People have been making films for more than a century, but until now, at least to my knowledge, no one’s ever thought to turn the camera back on those suspicious-looking characters hanging around the edge of the medium. We’re all familiar with them, some of their names may even ring a bell, and they even inspired a much-mourned mid-’90s animated sitcom with Jon Lovitz. I’m talking, of course, about those most baffling of all semi-celebrities, movie critics. What makes them so confusing is that whenever they happen to love the same movies as you, they’re brilliant, insightful, and profound; when they dislike a film you loved, they’re mysteriously transformed into thoughtless dunces who just don’t get it.
Directed by movie critic Gerald Peary, who told an interviewer that he originally contemplated making a film about “eating barbecue,” “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism” celebrates a century of America’s strangest moviegoers: the ones who share their views with the rest of us, and even get paid for it. It’s oddly appropriate that this documentary was made by a critic-turned-director; for decades, being a critic was the best way to pick up the connections to make your own film. Plenty of one-time critics, from François Truffaut to Lindsay Anderson to Peter Bogdanovich, have wound up throwing down their pens and picking up cameras. (Few of them, sadly, ever picked up the pen again, except to sign autographs.)
For the last few generations of movie-goers, the most familiar critics around were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose weekly televised sparrings introduced countless young viewers to the joys of arguing about movies. (Their best bust-up may have been about “Blue Velvet,” which Ebert found morally reprehensible.) Sadly, future generations won’t have the same privilege: Siskel was felled by a brain tumor in 1999, while Ebert’s speaking voice was stilled by cancer surgery in 2006. Their absence is surely the most poignant on television; it still feels vaguely unsettling that you can go see a new movie and never find out what Siskel and Ebert would have said about it. Fortunately, they’re alive and well on YouTube, and their annual roundups of the year’s worst movies remain among the most entertaining moments in television history.
As they teach you in screenwriting class, every good story has a conflict, and “For the Love of Movies” is no exception. The most memorable conflict here is the notorious feud between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, the two great super-critics of the ‘60s whose visions of what movies ought to be like were so profoundly irreconcilable that the two could barely stand to be in the same room. Sarris’s angle — which he shared with the great French director-critics like Jean-Luc Godard — was that the director was the one and only true “author” of a film, and that an unpretentious Hollywood director like Howard Hawks was no less worthy and serious an artist than, say, Ingmar Bergman. In his classic book The American Cinema, he slotted every important American director into a series of categories: On the one hand, “The Pantheon” (Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles), and way down at the other end, “Strained Seriousness.” (Stanley Kubrick, of all people, wound up there.) Nowadays, this might smack of academic dweebitude, but back then, it was more on the level of assembling a list of your favorite baseball players and ranking them from best to worst. Snooty critic John Simon complained that Sarris was giving a good reputation to unadulterated trash; in response, Sarris snapped that Simon was “the greatest film critic of the 19th century.”
On the other side of the debate stood Kael, a diminutive, smart-mouthed San Franciscan who thought Sarris’s theories were a lot of hooey, speciously set up to justify his adoration of the “narcissistic male fantasies” of “tawdry little gangster pictures.” Kael loved bad, trashy movies as much as the next film buff, but she was too independent-minded to go along with any kind of system. She boldly declared that she never, ever saw a movie more than once, blithely declaring, “Who changes his mind about a movie?” Among her least favorite films was “2001,” which struck her as “monumentally unimaginative.” (Sarris, meanwhile, had second thoughts about “2001” when he reviewed it “while under the influence of a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano.”) Thus she would see a movie, go home and stay up all night scribbling her thoughts until she passed out, and turn in the uncensored results of her brainstorm to be printed in the slickest and classiest of all publications, The New Yorker. (Later, she would have to pore over the page proofs and restore all the words that the magazine’s famously finicky editor, William Shawn, had expunged.) Kael assembled a flock of followers — the “Paulettes” — who had a hell of a time keeping up with her tumultuously unpredictable tastes. She retired in 1991 — “The prospect of having to sit through another Oliver Stone movie is too much,” she explained — and it’s safe to say there’s been no one like her since.
Today, it can’t honestly be said that film criticism generates the same kind of excitement that it did in the glory days. With the coming of the Internet — and blogs and online comments — everyone in the world now has the chance to be read by more people than Sarris and Kael ever were. But one somehow doubts that anyone prints out online comments and carries them around the way aspiring film nerds carried around tattered copies of The American Cinema. For one thing, most contemporary viewers probably couldn’t identify half the names in that book. Yet there remain good critics, like Stephanie Zacharek and Dave Kehr, and even amusingly awful ones, like the New York Press’s contrarian wack-job Armond White (whose barely comprehensible ravings make him come off as Kael after too much Mountain Dew). “For the Love of Movies” reminds us that critics always matter; like them or not, they’ve got the chutzpah to nail their names to their opinions, and stand by them forever.
“For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism” is playing at The Loft Cinema Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 7:30 p.m.
Justyn Dillingham is a 2009 graduate of the University of Arizona. His favorite film is “A Taste of Honey” (1961).