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 »

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 »

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 »

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)

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Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1990). — J.R.

TieMeUp

Pedro Almodovar’s poorly made 1990 follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has an offensive premise and a pathetic, almost pleading desire to outrage our sensibilities with it. A 23-year-old simpleton (Antonio Banderas), released from a mental asylum where he’s lived for most of his life, kidnaps a small-time movie actress and junkie (Victoria Abril) he’s fallen for after a brief encounter during one of his many escapes from the institution. He firmly believes that in time she will return his affection, and — what do you know? — he proves to be absolutely right. If someone made an equivalent black comedy about a victim of racism falling in love with his or her oppressor, people would really be outraged, but I guess it’s OK if you’re simply trashing a trashy woman. There’s also a feeble subplot here about the actress’s director (Francisco Rabal) and sister (Loles Leon) that goes nowhere. The two lead characters are cardboard constructions, which sinks the film into tedium despite enough nudity to earn it an X rating. 111 min. (JR)

Tie_Me_Up_Tie_Me_Down

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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 »

Show Boat

Not the classic, authentic, and lovely 1936 James Whale version, but the inert and racist MGM color remake of 1951, directed by George Sidney. Most of Sidney’s musicals tend to be vulgar but energetic; this one, it appears, was done in his sleep. Still, Jerome Kern’s music and Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics provide fine accompaniment to the sleepwalking. Derived from an Edna Ferber novel; with Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Joe E. Brown, Marge and Gower Champion, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Sterling, and William Warfield. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hudson Hawk

A bizarre throwback to the 60s subgenre of farcical James Bond spin-offs (Our Man Flint, Casino Royale, Modesty Blaise, et al), involving lots of mechanical action, tons of repartee, and a master plot to take over the world. Crooks force a former cat burglar (Bruce Willis) to resume his profession in order to recover three separate parts of a machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci that converts lead into gold. Directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers), this expensive romp features Danny Aiello as the hero’s best friend, Andie MacDowell as the romantic interest, Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard (who intones, This is supposed to be torture, not therapy) as the baroque villains, and James Coburn as a sinister CIA operative (a direct reminder of the Flint movies). It doesn’t have the polish or the momentum of an Indiana Jones adventure, and isn’t too engaging on the plot level, but at least the filmmakers keep it moving with lots of screwball stunts. Steven E. de Souza and Daniel Waters are credited with the script, based on a story by Willis (whose production company made the movie) and executive producer Robert Kraft. (JR)… Read more »

Home From The Hill

One of Vincente Minnelli’s best ‘Scope and color melodramas (1960), adapted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank from William Humphrey’s novel. Set in a small town in Texas, the plot centers on a troubled family: a promiscuous patriarch (Robert Mitchum) and his frigid wife (Eleanor Parker) compete for the loyalty of their son (George Hamilton), who discovers that he has an illegitimate half brother (George Peppard). With Luana Patten, Everett Sloane, and Constance Ford. 150 min. (JR)… Read more »