Geoff Pevere: An Appreciation

by James McNally on January 10, 2008 · 1 comment

in Critics

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.

{ 1 comment }

Bob Turnbull January 11, 2008 at 11:10 pm

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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