Monthly Archives: November 1990

Did They Buy It?: Nicaragua’s 1990 Elections

A fascinating 45-minute video documentary by Chicagoan Bob Hercules, filmed on location with a crew of four, that concentrates largely on the U.S. media coverage of the Nicaraguan elections. What emerges is not only a sharp piece of alternative news coverage that helps to explain the outcome (a matter that most mainstream coverage tended to obfuscate) and an informative account of the various powers at play, but also a revealing and multifaceted (and alternately funny and chilling) look at how the U.S. news about Nicaragua actually gets “created.” Particular attention is given to journalists from NBC Newsweek, and National Public Radio as they put together their reports, but many other observers (including many Nicaraguans) are heard from; especially lucid and eloquent are Ed Asner and a couple of Nicaraguan women speaking about their sons in the army. To be shown on a large screen; presented by the Committee for Labor Access. (Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union Hall, 333 S. Ashland, Friday, November 30, 8:00, 850-1300)… Read more »

Berkeley in the Sixties

A near-definitive account of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 60s, including the campus protests that preceded and followed it during the decade. Mark Kitchell, the young filmmaker who put this together over six years, combines a vivid oral history recounted by many of the participants (including, among many others, Susan Griffin, Todd Gitlin, Bobby Seale, John Searle, and Chicagoan Jack Weinberg) with fascinating archival footage and still photographs (which feature, among others, Joan Baez, Martin Luther King Jr., Mario Savio, the Grateful Dead, and Governor Ronald Reagan). What emerges is neither a simple exercise in nostalgia nor watered-down, TV-style history, but a detailed inquiry, with a sharp analytical sense of where the Free Speech Movement came from and how it developed, informed throughout by a keen sense of political and historical process. One regrets that Kitchell limited his coverage of what the participants are doing today to American Graffiti-style titles at the end–which suggests a form of historical closure that one would like to think a film of this sort would avoid. But in all other respects this is essential viewing. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, November 24, 6:00 and 8:15, and Sunday and Thursday, November 25 and 29, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

We Love It When They Lie [JACOB'S LADDER]

From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 1990). This film has recently come out on Blu-Ray. — J.R.

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JACOB’S LADDER

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Adrian Lyne

Written by Bruce Joel Rubin

With Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, and Patricia Kalember.

“Around twenty-four hundred years ago Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly and when he awakened he did not know if he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.” The sense of metaphysical free-fall conveyed in this sentence from Jorge Luis Borges’s great essay “A New Refutation of Time” is like the disorientation one feels after watching a gripping and involving movie — a movie like Jacob’s Ladder, for instance. Like Chuang Tzu, one isn’t quite sure whether one has just left a dream, just entered one, or embarked on some magical if unsettling combination of the two. I tend to be partial to movies that traffic in these systematic displacements of reality — starting with Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad (1962), the locus classicus of this genre, continuing through much less radical examples like Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), and extending even to minor forays like last summer’s Total Recall.… Read more »

Route One/USA

I’ve only seen about half of Robert Kramer’s 253-minute epic, but I can certainly recommend it very highly on that basis. This is a fictional documentary in which a character named Doc (Paul McIsaac), who figured in two earlier Kramer films, travels with cinematographer-director Kramer from Fort Kent, Maine, to Key West, Florida, looking for a job and a home while taking in what’s been happening to this country lately. Doc attends a Pat Robertson-for-president meeting in New Hampshire, visits Walden Pond, and is interviewed for a job in a Manhattan ghetto school. Kramer is an American independent with a background in radical documentaries whose political fiction films (including The Edge and Ice) made a decisive mark in the 60s, but he’s been living in Europe since 1979 and making most of his films there, which regrettably kept both his name and his work out of general circulation in the U.S. This multifaceted road movie represents both a return to his sources and a striking out in fresh directions (1989). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, November 18, 2:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

Betty Boop Scandals

This fabulous 1974 compilation of 20s and 30s cartoons by Max and Dave Fleischer, highlighting (but not exclusively) their Betty Boop cartoons, looks just as wild and as wacky as it did 16 years ago. Over the years Tex Avery has become recognized as the surrealist master of the Hollywood cartoon, and with reason. But one shouldn’t forget that the Fleischers anticipated many of his free-form imaginative flights with charming and creepy fantasies and radical transitions that are in some ways even more dreamlike. The plots are minimal, as are the leading characters (Betty, Koko, and Bimbo), but the intricate and integral uses of live action, Cab Calloway and his orchestra, bouncing-ball sing-alongs (complete with scat lyrics in some cases), rampant and delirious anthropomorphism, and daffy wit make these cartoons enduring classics. All the black-and-white and triumphantly uncolorized) selections here will be seen in good 35-millimeter prints: Koko’s Earth Control (1928), the only silent film in the bunch; Koko’s Harem Scarem (1929); Bimbo’s Initiation (1931); Minnie the Moocher (1932); Stoopnocracy (1933); Boilesk (1933); and Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame (1934). Stoopnocracy, a demented concerto about insanity, is alone worth the price of admission. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 16, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Storytelling/Artist on Fire

Two highly original and personal documentaries by Canadian feminist filmmaker Kay Armatage, both of which gracefully fuse traditional and experimental methods of art making to offer passionate views of creativity. Storytelling (1983) intercuts between the performances of several master storytellers, each representing a different style and tradition. Most of the storytellers are women–an old Irish woman tells a folktale, a middle-aged woman tells an Inuit folktale, a very young woman performs in a highly theatrical style, and Constance de Jong tells a postmodern story about stories and their effects–but the film also makes room for a male metis elder, an elderly black man who tells a story gospel style, and a 23-year-old male rap artist. Individually these stories proceed like serials; collectively they suggest an evolution from creation and birth to death and regeneration. Artist on Fire (1987) is subtitled The Work of Joyce Wieland, but “The World of Joyce Wieland” or “The Vision of Joyce Wieland” might be more apt because we learn a great deal about this remarkable Canadian artist’s view of life while we only glimpse her paintings, sculpture, and films. A collage of many offscreen voices (including those of Michael Snow and Armatage herself) guides us through the multiple aspects of Wieland’s remarkable work, which assimilates art from Tiepolo to Miro, from traditional quilts to Canada’s Group of 7, while situating itself within a variety of activities and contexts.… Read more »

Anthropological Auteur

As I recall, this article, published in the November 2, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, had two immediate consequences for me. The first was that the late Gene Siskel, an acquaintance of mine from press screenings, refused to speak to me for several years, and I was no longer able to attend any more press screenings in Chicago held mainly for him and Roger Ebert. The second was that on November 11, when Rouch appeared at the Film Center, he publicly thanked me for my article, which I don’t believe had ever happened to me before with a filmmaker. So one might say that I lost an acquaintance (at least until Gene decided to forgive me several years later, after I attended a tribute to him and Roger at the Music Box) and gained a friend. —J.R.

 

LES  MAÎTRES FOUS

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Rouch.

THE LION HUNTERS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jean Rouch

With Tahirou Koro, Wangari Moussa, Belebia Hamadou, Ausseini Dembo, Sidiko Ko ro, and Ali the apprentice.

JAGUAR

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Rouch

With Damoure Zika, Lam Ibrahim Dia, and Illo Gaoudel.

