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.


Waltz With Bashir at The Little

Ali and I went to The Little (240 East Ave.) to catch a couple movies. She had read the book and wanted to see the film The Reader, and I've been meaning to catch Vals Im Bashir (Waltz With Bashir). They both started about the same time — although the shorter Waltz started 10 minutes earlier, so I got out some 45 minutes earlier. I headed to Spot Coffee (200 East Ave.) but couldn't figure out how to get on the Internets with their wireless Internet [assuming "Spot on WIFI" was the SSID of their network.]

Anyway, Waltz With Bashir is a rather interesting movie. It's an animated film about a man who had fought in Israel's war with Lebanon 20 years ago. He can't remember anything of his involvement in the war until one of the people he fought with reveals a recurring dream. The man then seeks others who fought in the war by his side to help him get his memories back — particularly about a massacre he has the most trouble remembering.

The scenes of war were particularly surreal. Not because of the unreal aspects of the animation, though, but from the insanity inherent in war itself: particularly those aspects that bridge peaceful life with war life. The soldiers are expected to behave a certain way, but their humanity draws their attention to commonplace things: sounds and silence for example, or the benign apathy of plants to politics, borders, and war.

I look at this whole war thing like I must be crazy. I mean, I can't see how it makes anything any better. It's a deliberate act of malice that changes the course of people's lives, justified in future retrospect that it will have been seen as unavoidable and written in history as a good thing by the victors.

So I see these films that portray war as this absurd exercise and it seems true through the rich approximation of emotions. But then I'll talk with some guy returning from Iraq and they all say it was such a rewarding experience. On the one hand I feel like my fellow fairly-trade-coffee-chewing aristocracy, proud of our nuanced and clearly superior understanding of war. Yet it's a much more filtered view than those who are actually at war.

Unassailable logic dictates that to really get an answer, I'd need to go to war myself. But aside from gaining more knowledge about the world, I otherwise find the idea, well, bad.

I think I might just leave this one unknown.