Monthly Archives: June 1992

Shoot for the Contents

This essay film by the U.S.-based, French-educated Vietnamese writer and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha (Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, Surname Viet Given Name Nam) approaches Chinese culture from an outsider’s position–or, more precisely, through a series of contrasted outsider positions and layered perspectives. Shoot for the Contents, whose title alludes to a Chinese guessing game, was motivated by Trinh’s desire to explore her Vietnamese roots (she plans to make a companion film about India, the other major influence on Vietnamese culture), but she’s more concerned with poetic evocation than journalistic information. This film may confound spectators looking for a thesis or the kind of false knowledge proffered by conventional documentaries; as usual, Trinh is interested in radically opposing the means by which documentaries generally claim to be authoritative. But the dispersed presentation–which makes use of video as well as 16-millimeter footage and consists largely of speculative conversations with filmmakers and diverse kinds of visual displacement–is provocative and compelling. Like Trinh’s other work, this could be described as the film of an accomplished and talented writer rather than the “writing” of a pure filmmaker, but it is no less commanding for that (1991). (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Saturday, June 27, 7:30, 281-8788) … Read more »

Double Bind

Four independent shorts by women about mothers and daughters. All of them are original and well worth seeing, but I was especially struck by Anna Campion’s English documentary The Audition (1989), in which her famous filmmaking sister Jane auditions their mother, a former stage actress, for a small part in An Angel at My Table. Charting the subtle shifts in power and control between mother and daughter, this intimate family piece seems partly scripted and partly improvised, and the complicity of the participants makes it wholly convincing and riveting. Tracey Moffatt’s Australian Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) is a visually striking experimental piece about an aboriginal woman nursing her dying mother. Pam Tom’s Two Lies (1990), a U.S. film in black and white, focuses on the tensions between a Chinese American divorcee, who’s just undergone plastic surgery to make her eyes rounder, and her disaffected teenage daughter. Ngozi Onwurah’s English The Body Beautiful (1991) is a frank and suggestive reverie about the filmmaker herself (played by an actress), who’s the daughter of a mixed marriage, and her white mother (who plays herself). (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Friday, June 26, 7:30, 281-8788)… Read more »

Cousin Bobby

A fascinating and highly moving documentary by Jonathan Demme about his cousin Robert Castle, whom he hadn’t seen for 30 years when he started making this film. A 60-year-old white Episcopal minister working in Harlem with a multiracial and multidenominational congregation, Castle is a passionately committed community organizer who started out in Jersey City and forged strong links with the Black Panthers and other radical organizations of the 60s and 70s. He comes across as something of a saint–unpretentious and unself-conscious, though by no means simple–and this unpreachy film, which also shows us a lot of Demme and his developing friendship with his cousin, is similarly direct and unaffected. Some of our questions about Castle’s peripatetic family life are left unanswered, and it’s not clear precisely where home movie is meant to shade off into political document, but such ambiguity carries a certain charm and conviction; at the end one simply feels grateful to have spent some time with these people (1991). (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, June 26 through July 2) … Read more »

The Grandfather [INTIMATE STRANGER]

From the Chicago Reader (June 19, 1992). There’s a new DVD box set devoted to five Berliner documentaries, including this one, that’s recently come out. — J.R.

INTIMATE STRANGER

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Alan Berliner.

The subject of Alan Berliner’s remarkable hour-long documentary, showing Friday night at Chicago Filmmakers, is his maternal grandfather, Joseph Cassuto — a Jew born in Palestine in 1905 and raised in Egypt, where he started working for the Japanese Cotton Trading Company in his teens. He moved his family to Brooklyn in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor, and after the war spent nearly all his time — roughly 11 months out of every year — in Japan, until late 1956, when he transferred to the New York office. He died in 1974.

Considering Cassuto’s globe-trotting, it’s hard to imagine most Americans being interested in Intimate Stranger. It’s taken the better part of a year for it to reach Chicago, after premiering last fall at the New York film festival. After all, this is a country so uninterested in the rest of the world that the foreign policies of its presidential candidates barely seem to matter — and when they do matter, you can bet it’s the welfare of this country rather than the planet that’s at issue.… Read more »

Eastern European Documentaries: Czechoslovakia and the USSR

Three fascinating examples of recent filmmaking in Eastern Europe (all completed in 1990) that tell us something about what it’s like to live there now. (If we had world news on TV that was worthy of the name, this is the sort of work we’d see every week.) Drahomira Vihanova’s Czech The Metamorphosis of My Friend Eva presents a striking emotional portrait of an aging, alcoholic jazz singer who was unable to perform under the communist regime. Jan Spata’s Czech Between Darkness and Light chronicles the return of Spata, a photographer, to his hometown after many years; it cuts freely between color footage and black-and-white stills, and its depictions of rural life are equally free ranging. Alexy Chanyutin’s feature-length DMB from the former Soviet Union, which I only sampled, is a beautifully shot portrait of life in the Soviet army among soldiers just back from Afghanistan–more generally it’s a highly suggestive look at life and problems in the former Soviet Union. To be presented on video in cooperation with the School of the Art Institute’s filmmaking department. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, June 21, 4:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Nagisa Oshima: The Man Who Left His Soul on Film

Virtually a crash course on the most important and talented living Japanese filmmaker after Kurosawa and related aspects of contemporary Japanese politics and culture. This superb feature-length documentary made in 1984 by Paul Joyce for England’s Channel Four offers an indispensable look at a fearlessly innovative and political filmmaker who is all but unknown in this country today, thanks to the reluctance of his U.S. distributor to make such vital works as Boy, Death by Hanging, and The Ceremony available on video. Making intelligent use of Anglo-American commentators (writers Donald Richie, Roger Pulvers, and Paul Mayersberg) as well as Oshima himself, this film somehow manages to cover everything in Oshima’s career from his early youth shockers to In The Realm of the Senses and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence–including his fame as a Japanese TV personality (at the outset we see him acting in a commercial for bug spray). Essential viewing. To be shown on three-quarter-inch video. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, June 13, 6:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

Lie Lady Lie [HOUSESITTER]

From the Chicago Reader (June 12, 1992). — J.R.

HOUSESITTER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Frank Oz

Written by Mark Stein and Brian Grazer

With Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, Dana Delany, Julie Harris, Donald Moffat, Peter MacNicol, Richard B. Shull, Laurel Cronin, Roy Cooper, and Christopher Durang.

I’ve seen previews of two summer comedies so far — Sister Act and Housesitter – that have elicited gales of hysterical laughter from their mainly young audiences. In both cases the hysteria and volume of the laughter seemed a bit out of proportion. The one-joke premise of Sister Act – that there’s something indescribably hilarious about nuns behaving slightly irreverently — smacks more of quiet desperation growing out of repression than of something to feel happy about. I suspect that if I were a Catholic I’d feel more offended than charmed by the complacency of this running gag, whatever Emile Ardolino’s efficiency as a director. There’s a certain darkness behind many of the laughs in Housesitter, too, but at least they relate to a zeitgeist I can feel part of.

The main comic staple of Housesitter, apart from the enjoyable physical clowning of Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, is a theme I associate especially with the comedies of Billy Wilder: the baroque complications that grow out of elaborate lies.… Read more »

Dirk Bogarde: By Myself

A must-see for Dirk Bogarde fans, and highly recommended to anyone who wants to hear an intelligent actor speak at length. This two-part British TV documentary by Paul Joyce features a fascinating discussion by Bogarde about his craft, with particularly interesting bits about Visconti’s blocking of his mise en scene to music by Mahler in Death in Venice; how Fassbinder allegedly destroyed Despair in the cutting room; the controversial early handling of a gay theme in Victim; experiences with Judy Garland and Joseph Losey; the Hollywood blacklist; and work with Bertrand Tavernier on Daddy Nostalgia, Bogarde’s farewell film. This riveting interview inspires thoughts on why this country can’t produce documentaries about film that are even a fraction as good (1991). To be shown on three-quarter-inch video. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, June 13, 4:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Proof

Jocelyn Moorhouse’s sensitive and well-acted chamber drama focuses on a young man, blind since birth, who is obsessed with taking photographs. Cared for by a frustrated young housekeeper who both loves and despises him, he strikes up a friendship with another young man, and the story turns into a subtly nuanced romantic triangle and power struggle that gains resonance as we learn more about the hero’s childhood. Thematically (if not stylistically) suggestive at times of Peeping Tom, this impressive first feature from Australia shows a remarkable amount of assurance in writing as well as direction, clearly marking Moorhouse as someone to watch. With Hugo Weaving, Genevieve Picot, and Russell Crowe. (Fine Arts) … Read more »

