Yearly Archives: 1979

From a Far Country (Review of Burch’s TO THE DISTANT OBSERVER)

From American Film (July-August 1979). Incidentally, Criterion’s recent Blu-Ray of Ugetsu is ravishing, regardless of what Burch says (or, rather, doesn’t say).– J.R.

To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema by Noël Burch. Revised and edited by Annette Michelson. University of California Press, $19.50.

The most ambitious and detailed study of Japanese cinema since Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie’s pioneering history appeared twenty years ago, Noël Burch’s To the Distant Observer adopts an overall approach that is radically different from that of its predecessor. Modernist and materialist in orientation where other critics have been realist and transcendental, Burch argues for a nearly total revision of the way we perceive Japanese film  – proposing a new set of criteria as well as an alternate canon of masterpieces.

To call his book controversial would almost be an understatement. Copies of a draft were circulated among a few film scholars in London more than four years ago, sparking a heated debate that has raged ever since. For Burch is arguing that “the most fruitful, original period” the Japanese film history coincided with the years between 1934 and 1943, when the Japanese people embraced “a national ideology akin to European fascism”.  Read more »

BFI Monographs

From Film Quarterly (Summer 1979). Sad to say, the Aldrich and Ophüls books are now so scarce that I couldn’t even find their jacket illustrations on the Internet. –- J.R.

ROBERT ALDRICH. Edited by Richard Combs. London: British Film lnstitute, 1978. $3.25.

POWELL, PRESSBURGER AND OTHERS. Edited by Ian Christie. London: British Film lnstitute, 1978. $4.50.

OPHÜLS. Edited by Paul Willemen. London: British Film lnstitute, 1978. $3.50.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the current batch of British Film Institute monographs and the previous series issued under the now-defunct aegis of Cinema One (a joint effort of the BFI and the English publisher Secker & Warburg) is the relation of each to academic film studies. The Cinema One books, designed as popular laymen’s introductions to relatively obscure subjects, were lavishly illustrated with stills and frame enlargements, appeared both in paperback and hardcovers, and rarely proceeded beyond the format of one critic per subject.

The new line of BFI books, which appear only in paperback, are much closer to academic “casebooks”: the texts are usually longer, illustrations are omitted (apart from black-and-white stills on the covers), and the critical perspectives in most cases are multiple. There is more than one way of editing a casebook, however; and a closer look at the three titles under review offers some notion of the diversity of positions possible within this overall strategy.… Read more »

Tracking the Wild Movie: A Manhattan Guide for the Adventurous Filmgoer (with Carrie Rickey)

From American Film (May 1979) –- a collaborative venture with Carrie Rickey, written during the year when we were flat mates living on Soho’s Sullivan Street. I assume that its main interest now is as a sort of time capsule, and I apologize if some of the photos are anachronistic, which seems likely. -– J.R.

 

 

With Broadway theaters threatening to raise their top prices to thirty-five dollars a seat, the place where most natives of New York City go is to the movies. Not, by and large, to the ritzy East Side movie houses which charge five dollars a head, but to the neighborhood cinemas charging half as much — many of them featuring movies hard to find outside of Manhattan.

A filmgoer visiting the city who plans to see the same movies he can find anywhere else can expect a long line and the hurried ambience of a fast-food restaurant. But if he’s determined to sample fare that’s more adventurous and unusual, he should seek out one of the independent showcases that have sprung up in New York over the past decade.

Here, more often than not, he can talk to the filmmaker after the screening and share the movie with a community of regulars.… Read more »

The True Auteur: RICHARD PRYOR LIVE IN CONCERT

This review was originally written for the long-defunct Canadian film magazine Take One during the same time that I was writing my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), and I’m sure that Pryor’s passionate form of self-examination and autocritique struck a very personal chord for me at the time. To contextualize this review a little further, I had recently written an angry attack on The Deer Hunter for the March issue of the same magazine, not too long after a reviewer in the Soho News had compared it favorably to Tolstoy. –J.R.

 

The True Auteur: Richard Pryor Live in Concert

 

Richard Pryor Live in Concert has nothing in particular to do with the art of cinema; it merely happens to be the densest, wisest, and most generous response to life that I’ve found this year inside a first-run movie theater. A theatrical event recorded by Bill Sargeant, the entrepreneur who similarly packaged Richard Burton’s Broadway production of Hamlet and a celebrated rock concert (The T.A.M.I. Show) fifteen years ago, and more recently filmed James Whitmore’s impersonation of Harry Truman (Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!), it is nothing more nor less than a Pryor stand-up routine given last December 28th at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California, lasting about an hour and a quarter.… Read more »

REMEMBER MY NAME

This review appeared in the Spring 1979 issue of Film Quarterly (vol. XXXII, no. 3). Consider it Part 1 of a two-part consideration of Alan Rudolph, carried out over a span of a dozen years, to be followed by my much more ambivalent take on Mortal Thoughts (1991) for the Chicago Reader, which deals with some of the same issues involving both class and music. (I suspect that Rudolph’s best movie remains Choose Me, but I’d have to see this again to be sure.) — J.R.

