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REVIEW | "For the Love of Movies" and the "Spider-Man" Debacle

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 12, 2011 at 1:37AM

The calamitous tale of the overambitious, uber-costly Broadway spectacle "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" could only have been redeemed if the show wound up a masterpiece that proved all the haters wrong. Instead, the cavalcade of reviews unleashed in several mainstream publications earlier this week confirmed the worst prospects for the show: It's a confusing, fractured, colorful mess. Which makes me want to see it more than ever, and I bet I'm not alone: Morbid curiosity has become the show's greatest commercial asset.
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The calamitous tale of the overambitious, uber-costly Broadway spectacle "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" could only have been redeemed if the show wound up a masterpiece that proved all the haters wrong. Instead, the cavalcade of reviews unleashed in several mainstream publications earlier this week confirmed the worst prospects for the show: It's a confusing, fractured, colorful mess. Which makes me want to see it more than ever, and I bet I'm not alone: Morbid curiosity has become the show's greatest commercial asset.

Does the inability of critics to strike down "Spider-Man" prove criticism's dwindling ability to make a difference? Hardly. Instead, the flood of negative reactions, which technically broke an official press embargo on the show since it's still in previews, actively contributed to the running dialogue about "Spider-Man" currently taking place in the public sphere. People want to see it not to prove critics wrong but to witness the cultural strangeness described in reviews. Critics should not function exclusively as consumer guides — they only do that after the fact, as a byproduct of consumerist goals.

If a single critic offered the last word on any movie, many good movies would never get seen. I shuddered slightly when reading this recent piece by The Guardian critic Will Self, in which he shrugs off the Coen brothers as derivative hacks while admitting that he's barely seen "Fargo" in a single sitting. Self is entitled to his opinion, but should probably revisit "Fargo."

In the same vein, a few years ago I opted to write a dismissive review of Gerald Peary's "For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism" on the basis of a rough cut I had viewed in early 2008. Since it airs on the Documentary Channel this Saturday, I decided to take another look—or rather, my first real look at the final version. While I stand by my original reaction (no longer online) as a valid one, I would concede that "For the Love of Movies" deserves the audience that Peary probably has in mind for it. This conventional, TV-ready collection of talking heads breaking down the history and practice of the critical profession has enough going for it to satisfy anyone seeking a fairly comprehensive survey. I appreciate what it does and regret what it doesn't do. Is that an endorsement or a pan? You'll have to watch the thing to decide.

Using interviews with name critics such as Richard Schickel, Lisa Schwarzbaum and Wesley Morris, Peary covers a lot of ground. His timeline, eloquently narrated by Patricia Clarkson, includes screenwriter Frank E. Woods's early career as a critic for The New York Dramatic Mirror in the first decade of the twentieth century and the rise of The New York Times critic Boseley Crowther during its lively second half. He touches on the infamous Pauline Kael/Andrew Sarris divide and brings up the landmark contributions of James Agee and Manny Farber, then dovetails into the modern climate of bloggers and junketeers.

In this last section I think the movie falters a bit, as Peary has a somewhat disparaging portrayal of the internet climate for film criticism. By writing off a large, amorphous crowd whose very existence breaks more than 100 years' worth of media conventions, he picks an easy target. It's ironic that one of the more obvious instigators of dubious critical activity in cyberspace, Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles, comes off here as the voice of reason. But I guess, as a quasi-celebrity and cultural force whose initial popularity presaged an evolutionary shift in the proliferation of global media — launching his site 15 years ago, around the same as the Drudge Report and, ahem, indieWIRE — the Head Geek does the trick.

Peary eventually comes around to a galvanizing point when one of his subjects argues that critics of various types, paid and unpaid, "coexist in cyberspace." Whether or not it will survive as a profession is unclear, but that conversation has been played out for now. What's more intriguing, and implied by the conclusion of Peary's film, is the expansion of critical voices, which makes the underlying impulse behind the practice of criticism readily visible on both amateur and professional levels. Beyond a blossoming of critical voices, over the past decade there has been an expansion of critical forms, from video essays to blog-a-thons that produce anthology-length content in the space of a week or less.

This thriving ecosystem might not make people rich, but at least it gives them the tools to participate. Months before "Spider-Man" critics jumped the embargo, bloggers had done the same thing, following their own rules. In this case, the mainstream media took a hint from the long tail. A rep for the show decried the recent media decision, using super-official press release language by calling the reviews "not cool." The truth is that it's the coolest thing they've done in quite some time.

Such versatility should continue. If director Julie Taymor chooses to tweak the show and at some point declares it finished, critics ought to take a second look — not for the sake of the public but for themselves, just as Will Self should really sit through "Fargo." And I'll heartily recommend "For the Love of Movies" to anyone intrigued by the topic, with one essential caveat: It needs a sequel.

HOW WILL IT PLAY? The movie is available for sale on its website, and probably will find a warm home in university classrooms, where it belongs as a starting point for discussions about its oft-debated topic. It airs on the Documentary Channel this Saturday at 8 p.m. eastern.

criticWIRE grade: B