David Kehr

Film critic David Kehr was among the first to talk about the mastery of Henry Fonda, in what's among his badassest of roles, in Once Upon a Time in the West. (Courtesy of the Publisher)

The title of this selection of film critic David Kehr's reviews for the Chicago Reader from 1974 to 1986 is a bit misleading. When, exactly, did films matter? It seems they mattered when what was said about them mattered, in “a period that saw the emergence of both the so-called film generation — bred out of campus film societies and busy commercial art theaters — and the so-called alternative press.”

In other words, a time when students and film buffs informed themselves through the informed voices of a formative body of critics, a situation that stimulated good film-talk. A better title might be “When Film Reviews Mattered.”

As Kehr points out in his introduction, the newspaper style of film reviewing in our time tends to be shorter, chattier and less weighty, and the internet passtime of passing immediate judgment in pithy bits gives no one much time for reflection.

“The luxury of printing long pieces without an obvious demographic appeal is something the weeklies can no longer afford — while, paradoxically, it is a privilege that the web has actively refused.”

Whether in print or online, few are the places today where a reviewer can take the time to make observations on the fate of the Western, as Kehr does in his superb review of a somewhat neglected masterpiece like Once Upon a Time in the West or to observe the subtleties in a single shot of a popular film like 10 or to dwell upon a film's symbolic structure (compare Kehr's review of Malick's Days of Heaven, included here, to any review of Malick's current film The Tree of Life to see what I mean).

The title is also misleading because it's fairly clear that the films current during Kehr's time at the Reader don't matter nearly as much to him as the classics he finds time and space to revisit — thanks to revivals in art theaters — for astute and informed disquisitions on films by Rossellini, Hitchcock, Dreyer. Kehr now writes reviews of new DVD releases for the New York Times — what better way to continue writing about the films that matter, rather than the films that grace our theaters?

It's both stimulating and slightly disheartening to watch Kehr treat films like Halloween, Family Plot and Risky Business as if they really “matter,” and yet one is more or less convinced. Kehr's reviews are comfortably situated within a critical vocabulary able to articulate a sophisticated appreciation of film classicism, while ignoring the glitzy journalese that treats films as “news” to be absent-mindedly discarded the moment another blockbuster appears. Kehr likewise refuses to make larger gestures toward a cultural critique that treats movies as symptoms. The film is the thing, and Kehr deftly recounts plots and thoughtfully works out the significance of what he's watching for a sympathetic “we.”

Kehr's reviews, as he remarks sardonically, “are full of authors, artists, auteurs — as well as a whole range of concomitantly naïve notions of self-expression, poetic transcendence and form considered in hopeless isolation from ideology.” The statement is a comment on what became of serious film analysis in this period, beginning to adopt psychoanalytic and semiotic modes of critique, but it also indicates the extent to which writing about film as Kehr does here presupposes a level of individual artistry. Whether because of the critique of ideology or the dominance of the marketplace, Kehr's teacherly style simply isn't the way we talk about movies now.

The book contains only reviews of films Kehr likes. This is useful because it provides serious readings of films that might easily be forgotten (e.g. Albert Brooks' Lost in America) or recalled as less than successful (e.g., Walter Hill's The Driver), but it also does a disservice to Kehr as a critic. Nothing reveals a critic's taste so well as a negative review, for there is revealed, often, the bêtes noires of that particular reviewer.

One suspects Kehr's negative criticism would be instructive, dilating upon the principles or formal features that cause a film to be an artistic failure. Certainly the brief swipes at critical darlings like Woody Allen or Robert Altman, and the absence of either Spielberg or Kubrick on Kehr's “Best of the Year” lists make one eager for a follow-up volume of reviews of movies that didn't matter to Kehr.