NP: In the broadest possible of terms, the unifying feature of the long-form essays in your book seems to be that you expend a lot of space on questions of film form, structure, and what you call "organizing principals." What led you to taking that particular tack?

DK: Well, again, that's something that wasn't written about much in the popular press at that point. I came sort of pre-theory, so the guys that we were excited about were Robin Wood and the [British film journal] Movie gang, and Cahiers to the degree that… that started getting nutty about the time I was getting interested in film. And kind of applying those principles which were very close to the way I was studying English Literature at the University of Chicago at the time, with this whole emphasis on what they call "close-reading," where you really parsed sentences, where you parsed paragraphs, where it wasn't about how a book felt or its overall effect as much as how you got from this word to that word, and it was interesting for me to apply that to how you got from this shot to that shot or this sequence to that sequence. Really, the more detail the better, which is something you could do in an alternative press context and you could not do in a 300 or 400 word review for a daily newspaper.

NP: One of the things I found extraordinary is the very under-the-hood stuff that you're able to do in some of the essays, where you talk about the short lens versus the long lens in Blake Edwards films, or the shot sequences in Scorsese's After Hours. It's a tinkerer's kind of writing.

DK: Well I like that phrase "under-the-hood," I actually use that myself. Yeah, I like to take things apart and see how they work. And in the case of movies it's shot-by-shot, where's the camera, what's the context of the shot, what kind of color is he using, what's the sound dimension… so many components go into making a sequence. And I think you can find an awful lot of what the film is trying to say on that microscopic level. I have a general suspicion of big theme movies—when you look at big life-affirming epics from [William] Wyler or [George] Stevens or something, every individual shot is just so dead that it contradicts whatever humanist message they're trying to put across, whereas someone who seems to be as nihilistic as George Romero is just so alive imaginatively on the level of shots and how he's arranging things, and that seems to me a much more life-affirming experience than so many of these big lumbering humanistic classics.

NP: You'd mentioned that you'd studied English initially, and segued to film, taking that "close-reading" from sentence to shot structure. The material in the book, though, is largely movies written about as referent to other movies, no incorporation of literary references, or mixing of media.

DK: Well, to me it's two very different things… I mean there are principles that you can take from one and apply to the other but—no, I really make an effort not to see movies on literary terms, with plots and characters centrally… I try to see them as sound and image, essentially.

NP: There's not a tremendous amount of discussion about actors.

DK: Yeah. No, I think that's a real shortcoming for me, critically. I've never really learned to talk about acting in a way that satisfies me. It's hard to separate an actor's personality from the characters they play… what can be done is talk about actors as icons, as representations of certain configuration of emotions, characteristics, and how different directors avoid or deploy that. One of the ways movies manage to cram so much narrative information into 80 minutes is by drawing on your associations with an actor. I think that's a really important part of the language. But the technical aspects of acting have always eluded me as a writer. I've talked to a lot of actors, I've tried to figure it out but it just… there's just no way of writing about that to me that doesn't just die on the page. So much of what makes a performance in a movie work for me is kind of extraneous, it's the associations an actor has gathered by the time they reach this point in their career. Certainly a lot of other critics are able to analyze performance style much, much better than I have, and I've got a lot of respect for them, but it's just something I've never been that good at.

NP: Do you think that what the theoretical "average viewer" reacts to in a movie is mostly in the form, the design of the thing—or is it identification with the actors, and "What happens next?" plot elements?

DK: Well, that's a whole new branch of academics, reception studies, and anything I could say about that would be pretty superficial. Y'know, I hope I never get that far away from that immediate primal experience of the movie. I've been in love with them since—as long as I can remember, literally. And it wasn't until I was a teenager that I started trying to pick them apart and see how they worked. But to me the great pleasure of film is still getting lost… in the narrative, in the physicality of it, in the sound and light aspects. I'm still enough of a naïf that I'll pretty much happily watch anything that’s moving on the screen. To a certain degree, that's enough for me. And thank God, because that allows me to sit through a lot of crap. I'm working on a piece for Film Comment on a director named Edward L. Cahn right now, who made nearly 150 movies, sometimes like 10 or 11 a year… and these things are minimalistic in the extreme, and most people would watch a couple of them and just toss them away. But somehow I get hooked on the personality I'm sensing behind these things… and I like his method. I think a lot of stuff he was doing was just because he was fascinated with the logistics of doing 40 set-ups a days, which he had to do to make 10 or 12 movies a year, and that sort of becomes what the movies are about, and I'm just… I'm hypnotized watching these incredibly tiny crime films, Westerns with three people in them. Any normal person would turn it off after 20 minutes, but the lizard brain in me is "How's he doing that?" How does he keep finding an expressive angle, keep finding a very efficient way of presenting the scene? So that kind of patience—to me, at least, it pays off, ultimately.

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2 comments
Michael Guillen
Michael Guillen

Great job, Nick. Though conversing with Dave Kehr might always be construed as a great job. As much as he claims he's not a big personality, I found conversing with him to be a singularly unique experience. I love talking to these guys who have such a deep reservoir of knowledge regarding film and I respect his passing the baton to a new generation of film critics, as he turns to fine tuning his appreciation of films past.

 

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