Monthly Archives: April 1988

Light Fantastic [THE LIGHTED FIELD]

From the Chicago Reader (April 29, 1988). Note: The Andrew Noren stills are copyrighted by his estate. — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed by Andrew Noren.

I’m a light thief and a shadow bandit. I deal in retinal phantoms. Film is illusion, period, however you choose to see it — shadows of human delights and adversities or raging conflicts of emulsion grains. We see only “films” of films, as all of our sight and sensing is illusion, the phantom movies of our encounter with the world, which, remember, is equally phantom, trompe l’oeil of that clown and ghostmeister, the sun.

The lovers, light and shadow, and their offspring space and time are my themes, working with their particularities is my passion and delight. — Andrew Noren

The difference between narrative and nonnarrative filmmaking is a little bit like the difference between team sports and individual exercise. In contrast to a collective game with a beginning, a middle, and an end, personal exercise tends to be more rhythmically repetitive, involved more with process and with cycles than with development, and moves with a steadier pulse that eschews the more unpredictable dynamics of drama and suspense.

Andrew Noren’s lovely 59-minute The Lighted Field — part five of his ongoing work The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse, which has engaged him over the past two decades — belongs mainly to the nonnarrative realm.… Read more »

El sur

On the surface, despite the presence of a different fictional source (a story by Adelaida Garcia Morales) and scriptwriter (Jose Luis Lopez Linares), Victor Erice’s second feature seems to bring back some of the haunting obsessions of his first, the wonderful Spirit of the Beehive (1973): the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the magical spell exerted by movies over childhood, and a little girl’s preoccupation with her father and the past. But as English critic Tim Pulleine has observed, a reference to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in El sur (South, 1983) points to an elaborate system of doubling and duplication that underlies the film’s structure as a whole, operating on the level of shots and sequences as well as themes (north and south, father and daughter, real and imaginary). Although this subtle spellbinder ends somewhat abruptly, reportedly because the film’s budget ran out, it seems to form a nearly perfect whole as it is: a brooding tale about an intense father-daughter relationship and the unknowable past, mysterious and resonant, with the poetic ambience of a story by Faulkner. Omero Antonutti (Padre padrone) plays the father; Sonsoles Aranguren is the daughter. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, April 29 and 30, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, May 1, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, May 2 through 5, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »

Nine Letters to Berta

Made the year after Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1965), Basilio Martin Patino’s touching first feature, set mainly in the university town of Salamanca, Spain, echoes and parallels that film in many respects, although here the loss of religious faith plays the role of a betrayed Marxism. Cast in the form of nine letters written to a young woman met by the hero (Emilio Gutierrez Caba) during his only trip abroad, the film has a loose, episodic structure built around various chapter headings (“The Family Rosary,” “One Sunday Afternoon,” “A World of Happiness,” etc), and like many of the other youthful and sensitive European movies of this period, the impact of the French New Wave is salutary in the fresh use of film language: fast editing, slurred motion, and a freezing and unfreezing of certain images that makes them reverberate like pictures pasted into a scrapbook. Delicately acted and directed with a keen affection for the characters, this is surely one of the best Spanish films of the Franco period. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, April 28, 8:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Lady in White

Ray Bradbury appears to be the presiding influence over this nostalgic fantasy-thriller about childhood and ghosts, written, directed, produced, and scored by Frank LaLoggia (Fear No Evil). Set in a small town in the early 60s, the plot centers on an apparition of a little girl seen by the ten-year-old hero (Lukas Haas) while locked in his school’s cloakroom during Halloween. Although the results are a bit overextended, the film is still something of a rarity nowadays: an evocative, poetic horror film without a trace of gore (and in this respect, closer to a Val Lewton film of the 40s like The Curse of the Cat People than any contemporary models). The Italian-American family detail is nicely handled, and much of Russell Carpenter’s photography is exquisite. With Len Cariou, Alex Rocco, and Katherine Helmond. (Chestnut Station, Golf Mill, Woodfield, River Oaks, Orland Square, Lincoln Village, Ford City, Deerbrook, Yorktown, Chicago Ridge, Evanston, Hillside Mall, Norridge)… Read more »


Fans of Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1985) will undoubtedly recall the character Charleen Swansea, the filmmaker’s friend and former teacher, and will be pleased to discover that McElwee devoted an entire feature to this memorable woman back in 1977. An unorthodox fifth-grade teacher, small publisher, and poet who at one point was a protege of Ezra Pound, Charleen is an exuberant and outspoken southern eccentric, and McElwee’s affectionate portrait (which, unlike Sherman’s March, doesn’t do double duty as a portrait of the filmmaker) gives her plenty of opportunities to show her special qualities–which she takes full advantage of. Much of the film focuses on her inspired methods of teaching poetry and the difficulties of her relationship with a man who’s much younger than her. Larger than life and bursting with energy and intelligence, Charleen makes a fascinating film subject and indirectly gives us a glimpse of certain southern virtues that most accounts of the south gloss over. McElwee will be present at the screening. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, April 23, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Alain Resnais and MÉLO

From the Chicago Reader (April 15, 1988). — J.R.

