On June 15, 2017, Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, awarded Dave Kehr with the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. Dave Kehr is a brilliant film critic and journalist with a passion for French cinema. Throughout his career, he has significantly contributed to the growth of French culture in the United States.
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to welcome you all tonight as we gather to honor Dave Kehr, an avid cinephile, prominent critic and film journalist, and a lover of French cinema. As Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States, it is my role to encourage and promote the best of French culture in this country. And it is France’s privilege to reward others who do the same out of pure passion and love for the arts – or, in this case, the seventh Art: Cinema.
The Order of Arts and Letters, established in 1957 by the French government, is uniquely suited to this task. It is meant to honor not only prestigious artists and writers, but also individuals who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. Dave, the love for French cinema of all genres and time periods — from animated movies to film noir and major motion pictures – that you have demonstrated both in your career and personal life, has made you a worthy recipient of this honor.
Your love of cinema dates all the way back to your days as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. At the time, film courses were only occasionally offered, and no “Cinema Studies” major existed. It was through your extracurricular activities: as the chairman of the student film society, Doc Films, and by writing film criticism from an auteurist perspective for the student newspaper, that you discovered the milieu in which you thrive today. During that time, you also learned French in order to follow the influential French film critics who were published in pioneering journals such as Les Cahiers du Cinema and Positif. You found in them the guidance and inspiration to write incisive film commentary focusing not only on plot and casting, but also on mise en scène and directing. Would you have guessed at the time that one day your name would be included in the prestigious list of the Cahiers authors?
The lessons you drew from the masters of French cinema have shone through your work as a film critic, first at the Chicago Reader during and after your time in college, and later at the Chicago Tribune, and then in New York, as a critic and columnist for the Daily News and The New York Times. It was evident not only in the style of your critiques but also in the movies you chose to review. Richard Peña (Director Emeritus of the New York Film Festival and Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University) recalled how, after he had organized a single screening of Robert Bresson’s Le Diable Probablement, you put the film on your yearly top ten list, because it was simply “the best new film shown in Chicago this year.” Although your commentaries, obituaries, and tributes were clearly grounded in your vast expertise in the subject – your articles were “marvels of erudition” in the words of your close friend Sophie Gluck – they were also accessible to all. You were a living testament to the importance of foreign cinematography and of international artistic dialogue, and throughout your time as a film critic you always sought to give more visibility to foreign films.
While at the New York Times, you gave particular attention to French cinema, from the popular Visiteurs en Amérique to the Roman de Gare by Claude Lelouch, who you interviewed in fluent French. In fact, you interviewed many French directors and actors, such as Anna Karina and Francis Veber, and wrote portraits of French cinema giants such as Jean Gabin and Claude Chabrol, many of whose works had featured prominently in the Cahiers. French DVD and BlueRay film releases were always met with passionate excitement and enthusiasm in your column. (I would delete this) It is difficult to write independent or foreign movie reviews or even mention these films in the press, since they usually appeal to a smaller portion of the magazine or newspaper readership. The fact that you did just that shows your determination to share the widespread love you have for cinema everywhere. You became a primary point of reference for others interested in foreign and independent films, and your valued opinion, played an important role in the release of French films in the United States.
Along with your official work as a film critic you strove to find another way to share your impressions and cinematographic musings with as wide an audience as possible. You created a blog in 2008 which allowed you to express yourself more broadly and focus on whatever upcoming film, rising star, or notable director you wished. It also served as a platform for dialogue with the rest of the cinephile community. Your film expertise also enabled you to serve on the selection committees of prestigious festivals such as the New York Film Festival. As a member of these selection committees you introduced yet more foreign and smaller-budget films to American audiences. Paul Ruiz’s “Les trois couronnes du matelot” (Three Crowns of the Sailor), for instance, would not be nearly as well known if you had not championed it at the 1984 New York Festival. In 2011, you published a compilation of more than 50 of your reviews, including a section dedicated to Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Luc Godard. One might imagine that it was this desire for an even deeper exploration of cinema that drove you to join the Museum of Modern Art in 2013 as Curator in the Department of Film where today you curate programs for the museum’s extensive public exhibition program and work with the museum’s vast film archive on restorations and circulating programs.
The passion you have had throughout your life for film, and the role French cinema has played in developing and refining this passion, has led you to become a guiding force for cinephiles all over the world – even referred to as a “gift from heaven” by one of the many curators and programmers you have befriended along your journey. You write for all audiences, whether they know nothing of the seventh art or have devoted their lives to it, because you believe cinema from everywhere should be shared with everyone. That is a philosophy we strongly support here at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, and I think it is a philosophy that has deeply corresponded to that of French cinema since its inception. In the words of Véronique Godard, your are a true “Ami Américain”. In the spirit of artistic plurality and transatlantic friendship,
Dave Kehr, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.