Yearly Archives: 1978

Editorial: What is Public Cinema? (1978)

From The Thousand Eyes, Fall 1978. -– J.R.

I can remember what it used to be like, living in New York ten years ago. New Godard movies and Beatles records were being consumed the moment they arrived, with the kind of impatient enthusiasm that must have greeted the latest installments of serialized Dickens novels when they hit the New York docks a century before.

During the same decade that saw the birth of the New Wave, our first glimpses through film of part of the Third World, the flowering of the North American avant-garde, and a corresponding leap forward in film criticism, one was witnessing the growth of a new kind of audience, a new cinema, and a new kind of thinking about movies that started from the bottom up.

From the looks of things, that bottom has dropped out. What has happened to this passionate complex of forces, this pluralism of tastes and possibilities? No film by Godard has been released in the U.S. since 1971, and the last movies by directors ranging from Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, and Jacques Rivette to Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet remain undistributed. And we can see what’s happened to the legacy of the Beatles if we consider a typically cynical industry product like Sgt.Read more »

Take Two: THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T.

[2017 Preface: I'm reposting this article less than a month after its last posting on this site because Powerhouse Films in the U.K. has just sent me, at my request, its impressive "Limited Dual Format Edition" of this remarkable movie, and so far, the only complaint I have relevant to its riches is that they didn't access this 1978 article about it any sooner. If they had, some of the uncertainties and/or wrong guesses made by Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton in their often informative audiocommentary probably wouldn't be there. For the record then--to cite only a couple of matters not covered in the article below that conflict with their suppositions (apart from the mispronounciation of La Jolla)--in 1953, at age ten, I already knew who Dr. Seuss was because many of his books were already widely available but, even as a devoted radio listener,  I didn't know who Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy were.]

The principal source of this article — written for American Film, and published in their October 1978 issue — was a fairly lengthy phone conversation I once had with Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, when I was living in San Diego.Read more »

Sound Thinking (1978, with Carrie Rickey)

From The Thousand Eyes, Fall 1978. Carrie Rickey and I embarked on this film series and article shortly after we became flat mates, but lamentably it didn’t pan out as we hoped it would; our program notes, for starters, never got distributed. — J.R.

Sound Thinking

By Carrie Rickey and Jonathan Rosenbaum

One of the consequences of describing the world around us is that language separates into different senses what we often experience as a unified whole. Language, an instrument — perhaps the instrument — of’ culture, overvalues the visual at the expense of the other four senses. Our language for the way we see is more precise: looks are eminently describable, we discuss color, dimensions, surface.

Our language for the way we hear is a jumble, less precise. Ambient sound consists of so many simultaneous events: acoustics of a space., buzz of appliances, rhythm of a clock, crowd voices, footfall. We “focus” on a visual event; we “concentrate” on sound, which is more difficult to pinpoint. We screen out the rumble of the subway train to concentrate on a movie.

If movies themselves are a selective screening process, the ways we experience them often censor out other elements. The way we talk about films — referring to “viewers” and “spectators”, talking about “seeing” a movie, asking, “How does it look?” — incorporates this idea of sensory censorship.… Read more »

Aspects of the Avant-Garde: Three lnnovators

From American Film (September 1978). -– J.R.

Talking about avant-garde film these days raises a quandary. For one thing, no one can agree on precisely what the label means. Start by asking the proverbial man on the street what an avant-garde movie is. Chances are, if you don’t get insulted, the description that’s offered won’t exactly be a heartening one.

On the other hand, address your query to “an avant-garde filmmaker,” and you’re just as likely to get a moralistic distinction between art and commerce — or between art and entertainment calculated to shrivel your own sense of seriousness to the size of a pea.

The fact that there are such disagreements about simple definitions only helps to keep the term loaded and half-cocked. A Cuban director at a film festival once allegedly shunned an American director’s gesture of friendship by saying, “I only talk to people with guns. My film is a gun; your film isn’t. ” In analogous fashion, the mere concept of avant-garde film is often used as a gun by friends and foes alike. This scares off countless spectators who fall in between these categories — less committed souls who understandably run for cover as soon as any shots are fired.… Read more »

Sound Thinking

 

From Film Comment, September-October 1978. — J.R.

