On Dave Kehr and “Movies That Mattered”

PARISNOUSAPPARTIENT_STILLS_ 12.tif

When I was in the film program at Northwestern University in Chicago, my peers and I were required to read the works of Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Michel Foucault and even Freud, Jung and Marx. The idea was to apply their theories to the cinema to better understand how film worked, or how it related to audience identification. We also read the major film theorists such as Andrew Tudor, Laura Mulvey and Siegfried Kracauer, among others. While I don’t regret reading those theorists, scholars and great thinkers, I can’t honestly assess how much that type of scholarly writing with its academic jargon enhanced our understanding and appreciation of popular movies.

However, every Friday after our morning class, we raced to the student center to snatch a copy of the Chicago Reader to read what Dave Kehr had to say about the movies opening that weekend. More than the dusty tomes of those academic thinkers, Kehr’s lengthy reviews in the Reader had an immediate influence on our tastes and ideas. Kehr applied the theories and ideas we were learning in our classes to his popular reviews but without the pretentious jargon associated with academia. We learned more about the auteur theory and genre analysis from Kehr, who was using it in practice, than from any text book.

Dave Kehr was more than a film reviewer; he was a true critic, capable of analyzing and offering insight beyond his personal opinion. The best lesson I learned from reading his reviews was the importance of separating personal taste from insight. He might dislike a film that I really loved, or vice versa, but I still learned something from reading his review. I have read movie reviews my entire life, but Dave Kehr is the only movie critic I ever really followed.

All of this came flooding back to me when I read Movies That Mattered: More Reviews from a Transformative Decade, a collection of his reviews and essays from 1974-1986. Scheduled for publication next month and available on Amazon on November 1, this collection is the follow-up to When Movies Mattered, a similar anthology of reviews and essays. The articles in Movies That Mattered were originally written for the Reader and for Chicago Magazine and are not available anywhere online.

Kehr’s two collections are perfect companions to a FilmStruck subscription. Cinephiles will appreciate his approach to criticism, which combined academic-level insights with a fluid, straightforward writing style. Though he wrote about film from many angles, analyzing them based on style, form, genre or subtext, he gained a reputation as an auteurist. He offered original insights and perspectives on well-known directors from Jacques Rivette to Steven Spielberg—sometimes in the same essay! In recounting Rivette’s experiments with narrative, in which the director felt the story should take shape as it was being filmed, Kehr determined that his films were “animated by a sense of play—of fantasy, freedom, and wonder,” like Spielberg’s. The difference is that the French director wanted the audience to play along, while “Spielberg only lets us watch and admire the end result.” (FilmStruck offers two films by Rivette, Paris Belongs to Us [1961] and The Nun [1966].)

FAA.007

Kehr covered the work of the major European directors of the 1970s and 1980s, an era when the work of international filmmakers regularly appeared in local theaters. The Woman Next Door (1981) by Truffaut, Tess (1981) by Polanski, Fanny and Alexander (1982) by Bergman and Lola (1981) by Fassbinder, which are all available on FilmStruck, were reviewed by Kehr at the time of release. As an auteurist, he placed each film within the context of the director’s career, which allowed him to find something solid to say. The Woman Next Door was not well received by many reviewers, but Kehr felt it represented Truffaut’s interest in formal techniques, a new direction for him. Though Tess was based on the classic novel by Thomas Hardy, Polanski turned it into a personal statement relevant to his own personal misfortunes. Fanny and Alexander represented a summation of Bergman’s themes and motifs, a kind of cap to his entire career. And, Kehr compared Lola and Fassbinder to The Blue Angel (1930) and Josef von Sternberg.

The most interesting section of the book is “Part 4: Autopsies/Minority Reports,” which includes ten reviews of critically acclaimed films that Kehr found lacking or troubling. I am not surprised that one of them, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), is by Woody Allen, a director that Kehr tended to dismiss, especially after Stardust Memories (1980). While he doesn’t dislike Hannah, he brings up its weaknesses as a counter to all of the critics who “coo over him as if he were a child learning to walk, and every tiny step is hailed with a chorus of indulgent hosannas.” Kehr notes that “Allen has never mastered (or even shown much interest in) the plastic side of his medium,” meaning he lacked a talent for fully understanding visual techniques and their relationship to the narrative. Personally, I have loved everything that Allen has done since I first saw him on The Tonight Show (1962-2017) when I was a pre-schooler, but Kehr has a point. Perhaps that is why Allen uses the world’s best cinematographers—Gordon Willis, Sven Nykvist, Darius Khondji—to compensate for his weaknesses in visual techniques.

Kehr also lobs stingers at Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), dubbing it “a remarkably callow, peach-fuzzy piece of work” and “a piece of juvenilia,” and Apocalypse Now (1979), which he describes as a “visionary film without a point of view and, hence, without a true vision.” Read his reviews of these films; even if you love them, you will see his points.

After leaving the Chicago Reader, Kehr became the critic for the Chicago Tribune. A few years later, he moved to New York to write for one of the city’s dailies, which is where I lost track of him. He penned a DVD column for the The New York Times for a while and then founded his own blog, which is no longer active.

In the afterword, Kehr reveals that he left film journalism in 2013 to become a curator in the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art. In this capacity, he offers several insightful observations about the past, present and future of film that by themselves are worth the price of the book. The comment that stuck with me was his confession that he doesn’t really miss writing about the movies, partly because he is “free of the need to feign an interest in superheroes and mumblecore. . . .” I was reminded of the many reviews of comic-book films in which the star ratings were inflated by critics who are trying to remain relevant to young viewers, or by web reviewers who know little about film beyond their limited personal tastes. I can also relate because I work hard in my film classes to find something positive to say about the franchises, sequels and series that are so superficial and badly crafted that it is a “win” when they actually follow the rules of classic continuity editing.

After pondering his statement, the title of Kehr’s book, Moves That Mattered, suddenly made sense to me.

Susan Doll

Comment Policy:

StreamLine welcomes an open dialogue with our readers and we encourage you to comment below, but we ask that all comments be respectful of our writers, readers, viewers, etc., otherwise we reserve the right to delete them.

19 Responses On Dave Kehr and “Movies That Mattered”
Posted By Arthur : September 25, 2017 7:44 am

Interesting book! Thanks for the heads up.

Regarding Woody Allen’s films, I thought the early ones were great, but I was not a fan of his “masterpieces.” Regarding APOCALYPSE NOW, I loved it as long as they were on the journey up the river, but once Brando appeared things seemed to fall apart.

Posted By swac44 : September 25, 2017 8:13 am

I’ve read bits of Kehr here and there, but now I feel the need to seek out the books, it’s been a while since I’ve dove into a collection of film criticism, and this seems like the perfect place to pick it back up again.

The fact he didn’t care for Raiders of the Lost Ark is what sold me. I’ve never been a particular fan of this homage to adventure stories of old, I’ve always found it a bit cold and mechanical, but I’ve never come across anyone else who’s expressed this particular point of view. Give me Secrets of the Incas and That Man From Rio instead.

Posted By John Cooper : September 25, 2017 12:19 pm

When I was a very young man in Chicago, I used to read Dave Kehr’s columns in the Reader. Because he objected to so many movies that I loved, he often infuriated me, but I was impressed by his passion and with the intelligent way that he expressed it. I remember attending a live event with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel–this was before their TV collaboration, when they were merely local celebrities, the critics for the two rival dailies–and during the Q&A, when they took a particularly knowledgeable question from the audience, Gene addressed the questioner as “Dave” and acknowledged his status as the critic for the city’s main alternative weekly. I was impressed.

Posted By Doug : September 25, 2017 6:31 pm

” I can also relate because I work hard in my film classes to find something positive to say about the franchises, sequels and series that are so superficial and badly crafted that it is a “win” when they actually follow the rules of classic continuity editing.”
It may be a cheat and not as relevant as what is on the screen, but I did notice something that impressed me as I was watching the end credits of one of those superhero blockbusters:
Thousands and thousands of names, individuals and groups that earned a paycheck adding something to the film. It may not be ‘Art’ but a lot of starving artists got their foot in the door, worked their craft, fed their families. To me, that’s cool, even if it isn’t relevant.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 25, 2017 11:00 pm

Doug: You make an excellent point. Some of those people in those credits are my former students, and I am proud of their accomplishments. My argument is that all of their efforts deserve better scripts, good directors, and less micro-management from the corporate-minded studios.

Posted By Bill Stamets : September 26, 2017 10:24 am

I too first got what a film and a film review could do by reading Kehr in The Reader. When I read: “While I don’t regret reading those theorists, scholars and great thinkers…” I wondered if you now find yourself assigning them with ambivalence in your own classes. What Kehr reviews do you assign or recommend to your film students?

Posted By George : September 26, 2017 4:20 pm

I loved Kehr’s blog and followed it for years. Was very sad when he ended it. I still miss it.

“My argument is that all of their efforts deserve better scripts, good directors, and less micro-management from the corporate-minded studios.”

Unfortunately, this is what big-budget franchise filmmaking has become. I’m sure you’ve read about directors being shuffled around like chess pieces on the Star Wars and superhero movies. It’s another example of how studio movies are becoming more and more like TV, where producers call the shots and directors are interchangeable cogs.

Posted By Emgee : September 26, 2017 4:24 pm

” where producers call the shots and directors are interchangeable cogs.”

The same was true in the good old days of the studio system.

Posted By George : September 26, 2017 7:43 pm

“The same was true in the good old days of the studio system.”

Big difference: the scripts weren’t written on the level of a 12-year-old in those days.

