Dave Kehr's reviews in 'When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade' (The University of Chicago Press) illuminate both film and an era.

Kehr Recalls ‘When Movies Mattered’

Michael Fox April 4, 2011

No film critic ever received more hate mail than Dave Kehr. Every week (or so it seemed) of his 1974-86 tenure at the Reader, Chicago’s iconic alternative weekly, his editors published livid letters. Readers didn’t attack Kehr’s taste but rather what they perceived as an impenetrable intellectualism. I still remember one irate fellow venting that he had no idea upon finishing a review if Kehr liked the movie or not. His frustration was only inflamed by the paper’s four-star rating system, which seemed like a perverse joke.

Now, Kehr was a University of Chicago alum and most detractors were probably North Siders who’d graduated from state schools. (Even in the City of Big Shoulders, class tensions existed.) But the main source of ill will was context and expectations. Twenty-something singles would pick up the Reader to see who was playing at their favorite Lincoln Avenue blues or folk club, or to scan the personals ads in Section 2. They turned to the movie review for some kind of consumer (read dating) guidance. Kehr, needless to say, didn’t see that as part of his job description.

He wasn’t insulting or elitist, but that was certainly the impression many readers had. Kehr wasn’t especially interested in the screen personas of movie stars (and couldn’t have cared less if a particular role was a savvy or lame career move), and he didn’t use pop-culture or current-events associations to connect with readers.

He was, however, an ardent acolyte of Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory, which ascribed a film’s authorship to the director. Above all, though, Kehr was analytical at a time when weeklies gave their critics vast acreage. He would decipher and describe in thick paragraphs how a particular movie worked (or didn’t), with little regard to its entertainment value. I was a novice film buff, a young college graduate (from a public university, if that matters) living in Chicago for most of this period, and I readily confess that Kehr was over my head. I didn’t write any poison pen letters, though. I admired him, not least for his seeming indifference to the unflagging antipathy that came his way.

Good thing, because otherwise I’d be profoundly embarrassed right about now. Kehr has just published a meaty collection of his Reader pieces, When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade (The University of Chicago Press, $22.50), that, in hindsight, illuminates the gulf between he and his angriest readers. He wrote reviews, not previews, that were best read after seeing the film. Not so much because Kehr revealed key plot developments—which he did in his excellent piece on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, yet is far more notable for its insightful identification of themes that resurface in the director’s subsequent films—but because he wrote so lucidly about structure, shot selection, editing, color scheme and mise-en-scene.

If Kehr’s name is familiar, and I sincerely hope it is, it’s probably from the occasional reviews, think pieces and, as he puts it in the book’s introduction, “(most gratifyingly) a weekly column on film history (lightly disguised as reviews of new DVDs)” that he’s written for The New York Times for the last decade or so. (He also helms a valuable blog at davekehr.com.) Kehr left the Reader in 1984 for the Chicago Tribune, and eventually made his way to New York to review films for the Daily News (hardly a haven for deep thinkers).

In his early, choice Reader gig, Kehr expanded the reader’s appreciation of the director’s craft, but that wasn’t necessarily of help in picking a flick. And to tell the truth, the 50-plus pieces in this dense and highly readable book aren’t reviews so much as essays on the styles, themes and careers of individual directors from Orson Welles to Blake Edwards, from Jean-Luc Godard to Alan Rudolph. While most critics look for influences and reference points within genres and across generations, Kehr confined himself to mining a director’s oeuvre.

You can see how this approach would be less inviting and accessible to the casual moviegoer, although Kehr’s writing wasn’t arcane or academic. Well, decide for yourself. Here are the last few sentences of a 1982 review of a Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective at what is now the Siskel Film Center:

“Melville’s characters don’t feel the existential urge to test and define themselves—or when they do, they end by annihilating the self they‘ve tried to discover. There is a drive for safety and stability in Melville—a search for sanctuaries-—that lies under his taste for closed worlds, his nostalgia for the studio system, his love for le milieu. It’s curious that no true family setting, as far as I know, appears in any of his films—there is only the pain of the family’s loss.”

Pithy stuff, but not likely to propel a Melville greenhorn off the couch and to the theater. Similarly, here’s the closing line of Kehr’s 1981 piece on Warren Beatty’s magnum opus: “Reds radiates intelligence, sincerity, and creativity; it’s the most complete, most mature epic I know.” I don’t think Kehr intentionally thwarted the average person’s desire to read an unqualified rave (or pan), and be entertained in the process. The simple fact is he was a cerebral guy. Anyway, if Chicagoans wanted emotional reactions to movies, they could turn to Roger Ebert in the Sun-Times and Gene Siskel in the Tribune.

Given that this collection is drawn from Kehr’s early years, When Movies Mattered is remarkable for avoiding most of the pitfalls of young critics: dogmatic position-staking, gratuitous slagging of established directors, stretched-to-the-breaking-point metaphors, a lack of empathy for situations and life experiences they haven’t encountered. Kehr is a tad earnest, on occasion, but you never doubt he knows what the hell he’s talking about.

A few minor quibbles: The cover shot of Alfred Hitchcock directing Kim Novak between takes of Vertigo while James Stewart lurks in the background isn’t representative of the period covered by the book. (Yes, Vertigo was one of five Hitchcock films returned to circulation in 1984 after a long period of unavailability, but it’s not a ’70s or ’80s film.) Robert Bresson is one of Kehr’s faves—he topped his Top Ten List in 1975 (Lancelot du Lac) and 1980 (The Devil, Probably), but isn’t represented with a dedicated piece. Lastly, I wish Kehr had compiled a list for the book of the “winners” of his annual Edgar G. Ulmer Award, created (if memory serves) to acknowledge a filmmaker who articulated a unique vision on a shoestring.

On the plus side, When Movies Mattered includes Kehr’s reviews of Otto Preminger’s The Human Factor (April 18, 1980) and John Cassavetes’ Love Streams (September 28, 1984). So I no longer need the original Reader clippings preserved in my files all these years.