One of the benefits of growing up in Chicago in the 1970s and early eighties was the opportunity to read movie critic Dave Kehr on a weekly basis. His Chicago Reader columns were something new in film criticism, at least in my limited experience: they were themselves small works of art, executed with a rare eloquence and erudition.
I remember writing to him as a college student—a process involving a Smith-Corona typewriter, envelope and stamp—to invite him to speak to my winter-term film-criticism class. He declined politely, but even his brief note—typed no doubt on his Reader office Selectric—had for me a semi-mystical aura of sophistication and class.
Kehr moved to the Tribune and the rigors of deadline-driven journalism in the mid-eighties, and eventually hopped to the larger pond (and wider film-viewing opportunities) of New York in 1993. He settled first at the lowbrow Daily News, then moved up to the New York Times, where he remains to this day, writing a variety of reviews and film-oriented think pieces.
But it is his Reader gig from 1974 to 1986 that qualifies as the Golden Age of Kehr, when he had the space, time and editorial support to truly shine. It is this period that is captured in “When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade.” In his revealing introduction, Kehr returns us to that era, when the final work of old masters like Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston and Billy Wilder competed (for the most part unsuccessfully) for attention against the megaplex megahype of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” It was a moment, notes Kehr, when the “wayward auteur was replaced with an almost fanatical adherence to the rules and regulations of juvenile genre filmmaking.”
The loss of the auteur—the supposedly all-shaping director who managed against the odds to impress his own personality onto mass-produced studio fare—was a blow for Kehr, whose own French-influenced auteurism runs bone deep.
Growing up in Palatine, Illinois, Kehr connected to the world beyond Fremd High School and Randhurst Mall through late-late-night classic film showings on his nine-inch bedroom TV set. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he gravitated to the Doc Films crowd and memorized the group’s holy writ, Andrew Sarris’ “The American Cinema.” It was Sarris who provided intellectual justification for his passion by arguing that the Hollywood system left at least occasional room for an artistically complex and unifying vision, and thus could not be reflexively dismissed as inferior to the more overtly ambitious European cinema.
By wielding close-reading textual techniques on their beloved Hollywood films, Sarris and company mined new gold from old cinematic ore. “When Movies Mattered” contains fifty-some critical appreciations—love notes really—to the filmmaking art and various directors, from classicist Jean Renoir to roughneck eccentric Sam Fuller—who have honored the medium by making it their own.
Rereading his work now, it is a relief to discover that Kehr’s writings are never less than vivid and provocative—and sometimes magisterial, as when he takes on Hitchcock, whom he positively owns. From the perspective of today’s decimated print landscape, Kehr’s cogitations of thirty years ago possess a lavishness of depth and reference. He never panders, always challenges, and even the occasional wrongheaded assertion (e.g., “John Huston has never had much to say, and what little he has said has been garbled”) comes off as devil’s advocacy, worthy of at least a moment’s consideration. The book serves as a rueful tribute to the lost luxury of “printing long pieces without an obvious demographic appeal”—which is to say, criticism rather than consumerism. Just as a corporatized film industry has tended to squeeze out the human presence in favor of Dolby sound and digitized space, so film reviewing in the age of commodified online “content” has lost much of its passion and pith.
At their best—which is often—Kehr’s pieces are not so much evaluative as discursive and didactic, crisp mini-lectures on the art form that embodies the modern experience. “The history of film is in some ways also a history of the repression of emotion,” begins an essay on John Cassavetes’ “Love Streams.” “The actors in silent films used the whole of the body as an expression of feeling: gestures were large, movements broad and rhythmic, the eyes and mouth were exaggerated … into emotional signs of a startling directness. Sound films diminished the importance of the body, focusing expressiveness on the voice.” Such an observation does more than contextualize the movie under discussion; it encapsulates the medium and folds it into the narrative of our culture’s evolving subjectivity, our awareness of ourselves.
Occasionally, Kehr’s auteurist tendencies get the better of him. His loyalty is to those directors who worked within the studio system and transcended its propensity for the trite and generic. In Kehr’s world—at least as represented in this selection—the Hollywood-based Fritz Lang of “The Big Heat” and “While the City Sleeps” is superior to the European Lang of “M” and “Metropolis”; Ingmar Bergman is “obsessed with superficial realism”; and Kurosawa, Fassbinder and Fellini hardly merit mention. He seems to feel that these foreigners—unencumbered by Hollywood’s sweatshop pace and standards or the institutionalized hypocrisy of the Production Code—had it altogether too good, and were spoiled by the opportunity to speak their truths directly. Kehr’s mind is nothing if not nuanced and oblique, the English major as movie critic. The foreign director treated at greatest length here is Godard, “at once the most confiding of filmmakers and the most elusive.”
The phrase applies as well to Kehr, who tells us so much, but gives away so little. Reading through these pieces, with their well-turned descriptive passages and paraphrases, their wealth of aphorisms and insights, one realizes eventually that something is missing: a stance, a sense of connection between the screen world and our own real one. Kehr defines filmic virtue, reasonably enough, as a tight fit between visual means and thematic ends—and it is the means that interest him, the code system itself and not the hidden message. Sometimes this formalist impulse leads to a semi-comic mismatch between critic and material, as with his Nietzschean reading of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, “a model of Apollonian restraint next to the Dionysiac incontinence of his enemies.” More often, it works, as when he observes that Godard’s skillful use of montage “sets up an opposition between the near and the far, the human and the ideal, the real and the abstract.”
What is Kehr’s own thematic? There are occasional hints of a worldview beneath the analytics, such as his statement in regard to “After Hours” that “Catholic doctrine—the resentment of the body—is the blueprint for Scorsese’s fiction,” or when he pronounces Hitchcock (himself a Catholic) guilty in “Vertigo” of “committing art,” and thus challenging God through the hubris of a creative act akin to idolatry. Kehr resonates to ambivalence; it is his index of value, the sign that a film is not a closed box of meanings and morals, but rather an energized and self-questioning conversation with the viewer.
The measure of Kehr’s accomplishment is his ambivalence about his own total involvement in the seductively artificial universe of the movies. As he says of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and also of our own situation in an image-saturated society: “’Vertigo’ speaks of a passion for film, a passion that isn’t always a healthy one. It’s a love for the illusory and the ineffable that is also a love for the false, the bloodless, the empty.”
Dave Kehr offers us no escape from the ambiguities of cinema, but the intensity and seriousness of his critique make us aware of the complexity of our own relationship to these shadows on a screen, these dreamscapes illuminated sometimes by a revelatory truth. This collection is essential reading for anyone seeking to better understand what Kehr calls “the one medium that is able to form a unity of permanence and change, the one medium that is able to preserve movement in all its freedom and freshness, forever.”
“When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade”
By Dave Kehr
University of Chicago Press, 304 pages, $22.50