Posted: 11/14/2009


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


by Matt Fagerholm

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Attention all film critics and film bloggers, Paulettes and Sarrisites, artists and art connoisseurs of Chicagoland! For one week only (November 13 - 19), the Gene Siskel Film Center is running the first comprehensive documentary on the century-long history of an often neglected and misunderstood art form: film criticism. The movie is not exactly a work of art itself, but it does provide a useful overview of the people that helped shape and enrich the art form over the years. It was directed by a critic, Gerald Peary, who has access to the greatest living American film writers, and their interviews alone make the film worth seeing. Any self-respecting critical studies student can’t afford to miss it.

The film is split into six digestible chapters, starting with the silent era, when Hollywood often courted and occasionally collaborated with critics (such as Frank E. Woods, who co-authored D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation). It’s important to note how famous rivals Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael helped popularize a purely analytical approach to criticism (which differed from the aggressively moral perspective of Bosley Crowther). It’s also bittersweet to reflect on the period (which the film approximates to have occurred between 1968 and 1980) when film criticism was valued by the public, since it represented the voice of the individual. One of the best lines in the film comes from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who says that good criticism is the kind that can’t be turned into advertising. As the documentary effectively proves in its selected passages from critics throughout history, true film criticism is every bit as much a form of personal artistic expression as cinema itself. Though Kael was a fierce critic of the “auteur theory,” she emerged as an auteur herself thorough her distinctive writings, which were every bit as much about herself as the films being analyzed.

Any film enthusiast unfamiliar with the important works of people like Robert Sherwood, Manny Farber, James Agee, Molly Haskell and Vincent Canby would greatly benefit from seeing this. Though the film does acknowledge that the “digital rebellion” is leading to the loss of jobs for critics, and journalists in general, it’s outlook on the dilemma is refreshingly hopeful. The film’s subjects, old and young, argue that criticism is not dying but evolving, and that writers must embrace the opportunity to reinvent themselves online. Former Tribune critic Michael Wilmington appeared in person after Friday’s screening, and spoke about how he has enjoyed finding new life on the Internet, through his blogging on

For the Love of Movies ultimately gives aspiring film critics hope about the future of their desired profession. For that, it deserves a thumbs up!

Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.

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