Critical Thoughts: Gerald Peary on American Film Criticism

March 29, 2012 | By

This past Sunday For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009) screened at the Bloor Cinema, and writer / director Gerald Peary was on hand to introduce the film and take part in an audience Q&A, followed by a panel discussion with several Toronto film critics.

I’ve uploaded a review [M] of the film, which also includes details on the 40 mins. of bonus interviews on the DVD, available exclusively from the film’s website. Additionally, I’ve uploaded edited excerpts from both Peary’s pre-screening intro and post-screening audience Q&A, archived at my YouTube Channel Big Head Amusements.

Not to be confused with Danny Peary, author of the Cult Film series, Gerald Peary has written for numerous print publications, including The Boston Phoenix, and Story is very much his perspective on the evolution of his profession, from its early years, pioneering film critics, and key movements before the digital realm rocked and eroded print media’s domination as the main source for news and critical thought.

That means there are some periods which are compacted within the doc’s six main chapters, but it’s still an accessible intro outside of print collections featuring key works by players such as James Agee, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael.

Peary isn’t the first critic to make the jump to film directing, but Story is a labour of love, and its mandate is to educate and certainly preserve the views of its auteur. Other critics who’ve ventured into documentaries include Charles Champlin via his ‘On Film’ series, and Richard Schickel, whose most recent work was the meh documentary The Eastwood Factor (2010). whereas in the dramatic realm (and critics who never went back to the printed page), there’s the Cahier du cinema clan (Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, etc.), Rod Lurie (auteur of the meh The Contender), and Paul Mayersberg (writer of The Man Who Fell to Earth).

In my review, I address the shortcomings in Peary’s doc, but certain one question not raised in the film nor in the Q&A is what exactly happens to each new wave of fresh journalists, freshly minted from university, hungry to write about movies in an era where the professional has been cheapened by several factors.

You’ve paid X years worth of tuition and now have a paper that says ‘I can write critical thoughts on movies,’ and although there are plenty of movies coming out on a studio level, indie, level, digitally, and (still) on home video, exactly where a new voice goes is a mystery. As Peary stated in his audience Q&A, there are less major critics employed by print and print / digital hybrids; the job description includes blogging and social media activities; and the era of a paper writing six 2000-word film reviews per week survives maybe in journals.

Pay scales are low (if not reduced), senior & more pricey writers are junked in favour of disposable younger writers, and the internship concept seems to have become the norm, offering exposure while doing real work for little pay, an honorarium, or nada.

What I’d like to see, more than a follow-up to Story, is a related doc by an insider or indie filmmaker keen on covering where the careers and pathways to critical writing ran afoul, or simply turned from solid paved asphalt to some dusty circuitous road that ends in the middle of nowhere.

What exists for writing graduates when they hit the pavement, in terms of ins, leads, abuse, runarounds, and mettle-tests before a large contingent move on to other writing streams, and a small minority of writers manage to succeed, either from working the system, finding advantageous flaws, or a genuine mentor.

There are publications that began in print, went digital, and lack the identity which distinguished them from studio-friendly pap mags. There are sites which had heady hopes of making money from cheaply paid / unpaid content and now exist as cached ephemera because, quite frankly, they were crap. And there are former print journalists who’ve managed to move into the digital realm and still pound out provocative, beautifully written prose, but earn a fraction of what once could provide a comfortable living without having to do any tangential, freelance, or teaching chores.

Only a few have ever gotten rich from writing, which begs the question: What happens to all the journalism grads wanting to write passionately about film?

Dumb question? Maybe, but I’d love to see a doc covering a 3-5 year period of one class, and see where the successes, disappointments, bitterness, and train wrecks lie.

That is all.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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