When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade [NOOK Book]

Overview

If you have ever wanted to dig around in the archives for that perfect Sunday afternoon DVD and first turned to a witty weekly column in the New York Times, then you are already familiar with one of our nation’s premier film critics. If you love movies—and the writers who engage them—and just happen to have followed two of the highest circulating daily papers in the country, then you probably recognize the name of the intellectually dazzling writer who has been penning pieces on American and foreign films for ...

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When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade

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Overview

If you have ever wanted to dig around in the archives for that perfect Sunday afternoon DVD and first turned to a witty weekly column in the New York Times, then you are already familiar with one of our nation’s premier film critics. If you love movies—and the writers who engage them—and just happen to have followed two of the highest circulating daily papers in the country, then you probably recognize the name of the intellectually dazzling writer who has been penning pieces on American and foreign films for over thirty years. And if you called the City of the Big Shoulders home in the 1970s or 1980s and relied on those trenchant, incisive reviews from the Chicago Reader and the Chicago Tribune to guide your moviegoing delight, then you know Dave Kehr. 

When Movies Mattered
presents a wide-ranging and illuminating selection of Kehr’s criticism from the Reader—most of which is reprinted here for the first time—including insightful discussions of film history and his controversial Top Ten lists. Long heralded by his peers for both his deep knowledge and incisive style, Kehr developed his approach to writing about film from the auteur criticism popular in the ’70s. Though Kehr’s criticism has never lost its intellectual edge, it’s still easily accessible to anyone who truly cares about movies. Never watered down and always razor sharp, it goes beyond wry observations to an acute examination of the particular stylistic qualities that define the work of individual directors and determine the meaning of individual films.

From current releases to important revivals, from classical Hollywood to foreign fare, Kehr has kept us spellbound with his insightful critical commentaries. When Movies Mattered will secure his place among our very best writers about all things cinematic.

 

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Editorial Reviews

Film Comment

"Kehr writes in a way that merges an enthusiasm for innovation with an exhaustive knowledge of film history. And it seems he's never lacked for bold opinions. . . . He might be right—which makes this collection all the more essential."

Chicago Reader
 "Most people now know Kehr as writer of the weekly DVD column in the New York Times, a gig he's turned into an ongoing tutorial on film history. But that may change somewhat now that the University of Chicago (his alma mater) has anthologized 53 of his long reviews from the Reader (and one ringer from Film Comment) in the book When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade. No one familiar with Kehr's writing will be surprised to learn that the pieces are informed, insightful, and eloquent. Having inherited his job at the paper, though, I probably value the book more than most people, not only for its content but for its example. If you have any interest in the embattled art of film criticism, this collection (by a writer who, incredibly, was still in his 20s or early 30s) offers many lessons quite apart from his examination of the films themselves.

— J. R. Jones

Cinema Scope
When Movies Mattered is long overdue. . . . Kehr's enviable strength in his chosen mold is his exceptional attention to detail and evocative power of description.—Andrew Tracy, Cinema Scope

— Andrew Tracy

Powells.com
"This collection of criticism and lore deserves a place on every self-respecting cineaste's bookshelf."—Powells.com
MovieMorlocks.com
"This is a cause for celebration, although the resulting party would drive other critics to drink out of jealousy rather than selflessness. [Kehr''s] prose is patient and lucid, laying bare stylistic and thematic mechanisms with the graceful invisible style of one of his favored Hollywood auteurs."—MovieMorlocks.com (the official blog for TCM)
Sight & Sound

"Dave Kehr is one of the most gifted film critics to come out of America, the peer of James Agee and Pauline Kael."—Sight & Sound

New York Times

"To read Kael on Robert Altman or Mr. Kehr on Blake Edwards is not merely to revisit bygone arguments but also to encounter and absorb the vigor of those arguments as if they were taking place today."—A. O. Scott, New York Times

MovieMorlocks.com (the official blog for TCM)
"This is a cause for celebration, although the resulting party would drive other critics to drink out of jealousy rather than selflessness. [Kehr's] prose is patient and lucid, laying bare stylistic and thematic mechanisms with the graceful invisible style of one of his favored Hollywood auteurs."
Roger Ebert

"Dave Kehr is one of the most gifted film critics in America."

James O. Naremore

"Dave Kehr belongs in the pantheon of film critics who have been associated in one way or another with the city of Chicago—in fact, he's one of the best writers on film the country as a whole has ever produced. This collection of his work for the Chicago Reader constitutes an important act of cultural recovery, which provides insights into a crucial period of transition in the film industry. Not only a critic but also a public intellectual, Kehr teaches us about film style, calls attention to pictures that have received too little attention, and makes us care more about an art form. When Movies Mattered is a great pleasure."

Chicago Reader - J. R. Jones

 "Most people now know Kehr as writer of the weekly DVD column in the New York Times, a gig he's turned into an ongoing tutorial on film history. But that may change somewhat now that the University of Chicago (his alma mater) has anthologized 53 of his long reviews from the Reader (and one ringer from Film Comment) in the book When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade. No one familiar with Kehr's writing will be surprised to learn that the pieces are informed, insightful, and eloquent. Having inherited his job at the paper, though, I probably value the book more than most people, not only for its content but for its example. If you have any interest in the embattled art of film criticism, this collection (by a writer who, incredibly, was still in his 20s or early 30s) offers many lessons quite apart from his examination of the films themselves."

Cinema Scope - Andrew Tracy

"When Movies Mattered is long overdue. . . . Kehr's enviable strength in his chosen mold is his exceptional attention to detail and evocative power of description."—Andrew Tracy, Cinema Scope

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226429427
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • File size: 488 KB

Meet the Author

Dave Kehr moved to the Chicago Tribune after leaving the Chicago Reader in 1986, and he was its principal film critic until late 1992, when he moved to New York. His work has appeared regularly in Film Comment, and he is a member of the National Society of Film Critics. He blogs at www.davekehr.com.

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Read an Excerpt

When Movies Mattered

Reviews from a Transformative Decade
By DAVE KEHR

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 Dave Kehr
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-42941-0


Chapter One

Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir

Directed by JEAN RENOIR {August 30, 1974}

The red plush curtain of the music hall stage rises with a classic solemnity as the pit orchestra begins the introduction to a song. Standing motionless in center stage, against a softly defined background of deep greens, warm yellows, subtle pinks, and elusive, almost ethereal blues, is the singer. It is Jeanne Moreau, dressed in a long white bustled gown of the 1890s, a vague suspicion of nervousness in the slight incline of her head, and in the way she holds a fan of white feathers spread across her shoulder. As Moreau begins to sing, her reservation disappears, her eyes glance downwards, the fan is gently closed, and her arm slides down to her side. In her low, familiar voice, she sings a sad, slow song, a song of love that has passed. The camera seems to answer the invitation in her look, and begins to approach the singer with a graceful restraint, until her face is finally held in a delicate close-up. Moreau does not look at us directly now. She holds her glance a little to our left, and only her lips seem to move, except for a barely perceptible tremor in her eyes as she sings a particularly personal line. This embrace can't last, it's too intimate, too intense to go on as we wish it could, and so the camera, after a few seconds, must leave her. She is perfectly still as the camera reluctantly glides away, finishing her song just as it crosses the footlights. The curtain descends, and then, the beautiful vision is gone.

This is Jean Renoir's brief evocation of "La Belle Epoque," a three-minute sequence from what will most likely be his last film, Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir. The film, which has only recently been acquired for American distribution, was made for French television in 1968. Today, six years later at the end of its three-month run in New York and the beginning of its Chicago engagement, Le Petit théâtre seems like a promise fulfilled. Now that all of the speculations have been cleared away, the film emerges as Renoir's last masterpiece. It is all that a final work should be: a reflection, an acceptance, and a conclusion. If Renoir's career has to end (he will be eighty this year), then let it end here. Le Petit théâtre is the proof that it is still possible to create beautiful films, even in a time that seems incapable of appreciating them.

"La Belle Epoque" is the third of four sketches which make up Le Petit théâtre. Unlike most compendium films, Le Petit théâtre is finally a unified whole, with all of the parts finding their places within a definite design. The first two sketches recall the two major subdivisions of Renoir's career, the third presents a summation and a synthesis, and the fourth an approval of the past and a look to the future. Renoir's last film becomes his aesthetic autobiography.

The first sketch finds its basis in an obscure Hans Christian Andersen story about a couple of elderly drifters who are treated to a banquet on Christmas Eve and then die in each other's arms on a snow-covered dock by the Seine. The theme and its treatment belong to Renoir's first, and still most popular, period, that of his pre-Hollywood realism. His apparently informal style, grounded in fluid camera movements, allows him to make a sudden turn in the middle of his narrative, executing that deft change in tone from Marxism to humanism characteristic of his early work. The second segment, about a middle class housewife's excessive devotion to her electric floor waxer, is a wild operatic farce recalling the style of Renoir's postwar work in its dismissal of conventional novelistic characterization in favor of the American use of archetypes and narrative compression. The contrast between the two sketches is central to Renoir's development as an artist. His obsession with realism waned during the years he spent in Hollywood as an exile (you can almost see the change taking place on screen in This Land Is Mine) as he discovered the greater thematic freedom allowed by greater stylization. And so, you have La Grande illusion on the one hand and Elena et les hommes on the other, two almost antithetical masterpieces.

The three minutes of "La Belle Epoque" have a nearly unbearable intensity on the screen. As he reminds us in his introduction, Renoir has always seen the nineties as a golden age of harmony and simplicity—the era reappears as his personal view of paradise in film after film. Against this background, Renoir sets the basic oppositions that have informed his filmmaking, the actor and the camera, the natural and the manufactured, the seen and the unseen, the realities of the theater and the illusions of life, and puts them into harmony as well. The movement of the camera conveys nothing less than the reconciliation of space and time directed towards the comprehension of the beautiful, adequately embodied here by Moreau.

Renoir returns to the pastoral genre for his concluding segment. An old, retired Navy man and his pretty young wife are living a life of blissful inactivity in a small village. The old man's estate is suffering a little from his benign neglect, but since he's clearly earned his indolence, his wife makes herself content with things the way they are. The couple comes to adopt a young doctor new to the village as their closest friend, and so, when the doctor (not surprisingly, but somehow, that's the point) turns out to enjoy nothing more than making himself useful around the house, life seems complete. Unfortunately, the doctor takes it upon himself to extend his duties to the care of the young wife as well. The gossip spreads fast in the town, and when the old man hears about the affair he seems totally destroyed. In a master stroke of common sense, though, he realizes that he loves both his wife and his friend too much to let something as small as this come between them. Just as he accepts the new dimension in his marriage, so do the people of the village, and a spontaneous celebration follows his public acknowledgment.

Renoir uses the conventions of the pastoral comedy to present a little parable on the birth of a new golden age, where all of the dictates of provincial tradition can be overruled by a sudden assertion of communal feeling. Underlying the irresistible sentiments of the parable, though, is a strongly implied allegory. The old man's physical and philosophical closeness to Renoir marks him clearly as the master himself, a man with the grace and intelligence to realize that the time has come when he must pass the love of his life, the cinema, on to younger hands. This last episode, which must be the most nearly perfect example of short film construction that we have to look to, shows with no room for doubt that Renoir can still please his old mistress. Jean Renoir's Petit théâtre is a play of moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical dimensions composed in the serenity of old age. And to experience that serenity, simply, is to experience the sublime.

Family Plot

Directed by ALFRED HITCHCOCK {April 9, 1976}

The only name on the opening credits of Family Plot is Alfred Hitchcock's—which, for once, is just as it should be. The mere actors, writers, and technicians have been banished to the end title. For most other directors, this might be unforgivable egotism, but for Hitchcock, his authorship is a simple fact. Family Plot belongs to Alfred Hitchcock no less than Moby Dick belongs to Herman Melville.

Not that Family Plot occupies the same level in Hitchcock's canon as Moby Dick does in Melville's. Family Plot, if you want to quibble, is second-rate Hitchcock; second-rate in the sense that it's not Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, or The Birds. But second-rate Hitchcock is still about ten times more interesting than first-rate Altman, Coppola, or Scorsese. There are things in Family Plot that we haven't seen in an American film in a long time; things like care, precision, and detail. Family Plot is probably the most beautifully crafted, thematically dense film that we're going to see this year.

In spite of its two-hour running time, Family Plot has the feel of a miniature. Bounded by its four main characters, the film doesn't have the epic sprawl of a North by Northwest or a Topaz. Instead, Hitchcock has concentrated on building an elaborate internal structure, playing off the permutations of the characters' relationships.

Continuing the dual narrative construction that began with Shadow of a Doubt (and reached one previous climax with the audacious midway break of Psycho), Family Plot follows two couples through two—at first—unrelated stories. Barbara Harris, a phony spiritualist, is trying to track down the lost heir to a family fortune with the help of her cabbie boyfriend, Bruce Dern. The missing heir, though, is now a professional kidnapper (William Devane), who heists millionaire industrialists and suchlike with the help of his respective lover, Karen Black. Following his custom, Hitchcock lets the audience in on the "mystery" early in the film (after 48 minutes, according to Joseph McBride's Variety count). The rest of Family Plot leads the two couples through an arabesque of coincidences and chance meetings, drawing them together only in the final reel.

