Yearly Archives: 1990

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

Hollywood Mavericks

Produced by Florence Dauman for the American Film Institute, this is a watchable if often predictable documentary about Hollywood directors who have tended (to varying degrees) to go against the systeman honor roll that includes, among others, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, John Cassavetes, Francis Coppola, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, D.W. Griffith, Dennis Hopper, David Lynch, Sam Peckinpah, Alan Rudolph, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, and Orson Welles. Most of these men (no lady mavericks like Ida Lupino, Barbara Loden, and Elaine May need apply) are articulate, and so much of what they have to say about themselves and each other is interesting, if not always accurate (e.g., Scorsese’s claim that Stroheim forced his extras to wear special underwear is a studio-produced legend; Sternberg’s claim that everything except the sea in his remarkable The Saga of Anatahan is artificial is contradicted by that film’s powerful use of newsreel footage). Some of the clips are too brief to leave lasting impressions, and a commentary about Altman’s innovative methods of sound recording unfortunately accompanies a clip from M*A*S*H, made four years before he introduced those methods in California Split. But this is still basically good, instructive funmuch of it about directors and films that deserve wider attention.… Read more »

H-2 Worker

Shot clandestinely over three and a half years, Stephanie Black’s documentary about the exploitation of Jamaican and other Caribbean sugarcane workers in Florida is a good example of investigative reporting of outrages that occur under our very nosesgood enough to win the prize for best documentary at the 1990 United States Film Festival. The workers in question (more than 10,000 annually) are granted six-month H-2 visas in order to harvest sugarcane by handwork so dangerous and underpaid that Americans aren’t willing to do itand are required to live as virtual slaves. Black makes effective offscreen use of the cards and letters some of these workers write to their relatives back home, though this is otherwise a conventionally shaped documentary. Still, the facts speak loud and disturbingly for themselves (1989). (JR)… Read more »

Young Doctors In Love

A dumb and crass attempt to do for doctor movies what Airplane! did for disaster flicks. Most of the participantsMichael McKean, Sean Young, Harry Dean Stanton, Dabney Colemanshould have stayed at home. Incidentally, this was Garry Marshall’s first feature as a director (1982). (JR)… Read more »

The Wild Child

This is one of Francois Truffaut’s best middle-period films (1969), albeit one of his darkest and most conservative. Filmed in black and white by the gifted Nestor Almendros, it’s based on the true story of a nine-year-old boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol) found living in the wilderness and educated by a young physician (played by Truffaut himself). There are certain parallels here with Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, about the civilizing of Helen Keller, but Truffaut’s message is more pessimistic than inspirational; it suggests that the joys of primitivism are incompatible with the achievement of culture. (JR)… Read more »