Is watching this movie about film critics completely self-involved? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, you betcha!
An unapologetic sermon on the importance of film criticism in American culture, this Boston-made documentary chronicles the little-known history of the film industry’s relationship to those that sought to find its meaning.
The film itself is not really best-suited for theatrical release — it’s partially produced by WGBH and it looks like it belongs there. The music tends toward that unfortunate old-timey piano quality known to historical docs all over America, and Patricia Clarkson provides the perfunctory voice over, alternating with other voice actors delivering the writings of different film critics over the years. Such things are oddly grating when heard in surround sound.
Starring: Roger Ebert, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Wesley Morris
Seen at: Institute of Contemporary Art
But the subject matter (at least to my taste) is so fascinating, I’d be happy to watch it again. Among the odd tidbits of info is a terrific explanation of the philisophical debate between Andrew Sarris and the late Pauline Kael. For those who haven’t taken advanced film theory, Sarris was and is the leading proponent of auteur theory; during his stint at The Village Voice, Kael attacked his views and the auteur belief viciously in her article Circles and Squares. Where Sarris believed in film as high culture, Kael was a determined populist. The reason this feud is so important is because Kael and Sarris at one time were the awesome, terrible demi-gods of film scholarship, and arguably the most influential film critics who ever lived. Their reviews could literally make or break a film, and the telling of their Olympian struggle rightly demonstrates the basic struggle of all film criticism: are movies high or low culture? Are they both? And how in God’s name do we interpret them accordingly?
The movie does a terrific job illustrating Kael, who was a character of contradictions (as just one example, she was one of the few women in the field who was staunchly against feminist criticism in the 1970s). Found footage and interviews she conducted before her death in 2001 are rich with her incisive views, her violent wit and her maddening absolutism. Though her ideas may be flawed, she’s not a bad role model for a burgeoning female movie critic.
Peary has some heavy-hitters in the talking head interviews: besides Sarris we meet Roger Ebert, Lisa Schwarzbaum, and Boston’s very own Wesley Morris. All of them have a ridiculous amount of passion for their jobs. They view (as I think most film critics do) that their calling is based on interpreting the primary way the public demonstrates its hopes, anxieties, fears and arguments. I wish there’d been more discussion of this symbiotic relationship — Peary tends to get side-tracked with silly questions about things like whether a film critic needs friends who are film critics.
There’s a lot of discussion about the decline of influential film journalism, and of course the usual suspects are blamed: the VHS, the DVD, the Internet, the blogs, the decline of newspapers and the shlubs like me who sit outside screenings, typing away on our Blackberries, and our Ipods and our gosh-darned netbooks. The film’s pretty fair in dealing with this issue, showing that it’s not a violent coup that’s taken over film criticism but rather a relatively peaceful, inevitable transfer of power. Indeed, everyone is a critic now. What that means for me is it may be a while before I can find a paying job. But what it means for cinema? That question still remains unanswered.