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A Critical Moment: Three Perspectives

Earlier this year the San Francisco International Film Festival screened Gerald Peary's For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, and followed it up with a free-to-the-public panel entitled "A Critical Moment", moderated by SF360 editor Susan Gerhard.  Panel participants included Gerald Peary, B. Ruby Rich, David D'Arcy, Dennis Harvey, John Anderson, Jonathan Curiel, and Mary Pols.  With daily newspapers downsizing and the most prominent voices in film criticism disappearing, they were asked to address: "What will the future of criticism look like in the blog-and-Twitter era?"  The panel was likewise assigned the task of looking "at both the crisis and opportunities brought about by the transformation in written media content and delivery—the effects on audiences, on the art itself and on the people who've been practicing film criticism professionally for the past decades."  Though many perspectives were shared between the panelists, I offer a few.

* * *

Noting that B. Ruby Rich had pointed out to her before the panel started that her interview in Gerald Peary's For The Love of Movies had been filmed nearly eight years ago, Susan Gerhard was curious to assess how much has gone on in the eight years since then?  Gerhard asked Rich to consider some of the unexpected changes that have occurred in the eight years since she participated in Geary's documentary.

B. RUBY RICH: I'll say a couple of things.  One is [that]—it wasn't just that eight years was a long time ago—it took place at the Toronto Film Festival the day after 9/11.  Sometimes documentary filmmakers get really lucky—they're following their subject and suddenly something dramatic happens in their life—but, this was sort of the opposite.  Gerry was all ready to interview all of these film critics and suddenly 9/11 happened.  I think he cut out all my apocalyptic statements about how film criticism was never going to be the same.  Unfortunately, that turned out not to be true.  I thought the world was going to change.  I thought all these paradigms were going to have to shift.  We were going to have to look at things a different way.  People were going to have to make different kinds of films.  Instead, of course, that didn't happen at all.

Typically, the changes that I thought were going to happen instead gave way to other changes that I hadn't expected at all, which are the changes which we now are trying to survive, not just in terms of film criticism but in terms of: what's happening to film; what's happening to movie theatres; what's happening to DVD and video stores; what's about to happen in the world of download; what Hulu means for i-Tunes; what's happening to journalism, the collapse of newspapers and so on.  The really precarious state of film criticism right now seems to be linked to the state of its home in journalism and its subject in terms of movies.

There's maybe one thing I might want to say—and then wait to get into discussion with everybody else up here—and that is the kind of often-ignored aspect of film criticism, which is the whole question of taste.  I came of age as a film critic in a much earlier era when I was able to write for the alternative weeklies; when I could write for the Chicago Reader—and find my voice that way—and then begin to write for The Village Voice and know that lots of people were reading me.  It was a wonderful, euphoric feeling to be writing at a time when there were certain anchor publications that everybody was reading and when you felt that you could make a difference—whether that was delusional fantasies of omnipotence, I don't know; but, as I increasingly meet people who read me then, who are now grown-up adults in their life and say, "Oh, you know, it was really important for me to read you when I was growing up in Topeka", things like that—I think, on reflection, that was a very different position to hold than today.

At the same time, the film world was a much smaller one.  Championing films took place on a much less crowded landscape.  But even in those days, I don't think I could have been a daily critic because my taste was so specialized.  I had such a hostility towards mainstream movies and such an inability to deal with the material that was coming out, that I really had to write in places where I could champion alternative work or where I could feel free to completely attack this year's favorite movie.  Now, for me—and I'll see what everyone else has to say—increasingly, the question is: where do I write out of that kind of taste and that kind of experience?  If I want to attack Slumdog Millionaire, where do I do it?  I haven't been able to figure it out.  I did a little paragraph for SF360; but, 15 or 20 years ago that would have been a feature article in The Village Voice.  But I don't know these days what people read and I'm always asking people so I hope that—at the end of the panel when we open it to questions and dialogue with you—that we can get from you: what do you read?  Whose opinions do you care about?  Where do you look for guidance?  Apart from the mob, whose personal opinions are ricocheting around?  Who do you trust?  Where do you find them?

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Following on B. Ruby Rich's comments, and considering that the relationship between writers about film and their readers is changing radically, Gerhard wondered if John Anderson could speak to what it means for a culture when the influence of experienced print critics is diminished?

JOHN ANDERSON: This whole critics thing is just the canary in the coal mine.  For it to be of interest beyond this room, you have to consider the coal mine as the culture and the culture is being fashioned today much more towards the individual, validating what the individual already thinks and feels and the taste that he already possesses.  The intrusion of a point of view other than—let's call him the consumer because that's what he is—is very unwelcome and the culture as a whole is making it that way.  The crisis is not whether we're being employed or not—although that's important to me that I'm employed—it's that people aren't looking outside of themselves.  We're living in a corporatized culture that wants us not to look outside ourselves so they can pander to what we already think.  From the iPod to the blog to the specialized movie website, it's all skewing that way.

* * *

Admiring David D'Arcy as a brave journalist who doesn't "write scared", Gerhard asked him to consider why people are not marching in the streets to save the jobs of film critics?

DAVID D'ARCY: There's a great line from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the Republicans after winning in 1936.  It was: "I welcome your hatred."  Never forget that.  Because it's reassuring to be hated by people….

There are two images I want to give you—and forgive me for such outrageous namedropping—but I was talking to someone at Abu Dhabi.  So many film festival directors—and not just Peter Scarlett, who we all know—but, a number of other people have gotten jobs in the Middle East where there seems to be a lot of money.  A friend of mine is living in Abu Dhabi with her husband and she said that in Dhabi right now so many people are losing their jobs.  When you lose your job, you lose your visa.  You have 30 days to get out.  It's not "try to find something else in 30 days", it's 30 days and you're out.  So many people are leaving Dhabi that hundreds and hundreds of cars—Lexis, Mercedes, you name it—are just being abandoned at the airport.  To me that's a fantastic cinematic image.  …The point I would make is that everybody is cutting back.

The other point I would make is what I read in the Wall Street Journal.com.  Warren Buffet said, "Nobody will buy a newspaper today.  Nobody."  So if we think we're going to be saved by somebody coming in, we saw that lesson learned at the Chicago Tribune, at the Philadelphia Enquirer, and anywhere else where a rich person thought it would be fun to own a newspaper, tried to own one, and broke all his promises.

About pressures, as you probably know and as a personal element to this story, I was fired by National Public Radio for reporting accurately on paintings from a Jewish family seized by the Nazis in 1939 that turned up in the Museum of Modern Art.  MOMA complained the story alleged inaccuracies, NPR didn't want to hear what I had to say about it, and got rid of me.  They later learned what I reported was accurate and asked me to come back, but the terms were still very punitive.  You have to wonder, what's so important about a museum or a movie studio that makes the kind of pressure from that studio enough to change the minds of management?

Studio films to me tend to be critic-proof.  They don't need the critics.  The people that go to see those films don't read the critics.  Why some are successful, why some are not, is something we've all been trying to figure out and it's something we're still kind of surprised at.  The interesting thing there is that the critics are mattering less and less and—if you look at, for example, documentaries; if you look at the things critics have raved about, and you see how well these films do—the critics don't necessarily bring out the audience.  It might sound a little simplistic, but it's not so much about worrying whether the film critics will keep their jobs or not—I don't think they are—but, Ruby brought this up, we have a real problem in distribution, particularly documentaries, which are not earning a lot of money in most places and—if there are a limited amount of screens—the decision, obviously, is going to be made where those screens can earn the most money.

* * *

Gerhard asked the panelists to enumerate one lovely or horrifying trend in film(s).

D'ARCY: One trend that I'm concerned about is what we might call the trust fund documentary.  We've had some good examples—Andrew Jarecki, Charles Ferguson—and we've had Participant, which has done great things with money made in other places.  Now we're looking at Coppola whose film Tetro was made by money made in hotels and wineries.  We've been lucky so far.  A lot of these films have been okay and some quite good.  But I'm afraid that—if that's really the source of where this is coming from; in other words, you've got someone who's already made or inherited a fortune acting on whims, acting on a personal vocation—that's good; but, I'm afraid that this is becoming disproportionate as other sources are funding are becoming more scarce.

RICH: In terms of documentary, I guess I have a slightly different point of view from David.  Sure, bring on the trust fund money but let them be producers instead of directors.  Let them give other people the money the way Participant has.  It's new enough for people to think that what they want to do with their money is put it into documentaries.  Let them give HBO a run for their money at least and get some different kinds of models out there.

My thought about documentaries is slightly different.  One thing is that I think it's fantastic that this coming week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York they put on a Kim Longinotto retrospective and tribute.  I think she's a phenomenal and underrated documentary filmmaker who has stayed true to a kind of documentary filmmaking that people don't seem to care about anymore—working in different parts of the world with collaborators in those countries; always focused on women; in recent years she's done most of her films in different parts of Africa, before that she was working in Japan—Longinotto is an incredibly sensitive, unheralded filmmaker.  I think that's really exciting at a time when more and more documentaries seem to follow either individual pathologies or people who are already famous.  It's really import to see her model looking very deeply into a culture—and extraordinary women in that culture—in a way that's actually riveting and not remotely boring.  For me, it augurs well that she's getting a little bit of recognition now.

The other thing is that there's a lot of threats on documentary now.  I'm friendly with Hubert Sauper who made Darwin's Nightmare who just won the last in a series of lawsuits against him in the French courts combined with a hate campaign and disinformation campaign by the Tanzanian government aimed at that film.  It's been really grueling and a number of people, including me, were trying to help him craft a response to what it means for countries now essentially trying to copyright their own countries, copyright their information trademark, their borders, and go after filmmakers who provide different points of view from inside or from outside.  If anyone ever saw the documentary My Daughter, the Terrorist, they've been going after the subjects of documentaries; the mother who was the main informant in that documentary was assassinated after the documentary got into international distribution.  So I think there are some very serious threats to documentary right now that go way beyond threats to freedom of speech but that are actually moving into violence against people who appear in documentaries and—so far—legal means against people who make them.  That is something new to documentary and something I'm trying to gauge and pay attention to and try to find a way to think about.

D'ARCY: The threats that documentary filmmakers are facing points to what journalists have been facing for quite a while and points to the way that—as journalism contracts—documentaries are filling in the gaps in journalism.  …But you have another situation, which is the legal problems that a lot of journalists and filmmakers are facing right now.  Both African countries—not just Tanzania—and the Russian oligarchs have discovered the French and British legal systems.  To get a libel judgment against a journalist without proving malice is much easier in the United Kingdom and is very easy in France.  They've managed to shut all sorts of projects down.  When was the last time you saw anything investigative about Russian?  You've seen films that use archival tape but real investigative work you're not going to see.  A lot of that has to do, first of all, with how physically difficult it is to shoot anything there and also the legal risks.  That's a very significant trend.

Thank you for the tireless transcribing, Michael. I was really happy to hear B. Ruby Rich give Longinotto the props she truly deserves at that forum. Just a note that well before MoMA, the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley did a great retrospective of Longinotto’s work in 2006. (As I’m sure similar film archives/arthouses have elsewhere before MoMA.) And for those in the Bay Area this week and weekend, the Roxie Theatre will be screening Longinotto’s ROUGH AUNTIES, SISTERS IN LAW, and DIVORCE IRANIAN STYLE as part of the Women Make Movies Film Festival.
Great heads-up, Adam, thanks! I’m totally unfamiliar with Longinotto’s work.
Thanks. Passing on this kind of insight to us masses is well appreciated. I love this kind of stuff. Does anyone know if FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES will be distributed outside of the film circuit?
Thanks a lot, Michael. Great stuff. Just added to links list on Film Criticism: http://bit.ly/sEp1U
Thanks, Catherine. I appreciate that. Brooks, I have a phone call in to Gerald to determine if and when his doc will have theatrical distribution and/or DVD release. I’ll report back as soon as he lets me know. In the interim, for those interested in the remaining perspectives of the “Critical Moment” panel, those are up at The Evening Class.
Just heard from Gerald Peary who has advised that, yes, indeed, For the Love of Movies will be coming out on DVD within the month and will be available for purchase from the film’s website. The DVD will include 40 extra minutes of interview footage, including—much to Gerald’s delight—John Waters speaking on his favorite queer critic Parker Tyler. Until then, however, the documentary continues to screen at various festivals and institutions: most immediately, this coming Saturday at the Montreal World Film Festival; then next month, September 9-13, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Some theatrical distribution is being hinged to the DVD release but has not been fully confirmed as yet, though it will most likely occur in the Bay Area at some of our most cherished stand-alone venues.
John Anderson’s point is far reaching. Peary’s movie could be ordered by schools and used as context for teaching film history. Culture providers, distributers, producers, or whomever, pandering to established preferences, and giving the public products fashioned according to market research and polls that anticipate and create taste, stifles curiosity, serendipity, experiment, and the distribution of good foreign films.
Maya, thank you for the update on the film’s status.

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