Thursday, July 11, 2013

WHEN MOVIES MATTERED—The Film International Interview With Dave Kehr

Photo courtesy of John Von Pamer
In his contribution to Project: New Cinephilia, Chris Fujiwara quoted Shigehiko Hasumi, film critic and president emeritus of Tokyo University: "At the beginning of the 21st century, the profession of film critic is quasi-fictional."

Without question, shifting from fact to fiction can wear on the most intrepid of film critics, but—equally without question—Dave Kehr has admirably weathered the evolving shifts in his profession over the past four decades, earning him the distinct privilege of looking back on a life intimately related to cinema. Starting off as a student member of Doc Films at the University of Chicago, Kehr moved on to become the resident reviewer at Chicago's alternative weekly The Reader, then The Tribune, and eventually the New York Times. With the University of Chicago publication of When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade, it seemed the appropriate time to look back.

My thanks to Jacob Mertens for granting permission to reprint this piece—originally published in Film International (Vol. 9, No. 5)—to time with Dave Kehr's participation with Pacific Film Archive's ongoing retrospective "A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh." Kehr contributes to the series, first in a conversation with San Francisco film critic Michael Fox, preceding an archival print screening of Wild Girl (1932); next, in a booksigning and discussion preceding a new print screening of The Lawless Breed (1953); and, finally, by way of introduction to Walsh's "noir-Western" Pursued (1947).

* * *

Michael Guillén: In your conversation with Danny Kasman and David Phelps at MUBI you stressed that you didn't want to overemphasize the embedded polemic in the title of your recent collection of long form reviews originally written for the Chicago Reader: When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade.

Dave Kehr: Well, yeah. That was something we came up with out of desperation.

Guillén: Yet the title works; it provokes questions. You explained that the title references a somewhat reactionary stance to the auteurist wars of the time, namely the mid-'70s to mid-'80s, a period which you later described to R. Emmett Sweeney as "a polemical moment." Auteurist wars aside—because I imagine you're tired of repeatedly talking about them—can you speak to how movies matter to you now? Because surely they still matter to you?

Kehr: Oh, of course. I never feel that I even scratch the surface of all I'm interested in. The real difference is that nobody wants to fight about it anymore. There was a time when there were enough good movies around that you could actually have a range of opinion. Now, there's so little of interest out there. Back then, you could choose between, say, Blake Edwards and Robert Altman whereas now people like Robert Altman just because there's so little competition.

Guillén: I'm curious about your assertion that movies are no longer "central to the cultural discourse" as they once were? Why do you believe that?

Kehr: Movies have succumbed to a process of normalization.

Guillén: Have they truly lost their "tumult and possibility"? Are you saying that the range of ways in which films can affect audiences has lessened?

Kehr: If we're talking about commercial films, marketing departments have taken over so much of how films are made. Films aren't made unless they have an advertising campaign in mind, unless they have the demographics figured out, unless focus groups and marketing studies tailor the movie to a certain set of expectations. That produces a useless product that has no personality and that tries to please as many people as possible. That's no way to make anything interesting.

Guillén: This has long struck me as the Faustian bargain inherent in filmmaking: the tension between art and commerce. It's hardwired into the practice of making movies. I'm fascinated that this tension has never been resolved and that, perhaps obviously, marketing has gained the advantage.

Kehr: That's certainly my feeling. It's always been a question of art and commerce and filmmakers making their work within a system. Most of the guys who did it best didn't think of themselves as artists at all. They were comfortable working within the system and the commercial requirements of the time. Whether they had to fly under the radar or not so that the front office didn't really notice what they were doing, or whether they didn't really care, now filmmakers have to submit their work to gain approval. There's so much negotiation and compromise required beforehand and it's harder to get your vision on the screen.

Guillén: Donald Brown has suggested in his New Haven Advocate review of When Movies Mattered that the polemic one is tempted to tease out of that title is a bit misleading. "When, exactly," Brown writes, "did films matter? It seems they mattered when what was said about them mattered." He suggests a better title might have been When Movie Reviews Mattered.

