From the Chicago Reader (September 24, 1993). Oddly enough, the version of this piece that’s available on the Reader‘s web site and (until recently) here is missing the final five paragraphs, which I’ve just restored by copying them from the printed version that I still have in one of my scrapbooks. — J.R.
THE MUSIC OF CHANCE
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Philip Haas
Written by Philip and Belinda Haas
With Mandy Patinkin, James Spader, M. Emmet Walsh, Charles Durning, Joel Grey, Samantha Mathis, and Christopher Penn.
In an interview included in his nonfiction collection The Art of Hunger, Paul Auster gives an intriguing account of the major influences on his novels — an account that suggests why these novels aren’t well suited to conventional movie adaptation:
“The greatest influence on my work has been fairy tales, the oral tradition of story-telling. The Brothers Grimm, the Thousand and One Nights — the kinds of stories you read out loud to children. These are bare-bone narratives, narratives largely devoid of details, yet enormous amounts of information are communicated in a very short space, with very few words. What fairy tales prove, I think, is that it’s the reader — or the listener — who actually tells the story to himself.… Read more »
This is the Introduction to the fifth section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.
From a journalistic standpoint, what movies are about is always important, but the roles that should be played by content in criticism are not always easy to determine. Ever since I started writing regularly for the Chicago Reader in 1987, my principal professional safety net — what helps to guarantee that I’ll remain interested in my work on a weekly basis, even if the movies of a given week are not interesting — is my option of writing about the subject matter of certain films. This almost invariably involves a certain amount of short-term research, because even if I already know the subject fairly well, a refresher course in certain specifics is generally necessary. (A good example of this would be the reading and listening I had to do in order to nail down many of my facts and examples for “Bird Watching,” in spite — or should I say because?… Read more »
This is the Introduction to the second section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.
I should begin here with a somewhat embarrassed confession about a methodology I have employed with increasing frequency, especially since the mid-1980s — the practice of recycling certain elements from my earlier criticism. On a purely practical level, it can of course be argued that very few people who read me in, say, the Monthly Film Bulletin in 1974 are likely to be following my weekly columns in the Chicago Reader two decades later, and that my pieces for Soho News in 1980 (to cite another random example) are not likely to have survived in the periodical collections of many libraries. But I still blush to admit that, in a hatchet job I performed on Donald Richie’s book on Ozu for Sight and Sound in 1975, I sharply reproached Richie for reusing the same phrases about Ozu again and again in his own criticism. This was written at a relatively early stage in my own career when I imagined other film buffs like myself going to libraries and reading virtually everything in print on a given topic; I didn’t really think through the implications of writing about the same films and filmmakers for different audiences in separate countries over many decades — as Richie had certainly already done at that point, and as I have subsequently done.… Read more »
A wonderful tearjerker about four young Chinese American women in San Francisco (Rosalind Chao, Lauren Tom, Tamilyn Tomita, and Ming-Na Wen) and their Chinese immigrant mothers (Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, and France Nuyen). Adapted from Amy Tan’s best-selling novel by the author and Ron Bass, and directed by Wayne Wang, it is a story (or more precisely, four interwoven stories) told mainly in flashbacks. Wang, whose previous work has reflected the influence of both Ozu (Dim Sum) and Godard (Life Is Cheap), seems to have fallen under the spell of Mizoguchi here, and this model serves him well. At once fascinating for its detailed lore about Chinese customs and legacies and very moving in its realization, the film builds into a highly emotional epic about what it means to be both Chinese and American. Fine Arts.… Read more »
This remains one of the most controversial reviews I ever published in the Chicago Reader (it ran in their September 17, 1993 issue) — occasioning many outcries, especially for my use of the term “drooling paisan” (although many others also quarreled with my point about apostrophes). No one, however, seemed to have had any quarrels with my treatment of Edith Wharton. — J.R.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks and Scorsese
With Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Stuart Wilson, Miriam Margolyes, Geraldine Chaplin, Mary Beth Hurt, and Norman Lloyd.
Martin Scorsese clearly intends The Age of Innocence – his close adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel about wealthy New York society in the 1870s — to earn him a bouquet of Oscars. But the high literary tone was somewhat blown for me by the opening title, immediately following a lush credits sequence of flower blossoms unfurling behind dainty fabric: “New York City, the 1870′s.” That superfluous apostrophe doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that Scorsese is the ideal interpreter of Edith Wharton.
