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.
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.