Rock critics rarely cut gold records. Likewise, few football reporters go on to quarterback Super Bowl winners. But with his eight-years-in-the-making documentary on film criticism, long-time Boston Phoenix contributor and Suffolk University professor Gerald Peary incinerates the barrier between subject and reporter, demonstrating more than mere comprehension of the art he's scrutinized for decades. In For the Love of Movies, Peary ventures where few scribes have gone before, answering the rhetorical jab that's been directed at entertainment arbiters since the dawn of commentary: "If you have all the answers, then why not get off your ass and prove it?"
At the heart of For the Love of Movies is a quote attributed to Robert E. Sherwood — a godfather of criticism who in the 1920s helped guide film away from stage æsthetics and toward its own separate identity. "For the self-conscious highbrows who know nothing about motion pictures, I have no respect whatsoever," said Sherwood, who wrote for Life and Vanity Fair and won Pulitzers in drama and biography. "I would go to the movies even if I were not paid to do so."
Much of Peary's effort highlights feuds between warring trends and factions — in particular the legendary spat between the great Andrew Sarris's auteur tribe and Pauline Kael's contrarian cohort. At the same time, the film keeps reminding us that all critics share one common characteristic (hint: check the title): in personal interviews, such hopeless reel junkies as the New York Times' A.O. Scott and boob-tube icon Roger Ebert revisit impressionable cinematic memories from their childhoods. Despite having high-profile subjects, however, Peary has no interest in fellating his contemporaries. Anticipated peer reviews raised the stakes for his passion project, but his larger challenge was to assemble a story that would entertain not just critics but those pedestrians who don't know Cinéaste from bouillabaisse.
"The worry was whether this would be a boring and irrelevant film about a bunch of strange people — but not strange in a way that anybody cares about," Peary acknowledges. "It's a balance between being true and being interesting. One of my heroes is Bertolt Brecht, who said that even though it's didactic, it has to be entertaining. My wife, Amy Geller, who produced the film and is many years younger than me, definitely helped to make it more hip, while I functioned more as the old history guy."
Since there was no existing master narrative, Peary took on the titanic task of presenting a prudently abridged background on film criticism. He begins with Frank E. Woods, who, in addition to kick-starting the craft, was an industry insider — he wrote the influential and incendiary Birth of a Nation along with moving-picture impresario D.W. Griffith. From there, the field (d)evolves full circle; there's a clear and implied parallel between the early 19th-century shills and the weak-willed Hollywood champions who some believe have hijacked the art form in recent years.
"I've always been a print critic, but hostility to the Web was never my intention," says Peary, who features on-line heavyweight Harry Knowles of aintitcool.com and, in retrospect, wishes he had interviewed more new-school Web reviewers. "My worry about the Net is that real credibility is hard to establish, but there are always sluts, frauds, and whores everywhere. That goes for print media, too. The truth is, there are lots of terrific critics who write for the Web."
All the same, For the Love of Movies is as much a swan song as it is a celebration. Long gone are the years when cab drivers recognized and confronted critics, as New York Observer veteran Rex Reed remembers. Some movements, they say, go in cycles, but film criticism will not likely have a future peak comparable to the eras that Peary nostalgically presents. In light of that looming reality, another Sherwood gem comes to mind: "The trouble with me is, I belong to a vanishing race. I'm one of the intellectuals."
"I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen in a few years, but I do know that critics keep losing their jobs," says Peary. "There's even a Web site that keeps track of how many people were laid off, but I've been too depressed to check it out since Andrew Sarris got fired from the New York Observer. As for me, I couldn't be a first-string critic nowadays anyway, having to write about horrible and meaningless crappy action films that I think are really bad for you. I'm out in the pastures now, writing about what I should be writing about. But I did really like The Hurt Locker."
For the Love of Movies | Written and directed by Gerald Peary | playing at the MFA, Sept. 9-13, info at fortheloveofmovies.net | tickets @ //www.mfa.org/tickets/index.asp .