Jerusalem Film Festival 2009: Interview with Gerald Peary

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Gerald Peary

One of the most interesting documentaries to be screened at the Jerusalem International Film Festival was the first film by director Gerald Peary. A film critic for over 30 years, Peary –who has been writing for the Boston Phoenix since 1996- decided to shine a light on a very specific field: his own.

Peary arrived at the Festival to present the film, titled For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, which took over 8 years to make it to the screen. Featuring interviews from literally dozens of leading film critics, the film traces the history of the form, creating a narrative of the progression of film criticism. From its earliest days, when it was little more than a fluffy sentence, tracing as it grew into a fascinating curiosity in the 20’s, evolving as a valid form of literature in the 40’s and 50’s, and becoming a vital and exciting form in the 60’s and 70’s, with critics like Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber being major forces in cultural discussions.

The film gets more urgent about the state of film criticism in recent years, with a proliferation of the notion that anyone can be a film critic, and the fact that the internet in general is creating more and more alternatives to professional print critics, devaluing the form. Major focus is placed on the pervasive trend of experienced print critics losing their jobs. This was particularly evident while watching the film, as just a few weeks ago, Andrew Sarris was let go from his job at The New York Observer, and is not currently writing regularly about film, for the first time in nearly 50 years. Indeed, in the panel discussion that took place after the screening of the film (where he was joined by Ha’Aretz film critic Uri Klein and Yehoshua Simon the editor of the Maaravon Film Magazine), Peary expressed quite a bit of pessimism about the current state of things. He has said the film now acts as “an apologetic defense of a profession under siege”. After seeing the film, I had a chance to sit down with Mr. Peary for a one-on-one interview, which ranged from specific questions about topics the film raised to questions I’ve had for a while about the nature of film criticism.

The Interview:

Shlomo Porath: You started making this film over eight years ago. Can you say what took eight years, and was it a continual process, or did you put it down and pick it back up?

Gerald Peary: Probably put it down and pick it up, that’s a good description. I made the film in the United States, and as I think I said yesterday, in the United States, although it’s the richest country in the world and rich, rich, rich, rich, when it comes to independent films, it’s actually very problematic, unless you have family money or you’re a rich person, because there are no government sources at all. We Americans stupidly believe in self-reliance and not in government –socialism- if it helps with the arts. So there’s no federal money, there’s no state money, no city money. My film, therefore, had to be completely privately financed. So the major problem –major, major problem- was trying to get enough money to make a movie, and the movie is not one that investors would have any interest in, because it’s not going to be a profitable film. It’s really getting investors who out of love of the subject or want to put the money in. So it was extraordinarily difficult getting funds.

SP: I noticed a lot of the footage was from back in 2001. Did the current crisis –I mean the crisis has been going on for a long time- but the specific crisis, of people getting fired left and right- did that prompt you to pick it up again?

GP: No, we just did in bits and pieces when we could do it, when we had funding. But, you know- funding is one of the things. Another thing was, really, not knowing what story I was telling. If you start from the beginning- I’m a film critic forever, this is the first film that I’ve ever made. Films in a way, they’re always mysterious and in a way they’re very easy if you’ve never made one. But I think the major problem was that I had no idea what took people so long to make a film. I couldn’t figure out how filmmakers spend their days. It can’t be that complicated!

SP: and with this many people being interviewed, it must have been a big logistical process

GP: Well that was part of it, yes. One of the logistics is that in the film we have various critics, but it’s a bit arbitrary because –again, with no budget- we actually went somewhere where we knew a bunch of film critics would be and set up a camera. If they came, we talked to them, and if they weren’t at that spot, they weren’t in the movie.

SP: But you got a very, very, wide array of them.

GP: Talk to the ones who aren’t in the film- they don’t agree. (laughs)

SP: I was going to ask this later, but I might as well get to it now- Obviously any connoisseur of film criticism has his favorites that were left out, some logisticial, some for other reasons- like I know that Manohla Dargis refuses to be interviewed…

GP: Yeah, you said it. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who I would have liked to have had in the film-

SP: She’s a terrific critic

GP: She is a terrific critic, and you see far more male voices in the film, and I am egalitarian, a male feminist, and it was important to me. But she would not be in the film because [she] will not be in any film. You can’t even find her picture on the web. So, it wasn’t personal, I tried to get it, but she wouldn’t be in the film.

