Monthly Archives: June 1993

The Passing

The best new experimental work I’ve seen in ages, Bill Viola’s hour-long video (1991), shot in ravishing black and white, is like a string of epiphanies generated by lush and ambiguous encounters between the natural world (basically the American southwest) and the world of dreams and sleep. The minimal stereo sound track consists chiefly of Viola’s own breathing while he sleeps and the ticking of a clock; the haunting images encompass the death of Viola’s mother and the birth of his children as well as a good many surreal events that transpire underwater and in slow motion. If I had to come up with parallels, it would be necessary to grope in contrary directions–to the works of Stan Brakhage on the one hand and to Eraserhead on the other. But the musical pulse and flow of the images and their mesmerizing beauty throughout don’t deserve cross-references–they sing and vibrate with maximal intensity on their own. This gave me much more pleasure than any Hollywood movie I’ve seen this year. Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Saturday, June 26, 8:00, 281-8788. … Read more »

They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber

I’m reposting this as a sort of adjunct to David Bordwell’s excellent two-part study of Manny Farber (available here and here). Still another adjunct worth mentioning is the ninth issue of Donald Phelps’ long-defunct magazine For Now, devoted entirely to Farber’s writing (including some of his art criticism), and available here.  And my relatively recent review of Farber on Film can be accessed here.

This very personal essay was written in 1993 for my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. I’ve updated a few facts, all placed in square brackets, and corrected some typos, including one that appeared on the first page of the essay in the book, much to my irritation (as well as Manny’s) ….The photograph at the very end of this piece, before the new Afterword, taken by Andy Rector, shows Manny and Patricia with Gabe Klinger. — J.R.

They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

“What is the role of evaluation in your critical work?” Manny Farber was once asked in an interview. “It’s practically worthless for a critic,” Farber replied. “The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that.… Read more »

Traveling Avant

An ode to fanatical French cinephilia in 1948–the generation immediately preceding the New Wave, to which writer-director Jean-Charles Tacchella (Cousin, cousine) belonged–this is a must-see charmer not only for crazed film buffs and Francophiles, but also for anyone wanting to follow the adventures of a passionate romantic trio of scruffy bohemians in their early 20s in a Paris that no longer exists. Like the New Wave figures who followed them, the young men in this milieu write about movies and aspire to be directors; as critic David Overbey put it, they live through film references: “They even take girls to bed talking about Howard Hawks’s women and wake up feeling like Bogart.” Much of the idealistic effort they display goes toward setting up a cineclub that shows rare films, though there’s also a certain amount of suspense involving a treasure trove of old movies the characters steal. Conventionally made, though potent and heartfelt in its feelings of personal nostalgia, this movie makes effective use of its cast of young unknowns: Thierry Fremont, Ann-Gisel Glass, and Simon de la Brosse (1987). Tacchella will introduce the film and answer questions afterward; cosponsored by the French consulate of Chicago. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W.… Read more »

Missing the Target

From the Chicago Reader, June 18, 1993. (This is also reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics.) — J.R.

Who is correct? Are we becoming better off or worse off? Where are we heading? It depends on whom you mean by “we.” — Robert B. Reich, The Work of Nations

“Men never get this movie,” a woman says to her friend in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, referring to Leo McCarey’s 1957 An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, which is showing on TV. In fact, we’re told this again and again. Another woman tearfully describes the last scene of An Affair to Remember to the hero, who remarks, “That’s a chick’s movie.” To clinch the point, female characters in this romantic comedy are repeatedly shown watching this movie and sobbing (as if the TV stations in Seattle and Baltimore, where most of the action takes place, showed little else), and men are never seen watching it at all. And just in case we’re left with any doubts about the matter, the review of Sleepless in Seattle in Variety assures us that An Affair to Remember‘s “squishy romantic elements appeal to women more than men.”

This is utter nonsense.… Read more »

What’s Love Got to Do With It

As a truthful account of the life of Tina Turner or as a faithful adaptation of her as-told-to autobiography I, Tina, this can’t be taken too seriously. But as a powerhouse showcase for the acting talents of Angela Bassett (who plays Tina Turner) and Larry Fishburne (who plays her abusive husband Ike Turner, the musician who discovered her) and as a potent portrayal of both wife beating and the emotions that surround it (in this case, professional envy on his part and stoic acceptance of abuse on hers), it’s quite a show. As with the even sillier Lady Sings the Blues two decades ago (Diana Ross’s ridiculous depiction of Billie Holiday), which harked back to a still earlier model of musical biopic, show-biz instincts tend to triumph here as common sense and fidelity to fact disintegrate, though the handling of place and period is slightly better than what one usually finds in such enterprises, and the slant of a woman screenwriter (Kate Lanier) is also highly welcome. Directed by Brian Gibson; with Vanessa Bell Calloway, Jenifer Lewis, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, and Khandi Alexander. Old Orchard, Ford City, Chestnut Station.… Read more »

Nothing but a Man

A sincere, intelligent, and effectively acted independent feature from 1964, about a black worker (Ivan Dixon) and his wife (Abbey Lincoln) struggling against prejudice and trying to make a life for themselves in Alabama. Directed by the able Michael Roemer (who made The Plot Against Harry five years later) from a script written in collaboration with Robert Young, who served as cinematographer; with Gloria Foster, Julius Harris, Martin Priest, and Yaphet Kotto. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, June 4 through 10. … Read more »

Menace II Society

Don’t let the silly styling of the title put you off, this is a powerful, convincing, and terrifying look at teenage crime in contemporary Watts. Directed by 20-year-old twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes from a script they wrote with coproducer Tyger Williams, this shocking, violent, and unsentimental (albeit sensationalized) drama about a second-generation drug dealer (Tyrin Turner) and the callous world he lives in, produced by To Sleep With Anger’s Darin Scott, is terrifically acted, as much by the newcomers (Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate, Erin Leshawn Wiley, Vonte Sweet, MC Eiht, and Too $hort) as by the old pros (Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Duke, Charles S. Dutton), who are around for cameos. Bel-Air Drive-In, Double Drive-In, Hyde Park, Norridge, Pipers Alley, Ford City. … Read more »

A Story Of Floating Weeds

One of the last of Yasujiro Ozu’s silent films, which he remade toward the end of his career, this 1934 feature has a fairly standard soap-opera plotthe lead actor in an impoverished acting troupe returns to a remote mountain village to meet his illegitimate son for the first timebut, needless to say, the Japanese master works wonders with it. Like other Ozu films of the period, this has a great deal of camera movement; stylistic purification would later lead him to eliminate such expressive devices. 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

Stairway C

An interesting, albeit not entirely successful, feature by Jean-Charles Tacchella (Cousin, cousine), based on Elvire Murail’s novel, about the neighbors in the back of a Paris apartment house, among them a tormented, cynical male-chauvinist art critic (Robin Renucci); a solitary, middle-aged, half-Jewish and half-Arab woman; and a young gay man recovering from the physical abuse of his lover. Eventually the focus narrows to the story of the art critic’s spiritual regeneration, which isn’t entirely convincing. Still, the events leading up to this hold one’s interest. With Jacques Bonnagge, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Catherine Leprince, Jacques Weber, and Claude Rich (1985). (JR)… Read more »

Sleepless In Seattle

Tom Hanks plays a lonely widower and architect who moves with his little boy (Ross Malinger) from Chicago to Seattle; Meg Ryan plays a newspaper reporter in Baltimore who’s preparing to get married. One night she hears the architect on a radio call-in show, falls madly in love with him, and writes him a letter; his son tries to encourage a match between them. Nora Ephron, who wrote and directed this, repeatedly alludes to the 1957 An Affair to Remember as her principal point of reference, yet at no point does she indicate any awareness of what makes that tragicomic love story sublime and this one merely cutesy. If one can ignore all the straining for lightness here, this is watchable enough, though hardly anything resembling a tearjerker. With Bill Pullman, Rosie O’Donnell, and Rob Reiner (1993). PG, 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

House Of Cards

An accomplished and provocative first feature by writer-director Michael Lessac, built around the proposition that, as Lessac puts it, children see things we don’t. A six-year-old (Asha Menina) returns fatherless to North Carolina from an extended stay with her family in Mexico, where she’d come under the influence of an Indian archaeologist who steeped her in Mayan folklore. Now she displays both autistic behavior and visionary artistic giftsthe former according to a child psychologist (Tommy Lee Jones), the latter according to her mother (Kathleen Turner), an architect with a virtual-reality computer program who tries to reproduce one of her daughter’s visions. Difficult to describe, this well-constructed drama of ideas will seem pretentious if you don’t get into it, exciting and compelling if you do; either way, the performances of the three leads are very, very good. Robert Jay Litz collaborated on the original story. (JR)… Read more »

The Wrong Man

Even though Henry Fonda and Vera Miles are the stars, this somber 1957 black-and-white drama, shot in and around New York City, is the closest Alfred Hitchcock ever came to making an art film. It’s based on the true story of a bass player working at the Stork Club who was falsely arrested for holding up a liquor store because of his physical resemblance to the guilty party, which led to a series of grim mishaps that culminated in his wife going insane. This is a highly personal and even religious expression of Hitchcock concerning the vicissitudes of fate, predicated on his lifelong fear that anyone can be wrongly accused of a crime and placed behind bars. The result, as Hitchcock himself warns in a prologue, isn’t a Hitchcock picture in the usual sense, but it’s still one of his most potent and memorable works from the 50s, his richest period. With Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone, and Nehemiah Persoff. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

World’s Best Commercials: Cannes ’92

When it comes to TV commercials, I’m not sure what best means: so good that you forget the product, or so good that you remember? Anyway, both kinds appear among the nearly 100 international examplesgood, bad, and indifferentincluded here. Many if not all of the foreign entries are dubbed or retitled in English, which tends to minimize the cultural differences, though a few of the differencessuch as the anticlericalism in the grand-prize winner, a cutesy Spanish ad for gluestill come across. I find most of this as tedious as the commercials I normally see on TV, though a few ads are aesthetically striking (above all the English one for Ariston) and many more have the virtue of telling us how people elsewhere in the world get cajoled into buying things. Still, I would have preferred a wider sampling; most of what we see here is from the U.S., western Europe, Japan, and Australia. (JR)… Read more »

Where The Boys Are

Connie Francis sings the title tune and makes her film debut in this OK 1960 movie about teenagers taking their spring break in Fort Lauderdale. Directed by Henry Levin; with Dolores Hart, George Hamilton, Yvette Mimieux, Jim Hutton, Barbara Nichols, Paula Prentiss, Frank Gorshin, and Chill Wills. (JR)… Read more »

What’s Love Got To Do With It

As a truthful account of the life of Tina Turner or as a faithful adaptation of her as-told-to autobiography, I, Tina, this 1993 film can’t be taken too seriously. But as a powerhouse showcase for the acting talents of Angela Bassett (who plays Turner) and Laurence Fishburne (who plays her abusive husband, Ike) and as a potent portrayal of wife beating and the emotions that surround it (in this case, Ike’s professional envy and Tina’s stoic acceptance of abuse), it’s quite a show. As with the even sillier Lady Sings the Blues (Diana Ross’s ridiculous depiction of Billie Holiday), which harked back to a still earlier model of musical biopic, showbiz instincts tend to triumph as common sense and fidelity to fact disintegrate, though the handling of place and period is slightly better than one usually finds in such enterprises, and the slant of a woman screenwriter (Kate Lanier) is also highly welcome. Directed by Brian Gibson; with Vanessa Bell Calloway, Jenifer Lewis, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, and Khandi Alexander. (JR)… Read more »