Kehr: [Chuckles.] Yeah! Well, I guess what mattered was that people were talking about movies. They were a cultural contact for a lot of different people. Movies were something everybody was sort of excited about whereas now I don't have that feeling at all. The weekend gross has replaced the movie review in terms of how the water cooler conversation goes. People seem more interested in talking about what Universal did wrong with marketing The Green Lantern rather than whatever quality the film does or does not have, what are its award chances, that kind of stuff. Everything except the movies themselves.

Guillén: It feels as if movies have been co-opted and taken hostage. Let alone the terminology. A while back I read a piece in Variety where the term "auteur" was being shamelessly applied to the filmmaker with the best box office.

Kehr: Which is not right. The term meant something specific once upon a time. It started becoming co-opted in the '70s when filmmakers like Scorsese, Altman and Coppola could make their own movies on their own terms. Everyone said they were auteurs. Yeah, they were, but not in the sense that directors working in the '40s were auteurs. Not so much in making individual masterpieces but in making a series of films that added up to a vision.

Guillén: An alternate title I might have suggested would be: The Movies That Mattered In My Youth. You're just a couple of years older than I am and I think we speak from a certain generational perspective of the '60s and '70s when we were both engaged by film in our youth at a culturally specific time. All these years later, we can't help but situate our understanding of film from that initial engagement and with a unique nostalgia. For me, the selections in this volume conjure the formative years of your creative practice, aligned as it was with America's evolving relation to film.

Kehr: It was a good time to be young.

Guillén: For me that's one of the prime values of When Movies Mattered. Alongside the volume's critical acumen, the book serves as a testimonial to the idea that becoming yourself as a young person is intricately linked to contributing to currents of culture.

Kehr: Yeah. At the point when we were young, what you said made a difference regarding why people should take interest in a film. It's not that there aren't plenty of good critics now, it's that the films are much less worth talking about.

Guillén: One of the aspects that most intrigued and entertained me about these long reviews is the underlying sense that you were making it up as you went along. You were creating yourself as a film critic within the newly-arrived opportunity of the alternative weekly. I commend that you culled out that symbiotic relationship between the so-called film culture of the time and the alternative press.

Kehr: That was a very important relationship. Certainly what I did wouldn't have been possible anywhere else. I mentioned quite a few people in my introduction whose important work was made possible by that phenomenon of the alternative weekly.

Guillén: Clearly, that relationship paid off because you have become widely acknowledged as one of film's most informed critics; but—bearing that privilege of perspective in mind—how are you now continuing to create yourself as a film critic?

Kehr: Hmmmmm. I guess these days I feel more like a historian than a critic really, in that I spend my time looking at older films trying to find auteurs who haven't been written about very much, if at all. I'm starting a column for Film Comment with their next issue entitled "Further Research", which is in reference to Andrew Sarris's category in The American Cinema. I've restricted it to Hollywood filmmakers with strong personalities in the American style that no one's paid much attention to. I go to very few first-run movies. Where I used to see five to six a week, now I'll see maybe three a month.

Guillén: Perhaps that comes with the territory? When you start out, you watch as many movies as possible but—after years of watching so much dross—you scale back? Myself, I pay to see what I usually don't want to write about. I've all but given up reviewing first-run theatrical and am focusing on film festival coverage, book reviews, and interviews. Though I grew tired of watching so many bad movies, I don't necessarily believe that there aren't good movies to watch. I suspect they're the ones that aren't trafficking in the commercial fast lane and I'm not even sure that they should or could be. Which leads me to ask about your critical practice: you don't attend film festivals?

Kehr: I used to go all the time but my job just changed at a certain point. It's not really making sense anymore and it's pretty hard to pay your own way to Cannes and Berlin and that sort of thing. Then you don't really have a job to do once you get there. But it was a big part of my life for a long time and then it all kind of went away about eight years ago.

Guillén: I appreciate your bringing up that you think of yourself as a historian more than a critic. At his site, Girish Shambu has stated: "Without announcing it as such, [Dave Kehr] performs an invaluable pedagogical activity in the New York Times DVD column each week." At your old haunt the Chicago Reader, J.R. Jones claims you have turned your weekly column into "an ongoing tutorial on film history." Did you ever imagine you would become such a beloved pedagogue and such a trusted historian?

