Documentaries have served the history of movies well for decades, but For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009) is the first film to explore the history of film criticism. From Frank E. Wood, "arguably the first film critic" (in the words of critic and historian Richard Schickel) through Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael to "Ain't It Cool News" and the rise of internet movie sites and amateur reviewers, For the Love of Movies chronicles the development of film criticism through its most influential writers, its evolution through the years and its relationship to the movies and to readers over the course of a century.
It's also the first film by Gerald Peary, a film historian, professor and writer who served as the film critic for the Boston Phoenix from 1996 to 2012. According to Peary, the idea came from his friend, the respected documentary filmmaker Ron Mann, who suggested he make a film about a subject he knew well. "I was skeptical: Film critics don't do anything except go to movies and write about them," he thought at the time. "I still don't know what else they do, and yet somehow I found a kind of narrative for my film which I think works." With Mann as executive producer, he began shooting in 2001 at a meeting of the New York Film Critics Association at the World Trade Center, a few months before September 11. He followed by interviewing key film critics in New York and Chicago, including Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, Elvis Mitchell and Roger Ebert. When Canadian-based Mann had trouble raising additional money, veteran producer Amy Geller (who also happens to be Peary's wife) took over as the film's producer.
As money ran short, Peary turned to what he called a "kamikaze style. I would be in a place where there were critics, and when one walked by, I would corner them." Those places tended to be film festivals, and interview subjects were often a matter of kismet. Peary laments the absence of Manohla Dargis ("she won't appear on film or even have her face on the Internet," he explained) and New Yorker critics Anthony Lane and David Denby (who "were never around the spots where I was shooting"). Length also limited the number of critics included in the film, which meant many important writers were left out, including writers that Peary admired. Pauline Kael and Manny Farber, who had both passed away before Peary started shooting, were represented by interview clips from TV appearances.
For the Love of Movies opens with the statement, "Today, film criticism is a profession under siege. According to Variety, 28 reviewers have lost their jobs in the last several years." The rate has increased exponentially in the years since, as daily and weekly newspapers across the country have closed, downsized or consolidated, and local film critics are often the first to go. Peary's film is a love letter to the movies and film criticism, but it is also a lament for a dying profession and it makes a case for why that is important.
At the center of the documentary is the print battle between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael over the auteur theory, the idea that the director is the primary author of a film, which wound through numerous articles over many years and often forced other critics to pick sides. "I spend a long time in my movie on the Sarris-Kael wars, and I do think they are immensely important. So much of the way people watch movies, the way American critics review movies, the way American directors see their mission, comes from Kael and Sarris," Peary explained for Chris Fujiwara in 2009. "Of course, I also love the insane passion of the Sarris-Kael debates. It's amazing that critics battled over directors and movies as if they were fighting over countries."
Landing Patricia Clarkson as narrator was a stroke of luck. Peary tried narrating himself (in his own words, he was "the worst") and was disappointed by his next choice. It was Owen Gleiberman (then at Entertainment Weekly) who brought up Clarkson's name and called her up. "That was one of the thrills of my life to have Clarkson read my words," Peary recalled.
For the Love of Movies made its world premiere at SXSW in 2009 and played film festivals all over the world before its theatrical release. "Mine is the first documentary ever to attempt a filmic history of film criticism of one country," he said in 2009. "May critics in other countries be inspired to make movies detailing their histories."
by Sean Axmaker
"SXSW '09 Interview: For the Love of Movies Director and Film Critic Gerald Peary," Eric Childress. eFilmCritic.com, February 24, 2009.
"For the Love of Movies: An Interview with Gerald Peary," Chris Fujiwara. FIPRESCI web magazine, 2009.
"Eugene Hernandez: For the Love of Movies," Eugene Hernandez. IndieWire, November 16, 2009.
"For the Live of Movies: Valentine to Film Critics," Anne Thompson. Variety, April 8, 2009.
"For the Love of Movies' Gerald Peary," Alicia Van Vouvering. Filmmaker, March 24, 2009.