Thursday, December 15, 2011

Documentary Channel: "The History of American Film Criticism"

During the month of December, the Documentary Channel is presenting a "Best of" series of some of the most honored documentaries of the past few years. I will be reviewing several of these films over the next two weeks. Here is my review of the film For The Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism - Tom Hyland

"Why is agism acceptable in the print media and the electronic media?," asks Michael Wilmington, former film critic for the Chicago Tribune at one point in the documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. Wilmington's question is a response to the fact that as traditional media wants to court a younger audience, those are exactly the people who are now being assigned the job as critics.

This issue is one of several intriguing ones introduced in this excellent film, a work that is aptly titled as it thoroughly examines the history of film criticism in America. The film is divided into chapters, beginning with the first reviews - little more than plot synopses - coming at the end of the 19th and during the beginning of the 20th century and continuing up to the digital age where reviewers fill the internet via personal blogs. In between these eras, writer/director Gerald Peary - himself a film critic - addresses and interviews some of the country's finest film reviewers, from Roger Ebert to Stanley Kauffmann to Molly Haskell.

One of the aspects of American film criticism that's analyzed here is the spat between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Sarris, was one of the first (perhaps the first) American film critic to espouse the auteur theory that had been popular with the French critics of the 1950s and '60s. This theory stated that the director was the author of the film and Sarris went on to explain this in great detail in his famous book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, which he wrote in 1968. Kael, who had recently been hired by The New Yorker as their film critic at that time, disagreed with this theory, calling it "amateurish." Critics throughout America took sides, some opting for Sarris' approach, while others preferred Kael's thinking. Sarris is quoted here saying that "We helped each other establish a dialectic."

Other topics in this film include the need for film criticism, how directors and producers react to negative reviews (the famous story of Kenneth Turan's less than stellar writeup of Titanic is detailed) and how younger film critics of today have arguably changed the way movies are made in Hollywood. Of course in a film that deals with the history of American film criticism, reviewers such as James Agee, Vincent Canby and Bosley Crowther are given their due.

While this is a film aimed at movie buffs, I think anyone interested in American films will find this film to be most entertaining. Highly Recommended

For the Love of Movies: The History of American Film Criticism will be shown on Documentary Channel on Thursday, December 15 at 8:00 and 11:00 Eastern time.

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