Monthly Archives: November 1991

His Master’s Vice [WHITE DOG]

From the Chicago Reader (November 29, 1991). — J.R.

WHITE DOG **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson

With Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, Lynne Moody, and Marshall Thompson.

The best American movie released so far this year, made by the greatest living American filmmaker, was actually made ten years ago, and so far its venues have been restricted to single theaters in New York and Chicago; but late is a lot better than never, and two cities are certainly better than none. Why it’s taken a decade for Samuel Fuller’s White Dog to reach us is not an easy question to answer; it was shown widely in Europe in the early 80s and well-received critically. For the past few years it has turned up sporadically on cable, principally the Lifetime channel, but it has never come out here on video. White Dog started out as an article by Romain Gary published in Life magazine, and was later expanded into a book. The accounts I’ve read describe the book as autobiographical, mainly about the author’s relationship with Jean Seberg. Gary and Seberg were living in Los Angeles when they found a “white” dog who had been trained to attack blacks; they tried without success to have the dog retrained, and eventually had to kill it.… Read more »

Beauty and the Beast

Although there are times when the narrative seems excessively streamlined, this is the best Disney animated feature to come along in years (not that it even mildly threatens Jean Cocteau’s luminous version of the same fairy tale). Full of charm and humor, it seems to benefit from the benign influence of Pee-wee’s Playhouse (anthropomorphized household objects that manage the Beast’s castle like enlightened domestics), as well as the filmmakers’ fond memories of Busby Berkeley production numbers and the village night scenes in Frankenstein. The most fascinating buried textual references, however, seem to be to another recent Disney picture, Pretty Woman, which this cartoon trashes in very agreeable ways: both the heroine, Belle, and the handsome-prince version of the Beast seem modeled after Julia Roberts, while her suitor, the insufferably vain and boorish Gaston, a dead ringer for Richard Gere, hopes to convert Belle into a gratefully kept woman; the Beast, by contrast, is a ferocious spoiled brat who is eventually ennobled by love. (There’s also some pleasant propaganda on behalf of books–Belle is an avid reader–though it’s here that one wishes the movie had indulged in more flights of fancy.) Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise from a screenplay by Linda Woolverton, and featuring the voices of Robby Benson, Paige O’Hara, Richard White, Angela Lansbury, and Jerry Orbach.… Read more »

Bag of Tics [the 1991 CAPE FEAR]

From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 1991). — J.R.

CAPE FEAR

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Wesley Strick

With Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas, Fred Dalton Thompson, and Robert Mitchum.

I have nothing against pornography when it’s good, clean sex, but I don’t enjoy watching a cat play with a mouse, and I got no pleasure from seeing Mr. Mitchum — huge, brawny and sweatily bare-chested — toy first with the frantically terrified ten-year-old daughter and then move on to conquer her shrinking, pleading mother. — Dwight Macdonald

Cape Fear is heavy on Spanish moss and sick behavior, a classic demonstration of the differences between rich and poor; to say nothing of the typical good ol’ Southern boy’s view of women. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of ‘em have very much good to say. You won’t forget this movie, especially if you’re a Yankee Jew. — Barry Gifford

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These remarks come from reviews of the original Cape Fear. Macdonald’s was written the same year the movie came out, 1962, and Gifford’s a couple of decades later; together, they help to show how we’ve increasingly come to view nastiness as a form of high art.… Read more »

Palombella Rosa

Perhaps the wildest comedy yet from Italian writer-director-actor Nanni Moretti, a European cult favorite here starring as a water-polo player and Communist politician suffering from amnesia. Interspersing clips from a TV screening of Doctor Zhivago and Moretti’s own Super-8 work from the 70s as well as cameo appearances by Raul Ruiz as a metaphysical priest, Moretti concocts a dreamy satire about the ambiguous status of the Communist Party in contemporary Italy, with water polo serving as a ruling metaphor (the title refers to a goal-scoring technique); journalism and advertising are singled out for particular comic abuse. Even if you don’t get all the jokes, you’ll get plenty of insight into Italy in the 80s as well as a look at one of the most original film talents now working there (1989). You won’t have any trouble getting the jokes in Luc Moullet’s hilarious Barres, the accompanying short about ways to sneak onto the Paris metro–a delightfully structured piece that evokes Wile E. Coyote as well as Jacques Tati. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 22, 8:00, and Sunday, November 24, 4:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Play it again: Review of THE CULT FILM EXPERIENCE

From Sight and Sound (November 1991). -– J.R.

