Dave Kehr is going to CitySearch

One of the country's best film critics is headed for the Web.

Published January 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Respected film critic Dave Kehr has found a home on the Internet. Kehr, who reviewed films for the New York Daily News for six years, will become the senior movie critic for CitySearch, the local portal and transactions site.

Kehr, who has been freelancing since being sacked by the News at the end of '98, sounded relieved to have found a steady gig. "It's been a long time and I'm glad something really good came through," he said from his home in lower Manhattan. "I've been out of work for about a year now." When the New York Times was searching for a replacement for Janet Maslin last year, Kehr was considered a likely contender. (The job ultimately went to two critics, Elvis Mitchell and A.O. Scott.)

"Dave Kehr is one of the most gifted film critics in America," said fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert when told of Kehr's hire. "I felt he was a natural for jobs at the New York Times and elsewhere. He's one of those 'Doc Films' types from the University of Chicago -- he'd apparently seen every film ever made by the age of 20 -- and he has a sensibility that is open to directors who are doing new things."

Kehr began writing for the Chicago Reader in the early 1970s when he was still in college and was hired as a staff writer at the alternative paper upon graduating. "I've never had to deal with the real world at all," he said. From there he migrated to the Chicago Tribune before coming to the Daily News, where his tenure was somewhat rocky. His reviews -- which managed to be culturally savvy without being condescending -- were widely considered to be some of the best writing in the paper. His firing was seen as a sign that perhaps the struggling daily (part of real estate developer Mort Zuckerman's shrinking publishing empire) was trying to dumb down its content.

"I never heard about anything specific," said Kehr. "I think they just hated my guts eventually. There were a lot of smart people there, but the corporate culture was such that I don't think they really knew what reviews were for. They kind of resented having to print them in the first place. That only seems to have gotten worse."

And how will Kehr's brand of criticism fit into CitySearch's mix of culture and commerce? The company (for whom I once worked) merged with Ticketmaster Online and then devoured its chief competitor, Microsoft's Sidewalk. Now the site offers everything from restaurant listings to online personals and represents just a part of Barry Diller's myriad media holdings (including USA Films and the Home Shopping Network). Was he concerned about any potential conflicts of interest that might arise working for a company linked, however obliquely, to a movie studio or a ticket-selling business?

"I certainly was concerned about being part of a vertically integrated entertainment company," he said. "And the assurances they gave me were certainly the assurances I wanted to hear -- that [any interference] just isn't going to be tolerated."

Kehr, who replaces CitySearch's departing critic Darren D'Addario, will probably have some help in reviewing the growing number of releases coming out each week. And while curious about the way digital film may change the industry, as the Internet becomes a new form of distribution, he is withholding hosannas until he sees some results.

"I hope it's going to make a good difference," he said. "I remember thinking the same thing when cable came in big: Finally, here's an outlet for real independent filmmaking. And of course it turned out to be exactly the opposite and destroyed what was left of B filmmaking, destroyed the whole Roger Corman scene. And I hope that doesn't happen with the Internet."

While Kehr sees publishing on a Web site as no different from writing for a national magazine (he's done both, and contributed to Slate before it settled on David Edelstein as its regular critic), Ebert offers a word to the wise.

"He brings a lot to the Web," said the widely syndicated critic. "One thing he gets is a worldwide audience. I know from my own e-mail that Web users find reviews via search engines, the Internet Movie Database and the Movie Review Query Engine, and are likely to be from anywhere. You pan 'Anna and the King,' you hear from readers in Bangkok."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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