Yearly Archives: 1981

Putting Back the Ritz

The following was written at some point in the early 1980s, as a kind of postscript or pendant to my first book, the autobiographical Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1980; 2nd ed.,  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). I was living in Hoboken at the time, and secretly in love with another writer whose first name was Veronica. A slightly altered and doctored version of this piece eventually turned up in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond’s English anthology Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpant’s Tail, 1990). The version here has also been altered and doctored a little, and I’ve added all the photos, including those of the Ritz before and after its 1985 restoration. — J.R.

Putting Back the Ritz

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Between about 1947 and 1951, when the Ritz Theater in Sheffield, Alabama was still open (it was built in 1928 and received an Art Deco upgrade for talkies about five years later), my main encounters with the place, between the ages of four and eight, were on trips with my father across the river to pick up the final reports on the daily receipts on all four of the Rosenbaum theaters our family owned in Sheffield and Tuscumbia.… Read more »

Czar Babies [Review of Nabokov's LECTURES ON RUSSIAN LITERATURE]

From The Soho News (November 17, 1981). Ironically, this review was originally copyedited rather clumsily, so I’ve tried to restore some of its original logic and meaning. Incidentally, for those who might be interested, my earlier review of Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature for Soho News can be accessed here. — J.R.

Lectures on Russian Literature

By Vladimir Nabokov

Edited and introduced by Fredson Bowers

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95

Compare the book under examination to Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, reviewed in these pages last November. Is Volume II a worthy successor, an arguable improvement, or a distinct letdown? Explain. (Use concrete examples.)

All three. Issued in a uniform edition at the same price, only 50-odd pages shorter -– the jacket Indian-red in contrast to last year’s sky-blue –- the book can be considered a worthy successor. Insofar as it contains meaty selections from what I take to be Nabokov’s supreme act (and work) of literary criticism (not counting his voluminous notes on his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which I haven’t read) –- namely, his eccentric and indelible Nikolai Gogol, first published by New Directions in 1944 -– it can arguably be deemed an improvement, even over his exhilarating and enlightening lectures on Flaubert and Kafka in the first volume.… 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 »

Lights up! A few final words on the [New York] film festival [in 1981]

From the Soho News, October 20, 1981. Girish Shambu’s post on Facebook about Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont de Nord having “just popped up at both MUBI and Fandor on streaming” led me to unearth my original review of the film, which I’ve neglected to scan or post before now. — J.R.

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At a juncture like this. the New York festival splits into disassociated sections for me. One part furnishes a launching pad for a commercial venture that scarcely needs it, while the other is furnishing us with a tantalizing glimpse of movies that something called Commerce is otherwise steadily denying us. (Mutatis mutandis, the same can be said for the highly uneven collection of shorts shown with the festival features. It’s hard to know when or if my own two favorites — George Griffin’s Flying Fur, a wild burst of contemporary animation energy set to an old Tom and Jerry soundtrack, and Clare Peploe’s beautifully shot comic English sketch, Couples & Robbers, about a middle-class straight couple and an upper-class gay couple and how their lives and goods interact –- might turn up again, so I’m grateful to the festival for letting me see them.)

Flying Fur

Couples & Robbers

With Truffaut’s La Femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door) and Jacques Rivette’s  Le Pont du nord (North Bridge), both New Wave veterans are giving us mixtures that we’ve seen in their works before.… 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 »

Excremental Visionary (on John Waters’ SHOCK VALUE)

From The Soho News (September 22, 1981). – J.R.

Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste By John Waters Delta, $9.95

If conventional means wedded to conventions, then John Waters, amiable sleaze director of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Polyester. is as conventional as you or I, maybe even more so. The not-so-surprising thing about Shock Value, a “tasteful” (meaning cautious) memoir about his special brand of bad taste, is that it proves him to be literary, too — at least in a minor Mark Twain vein. Pithy aphorisms rub shoulders with sly asides and wry homilies. Here are a few jewels among gritty jewels:

All people look better under arrest.

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I never watch television because it’s an ugly piece of furniture, gives off a hideous light, and, besides, I’m against free entertainment.

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Since the character [in Female Trouble] turns from teenage delinquent to mugger, prostitute, unwed mother, child abuser, fashion model, nightclub entertainer, murderess, and jailbird, I felt at last Divine had a role she could sink her teeth into.

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Sometimes I just sit on the street and wait for something awful to happen.

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The more obscure a town I visit, the greater appeal it has for me, since I figure there’s an audience for anything in New York, but if you can get a following in, say, Mobile, Alabama, you really must be doing something right.Read more »

Walt Disney plus blood [MADE IN USA]

From The Soho News (September 15, 1981). -– J.R.

