More Than Meets The Mogwai

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES: An Interview with Critic/Director Gerald Peary

Sarris at Work

The following is the full transcript of an interview conducted in early November with Gerald Peary, Boston Phoenix film critic and the man behind the documentary, FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES: THE STORY OF AMERICAN FILM CRITICISM.

Aaron Graham: What initiated the project?

Gerald Peary: Many-a-year ago, at the Toronto Film Festival, (Canadian documentarian) Ron Mann and I were at lunch - I actually worked as an informal story editor for him. He’d been impressed by my ability, so he made this offer that he would executive produce something if I had a topic that I would like to make a movie about.

Immediately, I was excited and told him I wanted to make something about barbecuing – that could be my first feature. And he asked me what I meant. I told him I wanted to make a film about barbecue and these guys who get up in the middle of the night to go into pits and use special sauces, and to document this phenomenon that happens all around the world.

He said, “Nah, I don’t think so. That’s not a film you should make. What you should make is a film about film critics, because that’s what you really know.”

So, Ron was the person who came up with the idea and was the original executive producer. But, since I am an American, at some point we ran into money issues, because he was hoping to fund it through Canada.

With him as executive producer, we shot the first few months of the film, and then I bought the footage and continued on making the movie myself.

AG: And then you had to continue with very off-the-cuff interviews?

GP: Well, it was at that point that the film became very, very low budget.

In the U.S., as you know, there’s no government money for anything, as opposed to a movie that could be funded in Canada. Here it’s completely private funds. You can’t get a cent from any city or state.

My wife, Amy Geller, a producer on the film, would just find a film festival with lots of critics and we would go with a camera and talk to people.

I would get the festival to cover me being there, and then she would arrive, sharing the hotel room. We couldn’t go to a fest where we weren’t actually put up by the festival itself.

When Ron was involved, we actually had more money so we could plan for a bit. The first thing in the movie is the end of the movie -- inside the World Trade Center, for a meeting of the New York Film Critics, a few months before 9/11.

Then, we went to Toronto and Montreal with Ron in support and did a bunch of interviews there. And, still with Ron in charge, we did a Chicago shoot where we interviewed Ebert, Michael Wilmington, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. We followed it up with one 2-day New York shoot with Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, and Stuart Klawan – at that point, it broke down.

That was the footage we had and the rest we just had to scramble to get.

We went to SXSW several times, and whoever was there we filmed, but the biggest one was when we went to Cannes and sort of stayed in this crummy place several miles away. Amy was camera and I was - not sound, but the questioner - so we’d walk with this camera and heavy equipment two miles to Cannes every morning. I don’t know if you notice, but there are a lot of scenes shot in this awful red room, with huge glaring windows, and people and their waiters clacking in the back. That was the only place we were allowed to shoot in Cannes – a press room. If someone came into that room, we interviewed them. And if nobody came in, we just didn’t interview that day.

So there were critics who never got in there, and who were actually kind of pissed off later that I never talked to them. So it was pretty arbitrary - it’s not that we could choose the people, and I’m sure there are 10-15 other articulate critics that could have made the film if they were in the right place at the right moment.

AG: Did you try to arrange an interview with (New York Press critic) Armond White?

GP: Yes, actually. Armond was on the next wave when Ron left the project. We were going to do two more days, but when Ron left, Armond couldn’t do it. But he certainly would have been a really interesting person to have in the movie – the loose cannon of all critics, who will say exactly what he thinks in the moment, very spontaneous and not at all guarded. It would have been some great colorful stuff.

AG: And there was no question of doing something with Pauline Kael, as she was quite sickly at the time you began?

GP: Yes, she had Parkinson’s when I began and was quite ill, so I would never try to arrange something. But I met her twice in my life – once, when she came through Boston and sat in a hotel room for the day as critics talked to her. I spent an hour and a half and she was very cordial, and once in New York, she invited me along to dinner with a lot of other people, and that was also cordial. Those are my two meetings with Pauline.

But we used TV footage and interviews that are rare and people just haven’t seen, including the McNeil-Lehrer report with Woody Allen. She has a daughter named Gina James who cooperated with the film and provided pictures of Pauline Kael and knew about this really obscure interview for South Carolina Educational television – so we contacted the TV station and got this interview that nobody’s seen in forever, since it first aired.

AG: And Sarris?

GP: We simply went to Sarris’s apartment in New York.

People watch the movie and can’t figure out whether I’m with Sarris or Kael - where I fall on, but the answer is: I was a Sarrisite when I was a young student at NYU. There was Sarris every week in Village Voice, and The American Cinema came out around that time. He was my first influence. I read Kael a few years later and she was the second person. But I’m not a Paulette, but I’m a sorta Sarrisite.

Not that I don’t think Kael is terrific - I’m just not an acolyte like a lot of others.

AG: One of the most intriguing moments in the film for me was J. Hoberman speaking out about Kael, and the idea in that in actually reading her reviews, you could tell she could see from the auteurist lens.

GP: Yes - that she was even more of an auteurist, which is probably true. The people who are associated as being Paulettes were much more vehement about the directors they cared about: De Palma, people like Spielberg - a key figure - and Altman. But odd ones like Ron Shelton and people like Philip Kaufman, who are often associated with Pauline’s worldview. They’re championed by these same people.

AG: Do you wish the section on Manny Farber could be a bit longer?

GP: Farber was one person who I couldn’t interview. I don’t know him, but it seems every other critic on earth seemed to be his pal, but I never met the guy.

I talked to his wife Patricia, who collaborated on his later stuff, and she was trying to get him to work with me.

Once I just called his number and I think he said two words on the phone – “Go away”. There was - at one point - the idea to go to his house and have him interviewed, but it didn’t work out. But I also think he was elderly and perhaps not speaking with quite the same fluidity – but this is just a total guess. So we ended up using the San Francisco Film Fest footage. There’s missing footage of him speaking at Telluride with Jimmy Stewart, from maybe ten – fifteen years ago, but we couldn’t locate it. That would have been great.

AG: What kind of extras can we expect on the DVD?

GP: It’s just come out, and there are 40 minutes of extras: my favorite is John Waters talking about his favorite gay critic, Parker Tyler, an author who began in the 1940s. His stuff is completely inscrutable, but I love inscrutable. Waters says that you can’t be gay unless you know Parker Tyler.

We also have more Ebert on the thumbs up and down way of reviewing. And more Stanley Kaufmann, the dean of criticism, who’s in his 90s and still writing for The New Republic. All in all, maybe 40 more minutes.

AG: Do you foresee a day in the future when criticism will only exist online?

GP: I’m afraid so. Not that I’m criticizing the writers online, it’s just that I’ve been a print person my whole life. I’m used to sitting in the morning in my big chair with the paper and a cup of coffee – and, to me, that’s what life is all about. But I think it’s very obvious we’re moving away from print to an internet world. That’s the reality. There are just too many damn critics on the web and, although there are some really, really good ones - including young ones – there’s just an ocean of reviewing that’s very hard to swim towards your way to critics who mean something. To me, the most important thing is to get to people to go to movies. Maybe the internet works for niche and horror movies, but the influence just isn’t there like it used to be. And that makes me sad.

I’m despaired about how little reviews matter, but the Boston Phoenix has its share of erudite critics who know so much that it’s a shame it’s not influential.

Word count has gone down as the paper shrank, like every other. In its heyday, like, say, 1978, the Phoenix was the paper where the Pauline Kael style review of 2000 words was the norm. And there’d be a few of them every week. And now the lead review is probably 1600 characters or less than that. The others are down to 200 words or less.

I don’t blame the Phoenix they’re trying so hard, and they’re an independent paper. It’s not part of a chain, so it’s impossibly hard to keep it going, but the owners are doing just that.

AG: What would you say are the prerequisites of being a strong critic?

GP: The biggest thing is be an incredibly good writer, which is often forgottenabout. And to have your own style. But the biggest word for me is “contextualize”. People who can see movies and put it in terms of history or politics or literature and the other arts, also in terms of filmmakers and director’s careers or genres.

There’s a great quote from Richard Linklater in the film – about how he can smell in the second paragraph of a review if the reviewer’s got it – a knowledge about his movie, his career, genre, and other movies. That’s what you need to do. Whether it’s good or bad is oftentimes the least interesting or important part for me.

AG: Who do you read yourself?

GP: I’m in Boston, so I’m very lucky. We have the Globe, with two very good critics: Wesley Morris and Ty Burr. And then on the Phoenix - my paper - Peter Keough. I also read the NY Times with A.O. Scott and Manhola Dargis, plus the Village Voice with Hoberman, but that’s just the start. Then I get the magazines: The New Yorker with Denby and Lane, and The Nation, with Klawan. After I read the print critics, I’ll investigate certain movies on the web, like Rosenbaum, who’s moved his column to the web.

AG: And you’re self-distributing the film yourself?

GP: Yes, we’re self-distributing by choice, which is not what the history of the world has been. Usually you get a distributor and kiss the distributor and walk away relieved. We’ve had interest, but we figured we’d do it ourselves, through AE Films, which is myself and my wife Amy.

[Finally, after the interview ended, Peary has some thoughts about the Canadian city in which I presently reside.]

GP: I’ve been trying forever to Winnipeg. I’m proud to be one of the first critics to write articles on John Paizs, and some stuff on Guy Maddin and (animator) Richard Condie. And there’s a day a billion years ago when the Marx Brothers were in town and went to a theater and saw Chaplin on stage. So there’s something special about Winnipeg. Some day I hope to get to there.




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