Geoff Pevere: An Appreciation

Over the past week, a quiet but very pro­found change has taken place in the small world of Toronto film journ­al­ism. Geoff Pevere, one of the Toronto Star’s full-time film crit­ics, has moved to the Books sec­tion. In return, long­time book critic Philip Marchand will be cov­er­ing film. Why, after three dec­ades of writ­ing about film, has Pevere decided to switch beats? Well, it was becom­ing evid­ent when I sat down with him last winter for a long inter­view. I’d recently enrolled in a magazine writ­ing class at Ryerson University, and our major assign­ment was to write a 1,000 word pro­file of a per­son. It didn’t take me long to come up with a sub­ject. I’d begun to take my writ­ing about film more ser­i­ously, and though I’d never claim to be a film critic, Geoff Pevere’s abil­ity to con­vey a rev­er­ence for film his­tory while writ­ing with glee­ful irrev­er­ence made him one of my role mod­els. So after a short email exchange, we sat down for about an hour and a half, and he gave me an inter­view that could have spun off half a dozen dif­fer­ent stor­ies.

Although I got an A on my assign­ment, I’d wanted to sub­mit the res­ult­ing piece for pub­lic­a­tion. The only place I could think of was Toronto Life. In hind­sight, I can’t even remem­ber if I sent them the fin­ished piece or just a query. But after hear­ing noth­ing, I for­got about it. It was only in December when I began think­ing of post­ing it here. And then I read Geoff’s December 18 column where he announced his impend­ing depar­ture from the Movies sec­tion of the paper, and I knew I had to drag my pro­file out of moth­balls.

I’ll be hon­est and say that I’ve been sur­prised at the lack of cov­er­age of this. There was a fair bit of cov­er­age sur­round­ing the death of NOW Weekly’s film critic John Harkness a few weeks ago, includ­ing right here on Toronto Screen Shots, but I’ve yet to read any­body else men­tion­ing Geoff’s depar­ture. And that’s a shame, because even though he’ll still be writ­ing and see­ing films, he won’t be writ­ing about film. And that’s a real loss to the filmgo­ing pub­lic here in Toronto, and bey­ond. And to me.

So indulge me as I offer this clumsy “appre­ci­ation” for the work of Geoff Pevere, the punkest film writer I have ever been priv­ileged to meet.

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It’s 1972, and a 15-year-old Geoff Pevere is sit­ting at the din­ing room table, pen­cil in hand, and run­ning his fin­ger down the tele­vi­sion list­ings. His eyes light up when he sees it. Citizen Kane. The film he’s heard so much about is being shown that week. There’s only one prob­lem. It’s at 11:30 p.m. Over the next few days, he works out a deal with his par­ents. If he gets all of his home­work done, and prom­ises to be up for school the next day, he can stay up to watch it.

Pevere, the crankier of the Toronto Star’s two film crit­ics, relates this story to me over cof­fee at his local Starbucks on a cold February even­ing. The venue hadn’t been his first choice, but Luna Cafe had closed already, so here we sit, talk­ing over the too-loud muzak. Though he’s nearly 50 and has been with the same woman for 27 years, Pevere still styles his hair spiky and sports a ring through his nose. Maybe it’s fit­ting that it’s John Lennon we’re talk­ing over.

As for Citizen Kane, Pevere admits rue­fully, “I wish I could tell you it was a trans­form­at­ive event, but I didn’t really get it.” It was, how­ever, an import­ant part of the long pro­cess of filling out his frame of ref­er­ence, which involved both see­ing films and seek­ing out the voices of oth­ers who knew more about film than he did. Seeing and study­ing films was a steady­ing influ­ence for a young man whose fam­ily moved around a lot, and young Pevere often found him­self in the local uni­ver­sity lib­rary, look­ing for more inform­a­tion than he could get from the TV Guide.

