On September 10, the Grace Street Theater filled up for the VCUarts Cinematheque as it does most Tuesday nights. But instead of screening a film, we welcomed world-renowned film critic and historian, Dave Kehr, to share in an evening of discussion.
For the better part of the 70’s through the 90’s, Kehr reviewed films for the Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News. During this time he was once dubbed by Roger Ebert as “one of the most gifted film critics in America;” very likely in response to his unique mastery of language and perspective. In addition to writing criticism, Mr. Kehr served on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival and as a judge for the Berlin Film Festival. It was during one of many festival seasons that Mr. Kehr met Dr. Rob Tregenza, a then first-time director fresh off the set of “Talking to Strangers.”
Kehr joined us for a Q&A, led by Dr. Rob Tregenza. The two engaged the audience in a discussion regarding topics such as the value of the auteur theory in film criticism, how formatting has changed the movie-watching experience, all-around film theory and the changes in how films are perceived and criticized.
Currently a member of the National Film Preservation Board for the Library of Congress, Kehr raised the audience’s awareness of the absolute wealth of old films that exist all over the world, and the dangers of film extinction due to lack of money and interest in restoring old film prints. As a cinephile to the truest sense of the word (Kehr watches 10-12 films a week), his interests now tend to lie in older films from the 20s to the 40s and 50s. Kehr finds a special quality in the films of that age that he fears is slowly being lost with the advent of modern film making technologies. “There is no more wind in the trees… You now have to program that wind,” the element of life happening while an image is being captured, and the element of chance that can cause a welcome accident is extinguished when the frame is meticulously planned years ahead of time in the case of CGI films like Avatar.
For the latter half of the talk Kehr took questions directly from the audience. When asked what he thought about modern movie watching methods, such as streaming and pirating, Kehr responded “It has been, in a sense, downhill since they have banned nitrate film.” He then went on to explain how the depth and visual engagement of old film is something left to be desired in today’s society. However; practically speaking, Kehr still favors a seen movie over an unseen one: “by any means necessary, if you can see it, see it.”
Overall, the talk was very engaging and enlightening. “Dave was willing to talk about movies and be completely humble” VCUarts Cinema graduate Alex Dennison said. On the same topic, sophomore Clara Kelly appreciated the fact that Kehr “wasn’t some film critic up on his high horse,” and that he viewed film as “an art form that is accessible to everyone.”
The audience also appreciated Dave Kehr’s classic approach to film criticism.
“Those are the critics I care about. They talk about images, they talk about sounds, they talk about editing… I knew it was going to be a good talk,” graduate student Lee Spratley stated.
Despite his own personal love for early cinema, Mr. Kehr expressed a pious clarity towards the importance of an open mind. Kehr seldom imposed his opinion on the audience. Instead, he emphasized the idea that film criticism is, in its own way, fluid to the times. New films should be written about by the younger generation, Kehr said.
The VCUarts Cinema Department is most honored to have had Dave Kehr as a guest speaker at Cinematheque. On behalf of the department, we would like to thank him for dedicating his evening to share his extensive knowledge, and we would also like to extend that thanks on behalf of the Atlantis Program, with whom Mr. Kehr spent Wednesday evening.
Photos and reporting by Francesco Basti and Zoe Sarris