Play it again

________________________________________________________

Jonathan Rosenbaum

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The Cult Film Experience: Beyond AII Reason

J. P. Telotte (ed), University of Texas Press,

$36, 218 pp.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

________________________________________________________

The Cult Film Experience: Beyond AII Reason

J. P. Telotte (ed), University of Texas Press,

$36, 218 pp.

“It will be a sad day when a too smart audience will read Casablanca as conceived by Michael Curtiz after having read Calvino and Barthes”, Umberto Eco wrote in 1984. “But that day will come”. J. P. Telotte’s collection reminds us that Eco’s sad day is already well behind us — though it turns out to be Eco himself rather than Calvino or Barthes who provides the principal theoretical back-up.

Serious analysis of film cults can be traced back to a 1932 essay by Harry Alan Potamkin, but you won’t find Potamkin’s name in Telotte’s index. Indeed, apart from some cursory acknowledgments, the book fosters the impression that the arrival of film cults coincided with the burgeoning of film studies in the early 70s. This suggests that academic film study is itself an unacknowledged form of cult activity predicated on repeated viewings by a fetishistically inclined minority audience which reappropriates the film in question for its own specialized purposes.… Read more »

Women’s Story

Peng Xiaolian’s aptly titled feminist feature from the People’s Republic of China (1988) follows the adventures of three peasant women who leave their oppressive village to sell wool in Beijing and a provincial city before returning to their ambiguous fates in the village. Peng sticks exclusively to the viewpoints of her three heroines, revealing herself to be a remarkable director of actors, and her incisive feeling for the options of her characters–both as women and as peasants–gives this melodrama a cumulative force and authority. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, November 17, 6:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

Larks on a String

Made in 1969, only three years after his Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains, Jiri Menzel’s lovely, sensual Czech satire waited 21 years to pass the censors, then went on to win the top prize at the Berlin film festival. Cowritten by Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal from a collection of Hrabal’s stories, the comic tale, set in the early 50s, centers on a group of “bourgeois dissidents”–including a philosophy professor, a librarian who promoted Western literature, a Seventh-Day Adventist cook (Vaclav Neckar), a saxophonist, and a public prosecutor-assigned to work on a scrap heap in the town of Kladno. Male and female political prisoners work in adjacent yards, and the flirtations between the two groups comprise much of the action of this surprisingly cheerful picture, which treats party officials and guards as hapless victims of the system along with the prisoners. The bureaucratic absurdities reach a sort of climax when the cook falls in love with a female prisoner (Jitka Zelenohorska): they wind up getting married, but the bride’s grandmother has to serve as her proxy. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 15 through 21) … Read more »

What Is a Jew? [EUROPA EUROPA]

From the Chicago Reader (November 8, 1991). — J.R.

EUROPA EUROPA

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Agnieszka Holland

With Marco Hofschneider, Rene Hofschneider, Delphine Forest, Andre Wilms, Julie Delpy, and Halina Labonarska.

Solomon Perel was born in Peine, Germany, in 1925, the youngest child of a Polish-Jewish shoe merchant. He survived World War II first in a Soviet orphanage (1938-41), then by posing as an Aryan at the most prestigious and elite Hitler youth school in Germany. The only giveaway sign of his Jewish identity was his circumcised penis, which he had to keep hidden at all costs. (At one point, he even made an amateurish and painful surgical attempt to “uncircumcise” himself.) After the war, he emigrated to Palestine as a Jew. At the end of Europa Europa — director Agnieszka Holland’s adaptation of Perel’s autobiography — the real Solomon Perel tells us, “When I had sons, I didn’t hesitate to circumcise them.” The film concludes by showing us Perel today, at age 65, in Israel, singing a familiar Hebrew song.

But are we truly convinced of his Jewishness? On the prosaic level we certainly are: obviously Solly Perel is a Jew. But on the philosophical, meditative level established during the course of this remarkable film, we may be somewhat less certain.… Read more »

Short Films

John Greyson’s hilarious and wonderful The Making of “Monsters” from Canada is an audacious pseudodocumentary–a short about the making of a musical about a gay-bashing incident that results in murder. If that sounds offbeat, consider that the two creative minds behind the musical are George Lukas (identified as the Marxist literary critic who directed American Graffiti and Star Wars) and Bertolt Brecht (played by a catfish in a tank). If the brilliance doesn’t quite sustain itself over half an hour, there are still some pretty far-out musical numbers. Equally worth seeing are four shorts by Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho): The Discipline of DE (1978), a very literal and funny adaptation of a William S. Burroughs text that deftly mixes essay and fiction, reminiscent of Jane Campion’s Passionless Moments; My Friend (1983) and My New Friend (1985), two three-minute diary entries about short-lived pickups; and the recent Thanksgiving Prayer, starring Burroughs, which I haven’t seen but which sounds fabulous. As if this weren’t enough, the program also includes Christopher Newby’s strikingly shot English short Relax (1990), David Weissman’s lightweight Complaints, Garth Maxwell’s Red Delicious from New Zealand, and Cathy Joritz’s German “scratch-animation” Give AIDS the Freeze. Running as part of the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival.… Read more »

7 Women

A commercial disaster when it came out in 1966, generally relegated to the lower half of double bills, and dismissed by most critics, John Ford’s magnificent last feature is surely one of his greatest films–not merely for its unsentimental distillation of Fordian themes, but for the telegraphic urgency and passion of its style, which is aided rather than handicapped by the stripped-down studio sets. The film effectively transposes the gender and settings of many of Ford’s classic westerns: it’s set in 1935, during the apocalyptic last days of a female missionary outpost in China that’s about to be invaded by Mongolian warriors (including Mike Mazurki and Woody Strode). Anne Bancroft stars as an atheistic but humanist doctor who turns up at the mission, immediately challenging its sexual repressiveness and sense of propriety with her acerbic manner and lack of inhibitions; she ultimately emerges as perhaps the most stoic of all of Ford’s sacrificial heroes. The other women, all superbly cast–Sue Lyon, Margaret Leighton, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Anna Lee, and Betty Field–provide a creditable summary of the possible human responses to impending disaster, and Ford’s handling of their diverse emotions–ranging from lesbian longings and charitable instincts to competitiveness and hysteria–is both subtle and masterful.… Read more »

The Shanghai Gesture

Not exactly Josef von Sternberg in his heyday (1941), but still choice goodsa perverse dream bubble adapted by Sternberg, Jules Furthman, and others from a creaky but serviceable John Colton play about the madam of a Shanghai brothel (Ona Munson) taking revenge on a British official and former lover (Walter Huston) by corrupting his daughter (Gene Tierney). Victor Mature is also around, and surprisingly effective, as a decadent bisexual; other exotic cameos are doled out to Maria Ouspenskaya, Albert Bassermann, Eric Blore, Phyllis Brooks, and Mike Mazurki. Given the censorship of the period, much of the decadence is implied rather than stated. But Sternberg’s adept handling of claustrophobic space and sinister atmospherics made this melodrama an understandable favorite of the surrealists, and the icy tone cuts through the funk like a knife. (JR)… Read more »

The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe

A film version of Lily Tomlin’s much-celebrated one-woman show, in which she plays a dozen separate characters and satirizes New Age lifestyles (among other things). Written by executive producer Jane Wagner and directed and shot by John Bailey, this has a lot of added sound effects (designed by Wagner), as well as a good many fast transitions from Tomlin on a bare stage to Tomlin in costume on various sets and back again. Packed with virtuosity, this may still be the best solo performance on film since Richard PryorLive in Concert; Wagner’s writing may not have the personal urgency of Pryor’s (whose does?), but the level of performance is often nearly as high. (Tomlin can be as funny playing men as Pryor is playing various white folks.) If you like Tomlin at all, you shouldn’t miss this. (JR)… Read more »

Nighthawks

The first English feature to come from the gay community, Ron Peck and Paul Hallam’s independent film about the double life of a gay schoolteacher studiously avoids sensationalism, and reaches its dramatic climax when the hero has a frank discussion about himself with his 14-year-old students (1978). (JR)… Read more »

Network

Good campy fun from the combined talents of Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet; Chayefsky was apparently serious about much of this shrill, self-important 1976 satire about television, interlaced with bile about radicals and pushy career women, and so were some critics at the time. Peter Finch, in his last performance, effectively plays a network news commentator who blows his top and his mind on the air and quickly becomes a self-styled messiah; William Holden plays the wizened TV executive who has the Truth, which pushy, nihilistic program director Faye Dunaway wants; and Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight are around for comparably juicy hyperbole. R, 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

Here Comes The Groom

A low-grade Capra effort about Bing Crosby adopting a couple of war orphans who will be sent overseas if he doesn’t win Jane Wyman back from millionaire Franchot Tone. At least there’s a brief guest appearance by Louis Armstrong (1951). (JR)… Read more »