Monthly Archives: January 1992

The Choice Between Art and Life (LA BELLE NOISEUSE)

From the January 31, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

LA BELLE NOISEUSE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette

With Michel Piccoli, Emmanuelle Beart, Jane Birkin, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marianne Denicourt, and the hand of Bernard Dufour.

Considering how rarely the achievements of art match up with the achievements of commerce, it’s a pleasure to note that Jacques Rivette’s greatest film since 1976 (the end of his most fertile and exciting period, which began in 1968) — winner of the grand prix at last year’s Cannes film festival — also turns out to be the first commercial hit of his career. A few wags have been quick to point out that this is because the beautiful lead actress, Emmanuelle Béart (best known in this country for her part as Manon in Claude Berri’s Manon of the Spring), is nude, posing as a painter’s model, for about half of the film. Maybe they’re partially right, but it also seems to me that, without compromising or diluting his artistry, Rivette has finally hit on a subject — the collective and individual struggles that produce art and the prices that have to be paid for that art — that speaks to a wide audience.… Read more »

Local Color: Five American Touchstones

This was commissioned by and written for the Rotterdam International Film Festival — specifically for a booklet of essays entitled Grandeur Locale that they published in late January 1992. — J.R.

1. “We acknowledge with gratitude and admiration the spirit of cooperation of the 25,000 citizens of Phenix City, Alabama,” reads a title after the credits of Phil Karlson’s remarkable film noir, THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955), shot on location less than a year after the events it describes took place. “…To the Mayors and the City Commissioners, the Chiefs of Police, and the many thousand citizens of Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama, who contributed immeasurably to the making of this picture…our sincerest thanks.” For once, the standard courtesy of such an acknowledgement becomes the literal truth. In many prints of the film, we meet four of the local, real-life participants in the story we’re about to see even before the credits come on. The singular accents and speech patterns of these people are literally the sound of my own childhood: I was thirteen years old and had lived all my life in Alabama when the film was released, and to see the film in 1955 was to experience some of the truth of my home state on the screen for the very first time.… Read more »

Meantime

What produces a skinhead is the subtle subject of Mike Leigh’s powerful and mysterious feature for British TV, though it may take you most of the film to realize it. We’re treated to the bitter inertia of a family on the dole in a cramped high rise in London’s East End, with particular emphasis on a raspy layabout (Phil Daniels) who berates and undermines his nearly catatonic kid brother (Tim Roth, who played van Gogh in Vincent and Me); a street punk; a young woman in the neighborhood; and the boys’ aunt, who has married into the middle class. Watch for an interesting early performance by Gary Oldman, as well as contributions from Marion Bailey and Alfred Molina (1983). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 24, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

La Belle Noiseuse

Jacques Rivette’s greatest film since the 70s is one of the most penetrating examinations of the process of art making on film. It concerns the highly charged work of a figurative painter (Michel Piccoli, giving the performance of his career) with his beautiful and mainly nude model (Manon of the Spring’s Emmanuelle Beart), but also the complex input and pressures of the painter’s wife and former model (Jane Birkin), the model’s boyfriend (David Bursztein), and an art dealer who used to be involved with the painter’s wife (Gilles Arbona). The complex forces that produce art are the film’s obsessive focus, and rarely has Rivette’s use of duration to look at process been as spellbinding as it is here. The film runs for four hours, but the overall effect is mesmerizing and perpetually mysterious (as Rivette always is at his best), and not a moment is wasted. Rivette’s superb sense of rhythm and mise en scene never falters, and the plot has plenty of twists. Freely adapted from Balzac’s novella The Unknown Masterpiece by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette, with exquisite cinematography by William Lubtchansky, beautiful location work in the south of France (mainly a 19th-century chateau), and drawings and paintings executed by Bernard Dufour.… Read more »

Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees

A fascinating if numbing feature-length narrative video by David Blair with remarkable computer graphics and other special effects. The intricate science-fantasy plot, which is narrated in an offscreen monotone by Blair, involves, among many other things, a beekeeper and cinematographer (represented by a photo of William S. Burroughs) who films “the moving spirits of the dead” circa 1914; his grandson (played by Blair), half sister, and brother-in-law; the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, including the Trinity nuclear test site; the moon; the “planet of television”; the Tower of Babel; the “Garden of Eden Cave” (“a town the size of Manhattan beneath the New Mexican desert”); and the gulf war. The images obliquely illustrate the narrative, and the constant visual flux often suggests a graphic novel translated into MTV, which helps to account for the numbing effect. The results are highly watchable, though more intellectually than emotionally involving (1990). Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, January 17 and 18, 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, January 19, 5:30 and 7:30, 281-4114.… Read more »

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

A fascinating postmortem on the making of Francis Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, mainly consisting of footage shot by Eleanor Coppola in the 7Os that has been intelligently selected, augmented, and arranged by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper. Like the Coppola film itself, this documentary at times seems to value self-styled profundity and rhetoric over observation and common sense–one especially regrets the absence of any thoroughgoing political or historical critique of Apocalypse Now in relation to the Vietnam war–but the various personalities involved–including Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Coppola himself–keep this compulsively watchable. Too bad that Michael Herr, who wrote Apocalypse’s effective narration after the film was shot, is overlooked in the kaleidoscopic clashes of male egos, but it’s nice to see that Orson Welles’s radio and screenplay adaptations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are acknowledged as precedents and probable influences. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

The Seven ARKADINs

The following article was partially written as a way of conserving space

while editing This Is Orson Welles (1991). A particular problem I had

throughout that project was having more material that I wanted to use

than I had room for. So I figured that if I could write and publish articles

elsewhere that incorporated portions of this material, all I had to do in the

book was allude to them.

 

Mr. Arkadin has always been the most difficult to research of the

Welles films that were finished in some form while he was alive —

partially because it remained such a painful memory to Welles due

to his friendship with Louis Dolivet, the producer, that he avoided

discussing it. Indeed, there was barely any material at all about it

in the tapes and drafts for This Is Orson Welles that I had

to work with. So as I tried to expand what I had via research,

I eventually hit upon the idea of publishing a piece in Film

Comment. (This appeared in January-February 1992.)

By necessity, much of what I included in this article was provisional.

(The same applies to a lesser extent to the dual commentary I

recorded with James  Naremore in early 2005 to the film’s “Corinth

version” [no.Read more »

Chicago

A bored festival report that I did for Cinemaya, Winter 1991-1992. -– J.R.

The Chicago International Film Festival is now 27 years old, making it one of the oldest film festivals in the U.S. because its founder, Michael Kutza, has remained its director, it might be said to have retained its overall focus — or, in fact ,the lack of focus – since the beginning, which might be described as an emphasis on quantity rather than a discernible critical position. (Having moved to Chicago in 1987, I’ve been present only for the last five festivals, but local critics who have been around much longer assure me that it hasn’t gone through any radical changes.)

To cite one instance of what I mean, it is the only festival that comes to mind that has consciously and deliberately programmed bad films on occasion for their camp appeal. Certain other titles often appear to be picked at random, and the festival has at times shown enough inattentiveness to various year-long non-commercial film venues in Chicago to reprogram certain films that have already been shown at the Art Institute’s Film Center or Facets Multimedia Center.

One hundred and twenty features were scheduled at the festival in 1991, and while a few of these never turned up, there were still many more films shown over 15 days in mid-October than the critics knew what to do with.… Read more »

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

A knockout thriller that succeeds brilliantly at just about everything Scorsese’s Cape Fear only tries to do. It’s another revenge plot in which the villain (Rebecca De Mornay) attempts to destroy a family (Annabella Sciorra, Matt McCoy, Madeline Zima) from within, but there’s no pretentious art agenda on the filmmakers’ minds; they merely work the genre for all it’s worth, which proves in this case to be plenty: the suspense is masterfully controlled, and the story, which makes effective use of Seattle locations, builds to a terrifying climax. Curtis Hanson’s direction and Amanda Silver’s screenplay are both models of no-flab craft and intelligence, and all the actors (who also include Ernie Hudson and Julianne Moore) are believable from the first frame to the last. (Burnham Plaza, McClurg Court, Lincoln Village, Golf Mill, Evanston, Norridge, Hyde Park, Webster Place, Ford City)… Read more »

Naked Lunch

From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1992). — J.R.

David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece since Videodrome breaks every rule in the book when it comes to adapting a literary classic — perhaps On Naked Lunch would be a more accurate title — but justifies every transgression with its artistry and sheer audacity. Adapted not only from William S. Burroughs’s free-for novel but also from several other Burroughs works (e.g., Exterminator and the introduction to Queer), it pares away all the social satire and everything that might qualify as celebration of gay sex, yielding a complex and highly subjective portrait of Burroughs himself (expertly played, under his William Lee pseudonym, by Peter Weller) as a tortured sensibility in flight from his own femininity, who proceeds zombielike through an echo chamber of projections (insects, drugs, and typewriters) and disavowals. According to the densely compacted metaphors that compose this dreamlike movie, writing equals drugs equals sex, and William Lee, as politically incorrect as Burroughs himself, repeatedly disavows his involvement in all three activities. Maybe it’s Cronenberg himself who’s doing all the disavowing; like David Lynch, his imagination seems to depend on ideological unawareness, but here, at least, it produces the most ravishing head movie since Eraserhead.… Read more »

England From the Inside

From the Chicago Reader, January 10, 1992. — J.R.

THE FILMS OF MIKE LEIGH

Among the buzzwords Marshall McLuhan coined in the 60s, “global village” has always seemed one of the more dubious. The naive notion that TV brings the whole world to our doorsteps — and presumably our doorsteps to the rest of the world — seems founded on assumptions that don’t bear close scrutiny. What do we mean by “the world,” for instance? And what do we mean by TV? TV may afford us some touristic glimpses of elsewhere, along with all the usual ideological baggage of the tourist, but when it comes to closer and better understandings of foreign cultures, I suspect TV may do more harm than good by fostering complacent illusions of knowledge: images wrapped in tidy American sound bites for easy consumption, postage-stamp peeks into worlds often defined in part by what we still don’t know.

What TV seldom offers us — unless we understand other languages and possess satellite dishes — is the rare privilege of overhearing other cultures talk to themselves, experiencing them from within rather than on our terms. To be on the inside looking out offers a different kind of knowledge, attained more by osmosis and intuition than by simplification, translation, or exegesis.… Read more »

1991 in Movies

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 1992). — J.R.

Looking at the big-time U.S. studio releases of 1991 — most of which enjoyed free supplements to their hefty advertising budgets from every branch of the media — we’d have to conclude that this was a year without enduring masterpieces. The best are intelligent entertainments, most of which faded quickly from memory. If I had to choose the ten best from this group, they’d be (in alphabetical order): Barton Fink, Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, Defending Your Life, The Fisher King, For the Boys, Jungle Fever, Once Around, Rambling Rose, and Thelma and Louise. Equally good or even better are some new American pictures that didn’t get anything like the same national attention: Chameleon Street, City of Hope, The Deadman (only 37 minutes long, but better than most features I saw), Hangin’ With the Homeboys, A Little Stiff, My Own Private Idaho, Poison, Reunion, and Trust. The best American documentaries that come to mind are Butoh: Body at the Edge of Crisis, Inside Life Outside, Lines of Fire, Paris Is Burning, Private Conversations on the Set of Death of a Salesman, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and the videos of Sadie Benning.… Read more »

Northwest Passage

King Vidor’s 1940 adaptation of Kenneth Roberts’s book about Rogers’ Rangers opening up a trade route and triumphing over fatigue, hunger, rage, insubordination, weakness, and even cannibalism as they slaughter Indians. (The grim violence and outright racism may remind you in spots of the Vietnam sections in The Deer Hunter.) Spencer Tracy is effective as the leader and all-purpose daddy figure; Robert Young and Walter Brennan are among the greenhorn recruits. Much of this is effective in terms of action and adventure, and the color cinematography is memorable, but don’t expect an enlightened historical view. With Ruth Hussey. (JR)… Read more »

Native Son

A genuine oddity: a 1950 adaptation of Richard Wright’s great novel of black Chicago, with the author himself as the hero, Bigger Thomas, shot in Buneos Aires by French director Pierre Chenal. Wright is clearly too old for the part, and there are many other ways in which the film can’t begin to do justice to the extraordinary power and density of the original, but it’s still a noble and interesting if highly uneven effort. With Jean Wallace, Gloria Madison, and Nicholas Joy. (JR)… Read more »

Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

A fascinating 1991 postmortem on the making of Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), mainly consisting of footage shot by Eleanor Coppola in the 70s that has been intelligently selected, augmented, and arranged by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper. Like the Coppola film itself, this documentary at times seems to value self-styled profundity and rhetoric over observation and common sense; one especially regrets the absence of any thoroughgoing political or historical critique of Apocalypse Now in relation to the Vietnam war. Moreover, this movie only compounds the self-satisfied myopia that regards peasants of the Philippines (where Apocalypse was shot) and those of Vietnam as interchangeable. But the various personalities involvedincluding Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Coppola himselfkeep this watchable. Too bad that Michael Herr, who wrote Apocalypse’s effective narration after the film was shot, is overlooked in the kaleidoscopic clashes of male egos, but it’s nice to see that Orson Welles’s radio and screenplay adaptations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are acknowledged as precedents and influences. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »