when movies mattered: reviews from a transformative decade

(university of chicago press)

I’ve never met Dave Kehr, who served from 1974 to ’86 as the Reader’s first staff film critic, and the handful of e-mails we’ve exchanged over the years have mostly been confined to the minor updating of his old capsule reviews. But I wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say that Kehr was my film studies teacher. As a college student in the early 80s and a young wage slave in the city afterward, I picked up the Reader every chance I could get, and his work was a revelation to someone who’d been reared on movie reviews in Time magazine and the Chicago dailies. Here was movie writing so acute, intelligent, committed, and beautiful that one could, with a straight face, actually call it literature. From the Reader, Kehr moved on to the Tribune, and I left town shortly after that for graduate school. But when I moved back to Chicago eight years later he was still a presence in the Reader, courtesy of the hundreds of capsule reviews he’d left behind.

Most people now know Kehr as writer of the weekly DVD column in the New York Times, a gig he’s turned into an ongoing tutorial on film history. But that may change somewhat now that the University of Chicago (his alma mater) has anthologized 53 of his long reviews from the Reader (and one ringer from Film Comment) in the book When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade. No one familiar with Kehr’s writing will be surprised to learn that the pieces are informed, insightful, and eloquent. Having inherited his job at the paper, though, I probably value the book more than most people, not only for its content but for its example. If you have any interest in the embattled art of film criticism, this collection (by a writer who, incredibly, was still in his 20s or early 30s) offers many lessons quite apart from his examination of the films themselves.

For me, the most striking one may be that, having read all 273 pages, I still don’t know much about Kehr personally. An introduction written specially for the book (though adapted, in part, from his 2001 essay “An Auteurist Adolescence”) relates some details of his early movie-watching experiences as a child growing up in Palatine and as a staffer for, and eventually chairman of, the university’s Doc Films group. But in the reviews that follow, Kehr tends to disappear into his prose; his observation about John Carpenter, in a 1978 review of Halloween, seems equally descriptive of his own method: “Carpenter belongs to the oldest and, I think, finest tradition of American filmmaking, putting the audience first and letting his own quirks enter only later. As a director, he prefers invisibility over the stylistic intrusions favored by most junior auteurs.”

Certainly this is a dramatic contrast to Jonathan Rosenbaum, the Reader‘s other major film critic (from 1987 to 2008). His first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), combined film criticism and autobiography, and throughout his tenure at the Reader he persisted with the strategy of using his own life as a barometer so that he could trace his evolving appreciation of films and filmmakers. This conscious egocentrism brought him no end of grief from letter writers, but it could also yield penetrating and highly original criticism. Now that Kehr’s work has been collected into book form, I understand even more clearly that he and Rosenbaum—though their tastes in films are quite similar—were polar opposites in how they chose to position themselves between the films and their readers.

Of course, invisibility has its pitfalls as well: over the years there have been times when I’ve read Kehr and suspected he was using his formidable film knowledge as a kind of dodge, schooling me in lenses, aspect ratios, and color processes instead of telling me what he actually felt. This isn’t the case with When Movies Mattered, though. Readers who know Kehr mainly through his pithy capsule reviews may be surprised by the level of passion in these long pieces, though that passion is always elegantly phrased and modestly subordinated to the filmmaker’s designs. In fact that skillful melding of feeling and intellect may be the book’s signal accomplishment: Kehr trades heavily in cinematic technique, but his excitement over what makes a filmmaker tick is so palpable that this appreciation of form seldom seems dry or academic. (An exception that proves the rule is his arcane piece on Carl Theodor Dreyer, a filmmaker whose spiritual depth has defeated many a film writer before and since.)

Quite apart from writing style, Kehr also set an invaluable precedent at the Reader by staking out idiosyncratic positions and defending them well. An appendix of his top-ten lists from 1974 to ’86 (the last of them prepared for the Tribune) includes not only such venerated international figures as Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, Eric Rohmer, Roberto Rossellini, and Andrei Tarkovsky but also vaguely disreputable American genre types like Albert Brooks (Modern Romance, Lost in America), John Carpenter (Halloween), Walter Hill (Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders), George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead), Don Siegel (The Shootist, Escape From Alcatraz), and Robert Zemeckis (Used Cars). Kehr was way ahead of the curve in recognizing Clint Eastwood as a legitimate auteur—The Gauntlet (1977), Sudden Impact (1983), and Pale Rider (1985) all scored on his year-end lists—though as Kehr recalled in an interview with The Measure, “I took a lot of crap for that.”

Nowadays, including a few popular titles among one’s ten best has become a standard critical feint; it proves you’re a regular guy and indemnifies your more challenging titles against charges of elitism. But the reviews in When Movies Mattered prove that Kehr was dead serious in acknowledging the substance and skill of movies like 10, Halloween, and Risky Business (which ranked number eight on his 1983 list). His review of Sudden Impact, the first Dirty Harry movie to be directed by its star, is typical of Kehr’s eccentricity: rejecting the standard notion of Eastwood as “a manufacturer of right-wing tracts in favor of harsh Nixonian notions of law and order,” he instead posits this action flick as a personal film about men and women. Harry’s tracking of a female vigilante (played by Eastwood’s then-squeeze, Sondra Locke) “hangs on the similarity between the classical romance plot and the classical detective plot: both are stories of pursuit and capture, and it is Eastwood’s stroke of brilliance in Sudden Impact to realize that both plots can be played at the same time.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Kehr includes no less than four pieces on that most forbidding of filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard. Personally, I’ve enjoyed even Godard’s most accessible movies about as much as a cold bath, so the fact that Kehr leaves me genuinely curious to see these four—Numero Deux (1975), Every Man for Himself (1980), Passion (1982), and Detective (1985)—must be some kind of accomplishment. Again, the key to Kehr’s persuasiveness is his humility: he fully acknowledges that Godard’s later films are rough sledding, and though his appreciation and understanding of them are impressive, one never gets the sense that he’s elevating himself above his readers. Cinephiles can be a tiresome bunch because, while they bemoan the obscurity of their auteurist heroes, they often seem to savor the feeling of being culturally elite—they’re like indie-rock kids who get mad when their favorite band catches on with the jocks. When Movies Mattered reminds me that a critic’s ultimate mission should be to invite people in, not wall them out.

Kehr’s sincere championing of both highbrow and supposedly lowbrow movies seems even more vital now. As he rightly observes in his introduction, “At the moment, American movie criticism seems divided (with some exceptions) between two poles: quick hit, consumerist sloganeering on Internet review sites and television shows, and full-bore academia, with its dense, uninviting thickets of theoretical jargon.” I’ll leave it for others to decide whether the Reader is an exception or not. But I can say that, when young movie writers approach the paper looking for work, the idea that we want essays instead of up-or-down reviews leaves most of them seriously baffled. Next week we’ll debut a new design, and I’m happy to report that the long-form film piece appears to have survived yet another upheaval in the Reader‘s 40-year history. What no one should forget is that Dave Kehr built this house a long time ago.

Note: Kehr returns to Chicago this weekend for the Northwestern University symposium “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus” (see Heads Up, below). On Friday at 1 PM he’ll participate in the panel “Past Perfect,” which considers the influence of pioneering critics like Serge Daney and Manny Farber. At 3 PM he’ll introduce a screening of Raoul Walsh’s 1933 feature Sailor’s Luck.