On Thursday night February 18, the Northwest Film Forum will be showing the documentary For The Love Of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. It’s a straightforward, succinct accounting of the history of movie criticism since its inception, starting with a critic who wrote hype sheets and blurbs and ended up helping D.W. Griffith craft The Birth of a Nation and other early classic cinema. Through the underdog aesthetics of Manny Farber at The Nation in the mid-20th century, to the dialectical sparring between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris (chief film reviewers for the New Yorker and the Village Voice and New York Observer, respectively), you can see what inspired the early rock critics into taking sides and styles that helped evolved that art form.
Made by longtime Boston Phoenix critic Gerald Peary, The Love of Movies makes good on its title. You can feel the passion for film from portions of reviews that are read, and from the way the public often regarded tastemakers for the dailies and other mediums. Excellent interviews with Elvis Mitchell (whose 1970s and ’80s Rolling Stone interviews with directors and actors were what got me hooked on reading about pop culture from a critical but encouraging perspective), Roger Ebert, and even on-line fan guru Harry Knowles make this a reflective study in some of the great writing and vibrant personal opinions that are in and behind exceptional film criticism. I could have used at least a mention of influential marginals like Robin Wood, a Canadian Marxist-Feminist who wrote phenomenal studies like Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan and Hitchcock, but there are lots of juicy tidbits about how Kael shifted her position from criticizing Sarris and the “Auteur theory” when she found visionary directors of her own to triumph. (She still kicked ass, though — think of her as the Chuck Klosterman of her time, crediting both working class art and demystifying commercial pabulum.) Kael would manipulate younger critics by praising them and then turning them into what Sarris called “Paulettes.” Yet he never lost respect for his adversary, and was saddened by her death.
This doc only shows for one night, but try to catch it if you’re into any kind of pop culture criticism. If you only know music magazines and blogs you might be amazing at how the aesthetics of film criticism developed, from political activism to the championing of European and independent films (much like how we’ve come up with “cult rock” artists). And as you watch the fiery feuds fade into the dimming of the day for movie critics at newspapers and magazines which are ceasing to exist, the soulful version of “Hard Times Don’t Come Again No More” playing over the end credits actually doesn’t seem overly dramatic.