Dave Kehr

In a little less than 30 years of work as a film critic, Dave Kehr has run through the roster of American press outlets: beginning with a student newspaper (The Maroon), a regional weekly (The Chicago Reader, where he worked from 1974 to 1985), and then a Chicago-based daily (The Chicago Tribune, where he worked from 1986 to 1992). His move to New York in the early ’90s, undertaken as part of a revamping of the tabloid New York Daily News, proved to be something of a disaster: his editors there treated him with open contempt, eventually firing him towards the end of 1998. While he’s one of the American critics with the best understanding of visual style, Kehr’s work survives mostly in rather ephemeral form: his capsule reviews for The Chicago Reader, readily available on their website , are his most accessible. (Several of his excellent longer reviews for that paper were re-printed in anthologies published by the National Society Of Film Critics.) At present, he writes for a variety of outlets: the website Citysearch, The New York Times (both impersonal profiles every other Friday and relatively solid pieces for their Sunday Arts & Leisure section) and Film Comment. This interview, conducted at a Manhattan café in June, seemed like a fine opportunity to discuss the changes in the landscape of journalism and film culture since the early ’70s: as one can see from the following answers, his current views on both are rather melancholy.

– SE

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S: Was the Chicago Reader the first paper you wrote for?

D: No, actually I started out writing for the University of Chicago student paper. It was called The Maroon. One of the perks of being the president of the film society (Doc Films, a program that began in the ’30s and continues now) was that you got to be the film critic of The Maroon. So that saved … I don’t know … movies in those days were three dollars. I wasn’t making any money from it, but I probably saved twelve dollars a week.

S: Were you aware of the Doc Films series as a teenager?

D: Yeah, that was one of the reasons I wanted to come to the University of Chicago. I could go there [the Univ of Chicago] and see 7 or 8 films a week at Doc Films and in the rest of my time, do something I thought might open doors, like studying English.

S: Would you have taken Cinema Studies in college had that option been available?

D: I would today, but at the time there weren’t many interesting ones. There wasn’t even a film course per se at the University of Chicago, just an English professor who taught a course on Westerns every once in a while. That was about it. They’ve only really had a department in the past two years, when they hired Tom Gunning and a few other people, and I’d imagine they’re still under the English department’s banner.

S: Were you the first film critic at the Chicago Reader?

D: Not by any stretch. I’m probably the third or fourth. Myron Meisel was the first one. He left when he graduated and went to Harvard. There were a couple other Doc Films people. [The Reader tended to hire writers from Doc Films and The Maroon. –SE] The Reader called my editor one day at The Maroon to ask if I’d be interested in doing something for them at 5 dollars a week. That was 5 dollars more than I was getting at The Maroon, so it was fine with me!

S: So it wasn’t a full-time job at first?

D: Not at all. I began there when I was an undergraduate. When I graduated, they offered me a job as a staff writer at the Reader. I got one of the first staff positions. The Reader was only 3 or 4 years old at that point. It started around 1971 or 1972

S: Even now, it’s pretty remarkable that they’ll run something of the length of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of The Circle. When you were there, did you have any space problems?

D: It was really a ‘writers’ first’ paper, pretty much modeled on the old New Yorker where if you had something to say, they didn’t care how much space it took. The ‘want ads’ [ads placed by employers looking for workers or people looking for dates. – ed] were paying for the paper anyway. They’ve continued that, and Jonathan has really prospered in that format. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t even know how to use it. The Village Voice gives Jim [Hoberman] about 1200-1500 words, which is not much more than I get at the New York Times. And the understanding is that he covers three or four films in that space.

S: What pieces from the period at the Reader are you most proud of?

D: That’s the wrong question to ask. Once I write something, I don’t like to look at it again.

S: Looking over your annual Top 10 lists, I notice a somewhat apologetic tone in the earlier ones [Kehr’s lists for the Reader can be read here, some of which are quite extensive. –SE]

D: I don’t like making them. I know film buffs are supposed to love them. Jonathan, again, loves making them. I never really have. The point of grading films on that scale escapes me. It’s one of those journalistic conventions I’ve got to play along with, so I did.

S: Have you ever tried to put together an anthology of your pieces from that period at the Reader or from your work published in Film Comment?

D: I’ve been asked about it, and I really don’t have the patience or the urge to go back and look at them. Maybe someday, but not right now.

S: Are you pursuing any book projects at present?

D: One thing I’m currently working on is a project with the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA): a picture book on Italian movie posters of the ’40s and ’50s. Writing a big film book doesn’t attract me that much. I like writing in small spurts.

S: You expressed some fairly extreme auteurist positions at the Chicago Reader, like putting Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976) and The Human Factor (Otto Preminger, 1979) at or near the top of your Top 10 lists. Do you still agree with them?