SP: I’m wondering about one particular critic, a rather controversial voice- did you attempt to reach Armond White (film critic for the New York Press)?

GP: Armond is actually someone who I know, and he would have been a great voice in the film just in terms of cinema, because he’s one of the most opinionated people in the world and will say anything to anybody, which makes for great cinema. I was about to interview him at a certain point, when the funds disappeared, no other reason than that. I think I was actually going to go to his house and interview him, but he never appeared at any of the public events after that where we were, so that’s why he’s not in the film.

SP: He must be very interesting to discuss film with, just, informally.

GP: Yeah. When you agree with Armond, he’s the most brilliant person, and when you disagree it’s…because Armond actually believes -and I’ve talked to him about it- that there is a right way to look at a film, which is his way. But there are not many ways to look at a film, there’s a right one, which is a wildly arrogant theory. Very funny, but still wildly arrogant. I certainly don’t believe that- I know everybody filters movies through their own imagination and psyche and childhood and memories.

SP: It strikes me that the big difference between what is considered to be the height of the influence of film criticism, the height of the Kael-Sarris era in the 60’s and 70’s, it seems to me like back then –this may be wrong, since obviously I wasn’t around then- that people who used to read Pauline Kael, read her both for a recommendation, and as a tool with which one process the film afterwards. Now, it seems, unless you are in the New York Times, or unless you’re Roger Ebert, where you actually have a wide following, you’re either one or the other. You’re either aiming for the majority of people who read film criticism, who read a review to see if they should see a film or not, or for the select people who are trying to process the film after having seen it. It seems to me like only a niche group comes back to a review after seeing the film.

GP: I think what you’re describing is the ideal reader, because we always look for that, and that’s the reader who might glance at your review or kind of read it before the movie, hold that review because they have respect for what you have to say, see the movie, then go back and have a dialogue, or an internal dialogue, with what was written and that’s fantastic. Everything we say about readership, or the effect of film criticism is always speculative. There are no tools to figure this out, but it seems that readers are not as serious as they once were about reviews. The idea of revering a critic has certainly disappeared. The new idea that anybody can be a critic has really seeped into culture- this kind of democracy, or false democracy, or mistaken democracy is everywhere.

SP: There’s been a trend of good film writers who appeared regularly in print, and who started websites –some less serious than others, but I think that there are some pretty significant sites. Are you familiar with, for instance, The House Next Door, which is by Matt Zoller-Seitz, who used to write for the New York Press? He also got very heavily into video criticism, which strikes me as a very interesting way to continue film criticism in a more interactive way, which I think people are looking for.

GP: What you’re describing is one phenomenon which is ex-print critics who now moved to the web because they want to, or because they’re forced into reinventing themselves and sometimes, as you’re saying with Matt, in a very interesting way. He sends me his stuff every week. SP: To follow that up, I think it’s interesting with Roger Ebert –who obviously was one of the people you interviewed in 2001-

 GP: Right, obviously [SP: Ebert lost the ability to talk after a cancer-related surgery]

SP: Ever since he lost the ability to speak, he started a blog on rogerebert.com, and it struck me like that gave him a second life. I go there more often for his blog entries than his reviews, whether its movie related or anything else.

GP: I think that’s a very good observation. He’s obviously quite desperate because he can’t speak any more, but his voice hasn’t been silenced, it’s actually gotten stronger and stronger. Roger has always been someone who was very pro-web critic, I guess in a very nice way, long before other critics were willing to look there.

SP: I recall that he had Harry Knowles (of Ain’t It Cool News) on the show after Gene Siskel passed away.

GP: Yeah. I think he’s a little mixed about Harry, as many people are, but yes, Harry was definitely one of the replacements on the show. But the fact that he put a web person instead of a film person was pretty radical.

