Monthly Archives: April 1993

The Nation Erupts

A reflection on last year’s riot in Los Angeles put together for the grass-roots TV series Not Channel Zero–The Revolution, Televised and produced by Black Planet Productions, an inventive New York media collective with an afrocentric perspective and a refreshing way of combining aesthetic imagination with political savvy. However incendiary it may sound, its “Top 11 Reasons to Loot or Riot” is actually a model of reasoned analysis, which can also be said of many of the other discourses featured. A member of the Black Planet collective will be present for a discussion. Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Friday, April 30, 8:00, 281-8788. … Read more »

Heavy Plotting [MY NEW GUN]

From the Chicago Reader (April 30, 1993). — J.R.

MY NEW GUN

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Stacy Cochran

With Diane Lane, James LeGros, Tess Harper, Bruce Altman, Maddie Corman, Bill Raymond, and Stephen Collins.

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails, and I began to nurse a rankling conviction that detective stories are able to profit by an unfair advantage in the code which forbids the reviewer to give away the secret to the public — a custom which results in the concealment of the pointlessness of a good deal of this fiction and affords a protection to the authors which no other department of writing enjoys. — Edmund Wilson, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”

In the half century that has passed since this famous long sentence was written, it seems that a lot more than detective stories has fallen under the kind of protection Wilson objected to. Miramax’s campaign to protect the “surprise” of The Crying Game has been so vociferous that one feels it may only be a matter of time before the clergy starts inveighing against tattletale reviewers.… Read more »

Chung Kuo China

A four-hour film about modern China made in 1972 by Michelangelo Antonioni. Though I’ve only been able to sample it, I believe it’s one of the very few comprehensive and serious Western documentaries on the subject. (The only other one that I’m aware of is Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan’s equally scarce six-part, 12-hour How Yukong Moved the Mountains, made four years later.) While the Chinese government invited Antonioni to make this film, and Western viewers at the time regarded it as a sympathetic portrayal, the results was widely denounced by the Chinese when it first appeared–a fascinating instance of radically divergent interpretations of the same images and camera angles. It now appears that the denunciation was partially dictated by government policies that had relatively little to do with Antonioni, and it’s worth pointing out that the Chinese offered a public apology to the filmmaker in 1980. For the past two decades or so this work has been completely unavailable in the U.S., and it still has no distributor, so this may well be your only chance to see it. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, May 2, 1:30, and Thursday, May 6, 6:00, 443-3737.… Read more »

Il ladro di bambini

The Italian title of this lovely, rambling feature by Gianni Amelio (Open Doors) translates unidiomatically as “The Children Thief,” and is undoubtedly meant to remind us of the 1948 film The Bicycle Thief. The “thief” in question is actually a young carabiniere officer (Enrico Lo Verso) based in Milan who’s given the job of escorting an 11-year-old girl (Valentina Scalici) and her 10-year-old brother (Giuseppe Ieracitano) to a religious home after their mother is arrested for forcing the daughter into prostitution. After the home turns them away the officer has to bring them to a reform school in Sicily, but he winds up taking his time about it–stopping off at his family home en route and finding other distractions. The biggest box-office hit in Italy last year, this also won the grand jury prize at the Cannes film festival, but the nice thing about it is that it doesn’t shove its virtues in your face; it’s made up of small discoveries and natural performances that raise as many questions about the characters as they answer. Accompanying some of the showings of this feature is an Oscar-nominated short film, Swan Song, starring John Gielgud and Richard Briers, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and adapted by Hugh Cruttwell from a short play by Anton Chekhov.… Read more »

Green on Thursdays

Astrong documentary by Dean Bushala and Deirdre Heaslip about gay bashing in Chicago, alternately terrifying and empowering in its matter-of-fact instructiveness about the extent of the problem and the response of local activists–including the Pink Angels street patrol, the Coalition Against Bashing, and Horizon’s antiviolence counseling and court advocacy program. Following many individual cases of violence against gay men and lesbians, the film makes effective use of several local talents: two videos by Charles Christensen, a song by the duo Ellen Rosner & Camille, and black-and-white photographs by Allen Nepomuceno, Paul Vosdic, and Paul Roesch. The title, if you’re wondering, originally referred to the 19th-century practice of gay men wearing green ties to work on Thursdays to identify themselves to each other; today it raises the issue of how much being “out” means being a target for a sociopath. The film deals only glancingly with the reasons for homophobic violence, but has a lot to say about the possible responses to it. A panel discussion with the filmmakers, film participants, and representatives from the Chicago Police Department and the mayor’s office will follow the Sunday screening. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, April 23 and 24, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, April 25, 5:30; and Monday through Thursday, April 26 through 29, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.… Read more »

Desperate Characters [BOILING POINT and BODIES, REST & MOTION]

From the Chicago Reader (April 23, 1993). — J.R.

http://content.internetvideoarchive.com/content/photos/101/00424811_.jpg

BOILING POINT

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by James B. Harris

With Wesley Snipes, Dennis Hopper, Lolita Davidovich, Viggo Mortensen, Seymour Cassel, Jonathan Banks, Christine Elise, and Valerie Perrine

BODIES, REST & MOTION

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Michael Steinberg

Written by Roger Hedden

With Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Alicia Witt, Sandra Lafferty, and Sidney Dawson.

At least 30 or 40 years separate the sensibilities that underlie Boiling Point and Bodies, Rest & Motion, two current releases I suspect won’t be with us very long. The first, a quirky and at times oddly charming museum piece, is masquerading as a Wesley Snipes action thriller, but advertising — even wall-to-wall — isn’t everything. The writer-director, James B. Harris, who was born in 1928, produced the first three important Stanley Kubrick features – The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita (1962) — and what’s most distinctive about this movie is its bittersweet aroma of 50s nostalgia and over-the-hill desperation, most of it wafting around a pathetically cheerful con artist called Red Diamond (Dennis Hopper) who’s simply trying to stay alive.

There’s desperation aplenty in Bodies, Rest & Motion as well, but not the sort that has the weight of lived experience — or even the relative weightlessness of recollected innocence.… Read more »

The Player [EL MARIACHI]

From the Chicago Reader (April 16, 1993). — J.R.

EL MARIACHI

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Robert Rodriguez

With Carlos Gallardo, Consuelo Gomez, Peter Marquardt, Jaime De Hoyos, and Reinol Martinez.

I was several weeks late catching up with El mariachi, a fine little action picture in Spanish that’s been playing at the Water Tower (and opens this week at the Biograph and Bricktown Square). Judging from all the reviews and press stories I read beforehand, an essential part of the movie’s meaning — almost treated as if it were part of the plot — is that its 24-year-old writer-director, Robert Rodriguez, made it for $7,000 and, now a client of Hollywood’s International Creative Management agency, has a two-year contract with Columbia Pictures, the movie’s distributor, that includes plans to shoot a $6 million English-language remake. Much less important, it would seem, is the fate of the movie’s title hero (played by Carlos Gallardo, also Rodriguez’s coproducer). All he ever wanted, “el mariachi” makes clear, is to be a folk musician like his ancestors, though he loses his guitar, the use of one hand, his music, his girlfriend, and possibly even his soul in the process of saving his skin, which entails becoming a successful killer and appropriating the Anglo villain’s weapons.… Read more »

The Last Days of Chez Nous

Even if you decide at times that the story telling and the visual style aren’t as compelling as the characters, this woman-oriented feature by Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, High Tide), working here with novelist and screenwriter Helen Garner, is so alive with felt and observed experience and subtle familial interaction that you may not care. The story concerns a group of people living in a ramshackle house in Sydney, among them a middle-aged novelist (Lisa Harrow), her teenage daughter (Miranda Otto), her French husband (Bruno Ganz), her younger sister (An Angel at My Table’s Kerry Fox), and a young male boarder (Kiri Paramore); the plot consists largely of what ensues when the sister has an abortion and then becomes involved with her brother-in-law. The performances are so powerful and persuasive–especially in the cases of Harrow, Ganz, and Bill Hunter, who plays the novelist’s father–that you may periodically forget they’re performances; these are complex characters you remember, not actors’ turns you’re asked to admire (1992). Music Box, Friday through Thursday, April 16 through 22.… Read more »

The Early Criticism of Francois Truffaut

From Cineaste, Spring 1993. I must say that I continue to be stupefied that a  very respected academic French film critic reviewed this book favorably in Sight and Sound.

This book has been a topic of discussion lately among some Facebook friends, so it seems appropriate to post this review now. – J.R.

The historical amnesia currently infecting much of film scholarship, in academic and mainstream publishing alike, is so pervasive that it might be said to affect our sense of the present as well as the past. In theory, then, the most valuable thing about this annotated collection of early film criticism by François Truffaut would be less what it has to tell us about individual films than what it has to impart about film criticism itself in Paris during the Fifties. In practice, however, it proves to be highly problematical on both counts. While I would find a first volume in English of the criticism of Serge Daney, Jean-André Fieschi, Luc Moullet, Claude Ollier, or several other French critics immensely more valuable than a second Truffaut collection (after The Films of My Life, not to mention his collected letters and many other related books in English), additional samplings of his critical work are still certainly welcome.… Read more »

A Cinema of Uncertainty

From the Chicago Reader, April 9, 1993. — J.R

FILMS BY MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI

Jean-Luc Godard: The drama is no longer psychological, but plastic . . .