And even in the studio days, there were directors — Lubitsch, Capra, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Wilder, Stevens, McCarey, Wyler — who had some degree of control. I don’t know if any of them had final cut (probably not), but they were involved in the casting, script development and editing.

They weren’t just traffic-directors-for-hire like the average TV director.

Posted By John Cooper : September 26, 2017 9:55 pm

> the scripts weren’t written on the level of a 12-year-old in those days.

Oh, I’d wager that plenty of them were! They’ve just mercifully faded away, while the best movies have remained fresh in the mind as classics.

> And even in the studio days, there were directors — Lubitsch, Capra, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Wilder, Stevens, McCarey, Wyler — who had some degree of control.

Whereas now we’ve got P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Joel and Ethan Coen, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, and others I could name who have made highly individual contributions indisputably arising from their personal visions. If they don’t strike you as peers to those listed above, I’d respond that as contemporaries, we don’t yet have the perspective to make that judgment–besides which, it’s unfair to put the auteurs of our particular time period against the greats of all of earlier film history.

Posted By George : September 26, 2017 11:32 pm

“Oh, I’d wager that plenty of them were! They’ve just mercifully faded away, while the best movies have remained fresh in the mind as classics.”

Here’s the differences: in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, movies aimed at 12-year-olds were low-budget B movies and serials. They played at Saturday matinees for kids.

Today, movies aimed at 12-year-olds (of all ages) have budgets of more than $100M and are the “tentpoles” rhat prop up studios. They pretty much ARE the movie business now, as far as the major studios are concerned.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 27, 2017 1:21 am

Bill: I have assigned some of Kehr’s reviews over the years. One I recall assigning was his negative review of Silence of the Lambs. He dismissed it on moral grounds because audiences identified with Lechter, a deviant serial killer. Audiences identify to the point of rooting for him to get way, which he does at the end. I remember being disappointed by Kehr’s review because I loved the film when I first saw it. Later, when I began to teach, and I re-viewed Silence, I realized he was right.

Posted By Emgee : September 27, 2017 2:20 am

“there were directors — Lubitsch, Capra, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Wilder, Stevens, McCarey, Wyler — who had some degree of control.”

A lot of the directors you mention were taken off movies at some point in their career. Then as now, the amount of influence is determined by the amount of success their movies have.

And why are most big budget movies aimed at, well let’s say young people? Because they go to the cinema far more often than older generations.

Posted By George : September 27, 2017 4:18 pm

Emgee: The true blockbusters happen when you can pull in people from more than one age group.

Look at all the would-be blockbusters that have flopped over the last couple of years, including “surefire” sequels to Pirates, Transformers, Jack Reacher and Alice in Wonderland. Or the abysmal attempt to reboot the Mummy franchise.

These movies were too narrowly aimed at the youth market, and it appears that even the youth market has now lost interest.

John Cooper said: “Whereas now we’ve got P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Joel and Ethan Coen, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott …”

Nolan and Scott have made several worthless movies, but I’m with you on the others. I wish more people would see Aronofsky’s MOTHER!, the most audacious major studio release in maybe a decade.

Posted By George : September 27, 2017 4:27 pm

Some survey results (which you’re free to disregard, like all survey results), on who’s watching — and not watching — what:

“A new study finds that less than a quarter of millennials have watched a film from start to finish that was made in the 1940s or 50s and only a third have seen one from the 1960s.

“Thirty percent of young people also admit to never having watched a black and white film all the way through – as opposed to 85 percent of those over 50 – with 20 percent branding the films “boring.” …

“On the other side of things, some over-50s appear to have the tendency to stick to their old classics and ignore new cinema altogether, with one in ten admitting they aren’t sure if they have seen a film newer than 2010 – and eight percent straight up saying no, they have not.”

http://nypost.com/2017/08/16/millennials-dont-really-care-about-classic-movies/

Posted By Emgee : September 28, 2017 4:21 pm

Would these results have been different if the survey had been done, say 30 years ago? Or 40? 50?

Posted By George : September 28, 2017 6:42 pm

Yes, Emgee (the eternal supporter of the status quo), because teenagers of the ’70s like me did watch old black and white movies. They were shown on local TV stations every day.

When it came to movies — as opposed to music — there wasn’t a huge generation gap between what younger and older people liked.

Posted By Emgee : September 29, 2017 2:14 am

“Emgee (the eternal supporter of the status quo.”

That should be Status Quo.

“teenagers of the ’70s like me did watch old black and white movies.”

Well, teenagers, unlike me, in the 80′s mostly didn’t. That’s just 10 years. Talk about status quo.

Posted By Tolly Devlin : October 2, 2017 8:56 pm

I came to Chicago in 1976 & Dave Kehr’s reviews in the Reader were highly influential for me. We all know the classics but one of the things I liked about Dave was that he would write a major review espousing the positive points of some little action film with Rutger Hauer or James Remar by some director you probably never heard of and convince you to check it out. I appreciated his insights & miss his reviews. I will have to check out his new book.Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.