What ini­tially attrac­ted Pevere to writ­ing about film was the fact that, like music, it affects us on many dif­fer­ent levels, but that our first point of response is emo­tional. For him, the critic’s job is to talk about his own emo­tional response to the film in intel­lec­tual terms, but to make it access­ible to as many read­ers as pos­sible. As the film industry has changed over the past thirty years, he’s begun to sus­pect that for film­makers today, emo­tional response has taken pre­ced­ence over everything else, which has made his job more dif­fi­cult. “It has an awful lot to do with the speed with which we expect cul­ture to deliver things to us,” he says. “We know how we feel, we don’t want to be told how we feel, or that our emo­tional response is invalid.” So that explains the occa­sional emails he gets call­ing him a dick.

There are other pres­sures in the pro­fes­sion that weren’t there when he began. Whereas his par­agons Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris had a couple of thou­sand words in a magazine to expand upon their opin­ions, Pevere has 400 to 500 words in a news­pa­per. He’s also cov­er­ing as many as five films a week, redu­cing his “pro­cess” to “ham­mer­ing away.” Television’s cov­er­age of the movies has changed the char­ac­ter of what now passes for film cri­ti­cism as well. Despite an immense respect for his print cri­ti­cism, Pevere sees Roger Ebert’s tele­vi­sion show as largely harm­ful due to the intro­duc­tion of the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” approach. Prior to this, no one required film crit­ics to give any numer­ical or star rat­ings to films, but by the early 1980s, Pevere says, “the idea of ana­lysis that required you to read the review became replaced by a kind of short­hand.” As a res­ult, news­pa­pers began try­ing to imit­ate the approach of tele­vi­sion and of pop­u­lar magazines like People, which rated movies as “Picks” or “Pans,” with little ana­lysis of why. Year-end lists of the “top films” and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of awards have only made the prob­lem worse, as has the rise of celebrity wor­ship. Which brings Pevere to his pet peeve, the Academy Awards.

The Oscars, accord­ing to him, are simply about the din of com­pet­ing mar­ket­ing depart­ments, and awards and lists in gen­eral are a sign of a creep­ing com­pet­it­ive­ness that doesn’t fur­ther the func­tion of film cri­ti­cism. “The refine­ment of the hype fact­ory is stag­ger­ing,” he says. “It’s get­ting harder to deal with the mar­ket­ing machine.” In a February 2007 column entitled, “Why I Loathe Oscar,” Pevere referred to the whole mess as, vari­ously, “an almost stu­pefy­ingly dull TV event. A nuc­lear-strength hype det­on­a­tion. A mass dis­trac­tion. The Super Bowl with bet­ter cleav­age. An excuse to drink, eat and trade catty remarks late on a work night. Easier to under­stand than Iraq. The best thing to hap­pen to Hilary Swank. The worst thing to hap­pen to Martin Scorsese. A list-maker’s wet dream. A cos­metic surgeon’s bon­anza. A glimpse into the vast and ter­ri­fy­ing abyss of mass-medi­ated exist­ence. A reason to cheer on global warm­ing.” Uh oh, I think that nose ring is show­ing.

Strangely, though, Pevere is a punk who has plenty of respect for tra­di­tion. When forced to write about the Oscars, Pevere spins it his way. Instead of cov­er­ing the same well-worn ground as every other critic, for instance, this year he dug into the past and wrote about films that either won a lot of Oscars or were ignored. Another year he wrote a series on Best Pictures, choos­ing one from each dec­ade, examin­ing the con­text of each film and com­par­ing it with its fel­low nom­in­ees.

After almost 30 years of writ­ing about the movies, Geoff Pevere’s anti-estab­lish­ment views are just as strong as ever, but now he wears them as com­fort­ably as an old leather jacket. He has always been more inter­ested in broad­en­ing people’s interests than in try­ing to nar­row them. In an age with almost unlim­ited access to film, just one stream in an onrush­ing tide of media, this is dar­ing. For the boy who once had to wait months to see Citizen Kane, how­ever, it’s simply a ges­ture of gen­er­os­ity.

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One Response to Geoff Pevere: An Appreciation

  1. Bob Turnbull says:

    Nicely done sir! I didn’t know you inter­viewed Pevere…I didn’t even know he had swapped out of the movie review­ing gig! If I didn’t always agree with his assess­ments of films, I loved his prose and his lar­ger opin­ion pieces.

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