Directed by Alain Resnais
Written by Henry Bernstein
With André Dussollier, Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi,
and Fanny Ardant

The exquisite art of MÉLO, like the art of Alain Resnais in general, bears a certain resemblance to sculpture: it needs to be seen from several different vantage points if one is to fully appreciate its shapeliness and the powerful multiplicity of its meanings. The following selection of vantage points can’t pretend to be exhaustive; at best, it presents only a few starting points for sounding the bottomless depths of this deceptively simple movie. The first six points are provided by the film’s title and the names listed in the heading above. The last four — theater, mise en scène, symmetry, and mystery — offer more general and abstract perspectives.

1. MÉLO.
The title is an abbreviation for mélodrame or melodrama, which derive from the Greek word melos, music, and the French word drame, drama. What do we usually mean by melodrama? “Sensational dramatic piece with violent appeals to emotions” and “extravagantly theatrical play in which action and plot predominate over characterization” are two relevant dictionary definitions, among others. The earlier meaning is drama with music.… Read more »

Festival of Animation

This varied collection of shorts represents a certain improvement over the International Tournee of Animation in terms of overall quality. An organization based in La Jolla called Mellow Madness has put it together, and after many successful years on the west coast is taking the show on the road, in competition with the International Tournee. A greater interest in the hallucinatory describes part of the different emphasis, although the selection is no less international: films from Hungary, Canada, France, Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, the USSR, and the U.S. are included, and the styles vary from the near-abstract (Sara Penny’s lovely Furies, about two undulating cats) to the political and notational (Jonathan Amitay’s Oh, Dad) to School of Chuck Jones minimalism (Andrew Stanton’s Somewhere in the Arctic) to jeering punk (Christopher Simon’s Hello Dad, I’m in Jail) to top-heavy narrative (Eunice McCauley’s Special Delivery and Andrew Stanton’s A Story, the latter a nightmarish version of TV kiddie-show muck). Some of the cartoons here suffer only because they’ve already had so much exposure. (Seriously, fellas, isn’t it about time to give Bambi Meets Godzilla an extended rest?) Otherwise, the overall level of quality is unusually high, and for sheer, unadulterated weirdness, Sing Beast Sing–by the auteur of Bambi Meets Godzilla, Marv Newland–is a standout.… Read more »

A Thousand Words

Made for the unthinkable sum of $7,000, Paul E. Garstki’s independent black-and-white Chicago-based feature both profits and suffers from its impoverished budget. On the plus side, a largely postdubbed sound track allows the filmmakers to tell parts of the story through the ingenious economical device of using answering-machine messages and imaginary phone conversations offscreen. A thoughtful use of local talent (stage actors John Ellerton, Warren Davis, and Diana Zimmer as the three leads and lots of local independent filmmakers in secondary parts) and locations also makes the best use of William Holst’s somewhat minimalist script, adapted from a story by Garstki. A reclusive art critic hires a young protege, who moonlights as a surveillance photographer, to go to work on a young woman (an odd plot with faint echoes of The Draughtsman’s Contract and Paul Bartel’s The Secret Cinema, without much of the humor connected to either). The main budgetary drawback is the nearly nonexistent social context; the stilted art-world talk generally fails to convince because there isn’t enough of a world in the film to establish it as either parody or the genuine article, and the characters themselves seem at times excessively limited by the exigencies of the plot. The result, then, is uneven but singular–a quirky, rather disturbing little film about voyeurism and loneliness.… Read more »

The Importance of Being Perverse (Godard’s KING LEAR)

This appeared in the April 8, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader and is reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. – J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Peter Sellars, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard, Molly Ringwald, Norman Mailer, Kate Miller, Leos Carax, and Woody Allen.

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest monkey wrench aimed at the Cinematic Apparatus — that multifaceted, impregnable institution that regulates the production, distribution, exhibition, promotion, consumption, and discussion of movies — goes a lot further than most of its predecessors in creatively obfuscating most of the issues it raises. Admittedly, Hail Mary caused quite a ruckus on its own, but mainly among people who never saw the film. King Lear, which I calculate to be Godard’s 34th feature to date, has the peculiar effect of making everyone connected with it in any shape or form — director, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, spectators, critics — look, and presumably feel, rather silly. For better and for worse, it puts us all on the spot; as Roland Barthes once wrote of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, it prevents us from redeeming ourselves.

From its birth, a table-napkin contract signed by Godard and producer Menahem Golan of Cannon Films at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985, to its disastrous world premiere at Cannes two years later, the project has always seemed farfetched and unreal, even as a hypothesis.… Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (April 8, 1988). — J.R.

