"Illuminating the Shadows" + "When Movies Mattered"

David Hudson

Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus is a free three-day event kicking off this evening at the Block Cinema at Northwestern University when Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips introduces a screening of Errol Morris's Tabloid (2010). The panels start rolling out tomorrow when Nick Davis moderates a discussion of the history of film criticism with Farran Smith Nehme (whom many will know as the Self-Styled Siren), Jonathan Rosenbaum, Fred Camper, Dave Kehr and Gabe Klinger.

Dave Kehr will then introduce a screening of Raoul Walsh's Sailor's Luck (1933). When he presented the film at the Museum of the Moving Image last month, Moving Image Source ran the essay on Walsh that appears in Kehr's new book, When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade: "I can think of no other case of a filmmaker whose work was so widely, and rightly, perceived as important, but yet received so little intelligent attention." We'll get back to the book in a moment, but first, on with the Illuminating schedule.

Scott Foundas will moderate a panel on the current state of film criticism and its possible future. Participants: Michael Phillips, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Karina Longworth, Wesley Morris and Scott Tobias. Karina Longworth will wrap the day with a screening of Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg (2010).

On Saturday, Hank Sartin talks nuts and bolts, i.e., actually writing with the Siren, Ignatiy, Wesley Morris, Scott Foundas and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who'll then intro a screening of Allan Sekula and Noël Burch's The Forgotten Space (2010). The focus then narrows in on Chicago, with local radio host Alison Cuddy talking with Andrea Gronvall, Christy LeMaster, JR Jones, Ben Kenigsberg, Ray Pride, Ben Sachs, Ed M Koziarski and Bill Stamets.

As a film critic for the Chicago Reader, where Dave Kehr was the first staff film critic (from 1976 to 1981), JR Jones reviews When Movies Mattered from a rather unique position: "As a college student in the early 80s and a young wage slave in the city afterward, I picked up the Reader every chance I could get, and his work was a revelation to someone who'd been reared on movie reviews in Time magazine and the Chicago dailies. Here was movie writing so acute, intelligent, committed, and beautiful that one could, with a straight face, actually call it literature." The new book collects "53 of his long reviews from the Reader (and one ringer from Film Comment)" and Jones admits that, having inherited Kehr's job, he may "value the book more than most people, not only for its content but for its example…. Kehr tends to disappear into his prose; his observation about John Carpenter, in a 1978 review of Halloween, seems equally descriptive of his own method: 'Carpenter belongs to the oldest and, I think, finest tradition of American filmmaking, putting the audience first and letting his own quirks enter only later. As a director, he prefers invisibility over the stylistic intrusions favored by most junior auteurs.' Certainly this is a dramatic contrast to Jonathan Rosenbaum, the Reader's other major film critic (from 1987 to 2008). His first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), combined film criticism and autobiography, and throughout his tenure at the Reader he persisted with the strategy of using his own life as a barometer so that he could trace his evolving appreciation of films and filmmakers." In short, Kehr and Rosenbaum "were polar opposites in how they chose to position themselves between the films and their readers." Still, "Readers who know Kehr mainly through his pithy capsule reviews may be surprised by the level of passion in these long pieces, though that passion is always elegantly phrased and modestly subordinated to the filmmaker's designs."

"He wrote reviews, not previews, that were best read after seeing the film." Michael Fox at SF360: "Not so much because Kehr revealed key plot developments — which he did in his excellent piece on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, yet is far more notable for its insightful identification of themes that resurface in the director’s subsequent films — but because he wrote so lucidly about structure, shot selection, editing, color scheme and mise-en-scene…. While most critics look for influences and reference points within genres and across generations, Kehr confined himself to mining a director’s oeuvre…. Given that this collection is drawn from Kehr’s early years, When Movies Mattered is remarkable for avoiding most of the pitfalls of young critics: dogmatic position-staking, gratuitous slagging of established directors, stretched-to-the-breaking-point metaphors, a lack of empathy for situations and life experiences they haven’t encountered. Kehr is a tad earnest, on occasion, but you never doubt he knows what the hell he’s talking about."

"[A]s a thinker with a retrospective turn of mind, Kehr is keenly aware that the business of making and exhibiting movies was changing radically during his first years at the Reader," writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation, "and that the business of publishing ideas about movies (and so encouraging conversation among a general audience) began to undergo its own drastic change within a few years of his leaving that paper a decade later. He accordingly introduces When Movies Mattered as though it were a chronicle left by a vanished civilization — which may only slightly exaggerate the situation. Running through these remarkable critical essays, in murmurs and asides that went half-noticed at the time, are uneasy observations about the course movie culture was then taking. It was a period, Kehr writes, 'of tumult and possibility.' A gentlemanly phrase, it casts a discreet silence over his opinion of how those possibilities turned out."

"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." Miriam Bale introduces an interview for the L. R Emmet Sweeney interviews him as well for TCM. Also, if you haven't caught up with Daniel Kasman and David Phelps's conversation with Kehr, consider this a reminder. Meantime, Girish Shambu has excerpted "a few favorite passages" from When Movies Mattered.

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CriticismDave KehrRaoul WalshChicagoNews
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