D: The Human Factor is a great film. Family Plot is not, but it’s worth taking seriously, which it wasn’t at the time; placing it at number one on my list was a way of doing that. There’s a guy out in Chicago who’s put together a list of all my lists, and with the exception of The Left-Handed Woman (Peter Handke, 1977), which I saw recently and don’t like anymore, I still agree with them. I might not put the films in that order, but I don’t think they’re wrong.

S: There were also some extreme negative opinions, like listing Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) and Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975) among the worst films of 1975.

D: I think history would support me on Altman. He hasn’t made anything interesting since before Nashville. I go back and forth on Kubrick. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) left me pretty cold, and Barry Lyndon fell into that category. There’s a mystical appreciation for Kubrick that I don’t quite get.

S: Was the Tribune sort of a halfway step between the Reader and the Daily News?

D: I certainly didn’t think of it that way at the time. The Reader was a great place, but I couldn’t afford to work there when I was 35 years old. It was definitely time to move on to a more grown-up job, one where I could make enough money to live without a roommate and with more comfort. That’s pretty much impossible at alternative newspapers. I don’t think I really changed my opinions, just how I phrased them. As far as I know, I’m the same “extremist auteurist” that I was.

S: I noticed that you stopped putting undistributed films on your Top 10 lists from the Chicago Tribune.

D: Yeah, that was a decision my editors made. So I made a separate list for undistributed films. I guess I did that up until the end, but that was never a possibility at the Daily News, where I had far, far less space than at the Tribune. I walked into a disaster there, having been recruited by a really smart person who was actually called the culture editor. This was after Mort Zuckerman took over. I think he wanted to impress his friends at the Hamptons with what a classy newspaper he had. It lasted about 6 months, and practically everyone else got fired. For some reason, they kept me on. I lasted 5 years in a job I really hated.

S: So your period of grace only lasted about 6 months? From what I’ve read of your work at the Tribune, it seems as personal as the rest of your work, just in a more mainstream style.

D: Well, I always consider who my audience is when I write. At the Tribune, I tried to write about movies for a general audience in an entertaining and informative way. My editors would not always agree that I had succeeded.

S: Unfortunately, that seems less and less the case in the U.S. It seems harder to write for dailies without writing down for one’s audience. Writing for people who don’t necessarily share your cultural references without condescension is a hard balance to strike, but few people are even trying.

D: My experience lately has been that editors don’t want “experts.” “Populism” has become the buzzword, although it means something completely different from what these people think it means. They want standard Joes who won’t have some “pointy-headed” reaction and just want to flop out on the couch before movies or TV. It’s this American leveling tendency at its worst, where the sense that you can bring any kind of knowledge or experience to the subject matter is the last thing editors want. In fact, they find it disturbing and intimidating. The New York Times is one of the few exceptions in America.

S: I like Serge Daney’s term “passeur” to describe what the ideal film critic should be.

D: It’s a nice metaphor, especially when you’ve got to give people something in the guise of something else. You’ve got to be a smuggler to get anything vaguely intellectual past editors, or they’ll cut it out and make your life miserable. “Populism” boils down to the attitude that “our readers are morons, let’s treat ’em that way.” That was the attitude at the Daily News: undisguised contempt for their readers.

S: The frustrating thing about your tenure at the Daily News is that your tastes were a lot less extreme than Rosenbaum or Hoberman. You would treat In & Out (Frank Oz, 1998) and Taste Of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997) as equals.

D: Well, I don’t think In & Out is a great film but I really enjoyed it. If there’s any ethical principle I uphold, it’s what Bazin said: “all films are created equal.” I’ve been let down by Ingmar Bergman frequently, and I expect great things from Robert Zemeckis.

S: But it’s sad that an editor wouldn’t have some sort of respect for that openness.

D: They didn’t understand it. They never see these films [like Taste Of Cherry], they don’t care about them and no one on the subway is talking about them. After a while, it became a big fight to give foreign and independent films any mention at all in the Daily News. They whittled us down to these tiny one-paragraph reviews, which I insisted on doing out of duty. They would’ve been perfectly happy to drop them, and I’d probably still be there if I did. Not that I want to still be there.

S: I’ve also heard that they were shocked by your putting Through The Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994) at number one on your 1995 Top 10 list.

D: Well, that’s what you get. You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in. I was relieved when the occasional big-budget Hollywood film that’s actually good would come along, like Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) or Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994). That was one of the few times I didn’t get yelled at, but you can’t invent them. This is a very bad period for Hollywood films. If I did a 10 Best list this year, I don’t think any would be on there at all. Swordfish (Dominic Sena, 2001) is an example of the kind of bread-and-butter film that used to be really interesting in the U.S., and now it’s completely worthless.

S: At the Chicago Reader, did you feel like you were coming in at the last moment of the classical Hollywood period?

D: That was very obvious. All those guys were on their last movies or trying to get one out before they died. The ’70s look much better in retrospect, because at the time, all notions of craft seemed to go out the window. You would see ugly zooms and framing in every film. A few of them have now floated to the top, but a steady diet of those films was not much more fun than a steady diet of ’90s films.

