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Movie Criticism Before (and After) Blogging

COM’s Gerald Peary talks about a life in movies tonight


Gerald Peary is "interested always in finding little documentaries and strange independent films that nobody has heard of and writing about them in a way that gets people to see them." Photo courtesy of Gerald Peary

Gerald Peary, a film critic for 30 years, writes for the Boston Phoenix and teaches film studies at Suffolk University. But he is likely best known in the Boston University community for his role as curator of BU Cinematheque, a weekly program that brings independent and celebrated filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.

Peary will be in the spotlight tonight, November 12, when the Brattle Theatre celebrates his career with screenings of three of his favorite films. He will also discuss his career and his film picks for the evening: Charleen, 33 Yo-Yo Tricks, and It’s a Gift. Directors Ross McElwee (Charleen) and P. White (33 Yo-Yo Tricks) will be on hand to speak.

Peary, who recently completed the documentary For the Love of Movies: The History of American Film Criticism, received a Fulbright scholarship to study Yugoslavian film comedy in Belgrade and has written several books and screenplays.

He spoke to BU Today about how film criticism has changed, why it’s important, and why he decided to step behind the camera himself.

BU Today: What drew you to film criticism?
I’m a film critic for my love of film. I want other people to see the same films that I saw and love. From the age of four, I was going to movies all the time. And I think a lot of film critics got caught at an early age with being completely enraptured by this media, especially seeing it on the big screen. I think film bit me in some way, and that’s why I like it.

As a film critic, I see myself as a kind of social worker. I’m not really interested in writing about the big Hollywood movies — other people can do that. I am interested always in finding little documentaries and strange independent films that nobody has heard of and writing about them in a way that gets people to see them.

My other goal is to articulate for the filmmakers themselves some way of looking at their own movies — as D. H. Lawrence said, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” I think a lot of times that artists don’t quite know what they made, or they have some vantage and their way of looking at art is just one way of looking at it. And my way is just another way. So my great pleasures then are to have someone say, “Hey, I read your review, and I went and saw your movie. And thanks so much, because I would not have known about it, and now I love it too.” And having filmmakers thank me — because I’ve articulated their movie by putting into words what they were trying to do with images — is the greatest feeling.

Why is film criticism important?
It’s hard to say why it’s eternally important. But certainly, right now it’s very important because we’re in a strange time where there are too many movies coming out. Every Friday, an extraordinary amount of films are released. And the ones with the largest advertising budgets get people to the movies. So the only way a little movie can be discovered by an educated audience is to have a film critic champion it and write about it in a way that will excite an audience to see it.

So the boosterism of criticism is really essential. And that’s not coming just from me as a critic. A lot of distributors are frightened by the fact that, as newspapers are getting smaller, over 30 major film critics have lost their jobs. And since those voices are gone, the films just open and close and nobody has anything to say about them. And it’s very hard for a little film or a documentary — unless it’s about penguins or Michael Moore — to get an audience.

What’s the difference between criticism and movie reviewing?
Every critic is a reviewer, but not every reviewer is a critic. Reviewing is the basic lunch bucket job that everybody does, which is consumer reporting, including opinions about whether an audience should see a particular movie or avoid it. And that even a critic must do. But what a critic does in addition is contextualize the movie in terms of history, politics, a filmmaker’s career, and genre. A film critic sees the movie as just a starting point for a more general discussion. And that’s why I hope someone will go see a movie, because the audience will realize that the movie is more than just a movie.

What does it mean to be a film critic now, in an age where anyone can blog about the films they see?
It’s really hard to say who is a “real” critic and who isn’t. But certainly, just the same way that there are too many movies, there are probably too many people chiming in about films. So it is difficult for audiences to wade through an ocean of supposed criticism to find a reliable voice.

There are some old-time critics who think all the new, online critics — people who blog or write on the Web — are terrible. And that isn’t true. There are actually some terrific people who write on the Web. But there are lots and lots of people online who really are the lowest kind of reviewers, because their opinions have no basis in anything.

But if you take some time to look, you’ll find a few Web sites with reviews written by educated 23- and 24-year-olds who know a lot about movies. But it’s pretty hard to know about movies — and the world, and politics, and history, and everything else — when you’re young. So I think that’s one advantage, for me, of being an older critic. A disadvantage is that it’s easy to get out of it and be a crusty old curmudgeon, which I can be sometimes.

How has your job as a film critic in Boston for the past 30 years changed?
When I arrived 30 years ago, it was the end of the golden age for film criticism. It was a precomputer age, so people found their opinions in print. When I first got here, I wrote for one of two alternative papers, the Real Paper, which no longer exists. The other was the Boston Phoenix, which I write for now.

So from 1978 to 1980, on a weekend in Boston, people would take a $1 and buy a copy of the Boston Phoenix for 50 cents and a Real Paper for 50 cents, sit in a café to read both papers avidly, and read the reviews, all of which were very long. There was a lot of space in which to write. The Boston Phoenix at that time was decadent — it had 2,000-word film reviews.

And so reviewing was important back then. A review played an important role in whether a film did well or not in Boston. And reviewers definitely had the possibility of persuading people to go to movies. Today, with the downsizing of papers, I don’t know that that’s true very much anymore. There’s no doubt that film criticism is less important than it was 30 years ago.

What are your most memorable moments?
Well, the most memorable moment was when I was at the Berlin Film Festival. The wall literally came down during the festival, and I got to stand on the Berlin Wall before it came down.

And there’s always the scoop factor with journalism. You want to have done something that nobody else has done. For example, I traveled to Maryland and conducted an interview with James M. Cain, writer of The Postman Always Rings Twice — who was 84 years old at the time — about the movie version of his book Double Indemnity.

And I don’t know if any American besides me has interviewed Toshiro Mifune, the star of Akira Kurosawa’s movies. He also did one movie with the great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi. So while I was interviewing him in Montreal, he put his glasses down, walked around the room, and pretended to be Mizoguchi. I felt like the king having Toshiro Mifune doing Mizoguchi imitations for me.

You recently wrapped up production on a documentary film, For the Love of Movies: The History of American Film Criticism, which took more than seven years to complete. Why did you create a film on film criticism?
Well, it was actually a sort of fluke project. Ron Mann, a talented documentary filmmaker, suggested that I make my own movie. So we had lunch in Toronto, and we talked about a project that I have always wanted to make, and would probably still like to make, a movie about barbecue. I told him that I would like to go around the world where people barbecue in pits, early in the morning, and interview them. And he said, “Yeah, that’s good. But what is it that you know more about than anything else?”

He’s the guy who said, “You could make a film about film criticism.” To which I said, “Hmmm. What would you show? There’s nothing to show. Film critics don’t do anything except go to movies and write their reviews. There’s nothing cinematic.” So he was the first producer of the film, but it turned out that I was right: seven and a half years later, I was still trying to figure out what to show, besides critics doing nothing. To get the cinematic part of this movie was a total killer.

What did you learn about film criticism while creating the documentary?
Well, I had to sort of invent what I think is the history of film criticism, because there isn’t any formally written book on it. So what I came up with is my narrative about criticism. What I think I did discover is especially early film history and the first film critics.

Every film critic who’s seen the movie has thanked me, because now they know about Frank E. Woods, the writer of The Birth of a Nation, who I call the first film critic, and Robert Sherwood, writer of The Best Years of Our Lives. They knew about them as screenwriters, but not film critics.

What was most challenging about your role as a first-time director?
Well, I don’t know anything about cameras, except for framing. So I let my camera operators do their job. But I actually really love filmmaking and part of it felt very natural, not something too different from the other work I’ve done.

And my strength is collaborating with editors in the editing room, structuring films. I’ve spent my life structuring articles and structuring writing — I have a talent for that.

On the other hand, I had no idea about the complexity of the film process. For example, I had no idea why it takes so long for people to make movies. I had no idea about everything that occurs backstage to create a film, such as producing and fundraising. And so I was shocked and traumatized, because I was a complete baby about how a movie could cost so much money. That’s of course where my dear producer, Amy Geller, my wife, is a terrific expert. She got me through the process.

But I would like to make another movie. So I haven’t signed off yet.

You’ve seen thousands of films. Why did you select these three, Charleen, 33 Yo-Yo Tricks, and It’s a Gift, for your tribute event at the Brattle Theatre?
These three films fit my own mandate for being a film critic.

I moved here from New Jersey in 1978. Most film critics don’t see themselves as part of the community in which they do the reviewing. They could be reviewing anywhere. But I have always seen myself as not only a social worker, but a community organizer. So my first objective was to discover who the filmmakers were in Boston.

In 1979, I was a codirector of the first Boston Independent Film Festival, a weeklong event at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. And codirector Julie Levenson and I went around Boston for a couple of months visiting filmmakers’ houses, seeing their movies. Each filmmaker would tell us about other filmmakers that we should see. That’s how I discovered the Boston filmmaking scene.

So two of the films, Charleen and 33 Yo-Yo Tricks, that will be screened at my tribute event at the Brattle Theatre were films I originally showed in the first Boston Independent Film Festival. And again, my social worker impulse has inspired me to bring them back.

On my journey, people told me that Ross McElwee, director of Charleen, who is now a world-famous filmmaker, was one of the filmmakers for me to discover. At the time, he was a young filmmaker at MIT, and Charleen is one of the first personal documentaries. That’s what Boston is now famous for — cinéma vérité, such as films like Gimme Shelter and Salesman, created by the Maysles brothers [Albert (GRS’53) and David (SMG’53)], and films created by filmmakers who explore themselves and their families. And Ross is really a starter of that. But it’s not just that he does personal documentaries. He’s found the right tone for them. He’s found a modest way to talk about himself, a non-self-indulgent, self-deprecating way. His warmth and his wit make these movies really very lovely.

Charleen was shown then. And now it’s been lost again, because people don’t see it very much anymore. So I’m bringing it back, and Ross is going to be there to celebrate it.

And 33 Yo-Yo Tricks is the only movie ever made by this guy P. White, who I’ve known forever. He’s a Cambridge character who has been a therapist, an antique dealer, and once Boston’s most famous partygoer. But he only made one movie, and it’s a perfect film. As the title says, it’s 33 yo-yo tricks, and it’s just a conceptual film that’s beautifully shot and shows 33 yo-yo tricks by a yo-yo master. White’s very excited, because people haven’t seen his film in years. He’ll be there too.

I’m trying to give the audience an idea about the vitality of the Boston scene and show that, I, as a critic, am sort of a conduit for showing these great films.

And finally, as a critic, one of my favorite things is to bring back old movies and tell people why they should see them. A constant frustration with students today is that they very rarely see anything in black-and-white or anything that was made a long time ago. They go just to the newer movies.

W. C. Fields has always been my favorite comedian, but he has been forgotten pretty much by everybody, which completely confounds me. People still talk about the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, and Keaton, but W. C. Fields — who is their equal — has left the world’s radar.

It’s a Gift is a movie that I think is the funniest movie ever made. It’s going to be my pleasure to sit in the theater and hear people laugh at it for the first time, knowing that I brought this movie to them.

As curator of BU Cinematheque, what do you get out of the experience of bringing filmmakers to BU? Why is this an important program for BU?
One goal that many BU film students have is to go to Hollywood and “make it.” And that’s fine if that’s what they’d like to do. But I think the BU Cinematheque is far more about showing that the world of film has many possibilities. There are places for young filmmakers who are making personal films, tiny films, and documentaries — those who are making a mark on the world in a different way than just becoming another cog in the Hollywood system.

I’m trying to bring career models that students might think about. And I’m bringing filmmakers who are really complimented to be invited to screen their films at BU — they’re thrilled to show their movies and have a chance to talk to BU students and get some exchange. At the end of the night, they feel more confident about the work that they’ve done after they’ve had a chance to articulate it and see people enjoy it. It’s a pump of optimistic adrenaline for people.

And for me, I have a chance to bring filmmakers to BU, spend an evening talking about film with them, and have dinner with them. And I often make filmmaker friends that I probably wouldn’t have made otherwise.

So I think you’ll see that at the event at the Brattle Theatre on Wednesday there should be a lot of filmmakers in the house. And those are the independent filmmakers — the ones whose work I championed — who are now behind me for my night and a couple of hours of Warholian fame.

Tribute to Gerald Peary will take place tonight, November 12, at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge. The films Charleen and 33 Yo-Yo Tricks will begin at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a discussion with Gerald Peary and filmmakers Ross McElwee and P. White. The event will end with a screening of It’s a Gift. Tickets can be purchased at the Brattle Theatre box office or online.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Movie Criticism Before (and After) Blogging

  • Anonymous on 11.12.2008 at 9:18 am

    Wonderful Professor

    I took Peary’s film studies course on John Ford and John Huston back in the late 90’s (I honestly can’t remember what year it was, but probably ’98). He was a great teacher and I enjoyed every class. Great to see that he’s doing well and I’m sorry to say I can’t make the event.

  • Amanda on 11.13.2008 at 12:16 pm

    Great man

    Gerry is a good friend of mine, and an amazing man. I am so happy that the Boston community has celebrated his dedication and work to film. As a student at BU, psych major, not film, I had the opportunity to experience a new sort of movie watching, where I met directors, editors and actors and saw realities I may not have otherwise been exposed to – quite different from the cheesy love films I am so fond of. More than that, Gerry is just a genuinely good person, intelligent and supportive, and I am happy to have him in my camp.

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