, but you really ought to be aware of more stuff, same as Knowles. The diet of junk food analogy comes into play.

    In LOTP, as I recall, Collins is immediately whipped on the Pharaoh’s orders, for no good reason, upon entering the story. This made me feel that whatever she did afterwards, she had some justification or at least decent motivation.

  17. well I find reading Sight & Sound puts me off watching films where as Shadowplay at least makes me enthusiastic about film again… Nobody has mentioned university film societies as a basis of film education. My uni days at Stirling film soc, populist stuff on Thursdays, art house sats and 50p a go is the bedrock of my film education. Actually seeing a broad range of films and making one’s own mind up…

  18. I had a similar experience with Edinburgh Uni. Up to six films a week, and a really wide variety. A shame the days of scratchy prints and bad splices are fading away, but DVD ought to lead to a resurgence in Film Socs, now that they can be cheaper still.

    Sight & Sound isn’t all bad, but they’ve been shying away from opinion a little TOO much. And there’s an aversion to fun, as well as all the pressures to be topical, have a star on the cover, and stuff like that.

  19. Tony Williams Says:

    Manchester University Film Society (1967-75) was my college where I was able to see films such as THE SEVENTH SEAL, silents etc for the first time since they never came to Swansea. The programming on the old pre-cable TV stations also functioned as a repertory theatre for me also.

    Two years ago when I went into the student union building in Manchester I found that the Film Society was no more. A victim of the loan system institited by New Labour perhaps, leaving students no real leisure time to enjoy such activities, perhaps?

  20. One thing on Harry Knowles – apparently he had a gastric band fitted a year or so ago (I remember reading about it before Fern Britton’s similar fitting became ‘shocking’ tabloid news), so he may be more svelte now!

    I love Land of the Pharaohs too and agree on having a similar feeling of ironic and highly deserved comeuppance for Collins at the end, but also at the same time feeling disturbed and kind of horrified by her horrible end.

    I also agree on the false dichotomy between print and online, and have to wonder if this hostility to online writing is just a line propagated by cost cutting paper editors to justify removing critics and replacing them with reviewers that deflects blame from their policy changes?

    Also, just because Peary states that there is no example of an internet critic influencing general public opinion, it doesn’t mean it could not occur in the future – although we would have to factor in the fragmenting of all media, the proliferation of TV channels and decline in newspaper readership as meaning that even these previously dominant mediums of mass communication are not as powerful or influential as they once were, so the possibility of influencing and ‘indoctrinating’ as many people as possible with your opinion on a film is simply not there any more. To pretend you still wield the power just because you have one of the few print journalism jobs left could be seen as just living off the memories of past glories somewhat, rather than creating a newer and more diverse reputation over a variety of ‘new’ media.

    Online is so new that it is difficult to know what will last and what will not – will everyone be Tweeting or doing a new form of communication in a couple of years? What will last and what will just be a passing fad? Personally while I enjoy reading blogs (and leaving annoying comments!), and am impressed by the effort it must take to keep them updated with interesting content, I prefer posting on forums just for the conversational tone and collaborative feel – though of course it depends on the tone of the forum whether you feel included or left out. I particularly like (and have to admit to a kind of suspicion of The Auteurs – it is likely an overreaction but I see them as the out of town mega-supermarket co-opting bloggers, Criterion, other forums etc under their overarching logo years after the ground was prepared for them by other forums and blogs), but everywhere has its pluses and minuses and it really comes down to the individual to adapt themselves to the environment they are in while trying not to let that affect their unique voice and approach they can bring to their subject too much.

    I suppose also different online styles suit different temperments – some people can produce independent blog style pieces for their audience and keep themselves internally motivated while others like bouncing ideas back and forth. Both types of approaches are worthwhile and can help to inform each other. Hopefully will be the great benefit of online writing on film will be that it allows both approaches. Who knows, maybe an truly interesting critical voice might become influential in the ‘real world’ sometime (look at that blogger roundtable discussion on the Synechdoche, New York DVD).

  21. good to see other film soc’s fans – sorry to hear about demise but think Edinburgh Uni still going strong with 10,000 members

  22. I have not yet seen this film, though I would love to. Two things about it, and Peary, rub me the wrong away: the rather easy dismissal of print criticism’s successors (usually online, usually amateur) and the anti-Kael bent. I’m really tired of this “bullying” Kael line. I disagree with her a good 50% of the time, and I never feel bullied but rather elated by the forcefulness and conviction with which she states her opinion. I’d like her less if she didn’t use “you” and the royal we prodigiously.

    As for blogging, it seems like every time a critic is forced into a corner and has to name a good blogger, they name Karina. I’ve got nothing against her (though I kind of lost interest in Spout a few months into blogging) but it seems like she fits their stereotype of what a critic should be: hip, plugged in, a certain style of writing. Which is fine, but it ain’t the only show in town.

    And Knowles’ reviews have never done anything for me, but I cringe a bit at all the attacks on the guy. As you point out, it isn’t really his fault that he became the proto-blogger and archetypal online amateur. And the personal attacks seem a bit unnecessary; so what if he’s fat? More troublesome is that the mediocre writing only seems to be part of the resentment; a larger part is his “amateur” status. He doesn’t exude the polished “professional” aura expected of critics (even the more slovenly ones); heck, did he even go to college? Etc. Not accusing all of his detractors of this – indeed, as I stated, I never really found his writing style or taste very interesting. But I do detect a tone of elitism in many of the digs in his direction so it’s worth putting that out there.

    Personally, I concur with your (David’s) feelings as follows: “I know cases where I’ve gone to see a film because of something I’ve read on the internet that intrigued me…”


    “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…”

    I’m not sure Peary gets this, because to him criticism seems to be a platform from which you reach the maximum audience possible, and bloggers diminish that. Whereas I view online commentary more as a film society, a small, localized (though there are no geographical limits, which is great) group where you discuss and share your own thoughts on movies. Look, I can relate somewhat to Peary’s mournfulness, because I’m generally anti-postmodern, anti-fragmentation…I like the idea of everybody having at least SOME widely-shared experiences. But this shouldn’t have to come at the cost of good “amateurs” being shut out, and there’s something wonderful about the democraticization the blogosphere has brought about.

  23. Peary certainly gets the “warm feeling” thing, and actually that satisfaction comes from one-on-one interaction with readers. Bloggers actually get more of that, ironically.

    Basically agree with you, but I always had a problem with Kael myself. The film raises far more points than the “bullying,” such as only watching films once, and her limited idea of what cinema should be. And she’s a good case of a critic arguably having too much power.

  24. […] Jonathan Rosenbaum’s response to the film, David Bordwell’s response to the film, David Cairns’ interview with Gerald Peary, my further discussion of Kael & […]

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