Michelangelo Antonioni: It’s the same thing.

– from a 1964 interview

eclisse-city-crossing

Just for my own edification, I’ve put together a list of the 12 greatest living narrative filmmakers — not so much personal favorites as individuals who, in my estimation, have done the most to change the way we perceive the world and are likeliest to be remembered and valued half a century from now. The names I’ve come up with are Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini, Samuel Fuller, Jean-Luc Godard, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Alain Resnais, and Ousmane Sembene.

Only five have had their most recent feature distributed in the U.S. — Bergman, Bresson, Kubrick, Kurosawa, and Sembene. Fellini may have recently earned a special Oscar, but that doesn’t mean we can expect to see his latest film anytime soon, and though Godard’s next-to-last feature, Nouvelle vague, has finally come out on video, that doesn’t mean we can expect to see it properly, on a big screen.

We can, however, see nearly all of Antonioni’s work — 14 of his 15 feature films and most of the dozen or so shorts — in brand-new prints at the Film Center this month and next.… Read more »

Like Water for Chocolate

Based on the best-selling novel by Laura Esquivel, who adapted her own work for the screen, this delightful piece of magical realism from Mexican director Alfonso Arau (1991) contemplates the unrequited love of a single woman for her brother-in-law, a passion that can only be expressed and sublimated through the sensual meals she prepares for him. (The original novel even contained recipes.) With Lumi Cavazos, Marco Leonardi, and Regina Torne. The title, incidentally, derives from a Mexican slang expression that means, approximately, “ready to boil.” Fine Arts.… Read more »

Actress

A masterpiece by Stanley Kwan, the greatest Hong Kong film I’ve seen (also known as Ruan Ling Yu and Center Stage). The story of silent film actress Ruan Ling Yu (1910-1935), known as the Garbo of Chinese cinema, it combines documentary with period re-creation, biopic glamour with profound curiosity, and ravishing historical clips with color simulations of the same sequences being shot–all to explore a past that seems more complex, mysterious, and sexy than the present. Maggie Cheung won a well-deserved best actress prize at Berlin for her classy performance in the title role, and a large part of what Kwan does as a director is to create a kind of nimbus around her poise and grace. (If I had to pick Kwan’s Hollywood equivalent, I’d opt for George Cukor.) Kwan also creates a labyrinth of questions around who Ruan was and why she committed suicide–a labyrinth both physical (with beautifully ambiguous uses of black-and-white movie sets) and metaphysical–and keeps these questions perpetually open. You should be prepared for a picture that lasts 146 minutes and invites you to relish every one of them–not only the stylish beauty of an imagined Shanghai film world of the 30s, but also the flat abrasiveness of Kwan chatting with Cheung on video about what all this means and coming up with damn little.… Read more »

Films by Michaelangelo Antonioni

The Film Center’s ongoing retrospective of the work of Italy’s greatest living filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, offers two noteworthy programs this Friday night. First is perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Antonioni’s early features, Lady Without Camelias (La signora senza camelie, 1953), a caustic Cinderella story about a Milanese shop clerk (Lucia Bose) who briefly becomes a glamorous movie star. One of the cruelest and most accurate portraits of studio moviemaking and the Italian movie world that we have, it’s informed by a visually and emotionally complex mise en scene that juggles background with foreground elements in a choreographic style recalling Welles at times. Though it’s only Antonioni’s third feature, and it’s episodic structure necessitates a somewhat awkward expositional method, this is mature filmmaking that leaves an indelible aftertaste.

Then comes a program of shorts made between 1947 and 1953, mainly “apprentice” works, though no less impressive and commanding for all that; the only conventional and fairly forgettable one is the last in the program, The Villa of Monsters (1950)–to be shown, unlike the others, only with French and German subtitles. Perhaps the most significant stylistic trait to be found in most of the work here is the pan suddenly linking foreground with background, the animate with the inanimate.… Read more »

Story Of A Love Affair

Michelangelo Antonioni’s haunting first feature (1950)a remarkable formal effort involving a detective, an adulterous trio, a murder plot, a choreographic mise en scene, and an extended flashbackqualifies in many ways as an Italian noir, set in the milieu of the Milanese upper classes; with Lucia Bose (The Lady Without Camellias) and Massimo Girotti. In Italian with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

How To Steal A Million

William Wyler wasn’t generally known for his light touch, but he made this comic 1966 piece of fluff about a million-dollar heist from a Paris art museum pretty easy to takehelped no doubt by his charming leads, Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, not to mention Charles Boyer, Eli Wallach, and Hugh Griffith. Harry Kurnitz wrote the script. This is forgettable, but to hazard a paradoxpricelessly forgettable. 127 min. (JR)… Read more »