Kehr: [Laughs.] That's very nice of you to say, but I don't know how beloved or trusted I am. I never thought I would be able to make a living doing this: paid to review DVDs. What a great development that there is a way to talk about older, foreign, independent and avant-garde films in a mainstream newspaper. Ordinarily that's very difficult to do with this material. I'm grateful for the opportunity.

Guillén: I find it interesting that seasoned critics such as yourself and Jonathan Rosenbaum have evolved into film historians, that there's a value (beyond nostalgia) in your preference for older films, and that—as you intriguingly suggested to Danny Kasman and David Phelps—the ironic truth is that the more you know about films, the less you know. I appreciate the concept that the more film is explored, the more it opens out into unexplored territory. A film writer can never grasp it all. The subject keeps expanding.

Kehr: Oh yeah! If there is one thing I have learned in more than 40 years of film criticism is that the corpus of movies is vaster and richer than any one writer could ever cover. Hollywood films alone are a huge, complex manmade body of work. A week doesn't go by that I don't find myself interested in some other aspect of American cinema. On the other hand, it's becoming more and more difficult because the major studios are withdrawing so many of their old films from circulation, making it hard to do research just at the moment when a lot of these films are in danger of being forgotten. Many films are now hard to access. Apart from maybe Warner Brothers, none of the studios are doing much of a good job at all in keeping films in a viewable format.

Guillén: Speaking of formats, one of your recent essays which impacted me was your study of how online and TV streaming was affecting DVD culture and your sober analysis of what gets lost each time we switch from one format to the other. I actually opened the first home video rental store in the San Joaquin Valley back in the mid-'80s. On one hand, that doesn't seem that long ago; but, on the other, it seems immeasurably distant.

Kehr: Yeah! And when you tell people that there was actually more out on VHS than on DVD, they look at you as if you're crazy. But there was so much more! In terms of the availability of older titles.

Guillén: When I first began reviewing and reading When Movies Mattered, I had a guarded reaction. I usually don't like to read about a film before I've seen it. So in my initial perusal of your table of contents, I gravitated to those films I'd seen and read those essays first. Then I had to negotiate with myself whether I was willing to read entries on films I hadn't yet seen. Which leads me to ask about how you've structured When Movies Mattered? In your Senses of Cinema interview with Steve Erickson, you stated: "Once I write something, I don't like to look at it again."

Kehr: That's very true. I really don't. Not at all.

Guillén: If that's the case, how did you go about selecting specific reviews for When Movies Mattered? What motivated the urge or gave you the requisite patience to anthologize this phase of your writing?

Kehr: I relied heavily on my editor at the University of Chicago Press, Rodney Powell, who instigated this project and was responsible for the final selection of reviews. I don't have much discrimination. I'm one of those people who's just never happy with what I do and every time I read an old review of mine there's just so many things I want to do over. So to tackle something like this, I really needed someone like Rodney to take charge and make me do it.

Guillén: I read a piece he wrote about your collaboration on this book and it surprised me when he said that you didn't even have copies of your old reviews.

Kehr: No, I don't. I never really save anything.

Guillén: So you made it particularly hard for him? He had to go hunting down these reviews?

Kehr: Yeah. They had to go hunting through my old volumes. Much of these long reviews have never been digitized. There was a vast amount of other things: there were 10 years worth of Chicago Tribune reviews; 10 years worth of not-very-interesting New York reviews. They were scattered all over the place.

Guillén: So you don't have Jonathan Rosenbaum's impulse to digitize all of your past work, as he's doing on his site?

Kehr: No, I really don't. I've been kind of the opposite of that way, though I admire Jonathan for doing that. It's certainly a great service to have all his work available. I wish I had that kind of patience.

Guillén: Which underscores the value of this necessary volume. Many of us are delighted to finally have at least a sampling of your long form reviews available in one volume. At this point, what with Facebook and Twitter, the format of the long form review is nearly quaint; but, without question, it's still important to read such long form think pieces.

