Monthly Archives: January 1990

Romance of the Ordinary [on Chantal Akerman]

This was written for the January 26, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, a good five years before the premiere of at least one of my absolute favorite Akerman films: her non-fictional From the East (see the first photograph below; just below that is a smaller still from her subsequent From the Other Side in 2002, which isn’t exactly chopped liver either ). But in fact there have been many high points and wonders from Akerman since then, and I’m thrilled that one of her most recent projects is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, with a script cowritten by my friend Nicole Brenez. — J.R.

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THE FILMS OF CHANTAL AKERMAN

On one hand, the films of the 39-year-old Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman are about as varied as anyone could wish. Some are in 16-millimeter and some are in 35; some are narrative and some are nonnarrative; the running times range from 11 minutes to 205. The genres range from autobiography to personal psychodrama to domestic drama to comedy to musical to documentary to feature-in-progress — a span that still fails to include a silent, not-exactly-documentary study of a run-down New York hotel (Hotel Monterey), a vast collection of miniplots covering a single night in a city (Toute une nuit), and a feature-length string of Jewish jokes recited by immigrants in Brooklyn exteriors (Food, Family and Philosophy), among other oddities.… Read more »

Mystery Train

Jim Jarmusch’s fourth feature gives us three separate stories occurring over the same day in a sleazy section of Memphis: “Far From Yokohama,” about the visit of a young Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) to the shrines of their demigods, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins respectively; “A Ghost,” about an Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi) whose husband has just died on their honeymoon, who shares a hotel room with an American woman (Elizabeth Bracco) who has just left her English boyfriend, and who glimpses the ghost of Elvis himself; and “Lost in Space,” about the grief of the English boyfriend (Joe Strummer) alluded to in part two, who hangs out with two buddies (Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi) and shoots a clerk in a liquor store. All three stories gravitate toward the same locations, including a rundown hotel presided over by night clerk Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and bellboy Cinque Lee, and Jarmusch gets a lot of mileage out of the formal satisfactions to be found as the three separate stories periodically pass over the same places and moments in time. There’s also some thoughtful work in the selective color of Robby Muller’s cinematography, and a great deal of the wit, poetry, and sensitivity to character that made Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law so appealing.… Read more »

TV Films by Alexander Kluge

From the Chicago Reader (January 12, 1990). — J.R.

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American TV watchers, eat your hearts out! These four selections from “Ten to Eleven” — a series of short, experimental “essay” films made for German television by the remarkable German filmmaker Alexander Kluge, to be shown here on video — are not always easy to follow in terms of tracing all their connections, but they’re the liveliest and most imaginative European TV shows I’ve seen since those of Ruiz and Godard. Densely constructed out of a very diverse selection of archival materials, which are manipulated (electronically and otherwise) in a number of unexpected ways, these historical meditations often suggest Max Ernst collages using the cultural flotsam of the last 100 years. Why Are You Crying, Antonio? relates fascism, opera, and domesticity; Articles of Advertising historicizes ads in a number of novel ways; Madame Butterfly Waits offers a compressed history of opera and its kitschy successors in pop culture; and the self-explanatory The Eiffel Tower, King Kong, and the White Woman makes use of comics, movies in the 1890s, a quote from Heidegger, and multiple images of the famous ape and tower. These are apparently fairly recent works. A Chicago premiere. (Randolph St.… Read more »

Hotel Monterey

This early experimental feature, slightly longer than an hour, by Chantal Akerman (1972), shot silently and brilliantly by Babette Mangolte, explores the corridors, lobby, elevators, and rooms of a cheap New York hotel. Occasionally the rooms’ solitary occupants are glimpsed, but this only increases the overall atmosphere of eerie isolation and quiet, and reveals perhaps more than any other Akerman film how central an influence Edward Hopper has had on her work. On the same program, two very early Akerman shorts: Saute ma ville! (1968) and Lachambre (1972). Saute ma ville!–Akerman’s first film, made when she was still a teenager–is a hilarious and appropriately claustrophobic forerunner of Jeanne Dielman, starring Akerman herself as a neurotic individual who creates apocalyptic havoc in her own kitchen. An illuminating and luminous program, not to be missed. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Monday through Thursday, January 15 through 18, 7:00, 281-4114)… Read more »

Glory

A historically fascinating picture about the Civil War’s 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, made up of black enlisted men and headed by a white colonel named Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). Directed by TV award winner Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, Special Bulletin) from a script by Kevin Jarre (Rambo: First Blood Part II), the film suffers from some of the war-movie and liberal-movie cliches that one might expect from filmmakers with these credits, but the cast–which also includes Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Cary Elwes–is strong, and the training and battle scenes seem carefully researched. Lurking somewhere in the background of this true-life tale, derived from two books (Lincoln Kirstein’s Lay This Laurel and Peter Burchard’s One Gallant Rush) and the letters of Robert Gould Shaw, is some caustic irony about the outcome of the black soldiers’ desire to fight that the movie never confronts directly enough. But this is still a pretty watchable and always interesting period film, well photographed by English cinematographer Freddie Francis. (Webster Place, Evanston, Evergreen, Hyde Park, Hillside Square, Norridge, Yorktown, Water Tower, Lincoln Village)… Read more »

Solaris

After being circulated in various truncated versions in this country, Andrei Tarkovsky’s beautiful, enigmatic, and highly idiosyncratic SF spectacle has finally been restored to its original 167 minutes. Although Tarkovsky regarded this 1972 feature (his third), beautifully composed in ‘Scope, as the weakest of his films, it holds up remarkably well as a soulful Soviet “response” to 2001: A Space Odyssey that concentrates on the limits of man’s imagination in relation to memory and conscience. Sent to a remote space station poised over the mysterious planet Solaris in order to investigate the puzzling data sent back by an earlier mission, a psychologist (Donatis Banionis) discovers that the planet materializes human forms based on the troubled memories of the space explorers–including the psychologist’s own beautiful wife (Natalya Bondarchuk), who killed herself many years before and is repeatedly resurrected before his eyes. More an exploration of inner space than of outer space, Tarkovsky’s eerie mystic parable is given substance by the filmmaker’s boldly original grasp of film language and the remarkable performances by all the principals; while it may not be the equal of such masterpieces as Andrej Roublev and Stalker, it remains one of the key Russian films of the 70s, charged with poetry, passion, and mystery.… Read more »

Sidewalk Stories

Disarming in the simplicity and sentimentality of its basic conception, this mainly silent black-and-white comedy reworks the basic coordinates of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid in terms of the homeless in contemporary lower Manhattan. Written, directed, produced by, and starring Charles Lane, the movie focuses on a young black sidewalk portrait artist who finds himself caring for a two-year-old girl after her father is murdered in an alley. The comparisons provoked by Lane between himself and Chaplin are not always fortunate; in spite of his obvious talent and sincerity, the filmmaker-performer doesn’t come across as any sort of genius. It’s just as clear that 1921, the year of The Kid, is not 1989; the gags tend to be both more modest and less plentiful, and the characters are even simpler than Chaplin’s. Nevertheless, Lane’s conceit is handled with such unassuming sweetness and charm that it never comes across as presumptuous or pretentious, and the simple authority of his conclusion–which uses dialogue in order to point out what most of us refuse to hear when we’re walking down the street–is unimpeachable. One should also credit Marc Marder with a memorable jaunty score that subtly enhances the pantomime without belaboring it. With Nicole Alysia, Sandye Wilson, and Darnell Williams.… Read more »

Best of a Bad Year [The Best Films of 1989]

From the Chicago Reader (January 5, 1990). — J.R.

As a moviegoer who was privileged to see a good many films, both new and old, in a number of contexts, places, and formats in 1989, I can’t say it was a bad year for me at all. I saw two incontestably great films at the Rotterdam film festival (Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere and Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan’s A Story of the Wind), and several uncommonly good ones both there and at the festivals in Berlin, Toronto, and Chicago. (Istvan Darday and Gyorgyu Szalai’s The Documentator and Jane Campion’s Sweetie — the latter due to be released in the U.S. early this year–are particular standouts.) Thanks to the increasing availability of older films on video, I was able to catch up with certain major works that I’d missed and see many others that I already cherished.

But considering only the movies that played theatrically for the first time in Chicago, I have to admit that it was a discouraging year. In fact, 1989 was the worst year for movies that I can remember, particularly when it comes to U.S. releases. Gifted filmmakers are granted less and less freedom as the Hollywood studios are taken over by conglomerates and European films are set up as international coproductions — both trends that have been in process for some time now; and the grim consequences of these changes become much more apparent when one takes a long backward look rather than when one considers the immediate surface effects of movies on a week-by-week basis.… Read more »

Killer Of Sheep

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The first feature (1977) of the highly talented black filmmaker Charles Burnett, who set most of his early films in Watts (including My Brother’s Wedding and To Sleep With Anger); this one deals episodically with the life of a slaughterhouse worker. Shot on a year’s worth of weekends for under $10,000, this remarkable work is conceivably the single best feature about ghetto life. It was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry as one of the key works in American cinema — ironic and belated recognition of a film that, until this recent restoration, had virtually no distribution. It shouldn’t be missed. With Henry Gayle Sanders. 87 min. (JR)

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Sweetie

Those lucky enough to have seen Jane Campion’s eccentric and engaging shorts had reason to expect her first feature to be a breakthrough for the Australian cinema. But nothing prepared one for the freshness and weirdness of this 1989 black comedy about two sisters (Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston) locked in a deadly struggle. Practically every shot is unorthodox, unexpected, and poetically right, and the swerves of the plot are simultaneously smooth, logical, and so bizarre you’ll probably wind up pondering them days later. The mad behavior of both sisters may make you squirm, and there are plenty of other things in this pictureincluding the other charactersto make you feel unbalanced, but Campion does so many beautiful, funny, and surprising things with our disquiet that you’re likely to come out of this movie seeing the world quite differently. In short, this is definitely not to be missed. With Tom Lycos, Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry, and Michael Lake. R, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Street And The Student Of Prague

Karl Grune’s 1923 silent German feature combines expressionist lighting with a naturalistic middle-class drama about a kind but confused middle-aged protagonist who gives in to the temptations of the city streets. 74 min. Henrik Galeen’s The Student of Prague (1926), one of the most famous doppelganger films in the silent German cinema, is actually a remake of a 1913 feature said to be the earliest surviving German expressionist film; this version stars Conrad Veidt in the title role. (JR)… Read more »

Solaris

Although Andrei Tarkovsky regarded this 1972 SF spectacle in ‘Scope as the weakest of his films, it holds up remarkably well as a soulful Soviet response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, concentrating on the limits of man’s imagination in relation to memory and conscience. Sent to a remote space station poised over the mysterious planet Solaris in order to investigate the puzzling data sent back by an earlier mission, a psychologist (Donatas Banionis) discovers that the planet materializes human forms based on the troubled memories of the space explorersincluding the psychologist’s own wife (Natalya Bondarchuk), who’d killed herself many years before but is repeatedly resurrected before his eyes. More an exploration of inner than of outer space, Tarkovsky’s eerie mystic parable is given substance by the filmmaker’s boldly original grasp of film language and the remarkable performances by all the principals. In Russian with subtitles. 165 min. (JR)… Read more »

Skidoo

Otto Preminger took LSD before making this demented, vulgar 1968 screwball musical about hippies taking over the world, in which his own trip is re-created as Jackie Gleason’s. This isn’t exactly funny, and it’s the last Preminger film one would pick to convince a skeptic of his talent, but it’s fascinating throughout. The satirical plot pits hippies against corporate gangsters lorded over by someone named God (Groucho Marx in his last film performance), whom Gleason used to work for. The cast mainly consists of aging TV stars (Gleason, Marx, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang) and Hollywood has-beens (Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Fred Clark). Preminger’s celebration of the counterculture may be peculiar (Channing serves as the major go-between and, oddly enough, the sanest character), but it’s certainly sincere. Don’t miss the hallucinatory Garbage Can Ballet — the apotheosis of this cheerful garbage can of a movie — and the sung credits at the end. 98 min. (JR)

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Sidewalk Stories

Disarming in the simplicity and sentimentality of its basic conception, this mainly silent black-and-white comedy reworks the basic coordinates of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid in terms of the homeless in late-80s lower Manhattan. Written, directed, produced by, and starring Charles Lane, the movie focuses on a young, black sidewalk portrait artist who finds himself caring for a two-year-old girl after her father is murdered in an alley. The comparisons provoked by Lane between himself and Chaplin are not always fortunate; in spite of his obvious talent and sincerity, the filmmaker-performer doesn’t come across as any sort of genius. It’s just as clear that 1921, the year of The Kid, is not 1989; the gags tend to be both more modest and less plentiful, and the characters are even simpler than Chaplin’s. Nevertheless, Lane’s conceit is handled with such unassuming sweetness and charm that it never comes across as presumptuous or pretentious, and the simple authority of his conclusionwhich uses dialogue in order to point out what most of us refuse to hear when we’re walking down the streetis unimpeachable. One should also credit Marc Marder with a memorable jaunty score that subtly enhances the pantomime without belaboring it. With Nicole Alysia, Sandye Wilson, and Darnell Williams.… Read more »

Scar Of Shame

Lucia Lynn Moses and Harry Henderson star in this silent melodrama about class divisions within black society, produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation in 1927. The story of a successful concert pianist who marries a darker-skinned, working-class woman, it was one of the first black independent features made in this countrythough it’s worth noting that Frank Peregini, the director, was white. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »