Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009

A perfect occasion to get drunk on film, to fall in love with the movies, to reassert the primacy of film as the last central universal art form.

I was worried – I was worried that, with the shaky state of the economy, sponsorship, so vital to the life blood of running a nonprofit independent film festival, would be down. And with sponsorship down, I was worried that maybe the number and quality of films would be down. And if the number and qualities of films went down, I was worried that the audience numbers would go down. And with audience numbers down, I was worried that maybe there wouldn’t be a festival next year.

I’m happy to report that my worries about the health, both artistic and economic, of the seventh annual Independent Film Festival of Boston proved to be totally baseless. Attendance seemed to make a quantum, exponential leap from previous years, and final tallies have 25,000 people going through the ticket lines. This sounds about right from what I saw: every screening I attended was sold out (or very close to it), and lines were continuously wrapped around the movie theaters, regardless of time of day, or even the weather (you’d think an unnatural spate of beautiful summer weather in late April would kick people out of doors – you’d be wrong).

Though initially underwhelmed by my pre-fest perusal of the schedule, the 2009 edition actually turned out to be the best of the five of I’ve attended, at least in terms of the merit and quality of films I took in. Only one bust, out of nine films – a significant percentage uptick from previous years, though perhaps goosed a little bit by seeing less films this year (down from 12 last year, and 15 the previous, which means I guess next year I’ll be lucky to crack six).

Though I missed both the opening and closing night films due to non-swinish illness, I made a good go of it over the weekend, taking in three films on both Saturday and Sunday. The weeknight offerings were tougher to double or triple up on, and I was only able to take in one film on Thursday, Friday and Monday nights, but they were good enough that I did not care. Quality, not quantity, was the watchword this year, and it paid off.

Director Gerald Peary confers with actress Patricia Clarkson during the narration recording of For the Love of Movies.

For the Love of Movies dir. Gerald Peary

I’m going to start at the end, with the final film I took in at the festival. Not only was For the Love of Movies the most purely enjoyable film I saw, it was also the most germane, not only to my interests and reasons for attending, but to the whole purpose of the festival itself. With For the Love of Movies, Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary has created a fascinating historical survey of film critics and criticism that doubles as an apologia for a profession whose relevance and necessity is being challenged and changed by new media.

Starting pretty much with the birth of cinema itself, Peary traces the careers of the great critics and the influence of their words on the appreciation and evolution of film. Rolling along at a breathless pace, the film highlights the work of the great stylists – Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Pauline Kael -- the voices whose influence on, and love for film infected audiences and future critics, encouraging discourse that unspooled over decades. A film junkie’s dream, For the Love of Movies is a celebration of why we love movies, of why they matter, and of how they thrive on reasoned, literate debate and criticism.

And yet, there’s almost a eulogistic tone to the film as well, especially as it winds down closer to the future. From the highpoint of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the turf wars between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, film criticism is presented as having gone into if not decline, then at least a severe paradigm shift. With the ascent of the Internet and its inherent democratizing (or leveling, if you are being less generous) tendencies, the voice of the amateur reviewer, the armchair critic, the fan, has infiltrated the domain of the professionals, threatening to usurp their power and influence. It’s an old debate, the old guard versus the new, but now, with the acceleration of the decline of print – cuts to arts reporting, and the disappearance of dailies and magazines -- it’s a problem that is now more relevant than ever.

For the Love of Movies is slanted slightly pro towards the old guard, but there is a bit of contradiction contained in its very thesis. From the get go, the film asks perhaps the most pertinent question: What qualifies one as a critic anyway? Why do they have the job? Throughout various current critics – A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Lisa Schwarzbaum, among others -- are posed this question, and their answers usually reduce to some combination of love and luck (with literary acumen thrown in as well). The overall impression is one of a film lover – a lifelong fan, an amateur writer – who just happened to stumble in to doing exactly what they love, and eventually doing it well by dint of experience, dedication and craft.

But does their pulpit, the sanctity of appearing in print dailies (or weeklies, or monthlies) give their words any more sway, any real significance, over a blogger, an online critic writing on his/her own site, or even just a viewer clattering away on IMDB message boards? Movies are still the great, perhaps last, populist, art – everyone has an opinion on them, everyone thinks they are a valid critic. And now that there are myriad avenues for broadcasting these opinions open to virtually everyone, the playing field is suddenly significantly leveled.

Critics may cry: “Whither rational discourse? How can we appreciate, interpret, film above the clatter of a million voices?” But the very circumstance that got professional critics into the business are now almost universally available and applicable.

What does this mean for intelligent appreciation of film in the end? For the Love of Movies does not reduce to a Luddite rant, to its credit. It sees the future, and sees that adaptation is necessary. We are at the end of one mode of discourse- - the one way street -- and now find ourselves in a new exciting world of instantaneous access and dialogue. The internet opens up avenues of discourse and immediacy that were previously unthought of.

If anything the leveling out -- the plurality of voices -- can only bolster the appreciation and debate of film. From the chatter of the internet, a new criticism will emerge and evolve. I think Peary’s chief message is to encourage up and coming writers to reconnect with the old writers, to tap the vast well of the past, the words of the great stylists and tastemakers, as a resource to forge a new future. New writers are encouraged to get drunk on film, like the old critics did, to fall in love with the movies, to overdo it, to reassert the primacy of film as the last central universal art form.

And so, onward – or backward – to the films…

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(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

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