Monthly Archives: September 1990

Peggy and Fred in Hell

Leslie Thornton will present the remarkable, mind-boggling feature-length black-and-white work in progress that she has been making since 1981–a postapocalyptic narrative about two children feeling their way through the refuse of late-20th-century consumer culture. Thornton utilizes a wide array of found footage as well as peculiar, unpredictable, and often funny performances from two “found” actors. The five highly idiosyncratic episodes, which include passages in both film and video, represent the most exciting recent work in the American avant-garde that I know–a saga that raises questions about everything while making everything seem very strange. Don’t miss this. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Wednesday, October 3, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Lout of Africa [WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HUNTER]

From the Chicago Reader (September 28, 1990). This is the first time I wrote at length about what is still my favorite Eastwood film; the second time was many years later, and that piece can be found here. — J.R.

WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Peter Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy

With Clint Eastwood, Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Alun Armstrong, Marisa Berenson, Timothy Spall, and Mel Martin.

I can’t say that I’ve been one of Clint Eastwood’s partisans. He was amusing as the Man With No Name — the mean, laconic hombre whose supercoolness suggested a hip Gary Cooper — in Sergio Leone’s mid-60s western trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), and fun in Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules for Sister Sara shortly afterward. But for me the joke of this ornery, poker-faced, string-bean dude was already running thin as early as Dirty Harry (1971), a right-wing remake of High Noon that amplified Eastwood’s relation to Cooper and marked the point at which he was moving commercially into high gear. (To my mind, the gothic excesses and male hysteria of The Beguiled, made the same year — a Civil War tale in which Eastwood was seduced and unmanned by a bevy of females in a girls’ school — were much more interesting.)

Eastwood emerged from his apprenticeship with Don Siegel to direct Play Misty for Me (also 1971), the kinky misogyny of which, while undeniably quirky, was so unedifyingly unpleasant that I skipped his next several pictures, despite the enthusiasm of many colleagues for some of them (especially The Outlaw–Josey Wales and The Gauntlet).… Read more »

White Hunter, Black Heart

Clint Eastwood’s most assured and interesting job of direction to date is an adaptation of Peter Viertel’s roman a clef about the events preceding shooting of The African Queen, with Eastwood playing the John Huston part–a director who decides to shoot a movie in Africa in order to hunt elephants. In a daring departure from his usual roles, Eastwood doesn’t so much impersonate Huston as offer a commentary on him and on macho bluster in general, and thanks to the beautifully structured script by Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy–which also has a lot of interesting things to say about colonialism and Hollywood (both separately and in conjunction with one another)–it’s a devastating portrait of self-deceiving obsession, and a notable improvement on Viertel’s book in terms of economy and focus. With Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Alun Armstrong, Marisa Berenson, Timothy Spall, and Mel Martin. (Water Tower, Lincoln Village, Golf Glen, Norridge, Ford City)… Read more »

Postcards From the Edge

Carrie Fisher not so much adapts as rewrites her own autobiographical novel about her drug problems and show-biz comeback, shifting most of the emphasis away from a couple of boyfriends and toward her relationship with her mother (Debbie Reynolds in real life). Mike Nichols’s direction makes a very old-fashioned and effective Hollywood entertainment out of it, with Meryl Streep at her best in the Fisher part, Shirley MacLaine equally fine as her show-biz mother, and an all-star backup cast including Richard Dreyfuss, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, and Mary Wickes. Among the pleasures to be found here are some amusing sidelong glances at how movies get made and the singing talent of Streep as well as MacLaine. There’s not much depth here, but Nichols does a fine job with the surface effects, and the wisecracks keep coming. (Lincoln Village, 900 N. Michigan, Old Orchard, Webster Place, Ford City, Norridge, Harlem-Cermak)… Read more »

Mapping the Territory of Râúl Ruiz

Even though much of this early piece of mine about Ruiz (also available in my collection Placing Movies), originally published in separate versions in 1987 and 1990,  is out of date by now, and also incorrect in spots, I’ve decided to reprint and illustrate it here, well over two decades later, because of the way Ruiz inspired me to play various games of my own, as he did several years later when I wrote about him at some length again (here).  (August 2011, shortly after Ruiz’s tragic death, I’ve also updated the illustrations for my 2002 interview with him for Cinema Scope.) — J.R.

Preface

The sheer otherness of Râúl Ruiz in a North American context has a lot to do with the peculiarities of funding in European state-operated television that make different kinds of work possible. The eccentric filmmaker in the United States or Canada who wants to make marginal films usually has to adopt the badge or shield of a school or genre — art film, avant-garde film, punk film, feminist film, documentary, or academic theory film— in order to get funding at one end, distribution, promotion, and criticism at the other. Ruiz, however, needs only to accept the institutional framework of state television — which offers, as he puts it, holes to be filled — and he automatically acquires a commission and an audience without having to settle on any binding affiliation or label beyond the open-ended rubric of “culture” or “education.” Consequently, the sheer existence of Ruiz’s massive, varied work constitutes a genuine affront to the capitalist definitions of experiment governing our own culture.… Read more »

The Icicle Thief

This hilarious Italian farce, the fourth comedy feature of writer-director-actor Maurizio Nichetti, is everything The Purple Rose of Cairo (or Gore Vidal’s novel Myron) should have been and more. Nichetti himself arrives at a TV studio to present his feature, also called The Icicle Thief — a somber black-and-white drama set in the postwar era with a strong resemblance to The Bicycle Thief, starring Nichetti himself as an out-of-work father struggling to support his family. As the movie proceeds, we see a contemporary middle-class Italian family distractedly watching it on TV, along with garish color commercials. But things gradually start to go haywire: an American-style bathing beauty in one of the commercials winds up inside the plot of the black-and-white movie, while the housewife in the neorealist film, longing for luxuries, suddenly herself inside another one of the opulent ads; eventually Nichetti leaves the studio and takes a train back into his own movie in an attempt to straighten things out. I shouldn’t divulge any more of the brilliant high jinks of this lively populist-modernist farce, except to note that the four way traffic between the TV studio, the film within the film, the commercials, and the family watching it all is beautifully handled, and speaks to the widest possible audience without an ounce of pretension.… Read more »

Goodfellas

Martin Scorsese collaborated with Nicholas Pileggi on this 1990 adaptation of Wiseguy, Pileggi’s nonfiction book about gangsters in Brooklyn, and in terms of narrative fluidity it may well be the most accomplished thing Scorsese’s ever done. Set between the mid-50s and the mid-80s, the semifictionalized story centers on a half-Irish, half-Sicilian Mafia recruit (Ray Liotta)who narrates along with the Jewish woman (Lorraine Bracco) he eventually marriesand the other gangsters in his immediate circle (Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Paul Sorvino). Paradoxically, the violent, amoral world the film depicts may be the darkest Scorsese has ever shown, but the surface mood is lighter than any Scorsese film since Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Stylistically, it’s a remarkable effort, but the sociological insights never go very far beyond the obvious. R, 146 min. (JR)… Read more »

Time Of The Gypsies

In this fanciful and folkloric 1989 film by Emir Kusturica (Underground), a young Gypsy falls in with an amoral gang of thieves. Pleasantly Felliniesque, and at times a bit more penetrating in its energetic magical realism, this deserves more attention than it got from most quarters (here included) when it was first released. Ljubica Adzovic and Davor Dujimovic head a cast that’s composed mainly of nonprofessionals. In Romany and Serbo-Croatian with subtitles. 138 min. (JR)… Read more »

Texasville

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

Texasville

Texasville

One of the most surprising things about Peter Bogdanovich’s bittersweet, touching comedy sequel to The Last Picture Show (1971) — based, like its predecessor, on a Larry McMurtry novel — is that, far from being a trip down memory lane, it’s largely structured around historical amnesia. The hero walks with a limp and has grown estranged from his wife, and his former girlfriend has lost her husband and son, though the reasons and circumstances behind these and other essential facts go unmentioned: they’re buried somewhere in the forgotten past. The people we last saw in the small town of Anarene, Texas, are now 30 years older, and the only one mired in the past is Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), the town’s mayor, a self-confessed failure and something of a lunatic. His best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges), whose point of view shapes the action — he’s an adulterer who hasn’t slept with his wife Karla (Annie Potts) for some time, and whose main sexual competitor is his own son (William McNamara) — has struck it rich in oil and subsequently run himself millions of dollars into debt while Karla continues to buy condos for their children.… Read more »

The Tall Guy

Jeff Goldblum stars as an American actor living in London and working as a stooge to a hateful but popular stage comic (Rowan Atkinson). He falls in love with a nurse (Emma Thompson) and finds himself playing the lead in a musical version of The Elephant Man, in an enjoyable English comedy written by Richard Curtis and directed by Mel Smith. Atkinson, Curtis, and Smith all worked on BBC TV’s Not the Nine o’Clock News, and much of this has the free-form giddinessas well as some of the hit-or-miss qualityof some of the best English TV comedy. I’ve never seen Goldblum have a chance to stretch out as a comic actor before, and he certainly helps keep things lively. With Emil Wolk, Hugh Thomas, Anna Massey (in a funny bit as Goldblum’s agent), and Timothy Barlowe (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Tales From The Winnipeg Film Group

If Guy Maddin’s Tales From the Gimli Hospital whetted your appetite for more comic/nostalgic/facetious strangenessor if you haven’t seen the Maddin film but have such an appetite anywayyou’ll probably get a kick out of this entertaining assortment of shorts by Maddin’s neighbors and colleagues, all members of the Winnipeg Film Group of Manitoba, Canada; producer Greg Klymkiw will introduce and discuss their work. The ones I’ve been able to sample include Tracy Traeger and Shawna Dempsey’s We’re Talking Vulva, a funny rap-music video featuring performance artist Dempsey in a vulva suit; John Paizs’s hilariously deadpan evocations of 50s educational shorts in Springtime in Greenland and The Obsession of Billy Botski; and Lorne Bailey’s memorable The Milkman Cometh, about a businessman who becomes so entranced by the Alpine landscape on a can of evaporated milk that his life gradually becomes overtaken by it. Also to be shown are films by John Kozak (Two Men in Search of a Plot) and the Winnipeg Film Group as a whole (Rabbit Pie). (JR)… Read more »

The Power And The Glory

Preston Sturges’s screenplay for this 1933 film and its achronological flashback structure (billed as a new technique called narratage when the film opened) are often cited as important influences on Citizen Kane. But Orson Welles never saw the film, and in fact it seems rather flat and dated today, unlike most of Sturges’s other scripts. Spencer Tracy plays the tycoon with the power and glory, and fine as he is, this isn’t one of his best pictures. Nor does it represent the full talent of its interesting director, William K. Howard. With Colleen Moore, Helen Vinson, and Ralph Morgan. 76 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Playgirls And The Bellboy

Francis Coppola’s 1962 overhaul of Fritz Umgelter’s 1958 West German sex comedy Mit Eva Fing die Sunde. Four years before Peter Bogdanovich’s Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women and Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which employed similar procedures, Coppola redubbed an original black-and-white movie, giving it new dialogue and adding voice-overs and new 3-D color segments, which featured June Wilkinson and other topless starlets. (JR)… Read more »

Peggy And Fred In Hell: The Complete Cycle

Leslie Thornton’s remarkable, mind-boggling experimental feature-length cycle of short films, worked on and released in episodes over a period of yearsa postapocalyptic narrative about two children feeling their way through the refuse of late-20th-century consumer culture; the films employ a wide array of found footage as well as peculiar, unpredictable, and often funny performances from two found actors. Apart from one startling and beautiful color shot in the penultimate episode, Whirling, the whole cycle is in black and white. Highly idiosyncratic and deeply creepy, this series as a wholewhich includes passages in both film and video, sometimes shown concurrentlyrepresents the most exciting work of the 80s American avant-garde that I know, a saga that raises questions about everything while making everything seem very strange. Don’t miss this. (JR)… Read more »

Pacific Heights

Like Fatal Attraction, this is a sort of horror thriller about encroachment on yuppie property and yuppie revenge for same; screenwriter Daniel Pyne and director John Schlesinger remove the misogyny, and occasionally muster some irony about the theme, but to little avail. Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine play an unmarried couple who purchase and restore a Victorian house in San Francisco and rent out a couple of apartments; their downstairs tenant, Michael Keaton, never pays rent or security, refuses to leave, and thanks to his exploitation of tenants’ rights, makes their life a living hell. Part of what keeps this from working is that Modine’s character is almost as obnoxious as Keaton’sGriffith proves to be the pluckiest member of the trioand matters are not improved by a lot of gratuitous camera movement and an especially lousy dream sequence. With Mako, Nobu McCarthy, Laurie Metcalf, Sheila McCarthy, and an almost unrecognizable Tippi Hedren. (JR)… Read more »