Yearly Archives: 1981

Old Wave Saved from Drowning (with Sandy Flitterman)

From American Film (November 1981). — J.R.

Old Wave Saved from Drowning

By Sandy Flitterman and Jonathan Rosenbaum

Think of French cinema, and the New Wave springs immediately to mind. This association is hardly accidental. History, it is often said, gets written by the victors. And the victories recounted in the standard film histories — whether they are critical successes or box-office triumphs — are inevitably at the expense of other movies, individuals, or social trends that presumably failed to scale the same heights.

But the New Wave, like other movements in film history, is significant not only for what it gave us — films like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Godard’s Breathless, and Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour — but also for what it took away, for the films it rebelled against, repudiated, buried in the dustbin of history. Now a fascinating new program of forty-six subtitled French films made between 1930 and 1960 helps sketch out the rudiments of just such an alternative history.

This group of films, appropriately entitled “Rediscovering French Film,” has been put together by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in cooperation with the French government and, after premiering in Manhattan this month, is scheduled to travel next year to Washington, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago.… Read more »

Playing Oneself

From The Soho News (October 27, 1981). — J.R.

It’s no surprise that My Dinner with André (loved by Vincent Canby), now on at the Lincoln Plaza, was one of the most popular films at the New York Film Festival — or that Lightning Over Water (hated by Canby), and now on at the Public, was one of the least popular. It isn’t just that the former movie says something that many of us want to hear, and says it well — nor that the latter says something that few of us want to hear, and says it problematically.

Each movie stars two artists who work in the world of make-believe, playing themselves, and yet the respective positions each pair takes in relation to playing this game couldn’t be more different. For André, director Louis Malle worked from a script by the two performers, playwright/.actor Wallace Shawn and stage director André Gregory. For Lightning, film directors Wim Wenders and the dying Nicholas Ray almost concurrently wrote and directed their own performances, after a fashion.

Having once played myself in a film (Peter Bull’s The Two-Backed Beast, or The Critic Makes the Film), at the same time that I was writing a critical memoir that allowed me to play myself in a book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies), I can well appreciate the subjective factors that enter into any exercise in self- representation.Read more »

On Transes

From “Festival Journal,” The Soho News, October 13, 1981. Transes recently became available on a French DVD released by the World Cinema Foundation. –- J.R.

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October 1: The best new movie I see all week is a particular favorite. I’ve been told, of Susan Sontag’s. I share much of her enthusiasm for the French/Moroccan coproduction Transes, directed by Ahmed El Maanouni, if only because this movie has some of the best sound-mixing and most infectious music I’ve heard in ages. Both of these are central aspects of its subject, the North African tour of an indigenous pop group called Nasa El Ghiwane, which comes from the Casablanca ghetto and sings about extreme poverty – a genuinely subversive male quintet whose popularity has spread like wildfire since the 60s. Originally banned from Moroccan radio and TV, they can automatically command an audience of 20,000 wherever they play in Algeria, Morocco, or Tunisia.

The movie starts wonderfully by establishing direct continuities between the music and the Casablanca ghetto (the latter traversed from a car window) -– a sequence that was almost cut by the local government until the powerful Nasa El Ghiwane group intervened; and the transitions throughout between both physical and aural subjects are handled with a remarkable ear and eye.… Read more »

Transcendental Cuisine

Tracy Young, my editor at Soho News in 1980-81, accorded me an unusual amount of freedom and a minimum of editing (which often amounted to the same thing), but she didn’t allow me to publish this article, written in July 1981. She approved it in principle when I proposed it, then refused it after it was written — the first and only time this happened during my year and a half on this weekly paper, where I was working as both a film and book reviewer. Later on, she wound up ripping out (or, in capitalist terms, salvaging) the reviews of Zorro, the Gay Blade and Heart to Heart, and running them on August 4, 1981 with Seth Cagin’s review of Victory, under the title “Transcendental Cuisine,” without explanation.

At the suggestion of Straub and Huillet themselves, this article was later included in a 20-page tabloid-size publication that I edited about their work to accompany the first (and, I believe, to date, only) full U.S. retrospective of their work, which I curated, at the Public Theater in New York, from November 2-14, 1982, which also included ten programs consisting of films by others that they selected to run with their own work, ranging from Blind Husbands to Antonio das Mortes to A King in New York to Civil War (the John Ford episode in How the West Was Won, shown with A Corner in Wheat and Land without Bread), and including several appearances by and discussions with Straub and Huillet.Read more »

Walt at the Whitney

From American Film (July-August, 1981). -– J.R.

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This summer, Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of American Art is honoring animation — the work of many unsung individuals at the Walt Disney Studio between the late twenties and early forties — as high art.

Guest curator Greg Ford has selected approximately fifteen’ hundred individual pieces of art from the immense Disney archives, ranging from individual drawings to about a hundred films. And the Whitney has taken t0he unprecedented step of commissioning SITE — an innovative architectural and environmental arts organization — to mount these heretofore hidden treasures.

Perhaps best known for its eccentrically designed showrooms for the Best Products Company, with crumbled, notched, peeling, and tilted façades, SITE promotes the concept of architecture as art rather than as design. By its own description, SITE “rejects the traditional concerns of architecture as form and space in favor of architecture as information and thought.”

According to SITE project director Theodore Adamstein, “We’re using the vocabulary of cinema to present this work.” Thus the whole second-floor gallery space of the Whitney is painted black, and lit by a silvery light that highlights the exhibits while keeping spectators in relative darkness. Forty twelve-by-eight-foot screenlike frames, used in a variety of ways, contribute equally to the idea of museum space as movie house.… Read more »

Ivan the Bearable [Interview with Ivan Passer about CUTTER’S WAY]

In celebration of Cutter’s Way, which Twilight Time brought out on Blu-Ray, and the wonderful Ivan Passer (1933-2020), who sadly passed away less than a week ago. This interview appeared in The Soho News, July 15, 1981, and was recently reprinted in my 2018 book Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues. — J.R.

A very likeable guy, this Ivan Passer. When he tells a story, he knows just how to pace it out dramatically, in filmic terms — a trait he shares with Samuel Fuller, who virtually stages movie sequences in the course odf describing them. A very different kind of director who also has a special feeling for outcasts, Passer pursues a subtle way of his own. A Czech in exile, he suavely took over my attention with the quiet intensity of a small, spry Ancient Mariner.

I had been knocked out by his passionate Cutter’s Way. Under the title Cutter and Bone, the movie had already been aptly praised in these pages by Seth Cagin and Veronica Geng — right around the same time that it was getting abruptly snatched from release — and it was a pleasure to find it living up to its notices.… Read more »

The “Presents” of Michael Snow

I conducted two interviews with Michael Snow in the early 1980s. The first of these, commissioned by Film Comment‘s Richard Corliss (who sent me to Toronto in order to do it), was about Snow’s film Presents and ran in the magazine’s May-June 1981 issue. The second was commissioned by Simon Field’s excellent English magazine Afterimage. Both of these interviews were delightful experiences for me, and I feel privileged to have been treated by Snow during this period as a friend. (For a short while, I used to visit him once a year, whenever I came to the Toronto International Film Festival, and loved getting stoned with him — and then, most often, going to Chinatown for dinner.) —J.R.

The “Presents” of Michael Snow

A Breathless Intro

Lower Manhattan, 1981, the opening of a Canadian gallery, the onset of spring. Michael Snow’s photography/sculpture show at The 49th Parallel commences with Plus Tard (1977) – twenty-five lovely photographs, blurred and/or in focus, composing a critical/narrative tour of landscape paintings by the Group of Seven in Canada’s National Gallery. I speak to Snow for the first time since last June, when we met at a publication party for Regina Cornwell’s Snow Seen: The Films and Photographs of Michael Snow (PMA Books, $19.95); the second time since accidentally encountering him in Toronto in fall ‘78, when he invited me to attend one of his regular sessions with his free jazz group, CCMC; the third and fourth times since the Edinburgh Festival in late summer ’75 and ’76, when he premiered his last two films.… Read more »

Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (book review)

The following review of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), signed by one Nancy Rothstein and entitled “Placing Movies”, appeared in the May-June 1981 issue of Film Comment. In point of fact, this was written by me, with the full knowledge and complicity of editor Richard Corliss, following precedents in the same magazine that had by then already been set by Robin Wood (criticizing his own book on Alfred Hitchcock under the name George O. Kaplan in an article entitled “Lost in the Wood”) and, unless my memory is now deceiving me, by Raymond Durgnat (although I no longer remember any of the specific details in Ray’s case). To be fair, Robin took on his own disguise in order to express some of his own serious misgivings about Hitchcock’s Frenzy. My own motives were somewhat more mercenary, or at least self-promotional; at this point, Moving Places had received very few reviews anywhere, and the publisher, Harper & Row, not only wouldn’t advertise the book but also wouldn’t allow me to do so at my own expense.

I figured that the specific challenge of creating a fictional reviewer (“Nancy Rothstein is working on a book about the Hollywood careers of Eisenstein, Brecht, and Renoir,” read the note in Contributors) made the exercise more interesting than it would have been otherwise.Read more »

In Search of the American Uncle

From the May 1981 American Film. This is the third and last of my Resnais interview pieces from this period to be posted on this site . — J.R.

“You know, for all European kids of my age, America was a kind of fairyland,” recalled fifty-eight-year-old Alain Resnais on a recent trip to the United States. “We were born with the idea that there was another kind of country where everything was easy and perfect, like cartoon films, and there was a lot of money and freedom. I remember that when I was ten and I was looking at the French flag, I didn’t feel a thing. But when I was looking at the American flag, my heart was really beating.”

The French director also remembered that in his youth every French child had a distant relative who had gone off to America and was never heard from again. (In his own case, this was a great-grandfather who had disappeared into the wilds of Virginia.) The typical fantasy would be that the missing relative had made a fortune and would one day return to solve every problem. It’s the concept alluded to by the title of — and briefly mentioned by all three leading characters in — Mon Oncle d’Amérique, Resnais’ eighth and most recent feature, and his first major commercial success.… Read more »

Ad Hominem [review of DIXIANA MOON]

From The Soho News, March 4, 1981. — J.R.

Dixiana Moon

By William Price Fox

Viking Press, $11.95

Any kind of sales talk, no matter how witty or effervescent, eventually goes stale or rancid in your head — until it is replaced by a new slogan. This is what Dixiana Moon is all about, and, just as unavoidably, what it’s like: drifts of euphoria that gradually work their way up to nausea, peaking in a blissful forgetfulness that efficaciously clears the way for bright new ideas to come along. It is also what journalism — a quaint subcategory of advertising — is about and like, this review included: a laxative for the imagination intended to move goods as quickly as possible, straight through the digestive tract.

Dixiana Moon is a quick and agreeable read, no doubt about that. One way or another, the whole novel is about packaging. The narrator hero, young movie freak Joe Mahaffey, has a lovable dreamer of a father in rural Pennsylvania, who keeps repackaging a nightclub in different décor — French, Spanish, Irish, Italian, and so on — while Joe Jr., hoping to win the affection of Monica Murphy (an “executive dancer” whom he crosses profesional paths with in Manhattan’s Danceland), signs on as a salesman for a packaging outfits, and peddles polyethylene bags in diverse spots east of Pittsburgh.… Read more »

Cinema at a Distance (interview with Peter Gidal)

From The Soho News (January 14, 1981). — J.R.

“When I came to New York in September,” English avant-garde filmmaker and film theorist Peter Gidal tells me, “I noticed that almost every film review that I read used food metaphors and digestion metaphors to talk about art and cinema. Because consumption, digestion and predigestion is the dominant mode in this country. It’s just one signifier of the attempt to break with materialism and process, and to anthropomorphize everything.”

An “English” label should be assigned to Gidal only after some qualification. Born in 1946, he grew up in Mount Vernon, N. Y., and Switzerland and attended Brandeis University before settling in London in the late 60s. Although his accent sounds more redolent of Manhattan than of London, he has spent only two of the past 21 years in the U.S.

Regarding his opposition to food metaphors (as well as narrative), he recalls a drinking cup that he used as a kid for drinking milk. “It had a house on the outside, and on the inside, as you gradually drank, you could see the words, ‘The End.'”

“Which ties up with the idea of closure,” I suggest pedantically, referring to a discussion we’ve been having about Action at a Distance, his latest film.… Read more »