On Dave Kehr and “Movies That Mattered”


When I was in the film program at Northwestern University in Chicago, my peers and I were required to read the works of Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Michel Foucault and even Freud, Jung and Marx. The idea was to apply their theories to the cinema to better understand how film worked, or how it related to audience identification. We also read the major film theorists such as Andrew Tudor, Laura Mulvey and Siegfried Kracauer, among others. While I don’t regret reading those theorists, scholars and great thinkers, I can’t honestly assess how much that type of scholarly writing with its academic jargon enhanced our understanding and appreciation of popular movies.



blogopener copyThis month, TCM spotlights “Trailblazing Women–Actresses Who Made a Difference,” a series of movies featuring female stars who contributed to the industry, culture, and society. The series covers all eras of movie history, from Mary Pickford, who was an industry powerhouse in the silent days, to Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson, who were activists off the screen in 1970s and 1980s. The program is the second part of a three-year effort in partnership with Women in Film (WIF) in which TCM devotes October to championing the achievements of women in Hollywood

TCM viewers who are enjoying “Trailblazing Women” should check out the new, third edition of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies by film historian Molly Haskell. Haskell, who sometimes cohosts on TCM, covers the silent era to the late 20th century, the same time frame as “Trailblazing Women.” While there is some overlap between the series and the book, Haskell’s focus is on the image of women in the movies, the stars who embodied these images, and the relationship of these images to women in society.


David Bordwell and “The Rhapsodes”: Old-School Film Critics

blogopenerThe sheer volume of movie reviews suggests that everyone and their mothers have become film critics. And, I mean that literally. I once worked as the managing editor of a video magazine. One day a young woman phoned to tell me that she and her mother would like to review movies for the magazine, particularly “old” movies. By that she meant movies from the 1970s. She assured me they were qualified because, “We watch a lot of movies from the 1970s.”

Before the Internet “democratized” film reviewing, critics like Ebert, Denby, Turan, and Rosenbaum wrote for newspapers, journals, or magazines. Movie-lovers of my generation read their reviews and essays because they were well written, and each review taught us something about film or culture. The critic I followed religiously was Dave Kehr, who wrote for the Chicago Reader, then the Chicago Tribune, before moving to one of the New York papers. He is currently a film curator at MoMA.

The proliferation of reviewing in recent years has watered down the art or craft of film criticism. Few reviewers are distinct writers, let alone talented ones. Cheap sarcasm has replaced style, particularly for young reviewers who look for reasons to dislike a film so they can jab at it. What they don’t realize is that this snarky discourse makes their reviews sound so similar they are virtually interchangeable. Film scholar David Bordwell’s latest book, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture, reminded me of the dismal state of contemporary reviewing because it chronicles the work of four film critics who not only knew how to write but who had distinctive voices and points of view. [...MORE]

Unusual Commentary Tracks


Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

What worth a glimpse into an archive?


Gene Hayworth works at the university library here in Boulder and has many duties, one being that he manages various subscriptions for the faculty. He recently set up a trial with Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive and I promised him I’d poke around to see if the Film Studies faculty I work with might find it of interest. Given that this particular service costs well over a hundred times what I pay for access to my yearly IMDb Pro account, I was curious what it had to offer. I randomly picked six films, screening throughout the week a month from now on TCM, to plug into the search engine: Papillon, The In-Laws, Along the Great Divide, The Manitou, Spring Fever, and Baby Doll. Included here are some of the results. [...MORE]

Before Denby, Ebert, Sarris, and Kael, There Was James Agee

ageeopenerSo many faceless movie reviewers with forgettable names and interchangeable writing “styles” populate the Internet that it is hard to imagine a time when reviews were penned by established authors, historians, or intellectuals with distinctive voices. Writers and thinkers such as John Grierson, Carl Sandburg, Alistair Cooke, Vachel Lindsay, Grahame Green, and James Agee all reviewed Hollywood movies in their time. A few months ago, a colleague lent me a copy of Agee on Film published in 1958. The book consists of a collection of Agee’s reviews from The Nation and Time, plus two essays on film originally published in Life.

I became an Agee admirer after reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a chronicle of the struggles of three Southern sharecropping families. At once brutal and poetic, the book includes photos by Walker Evans. The pair was originally assigned by Fortune magazine to produce an article about the conditions of sharecroppers in the Deep South during the Depression. Agee rejected a traditional reporting style and authored an impressionistic portrait of three rural Southern families living in extreme poverty—a class of people usually ignored and generally scorned by society. Needless to say, Fortune was not thrilled with the artistic approach when they issued the articles in 1939. In 1941, Agee and Evans published their work in book form. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men flopped at the time, but it is now considered an important social document as well as a milestone in modern journalism. Though often described as a journalist, he was no mere reporter. Agee’s style was literary, evocative, and expressive but also accessible.


The Brutal Truth Found In 12 Years a Slave


On Sunday many of us will be glued to our television sets watching the annual Oscar ceremony unfold. At this time of year I tend to contemplate all the new releases I’ve seen in the past 12 months or more and linger over the films that have captured my imagination, awed me, inspired me or just made me think about old ideas and tired truths in new ways.


What You Don’t Know About Elvis the Movie Star, Part 2

As part of Summer Under the Stars, TCM has selected August 16 to showcase the movies of Elvis Presley. To prime viewers for the 14-film marathon, I offer the second in my two-part series about the publicity and promotion surrounding Elvis’s movie career. Viewing Elvis’s stardom through the perspective of contemporary reviewers, fans, and costars will put a different spin on his movies as you watch them.

“Why Sure, Sideburns!”

For many years, the press was obsessed with Elvis’s sideburns. During the 1950s, his personal appearance consisted of pegged pants, wildly colored shirts, baggy suit jackets, a long ducktail haircut that required three hair creams to control, and long sideburns (see left). Throughout 1956, the year that Elvis became a national phenomenon, the press repeatedly made a connection between rock ‘n’ roll music and juvenile delinquency, with Presley as their main target. It didn’t take them long to equate his unusual personal appearance with a delinquent mentality, honing in on the sideburns, which many identified as a fad among Southern truck drivers. By 1957, the word “sideburns” had become synonymous with delinquency and bad taste, so when a tough-talking punk sneers, “Why sure, Sideburns,” to Elvis’s character in Loving You, it was an insult that echoed the real-life criticism of Elvis in the press.


Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012

The influence of Andrew Sarris’ film crticism has become so omnipresent it is now invisible, part of the received wisdom of how we approach and watch movies. This has only become clearer after his death last week at the age of 83.  You can see his mark in the marketing of the upcoming “Hitchcock Masterpiece” Blu-Ray collection from Universal, and in every movie review that even mentions the name of the director. The auteur theory will be his legacy, regardless of how often it is misinterpreted as some kind of iron law rather than the policy of “perpetual revaluation” that he proposed it as.  Enough has been written about auteurism though, and not enough about the constant sense of discovery in reading his seductively winding prose. He approached films like an explorer, traveling down a multitude of paths, be it historical, stylistic or even personal, searching methodically for flashes of insight or originality, whether from the director or any of the film’s collaborative artists. His sentences would gather long strings of actors, colors and themes, as list-happy as in The American Cinema, seemingly sussing out his opinion along the way – a perambulating, open-air kind of criticism where interruption, digression and contradiction are welcome.

There are plenty of moving and detailed remembrances of Mr. Sarris around the internet (Matt Singer has gathered tributes at Indiewire, as has David Hudson at the Fandor Keyframe blog), so instead I asked a number of writers and academics to choose their favorite excerpts of his writing (Tom Gunning recited his from memory!), and to add comments if they had any. Below I have listed their responses, while including my own favorite Sarrisms at the end.


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