S: You’ve talked in your essay in Citizen Sarris about how much Sarris influenced you. Did any other critics have as much impact?

D: In college, I learned French and started reading the Cahiers guys. Not just Cahiers, but Positif as well. They taught me that writing about mise en scène was worth doing, not just plot summaries or writing about actors. Writing about the things that make a movie a movie, I learned all of that from Sarris and the French.

S: Was Manny Farber an influence at all?

D: No, he was an interesting writer and a great phrasemaker, but I don’t know what he’s talking about half the time. I came to him pretty late, when my sensibility was already formed. Farber was out of print for a long time, as dog-eared copies of Negative Space were passed around. Jonathan and Jim both love him, but he’s never had that much to say to me.

S: It’s difficult to be influenced by him, because when I’ve read people try to imitate him, it usually comes off terribly.

D: I know a few people who have tried to do it, and it’s pretty embarrassing. It’s such a distinctive voice, and it’s also a ’50s voice. Coming out of a 35-year-old guy in the 21st century, it’s silly.

S: Do you have as much “love” for Pauline Kael as most of the Sarris camp?

D: I used to see her once in a while. She was very entertaining and charismatic, with an amazing sense of humor. You could certainly see her charm. As a critic, I’ve rarely agreed with her judgment or her approach. In some ways, she did a lot of harm. Oddly, her influence has become all the more present after she retired, as her acolytes have spread all over. It’s the same voice: mildly amused, a little condescending, seeing “trashy” and “sexy” as the highest praise you can give. That’s the tone editors want. There’s nothing too intimidating about it. It’s kind of sarcastic, hip and glib.

S: She’s better as a prose stylist than a thinker.

D: She’s a damn good writer. Is she a thinker? I don’t know. She described acting styles better than anyone I’ve ever read. But I’ve never seen her dig any ideas out of a movie or dig into its structure beyond “I like this guy and I don’t like this guy.”

S: At Citysearch, are you frustrated by the lack of space?

D: Writing capsules has its own satisfaction. I enjoyed it even at the Reader. Citysearch is a little too structured for me, because they want two sentences of plot description and two sentences of opinion. It takes just as long to write that as a 500-word piece for the Times, because I have to cram all this information there and still have it read smoothly. And recent movies have not been so interesting that I’m dying to have 1,000 words to write about Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001) or Save The Last Dance (Thomas Carter, 2001). 150 words on them is a strain.

S: Do you think there’s much likelihood that a book like The American Cinema could have the same cultural impact today or resonate as something more than the expression of just one person’s taste?

D: I don’t think you could do that book now, because no one has a career anymore that’s conducive to that kind of analysis. Stars and executives run the show, and directors are hired on the basis of how well they can adapt a script. The studio wants someone to shoot exactly what’s on the page. How many times have we seen the pattern where someone has a hit at Sundance, then gets hired by Disney to make two anonymous genre films and they’re gone?

S: And as Geoffrey Gilmore pointed out in another Citizen Sarris essay, a director like Todd Solondz has made only four films, yet he’s already being treated as if his voice was written in stone.

D: There’s this desperation to find auteurs. Hal Hartley? Suddenly, this guy’s a worldwide name just because he’s managed to make half a dozen films which no one’s that crazy about. The machine needs people to promote and hold up as examples. I’m just as disenchanted with American indies as studio films. At least with studio stuff, you know what you’re getting. There’s no self-righteousness to it. After five days at Sundance, you just want to kill yourself after all these preachy, smug films with good liberal values but no cinematic interest whatsoever. I’d rather go to Show West [a trade convention held in Las Vegas by the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theater Owners, which showcases trailers of upcoming Hollywood releases to theatre owners. – SE] than Sundance at this point.

S: Do you think there’s much likelihood that Asian films could fill the gap in terms of a cinema that’s both relatively populist and good?

D: It looked like that for a fairly long time. I’m not sure how it’s turning out.

S: I’m afraid that American companies are going to spend a fortune on Asian films that they expect to make $120 million, and when they bomb, there will be a huge backlash.

D: Well, that’s already started. Sony really tried to sell Time & Tide (Tsui Hark, 2000), and it didn’t work. Nothing’s gonna repeat the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000). That was a fluke that happened to take place at the right time. What was great about ’80s Hong Kong films was that they weren’t campy or ironic. They really believed in their stories and characters. That’s fading very quickly. There’s practically nobody left in Hong Kong except Johnnie To who’s still making that kind of stuff. His films are becoming more self-conscious, but they’re not just riffs set up to allow some comic to blast away. He’s doing what Don Siegel was doing in the ’60s: taking a fairly well defined genre, denaturing it and seeing what’s left. I wish John Woo would go back, but I don’t think there’s much of an industry to return to.