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 noires—Altman, 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 that—from any critic, pretty much—than 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 that’s 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 expression—I 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.
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.
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?
DK: Oh, boy. Nobody’s coming to mind. Almost what’s happened, it seems to me, is that American films have all become about nerve-end stimulation—pardon some insane generalizations. At the same time, art house films have become about the opposite, the fish-bowl mise-en-scene, camera never moves, there’s very little cutting, these repressive compositions, people just kind of standing around and looking at each other. Which is a way of saying “This is an Art film, God damn it!” As opposed to that vulgar Hollywood stuff. And I don’t care for either of those extremes, really.
NP: That sense of self-defining in opposition…
DK: Yeah, it’s just not a useful thing. Pedro Costa I think is some kind of a genius but there’s a bunch of guys who are doing that style who are not. Just dropping the camera down and having your actors stand around in a field or something is not inherently interesting, but is a way of saying, “We’re not Hollywood. We’re artists, we’re serious. We’re in Portugal, we got money from the government”… The director I like most right now is David Fincher. He passed through that kind of sensorial-overload phase and then with Zodiac I think he just entered into something completely different which reminds me most of [Otto] Preminger just… distanced, cool, he’s not making too many judgments for you, he’s amassing data that you can then sift through, very similar camera style, these beautiful long takes. He’s probably the contemporary guy who appeals most to my calcified sensibility.
NP: Another piece I was caught up on was on John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, which is a—not reconsideration, but a piece where you’re giving kudos to someone whose previous work you hadn’t responded to, somebody who either you’ve come around to or who’s come around to you…
DK: I don’t think he’d want to hear that! He happened to evolve in a direction I appreciated…Yeah, there’s a piece on Fedora, the Billy Wilder film, in the book too. Huston and Wilder being two directors I just never liked at all, and yet these late films seemed to be hitting on… finding a new level, a new kind of serenity, getting past the nastiness that defined so much of their work for me. Will the Coen Brothers eventually reach that plateau? I hope so. I don’t think [Robert] Altman ever did, really… The directors who really rub me the wrong way right now are people like Tony Scott and Michael Bay. “The Shooters,” as they call them, these kind of macho guys who go out there and do a million shots and beat up the audience with them. I don’t see a second act in those careers somehow. I don’t see anything much of interest coming out of Michael Bay. I have seen some people defending Tony Scott, like the CinemaScope guys have kind of adopted him as their favorite Hollywood director, I think just out of sheer perversity, because… I don’t see anything in those. It’s just trash to me, one shot after another, it’s just nonsense. But he does have his little following.
NP: I saw you at the Museum of the Moving Image presenting Sailor’s Luck, and in conversation afterwards you were asked about the critical lions around during your early writing years, and a phrase that you brought up with regards to Manny Farber and Pauline Kael, who you didn’t mark as influences, was “personality critics.” If they’re “personality critics” what are you?
DK: Oh, I don’t think I have much of a personality like they did. I’m not that kind of a writer. I don’t like to use the first person really much at all. Very sparingly. I don’t know… There are certain people who are just vivid, large personalities, and that’s what makes them fun to read. I don’t think I’m one of those people, but I’m someone who’s seen a lot of movies and has put a lot of things together, and maybe I’ve got something to say because I’ve had these experiences. But I don’t think I’m inherently a fascinating person, that I need to display my wonderfulness in front of a large audience. Pauline and Farber—I never knew Farber at all, I knew Pauline pretty well… I mean she was just a larger-than-life, charismatic person. I didn’t like her reviews very much but as a dinner companion, she was fantastic, she was just a great conversationalist, very funny, always had the latest gossip and was dishing everybody left and right, and she was just one of those “big” people. I think in her work it too often came over as bullying and a little shallow… and I can understand the appeal of that kind of writing, I just don’t think I’m that kind of writer, it’s not what I’m drawn to, I guess.
NP: Is the general idea, perhaps, to reduce one’s self so that the text being discussed shows more clearly?
DK: Well, I always think the movie’s more interesting than I am. I guess that’s just a product of growing up in the Midwest, I don’t know. But I never thought I was there to write about me, my experiences, how this made me feel while I was sitting in the chair watching. It was always more about “How is this movie working? What’s this guy trying to do? What are the animating tensions behind this thing? Is it asking a question and is it answering it?” External stuff… what can I say?