Reinforcing the complicated narrative structure is a wonderfully detailed system of visual motifs. Hitchcock selects white as the key color for Dern and Harris, and black for Devane and Black—which is partly a joke on the melodramatic convention, but also a way of guiding the audience through the difficult thematic comparisons and contrasts Hitchcock wishes to make. Harris's character is named "Blanche," she drives a blindingly white Mustang, and, of course, she's a blonde. By underlining the identification of Harris with white, Hitchcock is able to bring off one of his best visual puns: late in the film, Dern is tipped that Harris has suffered some foul play not by the traditional trail of blood, but by a dribble of white paint running out from under a garage door. Compare the skill and subtlety with which Hitchcock realizes the color scheme in Family Plot with the coarseness of Ingmar Bergman's similar ploy in Cries and Whispers—the difference between a cinematic poet and a cinematic poseur.

Black and white, evil and good—this is how Hitchcock initially leads the audience to identify the characters. But that simple distinction, as it always does in Hitchcock's films, begins to break down. Through a series of strategic rhetorical moves, Hitchcock confuses the audience's positive identification, forcing us to share the guilt of the characters. Harris's crime—posing as a spiritualist—seems petty compared with Devane's abductions and murders. But guilt, for Hitchcock, is not a matter of degree. We're brought to see the "heroes" and the "villains" as two sides of the same psychological coin. The crystal ball associated with Harris is linked to the crystalline diamonds that Devane demands as ransom. When Hitchcock shows us the FBI hot on Devane's trail, our knee-jerk reaction is fear for his safety. Harris and Dern are lovable, bumbling children; Devane and Black are shrewd, sophisticated professionals. If we publicly empathize with one couple, we secretly admire the other—evil has an irresistible charm. We might like to think of ourselves more as the affable innocents that Harris and Dern embody, but lurking inside us all is Devane's criminal mastermind, fantasizing murders and robberies, fascinated with evil and its power. It's a part of ourselves that we've learned not to acknowledge, but it's just that barrier between ego and id that Hitchcock's films are dedicated to destroying.

Since Family Plot is, after all, a light comedy, we're not left with the horror of ourselves that many of Hitchcock's other films produce. Where Frenzy ends with a devastating glimpse into the heart of darkness—our "hero" commits a savage murder—Family Plot concludes with one small but comforting victory for the forces of "normality." It's the ending of Family Plot, I think, that most people are going to object to—it might seem too arbitrary and too easy. But the easiness may be deliberate, a way of emphasizing the tenuousness of the solution. The joking ambiguity of the final image—a wink addressed to the audience—is Hitchcock's way of acknowledging the game he's played with us, the perfect way for the Master to end what may well be his last film.

Family Plot is a movie filled with more incidental brilliancies than there's room to mention—the kidnapping of a bishop before a church filled with penitents, a slow chase through the Mondrian pattern formed by the paths of a graveyard, etc., etc. At once, it's a film of remarkable richness and remarkable economy. Not a single detail—a garden hose hung on a basement wall, for example—is placed without significance. I doubt that a dozen viewings would reduce its fascination one bit. Family Plot is made in a style that many will find anomalous or old fashioned. But if the exercise of care and craftsmanship is out of style—which it seems to be, judging from the reception that a mess like Nashville can get—then that's our loss, not Hitchcock's.

F for Fake

Directed by ORSON WELLES {October 14, 1977}

Orson Welles's long-awaited new film is a study in ambiguities, and Welles wastes no time getting down to business, offering three different possibilities for the film's title in its first few minutes. A title reading F for Fake has been spliced on before the action proper begins, looking suspiciously like a distributor's afterthought. A roll title, spinning a hundred printouts of the single word Fake, appears shortly after. And finally, there is a question mark, scrawled with a felt tipped pen over the face of an editing screen before the technical credits. Welles has compounded the problem by combining the last two choices, referring to the film as Fake? in some interviews. So what is the real title of F for Fake? Fake? Fake?? Or ?? For the moment, I think I'll settle on F for Fake, just because it's the most obviously fake of the fake titles. The only way to get into Welles's wonderfully entertaining, half-playful and half-serious intellectual shell game (whatever it's called, it's playing Friday night, October 14, at the Midwest Film Center) is by seizing the paradox at the start.

F for Fake is a fake movie, assembled out of bits and pieces of new and old film stock—documentary footage, old newsreels (including some fake old newsreels), still photos, travel shots, paintings, television (including some fake television), radio (including some fake radio—Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast), and some special effects sequences from a 1950s science fiction film (tentatively identified as Fred F. Sears's immortal Earth vs. the Flying Saucers). Welles is credited as the director, but that might be a fake, too: most of the original footage was shot by the French documentarist François Reichenbach. Welles's personality completely dominates the material he has gathered from others; he is the "auteur" of the film in the most traditional 1950s Cahiers du cinéma sense. But Welles seems to be wondering, along with Pauline Kael in her introduction to The Citizen Kane Book, whether an auteur isn't just a fake author, putting his name on other people's work. We see an art forger signing Welles's name to a painting (and spelling it incorrectly)—an obvious fake, although ironically the painting is one that the forger has done in his "own" style. If he does a painting in Picasso's style, is it still his? If the painting is good enough to be a Picasso, is it a real Picasso or a fake? A work of art or a worthless forgery? Are the critics, who can't tell the difference, fakes too?

The relentless, inquisitory tone, discovering paradox behind paradox, sets the somewhat breathless pace of F for Fake, spinning a thousand related questions around a fundamental problem—what is the nature of the film? The days are long gone when Jean-Luc Godard could say that cinema was "truth 24 times a second." Under the influence of modernism, a movement that has belatedly seeped into film from literature, today's avant-garde would revise the slogan to "lies 24 times a second." Structuralist criticism has turned artistic interest from the content of the image to the image itself. No longer is photography naively presumed to capture "reality"—as Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, reality is the only word in the English language that means nothing unless it's surrounded by quotes. If we see the same object in a dozen different images, we see a dozen different objects—a dozen different points of view imposed by a dozen different observers. Does the object have any meaning divorced from a point of view? If it does, is that meaning its "reality"? And how do we find that "reality"? Certainly not through an image, because there is always more than one image, hence more than one "reality"—more than one truth, more than one lie.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from When Movies Mattered by DAVE KEHR Copyright © 2011 by Dave Kehr. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

 

Part 1: The Best

1974: Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (Jean Renoir)

1976: Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock)

1977: F for Fake (Orson Welles)

1978: Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick)

1979: 10 (Blake Edwards)

1981: Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)

1982: The Aviator’s Wife (Eric Rohmer)

1983: Francisca (Manoel de Oliveira)

 

Part 2: The End of Classical Hollywood

Classical Hollywood

The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston)

Fedora (Billy Wilder)

Escape From Alcatraz (Don Siegel)

The Human Factor (Otto Preminger)

New Hollywood

The Driver (Walter Hill)

Halloween (John Carpenter)

Reds (Warren Beatty)

Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood)

New Directions in Comedy

Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards)

Risky Business (Paul Brickman)

Lost in America (Albert Brooks)

After Hours (Martin Scorsese)

Mavericks and Outsiders

Dawn of the Dead (George Romero)

The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller)

Love Streams (John Cassavetes)

Trouble in Mind (Alan Rudolph)

 

Part 3: Other Visions

Old Masters

Blaise Pascal (Roberto Rossellini)

A Piece of Pleasure (Claude Chabrol)

That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel)

Perceval (Eric Rohmer)

Godard

Numéro deux

Every Man for Himself

Passion

Detective

New Masters

Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (Alain Tanner)

The Memory of Justice (Marcel Ophuls)

Allegro non troppo (Bruno Bozzetto)

The American Friend (Wim Wenders)

Loulou (Maurice Pialat)

Eijanaika (Shohei Imamura)

Coup de torchon (Bertrand Tavernier)

City of Pirates (Raul Ruiz)

 

Part 4: Revivals and Retrospectives

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi)

The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini)

Born in Germany, Raised in Hollywood: The Film Art of Fritz Lang

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Yasujiro Ozu)

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)

Othello (Orson Welles)

Crisis, Compulsion, and Creation: Raoul Walsh’s Cinema of the Individual

A Love That Caresses the Soul: Films by Carl Theodor Dreyer

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse)

Le Silence de la mer and Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville)

The Leopard (Luchino Visconti)

Hitch’s Riddle: On Five Rereleased Films

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)

French Cancan (Jean Renoir)


Appendix: Top Ten Lists, 1974–86

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