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Everybody's a critic
By Mary Ruth Yoe
Illustrations by Steve Brodner

Select a critic:

David Brooks, AB'83
Roger Ebert, X'70
Thomas Frank, AM’89, PhD’94
William Grimes, AM'74, PhD'82
Dave Kehr, AB’75
Edward Rothstein, PhD’94
Susan Sontag, AB’51
Michael Sorkin, AB’69

Dave Kehr, AB’75

A film critic’s critic (a crown that only gained more luster when he was fired by the New York Daily News for being too high-brow and too negative), Kehr is past chair of the National Society of Film Critics, collects Italian film posters, and cites 1970s Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris as a major influence.

Education. Kehr earned his degree in English, but his reel education came as president of Doc Films. The student film society “was one of the reasons I wanted to come to the University of Chicago,” he said in a 2001 interview with Steve Erickson in the online film journal Senses of Cinema. “I could go there and see seven or eight films a week at Doc Films, and in the rest of my time do something I thought might open doors, like studying English.”

Venues. His first reviewing gig came at the Maroon: “Chicago is probably the best place in the world to see Italian westerns and porno movies,” the film editor began an October 6, 1972, campus entertainment guide. “Persons with slightly more discriminating tastes,” he continued, “will find the going a little rougher.” (That night Doc Films screened 200 Motels, codirected by Frank Zappa, about the Mothers of Invention on tour.)

Kehr has gone on to review films for the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the New York Times, where he writes the “At the Movies” column.

What’s a critic to do? “Editors don’t want ‘experts,’” Kehr told Erickson. “‘Populism’ has become the buzzword, although it means something completely different from what these people think it means. They want standard Joes who won’t have some ‘pointy-headed’ reaction and just want to flop out on the couch before movies or TV. It’s this American leveling tendency at its worst, where the sense that you can bring any kind of knowledge or experience to the subject matter is the last thing editors want…. The New York Times is one of the few exceptions in America.”

Critical sampling. In a Times piece on Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary about Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War: “Mr. McNamara speaks straight into the camera, as if he wished to talk directly with his listeners, but Mr. Morris will have none of this. The film is full of interventions, ranging from questions hurled by an unseen person (presumably, Mr. Morris) to elaborate computer animation effects, used at one distracting moment to depict the atomic bombing of Japan. The effect is one of a bizarre struggle between observer and observed, as if the two men were arm-wrestling for authorship rights.”

Short list. Kehr doesn’t like revisiting past reviews, so there are no collected works (some reviews appear in National Society of Film Critics anthologies). His new book, Italian Film Posters (Museum of Modern Art, 2003) covers the genre from the silent era through the 1960s, Art Nouveau through Expressionism. He also wrote the 2000 PBS documentary Clint Eastwood: Out of the Shadows.



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