For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism with Gerald Peary at the Dryden

Ali and I headed to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) for the discussion with Gerald Peary. It turned out he was screening a documentary he directed: For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. The documentary was okay — it touched on the major "eras" of public film criticism, primarily in America. Motion picture making itself is barely 100 years old, and critical analysis necessarily followed. As documentaries of a history go, it was an imperfect, but generally pretty good essay on the topic.

As we stayed through the question-and-answer afterward, I kept revisiting a negative opinion: that the whole evening was packed with ignorance. It wasn't until later that I pinned it down: critics that made an impact were good writers who happened to critique motion pictures, but critics seem to co-opt the respect of being a good critic while ignoring the necessity of being a good writer first. This resonated with me strongest in the last segment that covered the Internet age. It seems that paid critics disliked the presence of Internet critics because they felt that the fact they were paid automatically made them superior. Rather, I think that the best critics — Internet or otherwise — are able to examine a film from a unique perspective that gives insight into that film.

Peary also insisted that a critic's role is to analyze a film within the context of film-as-art, not to identify whether you, as a reader, should see it. I think this is misguided. First, I agree that there is a majority of people who just want a movie review that tells them "good" or "bad" — they literally want to be told they will like a film (and further, I think their opinion is heavily swayed by what critics tell them). However, there is another group of people who read film criticism beforehand for its context in film-as-art so they can determine whether they want to see it. In some cases, it is to explain, "how can I enjoy this film?", or "why is this film important?" I've written in the past about how I use film criticism and synopses, noting that a review should bracket my experience and help me understand what to expect. For instance, I don't think a film like Vals Im Bashir (Waltz With Bashir) could be considered a movie that "people would like", but I'm glad I saw it and I think it was a great film. It was because I knew something of the film that I decided to see it — partly trailers, and partly through critical review. But I used those tools specifically to determine whether I should see it.

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