Tuesday, March 29, 2011

With a critical eye

Favorites from the early years of movie critic Dave Kehr showcased at Moving Image in 'When Movies Mattered.'

Published Thursday March 24, 2011 in The Times Ledger

ASTORIA -- This weekend, The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria will honor acclaimed film critic David Kehr with a program inspired by his recently published anthology, “When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade.”

Published by the University of Chicago Press, the anthology features a collection of film reviews Kehr wrote between 1974 and 1986. It is the first anthology of Kehr’s work.

Moving Image is celebrating the book with the two-day program, entitled “Dave Kehr: When Movies Mattered,” which includes a personal appearance and book signing by Kehr and screenings of films by Raoul Walsh, Walter Hill, Luis Buñuel, Jonathan Demme and Jean-Luc Godard, all presented in 35 mm prints.
David Schwartz, chief film curator at the Moving Image, said that the films selected for screening have a special significance relating to Kehr’s writing.

“We wanted to choose a selection that was representative of the book, so we included some American directors who were emerging at the time,” said Schwartz

With a career spanning 40 years, Kehr was one of the first critics to write about American director Jonathan Demme’s early work, which is why Moving Image chose Demme’s 1980 film “Melvin and Howard.” Kehr’s book also contains reviews of the work of historic European directors, so film buffs shouldn’t be surprised at the selection of Godard’s “Every Man for Himself” (1980) and Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977).

The book also takes a look at movies from the early 20th century. To highlight that era, there will be a screening of a newly restored print of “Sailor’s Luck” (1933) by Raoul Walsh, one of Kehr’s favorite directors.

“American cinema is just full of undiscovered little gems like [“Sailor’s Luck”]. It’s exciting for me,” said Kehr, who described it as a film that was overlooked upon release.

“Sailor’s Luck” will open the series on Saturday at 2 p.m. Following the screening Schwartz will moderate a discussion with Kehr, along with audience Q & A.

Moving Image chose to highlight the publication of Kehr’s book because it demonstrates his place as one of the most important American film critics of our time, according to Schwartz, who acknowledged that much of Kehr’s earlier work may have gone unnoticed. He described Kehr’s early film reviews as brilliant, yet lacking exposure in New York, since he was writing for The Chicago Reader, a weekly newspaper.

“His work holds up next to the best film critics, it’s just that he didn’t have a New York platform,” Schwartz said. “This book will make this very important work available to New York audiences. Some people know him now from the New York Times because he’s their DVD columnist, but I don’t think they’re aware of his earlier work.”

The volume covers a vibrant period in filmmaking, when new movies were being made by the likes of Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles; emerging New Hollywood directors like Walter Hill and John Carpenter, and international stars like Godard and Wim Wenders.

The reviews selected for the anthology were mainly selected by University of Chicago press editor, Rodney Powell, based on the simple conclusion that they would be of the most interest to readers.

“They are all kind of relics of a particular time,” Kehr said of the selections. “They tend to be longer — two to three thousand words. They’re examples of largely vanished popular criticism that I miss. I miss writing that kind of stuff, and I hope people enjoy reading them now.”

Modern media has changed tremendously since the publication of those reviews. The alternative press has been nearly wiped out by the Internet, a medium that favors short, concise synopsis, so there is not much room left for writers to truly indulge in a lengthy and thought-provoking critique of modern films. That, and films simply aren’t what they used to be.

“Movies today aren’t really the ones that lend themselves to that kind of lengthy discussion,” Kehr said. “It’s hard to have a lengthy discussion of something like ‘Hall Pass’ — the equivalent movie of the 1970’s would be ‘Animal House.’ Movies have changed.”

Kehr moved to The Chicago Tribune after leaving the Chicago Reader in 1986, and he was its principal film critic until late 1992, when he moved to New York to become a critic for The Daily News. In 2000, he took over the “At the Movies” column for the New York Times, and continues to write about film for the Times and other publications. Kehr also blogs at davekehr.com.

All screenings take place at the museum and are included with the price of museum admission.

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