NP: Was there a sense in the Reader years, not to speak of now, that you were proselytizing for your particular way of reading movies?

DK: In those days people got really, really angry at the idea that Alfred Hitchcock was an artist. I would have screaming fights with people about stuff like that. They just couldn't believe it. "He's a Hollywood hack! How can you take this stuff seriously for a minute?" And much less somebody like Joseph H. Lewis or Douglas Sirk. I mean my God, you'd almost have riots when you would show Sirk films at the Film Society at the University of Chicago. "How could you show this trash and then tell us this is something of interest?" And today he's coming out on deluxe editions from Criterion. There’s got to be nobody more respectable than Sirk right now. So a lot of the writing in that book does have that kind of pushy, polemical edge that I don’t think I would use today. But at the time there was a real sense of culture war, really, between the auteurists and the fuddy-duddy Dwight MacDonald gang, and the Kael-ites on the other hand. And in some ways I miss that because it was passionate, there was a lot of energy in that scene and you really thought you were crusading on behalf of the truth. You know, I'm kind of disengaged from current film these days because I'm mainly writing about older movies on DVD, I don't go to festivals much anymore. After nearly 30 years of seeing virtually every movie that came out every week—I would go to 8 or 9 films—these days I see maybe 2 or 3 new movies a month, and I kind of feel like for my purposes that's enough, I've got a sense of what’s going on. And it's for your generation to engage with these things now, and to find the new people, new ideas, new currents. I just can't sustain that intensity of interest anymore—which I do not blame on the new stuff, I blame entirely on me.

NP: Was there any particular piece in the Reader days that drew an extraordinary amount of ire, got the hate mail flowing in?

DK: Well, one of the first things I wrote was this really punky piece attacking Scenes from a Marriage and… Amarcord, or was it Roma? I think it was Amarcord. Both had come out the same week, and I thought they were both just hideous examples of bloated art cinema, in two different ways. And that just seemed to completely shock people on a level that I don't think is even possible anymore, to say that Bergman was a bad director, it just seemed scandalous, and I completely underestimated, myself, how much that would upset people, but that just got mountains of hate mail…

NP: The review itself isn't in the collection, but Scenes from a Marriage does pop up in a few places as a negative example…

DK: Rodney wanted to put that piece in and I just thought that would skew the whole thing in a direction I didn’t want to go. And it really is the work of a—I was what, 21, 22 when I wrote it? And it wasn't the most responsible piece of writing ever, it was kind of shrill and too sure of itself, it wasn't a piece I was proud of. But this suggests just how established the establishment was for a long time. That I made some fundamental transgression by saying that Bergman was a bad director, and people were genuinely shocked.

NP: That's the one that got the brickbats flying.

DK: Yeah. And they would continue to fly. I keep reading about how the internet has created this sense of incivility, and blowback, the comments sections are always so angry, "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you"… But I was getting plenty of mail like that for a long time.

NP: I suppose the difference is one is in the public domain

DK: Yeah. I mean I would get the occasional letter wiped in shit, stuff like that. I would take it down to the security office at the Tribune and give it to them. Stuff that just seemed like it was from crazy people. And now you get that like five times a day.

NP: You cannot send shit through the Internet.

DK: You really cannot send shit through the Internet. You could mail shit.

NP: I wanted to go back to one particular review in the book… there are a lot of contrasts drawn out in the book—modernity vs. classicism, objective vs. subjective—but one of the most interesting contrasts comes in your review of Don Siegel's very great Escape from Alcatraz, where Siegel's brand of filmmaking is contrasted to that of Ridley Scott's Alien, which had come out around the same time, which you describe as "aggressive, gnawing effects like sensorial shock troops." That description seems like a harbinger of things to come. Who do you think is carrying the banner for Siegel's kind of craftsmanship?

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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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