Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dave Kehr's Book

Dave Kehr’s first book has just appeared. Published by University of Chicago Press, it’s titled “When Movies Mattered,” and collects his criticism from a ten-year period spanning the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘80s, when he worked at the Chicago Reader. It’s a wonderful read.

I admire Kehr for many reasons. He’s a marvelous writer with a clear and elegant prose style and a bone-dry wit. He also has the all-too-rare talent of gathering the insights of cinema scholarship (especially in film history and film style) and bringing them in a lucid and stimulating fashion to a large non-specialist readership. Without announcing it as such, he performs an invaluable pedagogical activity in the New York Times DVD column each week — and in the pages of this collection.

To give you a flavor for the pieces in the book, let me excerpt a few favorite passages. The first is from a review of Cassavetes’ Love Streams:

The history of film is in some ways also a history of the repression of emotion. The actors in silent films used the whole of the body as an expression of feeling: gestures were large, movements broad and rhythmic, the eyes and mouth were exaggerated by makeup and by the orthochromatic photography into emotional signs of a startling directness. Sound films diminished the importance of the body, focusing expressiveness on the voice. And when, after the war, the first modernist films appeared—those of Bresson, Tati and Antonioni—the voice lost its primacy, too: emotion eluded words; it became concentrated in the actor’s regard, in the silent exchange of looks. The refinement and repressiveness of modernism continues to define the dominant film styles—it’s our generation’s index of realism, just as extravagance was “real” for the filmgoers of the teens and early 20s. Pop melodramas like Kramer vs. Kramer fake the placid surfaces of L’Avventura; comedies—notably Ghostbusters—are built on a hip detachment carried to an absurd degree.

John Cassavetes stands outside this history. His actors are full-bodied, demonstrative, and his camera doesn’t back off from them: there is an emotional intensity in his films, a readiness always to go too far, that can be embarrassing, intimidating, for some audiences. And because Cassavetes couches his emotional extravagance within the traditional signs of realism—location shooting, long takes, a grainy documentary quality to the image—many audiences feel betrayed by his films: they present themselves as “real,” but this isn’t the reality of other movies. Cassavetes is compelled to expose, expand, to apotheosize emotion; it is no wonder then that he is consistently drawn to themes of breakdown and madness—the only way the contemporary cinema can assimilate emotions of Cassavetes’ size is to characterize them as insanity.

On the way in which Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria “answers” his earlier film 10 in terms of theme and style:

The difference between the two films is registered in Edwards’ choice of lenses. 10 was a long-lens movie, using a telescopic compression of space to express the essence of romantic fantasy: in Dudley Moore’s subjective gaze, equated with the long lens, Bo Derek was always brought closer to him, made larger than life and isolated against a shallow, fuzzy background. The long lens emphasizes the authority of objects and individuals over the environment; it picks things out from a context, giving them an artificial size and an artificial independence. But the long lens is limited by its inability to grasp anything other than surfaces—it has no depth, no penetrating power, but only a worshipful abjection before the glittering face of things. It imposes a closeness that isn’t there, closing gaps mechanically. But it can only bring surface close to surface; it can’t describe the deeper attractions between characters, can’t sound their harmonies.

Victor/Victoria is a short-lens movie; it uses the wide-angle viewpoint to place the characters in a physical setting, describing their precise spatial relations to the people and décor around them. The short lens makes connections where connections exist, photographing the ways people position themselves and react to each other. And where there aren’t any connections, only the short lens can show the emptiness between characters, the psychological spaces that separate them. With a sensitive director, the composition in depth made possible by short lenses is a way of seeing in depth; spatial arrangements become emotional, moral, philosophical constellations.

The opening paragraph from his review of Oliveira’s Francisca:

I no longer try to reconcile my love for Hollywood with my taste for the structuralist-minimalist-materialist avant-garde, though for a long time it struck me as schizophrenic that I could be deeply moved by the high Hollywood illusionism of a Frank Borzage melodrama one evening and transported just as far the next night by Jean-Marie Straub’s endless pans in Too Early, Too Late. There is a lot of aesthetic ground between Borzage’s glowing, soft-focus close-ups of Margaret Sullavan and Straub’s decision to mount a camera on the dashboard of a Citroën and drive around the Place de la Bastille for 20 minutes without a cut. Yet as time passes these contradictions don’t seem quite as contradictory. In the politicized atmosphere of film criticism in the 70s, it was too often a question of making a choice: you could be a modernist or a classicist, an innovator or a preservationist, a materialist or an idealist, but never both. In the exhausted 80s, however, the points of contact seem more visible, the battle much less heated. Straub, for example is a great admirer of John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, a film that stands stylistically, thematically, and ideologically at the other end of the spectrum from Too Early, Too Late. What we have been missing is a classically trained director who can admit his points of contact with the modern cinema. With the emergence of the 75-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira we have one at last.