Alain Resnais’ masterpiece, easily his best film in years, is bound to baffle spectators who insist on regarding him as an intellectual rather than an emotional director, simply because he shares the conviction of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson that form is the surest route to feelings. In his 11th feature, he adapts a 1929 boulevard melodrama by a forgotten playwright named Henry Bernstein, and holds so close to this “dated” and seemingly unremarkable play that theatrical space and décor — including the absence of a fourth wall — are rigorously respected, and shots of a painted curtain appear between the acts. None of this is done to strike an attitude or “make a statement”: Resnais believes in the material, and wants to give it its due. Yet in the process of doing this, he not only invests the original meaning of “melodrama” (drama with music) with so much beauty and power that he reinvents the genre, but also proves that he is conceivably the greatest living director of actors in the French cinema, and offers a way of regarding the past that implicitly indicts our own era for myopia. (Mélo is certainly a film of the 80s and not an antique, but it may take us another 20 years to understand precisely how and why.) Using the same talented quartet that appeared in his last two films — the remarkable André Dussollier (Le beau mariage) as a gifted concert violinist, Pierre Arditi as his suburban friend, Sabine Azema as the latter’s wife who falls in love with the violinist, and Fanny Ardant (in a smaller role) as her cousin — Resnais cuts and moves his camera with impeccable dramatic logic that helps to give their performances maximum voltage.… Read more »

Life in Shadows

An interesting early example of reflexive, film-drenched cinema, this 1948 Spanish feature by Lorenzo Llobet Garcia, the only one ever made by its director, shows the life of a man dominated by film — beginning with his parents at a carnival exposition of Lumiere films, continuing through his activities as a film buff, critic, and newsreel cameraman, and concluding as he embarks on his own autobiographical first feature. Along the way, we are treated to chunks of Spanish history as well as personal film history: the hero falls in love with his future wife at a screening of Romeo and Juliet and years later, after her death, experiences a trauma at a screening of Rebecca. The only limitation of this single-minded chronicle is that it lacks both the obsessiveness of its subject and the ironic distance that might make it more meaningful. But as an outline of a sensibility that would come into its own with the French New Wave a decade later, Vida en sombras remains an intriguing and isolated document. Spanish film critic Roman Gubern will appear after the screening. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, April 10, 4:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Dim Wits, Small Potatoes

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


* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by James Bridges

Written by Jay McInerney

With Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Swoosie Kurtz, Phoebe Cates, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, Jason Robards, John Houseman, Dianne Wiest, and William Hickey.

Considering the thinness of Jay McInerney’s 1984 best-seller, one might imagine that the movie version would stretch out the material, or at least fill in some of the blanks. But by and large, the original text is treated as if it were engraved in marble, and I doubt its fans will have any cause for complaint.

If Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Algren, Updike, and Styron have never received a tenth of the respect from Hollywood accorded here to Jay McInerney, this may be because, unlike McInerney, they are writers whose styles and formal structures are easily lost in translation. McInerney’s book, written in the present tense and in the second person, is already aiming for the immediacy and easy identification available from a movie, so most of the work of the filmmakers in putting it across is relatively sweat-free. In fact, given the charisma of Michael J. Fox and the spit and polish of director James Bridges — not to mention the music of Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) and the cinematography of Gordon Willis — it could easily be argued that the movie fulfills the novel’s designs better than the novel does.… Read more »

The South

Victor Erice’s second feature (1983), based on a story by Adelaida Garcia Morales, seems to bring back some of the haunting obsessions of his first, the wonderful The Spirit of the Beehive (1973): the aftermath of the Spanish civil war, the magical spell movies exert over childhood, and a little girl’s preoccupation with her father and the past. This subtle spellbinder ends somewhat abruptly, reportedly because the film’s budget ran out, but it seems to form a nearly perfect whole as it is: a brooding tale with the poetic ambience of a Faulkner story about an intense father-daughter relationship and a mysterious and resonant past. English critic Tim Pulleine has observed that a reference to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt points to an elaborate system of duplication underlying the film’s structure, seen in shots and sequences as well as themes (north and south, father and daughter, real and imaginary). Omero Antonutti (Padre padrone) plays the father, Sonsoles Aranguren the daughter. (JR)… Read more »

The Stars Are Singing

Anna Maria Alberghetti plays a Polish refugee who illegally enters the U.S. and becomes an operatic recording star in this 1952 musical, which also features Rosemary Clooney singing her hit Come on-a My House and the ever-reliable Fred Clark. Reportedly the first film ever released in VistaVision; directed by Norman Taurog.… Read more »

Stand And Deliver

An unexpected triumph. Writer-director Ramon Menendez’s 1988 account (based on a true story) of how a math teacher at the mainly Hispanic Garfield High School in East LA (Edward James Olmos) turns a group of students into whizzes at calculus makes for a lively and rousing show. Working with a talented cast (including Lou Diamond Phillips, Rosana DeSoto, and Andy Garcia) and cowriter Tom Musca, Menendez reworks the theme of Blackboard Jungle without the sensationalism or the sexism, and proves that they aren’t needed to give his material a jolt. It’s virtually impossible to dramatize the actual teaching of mathRichard Brooks had even less success in showing the work of an English teacher in Blackboard Junglebut Menendez tells the rest of the story with verve and apparent authenticity, and Olmos is especially effective in focusing the story with a minimum of liberal homilies and a great deal of unglamorous charisma. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »