At UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater this past Saturday, Boston Phoenix critic and filmmaker Gerald Peary confessed to a crowd that included David Ehrenstein and David Ansen and filmmakers Mel Stuart (the original “Willy Wonka”) and Allan Arkush (“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”) that it’s been 16 years since he’s last been in Los Angeles. Here’s hoping the discussion that followed, coming after a screening of his doc about film criticism “For the Love of Movies,” doesn’t scare him from coming back.
On a panel moderated by Anne Thompson, Peary sat idly by for most of the lively hour-long talk that involved Vogue‘s John Powers, former L.A. Weekly and current NPR critic Ella Taylor, former Christian Science Monitor critic David Sterritt and current CSM critic Peter Rainer. But it was now-retired Time critic Richard Schickel who took center stage, both literally and figuratively, with his admission that he never really loved movies, as the title of the documentary suggests of all critics, and questioned whether it would’ve been wiser to spend his 43 years reviewing doing something else.
“Watching all these kind of earnest people discussing the art or whatever the hell it is of criticism, all that, it just made me so sad. You mean they have nothing else to do?” asked Schickel before adding, “I don’t know honestly the function of reviewing anything.”
And he was just getting started. As the panel caromed from subjects like the ever-depreciating value of movie reviews at major outlets to the viability of online journalism, Schickel was always ready with the most biting response. On why editors at major publications — i.e. “former beat reporters and city desk guys and rewrite men that managed to stay upright in their chairs before they were finally felled by drink” — are no longer interested in serious film criticism, Schickel remarked, “They’re going to spike your review because it’s insufficiently enthusiastic… It’s like the insufferable optimism of America.”
When asked by Thompson if he ever read criticism online, Schickel gave a forceful “no,” before explaining “Why would you do that? I don’t actually read many reviews. I never did. But I’m not going to go around looking for Harry Knowles [the portly Ain’t It Cool News founder who is featured in the documentary]. I mean look at that person! Why would anybody just looking at him pay the slightest attention to anything he said?!? He’s a gross human being.”
Thompson did her best to bring the conversation back to the web, as there was no one officially on the panel to defend the merits of online film criticism (she eventually prodded Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, who was sitting in the audience, to ask a question), but like Peary’s film itself, the conversation drifted towards eulogizing a bygone era of serious debates about film between the likes of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and the dearth of films worth writing about. Powers made the point that “movies back in the ’60s and ’70s were at the center of the culture. They’re not now. And for lots of critics or people who grew up to be critics like myself, we got spoiled.”
He continued, “I remember talking to Paul Schrader once about how when he came into movies, he thought he entered what was the natural state of movies, which is you got to make ‘Taxi Driver.’ You got to make all these weird, interesting movies and Hollywood wanted you to do it and it was only when it began to stop he realized he was living in the historical aberration. And for a lot of film critics, we are living in the historical aberration probably in the history of the arts where you got to make a lot of money, write about an art form at its peak and actually not only have it at its peak, but the public in general was going to that art form for ways of understanding the world. It’s not that way now.”