Monthly Archives: February 1988

Form Counts [MIX-UP, ANATOMY OF A RELATIONSHIP, & GAP-TOOTHED WOMEN]

Françoise Romand’s Mix-up is surely one of the greatest films I’ve ever reviewed, and I can happily report that it’s become available in recent years on DVD (which isn’t to say that it isn’t still grossly neglected); you can even find it on Amazon in the U.S. This article appeared in the February 26, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader, and eventually it led to my becoming friends with Romand. — J.R.

MIX-UP

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Françoise Romand.

ANATOMY OF A RELATIONSHIP

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Luc Moullet and Antonietta Pizzorno

With Moullet and Christine Hébert.

GAP-TOOTHED WOMEN

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Les Blank.

While the issue of representation is at the cutting edge of most debates about film, it usually gets posed in relation to fiction features; documentaries, ranging from Shoah to the evening news, are commonly exempted. The unspoken assumption that nonfictional form is a discardable, see-through candy wrapper — a means of organizing and containing information, which can safely be ignored once we get to the goodies inside — not only keeps us ideologically innocent but limits the kinds of content we may find permissible in documentaries.

Many valuable documentaries, of course, exist chiefly to let certain voices be heard that might otherwise remain silent: Carole Langer’s Radium City, about a radioactive town in Illinois, is one such example, and Deborah Shaffer’s powerful account of the Sandinista struggle, Fire From the Mountain (which is playing this week at Facets), is another.… Read more »

School Daze

While it lacks the controlled energy and the sense of closure found in She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s second feature-length “film joint” is much more innovative, ambitious, and exciting: a full-scale tackling of class warfare within the black community, set in a mainly black college in Atlanta, that explodes in every direction. The conflicts are mainly between the light-skinned, upwardly mobile Wannabees, who belong to fraternities, and the dark-skinned Jigaboos, who feel more racial pride; the issues between them range from the college’s investment in South Africa to straight versus nappy hair (the latter highlighted in a gaudy, Bye Bye Birdie-style musical number). Lee, who seems slightly closer to the Jigaboos, takes care not to stack the deck on either side (although he’s less than friendly to the college administration); the movie’s address is basically to the black community, but white spectators looking for an education in black issues could do a lot worse than visit this movie and get pointers from the diverse factions in the black audience, who follow it almost like a sporting event. The film runs about two hours, and like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, it’s definitely ragged around the edges; the musical numbers (scored by the writer-director-producer’s father Bill Lee) are extremely variable, and the overall continuity is fairly choppy.… Read more »

Fire From the Mountain

A stirring and informative account of the Sandinista struggle, made up almost exclusively of personal testimonies from Sandinistas, this documentary by Deborah Shaffer–who won an Oscar in 1985 for her Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements–is loosely based on Omar Cabezas’s book about his own training as a guerrilla fighter in response to the Somoza dictatorship. The physicality and mythical dimensions of the guerrillas’ experiences in the mountains are an important part of the story here, but the film includes much more: newsreel footage and Nicaraguan witnesses speak of American invasions throughout this century, and the commentaries of Cabezas (now vice-minister of the interior of the new Nicaraguan government) and others are intelligent and pointed, moving beyond slogans to give a detailed portrait of their history, problems, and aspirations. Music is provided by bassist and composer Charlie Haden. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, February 26 and 27, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, February 28, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, February 29 through March 3, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »

Reichsautobahn

While it lacks the range and analytical bite of his previous Images of Germany (1983), Hartmut Bitomsky’s 1986 feature documentary about the enormous auto route built by the Nazis does create some interesting reflections on this massive and monumental project. Alternating archival footage of the construction and contemporary interviews with some of the workers with kitschy propaganda films made by the Third Reich, which attempted to “sell” the Autobahn to a recalcitrant public, Bitomsky puts together a kind of cultural history that may be long-winded and dry in spots, but that still adds up to an absorbing document about a monument designed to provide “not the shortest but the noblest connection between two points.” (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, February 19, 6:00, and Saturday, February 20, 6:00 and 8:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Unwarranted Heaviness (THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING)

From the Chicago Reader (February 12, 1988). — J.R.

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carriere

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Derek de Lint, Erland Josephson, Pavel Landovsky, Donald Moffat, and Daniel Olbrychski.

Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.   — Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The semibearable heaviness of Philip Kaufman, at least in his last three features – Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Wanderers, and The Right Stuff — is largely a matter of an only half-disguised didactic impulse, a notion that he’s got something to teach us. For a filmmaker as commercial as Kaufman, this impulse becomes worrying chiefly because we emerge from his movies not knowing anything essential that we didn’t know before we went in. We’ve submitted ourselves to a certain intelligence, grandiosity, and slickness, and we may well have been entertained — Kaufman has undeniable craft as a storyteller — but it’s questionable whether we’re any wiser.

There’s nothing at all disgraceful about this. But the suggestion that we’re supposed to be getting something more than intelligent entertainment from a Kaufman film — which seems to hover over every frame like an admonition, almost a threat — leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste.… Read more »

The Rise of Louis XIV

One of Roberto Rossellini’s supreme masterpieces, and perhaps the greatest of the TV films that mark his last period. Made in 1966, the film chronicles the gradual steps taken in the Sun King’s seizure of power over 21 years; the treatment is contemplative, wise, and quietly humorous, and Rossellini’s innovative trick shots to integrate the real decor of Versailles are deftly executed. The color photography is superb. (Univ. of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., Sunday, February 14, 8:00, 702-8574)… Read more »

Process of Illumination [RADIUM CITY]

From the February 5, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

RADIUM CITY

Directed by Carole Langer

Thanks largely to the influence of auteur criticism, most of our aesthetically oriented writing about film since the 60s has been concerned with style. But one could argue that such an emphasis has tended to divert attention from what might be considered even more important — namely, form and content. “Whatever its sophistication,” Roland Barthes wrote in Writing Degree Zero, “style always has something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention. . . . Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical . . . it rises up from the writer’s myth-laden depths and unfolds beyond his area of control.”

Perhaps only in an area like Hollywood moviemaking, where the artist seldom has final control over either the form or the content, can style be raised to the level of an ultimate principle. Yet because Hollywood continues to dominate our screens as well as the ways that we think about movies in general, the notion of style is also routinely applied to Bresson, Godard, Kubrick, and Tarkovsky, when surely form and content, not style, is what their best films are about.… Read more »

The Serpent and the Rainbow

An unusually ambitious effort from horror movie specialist Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street), filmed on location in Haiti (as well as the Dominican Republic), this genuinely frightening thriller follows the efforts of an anthropologist (Bill Pullman) sent by a U.S. pharmaceutical company to find the chemical mixture used in “zombification”–the voodoo practice that renders victims apparently dead while still alive and conscious. Depending largely on hallucinations and psychological terror (as in Altered States), and working from a screenplay by Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun inspired by Wade Davis’s nonfiction book of the same title, Craven is better with atmosphere and creepy ideas here than with fluid story telling. But it’s nice for a change to have some of the old-fashioned virtues of horror films operative here–moody dream sequences, unsettling poetic images, and passages that suggest more than they show–rather than be splattered exclusively with shocks and special effects (the latter are far from absent, but a bit more economically employed than usual). Cathy Tyson, the prostitute in Mona Lisa, plays the hero’s Haitian guide–a psychiatrist alert to some of the cultural ramifications of voodoo–and Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, and Brent Jennings, as other agents of the hero’s dark education in prerevolutionary Haiti, are effective as well.… Read more »

Sans soleil

Chris Marker’s 1982 masterpiece, whose title translates as Sunless, is one of the key nonfiction films of our time–a personal and philosophical documentary that concentrates mainly on contemporary Tokyo, but also includes footage shot in Iceland, Guinea-Bissau, and San Francisco (where the filmmaker tracks down all of the original locations in Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Difficult to describe and almost impossible to summarize, this poetic journal of a major French filmmaker (La jetee, Le joli mai) radiates in all directions, exploring and reflecting upon many decades of experience all over the world. While Marker’s brilliance as a thinker and filmmaker has largely (and unfairly) been eclipsed by Godard’s, there is conceivably no film in the entire Godard canon that has as much to say about the present state of the world, and the wit and beauty of Marker’s highly original form of discourse leave a profound aftertaste. A film about subjectivity, death, photography, social custom, and consciousness itself, Sans soleil registers like a multidimensional poem found in a time capsule. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, February 7, 6:00 and 8:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Wise Blood

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.

