Monthly Archives: July 1992

Right On! The Original Last Poets

A fascinating time capsule-shot in 1968, released in 1970–this is a filmed performance by three angry, talented black poets. Gylan Kain, Felipe Luciano, and David Nelson recite their rhythmic, passionate work to Afro-Cuban percussion (with occasional flute and guitar) on a rooftop and other urban ghetto settings, working out a highly politicized poetics that anticipates rap while conveying much of the essence of black-power rhetoric of the late 60s. More than a simple objective rendering of an event, this film is interspersed with cutaways and found footage in a very effective fashion by director Herbert Danska, probably best known for his 1967 jazz feature with Dick Gregory, Sweet Love, Bitter. To be shown on video; the run will extend through August 13. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Thursday, August 6, 7:00 and 9:00, 281-4114) … Read more »

The Swordsman in Double-Flag Town

A visually impressive ‘Scope “western” from mainland China, reportedly the first, directed with flair and economy by He Ping. It may occasionally suggest Sergio Leone in aspects of its spare, confrontational plot, but its subject (Gao Wei as a young hero protecting his child fiancee from bullies) and its style of presenting action (slower and faster than what we are accustomed to in westerns) seems more Asian than European or Hollywood, which is entirely to this picture’s benefit. Whether you take it as pure Chinese or ersatz American or both, it certainly packs a wallop (1991). A Chicago premiere. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, July 25, 6:00 and 8:00, and Sunday, July 26, 4:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

Sex and Drugs and Death and Writing [NAKED LUNCH]

From the Chicago Reader (January 17, 1992). — J.R.

NAKED LUNCH **** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by David Cronenberg

With Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Michael Zelniker, and Nicholas Campbell.

And some of us are on Different Kicks and that’s a thing out in the open the way I like to see what I eat and vice versa mutatis mutandis as the case may be. Bill’s Naked Lunch Room . . . Step right up. Good for young and old, man and bestial. Nothing like a little snake oil to grease the wheels and get a show on the track Jack. Which side are you on? Fro-Zen Hydraulic? Or you want to take a look around with Honest Bill?” — William S. Burroughs, introduction to Naked Lunch (1962)

The first time I read William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—or at least large portions of it — was in 1959, a few months after its first printing, in a smuggled copy of the seedy Olympia Press edition fresh from Paris. As I recall it was missing most or all of the accompanying matter — the introduction (“Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”), “Atrophied Preface” (“Wouldn’t You?”), and appendix (“Letter From a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs”) — that gave so much body, flavor, shape, and outright usefulness to the Grove Press edition published in the United States three years later.… Read more »

Voices From the Front

A powerful and highly informative feature-length documentary by the Testing the Limits collective (Robyn Huff, Sandra Elgear, and David Meieran) about AIDS activism and, more specifically, the self-empowerment of people with AIDS and AIDS-related diseases. Two of the more eye-opening subjects broached here are discrimination against women with AIDS and the drug profiteering that is promoted and protected by the Bush administration. Many people tend to be scared away from documentaries of this sort because of the unpleasantness of the subject matter, but the passion and determination of the activists seen here (including quite a few, such as Vito Russo, who are no longer alive) make this inspiring rather than hopeless–if only because we see that these activists have been far from ineffectual (1990). (Music Box, Sunday through Wednesday, July 19 through 22)… Read more »

Try and Get Me!

Conceivably the most anti-American Hollywood picture ever made–I certainly can’t think of any competitors–Cy Endfield’s brilliant and shocking thriller (also known as The Sound of Fury) was adapted by Jo Pagano from his novel The Condemned, which was inspired by a lynching that occurred in California in the 30s. A frustrated and jobless veteran (Frank Lovejoy), tired of denying his wife and son luxuries, falls in with a slick petty criminal (Lloyd Bridges), and the two work their way up from small robberies to a kidnapping that ends in murder. Apart from an unnecessary moralizing European character, this masterpiece is virtually flawless, exposing class hatreds and the abuses of the American press (represented here by Richard Carlson as a reporter) with rare lucidity and anger. At once subtle and unsparing, this maybe the best noir thriller you’ve never heard of, perhaps because Endfield’s American career was cut short by the blacklist the same year it was released (1951). With Kathleen Ryan, Katherine Locke, Adele Jergens, and Art Smith. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, July 17, 7:45, 443-3737)… Read more »

The Underworld Story

The first feature by the underrated writer-director Cy Endfield to attract much attention was this pungent noir item, socially corrosive in the best Endfield manner. The plot, based on a story by Craig Rice, follows the ruthless, cynical machinations of a newspaperman (Dan Duryea) taking over a small-town newspaper and boosting circulation by exploiting various aspects of a local murder case, including false accusations made against the victim’s black maid. Herbert Marshall plays a corrupt tycoon, and Howard da Silva is sensational as a cheerfully creepy hood. This isn’t quite on the same level as Endfield’s next feature, Try and Get Me, but it’s still essential viewing (1950). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, July 17, 6:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

Artful Imitations

From the Chicago Reader (July 17, 1992). — J.R.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Written by Richard Rothstein, Christopher Leitch, and Dean Devlin

With Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Ally Walker, Ed O’Ross, Jerry Orbach, Leon Rippy, Tico Wells, and Ralph Moeller.

UNLAWFUL ENTRY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Written by Lewis Colick, George D. Putnam, and John Katchmer

With Kurt Russell, Ray Liotta, Madeleine Stowe, Roger E. Mosley, Ken Lerner, Deborah Offner, Carmen Argenziano, and Andy Romano.

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Penny Marshall

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel

With Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, Tom Hanks, Jon Lovitz, David Strathairn, Garry Marshall, Megan Cavanagh, and Rosie O’Donnell.

PRELUDE TO A KISS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Norman Rene

Written by Craig Lucas

With Alec Baldwin, Meg Ryan, Sydney Walker, Ned Beatty, Patty Duke, Kathy Bates, and Richard Riehle.

Out of all the genres represented by this summer’s crop of movies, there are at least three that haven’t yet been officially recognized. There are sequels like Lethal Weapon 3 and Batman Returns whose true genres are not so much old-fashioned categories like police thriller and fantasy adventure as “this summer’s Lethal Weapon movie” and “this summer’s Batman movie.” Then there are strictly-by-the-book imitations like Universal Soldier and Unlawful Entry whose true genres are not so much science-fiction action adventure or romantic horror thriller as “this summer’s Terminator rip-off” and “this summer’s Fatal Attraction rip-off.” Finally, there are movies that, consciously or not, represent throwbacks to genres or cycles of other eras — specifically A League of Their Own, which resembles 40s musicals, and Prelude to a Kiss, which resembles supernatural comedies and dramas of the early 40s.… Read more »

Letter to VIDEO WATCHDOG (1992)

This was (mainly) published in Video Watchdog‘s July/August 1992 issue, with an accidentally deleted passage included in the errata section of their September-October 1992 issue.  -– J.R.

 arkadin-report-on-bed

arkadin-snow-opening

 

 

 

A brief note of clarification about my liner notes to the Criterion laserdisc of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT -– cited and questioned by Tim Lucas at the beginning of his excellent article [VW 10: 42-60]. The only reason why I failed to mention a third and (in my opinion) better version of MR. ARKADIN in these notes –- a version discussed by Lucas elsewhere in this issue –- is that I was under strict instructions from Criterion not to bring this matter up. I reluctantly agreed to this suppression of information only because I knew I would be writing about this version elsewhere (in [the January-February 1992 issue of] Film Comment), and I’m mentioning this anecdote now because I think it dramatizes the thin line separating criticism from publicity in most liner notes -– a general problem that readers of this magazine should be alerted to.

I don’t wish to denigrate the often fine work done by Criterion in making many important works available, but I do believe that the level of scholarship that’s attainable in commercial enterprises of this sort varies considerably from case to case.… Read more »

Potent Pessimism [on Cy Endfield]

From the Chicago Reader (July 10, 1992). For more on Endfield, see Brian Neve’s excellent new biography, The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu, as well as my subsequent Reader article about him and my essay “Pages from the Endfield File,” which grew out of the preceding two pieces and is reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics. This particular piece has been upgraded in terms of illustrations. — J.R.

FILMS BY CY ENDFIELD

The role of a work of art is to plunge people into horror. If the artist has a role, it is to confront people — and himself first of all — with this horror, this feeling that one has when one learns about the death of someone one has loved. — Jacques Rivette in an interview, circa 1967

Cyril Raker Endfield, who will turn 78 this November, is the sort of filmmaker auteurist critics like to call a “subject for further research.” To the best of my knowledge, he has directed 21 features — the first 7 in the United States between 1946 and 1951, the remainder in England, continental Europe, and South Africa between 1953 and 1971 — and worked on the scripts for most of them, as well as on the scripts of two Joe Palooka films (apart from the two he directed), a Bowery Boys picture (Hard Boiled Mahoney, 1947), Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love (1948), a prison picture called Crashout (1955), Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1958), and Zulu Dawn (1979), a sort of prequel to Endfield’s only hit, Zulu (1964).… Read more »

Unlawful Entry

An efficient little thriller that imparts loads of queasiness and reasonable amounts of suspense while serving as an excellent corrective to the shameless celebrations of LA police power and brutality in Lethal Weapon 3. The LA cop in this case (effectively played by Ray Liotta) is a psycho who falls for an attractive yuppie housewife (Madeleine Stowe) after helping her and her husband (Kurt Russell) install an elaborate security system in their house. The movie runs through several changes on the different meanings that police power can have and the ways that burglar alarms can make homes resemble prisons. Neither Lewis Colick’s script nor Jonathan Kaplan’s direction is quite as streamlined as it could be, but you certainly get a run for your money; with Roger E. Mosley and Ken Lerner. (Bricktown Square, Broadway, Burnham Plaza, Golf Glen, Ford City, Esquire, Old Orchard) … Read more »

Night on Earth

Extending the episodic construction of his four previous features and the principle of simultaneity underlying the last of these, Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch creates a comic sketch film out of five taxi rides and existential encounters occurring at the same time: a teenager (Winona Ryder) driving a Hollywood casting agent (Gena Rowlands) in Los Angeles at dusk; a former circus clown from Dresden (Armin Mueller-Stahl) chauffeuring–or being chauffeured by–a streetwise hipster (Giancarlo Esposito) from Manhattan to Brooklyn, with the hipster’s sister-in-law (Rosie Perez) getting corralled en route; an angry driver from the Ivory Coast (Isaach de Bankole) picking up a self-reliant blind woman (Beatrice Dalle) in Paris; a speedy cabbie (Roberto Benigni) in Rome delivering an obscene confession to an ailing priest (Paolo Bonacelli); and a morose driver (Matti Pellonpaa) in Helsinki recounting a hard-luck story to three drunken passengers (Kari Vaananen, Saku Kuosmanen, Tomi Salmela) at dawn. Although the hints of homage (to Cassavetes, Spike Lee, Benigni himself, and the Kaurismaki brothers) usually promise more than they deliver, and the movie peaks rather early (in the second episode), Jarmusch gets a fair amount of formal play from the sameness of and/or differences between the five episodes, which helps to sustain interest in the minimalist concept.… Read more »

Strangeness on a Train [on von Trier's ZENTROPA/EUROPA]

From the Chicago Reader (July 3, 1992). This marks my first encounter with Lars von Trier. — J.R.

ZENTROPA

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Lars von Trier

Written by von Trier and Niels Vorsel

With Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Erik Mork, Jorgen Reenberg, Henning Jensen, Eddie Constantine, and the voice of Max von Sydow.

Lars von Trier’s Zentropa is the most exciting failure to come along in ages. This Danish-French-German-Swedish coproduction (known as Europa outside the United States), turning up here over a year after it received both the Jury Prize and the Technical Prize at Cannes, addresses so many fundamental contemporary questions about postmodernism, language, colonialism, the Common Market, coproduction, the future of European cinema, and our collective memory of World War II that one may feel a mite churlish pointing out that its technique ultimately overwhelms the themes and characters. After all, exercices de style worthy of the name are not exactly plentiful these days, and Zentropa is an especially dazzling example — vastly more impressive than Barton Fink or Kafka or Shadows and Fog, to cite only the first rough counterparts that come to mind. It has so much to say and do, in fact, that its failure to get everything said and done has to be weighed against the failure of most other recent movies to say or do anything at all beyond the barest commercial minimum.… Read more »

Zulu

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1992). Reseeing the film recently in a splendid new Blu-Ray edition from Twilight Time, I now regard this as Cy Endfield’s greatest film — and one the best war films ever made, a magnificent epic that succeeds on many levels. — J.R.

zulu

zulu2

The only commercial hit made by Cy Endfield, the neglected, blacklisted American writer-director who emigrated to England in the 50s — an epic and visually quite impressive account of an attack by 4,000 Zulu warriors on 105 British soldiers in Natal in 1879. While the incident is recounted wholly from the British viewpoint, the film is not racist, as some charged when it was released in 1964. Reflecting Endfield’s career-long refusal to plumb his characters’ motivations, it presents all the events at face value, not even delving directly into the causes of the Zulu attack. (Reportedly, Endfield tried to compensate in the script he wrote for the 1979 Zulu Dawn, directed by Douglas Hickox.) While it might be argued that Endfield’s greatest work (i.e., Try and Get Me!) shows a political and social lucidity about class divisions and group behavior that is only hinted at here, the handling of action and spectacle and the direction of actors are truly masterful.… Read more »

The Swordsman In Double-flag Town

A visually impressive ‘Scope western, reportedly the first from mainland China, directed with flair and economy by He Ping. It may occasionally suggest Sergio Leone in a few aspects of its spare confrontational plot, but its subject (Gao Wei as a young hero protecting his child fiancee from bullies) and its style of presenting action (slower and faster than what we are accustomed to in western cinema) seems more Asian than European or Hollywood, which is entirely to this picture’s benefit. Whether you take it as pure Chinese or ersatz American or both, it certainly packs a wallop (1991). (JR)… Read more »

A Stranger Among Us

There’s apparently something about Hasidic Jews that makes normally talented and reasonable filmmakersDavid Mamet in Homicide, screenwriter Robert J. Avrech (Body Double) and director Sidney Lumet hereturn otherwise straightforward thrillers into harebrained hootfests. The best that can be said for this movie, which stars Melanie Griffith as an underground cop who lives with the Hasidim of Brooklyn while trying to solve the murder of a jewel merchant, is that apart from the talents of Griffith and Eric Thal (who plays a young Hasidic Jew she mildly flirts with) it has some educational value as a form of exposition about a fascinating subculture. The worst is that most of the other actors (and characters for that matter) get bent out of shape while trying to conform to the contours of the dotty plot. With John Pankow, Tracy Pollan, Lee Richardson, Mia Sara, Jamey Sheridan, Burtt Harris, and a lot of quotes from the cabala. (JR)… Read more »