Kehr: They certainly make you think about movies in a different way. It's better than writing criticism that's just blurbs for ads—"This was great. It was like a roller-coaster ride."—where you realize that such film critics aren't stupid, it's just that they haven't encountered reviews that do anything. What we used to call capsule reviews now look like gigantic feature-length pieces. What can you do with a one-sentence review from Twitter except toss it into a batch of films you like or didn't like? A bunch of Europeans have started a movement that they call "slow criticism." We need more of that, I think.

Guillén: I'm heartened that there's a growing awareness of these various lengths and tempos of film criticism: long and short, fast and slow, contingent upon how close you remain to the surface or how much depth you apply to the analysis of a film.

Kehr: So much of what we do depends on the format we do it in and the condition we write for.

Guillén: Perhaps the most oft-quoted comment from your introduction was: "American movie criticism seems divided (with some exceptions) between two poles: quick-hit, consumerist sloganeering on Internet review sites and television shows, and full-bore academia, with its dense, uninviting thickets of theoretical jargon." That bristled quite a few feathers as it bunted about the internet! Though I felt it was a fair critique of both sides, in his recent piece for Film Comment David Bordwell tagged you and Joseph McBride as "cinephile critics" who—as Chris Fujiwara synopsized in his response to Bordwell for the Project: New Cinephilia initiative—"hate academic film studies for rejecting auteurism and for using impenetrable jargon." First, any thoughts on whether or not you are a "cinephile critic"?

Kehr: I wasn't quite sure what Bordwell meant by that, but I certainly consider myself a cinephile in the sense that I've always loved movies as long as I can remember, beginning as a child. I still like movies on that level. I'm still a film buff, or whatever word you want to use. I didn't approach movies as an academic study; I approached movies because they were a part of my life. I was amazed that I could make a living writing about them. That had never been a goal of mine. When I was in college, I thought I was going to be an English graduate teaching Victorian novels someplace and then, amazingly, this opportunity came along to be a semi-professional critic and then a professional critic. It was movies that made me a writer.

Guillén: I like how you phrase that, distinguishing semi-professional from professional, because that references an argument Chris Fujiwara made in his response to Bordwell that it's the writing that makes a film critic a critic. And it's the way a critic writes that provides the accent that personalizes a critic's writing style. This has, in fact, been of recent interest to me: the way in which personality informs film criticism or, put another way, the applied persona of the film critic. Do you have any sense of consciously shaping your persona as a film critic?

Kehr: No, not really. I know there is one there. Early on I encountered Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Everybody has, right? They have that wonderful line: "Just try to write as clearly as you can and style will take care of itself." I've always felt that way. I wanted to write as cleanly as possible and just try to say what I mean and not worry about phrasing or what kind of personality I'm projecting. I just wanted to be as accessible as possible. The rest happens by itself. The issue of personality is not to change it—like film critics who try to imitate Pauline Kael or Manny Farber or any of the big personalities in the business—you have to be yourself. There's no choice.

Guillén: When you're talking about wanting to write so that you're accessible, it sounds like you're positioning yourself between the film and the reader of your review.

Kehr: Yeah. For me, that's what a good critic does. He provides some information that the reader may not have, and provides a context that maybe wouldn't occur to the reader, or breaks things down in a way that the reader might not. The least interesting thing about journalistic criticism is the conclusion, really—"I didn't like it"—it's how you got there, or how you're going to account for your feelings in the first place, that's interesting. I think we all start with our feelings about films and then try to understand them, try to understand why we feel that way, and if that's a way we want other people to feel. It all comes back to subjectivity at one point or another. But then again, pure subjectivity is not interesting to me. You need to bring something else to the writing: a little bit of work or analysis or a little bit of perspective.

Guillén: Again at the Chicago Reader, J.R. Jones notes you disappear into your prose and that you prefer invisibility. He contrasts this to Jonathan Rosenbaum who has an outgoing (and very subjective) persona as a film critic.

Kehr: Jonathan makes subjectivity a big part of his work. That's something I've never done at all. I don't put myself into my film criticism in the same way Jonathan puts himself into his.

Guillén: I know many film critics who feel that if you do, you have failed as a critic. I don't necessarily agree, but I understand objectivity's argument. You mentioned you do have a sense of your own persona, that it's "out there", and some of the adjectives attached to you in reviews out on the net amused me for trying to define that persona. Let me a toss a few at you and you can tell me if you think they're accurate or not. At A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff describes you as "contrarian".