Along with The Man Who Would Be King and The Dead, this is arguably John Huston’s best literary adaptation, and conceivably his very best film — a very close rendering of Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable first novel about a crazed southern cracker (a perfectly cast Brad Dourif) who sets out to preach a church without Christ, and winds up suffering a true Christian martyrdom in spite of himself. The period, local ambience, and O’Connor’s deadly gallows humor are all perfectly caught, and apart from the subtle if highly pertinent fact that this is an unbeliever’s version of a believer’s novel, it’s about as faithful a version of O’Connor’s grotesque world as one could ever hope to get on film, hilarious and frightening in equal measure. O’Connor conceived her novel as a parody of existentialism, and Huston’s own links with existentialism — as the director of the first U.S. stage production of No Exit, as well as Sartre’s Freud script — make him an able interpreter. With Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Daniel Shor, Ned Beatty, and Huston himself as the hero’s fire-and-brimstone grandfather. The producer is Michael Fitzgerald, whose family’s friendship with O’Connor guaranteed the fidelity and seriousness of the undertaking (1979).… Read more »

Siesta

One of those films that has to be seen to be disbelieved. Music video director Mary Lambert draws on the themes rather than the forms of her metier to give us an art movie that promises the satisfactions of a thriller, but delivers instead a kind of allegory out of Ambrose Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The story follows five days in the misadventures of a daredevil acrobat (Ellen Barkin) who runs out on a scheduled publicity stunt in the U.S. in order to see a former lover (Gabriel Byrne) in Spain, suffers a bout of amnesia, and then has to piece together the missing days, with the help of a few decadent jet-setters she runs into, including Julian Sands and Jodie Foster (the latter of whom provides the film with some much-needed verve). Martin Sheen, Isabella Rossellini, and Grace Jones are also around in secondary parts, and Miles Davis provides a score that is a bargain-basement version of his Sketches of Spain album. The screenplay by Patricia Louisianna Knop, based on a novel by Patrice Chaplin, is an embarrassment, but Barkin and Lambert both dive into it as if it were food for thought and caviar to be savored.… Read more »

She’s Having A Baby

Kevin Bacon plays Jake Briggs, a young man terrified of marriage and even more frightened by the fact that his wife Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern) is pregnant. This John Hughes comedywritten, produced, and directed by the individual probably most responsible for bringing complacent sitcom sensibility to moviesbranches out from previous efforts by including a good many fantasy sequences and flashbacks. The problems faced involve career, meddling in-laws, keeping a house in the suburbs, and overextended credit. One could play a depressing little game matching this movie with Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend as an indication of how low ordinary movies have sunk since the early 50s. The viewpoint of the older generation (Spencer Tracy in the earlier films) has been supplanted by that of the nerdy young husband (Bacon), but the conformist middle-class context and the undercurrents of castration anxiety (revealed in dream sequences) remain basically the same; the main difference is that the earlier model had some vestiges of soul and wit beneath its reactionary humor. Even though Kristy is seen mainly through the uncomprehending eyes of Jake, McGovern manages to fare better with the cliches thrown at her than Bacon does; but neither has a prayer of scoring at a game whose rules and players might have been dreamed up by a computer.… Read more »

The Serpent And The Rainbow

An unusually ambitious effort from horror movie specialist Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), filmed on location in Haiti (as well as the Dominican Republic). This genuinely frightening 1988 thriller follows the efforts of an anthropologist (Bill Pullman) sent by a U.S. pharmaceutical company to find the chemical mixture used in zombificationthe voodoo practice that simulates death while leaving the victim alive and conscious. Depending largely on hallucinations and psychological terror (a la Altered States), and working from a Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun screenplay inspired by Wade Davis’s nonfiction book of the same title, Craven provides more atmosphere and creepy ideas than fluid storytelling. But it’s nice for a change to see some of the virtues of old-fashioned horror filmsmoody dream sequences, unsettling poetic images, and passages that suggest more than they showrather than the usual splatter shocks and special effects (far from absent, but employed with relative economy). Cathy Tyson plays the hero’s Haitian guidea psychiatrist alert to some of the cultural ramifications of voodooand Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, and Brent Jennings, as other agents of the hero’s dark education in prerevolutionary Haiti, are effective as well. (JR)… Read more »

The Savage Innocents

Victimized by a rather insensitive reception at the time of its release (1959), Nicholas Ray’s epic film about Eskimo life and its remoteness from civilized values represents his firstand, in many ways, most ambitiousattempt to break free from the Hollywood studios and forge an independent route. Scripted by Ray himself, and shot on location and in studios in several different countries, the film contains one of the few bearable performances of Anthony Quinn; the Japanese actress Yoko Tani plays his wife, and a dubbed Peter O’Toole plays a government official. Couched in the form of a parable, this is one of Ray’s most powerful films about honor and alien folkways, and the icy landscapes are hauntingly beautiful. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hospital

Set in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, Frederick Wiseman’s feature-length documentary of 1969 is one of the most powerful in his continuing series of investigations of various American institutions. Most of the emphasis in this setting is given to the emergency ward and outpatient clinics. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »