Monthly Archives: May 1990

A Bluffer’s Guide to Bela Tarr

From the Chicago Reader (May 25, 1990). This is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. — J.R.

ALMANAC OF FALL

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Bela Tarr

With Hedi Temessy, Erika Bodnar, Miklos B. Szekely, Pal Hetenyi, and Janos Derzsi.

1. Problems

One reason that Eastern European films often don’t get the attention they deserve in the West is that we lack the cultural and historical contexts for them. If Eastern Europe’s recent social and political upheavals took most of the world by surprise, this was because most of us have been denied the opportunity to see the continuity behind them: they seemed to spring out of nowhere. The best Eastern European films tend to catch us off guard in the same way, and for similar reasons.

My own knowledge of Hungarian cinema is spotty at best, despite the fact that, according to David Cook in A History of Narrative Film, the Hungarians “seem to have identified film as an art form before any other nationality in the world, including the French.” (One of the first major film theorists, Bela Balazs, was Hungarian, and a contemporary film studio in Budapest is named after him.) Among the pioneers were Mihaly Kertesz and Endre Toth, who emigrated to the U.S.… Read more »

Longtime Companion

Thankfully, the first commercial feature about AIDS doesn’t follow the obscene Reagan-Bush approach–saving all its tears for children, with the unmistakable implication that other AIDS victims don’t count. It follows a group of adult friends and acquaintances, including a few who work for television, who spend their vacations on Fire Island and who are all struck directly or indirectly by AIDS. Though it contains some useful information, this is not really a preachy film–it is simply a very human and compassionate one about a tragedy that affects us all. Written by Craig Lucas (author of the recent play Prelude to a Kiss) and directed by Norman Rene. With a good cast that includes Stephen Caffrey, Patrick Cassidy, Brian Cousins, Bruce Davison, John Dossett, Mark Lamos, Dermot Mulroney, Mary-Louise Parker, Michael Schoeffling, and Campbell Scott. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 25 through 31)… Read more »

Red Bridge to Australia [on CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION]

This originally appeared in the May 23, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Children of the Revolution

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Peter Duncan

With Judy Davis, Sam Neill, F. Murray Abraham, Richard Roxburgh, Rachel Griffiths, Geoffrey Rush, Russell Kiefel, John Gaden, Ben McIvor, Marshall Napier, Ken Radley, Fiona Press, and Alex Menglet.

This cockeyed story is recounted by several narrators in pseudodocumentary style (a style distantly patterned on Warren Beatty’s in Reds): various old codgers in present-day Australia speak to the camera about the past, their accounts leading into several extended flashbacks. Judy Davis plays Joan Fraser, a red-diaper baby who learned about Karl Marx from her father when he took her fishing. In 1949 — during the darkest days of the cold war — she’s a young woman who still dreams of a workers’ revolution and still idolizes Joseph Stalin. When Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies decides that Australia should follow the U.S. into Korea and outlaw communism and sign various anticommunist treaties, Fraser goes ballistic: she gets herself and her boyfriend, Welch (Shine’s Geoffrey Rush), ejected from a movie theater by causing a commotion during a newsreel, decides it would be OK to go to prison (“What do you people want — a discreet revolution?”), proposes a march on the parliament, and speaks to workers.… Read more »

The Life and File of an Anarchist Filmmaker

From the Chicago Reader (May 18, 1990). — J.R.

MR. HOOVER AND I

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Emile de Antonio.

1. “Born Pennsylvania U.S.A., in intellectual surroundings and coal mines. Went to Harvard. Became, and still is, a Marxist, without party or leader. Started making films at age of 40 after having avoided films most of his life. Favorite film is L’age d’or.” Emile de Antonio’s self-description was written around 1977 for a poll organized by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium and eventually published in book form as The Most Important and Misappreciated American Films. Under the category of most important American films, de Antonio listed, in order, The Birth of a Nation, It’s a Gift, A Night at the Opera, The Cure, The Immigrant, One A.M., The Kid, Big Business, The Navigator, and Foolish Wives, and added the following comment:

“Most American films were and are like Fords. They are made on assembly lines. John Ford is not an artist any more than Jerry Ford is a statesman. Harry Cohn said it all and the Capras jumped.

“Comedy was spared all that. Irreverence was possible because the booboisie didn’t know it was being laughed at.… Read more »

15th Annual Festival of Illinois Film and Video

Prizewinning film and video shorts in four categories–experimental, animation, documentary, narrative. Because I was one of the five judges in this year’s competition, I’ve seen them all, and they’re certainly a far ranging bunch. The first-prize winners are Francois Miron’s visually intoxicating What Ignites Me, Extinguishes Me (experimental), Ian Fowler’s intriguing In Passing (animation, although the film features live action as well), Thomas Almada’s moving and powerful Chicago House: A Community Together (the first AIDS documentary I’ve seen that dares to be positive and upbeat), and Josef Steiff’s highly original and evocative narrative film Borders. The honorable mentions include two narrative films (James Chia-Min Liu’s A Scent of Incense and Steiff’s Catching Fire), two documentaries (Peter Kuttner and Kartemquin Films’ talking-head video Power to the People about the Black Panthers, and Wing Ko’s totally different Surfaces, a lyrical piece about skateboarding), and Susan Anderson’s witty and cerebral experimental film Lusitania, which recalls the work of Werner Schroeter. (Music Box, Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19)… Read more »

Too Horrible [LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN]

From the Chicago Reader (May 11, 1990). — J.R.

LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Uli Edel

Written by Desmond Nakano

With Stephen Lang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Burt Young, Peter Dobson, Jerry Orbach, and Alexis Arquette.

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After making the rounds of Europe late last year, this West German feature, an adaptation in English of Hubert Selby Jr.’s famous short-story collection of 1964, has finally reached our shores, and it proves to be at least as much of a mixed blessing as the book itself was a quarter of a century ago. Although shot on location in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district, adapted by an American (Desmond Nakano, who scripted Boulevard Nights about a decade ago), and featuring an all-American cast, this is very much a European picture in style and ambience, with more emphasis on mood and atmosphere than on plot and action.

Uli Edel, the director, whose best-known previous effort in the U.S. is Christiane F. (1980), and who has been interested in adapting this book since the early 70s, employs a somewhat distanced theatrical style in lighting, production design, and staging that registers a bit like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s did, though without the political irony that gave Fassbinder’s style its edge.… Read more »

Presumed Guilty

Michael Niederman’s hour-long Chicago-made documentary about the 1968 murder trial and conviction of Dr. John Branion Jr. The film does an excellent job of persuading us that Branion was convicted of killing his wife on the basis of insubstantial, inconclusive, and even contradictory evidence, largely because of an inadequate defense and the various racial tensions that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King (Branion is black). The fact that Branion skipped bail and fled to Africa for many years has dissuaded various judges from retrying his case, in spite of the fact that virtually no one now believes that Branion was guilty as charged. Although this is much more simply made than, say, The Thin Blue Line, the facts and implications are equally disturbing, and Niederman does a fine job of juggling interviews (including one with Oscar Brown Jr., the first cousin of Branion’s murdered wife) with other elements in building his case. A Chicago premiere. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Saturday, May 12, 8:00 and 9:15, 281-8788)… Read more »

Motion and Emotion: The Films of Wim Wenders

Though very polite and British, this feature-length documentary about German filmmaker Wim Wenders offers the most penetrating insights and the best overall critique of his work that I have encountered anywhere. Paul Joyce, who directed it, has also made documentaries about Nicolas Roeg, David Cronenberg, Nagisa Oshima, and Dennis Hopper, and he knows the conventional format well enough to get the most out of it. There are good clips and interesting commentaries from the interviewed subjects, who include Wenders himself, cinematographer Robby Muller, filmmaker Sam Fuller, novelist Patricia Highsmith, musician Ry Cooder, actors Harry Dean Stanton, Peter Falk, and Hanns Zischler, and critic Kraft Wetzel, who is especially provocative. A must-see for Wenders fans, highly recommended for everyone else (1989). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, May 17, 6:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

An Actor’s Revenge

Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 masterpiece, one of the most dazzling and stylistically audacious Japanese films ever made, has to be seen to be believed — though in Japan, interestingly enough, it’s never been regarded as anything but a potboiler. The film was putatively made to celebrate the 300th film appearance of box-office idol Kazuo Hasegawa, and is in fact a remake of a 1938 film by Teinosuke Kinugasa that featured Hasegawa in the same parts. Ichikawa uses it as an unprecedented opportunity for unbridled stylistic play (the film’s use of ‘Scope and color is breathtaking), Shakespearean complication (Hasegawa plays two parts, one of them in drag), and a fascinating investigation into the relationship between theater and cinema. The hero is a Kabuki female impersonator out to avenge the death of his parents, and the plot proceeds somewhat like a film noir (with revelatory flashbacks), while adroitly mixing onstage and offstage action. To make the campy mixture even weirder, Ichikawa periodically uses contemporary jazz on the sound track. One can easily see here why Disney is one of Ichikawa’s favorite filmmakers, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this singular experiment is its demonstration that theater and film are more kissing cousins than distant relations — the more stage bound the film gets, the more cinematic it becomes.… Read more »

Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen

This appeared originally in the May-June 1990 issue of Tikkun, and was reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, five years later. — J.R.

“Why are the French so crazy about Jerry Lewis?” is a recurring question posed by film buffs in the United States, but, sad to say, it is almost invariably asked rhetorically. When Dick Cavett tried it out several years ago on Jean-Luc Godard, one of Lewis’s biggest defenders, it quickly became apparent that Cavett had no interest in heating an answer, and he immediately changed the subject as soon as Godard began to provide one. Nevertheless it’s a question worth posing seriously, along with a few related ones — even at the risk of courting disbelief and giving offense.

Why are American intellectuals so contemptuous of Jerry Lewis and so crazy about Woody Allen? Apart from such obvious differences as the fact that Allen cites Kierkegaard and Lewis doesn’t, what is it that gives Allen such an exalted cultural status in this country, and Lewis virtually no cultural status at all? (Charlie Chaplin cited Schopenhauer in MONSIEUR VERDOUX, but surely that isn’t the reason why we continue to honor him.) If we agree that there’s more to intellectual legitimacy than name-dropping, what is it in Allen’s work as a comic Jewish writer-director-performer that earns him that legitimacy — a legitimacy that is denied to, among others, Elaine May and both Mel and Albert Brooks?… Read more »

Film on Film: Documenting the Director

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 1990). — J.R.

DOCUMENTING THE DIRECTOR

It’s no secret that over the past few years, while “entertainment news,” bite-size reviews, and other forms of promotion in all the media have been steadily expanding, serious film criticism in print become an increasingly scarce. (I’m not including academic film interpretation, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field that has by now developed a rhetoric and a tradition of its own — the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating book Making Meaning, published last year.) But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, in some cases supplanting the sort of work that used to appear only in print.

There are plenty of talking-head “documentaries” about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios — currently clogging cable TV, but what I have in mind is something quite different: analytic films about films and filmmakers. Many of these films are shown in film festivals, turn up on TV, and are used in academic film courses, but very few of them ever wind up in commercial theaters, with the consequence that they’re rarely reviewed outside of trade journals.… Read more »

Sweetie’s Secret

To the editors:

J. Rosenbaum’s laudatory review of Sweetie, Jane Campion’s first feature film (March 30 issue) contained a crucial and almost offensive blindspot. He describes Sweetie as a “compulsive flirt” writing that “even when she bathes her own father, she’s quite capable of dropping the soap into the tub as an excuse for groping him.” His easy “when she bathes her own father” makes it seem as if such an act were a normal part of any father/daughter relationship. Excuse me?

Sweetie’s “madness” and pain come from somewhere, are rooted in some past events or state that Jane Campion never shows us directly. I believe that the scene Mr. Rosenbaum so superficially describes is, in fact, the biggest hint: that Sweetie is a victim of incest. The scene is important because of how it is shown to us in relation to Kay (Sweetie’s sister). Kay witnesses this bath scene (we see it through her eyes); the next cut is of Kay lying on her bed, troubled and pensive, obviously deeply affected by what she just saw. It is the first time Kay sees this act of bathing but by the familiarity between both Gordon (the father) and Sweetie (indeed, by the very fact of her bathing him) we see — as Kay does — that this has happened before.… Read more »

Letter to the Next Generation

A watchable and interesting personal documentary by James Klein, the codirector (with Julia Reichert) of Union Maids and Seeing Red, about the current lives and values of students at Kent State University and how these differ from those of Kent State students at the time of the killings 20 years ago. While none of the discoveries made by Klein are startling, the honesty and thoughtfulness of his investigation and his probing intelligence are apparent throughout. Not content with a simplistic contrast between the political commitments of the 60s and the preoccupations with business and self-interest of the present, he digs deeper and comes up with some interesting observations, including some ideas about how and why historical events are remembered or forgotten. He also finds that freshmen and sophomores at Kent State today tend to be more politically involved than juniors and seniors. A Chicago premiere. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, May 6, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, May 7 through 10, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »

The Connection

A Chicago Reader capsule (1990). — J.R.

I saw the Living Theater’s legendary production of Jack Gelber’s play (directed by Judith Malina) three times during its initial run in the early 60s, and no film adaptation half as long could claim its raw confrontational power. Echoing The Lower Depths and The Iceman Cometh, it’s about junkies waiting for a fix (among them a performing jazz quartet with pianist-composer Freddie Redd and alto sax Jackie McLean), and spectators were even accosted in the lobby by one actor begging for money. Shirley Clarke’s imaginative if dated 1961 film uses most of the splendid original cast (Warren Finnerty is especially good), confining the action to the play’s single run-down flat. It’s presented as a pseudodocumentary; the square neophyte director, eventually persuaded to shoot heroin himself, winds up focusing his camera on a cockroach. The film retains the same beatnik wit that the play effectively distilled, as well as a few scary shocks. With Carl Lee, Garry Goodrow, and Roscoe Lee Browne. 105 min. (JR)

Read more »

Starlight Hotel

A soporific road movie about a runaway girl (Greer Robson) and a rebellious worker in flight from the law (Peter Phelps) who team up during the Depression, this New Zealand film, despite some picturesque locations, is essentially defeated by colorless acting and a mediocre script. Directed by Sam Pillsbury, with a screenplay by Grant Hinden Miller which adapts his owen novel, The Dream Monger. (JR)… Read more »