When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade
by Dave Kehr
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
In the not-so-distant past, film writers like Andrew Sarris, J. Hoberman, and Pauline Kael would indulge readers in long-form criticism, providing them with insights to a film in question, not merely settling the debate as to whether said film was worth seeing. And, despite the highbrow pedigree, these names could make or break a film (Kael's essay on Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde is generally considered to have turned the film from box-office poison to must-see iconoclastic cinema).
However, as we bemoan the quality of the contemporary filmgoing experience (kids on cell phones, too many ads, $15 for subpar 3D films), the state of film criticism hasn't fared much better. Thoughtful essays, though still a vital part of any cineaste's arsenal, are (unwillingly) ceding their hegemony to the plethora of online critics, raised in an era of abundant content availability and emboldened by the autodidactic instinct to mistake watching a lot of films for an education in film history and theory. Few things will make me walk away more quickly from a DVD I'm thinking about renting than seeing a blurb from a faceless minion of Ain't It Cool News.
This is not to say that all online criticism is merely fanboy onanism. If you set a hundred monkeys in a room with a hundred Word Press accounts, odds are you'll get some fantastic writing, but it risks being drowned out by the din of the other 97 monkeys as they scream at each other and fling their feces online for all to see. And there are some great critics who either currently write online or got their start there (L.A. Weekly's Karina Longworth and Salon.com's Andrew O'Hehir are two that immediately come to mind).
Dave Kehr is also one of those critics. As he explains in the introduction to his collection of essays When Movies Mattered, Kehr first got his critical feet wet in 1974 at the alternative weekly the Chicago Reader, where he was able to "slip in a two-thousand-word review of a three-hour film by a forgotten Portuguese director...if readers weren't interested, they could always turn directly to the lonelyhearts ads in the back of the paper."
This was the middle period of a high-water mark of filmgoing as a cultural pursuit in America, bolstered between the rise of film scholarship, campus film societies and Cahiers du Cinema, along with the rise of home video, which turned every home into a private cinematheque, effectively throwing a wet blanket over film culture-with-a-capital-C in the public sphere.
It is this fertile period that Kehr mines for these essays, ranging from the last feature directed by Jean Renoir to late-period Orson Welles to Jean-Luc Godard's '80s output (from what is out there, you'd think Godard never made a film after Week End in 1967). The writing is untouched, containing whatever prejudices and enthrallments he was subject to at the time. For example, in a review of Don Siegel's Clint Eastwood vehicle Escape from Alcatraz (which he praises for its formalism, comparing the director of Dirty Harry to Robert Bresson), he calls out Ridley Scott's Alien as being "all noise and clutter, standing in for tone and style." I have to wonder if the 2K11 model of Kehr would make the same judgment, especially after sitting through anything in Michael Bay's oeuvre.
It is this reflexive tendency that makes When Movies Mattered such a delight to read. Kehr submits his earlier pronouncements to the mercy of decades of hindsight, and nothing is riding on whether the reader agrees with him or not. Although, even with the benefit of a posterior view, I find it hard to argue with Kehr when he proclaims, "second-rate Hitchcock is still about ten times more interesting than first-rate Altman, Coppola, or Scorsese."
Kehr's writings, though contemporaneous, betray a reverent nostalgia (to borrow a phrase from the author) for a vanishing kind of filmgoing experience. Even though I was alive during the period these essays were written, it's difficult to imagine a time when you could see a new Hitchcock film or overhear conversations about John Cassavetes while getting coffee. Kehr reminds us of a time when there weren't countless films available to watch on-demand, of a time when a film as universally praised as Michael Powell's (no relation) Peeping Tom was almost impossible to see and had to be sandwiched between Psycho and The Night of the Hunter in an effort to boost attendance.
It simply seems counterintuitive that today's abundance of content arrives with a diametrically opposite dearth of thoughtful discussion as to what this content actually means. Thankfully, Kehr continues to offer his insights via his blog, as well as in the New York Times, where he pens what he calls "a weekly column on film history (lightly disguised as reviews of new DVDs)." This collection of criticism and lore deserves a place on every self-respecting cineaste's bookshelf.