‘Movies That Mattered’ Captures Dave Kehr’s Astute Film Criticism

Dave Kehr is one of the best long-form essay writers people read for clear and sometimes brutally honest indictments of film.

It’s perhaps too trite and rash to conclude that the age of good, cogent film criticism is over. They still exist out there, always at print publications such as The New Yorker and at major newspapers like The New York Times. An argument can be made that the late, legendary film critic Roger Ebert became a better writer when he departed from cinema and covered literature, book collecting, or even the simplest pleasures of life. If we look at the film criticism of James Agee from the ’40s, or even the short but relevant stint of novelist and short story writer Graham Greene as a film critic, we come to understand that the greatest writing about film went beyond the spectrum of what they saw on the screen.

Indeed, great film critics have always understood that their job is to provide their subject with the credit it deserves. React, reconsider, and contextualize what you’re given and your writing will more than accurately reflect the quality of your subject. Most important, those who built the foundation of film criticism were not simply critics who provided trite approval or disapproval. The best film writers understood their topic needed much more than a cursory glance and immediate reaction.

Movies That Mattered: More reviews from a Transformative Decade, a collection of Dave Kehr’s writing from Chicago Magazine and Chicago Reader, there’s an immediate sense of nostalgia and regret. First, the reader 45 years or older will remember the original release of some of these titles: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Shining, Dressed to Kill, and Atlantic City. For the fan whose only access to information about these titles (and more) was the opening day review in their big city newspaper, the writing is what mattered. Now, in a year that’s featured essays by Director Martin Scorsese bemoaning the dominance of the critic aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes as the ultimate arbiter of taste, the 1981 release of a new Steven Spielberg film would have been immediately relegated to a percentage of popularity. Gone is the shock of discovery and the excitement of being the first to experience something exciting, something revolting, something challenging.

Kehr is one of the best long-form essay writers people read for clear and sometimes brutally honest indictments of (and salutes about) these titles and more, and the regret that today’s film audience will no longer have such clear-headed assessments from him is hard to shake off. The notion that this was a “transformative decade” might be quaint in retrospect and wishful thinking, but the spectrum of titles does prove the point. The pieces span back to 1975, a review of Russ Meyers’s
Supervixens and run through 1986, with reviews of such titles as Hannah and Her Sisters. In between, there are considerations of books, retrospectives of the films of Michael Powell, and examinations of the French tradition of quality.

What transformed from the mid-’70s through the mid-’80s? It was the tail-end of the young masters who broke open in the late ’60s (see Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood) and the slow but certain arrival of something different. In his September 1986 essay “Home Video”, Kehr forecasts a dim view of the industry that seems to have come true in more ways that he probably imagined.

“[Video]… may… be killing the medium aesthetically. The tiny images of network television have already had their influence on the visual vocabulary of film, forcing directors to rely more and more on close-ups that can be read on the small screen.”

The reader wonders how Kehr might consider the unfortunate truth that many viewers might have their first experience of
Lawrence of Arabia streamed to them through a six-inch smartphone screen, the sound squeezed through tinny earbuds. A collection like this also can’t avoid including such museum pieces as “Sequels”, from September 1983. Kehr writes “…the proliferation of Roman numerals means that Hollywood is in a deep crisis of creativity…Sequels murder originality.” One wonders where (or how) Kehr might stand today in the world of Marvel Studio franchise films that depend on never releasing a self-contained addition to their superhero stories. Kehr, who has been a curator in the Film Department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art since 2013, notes instead how quality visual storytelling has migrated to television:

“For audiences accustomed to televised intimacy, the classical cinema can seem remote and mysterious… In New York City, at least, it is rare to see viewers under 60 at archival programs…”

