By Domenic Brunet ’23
While in junior high, Bellarmine teacher Mr. Peter Canavese started writing his first set of film reviews. Over the years, Peter Canavese has written film reviews for the Bellarmine newspaper, Santa Clara University’s newspaper, the Palo Alto Weekly, and his own personal website, Groucho Reviews. Mr. Canavese has taught numerous courses at Bellarmine College Prep for over 20 years, such as Acting 2, Gender Roles in Literature, and Freshman English 1 (which I took last year). Also, Mr. Canavese has produced and directed many plays for the musical theatre, including this year’s Bubble Boy (I’m assisting him as Assistant Director of this play which is coming out this spring). In our technology-focused environment like the Bay Area, influencers like Mr. Canavese have helped to showcase and remind us that the fine arts, like cinema, music and theatre, are equally as important to our lives as software and tech.
During his English 1 course last year, Mr. Canavese taught me how to become a better writer and appreciate the art of literature. After realizing our similar passion for cinema, we began to regularly discuss both contemporary films and classics from the past. I learned that he also had his own website of film reviews and has a career as a film critic. I really admire Mr. Canavese’s dedication to writing about and dissecting films over the past three decades because he ultimately inspires me to pursue my interests in the arts.
Here is my interview with Mr. Canavese—
What started your interest in cinema and film criticism?
My dad’s a big film buff, and he would take me to places like the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto and rep houses in San Francisco when I was a child, so I developed a taste for classic movies that got more sophisticated as I grew older. My youth was also the beginning of the home video era, so it became possible to rent and buy movies to watch and rewatch at home instead of waiting for them to come on TV or come back to a theater. As for film criticism, my brother Paul preceded me at Bellarmine by two years, and was editing a science-fiction ’zine for the Science Fiction Club. He recruited me to write reviews and articles when I was still in junior high. I never stopped: wound up writing film reviews for the school paper at Bellarmine and then Santa Clara University. It was during high school that I got my first professional (paid) film review gig, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Tell me more about your career path and how you currently work as a film critic.
I’ve written for local magazines and newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News while at Bellarmine (they had a “teen movie review” thing going for some years, so I did that until I aged out of it). I also was invited onto the local radio show Celluloid Dreams, so I’ve been their reviewer for years. Up until recently, I was doing weekly reviews for the Palo Alto Weekly, but the pandemic disrupted that. I still write occasional pieces for them, but waiting to see if or when it returns to a regular gig. For many years, I’ve also maintained a website, GrouchoReviews.com, as a repository of my film reviews and interviews; that site also has a companion YouTube channel. And I’ve been published or quoted in several film books, such as J.J. Abrams: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series). Being in the right place at the right time has helped, along with a bit of hustling and a lot of persistence. A lot of it is just endurance: do it long enough, and people recognize that you’re legit. That’s how I got to be a Tomatometer-approved critic at Rotten Tomatoes, where I have links to over 2500 reviews.
You started writing reviews when you were young. How has your style changed over the years?
That’s a very interesting question that I haven’t much considered. With time, everything changes: taste, sophistication, style. But I’d be hard pressed to describe specifically how it’s changed, mostly because I haven’t gone back and read that early stuff in a long time. I’d certainly say the Bellarmine writing program played a crucial role in improving my style. The other vitally important practice to improving one’s writing is doing a great deal of reading. The more one reads and writes, the more one develops strong opinions as to what makes good writing and readable style. So my style has certainly evolved, slowly but surely, and it’s good to always strive to improve and not get too complacent.
Are you currently working on any projects?
An editor just approached me to request rights to republish an interview of mine for Hirokazu Kore-eda: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series), so that’s in the offing. Palo Alto Weekly just commissioned a Netflix Original Film review for this Friday’s paper, so hopefully there’ll be more reviews for them in future. And every week, I do my Celluloid Dreams review roundup radio segment that airs on Radio Sausalito and KSJS 90.5 FM in San Jose (also found on Soundcloud).
Who is your biggest inspiration in film?
David Lynch. He’s an uncompromising artist (not only in film, but as a musician, painter, sculptor, builder) with a consistent vision, brilliant technique, and a wicked sense of humor. Groucho Marx, the namesake of my website, is also an inspiration–for the actor’s verbal gifts and of course his talent as a comic performer.
What film do you often find yourself defending against other critics?
I don’t often allow myself to get drawn into debates over what is, after all, a matter of taste, but of course such conversations are sometimes unavoidable, especially in a venue like a critics’ group awards voting meeting. No particular film leaps to mind–maybe something I consider underrated like Ang Lee’s Hulk. Probably more often, I’ll be the guy challenging another critic on just why they love a film I consider overrated–not necessarily to prove them wrong, but to be open to something I may have missed. The key is not so much the question as the answerin: one can defend any film, but how convincing an argument can you make? It is fun to change someone’s mind on a film in real time by reasoning with them about the qualities (or lack thereof) of a film. And of course, I’ve had my mind changed as well when someone makes a strong argument, for or against a film, that I have to admit makes sense.
What do you think about the current state of the film industry?
It’s looking like movie theaters may become more of a special occasion thing–for special engagements and special events, for IMAX and other qualities one can’t replicate in even a nice home theater. But the demise of cinemas has been forecast for a long time, and even now with Covid, they’re not dead yet. It’s hard not to see the writing on the wall with the rise of streaming. And the studios can cut out the “middleman” (chain and independent cinemas) by selling subscriptions to streaming services directly to customers. I fear most for independent filmmakers, but the streaming services are hungry for content, so perhaps my fears are unwarranted.
If cinema was to return to solely black and white (pre-Technicolor), which directors do you think would still survive and be respected?
Most of them! An awful lot of big blockbuster filmmakers love black and white. George Miller prefers Mad Max: Fury Road in its black-and-white version, and even Zack Snyder wants to release a black-and-white version of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. You also have filmmakers who fought and won to release their films in black and white, like Lynch with The Elephant Man, Steven Spielberg with Schindler’s List, Kevin Smith with Clerks, David Fincher with Mank, and so on. And of course, small films can more easily gamble on black and white, like Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version. The bigger issue is audiences, which mostly hate black and white. Film-savvy, film-educated audiences are open to it, as they’ve seen and enjoyed classic black-and-white films like The Third Man, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, but many refuse to watch black and white movies as if they were, I don’t know, broccoli (I happen to like broccoli).
I know David Lynch is one of your favorite directors, how do you feel about his choice to step away from filmmaking?
He should do whatever his creative muse tells him to do, but I am always overjoyed when he announces a film or TV project. He has pretty much given up on conventional filmmaking, but Twin Peaks Season 3 he looked at as an 18-hour film broken up into parts, so has he really stepped away from filmmaking? Yes and no. He’s currently working on a top-secret series for Netflix, so that’s exciting.
You have been a student and teacher at Bellarmine. How has Bellarmine changed over the years?
So many ways, most of them for the better. The campus has changed, like the additions of Mathewson Hall, Student Life Center, Sobrato, Leontyne Chapel, and Lokey. The faculty and staff have gotten more diverse. The student body has become more politically active and socially engaged and generally open-minded. I enjoyed my time here, obviously, but the school has also grown in many significant ways.
Has your experience as a Bellarmine alum influenced your teaching style?
Yes, definitely. Teachers I had influenced my idea of a Bellarmine education, and I try to be the kind of teacher who has a positive effect.
What are some of your fondest memories of Bellarmine as a student — and as a teacher?
As a student, being a founding member of Sanguine Humours and being very active in campus life (theater, newspaper, yearbook, speech & debate). As a teacher, when I’m able to witness students doing great things or grasping concepts or reckoning with their feelings in ways that support their growth or foster their talents. Also proud of some of the work we’ve done in the theater, with shows like The Trial and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson being a couple of high points.
What course material do you enjoy teaching the most?
I’ve been really enjoying teaching Acting 2 and seeing students push the limits of their talents and skills to do some impressive acting. Teaching Romeo and Juliet to freshmen is also often satisfying: it’s an uphill battle, but I’m pretty sure I win a few converts to Shakespeare every year. And Gender Roles in Literature is a class that I often get very positive feedback on–it’s an evergreen topic that continues to be fascinating, like right now when the furthest frontier of civil rights is inhabited by the transgender community. It fosters great discussions and it’s one way gender-non-conforming students on our campus feel heard and understood.
How many plays have you directed for Bellarmine, and which one did you enjoy directing the most?
25, counting our current show, Bubble Boy. I mentioned earlier The Trial, which I adapted to the stage, including conceiving a set that featured an ever-changing maze and a giant mirror over the stage. That was a creatively fertile time, and we had a great cast. I also like doing shows that are timely, so Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson stands out, as it’s a fun-filled musical critique of populism that we did while populist candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were running their primary campaigns.
How has remote teaching impacted you this past year?
Obviously, it was a challenge to adapt, but the school saw the writing on the wall and trained us on Teams enough to make the transition not as jarring as it could easily have been. It hasn’t changed too terribly much about what I do, although it’s obviously preferable to meet in person and without so many restrictions. Masks are a big buzzkill in Acting, for example, and remote learning meant pivoting away from stage acting to screen acting, although the fundamentals remain the same. Above all of that, though, it was the pandemic and the forced lifestyle changes and the challenges that came with those that made the past year so much harder for everyone–and more so, for me, than remote learning. The guiding principle for me has been to be as gentle as possible with everyone, as we’re all going through it, and it ain’t easy!
Thank you to Mr. Canavese for participating in this interview.