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 »
Monthly Archives: September 1990
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
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 »
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 »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 1990). — J.R.
THE ICICLE THIEF
Directed by Maurizio Nichetti
Written by Nichetti and Mauro Monti
With Nichetti, Caterina Sylos Labini, Federico Rizzo, Heidi Komarek, Renato Scarpa, Carlina Torta, Lella Costa, and Claudio G. Fava.
There is still so much we have to learn about TV! — Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus
Some people have called Maurizio Nichetti the Italian Woody Allen, an unfortunate appellation in more ways than one. Not only does it not do him justice, it also attributes to him an urban snobbishness that couldn’t be further from his world and persona. In the New York Times, where Allen’s movies are ranked higher than the late works of Welles and Antonioni — apparently because Allen, unlike Welles and Antonioni, reflects the worldview of many New Yorkers — the label can only backfire. But take a look at both actors and ask yourself which of the two is funnier.
The first time I saw a Nichetti movie, all it took was the opening sequence to convince me that there was no contest.
At an international conference in Milan, a distinguished participant suffers a stroke. A desperate call is made across the city to Colombo — a short nebbish with a mop of hair and a Groucho mustache, who operates a hilltop refreshment stand — for a glass of mineral water for the poor man.… Read more »
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.
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 »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (September 7, 1990). — J.R.
THE RAGGEDY RAWNEY
*** ( A must-see)
Directed by Bob Hoskins
Written by Hoskins and Nicole De Wilde
With Dexter Fletcher, Hoskins, Zoe Nathenson, Dave Hill, Ian Dury, and Zoe Wanamaker.
An offbeat and highly original English film that’s been very slow making the rounds — Bob Hoskins’s The Raggedy Rawney (1987) — may be in trouble commercially. It didn’t even show in England until about two years after its completion, and it took an additional year to reach Chicago. Now that it’s here, it has at least five serious handicaps:
(1) At first glance, hardly anyone has any idea what the title means. (“Rawney,” a rather specialized word not found in most dictionaries, roughly means “magical madwoman.”)
(2) As an actor, Hoskins is basically known for his roles in contemporary settings, usually within a noir context — either as a gangster (as in The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa) or as a detective (as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). His part in The Raggedy Rawney, as a sort of gypsy leader, plays off neither of these associations, nor is it the lead role.
(3) Inspired by a legend told to Hoskins as a child by his grandmother that reportedly can be traced all the way back to the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1443), the movie is nonetheless given a setting so vaguely defined that the best description I’ve seen yet (published in the synopsis in Monthly Film Bulletin) is: “Sometime during the first half of the 20th century, in a European country at war.” On the other hand, if it were set during the Hundred Years’ War, that probably wouldn’t have helped; the best film that comes to mind that dealt with that war — John Huston’s A Walk With Love and Death (1969), starring his daughter Angelica in her first major role — was possibly the biggest flop of his career, and it’s virtually impossible to see nowadays.… Read more »
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 »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1990). — J.R.
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 »
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 »
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 »
Michelangelo Antonioni’s first color feature (1964) uses colors expressionistically, and to get the precise hues he wanted, he had entire fields painted. The film came at the end of his most fertile period, just after L’Avventura, La Notte, and Eclipse, and it isn’t as good as the first and last of these, but the ecological concerns look a lot more prescient today. Monica Vitti plays a neurotic married woman briefly attracted to industrialist Richard Harris, and Antonioni does eerie, memorable work with the industrial shapes and colors that surround her; she walks through a science fiction landscape dotted with structures that are both disorienting and full of possibilities. Like any self-respecting Antonioni heroine, she’s looking for love and meaning and mainly finding sex. But the film’s most spellbinding sequence depicts a pantheistic, utopian fantasy of innocence, which she recounts to her ailing son. In Italian with subtitles. 118 min. (JR)… Read more »
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 »