On Raúl Ruiz's City of Pirates:

I read in the papers that we’re living in a great period of fantasy films, made possible by the tremendous breakthroughs in special effects technology and the soaring imaginations of a new generation of American filmmakers. But scratch a Star Wars or a Close Encounters and what you find is the same old realism: a linear, cause-and-effect story line, characters defined by perfectly conventional psychologies, a visual style still based on the Renaissance norms of “natural” perspective. In their story-telling techniques, these films couldn’t be more naturalistic; the fantastic intrudes only at the level of content, in the more or less standardized form of slobbering monsters, super-powered heroes, and sleek spaceships. If this is fantasy, it looks awfully familiar.

The only real maker of fantasy films I know is the Chilean-born director Raul Ruiz, who now lives in France as a political exile and makes his movies in a bewildering number of countries and languages. He makes them quickly, too—an average of two or three features a year, plus half a dozen short films and documentaries. Though Ruiz’s films are full of ghosts and mysterious happenings (all executed, charmingly and effectively, through essentially the same range of camera tricks that Georges Méliès invented at the turn of the century), what makes them fantastic isn’t their content, but their style. His fantasies take off from the narrative conventions that most filmmakers (and audiences) accept instinctively. Where a Spielberg will ask, “What would happen if a spaceman came to earth?” Ruiz’s “what ifs” are predicated on forms; they are at once more bold, more fundamental to the medium, and more elusive. There is a moment in City of Pirates […] when a character complains of a toothache. As he points out the afflicted area, the camera moves to a position inside his mouth, shooting out from between his open jaws. The shot is a joke on the Hollywood convention of impossible camera angles, the archetypal example being the camera that peers out at a pair of lovers from within the depths of a fireplace. This kind of shot is disturbing, even in its cliché form, because of the attention it draws to the bulk—the physical fact—of the camera. In a conventional realist style, the fact of the camera is always hidden; we are not supposed to feel it there, but to identify its point of view with a sort of free-floating omnipotence—a mysterious, unseen, almost godlike presence. The fireplace shot violates a taboo: it points to the profane physicality of the sacred object that is the camera by denying it too ostentatiously. Obviously, the camera could not be where it is if this were a real fireplace and the actors were real people. The shot comes dangerously close to overturning the naturalistic code of narration that the Hollywood cinema is built on, but for some reason we accept it—perhaps because the space the camera is violating is only a physical space. Ruiz’s shot is shocking—and shockingly funny—because it violates a spiritual, psychological space: the space of the human head, where the mind and the soul are supposed to reside. The Exorcist notwithstanding, Ruiz’s shot is the most vivid image of possession I’ve ever encountered. A foreign presence is, very literally, occupying a human body, and in the act of penetrating the flesh, the camera is transformed from benign, invisible sprite to rampaging demon. The shot is a throwaway, over in a second. But as the story unfolds, we encounter other possessed characters: two policemen who can swap spirits (and voices) by kissing each other on the cheek, a man living alone on a rocky island who is occupied by the half dozen personalities of his mysteriously missing family.

A whole series of transformations is involved here, and the way in which it progresses is a vivid illustration of the workings of Ruiz’s imagination. A narrative event (the toothache) produces a formal event (the shot). The shot is then analyzed for the story elements it might contain, producing the idea of possession. Finally, the theme of possession is incorporated into the overall narrative, producing a plot—a plot of which the toothache is a part. This interpenetration of form and content—this endless circulation, really, of form into story into form into story—is the basis of Ruiz’s cinema. As nonlinear as his narratives are, they unfold smoothly and continuously—and, in a sense, coherently—because they are bound together by this underlying network of transformations and associations.

* * *

A few links to recent reading:

-- Dave has an essay on Raoul Walsh in the book; it is now available at Moving Image Source. At MUBI, David Phelps and Danny Kasman sit down with him for a podcast conversation. Also: Dave talks at some length about Walsh in this recent interview with Miriam Bale.

-- Several pieces by Robin Wood at Film International including "Against and For Irreversible" and "Claire Denis: Cinema of Transgression": part one; and part two, which I linked to a few weeks ago in the post on "Difficult Cinema."

-- Along with several others, Farran Smith Nehme will be taking part in Northwestern University's Film Criticism conference this month.

-- At Andy Rector's: a 1978 interview with Serge Daney.

-- The brand-new NYC-based film website Alt Screen, founded by Paul Brunick. Among the contributing editors are Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Jim Emerson, and Nathan Lee.

-- Zach Campbell: "The Lights".

-- Michael Guillen interviews Todd Haynes about Mildred Pierce (2011).

-- At MUBI: David Phelps on films by Claude Lanzmann, Thomas Harlan and Robert Kramer.

-- Links to several recent pieces at Chris Fujiwara's website--on Takamine Hideo, Nina Menkes, and the Viennale.

-- At the website for the Visible Evidence conference, to be held at NYU in August, Brian Winston has a memorial post to Richard Leacock.

pic: Raúl Ruiz's City of Pirates (1983)


Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I found Dave's evocation of the glory days of the University of Chicago's DOC Films (of which I was a later member) in his introduction especially vivid. Any former DOC folks owe it to themselves to read it. I've been reading the other entries with pleasure as well. But a smallish point: I can see why you would call this his first book, but he is also, previously, the author of ITALIAN FILM POSTERS (published by MoMA in 2005): it could be viewed, I suppose, as more of a picture-book (or, technically, exhibition catalog), but Dave's text is (unsurprisingly) sharp and informative.

April 10, 2011 9:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Corey, I'd forgotten all about the Italian posters book, which I've only heard about, never seen or read. Now I'm curious to hunt it down.

April 10, 2011 9:28 PM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

I also did an interview with Mr. Kehr that went up at TCM's Movie Morlocks blog last week. There is a little overlap with the other two, but I think it's still worthwhile:

I'm looking forward to digging into that Robin Wood article on Claire Denis...

April 11, 2011 1:51 AM  
Blogger girish said...

R. Emmet, thank you for that! Let me post a clickable link to your interview here.

April 11, 2011 8:13 AM  
Blogger Mizoguchi said...

Girish, thank you very much for your kind mention. Let me just say that I find your blog invaluable both for your insights and as a most useful window for this non-academic into the very important work going on outside the MSM.



April 11, 2011 10:41 AM  
Blogger girish said...

You're most welcome, Dave. We look forward to your future book projects.

April 11, 2011 10:52 AM  
Blogger steevee said...

It seems to me that the generation of American directors who emerged in the late '60s and early '70s, about whom Kehr was somewhat skeptical, are the equivalents for my generation of critics and cinephiles
of classical Hollywood directors for Kehr. I can picture a grumpy thirtysomething auteurist turning Kehr's FAMILY PLOT review on its head and writing that SHUTTER ISLAND or TETRO shows that even second-rate Scorsese or Coppola is superior to first-rate Fincher or Aronofsky.

April 11, 2011 10:13 PM  
Blogger ExperimentoFilm said...

Nice to see City of Pirates getting a little exposure. Here's an interesting thread about it from last year.

April 12, 2011 10:05 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

It's interesting to note that this book is one of a series being put out by this publisher of previously published articles by prominent critics - and, in the case of two other books in the series (Rosenbaum and Bordwell/Thompson), the material was either written for the web or is available on-line for free. Some have remarked the seemingly counter-intuitive nature of this from a marketing point of view and no doubt other publishers are watching with interest.

It also seems to go against the trend of free content in a noticeable way - in some of these cases, currently free content is being packaged and sold (note that I have absolutely no criticism of the endeavour or of any of the parties involved - on this score anyway, I'm still waiting to hear back from Bordwell about découpage, which he strangely hasn't found time to discuss on his blog - and take my hat off to anyone who can sell interesting content).

It would seem however that the larger trend is not just for people to get their reading material free on the web, but that book publishing itself has entered the age that the music industry entered a decade or so ago, giving us the now almost extinct CD today. There was an interview with the head of Canada's chain of bookstores (Chapters/Indigo) in the business pages of a daily newspaper (remember those?) the other day, in which she described seeing the writing on the wall and beginning to take the necessary steps now to keep her bookstores open once books no longer account for most of her sales (think point-of-sale trinkets, only now throughout the store, and a proprietary e-book reader sold on-line)!

The owner of a small, independent bookstore here in Montreal (new books, not used) told me yesterday that publishers are now simply giving books away. He ordered 75 copies of a textbook for a class with an enrolment of 100. Sold 12. A student told him: 'oh, that's because it's free'. 'You mean pirated?' (Huge market these days for pirated textbooks) No, free: I forget the discipline, but Cambridge UP was simply giving the book away on its web site, apparently with the rationale that if they didn't someone else would, or would pirate it. (My impression is that it was a very expensive 'reader'-style textbook, probably in the $100 range.) And so books, like everything else in the global economy, are suffering from overproduction and underconsumption (at least in the capitalist industrial West), and have entered that voodoo economics phase of production and distribution when they're given away - like opening a bank account and getting a free car. Oh well, maybe if your bank gives you a book instead, it will keep the industry afloat.

April 13, 2011 7:26 AM  
Anonymous Will S said...

I just read the introduction to Kehr's book on Google Books, and frankly I'm disappointed to see him fall back on the same tired dismissal of academic Film Studies as "full-bore academia, with its dense, uninviting thickets of theoretical jargon." Rejections of (or all-out indifference to) academia like this remain oddly common in even cinephile circles, something I've really begun to find frustrating and sort of dispiriting.

I'm reminded of a great column by Olaf Moller in Cinema-Scope, in which he proudly announces his intent to avoid the English language bias found in most similar film magazines: "There are a lot of interesting books published in many different languages, and, thanks to the internet, it’s by now pretty easy to get them. And if you don’t know the languages, that’s your problem."

What is "theoretical jargon" but a language that can be productively learned? What's especially strange about Kehr's (and some other cinephiles') antipathy is that the contemporary filmmakers they apparently esteem are in most cases assuredly fluent in this sort of 'jargon.' Jia Zhang-ke majored in Film Theory at the Beijing Film Academy, Ruiz lectures at the University of Aberdeen, etc. (examples drawn randomly from Kehr's intro). Take a look at the European Graduate School's faculty list ( it's directors like Chantal Akerman and Claire Denis lecturing alongside Judith Butler and Jacques Ranciere, etc. How can someone reject Theory absolutely and then still presume to capably navigate these sorts of films?

I'm actually a fan of Kehr's column (and read his blog regularly), but it's depressing to read him describe his reviews as "in hopeless isolation from ideology," obviously parodying academia's interest in political-economic contexts and structures of power.

I was too young to read Kael in the New Yorker, but that honestly isn't something that bothers me--I get almost nothing from her reviews (or those of her disciples). Why should I bemoan our culture's loss of wordier New Yorker-style 'criticism'?

April 13, 2011 3:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for those thoughts, Caboose and Will.

April 16, 2011 5:37 AM  
Blogger gcgiles said...

I agree that Kehr is a little too dismissive of film theory, but I think this is understandable given the climate within which he wrote these reviews, a climate he alludes to in the F for Fake review: "the temptation is too great to promote structuralism and semiotics (as subjects, not as disciplines) to a privileged place in film, given the failure of the 70s to produce much else of interest in the wider sphere." This is quite disparaging and not specific enough (doesn't Derridean theory at this time critique post-Saussurean structuralism, for example?), but Kehr is a gifted close reader in a theoretical world that mistrusts close readings, so I can understand his slight hostility.

I really enjoyed this collection, particularly his reviews of Days of Heaven and The Flowers of St. Francis. He can be quite lyrical at times, using anaphoric rhetoric to capture, for example, the elemental power of Malick's film. And the latter really captures the Christian organicism of Rossellini's film, marking the contrast with Bresson's more "ascetic" work.

All in all, quite sophisticated for the review format.

April 19, 2011 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

'The 1970s failed to produce much else of interest in the wider sphere'? I haven't read that piece by Dave yet (I am looking forward to getting the book) but, out of context, that sure is a head-scratcher ...

April 20, 2011 6:41 AM  
Blogger Gregory said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 20, 2011 9:19 PM  
Blogger gcgiles said...

I think Kehr is reacting to what he perceives as the dominance of ontological questions among filmmakers who wrestle with the problem of representation on film (somehow, the shell game of F for Fake is counter to the "sophistry" of other "experimental filmmakers" in the 70s). Perhaps it is just a criticism of filmmakers who are working from a strictly conceptual basis, but, again, I don't think he is that clear; it reads more like a sweeping dismissal or a put-down. These days, I get the feeling Kehr doesn't want to get embroiled in this debate anymore, judging by a recorded interview I listened to recently. Then again, Will S above cites the introduction, in which Kehr appears to be just as antipathetic today toward all things theory. It's hard to say.

Of course, the reviews are meant to be polemical, however lacking in critical rigor, and this accounts for much of the pleasure I experienced reading them. They have some bite and quite a few of them are beautifully written!

April 20, 2011 9:25 PM  
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April 23, 2011 9:19 AM  
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April 23, 2011 9:21 AM  

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