The New York Times DVD critic Dave Kehr, who also wrangles wide-ranging film discussions on his website, has just released a book that compiles criticism he wrote for the Chicago Reader during his tenure there from 1974 to 1986. The book reveals that Kehr is also one of film criticism’s great prose stylists. While Manny Farber treated film as a plastic art, describing films as if they were layered action paintings that our eyes scanned the surface of, Kehr describes films as if they were moving, mechanical sculptures. His talent for describing space and movement makes even familiar films seem as if the reader is seeing them for the first time with 3-D glasses. And while these longer pieces are a revelation, they are also consistent with Kehr’s work at the Times and his website, in that he is scanning the cinema terrain and filling in gaps. In these longer pieces it is gaps of appreciation (from 80s Godard to Risky Business), while in his work now it is gaps of film history. These tendencies are in full effect at a weekend of his selections screening at the Museum of the Moving Image, which range from Godard’s Every Man For Himself to the rare Raoul Walsh pre-code, Sailor’s Luck. Kehr sat down with us to discuss the screenings and his new book.
I was familiar with your capsules and your terrific DVD reviews in the Times, but I hadn’t read your long form pieces before. It’s an incredible collection, really valuable. How did this book come about?
It was an editor at the University of Chicago Press, a guy named Rodney Powell who had the idea and cornered me into doing it. I wasn’t too keen on the notion of going back to all this old stuff, but, like you say, it was the only time I was really writing long pieces, and people seem to have good memories of them.
You get to some really amazing revelations by the end of these pieces. There’s a sense of discovery, too, in the writing.
Well, one thing you get from writing a longer piece is that you think things through in the way that you don’t when you’re writing a capsule where you keep it short and simple. You find out what you think about something as you are writing a piece. That was a very common experience, once. You come out of a movie with this jumble of impressions, and somebody says, “What do you think?” I don’t know. I’ll know when I write it up. Maybe I’ll know tomorrow. Right now, I don’t know. And the act of writing it is how you organize your thoughts and sift through things, work it out and draw conclusions.
Do you miss that process, that revelation, not writing long form now? Or, do you think you see films differently now?
Well, you always make the best of what your situation is. What my job is now, it’s more about film history, I think, than just simple analytics. These kind of long analytical pieces you see in [the book], you can’t do in the New York Times, but what you can do is give people a little bit of information, situate something and hopefully point toward a movie or a filmmaker that they haven’t heard of. And that seems very valuable right now, because I think we are losing so much. Not just classical Hollywood, but a whole range of stuff that was once so commonly available and so much a part our culture that has been receding because it’s no longer in distribution, it’s not on TV. Now that theatrical distribution is dead, what’s on DVD is really peculiar and what’s going to be streaming is even stranger than that.
Your book is called When Movies Mattered and the subtitle is “The Transformative Decade”
Well, yeah. That’s a bit of an imposed theme. Just because that was the time those pieces were written. But that era [1974-1986] was still a time when some of the old guys were working, and the new guys were coming up.
So even if the themes are imposed, or accidental, you’re writing about a time when there’s a transition from classical Hollywood to New Hollywood. You write something fairly provocative about Clint Eastwood. It’s provocative to just consider Clint Eastwood as a representative of 70s New Hollywood!
That was pretty outrageous at the time. The idea that Clint Eastwood should be taken seriously as a director was not obvious to very many people. I took a lot of crap for that. And also for the pieces on Blake Edwards and a lot of other people. I mean this stuff was pretty controversial. When it was published, you would get very violent arguments, letters full of steaming outrage. Just the idea that American film was worth taking seriously really still shocked people as late as the mid-70s. It took a lot of convincing to get people to see that Alfred Hitchcock was still more than just a fun Saturday night experience.
In the intro you cite Andrew Sarris as a major influence, which you see both in your short pieces and your long pieces. By that I mean you assume that it’s the goal of the critic, or even the cinephile, to stake out these directors and to be able to succinctly describe the style. That seems to be the intention.
Yeah, I think it’s fun to identify that voice, detect a voice where people didn’t hear one before.
You said you started writing during the Sarris/Kael debate. Where did you place yourself in that?
Oh, I was totally on the Sarris side. I came across The American Cinema when I was 14, in my local public library. I had loved movies since I was a little kid, but I was just figuring out what directors did, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. And somehow I got the idea that this Nick Ray guy was a great director because I really liked Rebel Without a Cause. The American Cinema makes clear these aren’t just random occurrences, there is somebody who’s making these movies, and it appears to be the director. By the time I got to University of Chicago there was a Sarris film society and across the street there was the rival Paulette film society, and the crunchy old fashioned Bergman & Fellini film society.
There were three rival film societies?
Yes there were. I think there were even more, like five or six film societies. You would have lots of contradictions between sensibilities at that point.
That’s amazing. What films would they play at the Paulette society?
Well the Paulettes thought movies are fun trash. So they would show, I don’t know, Bringing Up Baby because it was a fun, superficial screwball comedy. We would show Bringing Up Baby because we liked the worldview of Hawks.
One of the lines that struck me in the introduction was about how the long form film review was able to thrive in the alternative weeklies. But then you wrote that the daily press—that you work in now—doesn’t allow that, and the internet just doesn’t seem to want it.
Yeah, it’s just kind of a waste. Because you do have all this space but no one wants to read it. You can spend 5,000 words on somebody but no one will read beyond the first three or four hundred. I guess because it’s so hard to read on a computer screen. Secondly because the attention span.
Too much content?
I guess. You really don’t want to go beyond three or four hundred words because people are just going to stop reading at some point. I started off writing longer, serious pieces online and it didn’t seem to matter whether I just put up a link to this week’s column or I spent a thousand words. The response was pretty much the same, the readership was pretty much the same. It turns out the Internet is a pretty good place to have those short end discussions but I’m not sure it’s a good place to have detailed, drawn out pieces.
In your review of Melvin and Howard, you write about how it stayed with you, how the film has elongated emotionally in your memory. And there’s a sense of time and reflection in your relationship with that film. But that doesn’t seem to exist with most online writing, which is made for the instant response. It’s a really interesting piece.
It’s playing this weekend at MOMI along with Walter Hill’s The Driver, another representative of your 70s American alternative canon. You describe the Demme film as a great representative of a sort of warmer, different vibe from the more typical New Hollywood.
Oh, yeah. I mean, there was a sudden urge in the mid 70s to make movies about “the people” and yet all of these films were incredibly condescending. Altman, he’s just sneering at these people, he’s laughing at the people in Nashville. And in Demme there’s just none of that. It’s a very generous vision of exactly the kind of people that Altman would be making ruthless fun of for being mental defectives or something. So I think he represented an optimism and humanism in new American cinema that I wasn’t getting from a lot of those directors, particularly Altman.
You’ve stated in your Times column and in the book that Raoul Walsh should be in the same category as Ford or Hawks. How did you choose the Walsh film that is screening at MOMI?
I love it and I had heard that there is this new print, and it seemed like a great excuse to get it shown.
It’s interesting that it’s a comedy, because, while he worked in so many genres, it’s not his most definitive genre. Tell me what appeals to you about the film or what is illustrative about Walsh and his style.
Yeah, the one concept of Walsh is this incredible vitality, this animal sense of just life pulsating everywhere and he works this out in different ways, in different movies. In the early 30s, almost every film is a different experiment on how you frame action. There’s a film called Yellow Ticket which has deep focus effects in it that are, theoretically, every bit as significant as what Gregg Toland and Welles did later, but he doesn’t quite have the technical facility yet. The film isn’t quite fast enough yet, the lights aren’t quite bright enough. You can’t quite get the focus perfect from one item to the other, but he’s almost there. He has the idea, and he can’t quite do it yet. And then something like Sailors Luck, where it’s just all based on 20 different focal points in every shot, there’s almost this sense of there’s whole other movie going on in the background. You can follow any extra. It’s like almost by chance that this one particular story has floated to the front of the screen.
You have chapters in your book advocating for Hitchcock and Walsh. Why do you think that we’ve been able to recognize Hitchcock more easily than Walsh?
Well, I think that Hitchcock does have pronounced themes and he does have philosophical ideas. I think the idea of the angry, unforgiving God is in close to all of his movies. People think that his movies are about guilt and punishment—”Why am I being punished? Why is this happening to me?”
Totally. But Walsh doesn’t have anything like that. You can identify a general theme, kind of driven by an inner energy to go to an extreme. He likes that. He’s attracted to that kind of hero, usually involving metaphors of height—the mountains in High Sierra [Tonight at Anthology! -Ed.], the gas tank in White Heat. Very often he has this protagonist who is forced in some lonely isolated position on top of something where he usually dies. In what I call his “map movies” you just have to keep moving, keep moving, don’t stop, and that’s what drives those films. It’s very hard to put into words what he’s doing, and it’s not a quick theme, the way Hitchcock has themes. Walsh has an attitude. Walsh has a feeling about the world. Walsh has an experience, a rhythm that he senses that he expresses in his movies.
And incredible physicality.
Yeah, exactly. And it’s not an intellectual thing at all. I doubt if he can talk about his stuff in those terms in the slightest bit. Every interview you read about him it’s always funny stories that happen on the set… He was just doing his job because it was fun and he liked it and he was good at it. He was a real man of the cinema. And you get that feeling with Allan Dwan and Frank Borzage. A bunch of these guys are starting at the same time in the shadow of Griffith, and are not yet conscious of this being an art form, but are really chuffed up by something new and exciting that hadn’t been in the world before. What’s really fascinating to me is that they’re making it up as they go along.
But what do you mean when you call Dwan or Walsh or Borzage a “man of the cinema?” Thinking purely in cinematic terms?
Well, thinking through the camera. Learning by experience. Griffith invented the basic rhetoric of film, but he didn’t finish it and he pointed them in a lot of directions. Ford is taking it one way, Walsh is taking it another way, Dwan is taking it another way, but it’s all happening for the first time, right before your eyes, because there’s no models for this stuff. There’s no one telling you, you have to do an over-the-shoulder shot, or do an establishing shot, or go in for your close-ups.
And so, do you think there is something with Walsh that is so especially physical and elemental? You said that it’s so hard to describe with words, as a way of describing him…
Well I think that’s why there have been no major book on him like there’ve been on Borzage and Hitchcock and all those guys, because he’s hard to talk about thematically, because the same stuff keeps coming up over and over again… It’s hard to talk about; I can’t even talk about it now.
There’s a similar feeling watching Walsh that’s hard to describe. Like you can’t stop watching them. I was half-watching a pile of films while doing other things, and then Glory Alley came on, which is not a great movie…
Pretty minor Walsh, but it’s still got it.
And I can’t stop watching it.
It’s the energy, it’s the momentum. It’s barreling through space. He sweeps you up. You’re part of that adventure for lack of a better word. Movies, they move. They move you. It’s what they do in some incredibly pure way.