In the introduction to When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, Dave Kehr writes that the time is gone when “it was briefly possible to write about films with serious intent for a wide, popular audience.” The reception of Kehr’s book since its publication, in April 2011, suggests he’s right: the coverage has inevitably come in specialized film publications, almost all of it from authors who are primarily film critics and who have praised Kehr’s judgment rather than his style. This is a shame, since the collection has much to offer English-language writers regardless of whether they care about film. Far more so than great film criticism, Kehr’s book is great writing: elegant, good-humored, and so carefully worked out as to seem casual. If When Movies Mattered is instructive to film critics (as it has been to this one), this is because it’s a guide for anyone learning the art of argument.
The artistry lies largely in Kehr’s impeccable structures, of which his personal journeys form the bases. Many pieces begin with his first-person narrator facing a seemingly insurmountable problem that the film under discussion will solve: fantasy films lack imagination today, he thinks, until he looks to City of Pirates; the avant-garde and commercial worlds stand at odds in his head until Francisca bridges them. That films can’t be both beautiful and deep is the problem commencing a 1978 review: “Thus far, even the most respectful reviews of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven have made the film sound like the cinematic equivalent of a coffee table book, full of ravishing images but strangely devoid of immediate emotion or lasting substance… That was the film I was prepared to see—and, frankly, the film I was prepared to dislike.”
A tension has already emerged, and suspense builds. Kehr considers whether Days of Heaven, a Depression-era love triangle between field hands and their boss, narrated offscreen from a distance of years by the male field hand’s younger sister, is truly superficial; to do so, he looks directly at its surface. “A brief glimpse is all we are given of a particular composition, and then Malick is off to something else, rarely granting us the leisure to contemplate and assimilate the images he puts before us,” Kehr remarks. “If this movie is a coffee table book, someone is turning the pages too fast.” He is surprised by what he sees, and, since we share his eyes, so are we.
“The movie hovers slightly beyond our reach,” he continues, urging us to lean forward. This is clever of him: the stronger the narrator’s initial resistance to the film, the greater license his writer counterpart gives himself to show its wonders. When Kehr looks past Days of Heaven’s “emotional distance” and toward its “uncanny physical presence,” he sees a man rolling a blade of wheat in his hand: “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.”
The conflict between close and far views, he discovers, is what Days of Heaven is about. “If, on the technical level, the film is a contest between montage and mise-en-scène, on the narrative level, it creates a tension between sociology and myth.” By planting implicit questions and seeming contradictions in sentences like these, Kehr entices the reader to watch him resolve them through detailed, scene-specific examples that link form to content—in this case, he will go on to analyze how the characters act in echoes of Old Testament scenes but lack a clearly present god to guide them. He will then synthesize. Just as the film is set in a past that appears fully realized before quickly vanishing, he explains, “Days of Heaven is a story of human lives touched by the cosmos, and then passed over—momentary intersections between the eternal and the immediate.”
Kehr closes by mentioning “a perfect, open ending” that might lead former detractors back to the film’s beginning with fresh eyes. He has arrived here without once saying whether he actually likes Days of Heaven, finally leaving his love implicit. So it goes for every film in his book. Rather than immediately making an authoritative assessment, Kehr wonders, watches, studies, dissects, reassembles, and only then judges—and even then, the final judgment is left up to the reader to make. Throughout When Movies Mattered runs the sense that the critic holds the place of any potential audience member: Kehr makes his evaluations for all viewers by beginning with himself.