Bright Lights Film Journal

“Riveting”* — Not! Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies — The Story of American Film Criticism

Talking heads, talking of talking heads

They can’t stuff you until you’re dead — which, I guess, is why this movie was made. But it isn’t all bad. The first half of the film, devoted to pre-war (pre-WWII, that is) critics, has some appeal to antiquarian types like me, mostly through the use of archival footage of early films.1 I also learned that Robert Sherwood was a famous film critic, which I didn’t know before. In fact, it appears that Sherwood is more famous as a famous film critic among film critics than among regular folk, probably because Sherwood had the career film critics wish they had. A very mean man with a typewriter, Sherwood wrote reviews, probably for Vanity Fair, in the early Twenties, and published several books about “moving pictures,” as they were called at the time, but quickly moved to writing plays, beginning in 1927. He won three Pulitzers writing for Broadway and also adapted many of his plays for Hollywood. He married film actress Madeline Hurlock, noted for her “incredible beauty,” Wikipedia tells us; wrote the screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives, for which he won an Oscar; wrote speeches for Franklin Roosevelt during World War II; and wrote the Pulitzer-prize-winning biography Roosevelt and Hopkins.2 Well, I’ve got a play or two inside me, and probably a screenplay too! All I need to do is get it down on paper, and then I can be just like Bob!

OK, enough about Bob. For the Love of Movies also takes a (brief) look at James Agee, who wrote reviews for both Time and The Nation, though he’s best-known for his classic work on sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.3 We get a glimpse of Manny Farber, including some archival interview footage, and then transition to the ultimate square, New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, envied and detested by both Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael.

As we enter the land of the living, things tend to slow down. One of the nice things about dead people is that they don’t talk so much. The living, unfortunately, won’t shut up, and, thanks to the magic of TV talk shows, even the dead live on. There’s plenty of footage of Pauline talking of this and that, and plenty of Andrew Sarris, still alive and kicking, offering sarcastic counter-point, but after about ten minutes I started to lose interest.4 She’s dead, Andy! Go piss on her grave5 if you like, but otherwise, give it a rest!

Film critics rode high in the seventies, when Hollywood, finally catching up with the sixties, started making movies that were cool. The fun lasted well into the eighties, until the suits perfected the critic-proof movie, which, of course, started back in the seventies, with Jaws and Star Wars. “Remember when we were important?” Pauline asked a friend before fading to black.

The critic-proof movie, well, that was endurable. You could still talk about it, even if no one was really listening. But that damn Internet! What is up with that thing, anyway? The old talking heads fume and fuss in self-parodic fury while the new ones preen and swagger. To criticize the critic! So easy, and yet so unnecessary!

Afterwords

Think I’m too tough on For the Love of Movies? Roger Ebert says “I enjoyed it immensely. I learned a lot. Very well done, edited, researched — and narrated!”6 If you’re tempted, you’ll be glad to know that the DVD features 40 extra minutes of stuff that I guess was cut out, plus extra extended interviews with people like Rog, Elvis Mitchell, and John Waters.7

Although Andrew Sarris doesn’t know it, he introduced me to the world of art films, way back in 1964. Pickings must have been pretty slim down in the Village back then, because Andy agreed to haul his Manhattan ass all the way out to Oberlin, Ohio, where he spent a full month lecturing us hicks on the glories of foreign film, and not so incidentally showing us loads of Godard, Truffaut, Renoir, Fellini, Bergman, and Kurosawa, opening up a whole new world to me. So, thanks, Andy.

I saw Pauline at Oberlin too, in 1967. I don’t know how I knew about her, because I didn’t really qualify as a film buff, but I did. I saw her about six months before her review of Bonnie and Clyde made her seriously famous. She was very nervous back then, and read one of her early essays (the one about watching movies on TV) in a monotone, with no eye contact with the audience. When I saw her on TV in the seventies, as we see her in this documentary, she had loosened up considerably.

*According to Ann Hornaday, who writes film reviews for the Washington Post, and I believe still gets paid to do so, one of the benefits of being a film critic is that, “due to recent advances in the construction industry, we are the only ones authorized to use the word ‘riveting.'”

  1. Méliès, Buster Keaton, etc. Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen them all before, and so have you, but so what? []
  2. Harry Hopkins, not too well known to the general public, was perhaps the ultimate New Dealer, but segued into foreign affairs after the start of World War II. Always in miserable health, he was the great go-between for Roosevelt and Churchill. “Harry Hopkins always went to the root of the matter,” said Churchill. []
  3. Agee also wrote the script for The African Queen and, it now appears, Night of the Hunter. Go to the Wikipedia article, here, for background on Agee and Night of the Hunter. []
  4. Andy claims, among other things, that Pauline called him a homo, and, to prove her wrong, includes a photo of himself getting married (to a woman). In fact, Sarris’ wife, Molly Haskell, is, of course, a film critic as well—not as well-known as Pauline, perhaps, but definitely prettier. So I guess Andy won that one. []
  5. Of course, I pissed on Pauline’s grave myself here, pretty much, though with a measure of praise. []
  6. And the soundtrack totally rocked! Well, Rog is in the flick and I’m not, which may account for our differences. And even if Roger can be bought, the guy can still write, despite enduring the brutal ravages of cancer, as witness this extremely funny account of the masterpiece that wasn’t, Russ Meyer does the Sex Pistols (“Never Mind the Bollocks, Heavy on the Boobies”?), a flick that surely would have been the equal, if not the superior, of The Immoral Mr. Teas. If you can’t get enough of Russ (and who can?), read BL editor Gary Morris’ interview here. []
  7. Not really a critic, but very good at parties. []