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.



In case you haven’t heard; 2012 will be known as the official date when most celluloid projection will be tossed into a fiery and remote pit.  Film, “reel” film, the stuff made of organic emulsion that unspools through a projector at 24-frames-a-second, is going the way of the dodo bird. Roger Ebert wrote a eulogy on November 2nd (Chicago Sun Times; The sudden death of film). A.O. Scott followed his lead a couple weeks later on Nov 18th (N.Y. Times; Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?). Leo Enticknap, a cinema director at the University of Leeds in the U.K., went even further on Nov. 20th (INDIEwire; The 35mm Battle Continues) when he facetiously ridiculed a recent petition to save 35mm film with this opening salvo: “OK, and let’s petition Ford to reopen the Model T production line, and ban all performances of Mozart’s piano concertos on anything other than an eighteenth century fortepiano while we’re at it.” (Links to all three essays are provided at the bottom of my post.)


More from the Mouths of Critics

Recently, I have been thinking about the nature and function of film criticism and movie reviewing, which was prompted by the last episode of Moguls and Movie Stars. Episode 7, “Fade Out, Fade In” noted the influence of a new generation of critics during the 1960s and 1970s. Many college-age movie-goers were excited by the film s of the era and enthusiastically read the reviews of such critics as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Stanley Kaufmann. Their reviews featured thoughtful comparisons to the other arts and a general regard for film style and aesthetics—something missing from the writing of the old guard of movie reviewers.  [See last week’s post.]

Then, while searching online for a specific review by Roger Ebert for another project, I came across several blogs and forums that vehemently attacked the country’s best-known critic.  Basically, these bloggers/commentators were irked because Ebert had panned several of their favorite movies.  From the nature and writing level of their comments, I deduced that these detractors were teenagers and/or college-age kids. I couldn’t help compare their negative attitudes and immature perspectives on film criticism with those of young movie-goers during the Film School Generation.


From the Mouths of Critics Come . . .

The last episode of TCM’s Moguls and Movie Stars, “Fade Out, Fade In,” chronicled the Film School Generation and its impact on Hollywood history. The episode also noted the impact of young movie critics of the era, many of whom supported the then-radical films against the old guard of reviewers who were vexed by the New Hollywood. A major incident of the era was the battle among the critics over Bonnie and Clyde, with grand old man Bosley Crowther of The New York Times remarking about the film, “This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap.” Coincidentally, the reviewer for Time magazine also declared Bonnie and Clyde to be “claptrap.” Either Time’s critic had read Mr. Crowther’s review, or “claptrap” was a very popular word at the time.

Crowther’s intense hatred for the film became a rallying point for supporters of the Film School Generation, who felt the movies of these young, college-educated directors were not understood by older critics of the establishment. Crowther wrote three negative reviews and repeatedly criticized the film in other articles, and then in the spring of 1968, he was dismissed from The New York Times. Many assume that Crowther was let go after 27 years because his opinion of Bonnie and Clyde revealed him to be too far behind the times. After hearing the incident recounted in Moguls and Movie Stars, I couldn’t help recall other films that were wrongly maligned by critics upon initial release. With the aid of some helpful resources, including The Critics Were Wrong: Misguided Movie Reviews and Film Criticism Gone Awry, I thought I would share a few examples that I found particularly thought-provoking. This week, I will focus on reviews of movies from “old Hollywood,” including the silent era through the 1960s. Next week, I will dig up reviews of contemporary films, including those of the Film School Generation. I was going to comment on the quotes, or group them together into fun categories, but I decided they are more telling without adding my two cents. Draw your own conclusions.


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