Anthropologists of the year 2090 — if humanity still exists and is still sufficiently divided, sufficiently colonialist and hierarchical, to need anthropologists — may look with wonder at that revealing artifact of late-20th-century multinational capitalism, the American newspaper.… Read more »

Life Is Cheap . . . but Toilet Paper Is Expensive

The wildest and liveliest effort to date of Chinese American filmmaker Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum, Slamdance) might have been called Two or Three Things I Know About Hong Kong. Like Godard’s films in the late 60s, this beautifully shot essayistic poem–putatively a thriller and full of scatological gags as well as macabre violence and humor–evokes a contemporary city in all its contradictions and paradoxes. (The film’s full title perfectly captures its jaundiced socioeconomic view and its stylistic irreverence.) The Hong Kong presented here is not only the city we know from films made there (with plenty of in-jokes and guest appearances, including Allen Fong as a cabdriver) but also the city that looks forward to joining the Chinese mainland in 1997. A satiric semidocumentary in which the city’s natives periodically address the camera, Wang’s shocker also includes one of the longest (and surely the most dizzying) chase sequences ever filmed. Originally saddled with an X rating, it has gone out uncut with a self-imposed “A” rating for adults; translated, this is a grown-up movie without the power of the Hollywood industry behind it, which suggests a freedom that Wang takes full advantage of (1989). (Music Box, Saturday, November 3, midnight, and Sunday through Thursday, November 3 through 8)… Read more »

Jacob’s Ladder

A bold, powerful psychological horror film about a recently returned Vietnam vet (Tim Robbins), apparently working as a postman in New York City, who’s plagued by nightmarish paranoid visions. Thanks to a remarkable script by Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote the script for Ghost and the original story for Brainstorm) and the directorial skills of Adrian Lyne–who makes even more effective use here of an infernal vision of New York than he did in Fatal Attraction–this is both a stream-of-consciousness puzzle thriller that offers the viewer not one but many “solutions” and an emotionally persuasive statement about the plight of many American vets who fought in Vietnam–a statement that is more expressionistic and metaphysical than “realistic,” but is no less compelling for that. One doesn’t want to say too much about a film that depends on surprises, ambiguities, and many shifting levels of reality and consciousness, but there are moments when this disturbing, unpredictable movie recalls The Manchurian Candidate, albeit without the comic irony. Robbins fully meets the unusual demands of his part, and Elizabeth Pena and Danny Aiello are equally impressive. (Esquire, Evanston, Norridge, Webster Place, Golf Glen, Lincoln Village, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak)… Read more »

Allegro non troppo

Bruno Bozzetto’s parody of Disney’s Fantasia is a collection of animated sketches accompanying classical music pieces (by Debussy, Dvorak, Ravel, Sibelius, Stravinsky, and Vivaldi), with live-action slapstick sequences featuring cowriter Maurizio Nichetti (The Icicle Thief). It’s not only a hilarious send-up of Disney’s excesses but a splendid cartoon feature in its own right–funny and imaginative and lively. The “restored” version of this 1976 Italian picture includes more Nichetti footage, and, for the first time in the U.S., a stereo sound track. (Music Box, Friday through Sunday, November 2 through 4)… Read more »

Christmas In July

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

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Preston Sturges’s second feature as writer-director (1940, 66 min.) is in many ways the most underrated of his movies — a riotous comedy-satire about capitalism that bites so deep it hurts. An ambitious but impoverished office clerk (Dick Powell) is determined to strike it rich in a contest with a stupid slogan (“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk”). He’s tricked by a few of his coworkers into believing that he’s actually won, promptly gets promoted, and proceeds to go on a shopping spree for his neighbors and relatives. Like much of Sturges’s finest work, this captures the mood of the Depression more completely than most 30s pictures, and the brilliantly polyphonic script repeats the hero’s dim-witted slogan so many times that it eventually becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation. As usual, Sturges’s supporting cast (including Ellen Drew, William Demarest, and Raymond Walburn) is luminous, and he uses it like instruments in a madcap concerto. (JR)

Christmas-in-July-deptstoreworkersRead more »

Berkeley In The Sixties

A near definitive account of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 60s, including the campus protests that preceded and followed it during the decade. Mark Kitchell, the young filmmaker who put this together over six years, combines a vivid oral history recounted by many of the participants (including, among many others, Susan Griffin, Todd Gitlin, Bobby Seale, John Searle, and Chicagoan Jack Weinberg) with fascinating archival footage and still photographs (which feature, among others, Joan Baez, Martin Luther King Jr., Mario Savio, the Grateful Dead, and Governor Ronald Reagan). What emerges is neither a simple exercise in nostalgia nor watered-down, TV-style history, but a detailed inquiry, with a sharp analytical sense of where the Free Speech Movement came from and how it developed, informed throughout by a keen sense of political and historical process. One regrets that Kitchell limited his coverage of the participants’ latter-day doings to American Graffiti-style titles at the endwhich suggests a form of historical closure that one would like to think a film of this sort would avoid. But in all other respects this is essential viewing (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Steel And Lace

For a splatter film, this is somewhat inventive. A rape victim (Clare Wren) commits suicide after the man who raped her (Michael Cerveris) is acquitted, and her scientist brother (Bruce Davison) creates an android killing machine in her image, equipped with various disguises and designed to hunt down and gorily dispatch both the rapist and his friends who lied on his behalf; the android, which develops something of a mind and will of its own, is also equipped with a TV camera that enables the brother to monitor the killings and to watch the deaths in playback. Meanwhile, a sketch artist at the original trial (Stacy Haiduk) plays detective when her former boyfriend (David Naughton), a cop, is assigned to the case. Joe Dougherty and Dave Edison’s script never strays too far from the formulaic, but Ernest Farino’s direction keeps it fairly fresh. (JR)… Read more »

The Nun (la Religieuse)

Jacques Rivette’s controversial though chaste second feature (1966), originally banned for a year both in France and for export, was trimmed and slightly reedited by its U.S. distributor (years later it was restored to its original form and 140-minute running time). As a direct and indirect commentary on institutional repression and the depravity that arises from compulsory religious training, it’s a feminist movie with particular relevance for the Jesse Helms era. Adapted from Denis Diderot’s famous 18th-century novel about Suzanne Simonin (the remarkable Anna Karina)an illegitimate teenager forced to enter a convent by her familythis is the most accessible by far of all of Rivette’s features. It has a straightforward narrative that mainly concentrates on Suzanne’s experiences at two conventsone severe and punitive, the other progressive and more worldly (though no less stifling for Suzanne when she finds herself pursued by the lesbian mother superior)before she escapes to encounter a different kind of oppression in the world outside. Far from a nonbeliever, Suzanne is a devout character without a religious calling, and the film as a whole is a complex celebration of her continuous drive toward freedom. Rivette’s highly original and formal cellular construction uses a striking contemporary score (by Jean-Claude Eloy) and selective sound effects (by Michel Fano) to balance the feeling of confinement with a nearly constant sense of the world outside; the intense mise en scene and use of camera movements often recall Carl Dreyer (though Rivette’s conscious model was Kenji Mizoguchi); and the metallic colors and resourceful use of settings conspire to create a world that’s both material and abstract.… Read more »

Home Alone

A large, well-to-do family in a Chicago suburb rushes off to Paris for Christmas, accidentally leaving behind an eight-year-old (Macaulay Culkin) who has to guard the house from a pair of burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). John Hughes wrote and produced this 1990 comedy, and Chris Columbus directed it. The movie is quite enjoyable as long as it explores the fantasy of a neglected little boy having an entire house of his own to explore and play in, and it still manages to be fun when he exhibits superhuman ingenuity and resourcefulness in holding down the fortwith Culkin doing a fair job of mugging. But the physical cruelty that dominates the last act leaves a sour taste, and the multiple continuity errors that make the last scene possible strain one’s suspension of disbelief to near the breaking point. With John Heard and Catherine O’Hara as the negligent parents, Jeffrey Wiseman (in a nicely tuned performance), and John Candy in a cameo designed to assist a product placement. PG, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »