Daily Archives: August 26, 1988

Looking for America [UNCOMMON SENSES]

From the Chicago Reader (August 26, 1988). — J.R.

Film Still


Directed and written by Jon Jost.

The film essay, as opposed to the documentary, remains in some respects the most neglected of contemporary film genres, by filmmakers and audiences alike, perhaps because it is seldom acknowledged as a film form at all. The only recent mainstream examples that come to mind are the first two parts of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Powaqqatsi (1988). As an English reviewer remarked of Koyaanisqatsi — a film that, incidentally, owed most of its exposure to Francis Ford Coppola’s distribution — “Its vainglorious appeal as a ‘new cinematic experience’ is really to an audience that would rather be open-mouthed than open-minded.” I found its glib borrowings from the avant-garde so irritating that I had no sense of regret about missing its sequel.

On the other hand, the most masterful examples I can think of from the last two decades — Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1973) and Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1982) — both flopped commercially in this country. And most of the other distinguished examples from the 70s and 80s seem to appear only on the experimental film circuits: Trinh T. Min-ha’s Reassemblage (1982) and Naked Spaces (1985), Chicago filmmaker Peter Thompson’s Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen (1986-87; available on tape at Facets), Jane Campion’s 1984 Passionless Moments (which showed at the Film Center last weekend), and Jon Jost’s Speaking Directly: Some American Notes (1973; also available on tape at Facets).… Read more »


The usual limitation of director Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing) is that he makes well-crafted thrillers with liberal political themes that preach to the converted. The interesting thing about his latest movie, scripted by Joe Eszterhas (Jagged Edge), is that it does something rather different–more unsettling and morally ambiguous and, as a look at the underground white supremacist movement in the U.S., more disturbing and explosive. Debra Winger plays a federal agent who infiltrates a murderous group in the rural midwest in order to discover the murderer of a racist-baiting Chicago radio talk-show host (inspired in part by Alan Berg, the Jewish radio personality who was murdered in Denver). She becomes involved with one of the leaders (Tom Berenger) and his homespun all-American family, and is forced by her Chicago-based operative (John Heard) to hang on for dear life. Rather than give us stock racist villains, the film offers a relatively three-dimensional view of their life, their community, and their all-American eccentricities. (Berenger’s character, for example, hunts down blacks in cold blood and teaches anti-Semitism to his cute little girl, but he won’t shake the hand of an American Nazi.) To complicate matters further, the ethical issue of Winger’s own role as an infiltrator who is both personally drawn to Berenger and nauseated by his ideology is played for all it’s worth.… Read more »