If I’ve matured as a critic over the last many years, it’s in coming to realize that criticism isn’t about a relentless search for individual masterpieces but about seeing the connections between works,” writes Dave Kehr in the afterword to Movies That Mattered: More Reviews From a Transformative Decade, a new collection of critical essays he published in the Reader and Chicago magazine between 1975 and 1985. His claim is overly modest—the pieces in this book demonstrate that Kehr always approached criticism this way, whether he knew it or not. He almost always frames the films he writes about within a larger context—sometimes it’s genre, sometimes it’s the career of the director, sometimes it’s a cultural phenomenon (postmodernism, feminism).
Kehr advances a “big picture” perspective throughout the selections in the book, developing arguments about cinema as a whole across multiple essays about individual movies. Movies That Mattered flows remarkably well: an appreciation of French director Jacques Rivette seems to grow directly out of the essay that precedes it, a think piece on Hollywood sequels (both consider how filmmakers create new narrative strategies out of familiar genre elements), while notions of tradition and personal integrity connect back-to-back reviews of Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1976) and Stanley Donen’s Movie Movie (1978). The collection also includes meditations on the then-new medium of video, how it shapes visual storytelling as well as viewing habits, with a review of Michelangelo Antonioni’s shot-on-video The Mystery of Oberwald (1982), which introduces ideas that Kehr develops four years later in an essay simply titled “Home Video.”
Kehr went on to write some of the best criticism of his career as the home-video critic for the New York Times (a position he held from 1999 to 2013), where he reappraised older films as they became available on DVD; in this work, Kehr consistently expressed delight as he broadened his understanding of film history. That spirit comes through in the selections in Movies That Mattered that consider western director Budd Boetticher, the British writing-directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the 1981 restoration of Orson Welles’s Macbeth (1948).
Movies That Mattered conveys a remarkably unified (and generally positive) image of cinema from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, suggesting that the interrelated phenomena of home video, formalist approaches, and movie franchises yielded more self-aware filmmaking that built on recognized tropes and tried to produce something new. This argument reaches its peak in a review of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985), which examines the film in the intertwined contexts of the western, Eastwood’s career, and 1980s cinema. Kehr’s descriptive prose conjures a rich, multilayered experience—not unlike the one delivered through cinema. v