For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism

A breezy primer for the casual film and critic buff

Could there be a more self-absorbed exercise than a film critic discussing a movie about other film critics discussing film critics discussing movies? Setting aside the faintly pretentious, down-the-rabbit-hole nature of this modest doc, I'm happy to report that For the Love of Movies is a fairly engaging watch and a breezy primer for the casual buff — though on a purely aesthetic level, it's sort of a flop.  

Gerald Peary (himself a critic) parades talking heads across the screen, from contemporary faves to seasoned vets, all furiously contextualizing and attempting to legitimize the craft. But it would've been better if the fussy presentation, stock music and grainy clips weren't strictly local public television quality. 

Almost perversely, the movie opens with Harry Knowles, the ginger-topped Texan scourge of serious film crit, whose popular site Ain't It Cool News, and his blathering run-on word salads, fawning fanboy crushes and occasional vicious slams have made him equally loathed and coveted by studio brass (and hilariously parodied on an Entourage episode). The profession's early leading lights get brief lip service, from the influential James Agee to the elegantly stuffy Bosley Crowther, and the artfully brilliant champion of trashy genres, Manny Farber. 

Peary lingers on the rivalry between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, a decades-long squabble that subsequently dragged legions of reviewers into enemy camps. We are treated to somewhat friendlier foes Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and a delightful glimpse of their 1975 debut on Chicago TV, with Siskel rocking a caterpillar-thick 'stache. Their insight and chemistry made them stars, but the film sidesteps the often embarrassing clones who followed them in the '80s. What's missing is the sort of sharp-tongued bitchiness that makes Rex Reed a guilty pleasure, though there's a fun taste of Kenneth Turan and James Cameron's blood feud over Titanic, a prime example of mounting tensions between studios and reviewers, even as their influence is allegedly waning.  

Despite much state-of-the-industry hand-wringing, Peary gamely eyes the uncertain Internet future, where print decays, money vanishes and older critics get shoved aside. But fret not; as long as they keep making movies, my obsessive colleagues and I will keep talking about them.

Showing on Monday, June 28, at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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