Yearly Archives: 1981

Looking for Nick Ray [upgraded, 1/23/2012]

From the December 1981 issue of American Film. I was quite unhappy with the way this article was edited at the time, but having discovered my original submitted draft quite recently (in mid-November 2011, 30 years later), I’ve decided to resurrect it here, including my own title. (Theirs was “Looking for Nicholas Ray”.)

My working assumption in restoring original drafts on this site, or some approximation thereof, isn’t that my editors were always or invariably wrong, or that my editorial decisions today are necessarily superior, but, rather, an attempt to historicize and bear witness to my original intentions. It was a similar impulse that led me to undo some of the editorial changes made in the submitted manuscript of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), when I was afforded the opportunity to reconsider them for the book’s second edition 15 years later (now out of print, but available online here) — not to revise or rethink my decisions in relation to my subsequent taste but to bring the book closer to what I originally had in mind in 1980. – J.R.

By and large, the last three decades in the life of film director Nicholas Ray can be divided fairly evenly into three distinct parts.… 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 »

Festival Journal: N.Y. Film Festival, 1981

From The Soho News, October 6, 1981. I’m embarrassed to confess that over three decades later, I have no recollection at all about Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet apart from what I wrote about it, although I’m happy to report that the film is still in distribution, and available from Icarus Films. — J.R.

 

 

September 22: From a global or even a continental perspective, much of this year’s New York Film Festival belongs under the staunch division of Business as Usual. This basically means that the festival is involved in ratifying certain important discoveries (of ideas or filmmakers) that were made during the 60s or 70s, often by the very same members of the selection committee, rather than risking its self-image or self-composure in order to seek out many new challenges or talents.

This makes New York precisely the reverse of the more footloose, friendly, and unpredictable film festival in Toronto. There the specialty tends to be, rather, a flavorsome if occasionally warmed-over newness of look, sound, and/or signature: an underground movie about everyday life in the Watts ghetto (Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep), a corrosive and shocking black comedy about the mourning business in Israel in relation to war memorials (Yaky Yosha’s The Vulture), a flaky German film based on a French best seller about Proust by his maid, played by Fassbinder alumnus Eva Mattes (Percy Adlon’s Celeste).… 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 »

Buried Treasures

From the Toronto Festival of Festivals program (September 10-19, 1981).

To quote from my long review of Pulp Fiction and Ed Wood (which can be accessed on this site), “Fourteen years ago, when the Toronto film festival still had a sidebar called ‘Buried Treasures,’ selected each year by a guest critic, I was invited to take over that slot. I put together a program called ‘Bad Movies,’ intending to play with the ambiguity of the word ‘bad’ — the only thing these films had in common, apart from the fact that I liked them, was that each of them had been pegged with that label at some point….

“This was the theory, at any rate — that all my selections were good movies that had wrongly been considered bad. But in practice, the single smash success of the series, in terms of both attendance and audience response, was Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, a film appreciated by the audience only for its badness. And since then, the evidence increasingly provided by movie fanzines — which by now far outnumber “serious” film magazines — is that among film cultists, bad movies are immensely more popular than good ones. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, at that festival the North American premiere of the penultimate, two-part masterwork of Fritz Lang, [The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb], one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, was much less popular than the latest replay of a low-budget exploitation item by an inept amateur.Read more »

Vietnam Dispatches

From The Movie No. 82 (1981). — J.R.

The war in Vietnam created in the United States a national trauma unparalleled since the Civil War, and its after-effects may prove to be every bit as enduring in the American consciousness. It was a war fought not only with guns and napalm in Southeast Asia, but with placards and truncheons on campuses and streets in large cities throughout the western world. It became the largest, most crucial issue of a generation — virtually taking over such related matters as black protest and the youth-drug subculture — but Hollywood was afraid to deal directly with it, even on a simple level.