REMEMBER MY NAME

Director: Alan Rudolph. Script: Rudolph. Photography: Tak Fujimoto. Music: Alberta Hunter. Lagoon Films.

Alan Rudolph’s second film was financed by Columbia, then written off as a disaster before it was released, but it has been running successfully in Paris for months and opens shortly in New York. It strikes me as the most exciting Hollywood fantasy to come along in quite some time. Admittedly, I am a Rivette enthusiast; I am fascinated by narrative suspension and indeterminacy, and tend to lose interest when a plot is laid out in full view, because I’ve usually seen it before. Remember My Name deliberately suspends narrative clarity for the better part of its running time, and never entirely eliminates the ambiguities that keep it alive and unpredictable — even though its themes, thanks to Alberta Hunter’s offscreen blues songs, are never really in question.… Read more »

THE DEER HUNTER: Flabby Beyond Belief

This review, one of the most incendiary I’ve ever written, appeared in the March 1979 issue of the Canadian monthly Take One (vol. 7, no. 4). It’s probably over the top, but at least it’s sincere; I can’t recall another occasion when any acclaimed movie filled me with such absolute loathing. I can recall thinking, when Cimino subsequently collected his Oscar, that he should have said at the time, “I’d like to thank especially the Vietnamese people, without whose corpses this award wouldn’t have been possible.” —J.R.

“You beat me, baby,” Francis Ford Coppola reportedly said to Michael Cimino, director of the $13 million The Deer Hunter, in reference to the fact that this new Vietnam atrocity movie has opened several months before Coppola’s Apocalypse Someday. Considering the degree to which slick media and its prize monoliths now seem to rule most of our cultural and ethical discourse, I wonder whether Coppola might have said the same thing to the Reverend Jim Jones if, after the Guyana “suicides,” the latter had been around to receive the compliment. Maybe it’s Jones after all who deserves the Oscars.

Try and imagine a boneless elephant sitting in your lap for three hours while you’re trying to think.… Read more »

New Waves from Europe

From American Film (February 1979). This article was specifically conceived as a sort of sequel/companion-piece to “Aspects of the Avant-Garde: Three Innovators,” an article published in American Film almost half a year earlier. This plan was undermined in various ways by the editors, who gave it a title derived from a middle-class French comedy of the period  (“Jean-Luc, Chantal, Danièle, Jean-Marie, and the Others”) that caused Akerman herself to reproach me for the piece (assuming that I’d dreamed up that title myself). I no longer recall what my original title was, but I’ve tweaked this piece in a few other minor ways to make it a little less unbearable to me. (By and large, most of my articles written for American Film qualified at least partially as hackwork done to pay my rent.) — J.R.

If American avant-garde films are often chancy to come by, even the most exciting European examples are apt to be regarded in this country as only distant legends. To cite one characteristic but scarcely isolated phenomenon: The welcome once given by the New York Film Festival to the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet hasn’t been extended to any of their recent films, and none of the movies of Chantal Akerman has have ever been shown here.… Read more »

HALLOWEEN (1979 review)

From Take One (January 1979). — J.R.

In order to do justice to the mesmerizing effectiveness of Halloween, a couple of mini-backgrounds need to be sketched: that of writer-director John Carpenter, and that of the Mainstream Simulated Snuff Movie——- a popular puritanical genre that I’ll call thw MSSM for short.

(1) On the basis of his first two low-budget features, it was already apparent that the aptly-named Carpenter was one of the sharpest Hollywood craftsmen to have come along in ages — a nimble jack-of-all-trades who composed his own music, doubled as producer (Dark Star) and editor (Assault on Precinct 13), and served up his genre materials with an unmistakably personal verve. Both films deserve the status of sleepers; yet oddly enough, most North American critics appear to have slept through them, or else stayed away. Somehow, the word never got out, apart from grapevine bulletins along a few film-freak circuits.

Dark Star proved that Carpenter could be quirky and funny; Assault showed that he could be quirky, funnu, and suspenseful all at once. Halloween drops the comedy, substitutes horror, and keeps you glued to your seat with ruthless efficiency from the first frame to the last.… Read more »