SP: Speaking of Siskel & Ebert, it’s been said –by Armond White and other people- that the show dumbed down film discourse by summing up every movie with a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’. While that’s undoubtedly true, that there is a lot of focus on the star rating and the pass/fail- don’t you feel that maybe more good than harm was done by the simple fact that probably more people saw more good films just by seeing somebody recommend it to them on TV?

GP: Well, you set up the whole problem, your answer is there. Because it is a stupid way to so things, a thumbs up or thumbs down, yet at the same time, they obviously popularized films in an important way, and I guess did a good job with it. We’re working right now on the DVD and the extra, so we actually have Roger talking a bit about thumbs up/thumbs down and how it got invented. You could feel his ambivalence about it- he’s defending it, but I think he’s never been quite comfortable with it, he knows that it’s a good thing and a bad thing.

SP: Over the years, he’s been trying to downgrade the importance of his star-ratings. Whenever possible he’s trying to say ‘Read the review’.

GP: The thing is, they really are seductive. I get Entertainment Weekly, which used to be a good magazine, now it’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller and has Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwartzbaum, two good critics, writing in a popular paper, but they have their little grade system and I can’t help it- my eye goes to those grades, and I’m much more likely to read a review –film review, music review, book review- that’s got an ‘A’ or ‘A-‘ than when it’s got a ‘B’. So it is dangerous, even for people like me who know how dangerous it is. It’s so seductive, that your eye goes there.

SP: There seems to be some amount of antagonism towards the New York Times, because a lot of critics resent the fact that it is thought of as the Paper of Note, as if ‘The New York Times has spoken’, Canby or Crowther have spoken. Did anybody try to dissuade you from focusing on the New York Times?

GP: No, that’s actually not a point anybody has ever brought up. I think they are the institution in America and everyone will agree that those reviews are the most important and actually do have an influence on whether people go to the movies or not, for good and bad. When I interviewed (Times senior film critic) A.O. Scott –it’s not in the movie- he also talks about the phenomenon of bloggers going after him. He seemed to think it was a pretty good idea; he was pretty good natured about it. He understands that he is the establishment. It’s interesting about Manohla…there’s far more resentment. I’ve noticed, talking to a lot of filmmakers –independent filmmakers, straight forward filmmakers who are very confused by her idiosyncratic way of looking at movies and are angry that she’s there, and would want someone who was more obvious in the way they look at films.

SP: Last year there were some really nasty attacks on her in the L.A. Times, saying how a lot of studios don’t want to show her movies because she might gives them a pan…

GP: I didn’t read that article. Really?

SP: People were complaining that she gave the movie The Reader a pan and that it was a serious movie that deserved credit for its serious intentions.

GP: I actually kind of liked The Reader, maybe it was treated too harshly. Maybe this is related- I’ve talked several times to Tom Bernard, who is the vice-president of Sony Pictures Classics, who puts out in the States the traditional art films, and he is livid about what’s happening in every city. He believes there should be one critic in every city who “can be trusted”, who the audience trusts and they know their taste…but that really means, to me, the sort of middlebrow critic who likes these soft art movies So that replacement of having those two critics at the New York Times vs. maybe even Vincent Canby. In my home town, Boston, we have two critics- Wesley Morris, who’s in the film and Ty Burr. They’re both very good critics, and they’re not beholden to anybody. They say what they think, and Sony Classics is not happy. There’s a guy named Jay Carr who was there before, who has a much more traditional way of looking at movies and they loved him.

SP: So they wanted a Bosley Crowther everywhere, someone to uphold films with good morals?

GP: Sort of like that, yeah. People who don’t really look at movies cinematically, but look at things that are supposedly good for you and good themes…that sort of stuff. Look at my website, by the way. It’s probably moribund, I don’t have any time to update it, it’s about three years old, but I think there’s some interesting stuff there.

SP: Yeah, I looked at it last night. I actually knew I was on the right track when I saw the opening sentence of your best film…top ten films of 2006, I think it was. You wrote exactly what I recall thinking at the end of that year- rarely have there been so many good films in one year, but no great films, and all the films were good in the same kind of way.

GP: Right, I remember that. By the way, The Hurt Locker is a great movie.

SP: It’s actually already out on DVD here, in an Italian import.

GP: It makes you happy about cinema again. It’s so good. It’s fantastic.

SP: I was very impressed with it.

GP: Oh you saw it?

SP: Yeah, I hadn’t heard about it, but I found it on DVD after it was released in the US a couple of weeks back to rave reviews. When Armond White agrees with the rest of the critics you know it’s something special. Getting to Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris…it’s obvious from the documentary that you are quite a big fan of Sarris.

GP: Yeah.

SP: What are your opinions on Kael?

GP: She’s obviously a fantastic stylist and writer. That’s something I didn’t really talk about in the film- a great critic has also got to be a great writer, and she is fabulous. Tricky person in her rhetoric, which I don’t quite trust. She’s like a great defense lawyer figuring out how to- I’ve actually never thought about that before, I’m making this up on the spot- but she makes a case the way a lawyer would be talking to a jury, convincing them about that movie. When I am with her on a movie, when I agree with her, she can be fantastic. She drove me mad when I thought she picked the wrong movies to rave on. I have real trouble with the idea that the critic is right and is lecturing people on the right opinion. Her thing with the use of word ‘you’- ‘you think this’ and ‘you like that’ and ‘you will feel this’ and ‘we all agree on this’- it drives me crazy. Because we don’t. We don’t think the same. Never would I assume that anybody is watching the same movie that I am.

SP: Andrew Sarris wrote a farewell letter to her after she passed away- a very harsh letter. One of the things he wrote was that her concept of seeing a film only once was something that –he felt- she invented for herself, as a way to give her word the force of law. She didn’t have to have made a mistake, because she never saw the film again. Actually, one of the first things that drew my eyes to Sarris was his article on Billy Wilder-

GP: When he changed his mind. He still hasn’t changed his mind on John Huston, who I think is a great, great director. He’s never gone back on that, and that’s stupid! So Andrew, wake up. I have to say that Sarris in the last few years has not been a particularly big influence on me. I think there was a certain point when he became a nice critic, but not the revolutionary critic he once was.

SP: I feel kind of at a loss- one of the reasons I was so taken with Kael is because hr complete collected works are available- I have her complete collected reviews from 1961 to 1991. Whereas with Sarris -aside from The American Cinema- you can’t find an archive of his writing before he joined the New York Observer. So I hear about him, but I don’t have a real sense of what his writing was like.

GP: That’s a very good point. It’s laziness on his part that he’s never updated The American Cinema…it is. He has been prodded millions of times by millions of people to do another version.

SP: I think that would be fascinating- also his stance on newer filmmakers, but also perhaps a re-evaluation of some of the older ones.

GP: As I said, I haven’t read him that much in recent years, he just doesn’t seem to have that voice that cries out…I guess that people like (former Chicago Reader critic) Jonathan Rosenbaum are more interesting, or (Village Voice critic) Jim Hoberman. Do you read them?

SP: Yes. I mean, there are a few critics that I tried to read once and I couldn’t make it out…they were seeing it on a different level than I was. Often, frankly, I can’t understand that point of view that Rosenbaum has, also because he references such a wide array of movies that I’ve never seen.

GP: Well, you know, he lives in the world of cinema completely. He’s watching 19,000 DVDs from a hundred countries. I don’t know how he does it. SP: Actually, I realized I could relate to him once I saw what he names his favorite movies. Like, his favorite movie is Tati’s Playtime, and his favorite musical is Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg…no, actually it was the other Demy musical, The Young Girls of

GP: Rochefort?

SP: Yeah, that’s when I realized that we are at least in the same vicinity.

GP: I think you’d find more value… you know your stuff, you’re giving yourself too little credit. Good Resenbaum stuff, you’ll go back and look at it. Because you’re watching more and more movies and learning more and you’ll go back, and there are a lot of references that’ll start falling into place. I mean, you’ll never… I can’t catch up with him. I remember once I saw him at a festival and there was a film by the Hungarian director, um, I just fell asleep here…

SP: Bela Tarr?