Made in USA

By Jean-Luc Godard

Thalia, September 11 and 12

WHAT could be more timely than a Godard movie that repeatedly returns to the slogan, “The Left, Year Zero”? In point of fact, the beautiful, goofy, and explosive Made in USA was made in France in 1966. But for dispirited moviegoers, having to choose between Blow Out and Prince of the City (or the bossy rival senior critics pushing them) is like having to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 50s (with bland Eisenhower and jocular Khrushchev at the respective helms). All things considered, Made in USA may well be the funniest and punchiest “new” movie around.

It’s the last feature that Godard ever shot with Anna Karina, who was never lovelier and never more made-up to seem at once Japanese and doll-like — in dazzling color and Scope. (Most of the close-ups of her in the movie are the kind of bold compositions you could hang on your wall.) In her off-screen film noir narration, she more or less accurately describes the formal and moral profile of the movie she’s in as ”a film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart — therefore a political film.… Read more »

August Humor

From the Soho News (August 20, 1981). — J.R.

Film India: Indian Film Festival Museum of Modern Art, through August 23

Buster Keaton Film Festival Lincoln Plaza, through September 19

Directed for Comedy Regency, through October 17

Honky Tonk Freeway Written by Edward Clinton

Directed by John Schlesinger, opens August 21

 

AUGUST 7: The first movie I see for this column isn’t a light comedy, but it sure puts me in a sunny mood. The prospect of a three-hour Indian film in Temil with no subtitles is a little off-putting, I would say -– wouldn’t you? On my way into the sparsely populated auditorium of the Museum of Modern Art this afternoon, I hear not one but two separate senior citizens crack jokes about what a nice opportunity this is for a nap.

And yet, just as Indian film buff Elliott Stein has predicted, I have surprisingly little trouble following the plot and action of Chandralakha (1948). The quaintly illusionistic charm of a black-and-white movie like this, about a good and bad brother vying for the throne in a mythical kingdom – with a large palace protected by a drawbridge –- is part of its primal pull from the beginning.… 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.

warhol-mickey

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 is bringing out on Blu-Ray. This interview appeared in The Soho News, July 15, 1981. — 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.

It’s hard to be precise about the doleful yet personable wit projected by Passer — a matter of style, feeling and attitude more than taste or opinion –but it helps if you’ve seen one of his movies.… Read more »

The Two Faces of Commerce

From The Soho News (July 8, 1981). From today’s vantage point (fall 2016), I think I was much too needlessly unkind here to Blake Edwards, not to mention Paul Schrader. -– J.R.

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Disney Animation and Animators

Whitney Museum of American Art.

through September 6

S.O.B.

Written and directed by Blake Edwards

Postmodernism is a jive-ass, commercially-minded, art-related movement which seems to be guided by three central tenets or market strategies” (1) if it works, it’s art; (2) if it fails, it’s politics; (3) if it sells, it works. It also betrays an overall yearning aspiration to reconcile radically opposed positions, like Karl Marx and Ayn Rand. (If you had to boil it down to a single tenet, perhaps this would be Total Gross Precedes Essence, with Existence left out of the formula.)

The spiritual home and stomping ground of postmodernism is Southern California, although a lot of its promotional rhetoric seems to get pumped through New York channels. Its principal aim often appears to be to destroy the individual and combined existential integrity of both art and politics by turning them into the two faces of commerce, this making them “available” (at a price) to everyone. Postmodernism does, indeed, make a great deal possible today, It also makes a great deal literally unthinkable — – which sometimes gives me the creeps.… Read more »

Declarations of Independents: Chance Encounters

From The Soho News (June 24, 1981). — J.R.

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Rediscovering Warner Brothers
Thalia, Thursdays through Aug. 27
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High Heels (Dr. Popaul)
Written by Paul Gegauff
Based on a book by Hubert Monteilhet
Directed by Claude Chabrol
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Dandy, The All-American Girl
Written by B.J.Perla and Marilyn Goldin
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg

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Juke Girl is an unassuming Warner Brothers program filler — a Depression movie made in 1942 starring Ronald Reagan as a young socialist hero from Kansas and Ann Sheridan in the tough-and-tender title part. It reminds me of something that Manny Farber said in a recent lecture about what people looked like in 30s films, when “every shape was legitimate,” as opposed to the more constricting notions about what people are supposed to look like in 70s films — a model that remains in force today.

As a general rule of thumb, I think one can argue pretty plausibly that any Warner Brothers Depression film, however minor, has something going for it on a social/aesthetic level that can’t be found in any over-publicized New Hollywood glitz production, however major. This is less monolithic a judgment than it sounds, especially if one considers the radically different notions of audience involved.… 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 »