Sound Thinking

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#1. The bias against sound thinking is so deeply ingrained that it shapes and invades the most casual parts of our speech. Whenever we ask “What movie did you see?”, or discuss film as a visual medium, or refer to viewers or spectators, we participate in a communal agreement to privilege one aspect of a film text by masking another, identifying the part as a whole. Some might argue that this bias is a carryover from the silent era; yet once we acknowledge that silence is as integral to sound as empty space is to image – not so much a neutral terrain as a variable to be defined and/or filled in relation to  an infinite variety of contexts – we can’t really claim that the problem started with the “talkies.” Indeed, we can’t even allude to “talkies” without agreeing to privilege speech over silence, sound effects and music, thereby participating in a related form of suppression.

#2. The point is that none of the terms we use are innocent, and the ones we have for discussing sound still aren’t far removed from Neanderthal grunts. Consider the brutal inadequacy of “sound effects”: it would seem barbaric if we spoke of visual composition in Eisenstein or Renoir as “visual effects,” if only because we perceive composition as a complex of interrelated decisions.… Read more »

An Altman [on A WEDDING]

From the September-October 1978 issue of Film Comment. — J.R.

An Altman

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Doubling the number of featured players in Nashville from twenty-four to forty-eight while shrinking the time scale from three days to one, A Wedding offers an extension rather than an expansion of Robert Altman’s behavioral repertory. Variations on the same dirty little secrets, social embarrassments, and isolating self-absorptions that illustrate his last ten movies are trotted out once again -– articulated as gags or tragicomic mash notes, molded into actors’ bits, arranged in complementary or contrasting clusters, orchestrated and choreographed into simultaneous or successive rhythmic patterns, and strategically timed and placed to coincide with unexpected plot or character reversals.

The execution of these pirouettes has never presented critics with much of a problem, for the level of craft is pretty consistent. (Some gags are funnier than others, but all get the same careful/offhand inflection.) What remains a bone of contention is their justification, which shifts more discernibly from film to film. M*A*S*H’s was that war could be fun while Brewster McCloud’s said that escape was impossible; Images and 3 Women depended on shopworn arthouse symbols while Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians put the American flag to comparable use.… Read more »

Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-Narrative

This appeared originally in Film Comment, July-August 1978, and was reprinted by Saul Symonds in March 2005, with separate new prefaces by myself (reproduced below) and David Ehrenstein, in the online Light Sleeper (which is no longer up, alas). –J.R.

Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-Narrative
By Raymond Durgnat, David Ehrenstein and Jonathan Rosenbaum

Preface by Jonathan Rosenbaum, March 2005:

When this piece was written, or more precisely assembled, over 30 years ago, Ray Durgnat and I were sharing a house in Del Mar, California with experimental filmmaker Louis Hock. Ray and Louis were teaching film in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego, where I had taught the previous year — having been coaxed by Manny Farber into leaving my job as assistant editor of Monthly Film Bulletin and staff writer of Sight and Sound in London, at the British Film Institute, and returning to the U.S. after almost eight years of living in Europe. Ray, already a friend, also came over from London to take my position when I wasn’t rehired, and I was starting to work on a book that eventually became Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980).Read more »

War Bonds [on COMING HOME, 1978 review]

From the San Diego Reader (June 15, 1978). Not one of my best reviews, and certainly not a favorite, but I’m reprinting it, after some hesitation, as part of the record, with only minor re-edits.  I came to write this through my acquaintance with Duncan Shepherd, the film critic for the San Diego Reader from 1972 until late 2010 -–  a protégé of Manny Farber who had followed him all the way from New York to southern California –- after I had been hired by Farber to return to the U.S. from London and take over his classes for two quarters in 1977 while he was on a Guggenheim fellowship, and then hadn’t been rehired there. Manny, as I recall, was mightily annoyed by this piece, and I can’t deny that some of our political arguments probably fueled the review, at least in part -– as well as some of the swagger in Farber’s prose, a regrettable influence on this occasion. (An afterthought: I was sharing a house with Raymond Durgnat around this time, and the “crazy mirror” metaphor in the final paragraph suggests to me now that he might have exerted some influence as well.) — J.R.

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As a native of Alabama, I didn’t have to worry much about draft dodging in the late Sixties.… Read more »

Letter from London (1978)

From American Film (May 1978). – J.R.

What’s been happening to British film production lately? If one tries to sort out the myriad confusions of financing patterns, it seems possible to arrive at two diametrically opposed conclusions — depending upon where one happens to be sitting and who one happens to be listening to. One conclusion says that things look bleaker than ever, with no genuine relief in sight. The other sees a renaissance of British filmmaking just around the corner.

On the one hand, toting up the investments of British capital in expensive feature productions, things seem to be unusually active. The brothers Lord Lew Grade and Lord Bernard Delfont seem to be leading the pack with their respective companies, ITC and EMI, preparing such extravaganzas as Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Boys From Brazil (ITC) -– starring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Lilli Palmer, and Uta Hagen — and Death on the Nile (EMI), another all-star special featuring Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Maggie Smith, David Niven, and Angela Lansbury, under the direction of John Guillermin. Even the long-restive Rank organization has been getting back into financial participation.

On the other hand, where’s the indigenous British product?… Read more »

THE WHITE BUFFALO (1978 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1978 (Vol. 45, No. 529). If memory serves, this was the last review I ever wrote for MFBdone on a trip back to London after I had moved to San Diego, although I believe I may have written a few features for the magazine after this, following its change of design and format somewhat later. (Postscript: This time, I’m afraid, my memory didn’t serve. I’ve just come across two more reviews I published in the MFB in 1984.) –- J.R.

White Buffalo, The

U.S.A., 1977Director: J. Lee Thompson

Cert–AA. dist–EMI. p.c–Dino De Laurentiis Corporation. p–Pancho Kohner. p. co-ordinator–Virginia Cook. p. manager–Hal Klein. location manager–R. Anthony Brown. asst. d–Jack Aldrvorth, Pat Kehoe. sc– Richard Sale. Based on his own novel. ph–Paul Lohmann. col–Technicolor; prints by Deluxe. process co-ordinator–Bill Hansard. ed—Michael F. Anderson. assoc. ed–Terence Anderson. p. designer–Tambi Larsen. set dec–James Berkey. sp. effects–Richard M. Parker. production sp.  effects–Roy Downey. m/m.d–John Barry. cost–Eric Seelig. set cost– Dennis Fill. make-up–Phil Rhodes, Michael Hancock. titles–Dan Perri. sd. rec–Harlan Riggs. sd. re-rec–William McCaughey, Lyle J.… Read more »

Aspects of ANATAHAN

To celebrate the release of Kino Lorber’s excellent DVD and Blu-Ray of Sternberg’s still-controversial and often misrepresented masterpiece, with many first-rate extras (and including both the 1953 and 1958 versions of the film), I’m posting this for the second time this year. From the January-February 1978 issue of Film Comment, with a few tweaks added in June 2010. I’ve also included, at the very end of this piece, a photograph of the real-life survivors of Anatahan that I found on the Internet. And to clarify the mimetic form of this piece, which has nine sections corresponding to the nine sections of Sternberg’s film, I’ve number each of those sections, for the first time.

This was written while I was teaching film at the University of California, San Diego and was able to study a 16-millimeter print of Anatahan that I was using in a course. This article was reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), where I added the following: “One of the critical commonplaces about THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN is that everything in the film with the exception of the ocean waves is artificial and created, and Sternberg has often been uncritically quoted as saying that the only thing he regretted in the film were these waves, precisely because they were not of his making.Read more »