GP: Yes, Bella Tarr. Some six-hour Bella Tarr movie. (Jonathan) said ‘are you going to go to the Bella Tarr movie?’ ‘I’m at a film-festival and there are a million more and I’d also like to see this and I don’t think I’m gonna see it’…[imitates Rosenbaum groaning] ‘obviously you don’t care about cinema!’. Okay, I said, okay Jonathan, you know, whatever. There’s actually a lot more of the Jonathan interview- that was one…this was an unfortunate thing with the movie…(the interview) was really badly shot, and it was just salvaging part of the interview. I mean, cinematically it drove me crazy. I learned about color-correction. Color-correction actually helped our film in some places, but his interview was just shoddy.

SP: I noticed it was darker than the others.

GP: [shudders] For a long time I kept him completely out of the film and I finally added a couple of things. He’s glad- he wanted to be in the film, he was very frustrated that he’s not in it. But there’s a lot more of Jonathan that’s not in the film that’s very interesting.

SP: I mean, he’s a very interesting case, as you pointed out in the Q&A after the film, and as his little sound-bites tell you, he’s a serious critic –obviously a very serious critic, that’s an understatement- but he is actually very enthusiastic about all the changes that are going on now.

GP: Yes

SP: In all his interviews he’s extremely enthusiastic, and he loves the idea of his website, of having all his works on one site.

GP: Well, you should check his review of our film, it’s interesting. It’s somewhere…well, I have a website for my film too, fortheloveofmovies.net- have you seen that?

SP: I checked some of it out, like the press-kit.

GP: I can’t remember if it’s in there, because my wife is actually doing the press. But his (review) was interesting because he spent a lot of the review attacking the chapter which I called ‘When film criticism mattered’, he hates that idea- it matters now. It’s a very consistent point that he’s made, for years, that he really hated critics who bemoan the old days and partly, he’s right, because the old days- I’m guilty of that, you know, my favorite period is like the French new wave, and the German new wave and I’m probably more Euro-centric and he’s not. The problem with critics is that they don’t know all the films from Asia and they don’t know the films from Thailand, and that if you did, you wouldn’t say that cinema has fallen and the good ol’ days are over. And yet I do believe that cinema isn’t as good as it was, I don’t. But we’re always fighting about that.

SP: Speaking of which- you’ve expressed quite a bit of pessimism about movies and criticism now, however I thought –you may not agree with this- that, for instance a couple of years ago, 2007 had a bunch of very good American films, however I think it kind of underlined the problem with film criticism. The problem with film criticism is not really a problem with criticism, because there were a lot of good films…but people didn’t

GP: …didn’t see the films.

SP: Right- people didn’t see No Country for Old Men, or There Will Be Blood, they saw Transformers. So it seems like the problem is much deeper than just criticism.

GP: Well, I think critics are still very good, and there are lot’s of very good critics. The problem is not that there is not good criticism out there. There’s lots of absolute shit, and lots of bologna people just blowing up stuff on the web, which drives me crazy, and I think that films are second and the audience is…the problem is the audience just doesn’t care. My college students in America have exactly the same taste as the regular public, and that’s depressing as hell. And that is a difference again, I can say, when I went to college –that boring thing- is it was the sexy, hot thing to do, was to go to films that your parents didn’t care about- they were good films. Today, the same sentence is true, that the parents don’t care about Transformers, but the kids sure as hell do. And so the whole choice of what young people look at…if I ask my students at the beginning of the year what they’ve seen, they’ll have seen all the big box-office movies, that’s what they’ve seen. They haven’t gone to an art film. I guess that when we went to college we loved foreign language films. And no student can ever answer this question. I always ask them: ‘If the internet makes you so global, why don’t you see foreign films? Why don’t you see films with subtitles?’. They always say, ‘well, it’s hard to read…’ It’s not hard for you to read! You can do text, you can do five things at the same time- that’s just a lie. You can obviously read subtitles and watch a movie at the same time. Nobody has ever come up with an answer for that. So that’s the paradox- the world has become more global -at least the Americans have become more global- but they’ve also become more isolationist and more caught on the same stuff.

SP: There is a relatively thriving art-house movie scene over here, but I think that in many ways, the Israeli taste is very similar to the American taste.

GP: Yeah.

SP: So I have to admit that for me- it was a big stigma for me, foreign film. It felt like it was a very daunting thing. Obviously, once you get into it, the lines evaporate completely. But that it something I had to work on for a while.

GP: But you did the work- people aren’t interested in doing the work. So I’ll show a foreign film in my class and they’ll go ‘oh, that was good’. But they’ll never see another film by that director, they’ll go back to whatever’s hot.

SP: There’s a book that came out a few years ago by Phillip Lopate (American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until now). It struck me while watching the film because it also tries to –although not in a narrative sense- it tries to trace film criticism through the ages. What did you think of that book?

GP: I think it’s pretty good. There was no connection between the works. I didn’t read the book until deep into the movie, in the last year of the making of it- but they’re very analogous. I think our readings of the history of American cinema are quite similar. He doesn’t have Frank Woods, my discovery guy, but it’s pretty similar. Phillips just saw the movie –I sent him a DVD- he just saw it for the first time a month ago and he really liked it. He sent me a really nice email about how good the movie was.

SP: That’s interesting. I’m sorry to say he took away some of your thunder, because it was surprising to find out about some of these people, like Vachel Lindsey…some of these people that you have no idea what they’re doing writing about film. That a poet, or Pulitzer Prize winner could write about film and be taken seriously.

GP: I read about Vachel Lindsey, and I had all his section, and then his book came out and it was also about Vachel Lindsey. So we’re quite similar…he has a really nice book that just came out now on Susan Sontag.

SP: Sontag, I’m sorry to say, is one big blank spot of mine.

GP: Oh yeah? Well- you should have blank spots. You’re doing great, I’m proud of you. You’ve got a lifetime, I’ve got like, 50 years more of movie-going…well, not that much, but, I think that’s good advice too, is to know about…the other thing, too, is that it’s a really hard problem, once you get saturated in movies is, again- a good critic contextualizes a movie in terms of all the other things. You can’t forget all the other arts- you’ve gotta be reading your books, and you gotta go to see paintings and do all that stuff, since that’s one of the things…’this critic knows a lot about movies, but do they know anything about life? Can they make any analogy outside of another movie?’

SP: That is one of the reasons I enjoy A.O. Scott’s writing so much. He was a book critic forever. I think he’s very relatable and…

GP: He’s nice in the movie, too.

SP: Okay- this is my last point. I think that one of the potentially valuable things –not so much for me, since I knew a lot of these critics- but for other people, I think, you shouldn’t underestimate the value of putting a face to a name.

GP: Yeah, I know.

SP: I mean, I started reading David Denby, or A.O. Scott or Richard Corliss, all kinds of critics –Glenn Kenny- I only started reading these people after seeing them on Charlie Rose, being able to get even the slightest feel for them personally, I think it’s a very valuable thing.

GP: That I don’t underestimate. I’ve shown the movie in about ten festivals now and people always thank me for putting a face to the name. It’s a really important point and just as you say, it really means something to people- ‘I’ve been reading this person for years and I had no idea what they looked like, thank you so much for doing it’. In terms of the way the movie was constructed, I asked people all these questions- I called them the ten questions, ten silly questions about ‘How did you get to be a critic?’ and, you know- this is really silly, and we left it out of the movie. So the earliest –we showed it to groups, what was really clear was ‘You know, this is nice, but we want to know more about’…regular people, you know, educated people wanted to know the background of how you got to be a critic and who the people are and how they think. They really wanted that. So those little interludes came into the movie, and I think they’ve been very successful. Though I showed this in Edinburgh last week and some guy said ‘Obviously your intention here was to make a lightweight movie’. I said maybe it was my intention to make a heavyweight movie, but it certainly was not my intention to make it lightweight. So you can be snobby about them, but, as you said, far, far, far more people are really happy to put faces and voices together with bylines and names, and I think that they’re more likely to read that person having seen them in the movie. So I feel good about that.

SP: Well, thank you very much for your time, and for the movie.

For The Love of Movies (USA, 80 min, 2009), written and directed by Gerald Peary, produced by Amy Geller.

SHLOMO PORATH

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