Hollywood has traditionally done its best to avoid contemporary politics and especially political controversy, largely for commercial reasons. There is always the danger that a shift in public opinions or interest, between the time of a film’s production and its release date, may render a film with a ‘timely’ subject unmarketable in the long run, or sooner; and few producers are ever willing to take such a risk. The profound divisions created by the Vietnam War in American life were too wide, in a sense, to be commercially exploitable — at least while America remained actively involved.… Read more »

Ibsen and an enema of the people

 This appeared in The Soho News (August 18, 1981). – J.R.

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An Enemy of the People

Directed by George Schaefer

Public Theater

 

Beatlemania — The Movie

Directed by Joe Manduke

A cherished personal project of Steve McQueen, who served as executive producer as well as lead actor, Henrik lbsen’s An Enemy of the People, scripted by Alexander Jacobs, is a lot more appealing and less forbidding than its cultural aura might suggest. That McQueen was unable to get this 1977 film released prior to his death is unfortunate yet unsurprising; given the absence of outlets for movies of this kind in the United States, I would have thought that cable might prove to be its ideal resting place. But at least for us Manhattan country folk, it’s once again thanks to the underappreciated services of the Public Theater that we’re able to see it at all. 

McQueen made this movie when he knew that he was dying of cancer and decided that he wanted to be remembered for something more than his blue-eyed beefcake parts. An advocate of Laetrile cancer therapy -– banned by the FDA, and usually pegged as “controversial” in this country – McQueen had to go to a Mexican clinic to get the treatment he wanted and must have had plenty of reasons to identify with Ibsen’s persecuted, innocent, and idealistic hero.… Read more »

The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies

From The Soho News (August 4, 1981), very slightly tweaked on January 27, 2010. –J.R.

The Celluloid Closet:
Homosexuality in the Movies
By Vito Russo
Harper Colophon Books, $7.95

Want to read the first comprehensive study in English of homosexuality in the movies? Go hunt up Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes (1972). Prefer a more theoretical and political, less coterie-oriented approach? Try Richard Dyer’s first-rate Gays and Film (1975), which includes Caroline Sheldon on lesbians, Dyer on stereotyping, and Jack Babuscio on camp. Like something even more up to date, dealing with the “textual incoherence” of recent Hollywood movies like Cruising and Looking for Mr. Goodbar from a gay lib perspective? Check out Robin Wood’s interesting and fruitful article (no pun intended) in the current issue of Movie.

Where does this leave Vito Russo’s serious and ambitious The Celluloid Closet – which incidentally bears the same subtitle as Tyler’s book? Not so much in the lurch as the above list may imply. As the best researched and illustrated book on the subject — entertainingly and intelligently written in epigramatic journalese, and clearly backed up by years of patient fact-finding and interviewing — it deserves to be considered a significant reference point and a source of reference in the years to come.… 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 »

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 »

Declarations of Independents: The Masterpiece You Missed [DOOMED LOVE]

From The Soho News (June 3, 1981). This is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.  — J.R.

How can I persuade you that the best new movie I’ve seen this year, the only one conceivably tinged with greatness, is a voluptuous four-and-a-half-hour Portuguese costume melodrama, shot in 16-millimeter? Obviously I can’t. So rather than make you feel guilty about missing a masterpiece — as a couple of my friends managed to do when it was at MOMA last spring — let me assume at the outset that you will miss DOOMED LOVE all ten times that it shows at the Public between May 26 and June 14. Bearing this in mind, the following notes are an account of what you missed, are currently missing, or will miss.

1. If it’s confusing and misleading for some to call DOOMED LOVE an avant-garde film, this seems mainly because of the widespread working assumption that “avant-garde” is a social category above and beyond an aesthetic one. As industry-oriented critics like Kael and Sarris are frequently reminding us (the former obliquely, the latter unabashedly), the crucial professional issue is not what movies we go to as critics but what parties, junkets, festivals, universities, grants, and other circuits of power we have easy access to — not what we see but what we have is our calling card, whereas “taste” is largely a rationalization for the personal erotics of self-gratification, cooperation, conflict, and flattery founded on such a system of exchange.… Read more »