Kehr: I can understand that. But I don't think I willfully set out to have a different opinion than the majority. I got to that point logically over a series of years. I'm contrarian in the sense that I never liked going along with what most folks were writing about. I wanted to look elsewhere. There were other things going on that weren't being written about so much. People like Walter Hill, Albert Brooks and John Carpenter were filmmakers who weren't getting much attention and I wanted to write about them. So that's the contrarian spirit in my writing.

Guillén: I find that contrarian spirit evident in your somewhat notorious year-end lists. They were so different than most other critics' year-end lists and drew attention to what others considered minor vehicles or even minor auteurs. Which leads me to ask: what is the critic's responsibility to champion the smaller film or the unknown filmmaker?

Kehr: Well, one of the things I'm proudest of was my first term on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival, which would have been in the early '80s. I managed to get in the first films by Manoel de Oliveira, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Raúl Ruiz and a bunch of other people who are pretty much staple characters at this point. In those days, it was a hard sell. I'm glad I did that. It's not that I'm trying to get credit for discovering them, but at least I had my eyes open. As a journalist, one of the most valuable things you can do is to direct attention to where people aren't looking.

Guillén: Another adjective that's been frequently applied to you—and we've already touched a bit on this—is "nostalgic"; that you are nostalgic for and circumambulating around a particular period of movies that no longer exists. Do you think that's a fair assessment?

Kehr: I can't say it's something I feel. What I identify as the greatest stage of filmmaking happened well before I was born so I would find it hard to feel nostalgic about that. I think Adrian Martin and a lot of the self-styled cutting-edge hipsters are all very nostalgic about the 1970s in a way that I am not because I lived through the 1970s. I'm not just giving off the important films from the top, I saw them top to bottom, and there was breadth. There were filmmakers in the '70s that I never thought were going to get out of filmmaking, like Nagisa Oshima and others, yadda yadda yadda. I don't feel nostalgic for my experience of the 1970s. Maybe I feel nostalgic for somebody else's?

Guillén: The other term that amused me came from Randy Byers at an online site called Dreamland Cafe. Byers called you "crotchety." He wrote that your reviews evidence a "crotchety attitude even as a young man." Do you think you're crotchety?

 Kehr: [Laughs.] I don't feel crotchety. You mean like, "These damn kids! What are they up to?" If anything, I think the damn kids should be a little bit more crotchety themselves.

Guillén: There you go. A little less enthused and a little more crotchety. That quote I was citing earlier that drew the ire of the academics was, in my opinion, a fair quote because it was criticizing the extremes of both poles, including your critique of the internet. I'm especially intrigued by your assertion: "The luxury of printing long pieces without an obvious demographic appeal is something the weeklies can no longer afford—while, paradoxically, it is a privilege that the web has actively refused." Why doesn't the internet have the interest? What does this say about audiences who are reading the internet?

Kehr: I wish I knew, y'know? It's a big mystery to me. Personally, I have a hard time reading long pieces on the TV monitor. It makes my eyes hurt. I wonder how many other people have that feeling too? It's just not the way I want to absorb a long and thoughtful piece of criticism sitting in front of a television with lights flashing in my face. But there is something about the internet that just presses towards shorter and shorter commentary. Even though space is cheaper than it's ever been, people don't seem to want to read anything longer than 300-400 words.

Guillén: Stepping back a bit to your admitted cinephilia, you mentioned your love for films since childhood. I don't know whether it's our generation or what, but I enjoyed your comment about scouring the TV Guide to find when rare classic films would be broadcast, often shown late at night. You'd wait up for them. I used to do the same thing. I can vividly remember being a scrawny kid swallowed up by the huge armchair in our family's TV room watching some obscure title at low volume way after midnight when everyone else in my family was asleep. This childhood quality of cinephilia likewise informs Elliot Lavine's TV Guide pastiche: I Wake Up Dreaming. What this all brings up for me is the idea how at one time it was the inaccessibility of these films that fueled my fledgling cinephilia. I would stay up late to see them or go to great lengths to see them when they were projected in repertory theaters. Nowadays, that is sharply contrasted against the addictive allure of internet digital accessibility, which currently shapes and informs my cinephilia. However, as you and I have already discussed a bit through email, internet accessibility is something of an illusion.

Kehr: It's a tragic illusion. It's going to be very destructive in the long run. Many of these films that are not available digitally aren't even that old or that esoteric. I don't know what the answer is. I'm writing about a director named Alfred Santell for Film Comment who made close to 100 movies, many of them silent so I automatically assume that many of those are pretty much lost; there's only three or four that you can see. The remaining 50 sound films, which were made for major studios like Paramount and Columbia, are completely inaccessible. The films of his that you can get happen to be owned by Warners or MGM and few of those are available in any satisfying prints. This situation is very far from being any kind of paradise in which every movie ever made is instantly available on the internet, which are almost the exact words of Roger Ebert.

You learn about the existence of more films as you move along. One movie points you to another. Anyone with any curiosity will quickly discover that only a tiny percentage of Hollywood studio films, which should be available to all, are actually inaccessible to people who don't have the resources to work in an archive. Even in the archives there are negatives that the studios won't print—forget about the stuff that's been lost!—they don't want to spend $5,000 to strike a new print of a film from the early '30s. Those films will end up dropping out of consciousness. You can't miss what you've never heard of.

The biggest library that's being neglected right now is the Paramount-Universal library. Universal bought the pre-1914 Paramount library and merged it with their own. They have a bunch of other stuff they've acquired over the years. Next to the holdings that Warner Brothers now has, that's the most important cache of films out there. Paramount is owned by Viacom. First, Paramount has no interest in its own films and Viacom has even less interest. The Paramount films owned by Universal are still in the vaults. Universal occasionally puts out very oddly-chosen box sets of films. You end up scratching you head wondering why they've put out a box set of Ma and Pa Kettle rather than the Dietrich-von Sternberg films? What kind of sense does that make? The problem is they don't really know what they're sitting on. If I were a stockholder at Comcast, I would look at their incredible library and find a way to monetize it, but these guys aren't doing anything. It's just bad business and isn't good business what we're supposed to be about?

Guillén: You expressed earlier your pride in recommending certain titles to the New York Film Festival who introduced them to their audiences. Can you speak to the role of film critics coordinating their expertise with film programmers to help guide the festival fare offered to audiences?

Kehr: A good programmer is a good critic. Programming can be an interesting act of film criticism in and of itself with interesting angles and curation of subgenres that no one else is paying attention to. Eddie Muller is a good example of such programming. He's doing a great series at the Cinematheque Français right now. I just got a press release from them that he's programmed 10 rare obscure film noirs. None of the famous directors, even auteurs, of noir are represented in the series. That's a brilliant act. He's pulled together important eclectic work and just the fact that he's showing it brings it back to life.

Guillén: Eddie's a master showman and he also has a great sense of eliciting the participation of his audiences to support restoration and preservation of these classic films. His Noir City program that he started in the Bay Area—and which is now expanding to other cities—has an incredibly educated audience, which Eddie has had a large part in educating. He's instilled in us a sense of pride that the cost of our ticket is supporting the preservation and restoration of a film that is usually then programmed the following year, so that there's a palpable sense of cause and effect.

Kehr: And he seems to be right in the sense that—if we are going to preserve these films—it's the viewers who are going to have to do it because the studios have lost interest. Eddie also deals with orphan films that don't belong to any corporation and don't have anyone to protect their interests. He's been working on Cy Endfield's The Sound of Fury (1950), which was an independent production and whose chain of ownership has been hard and strange to follow. There's no way to protect it. It's in no one's corporate interest to save this movie. The only way it's going to get preserved is through private funding.

Guillén: I appreciate your admiration of programmers who introduce and promote genres and subgenres. In your conversation with R. Emmett Sweeney you proposed that cinema's true anarchic energy now lies in comedy and horror "where you can break the rules. You don't have people breathing down your neck because executives don't care about these genre things, they don't watch them half the time."

Kehr: Comedy and horror are the two categories where a filmmaker is less sat upon by management, largely because there's a built-in audience for both horror movies and comedies. As a critic, I try not to have impressions one way or the other about particular genres, which allowed me to see—let's say—Douglas Sirk a lot earlier than some people might have. I try not to be prejudiced against such pictures. Still, a lot of people of our generation dislike westerns because they associate them with Vietnam. I've never made that association prohibitive. I'm fascinated by westerns and I'm fascinated by melodramas, but I wouldn't say I'm any more of a westerns guy than a melodramas guy.

Guillén: Can you speak at all to the recent trend in genre mash-ups? This Summer's blockbuster, for example, is a blend between a western and an alien invasion story.

Kehr: I don't know if that's anything that new. Have you ever seen The Phantom Empire (1935) where Gene Autry finds a mountain full of Martians?

Guillén: I've never heard of it but I'll probably go hunting for it now.

Kehr: It's a Mascot Pictures serial, which I believe has survived. Behind Gene's ranch is a mountain occupied by bona-fide aliens. There were a bunch of horror westerns in the 1940s.

Guillén: I think the official genre term is "weird western."

Kehr: Right.

Guillén: Another comment you made to Emmett Sweeney that intrigued me was: "We seem to be living in this post-mise-en-scene world." What do you mean by that?

Kehr: Well, more and more I think the camera's just being used to record performances without much thought being given to where to put the camera and how to use it to express the composition, lighting, texture, and all those things that went into making a good shot a few years ago. Certainly that's not across the board but it's becoming more and more a predominant aesthetic, which (of course) comes right out of handheld home video. In home videos, home movies, it doesn't matter how they're shot. The more formal elements of mise-en-scene and design have slowly started to fall away since films from the 1970s-1980s. It doesn't mean that those films are of less interest, it just means that performance has become central. It's filmmaking that's more suited to television where the visual doesn't matter as much. Characterization and plot matter more.

Guillén: Let's approach one or two of the specific films you've written about in When Movies Mattered. Though my initial preference is to read essays about films I've seen, in this instance I decided to take a film I hadn't seen and watch it upon your recommendation. Last night I watched Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur (1956), available on Netflix Instant Watch. What struck me was Eddie Barclay and Jo Moyer's thoroughly modern jazz score.

Kehr: The French were into a lot of American popular culture that Americans weren't paying any attention to. Gangster films being a good example and jazz, at that point, being a good example.

Guillén: I was likewise struck by Roger Duchesne's poker-face performance in the lead role. At film's end when his young sidekick is killed, he barely reacts. The melodrama is pared down to a droll, dry wit.

Kehr: I love underplaying as a rule.

Guillén: Can you recommend any other films of Melville's?

Kehr: Criterion has three or four others. Army of Shadows (1969) is an experience of the French resistance. Le Samouraï (1967), which is one of Melville's most personal films, is dry. It's basically Alain Delon walking around by himself.

Guillén: My current fave rave is Raúl Ruiz. My first Ruiz film was Mysteries of Lisbon, seen last Fall in Toronto, and again this year at the San Francisco International. Since then, I've watched his considerably less charming Klimt (2006) and the wonderful The Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983). I love that you characterize Ruiz as "the only real maker of fantasy films" in your piece on City of Pirates (1983) and how you link his destabilizing techniques to the playful inventiveness of his fantasies. One of those destabilizing techniques is his signature practice of grouping actors together in friezes that he then moves as a whole. It's a technique that elicits disquiet as you're watching the film because you know something's artificial and drawing attention to the artificiality of the film. Do you have a term for what he's doing when he does that?

Kehr: I suppose it's related to what we used to call the tableau style in early silent films where there wasn't so much cutting within the scene. He uses a master shot and then creates movement inside of it in order to draw attention to what links one action to another. Someone like Ruiz is very educated on the history of film and he's drawing on that pre-montage idea.

Guillén: Another theme of recent interest is cinematic citation, how movies are made up out of each other, and—in the case of film criticism—how movies are understood in reference to each other. You do this a lot in your reviews. You describe a film by referencing other films. This demands a certain literacy from your audience.

Kehr: I guess I'm also trying to encourage them to see these other films. I'm habitually a bit of a taxonomist. I'm a classifier. I want to place and arrange this object with similar objects. I guess it's my Aristotelian training from the University of Chicago.

No comments: