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A new documentary from a BU husband-wife team points to the critics

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View the video above to watch excerpts from For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism.

For more than 30 years, Gerald Peary, film critic for the Boston Phoenix, has shared his thoughts about movies.

“I see myself as a kind of social worker,” says Peary, best known on campus 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. “I’m not really interested in writing about the big Hollywood movies. I find documentaries and indie films that nobody has heard of.”

Turned director, Peary’s passion for championing underappreciated cinema inspired him to create a documentary about the history of his profession. Eight years in the making, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, produced with his wife, College of Communication lecturer Amy Geller, is a true labor of love, built on interviews with film critics such as Roger Ebert of the the Chicago Sun-Times, A. O. Scott of the New York Times, and Karina Longworth of Spout.com.

Peary and Geller are screening their documentary this week at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Peary will attend all screenings; Geller will appear at most of them.

Peary and Geller spoke with BU Today about film criticism and the challenges they faced making their documentary.

BU Today: Why is film criticism important?
Geller:
Film criticism is part of cultural critiquing. Whether it is food writing, art reviews, or movie reviews, it gets people to think and question.

Peary: Today, people select which movies to see based on advertising. Lots of excellent little pictures — foreign, independent, and documentaries — are passing through without being seen. The only way to get people to go to those films, because they have no advertising budgets, is reviews by good critics.

What’s the difference between a film critic and a reviewer?
Peary:
Reviewing is consumer reporting, including opinions about whether an audience should see a particular movie or avoid it. A good critic is someone who goes beyond plot, talks about the movie in context, and sees the film in terms of politics, arts, genre, literature, art, and the director’s career. A good review by a critic seduces the reader, and it’s a beautiful piece of writing.

How has film criticism changed over time?
Peary: When I first moved to Boston in 1978 there were rival papers, the Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix. I was a critic for the Real Paper, now defunct. On a weekend in Boston, people all over the city would spend 50 cents for a copy of the Real Paper, 50 cents for the Boston Phoenix, and carefully read both. It was common for critics to write 2,000-word reviews. Now the Boston Phoenix is down to a few reviews and short blurbs. I felt my reviews made a difference. That’s pompous, but I felt I was providing an important service.

Geller: Another difference in how films are being reviewed is the change from print to online. Like film critic Harry Knowles from Ain’t It Cool News says in the movie, “Anybody can be a critic.” It seems our culture has shifted from a focus on the experienced critic to a culture that values everybody’s ideas. On one hand it’s really wonderful, because culture is accessible to everybody. One successful aspect of film criticism blogs is that they allow for that discussion. The problem is sometimes that discussion isn’t moderated, so you get random comments.

Why was it important for you to make this film?
Peary:
We want people to read criticism. One way to motivate people to do that is by showing the critics’ faces and letting their voices be heard.

Geller: Before making this movie, I didn’t read criticism thoughtfully. It didn’t resonate with me until I actually met the critics. Reading criticism has brought a kind of richness in movie-going that I didn’t have before. I hope our movie gets people to think more deeply about the movies they see and to talk to other people about them.

What was it like making the film together? What challenges and benefits did your relationship bring to the mix?
Geller:
Anyone who has tried to make a movie knows the process is incredibly intense. It’s hard to establish boundaries between your personal life and your work life, especially when you’re working at home.

What made the partnership positive is that Gerry and I have different styles that work very well together. He’s a great writer, and so the movie is very well written. Even though he’s not technically an editor, he’s visually and rhythmically an editor, so he made smart editorial choices. And he has an extensive knowledge of film history. So he would know a clip from a movie that would work in a scene, and whether it was in the public domain. That saved us a lot of time and money. I brought an awareness of the Internet and how that has affected the way people consume culture. The film was originally more historical. I pushed to bring it up to the present.

Describe your roles and the challenges you faced.
Geller: The first challenge is financial. We deferred our salaries, so we didn’t make any money, but we paid some of our collaborators. We had to raise money to do that. We would work for a year, run out of money, and then raise more over the next three to four months. There would be a loss of momentum, and then we’d have to regain it.

Since the movie took eight years to complete, we had different teams who worked in various capacities. As soon as we trained a group, a year later there would be a regime change. With new people came energy and a positive kinetic force. The downside is that you have to train them all over again.

Another challenge was working within the realm of the Fair Use law. This movie depends heavily on using other peoples’ third party video and still photographs to tell our story.

Peary: We had to learn the parameters of the law. For instance, the clips we used could only be as long as the point we were making. So Amy’s challenge was to work with mathematical charts tracking the in and out points of clips. She dealt with thousands of hours of minutiae and worked with lawyers to get insurance to make it work.

As a first-time director, I made this movie naively. I always joked about filmmaking, saying “What do filmmakers do all day? Why don’t they just shoot and edit, and finish the movie?” The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that moviemaking takes time.

What did you find most rewarding?
Geller: Movies are made in isolation, so it’s exciting to see it in a theater, hearing people laugh and gasp. Gerry and I also enjoy the question-and answer-sessions after the screenings.

Peary: Finishing. There were many times when we would just shut the movie down. We’re still amazed it’s up there on the screen. One day I came home, and there was a message on my answering machine from filmmaker John Waters, who liked the movie. That was pretty great.

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism will be screened tonight, Thursday, September 10, at 8 p.m. at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., and will run through Sunday, September 13. Times vary; check here for the complete schedule. Tickets range from $8 to $10, and may be purchased online or at the MFA Remis box office. For more information, call 617-267-9300.

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

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