April 5, 2011
It’s taken as long as the caravan journey in The Big Trail, but we finally have a collection of film criticism from Dave Kehr, who currently writes the essential DVD and Blu-Ray column at the NY Times. When Movies Mattered (University of Chicago Press) gathers his work from his period at the Chicago Reader, from 1974 – 1986. For years I’ve consulted his capsule reviews to guide my viewing habits, still available at the Reader website, but his long-form pieces have long been out of circulation. So this is a cause for celebration, although the resulting party would drive other critics to drink out of jealousy rather than selflessness. His prose is patient and lucid, laying bare stylistic and thematic mechanisms with the graceful invisible style of one of his favored Hollywood auteurs.
I was able to sit down with Mr. Kehr to talk about some of his favorite directors, as well as those not given much critical attention. So we range from Raoul Walsh to Godard and from Eastwood to Paul W.S. Anderson. Something for everyone! And it should be noted that the University of Chicago Press is doing an incredible job, releasing not just Kehr’s book, but also the most recent writings of Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson.
RES: It’s easy to get caught up in Raoul Walsh’s energy, but it’s hard to pin down his specific style. Could you break it down?
DK: Well, he goes through a few different periods. If you’ve seen Regeneration, from 1915, the longest feature that survives, he’s really doing Griffith. There are standard set-ups, moving into close-ups for moments of emotional intensity or alienation. And then we don’t have anything until 1922, something called Kindred of the Dust which is at the Eastman House. In that one he’s already doing wider angles, longer takes, and more staging of action in depth. He’s doing a lot less cutting. He’s moved in a different direction than Griffith at that point. That becomes very obvious in Thief of Baghdad (1924) and What Price Glory(1926). He becomes more about bodies moving through space and less about shots following shots.
The Big Trail (1930) is a huge breakthrough for him. The effect of working in what was essentially CinemaScope in 1930 makes him reconsider everything. Suddenly he’s got this equipment that will give him dead sharp focus over a range of like 5 miles. And he sees the possibilities instantly, which is what I find so fascinating. It has these incredible deep focus compositions, so you can see every aspect of a shot unfolding in the same image. There is a shot of the wagons being lowered down the mountains in the background, and people approaching in the foreground. Conceptually it’s incredible; multiple planes, multiple focal points. A lot of the stuff people think Welles and Tati invented is already pretty much there in The Big Trail. The other thing he finds there is this sense of background motion which becomes really important for him. He’ll have static figures having a conversation in the foreground, but have a lot of crossing in the background, with isolated pockets of action. You get the feeling these extras could star in their own movie. He develops that in a lot of different ways in the early ‘30s.
RES: How did he carry the lessons of framing for widescreen back to Academy ratio after The Big Trail?
DK: Well, then he starts working on the deep focus. He works with James Wong Howe on Yellow Ticket (1931) which is a really fascinating film, and I wish Fox would make a print of it. They don’t quite have lenses that are fast enough, and they don’t have enough light, but conceptually they are 100% in Gregg Toland, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles land. They’ve got it all figured out. There are shots in that movie that could have come straight out of Citizen Kane.
RES: Did Andre Bazin ever write anything about Walsh?
DK: Not to my knowledge. These films were pretty hard to see. The Fox stuff dropped out of circulation after the studio fire. I don’t think people were looking at these movies.
RES: When Walsh began making widescreen films again later in his career, do you see any shift in style from The Big Trail?
DK: It’s like he picks up where he left off. Even before that, when he makes his 3D movie, Gun Fury (1953). He had been making movies in 3D all the time. The irony being that he was blind in one eye. He doesn’t do anything differently in Gun Fury than the way he was staging stuff in The Lawless Breed which comes out the same year. He has that natural sense of depth. He identified cues of perspective and how to nestle characters within a space. It works brilliantly in 3D when you see it projected.
RES: How would you characterize his handling of actors?
DK: Well he likes a very distinctive kind of performer. He didn’t do a lot with Douglas Fairbanks, but he was at the same studio, Triangle, for five years. But when he finally does get to direct him there’s an immediate chemistry: this is the man in action. This is the Walsh hero. He carries this over in different forms. With Fairbanks it’s all light and jolly and weightless. It’s the same with James Dunn in Sailor’s Luck. There’s always something that kicks these people into action, and it can be a conventional goal, or it could be this animal sense of, “I have to keep moving.” And in the case of Sailor’s Luck I think it’s sex. The sexual attraction between those two characters is staggering. Obviously a year later you couldn’t do anything remotely like it. They just have to get together.
Then you get to Errol Flynn, who kind of picks up the Fairbanks stuff, but it’s a little darker, a little nuttier. He’s kind of angry and violent. In Flynn’s first few films he’s juvenile in an irresponsible way, taking unnecessary chances that’ll get him in trouble. And as he works with Walsh, from They Died With Their Boots On (1941) through Operation Burma (1945), that character grows up in really interesting ways.
Flynn achieves manhood for Walsh’s heroes in Operation Burma, and then you get those baroque variations from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Most famously, White Heat (1949), where the character is plainly psychotic. He’s no longer just dangerous, he’s fucking crazy. That performance is so gutsy. It seems so modern to this day. Chewing on a chicken leg as he walks over to the trunk to shoot the guy….
RES: Even in something like The Strawberry Blonde, Cagney is a little insane.
DK: It’s got that Walsh energy, but it’s more coiled and manic than Flynn, and certainly more than Victor McGlaglen. There’s always the sense that something is pushing these guys forward. It could be something as benign as that spirit of adventure of Fairbanks, or as psychotic as what Cagney does.
RES: I heard you will be writing a new regular column for Film Comment starting a few issues from now. Will it be about directors like Walsh, who have not been written about much?
DK: Yes. For some reason research on American directors stopped with Andrew Sarris. Probably something to do with the fact that theory came swooping in around that same time, and we all had to pretend there was no such thing as authors for a few years. In the meantime directors are dying left and right and prints are dropping out of circulation. The older I get the more amazed I am by the size of the classical Hollywood cinema, how many interesting people there were, and how many films. It’s gigantic. I don’t think any writer has gotten their head around the enormity of this thing.
RES: Have you selected some filmmakers you’ll discuss?
DK: Two of the people I was planning on writing about… One was a guy who worked at Republic in the 30s and 40s named John H. Auer. And another guy named William Nigh who started at Warners in the teens, worked at MGM and ended up on Poverty Row in the 30s and 40s. He had an interesting late career. I thought I would call the column “The Auer is Nigh”, but they didn’t like it…[laughs]
RES: Are there any unpretentious action directors working today worth paying attention to?
DK: Yeah. Paul W.S. Anderson I think is pretty talented. I always enjoy his films. I’m not sure he’s any kind of thematic auteur, but he certainly knows how to shoot action. And David Twohy, who did Pitch Black (2000) and A Perfect Getaway (2009). This is a sad example. The guy has directed four movies in the last eleven years . How many films would Raoul Walsh have made in that time? You just don’t have the chance to get good anymore.
RES: I’m happy you named Paul W.S. Anderson, who I get a lot of shit for liking. He’s always attracted to constrained spaces…
DK: Yeah, he’s kind of Langian. He loves these underground chambers. In every movie there’s people penetrating a gigantic spaceship [Event Horizon (1997)] or the bowels of the corporate headquarters in the Resident Evil movies. His first film just came out on DVD, Shopping, which is an art film compared to what came later.
RES: You devote a whole section to Jean-Luc Godard in your book, who at that time (the early-to-mid 80s) was re-engaging with, and questioning, narrative. You wrote that he was “concerned with breaking through a media poisoned world to something clear, clean and transcendent.” How would you contrast that with his recent work, which seems like a return to more experimental formal structures, interested in layering images and ideas rather than “breaking through”?
DK: Passion (1982) is probably my favorite of the late Godards. That one almost seems like a Dreyer film, completely spiritual. It’s all about the transcendent, how do we get out of here, what’s in the next room if there is one. After that he falls back into the argumentative mode.
Film Socialism (2010), which is in three parts, seems to correspond to three stages of his career. You get the opening sequence, which is the big beautiful and lyrical piece, of the stunning images he was doing in the 80s and 90s. Then you get the up close and personal family interaction stuff that he was doing in Numero deux (1975) and the films from the 70s that nobody sees anymore. And then it ends up with an essay-ish section which is very much like the Histoire(s) du Cinema. So he seems to be conscious of playing with his different manners. A retrospective film.
RES: Another of your pieces that struck me was your review of Sudden Impact (1983), and Eastwood in that period. I assume he was not taken seriously as a director at that time. Could you talk about Eastwood’s place in relationship to the New Hollywood, whom you often seem to be reacting against?
DK: I was somewhat alienated from the whole Bob Rafelson, Easy Rider thing. I don’t think I would write those things as negatively now as I did then. It was a polemical moment. I liked Clint because of his association with Don Siegel. I thought his first film showed an awful lot of personal investment, and particularly in the way he was looking at himself as an object. It’s a theme that continues, consistently imagining his own disappearance, his own death, obsessively. Sudden Impact is the best of the Dirty Harrys because it gives him such a powerful, other form, a Dirty Harriet, which it was often called at the time. He more than meets his match. Directed masculine energy meets undirected female anger.
RES: The way Eastwood pares away any affect in his performances, I think you even called it “Bressonian” in your review, really stands out in Firefox (1982) in which he barely emotes, like one of Bresson’s models.
DK: I know, and that’s a great example of him imagining his own disappearance. Because at the end of the movie he flies off away from the camera into this little dot.
RES: Another interesting aspect is how, as a secret agent in Firefox, he’s supposed to be a good actor, but he keeps screwing up. He’s portraying himself as a bad actor.
DK: Which is what I loved about Pink Cadillac (1989). That was a movie I got a lot of crap for liking, but this is a movie about why Clint likes acting, and why he’s not very good at it.
RES: His movies are so rich because of how he interrogates his own persona…
DK: Yeah, once he stops doing that, his work really dries up for me. His last great film was Gran Torino (2008), which is the summation of that theme, a film I found emotionally devastating. Literally handing over the keys to the new generation. Again he’s imagining his own death and irrelevance, but this time something comes after that.
RES: Could you talk a bit more about his work post-Gran Torino? It seems the craft is still there but not the same level of personal involvement.
DK: I don’t find them very personal at all. It seems like he’s taking whatever hot, Oscar-ish script of the moment is. He’s getting people like Brian Grazer to make his movies, and they’re prestige oriented stuff.
RES: What about the WWII diptych, which I felt was very strong.
DK: Yeah, the first one I thought was good, the second was really good. In Flags of Our Fathers (2006) he was aiming a little too hard for social significance – it didn’t feel like an Eastwood film. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is just the opposite .
RES: You felt the same about Invictus (2009) and Hereafter (2010)…
DK: Invictus I just couldn’t get into at all and Hereafter I thought was actually bad. Very disappointing. We’ll see about J. Edgar. Sounds like another Oscar candidate.
RES: Another director you devote two pieces to is Blake Edwards…
DK: Edwards was important because he was a full-fledged studio auteur who was still working at a peak level when I was writing those pieces. Just the perfect example of someone was could make very personal films in a very commercial context.
RES: Would you put him with Eastwood as the last of that breed?
DK: I suppose. I don’t want to sound all apocalyptic or anything. Joe Dante is still in there plugging. And John Carpenter…he’s a real independent. He released through studios but made maybe one studio produced film,The Thing (1982) through Universal. He has that studio ethic without being a studio guy. He fought to keep his independence so he could make movies as if he were working for an old studio.
RES: I wonder when we’ll get to see Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)…
DK: It’s played all over Europe. And Monte Hellman’s got a new picture with no distribution [UPDATE: Monterey Media has acquired Hellman’s ROAD TO NOWHERE]. And Joe’s last picture [The Hole (2010)] never got distribution.
RES: Was The Hole’s fate decided because studios booked all the 3D screens?
DK: He explained it to me. The problem selling it was it wasn’t scary enough for teenagers and it was too scary for twelve year olds. A tweener.
RES: Continuing with more recent work, you wrote that great piece on The Cable Guy (1996) recently, so could you expand your thoughts on Apatow’s output? He has his champions.
DK: He does, but I don’t think he’s that innovative. He’s never done anything as far out as The Cable Guy again. He wrote a lot of it and didn’t put his name on it, but he learned his lesson on that one. Keep it friendly, keep it nice.
RES: Funny People (2009) did seem very personal…
DK: It did, but not in such great ways. It kind of gets preachy on you. I didn’t like how he was layering the characters where the people at the center were these three dimensional, psychologically complex types, but the further you got from them the more grotesque and cheap sitcom-y they got. When they finally meet the husband, he’s this total cartoon. He’s no real competition, there’s no real drama between those two guys. The guy’s a joke. It was an easy way out of that dramatic situation. I generally find the Farrelly’s more interesting, although they kind of ran out of steam. They’re not as funny as they used to be.
RES: I’m a big Stuck on You (2003) partisan.
DK: Yeah, I like that. And Kingpin (1996), I just love it.
RES: Is is their anarchic qualities you admire?
DK: That’s where the real energy is now. Comedy and horror is 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.
RES: That’s why I’m a big fan of the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay comedies, especially Step Brothers (2008), which becomes incredibly anarchic.
DK: Yeah, I have to see that. Ferrell, I can’t quite figure him out. There’s something a little condescending in what he does. It’s not mean spirited, he just likes playing stupid people. He lets you know he’s smarter than they are all the time. Something about that bothers me. You can see him working down, where you could never see Stan Laurel working down.
RES: Step Brothers takes that as its subject. They are literally overgrown children, these men in their 40s, so I think it takes on that criticism. By the end of the film the narrative totally dissipates, into a series of non-sequitur gags. The Other Guys (2010) is more conventional…
DK: I saw that. It was a buddy cop movie that kept telling you, “this is a parody of a buddy cop movie.” But it was doing all the things a buddy cop movie does.
RES: It got caught up in the plot for some reason…
DK: Isn’t this a great parody? No, it’s just like everything else.
RES: There was a flare-up recently in your blog’s lively comments section recently, this time about Tony Scott, who also has his critical defenders.
DK: I guess so. I was kind of amazed to discover that all of the Lisandro Alonso fans also like Tony Scott. I can’t reconcile this. Looks like the same guy to me who made Top Gun (1986). Just run and gun, shoot, shoot shoot, and maybe we can massage this into something that makes sense but we’ll worry about it later.
RES: So you didn’t find any coherent visual scheme.
DK: I couldn’t find a pattern in what Pat Graham was talking about in Unstoppable (2010), supposedly mirrored, up and down panning shots. If they’re there, I totally missed it. One little trick for getting a quick sense of a director’s visual style is to fast forward through the movie.
RES: Do you do that often?
DK: Not often, but once in a while. So you’re not distracted by the trivialities of plot and character and acting [laughs]. But a quick fast-forward through and you get a good sense of the visual vocabulary. I just ran Unstoppable, the ten minute version, and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly organized about it. He takes these really banal screenplays and embroiders them with these big effects, which is what everybody does. He’s a little more creative technically, he’s willing to go the extra mile of bringing in the helicopter.
RES: I admit I’ve enjoyed his last few movies. I’d say he’s the main exponent of Bordwell’s “intensified continuity”. He’s able to take this style and pare it down where it moves and still makes sense, even if there is no overarching visual structure.
DK: But there are those push-ins at the end of close-ups, for no effect. It doesn’t mean anything. He uses it here but doesn’t use it there. It’s what someone called “refreshing the screen”. It’s just to keep something happening to keep kids from getting bored. Stimulating the optic nerves to keep people interested.
RES: I can’t argue that. But I also think he’s an efficient storyteller.
DK: That’s the kind of filmmaking I value. I just don’t get him, or “the working class metaphysics.”
RES: That quote from Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope (read here) really got under your skin.
DK: That phrase stuck in my craw. It’s too easy. What’s working class about that movie? It’s not about the Hawksian pleasures of doing your job or the Walshian pleasures of community. It’s your typical Hollywood heroes acting in complete isolation. The thematic is tired old therapy stuff. By stopping this train we’ll become better husbands and fathers.
RES: Let’s talk about your blog, and the great community you’ve created there.
DK: I don’t think I created anything. It’s just there aren’t that many places where you can discuss these issues without having the same tired argument over and over again, “is the director the author of the film?” I’m too old, I don’t want to talk about that anymore.
RES: The discussions get intense sometimes. Do you think it recreates the polemical atmosphere of the Kael-Sarris period of your writing, of “When Movies Mattered”?
DK: I hope so. The thing about Tony Scott was a pretty good example of that. I really enjoyed that, it got tense.
RES: In the blog you mentioned that I Saw the Devil (2010) is the natural endpoint of the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino. Could you elaborate on that?
DK: It’s just hard to imagine things going any further. It’s the old gag where the cop is as crazy as the criminal, but in this case the competition is about who can cause the other greater pain. The pain is registered with such force and originality, it really shook me up. He’s not nearly the craftsman that Park Chan-wook is, but his color sense is magnificent in that great opening shot of the face created in the rear view mirror. You don’t know whose point of view it is until a half-hour into the movie. It has that old-fashioned craftsmanship that cares about composition and texture and color. You see it in the Korean films coming out now, which I guess is inspired by Park Chan-wook. It’s not happening in many other places now.
RES: Is there anywhere else?
DK: Well, we seem to be living in this post-mise-en-scene world, with a few pockets of it remaining. Johnnie To mainly, the couple guys in Korea, David Fincher, David Twohy, and I’m sure a few others but not that many. Now it’s all about acting and framing the performance. Most mise-en-scene is just finding some way to separate the actor from the background. And that’s all they’re thinking about, how to isolate this face. I was sitting through Sucker Punch (2011) last week, and I thought, what am I doing here? I could have watched three Allan Dwan films in the time it took me to watch it!