Shoot For The Contents

This essay film by the U.S.-based, French-educated Vietnamese writer and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha (Naked SpacesLiving Is Round, Surname Viet Given Name Nam) approaches Chinese culture from an outsider’s positionor, more precisely, through a series of contrasted outsider positions and layered perspectives. Shoot for the Contents, whose title alludes to a Chinese guessing game, was motivated by Trinh’s desire to explore her Vietnamese roots (she plans to make a companion film about India, the other major source of Vietnamese culture), but she’s more concerned with poetic evocation than journalistic information. This film may confound spectators looking for a thesis or the kind of false knowledge proffered by conventional documentaries; as usual, Trinh is interested in radically opposing the means by which documentaries generally claim to be authoritative. But the dispersed presentationwhich makes use of video as well as 16-millimeter footage and consists largely of speculative conversations with filmmakers and diverse kinds of visual displacementis provocative and compelling. Like Trinh’s other work, this could be described as the film of an accomplished and talented writer rather than the writing of a pure filmmaker, but it is no less commanding for that (1991). (JR)… Read more »

Nagisa Oshima: The Man Who Left His Soul On Film

Virtually a crash course on the most important and talented living Japanese filmmaker after Kurosawa and on related aspects of contemporary Japanese politics and culture. This superb feature-length documentary by Paul Joyce for England’s Channel Four offers an indispensable look at a fearlessly innovative and political filmmaker who is all but unknown in this country. Making intelligent use of Anglo-American commentators (writers Donald Richie, Roger Pulvers, and Paul Mayersberg) as well as Oshima himself, this film somehow manages to cover everything in Oshima’s career from his early youth shockers to In the Realm of the Senses and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrencewithout leaving out Oshima’s fame as a Japanese TV personality (at the outset we see him acting in a commercial for a bug spray). Essential viewing (1984). (JR)… Read more »

Housesitter

If you’re fond of Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn’s physical talents for comedy even when they have slender material to work with, this occasionally amusing fluff can pass the time. Martin plays a frustrated Boston architect who builds a dream house for the woman back home (Dana Delany) he’s smitten with, only to have his marriage proposal rejected. Enter Hawn, a waitress who encounters Martin, hears about the empty house, and promptly moves in, pretending to be Martin’s newlywed wife and foisting elaborate deceptions on his parents (Julie Harris and Donald Moffat) as well as his beloved. Frank Oz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) directed fairly well from a rudimentary script by Mark Stein and Brian Grazer; among the secondary cast are Peter MacNicol, Richard B. Shull, Laurel Cronin, Roy Cooper, and, in a jokey cameo as a clergyman, playwright Christopher Durang. (JR)… Read more »

Highway 61

Director Bruce McDonald and writer-actor Don McKellar, who’d previously collaborated on Roadkill, reunited for this watchable 1991 Canadian feature. A rock ‘n’ roll roadie (Valerie Buhagiar) persuades a barber and aspiring musician (McKellar) to leave his small town in northern Ontario to transport her and the corpse of her alleged brother to New Orleans; pursuing them is a hillbilly (Earl Pastko) who thinks he’s Satan and wants the corpse for himself. The charm of McKellar and Buhagiar and the Canadian angle on various forms of U.S. craziness make this somewhat more appealing than the usual absurdist road movie. R, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Zentropa

Lars von Trier’s 1991 thriller is technically powerful, stylistically assured, and thematically provocative (if emotionally somewhat remote); at times it suggests a European equivalent of Barton Fink, though it’s even more impressive in certain ways. (The intricate camera movements and the combinations of color with black and white within single shots are often stunning.) A Danish-French-German-Swedish production in English that shared the jury prize at the Cannes festival, the film follows a young American traveling through Germany immediately after World War II as an apprentice to a railroad conductor; he becomes embroiled in intrigues involving a mysterious woman (Barbara Sukowa) and an underground group fighting against the Allies. Fascinating as a contemporary and rather mordant meditation on Common Market Europe and international coproduction, this is a key work whether one warms to it or not. Known as Europa until its U.S. distributor renamed it to avoid confusion with Europa Europa; with Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, and narration by Max von Sydow. In English and subtitled German. 114 min. (JR)… Read more »

To Lavoisier Who Died In The Reign Of Terror

A major experimental film by Michael Snow, probably the greatest living Canadian artist, made in collaboration with Carl Brown (1991). The title refers to the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and the film is intimately concerned with the sources and physical ingredients of film images, as well as the violence entailed in their production. Surprisingly close in some ways to the work of Stan Brakhage, at least in surface appearances, this is both provocative and beautiful, like most of Snow’s best films (e.g., Wavelength, La region centrale, So Is This). (JR)… Read more »