Movies That Mattered: More Reviews from a Transformative Decade

Movies That Mattered: More Reviews from a Transformative Decade

by Dave Kehr

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Overview

Dave Kehr’s writing about film has garnered high praise from both readers and fellow critics. Among his admirers are some of his most influential contemporaries. Roger Ebert called Kehr “one of the most gifted film critics in America.” James Naremore thought he was “one of the best writers on film the country as a whole has ever produced.” But aside from remarkably detailed but brief capsule reviews and top-ten lists, you won’t find much of Kehr’s work on the Internet, and many of the longer and more nuanced essays for which he is best known have not yet been published in book form.
           
With When Movies Mattered, readers welcomed the first collection of Kehr’s criticism, written during his time at the Chicago Reader. Movies That Mattered is its sequel, with fifty more reviews and essays drawn from the archives of both the Chicago Reader and Chicago magazine from 1974 to 1986. As with When Movies Mattered, the majority of the reviews offer in-depth analyses of individual films that are among Kehr’s favorites, from a thoughtful discussion of the sobering Holocaust documentary Shoah to an irresistible celebration of the raucous comedy Used Cars. But fans of Kehr’s work will be just as taken by his dissections of critically acclaimed films he found disappointing, including The Shining, Apocalypse Now, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Whether you’re a long-time reader or just discovering Dave Kehr, the insights in Movies That Mattered will enhance your appreciation of the movies you already love—and may even make you think twice about one or two you hated.
 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226495712
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/03/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 973,418
File size: 655 KB

About the Author

Dave Kehr wrote film criticism for the Chicago Reader and Chicago magazine during the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1986, he became the principal film critic for the Chicago Tribune, where he worked until 1992, when he became a film critic for the New York Daily News. He then wrote a weekly DVD column for the New York Times until 2013. He is now a curator in the Film Department at the Museum of Modern Art. His previous collection, When Movies Mattered, was also published by the University of Chicago Press.
 

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The Black Stallion

Directed by CARROLL BALLARD {April 1980}

The first movie ever made, an 1877 experiment by Eadweard Muybridge, was about horses. And when the movies reached maturity, around the turn of the century, the genre that quickly established itself as the most popular and durable was the Western — a genre that many critics would describe (and not without some truth) as still primarily about horses. There seems to be a fundamental affinity between the movie mechanism and the speed, grace, and force of equine movement. The spectacle of a horse in flight seems to tap the essence of film: the ability to apprehend and poeticize movement on a scale much larger and grander than that available to the proscenium-bound arts of dance and theater.

There is a moment in Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion when the camera goes underwater to capture the title creature in the uncharacteristic act of swimming. As the horse's hooves pierce and divide the water, as the legs jut down and drift slowly back for the next thrust, one has the sensation of seeing the animal function truly — and beautifully — for the first time. It must be the same sensation that Muybridge's primitive film produced: in the slowed motion of cinema, an everyday occurrence is transformed and aestheticized; the movement we take for granted becomes something rich and strange.

Ballard's film (it is his first feature) is about just such transformations — the transformations of film worked not only on horses but on people and places, and even on mud puddles and cigarette smoke. Ballard has selected a subject that cuts to the primal appeal of movies, and he has selected a style that draws on only the most elemental components of film: sound, image, rhythm. His story, taken from a children's novel by Walter Farley, has been barely dramatized. His characters, deliberately, are generalized and vague, and he seems to have enforced a quiet, hesitant style on his players that is barely perceptible as "acting." Instead, he concentrates on the physicality of the filmed moment, on the shades of light, the touch of objects and animals, the sound of wind and rain and fire. Ballard has chosen the most dangerous and contradictory of artistic approaches, that of the self-conscious primitive. He must convince us of the utter simplicity and freshness of everything he does, and he does everything through the most sophisticated technology of New Hollywood filmmaking. That Ballard largely succeeds in making us forget the batteries of lights, the recording equipment, and the long hours of editing needed to produce the impression of spontaneity, of seeing things for the first time, is the surest testament to his talent. At its best, The Black Stallion manages one of the most difficult artistic feats — it rediscovers reality, finding a world apart within our world.

The film begins in a burst of exoticism, placing the audience in the middle of the Mediterranean circa 1947, on board a steamship populated by character types — gamblers, traders, inscrutable Orientals — who could have stepped out of a Warner Bros. spy thriller. A group of men play poker in a smoky, darkened lounge; a middle-aged American in a loud Hawaiian shirt is winning. Meanwhile, his son (Kelly Reno) explores the corridors of the ship. A muffled whinny, the stirrings of some large body, comes from one compartment. The boy approaches cautiously; his offer of a lump of sugar is accepted by a black snout that pushes through a porthole and then disappears.

The black stallion's presence never becomes much more concrete — Ballard's visual style allows it to remain an ideal, a principle of force and speed beyond complete comprehension. By shooting the horse in sections — a head, a back, or a leg will fill the screen — Ballard gives us the pieces of a mythic puzzle, to be assembled, in our own imaginations, into something larger than life. Ballard suggests the whole by its parts: parts that can be photographed, and a whole — because it exists beyond the grasp of the literal image — that can't. When the horse is seen full figure, the shots are carefully backlighted, turning the animal into a jet-black figure against a bright color field. He seems to tear a hole in the screen: stripped of detail and dimension by the backlight, the horse is both there and not there.

As a rule, animal pictures try to humanize their subjects, giving the Lassies and Flickas and Rin Tin Tins a range of emotions — love and loyalty, courage and compassion — that would challenge Sir Laurence Olivier. Ballard, instead, has chosen to abstract his stallion. The horse emerges with the pure form of a Brancusi sculpture, above sentiment and cuddlesomeness. There's something threatening, almost supernatural in its figure, as if the horse were an emissary from another level of existence where primal forces run free. The element of danger gives a keen, exhilarating edge to what might have been the most conventionally cute sequence in the film, in which the boy and the horse find each other on a deserted island after their ship has sunk in a storm. It's an Edenic setting, dripping with greenery and ribboned by white sand. But although Ballard is sometimes guilty of arranging his shots for pure pictorial effect, the sequence never degenerates into mere prettiness. The boy and the horse approach each other with a degree of suspicion; some testing and thinking has to go on before they become friends. And when the tension between them is finally resolved — the boy mounts the horse for a wild ride along the surf — there is no sense of the horse's having been conquered or domesticated. Instead, they seem to reach an understanding based on mutual regard. The horse has condescended to meet the boy; their relationship is privileged, unique.

And then Ballard does an amazing thing. With a quick cut, the action moves back to America — to the medium-sized Midwestern town that is the boy's home. (These scenes were actually filmed in Toronto.) The boy has been rescued; the stallion has come back with him. Yet, even in the abrupt shift from desert-island exoticism to gray urban reality, the aura of privileged feeling continues to glow. It's one thing to whip up a sense of lyrical intensity in the middle of the Mediterranean; it's something else — and much more difficult — to find the same feelings in familiar, prosaic surroundings. But Ballard does, and brilliantly, again using the horse as an agent of magical transformation. Pent up in the backyard of a modest tract house, the stallion dominates and redeems his environment. When the horse takes off, galloping down a tree-lined street, he seems to carry his power with him: the rows of houses and the factories and waste lots and fields all seem newly beautiful as he dashes by them.

The horse leads the boy to a small farm owned by an aging trainer (Mickey Rooney, whose role is a resonant expansion of his part in National Velvet). There, a secret society forms around the stallion — Rooney and the boy are joined by a black junkman (Clarence Muse) and the night watchman of the local racetrack (Ed McNamara) as they prepare the horse for competition. There are a few missteps here: clichés of action and character that haven't been sufficiently reworked, some fake newsreel footage that borders on the cornball. But even the film's most artificial character — a racetrack reporter with a campy delivery and an absurdly large retinue — is redeemed when he provides the premise for one of the film's most elegantly wrought visual effects: a midnight test run in the rain, with horse and rider illuminated by a ring of limousine headlights.

The Black Stallion is, above all, a sensory experience. Ballard doesn't deal in ideas, and he seldom stops long enough to examine the emotions that he's conjured. He doesn't analyze or offer perspectives: instead, his involvement with his material seems almost epicurean; he takes a voluptuous pleasure in textures and colors, gestures and rhythms. Caleb Deschanel, his cinematographer, offers the perfect complement to Ballard's sensibility, drawing warm, burnished tones and delicate shades of light while keeping his images in prickly sharp focus. It's a movie that makes you want to reach out and touch.

The Black Stallion is a perfect movie for families. Its elemental appeal cuts across age lines — anyone can honestly enjoy its layered sounds and rich, seductive images. There's no better film around right now to introduce young children to the imaginative power of movies: for a child who knows only the flat talking-heads style of television, the depth and expansiveness of The Black Stallion could open up a whole new world. And it may well do the same for many adults.

CHAPTER 2

Used Cars

Directed by ROBERT ZEMECKIS {September 1980}

Used Cars is a compilation of dirty jokes, car stunts, strip shows, racial stereotypes, obscene Sunbelt architecture, hammering violence, and the psychic residue of too many nights spent in front of the television set plowing straight from The Late Show through Sea Hunt all the way down to Farm Report. It's the most bumptious, crass, and distasteful comedy of the summer, and it is easily the best.

Used Cars is the work of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, two young writer-directors who got their start when Steven Spielberg backed their I Wanna Hold Your Hand in 1978. A high-pitched, pounding invocation of Beatlemania — watching it was a lot like listening to WLS through headphones with the volume turned all the way up — I Wanna died an inappropriately quiet death at the box office. (If ever a film deserved to go out kicking and screaming, that was it.) Since then, Zemeckis and Gale have gained some notoriety as the screenwriters of Spielberg's 1941, otherwise known as the Black Plague of comedy — a picture distinguished by what is certainly the lowest ratio of laughs obtained per dollar spent in film history. The big news of Used Cars is that 1941 wasn't the fault of Zemeckis and Gale — it was Spielberg's, for trying to make a classy, glossy, pretty film from material that was resolutely, passionately vulgar. It's a mistake that Zemeckis and Gale don't repeat in Used Cars.

Everything here, from the casting to the cinematography, has an ineffable air of the cheap, the ersatz. The lighting is overbright, glaring — all the better to emphasize the nauseous colors of the film's palette: throbbing purples, bilious yellows, polluted sea-greens, pasty pink skin tones. Even the release prints have the dulled, smeary tones redolent of rushed, discount film processing. Nothing could be further from the delicate pastels and shimmering, filtered lighting of 1941. Zemeckis and Gale have mastered the first rule of filmmaking: match the style to the substance.

And the substance of Used Cars is the lowest possible filtrate of American popular culture. Filmed in and around Phoenix, Arizona, the film seems to take place in the final junkyard of Western civilization: Ribbons of smoldering asphalt stretch for miles through arid scrubland, an aching emptiness broken only by occasional clusters of franchise restaurants. Studded throughout the vast, blasted landscape are the rotting hulks of America's highest icons of freedom, democracy, and industry: cars. In a sense, Used Cars is the first post-OPEC comedy, the first film to perceive how treacherously our symbols have turned on us in the past few recessionary, deflationary years. The affordable family car once represented the fruit of American life: unchecked personal mobility, the unlimited flow of material goods, the triumph of free enterprise — the chrome-plated proof that every American could live like a king. But when those symbols won't start, when their tanks run dry, they mock us. Rusting in the driveway, they're like the skull — the memento mori — that Renaissance gentlemen kept on their writing desks: they stare back with intimations of mortality. When the dream car loses its patina, its promise of health, wealth, and happiness, every car becomes a used car — a ton of metal twisting in the sun.

It is an image that's at the center of American life, and Zemeckis and Gale have put that image at the center of Used Cars. Their hero is Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell), chief salesman and driving force of New Deal Used Cars. It's Rudy's job to spin the dream, to turn the two dozen dilapidated vehicles on his lot into chariots, spaceships, dashing stallions. Rudy is cheerfully venal, unctuously dishonest, but his boss, Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) — a gentle, befuddled old man who takes his pleasure in rebuilding engines — puts a limit on Rudy's hustle; he still has delusions of integrity. Since Luke is the only likable character in the film, we know he isn't long for its world. Sure enough, his end comes when his brother Roy (also played by Warden), the owner of the bigger, slicker lot across the street, decides to eliminate his competition by having one of his drivers take the frail, infirm Luke on a heart-stopping test drive. (The sequence is appallingly, wrenchingly tasteless — it goes beyond black humor into something cruel and macabre, with the ferocity of Joe Orton.) Rudy can't report the murder — with Luke dead, he'd be out of a job — so he and his coworkers bury the body in a grease pit, propped at the wheel of an Edsel, and explain that Luke has driven off to Florida for vacation. The lid is off now, and Rudy can get down to business — just in the nick of time, since he has decided to enter politics and needs $60,000, fast, to buy himself a seat in the state senate.

The bluntness of that gag, with its casual link between con man and politician, is symptomatic of Used Cars: we're not dealing with anything as subtle as satire here. Thorough, ongoing corruption is an assumed fact in the film, and Zemeckis and Gale don't offer the bribe with any observational flourish — it's not there to score a satirical point, but simply to impel the action. The brutality of the wit in Used Cars suggests something of Evelyn Waugh — there's no mincing of points, only a relentless, pounding drive — but Used Cars has none of Waugh's moral distance. While satirists traditionally put themselves at a safe remove, peering down at their characters as if they were bugs on a microscope slide, Zemeckis and Gale gleefully bind themselves up in the action. There's no ironic perspective in their approach and so no judgment or outrage; it's satire without contempt, without anger. Used Cars celebrates venality, vulgarity, and banality: in the end, the authors are inseparable from their characters, and it's this lack of a moral center, of any sense of judgment, that gives Used Cars its most original aspect — as well as its queasy, dangerous charm.

An illustration might help to define the film's comic sensibilities (insensibilities?). In the past few years, American cartoons of the thirties, forties, and fifties have taken a tremendous upswing in critical repute: dozens of writers now praise their free-form inventiveness and anarchic wit as root elements of a unique native art. Hence, it is intellectually respectable for Stanley Kubrick to quote from Chuck Jones's Road Runner series in The Shining, and for Spielberg to quote from Disney's Dumbo in 1941. But when Zemeckis and Gale want to quote a cartoon, they allude neither to Jones's elegant fantasies of spatial-temporal displacement nor to Disney's nuanced, naturalistic style. Instead, they pop in a sequence from what must be the last remaining cartoon series that no one has ever made any artistic claims for, Paul Terry's hopelessly lowbrow Heckle and Jeckle. Terry's two crows, pounding each other with mallets, represent the null point in comic timing, imagination, and élan. Used Cars scores its greatest outrage by seizing that level of brute, physical humor — crude, uninflected — and turning it into an ideal. The gags in Used Cars are as tattered, crass, and intentionally second-rate as its subject matter, and they're funny because they are so depressingly familiar. The humor taps into a collective unconscious of half-remembered kiddie shows, situation comedies, and B movies — the dregs of popular culture. There is no other humor to apply to this debased milieu: banality comments on banality, and the whole enterprise is swept up in a giddy, escalating infantilism. At first you don't laugh at all, then you laugh with embarrassment, and finally, after the barriers have been broken down by the film's pure brute force, you laugh at everything. The film tramples on your taste, but the effect is weirdly cathartic, exhilarating.

(Continues…)



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Table of Contents

Foreword by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Introductory Note

Part 1: From Chicago Magazine

The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard)
Used Cars (Robert Zemeckis)
Tess (Roman Polanski)
Westerns
Disney Films
Budd Boetticher
The Mystery of Oberwald (Michelangelo Antonioni)
The French “Tradition of Quality”
The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, by Donald Spoto
Sequels
Jacques Rivette
Boat People (Ann Hui)
L’argent (Robert Bresson)
A Sunday in the Country (Bertrand Tavernier)
Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May)
The Coca-Cola Kid (Dušan Makavejev)
Ran (Akira Kurosawa)
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Home Video

Part 2: From the Top Ten (Reader)

Supervixens (Russ Meyer)
Robin and Marian (Richard Lester)
Islands in the Stream (Franklin J. Schaffner)
Moses and Aaron (Jean-Marie Straub [and Danièle Huillet])
Blue Collar (Paul Schrader)
Luna (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Atlantic City (Louis Malle)
Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
The Legend of Tianyun Mountain (Xie Jin)
Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood)

Part 3: Favorites (Reader)

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Robert Aldrich)
Movie Movie (Stanley Donen)
Saint Jack (Peter Bogdanovich)
Nosferatu (Werner Herzog)
Knife in the Head (Reinhard Hauff)
Macbeth (Orson Welles)
The Woman Next Door (François Truffaut)
Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge)
Gremlins (Joe Dante)

Part 4: Autopsies/Minority Reports

The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan) (Reader)
A Wedding (Robert Altman) (Reader)
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola) (Chicago)
Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton) (Chicago)
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick) (Reader)
Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma) (Reader)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg) (Chicago)
A Passage to India (David Lean) (Chicago)
Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen) (Chicago)
Salvador (Oliver Stone) (Reader)
Afterword

Appendix: Top Ten Lists, 1974–86
Index
 

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