I finally got my copy of When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, the first collection of Dave Kehr’s writing from his years as the head film critic at the Chicago Reader. I couldn’t be happier, although I’m sure if someone told me that an intact print of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons had been discovered in a steamer trunk in Peru or that the latest Dario Argento movie was actually pretty good, that would make my day as well. But there’s something about reading great criticism that’s… well, it opens the pores and scrubs out the cobwebs of the mind. It sharpens you up to see and think in new ways, to engage with not only movies (or books or whatever) with a fresh insight, but to deal with the world outside of the frame in a renewed manner. It’s not simply about finding out if the critic liked or disliked a movie. It’s about understanding how the critic engaged with it and if you as a reader and watcher can engage with the work on your own terms. A great critic doesn’t shut down the argument; they keep it evolving and widen participation.
I know how we physically engage with movies is drastically changing, as is the very definition of what a movie is nowadays, or at least it seems to be. Film criticism has significantly changed with it. Note that I don’t think it’s getting worse or better necessarily. It’s just changed and evolved into something different. As print movie journalism has dwarfed in recent years, quite alarmingly so, movie blogs catering to all persuasions have flourished as well, like weeds sprouting in the concrete fissures of an abandoned parking lot. I think that aspects of the change, for instance the proliferation of well-informed and well-written blogs by amateurs and pros alike, is great. What’s not so fantastic is the disintegration of intelligent movie criticism that is aimed at a large audience that was regularly found in magazines and newspapers in the 1970s or even in the 1980s, the decade when I first started reading film criticism. It’s all niche-driven now, like most things. As Kehr points out in his introduction, there is academic writing on one side and mainstream writing on the other and the two rarely if ever meet in the middle. That’s a shame. I’m not even going to touch upon the overflow of so-called fanboy blogs, which seem from afar to be nothing more than extensions of studio marketing divisions. But plenty of movie reviewers on mainstream sites and in print publications also seem to be uncritical minions for p.r. departments. The ability to talk to a wide audience about complex ideas intelligently though without obfuscating meaning with distracting jargon seems like a rare talent.
Which is why Kehr’s book is worth picking up and should make anyone happy who still cares about the cinematic medium and good writing. Reading his 1978 review for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a film I know well, made me want to put down the book and immediately pop the Blu-ray on. Almost, I say, because then that would have required me to stop reading… no way was I going to do that. Kehr’s examination of how the film utilizes Old Testament myths for its own narrative purposes is far more enlightening, but the following passage nevertheless evokes clear, resonant images in my mind.
“Days of Heaven is a uniquely palpable film: the breath of the wind, the texture of the grain, light snow melting on a woman’s hair—we see, we hear, but somehow, we touch, too. Nester Almendros’s prickly-sharp cinematography (the film was made in 70mm, but, unfortunately, is playing Chicago in only 35mm) finds its match in the crispness and subtlety of the Dolby sound. Crickets sing, a windmill hums, and the image is opened up. One of the most moving moments in the film occurs as the farmer (Sam Shepard) rolls a blade of wheat between his fingers, testing its ripeness. The chaff crinkles off, and the farmer blows it away with a light, delicate breath. In that second, the screen dissolves: not simply sound and image, the film becomes touch, taste, and smell.”
I guess I know what I’m re-watching later this evening. After I finish the book, of course.