Rodney Powell
on When Movies Mattered

May 20th, 2011 by EVENTS

That I’m the editor of two books coming out simultaneously, one by eminent film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson and the other by eminent film critic Dave Kehr is something I still can’t quite believe, even with copies of both books in stores and reviews beginning to appear. But both Bordwell and Thompson’s Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking and Kehr’s When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade are now available, and considering the path to publication for each offers an interesting study of the ways that books actually get put together.

The Bordwell and Thompson book is a collection of pieces from the blog they co-write, “Observations on Film Art.” Originally launched in late September 2006 as an extension of their work on textbooks (in particular Film Art, now in its 9th edition), it developed into something like “a self-published magazine” (in Bordwell’s phrase). The tale of how the book was put together is well-told by Bordwell and Thompson themselves in this blog posting. Basically, my colleagues and I at the University of Chicago Press said “Yes” to their proposal, they put the manuscript together, it was sent out for review, our faculty board said “Yes,” and the final manuscript was prepared and went into production. Result: what we think is a first-class collection of pieces that are worthy of preservation in a book.

That’s also a good description of When Movies Mattered, but the process of putting the book together was considerably more complicated. First, some background on Dave Kehr: he is a graduate of the University of Chicago and a former chairman of its nationally-known film society, Doc Films. He moved from writing film reviews for the campus paper to the Chicago Reader relatively early in the alternative weekly’s history, and from late 1974 through late summer in 1986 (when he moved to the Chicago Tribune) was one of its principal attractions. Drawing nationwide attention, he was invited to join the National Society of Film Critics and helped establish the Reader as an important venue for serious film criticism,
Despite his current high profile job as the weekly DVD columnist for the New York Times, the long-form work in the Reader that established Kehr’s reputation as a critic is not as widely-known as it should be because no collection of that writing has been available until now. Although a few pieces made it into various National Society of Film Critics anthologies, almost all of the Reader work has remained buried in its files since original publication.

Late in 2007 Mike Lenehan, a former editor at the Reader, got in touch with me about the possibility of publishing a selection of Kehr’s pieces. The prospect was pleasing to me, and Kehr was willing to go forward, but putting together a proposal involved overcoming some physical difficulties. Kehr had not kept a file of his Reader pieces, and in fact no listing of them existed. There were the few pieces that had been reprinted, but those certainly were not enough for a book.

Fortunately one of his hardcore fans had compiled all of Kehr’s Top 10 lists on a website. We used those lists to construct an initial table of contents that was sent to reviewers along with a proposal for the projected volume. The reaction of those two reviewers convinced my colleagues that the project was worthy of an advance contract—that is, a contract stipulating that a complete manuscript for the project in question will be sent out to reviewers and that our faculty board will then consider whether it is worthy of publication based on those reviews.

Now the problem became one of going into the Reader files to find the pieces we had included in our proposed table of contents, copying them, and then assembling a manuscript. Fortunately, Kehr was able to enlist a friend, Martha Johnston (to whom he dedicates the book), who undertook the daunting task of searching the archives. To add to our good fortune, she not only found all the pieces we requested, she also took the additional step of listing other pieces that she thought might be suitable for inclusion in the book. Her familiarity with Kehr’s writing made this supplemental list invaluable in refining the proposed table of contents. We were able to assemble what Kehr and I agreed was a more representative selection of his work—it included fewer of the films from the 10 Best Lists and allowed us to add Part 4, “Revivals and Retrospectives.” As Kehr writes in his short note to that section, “I relished the opportunities my years at the Reader gave me to cover revivals of older films and retrospectives devoted to individual directors.” It was now possible to include 14 of those pieces in the revised table of contents.

With the assistance of the staff at the Reader archives, PDF files of the pieces were made, and we assembled a manuscript that went out to readers. Their reviews were positive, and our faculty board enthusiastically approved publication. With some final tinkering and trimming, When Movies Mattered went into production.

The look of a book intended for a general audience is critically important. Fortunately Matt Avery, our designer for When Movies Mattered, had an instinctive sense of the elegant look that would complement Kehr’s elegant prose, and the interior of the book is clean and uncluttered. For the cover, we all agreed that a photo of a director at work would serve to underscore Kehr’s emphasis on directorial achievement in his writing. Avery found several good possibilities, and I was immediately drawn to a photo of Alfred Hitchcock working with Kim Novak and James Stewart on the set of Vertigo. Since the longest piece in the book is about the five films by Hitchcock that were re-released in 1983 (including Vertigo), this choice seemed appropriate to me, and Kehr agreed. All the major decisions about the look of the final product were now completed, and fortunately the production process itself went smoothly.

So, two roads to publication for two worthy projects. I still can’t quite believe that both journeys are over!

Rodney Powell is an assistant editor at the University of Chicago Press and a Co-op member.
When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade by Dave Kehr is on sale now.

Posted in Editors Speak

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