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Dave Kehr is not a flashy critic, but he does know movies better than you ever will, better than just about anyone who's toiled on the film crit beat. And, patiently, intently, with the same quiet craftsmanship and lack of ego found in the work of the American studio directors who he's so eloquently spoken for, he's been sharing what he knows with his public for nearly 40 years.
Kehr began his career at free weekly The Chicago Reader, where he established an outpost for auteurist readings of current cinema, inspired by the writing of former Voice critic Andrew Sarris and the Young Turks of Cahiers du cinema, writers who polemicized for the persistence of directorial personality, and dignified Hollywood's undercover artistry while decoding it. Kehr has since moved through the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News, to his present post at the New York Times, where he writes the invaluable DVD column.
University of Chicago Press's publication of When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade marks the first book-length collection of Kehr's writing, all long-form essays from 1974 to 1986, done for the Reader. BAMcinématek's "Dave Kehr Selects" showcases six films discussed therein, with Kehr on hand to introduce Monday's screening of Otto Preminger's The Human Factor. In anticipation, ronin critic Nick Pinkerton travelled to Kehr's East Village home, to pay respects to the shogun.
Nick Pinkerton: My traditional interview technique is aimless palavering...
Dave Kehr: Works for me!
NP: ...but you seem such an orderly thinker, I felt inspired to write questions down. How did the book come to be? I've read some older interviews where you as good as said that you don't really like re-reading yourself...
DK: I don't, and I didn't... It wasn't my idea, I never would've wanted to go back and look at that stuff unless somebody made me, and it was an editor at the University of Chicago Press, a guy named Rodney Powell who came up with the idea and found a way of making it work. Most of those pieces had never been digitized, we had to Xerox them all out of old bound volumes of the Chicago Reader... and Rodney basically made the selection, I was not forced to sit down and read through mountains of old stuff, so I'm incredibly grateful to him for taking on that responsibility.
NP: One thing I found interesting about the selection is that, though in reading the book you definitely get a sense of some recurring bête noiresAltman, Coppola, Woody Allen...
DK: These were the big shots at the time.
NP: certain names keep popping up in a negative context, but in the main these are pieces where you are praising rather than condemning.
DK: You know, nobody noticed that until it had actually been published. It was never any kind of conscious decision to have positive reviews... and it never occurred to me, all the time I proofed it... it just didn't occur to anyone that these were all positive reviews. On the other hand, you know, I'd rather read thatfrom any critic, pretty muchthan another funny pan... You know, there's only so many ways you can write those.
NP: In a sense they're also unified by the fact that they are, many of them, minority report opinions. I mean, Sudden Impact wasn't universally acclaimed.
DK: What I admired most about Andrew Sarris is that he was always looking around the fringes, and I have always tried to do something similar when I was an active daily critic... and I hope I succeeded. I guess I think thats what the mission of a critic should be. It's not so much to say, "Here's another great movie by Martin Scorsese..." It should be more reporting really than anything else. Sometimes you'd find a Walter Hill, sometimes you'd find people who didn't pan out quite so well. It was always worthwhile to look.
NP: Were there any great disappointments from the period looked at in the book?
DK: Disappointments? Well, certainly Terrence Malick, who I think has just been a disaster since. The New World and the new one [The Tree of Life] I think were just appallingly bad, and I think the seed was already pretty much there in the Thin Red Line. A filmmaker who seemed to completely lose his bearings and fall apart... I'm a huge fan of his first two films, which meant so much to me. I don't know what happened to the guy, too much money, too much praise, too much genius-worship... I just thought it was just utter banality. To me he's the big one.
NP: I can't say I thought of any further features by the director of Risky Business.
DK: Well he pulled himself out of it. He just got disgusted with the whole system. [Paul] Brickman. He made one more good picture called Men Don't Leave and after that he just quit. And there was some expressionI definitely remember some interviews with him saying he just can't work in this system anymore, it's just too stifling. And I think he just made so much money off of Risky Business that he walked away from it, that was that.
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