Fortunately the movie improves after that, but never to the point that one can entirely forget that slip at the beginning. If the project winds up a noble failure, testifying throughout to Scorsese’s resourcefulness in plowing through an impossible mission — much better to my taste than Cape Fear, and considerably more likable (if less successful) than GoodFellas – it may be because the subject is diametrically opposed to what he usually does best as a filmmaker.… Read more »
The main introduction to my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1995), still in print. — J.R.
This book is intended as a companion and sequel to an autobiographical experiment I carried out in the late 1970s, published in 1980 by Harper & Row as Moving Places: A Life at the Movies. The present volume doesn’t require a reading of that earlier book — long out of print, though recently reprinted by the University of California Press so as to reappear alongside this collection; however, since many of this volume’s premises are predicated on either extensions or inversions of the premises of its predecessor, a few words about that book and the material it covers are in order.
Most of Moving Places is concerned with my childhood in northwestern Alabama, specifically in relation to my family and what was known as the family business from around 1914 to 1960. This business began when my grandfather, Louis Rosenbaum, started operating his first movie theater in Douglas, Wyoming, and it existed until Rosenbaum Theaters, owned by my grandfather and managed by my father, was sold to a larger chain. I was born in 1943, and the family business afforded me a steady diet of free movies through the age of sixteen, when I went away to school in Vermont.… Read more »
This is the Introduction to the second section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site.
My original title for this section of the book was “Masterpieces,” but the editor, Ed Dimendberg, who had a much better sense of what was academically acceptable than I did, got me to change it to “Touchstones”. For the record, I still think that “Masterpieces” is better. — J.R.
It seems to me that one of the most underrated elements in criticism is quite simply information — relevant facts deriving from research — and how this is imparted to the reader in relation to other elements. Thanks to the prestige of theory in academia and the equally valued role played by rhetoric in journalistic criticism, facts often seem to be held in relatively low esteem in critical writing nowadays, but as long as criticism aspires to be a vehicle for discovery, it seems to me that research should play a much larger role than it normally does. I bring this matter up because the value of the information imparted in all the pieces in this section seems to me inextricably tied to what I have to say about these films, and my analyses would be appreciably different without it — a factor that is probably most obvious when it comes to GERTRUD and OTHELLO.*
________________________________________________________________ *The review of the latter film — like the separate Welles essay in the next section — represents one of the many “spinoffs” of the long-term research that went into editing This Is Orson Welles by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich (HarperCollins, 1992).… Read more »
This is the Introduction to the first section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taking the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.
Although this entire book is devoted to film criticism as a practice, this section emphasizes this fact by dealing with film criticism directly as a subject. This includes both specific examinations of the work of other critics and polemical forays into questions about how critics and reviewers operate on a day-to-day basis. A broader look at the same topic might question whether film criticism as it’s presently constituted is a worthy activity in the first place — if in fact the public would be better off without it.
I should add that it’s the institutional glibness of film criticism in both its academic and mainstream branches — above all in the United States, where it seems most widespread and least justifiable — that has led me on occasion to raise this latter question. Speaking as someone who set out to become a professional writer but not a professional film critic, I’ve never felt that movie reviewing was an especially exalted activity, but I didn’t start out with any contempt or disdain for the profession either.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 1993). — J.R.
The most impressive thing about Steven Soderbergh’s third feature (after sex, lies, and videotape and Kakfa) — an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s childhood memoirs, rich in period flavor — is that it’s set in Saint Louis in 1933, roughly three decades before Soderbergh was born, yet it offers a pungent and wholly believable portrait of what living through the Depression was like. Soderbergh gets an uncommonly good lead performance out of Jesse Bradford as the resourceful 12-year-old hero, living in a seedy hotel and steadily losing the members of his family: his kid brother (Cameron Boyd) gets shipped off to an uncle, his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) to a sanitarium, and then his German father (Jeroen Krabbe) goes off to try to make money as a door-to-door watch salesman. We also learn a fair amount about the hero’s neighbors (Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Adrien Brody) and schoolmates, and Soderbergh does a fine job of keeping us interested and engaged without stooping to sentimentality. This is a lovely piece of work. Fine Arts.
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From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 1993). — J.R.
The least known, though far from least interesting, of producer Val Lewton’s exemplary, poetic B-films, this was withdrawn from circulation for nearly half a century due to an unjust plagiarism suit that Lewton had the misfortune to lose. Like many of Lewton’s best efforts (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man), this is a taut thriller promising fantasy in its title but offering a dark look at human psychology that becomes even more disturbing through what’s left to the viewer’s imagination. The plot concerns a young third mate (Russell Wade) on a cargo ship who’s befriended by a lonely captain (Richard Dix), whom he gradually discovers is a disturbed tyrant with little of the self-confidence he initially shows — a cracked father figure whose crew is mysteriously loyal in spite of his weaknesses. Like Lewton’s other early pictures, it’s carefully scripted (by Donald Henderson Clarke), efficiently directed (by Mark Robson), and evocatively shot (by Nicholas Musuraca). This 1943 “second feature” boasts a large and well-defined cast of characters and a very involved plot, though it lasts only about 70 minutes — there’s scarcely a wasted motion, a bracing object lesson to nearly all feature makers today.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 3, 1993). — J.R.
Originally known in French as Jacquot de Nantes, this is a loving and lovely reenactment of the wonderful French New Wave director Jacques Demy’s childhood in Nantes, made by his wife Agnes Varda while Demy was dying of AIDS. Brief glimpses of Demy’s movies and Demy himself are craftily woven in to show us how his mainly happy childhood and his early efforts as a filmmaker and animator tended to nourish all his subsequent work. He brought an enchanted fairy-tale sensibility to such features as Lola, Bay of Angels, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Donkey Skin, and Varda does a fine job of showing the roots of this work without succumbing to easy sentimentality. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 3 through 9.
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Not surprisingly, this 1961 epic about the Spanish national hero, the Castilian warrior Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, is often static as drama (with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren used mainly as icons) and pretty dubious as history. But thanks to Anthony Mann’s splendid eye for landscape, composition, and spectacle–in particular his striking use of the edges of the ‘Scope frame, a facet (among others) that is totally lost on TV and video–this is a rousing and often stirring show. Scripted by Frederic M. Frank and Philip Yordan, scored by Miklos Rozsa, and costarring Raf Vallone, Genevieve Page, and Herbert Lom, the film has been rereleased under the auspices of Martin Scorsese. It runs about three hours, and there is an intermission two-thirds of the way through. Fine Arts.… Read more »
A subtitled print of the fascinating German-language version of Greta Garbo’s first talkie (1930), shot at the same time and on the same MGM sets as the more familiar English version of the Eugene O’Neill play–a procedure carried out with several other pictures during this period, before dubbing was invented. The German version has a different director (Jacques Feyder instead of Clarence Brown) and a different supporting cast (Hans Junkermann, Theo Ball, and Salka Viertel instead of Charles Bickford, George F. Marion, and Marie Dressler). The film is something of a relic in both versions–with periodic cuts from long shots in sharp focus to close-ups of Garbo in soft focus, and O’Neill’s lifelong obsession with alcoholic male carousers and their suffering, neglected women getting full play. But Garbo is electrifying, and, if memory serves, she may actually be a little tougher and more soulful in the German version. See both versions back-to-back (as you can on Wednesday) and decide for yourself. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 3 through 9.… Read more »
A pretty good German comedy by Helmut Dietl, nominated for an Oscar, that satirizes Germany’s relation to its Nazi past, with particular reference to the Hitler diaries hoax. It chronicles the exploits of a charlatan who starts out as an art forger, then takes up counterfeiting Nazi relics, including Hitler’s diaries and even his (and Eva Braun’s) ashes, in collusion with a puffed-up, greedy Hamburg journalist who’s restoring one of Goring’s ships and romancing one of his nieces. The title is a nonsense word derived from Chaplin’s splutters in The Great Dictator; the tone is cheerfully irreverent, though this is hardly a patch on The Nasty Girl. (JR)… Read more »
Frank Capra and Robert Riskin’s reductive, relatively conformist version of the Kaufman and Hart farce about an eccentric family (Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Mischa Auer, Spring Byington) coming into contact with a rich one (Edward Arnold, Mary Forbes, James Stewart) won best-picture and best-director Oscars in 1938. There are still some laughs and entertainment to be found here, but forget about fidelity to the original. 127 min. (JR)… Read more »