In effect, Kehr understands now as he concluded in 1983, that the depths to which mainstream Hollywood seems comfortable creating formula is nothing new. It’s the job of the critic to identify the jewels in the usual glut of releases, and Kehr doesn’t hesitate.
Movies That Mattered: More reviews from a Transformative Decade lives up to its title, and the viewer unfamiliar with the jewels of that era will benefit from Kehr’s enthusiasm. Of Martha Coolidge’s 1983 film Valley Girl, describing the breakout performance of a then relatively unknown Nicolas Cage, Kehr writes: “Randy, the boy from Hollywood, is played with loping New Wave anomie by Nicolas Cage; with his hooded eyes and hound-dog delivery, he’s like a lobotomized Robert Mitchum.” Kehr writes that Gremlins director Joe Dante will most likely be seen as a modernist after the release of the 1984 film about furry little monsters who grow lethal if exposed to water and other elements:

“Consciously or not, there is more than a little Godard in Dante’s open-ended montage technique… Dante packs his film with as many crazily diverse elements as possible and lets them rub against each other. Like Godard, he doesn’t impose a program but waits for happy accidents. In Gremlins, they come.”

GThis was certainly a strong and at times legendary time for great films and Kehr doesn’t hesitate to write about them. Instead of gushing, though, he’s very clear and extremely focused. He wants us to see these films, at the time his work is released or 30 years later. Of Claude Lanzmann’s staggering nine and a half hour Holocaust documentary
Shoah, Kehr writes:

“Lanzmann’s circular narration accomplishes something that a standard, step-by-step linear narration could not; it gives a sense of the physical outlines of the thing, of its truly global vastness…a sense of the sufferings buried within the sufferings…”

In effect, Kehr seems to see himself on an important mission not to convert or “save” the filmgoer so much as sustain the visions of Claude Lanzmann, Louis Malle, Werner Herzog’s
Nosferatu, Orson Welles’ Macbeth. Like most film writers of his time, Kehr was fortunate enough to not be saddled with an assignment to see and wrote about just the biggest release of the day. Take this observation from a January 1981 essay about how Orson Welles’s 1948 Macbeth, a strong film upon its release that has lost none of its potency:

“Welles’ dark, oppressive compositions envelop the text, shading it, twisting it, sometimes obliterating it. The images come first…shaping our understanding.”

In Part 4 of this book, cleverly titled “Autopsies/Minority Reports”, Kehr clearly indicates why he can’t sign on to what might have been the prestige releases of the time. Take Elia Kazan’s 1976 film
The Last Tycoon, an anachronistic release at the time. In his commentary, Kehr nicely forecasts what many sees has come of its star Robert DeNiro: “In playing a man defined by his monumental loneliness, DeNiro calls on the odd sense of impenetrability that always accompanies his performances-the sense that the actor’s own personality is locked up somewhere behind the characters…”

Kehr reserves his most pointed criticism for films like Brian DePalma’s
Dressed to Kill (1980), and reading these lines now leaves the reader wishing for somebody somewhere somehow to take to task comparable contemporary filmmakers equally mired in their compulsion for excess: “DePalma’s films are so ill-considered, so full of gaps and contradictions, that it seems clear that he works very close to his instincts.”

Of Steven Spielberg’s
Raiders of the Lost Ark, explosively powerful at the time but horribly dated by the end of the decade, Kehr is equally blunt. For him, the film was “…a remarkably callow, peach-fuzzy piece of work. It’s a piece of juvenilia unredeemed by innocence, a catalog of ugly adolescent impulses arranged for maximum commercial appeal.”

Kehr is hopeful about the future of cinema and he nicely wraps up his thoughts in the book’s Afterword. He’s firmly ensconced in classic Hollywood, which he sees as endless, and the reader has no reason to doubt that Kehr’s current focus as a film curator will help bring younger people to the altar of cinema’s golden age, whatever that might be. Our current age of YouTube and Instagram stars will fade, and soon enough there will be retrospectives of the golden age of Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy, the early work of auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers. There’s enough out there to embrace, to understand, to re-assess. Dave Kehr’s
Movies That Mattered: More Reviews From a Transformative Decade should go far towards helping a contemporary audience understand that nothing lasts forever, true genius will always last in the end, and the shallow product that makes for most of today’s franchise-focused Hollywood super blockbusters will eventually fade away.

RATING 8 / 10