Monthly Archives: January 1994

The Last Bolshevik

One of the major essays of Chris Marker–which automatically makes this one of the key works of our time–this remarkable video is provisionally about his friend and mentor, the late Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin (1900-1989), in the form of six video “letters” sent to him posthumously. More profoundly, it is about the history of Soviet cinema and the Soviet Union itself, about what it meant to be a communist, about what these things mean now. In the process of redefining these issues, Marker produces a guarded self-portrait and autocritique, implicitly asking himself what his own leftism has meant and continues to mean. Eloquent and mordantly witty in its poetic writing, beautiful and often painterly in its images, this is as moving and as provocative in many respects as Marker’s Sans soleil (1982), which places it very high indeed. Not to be missed. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, January 30, 2:15, 443-3737.… Read more »

In Claude We Trust [THE ACCOMPANIST]

From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 1994). — J.R.

** THE ACCOMPANIST

(Worth seeing)

Directed by Claude Miller

Written by Miller and Luc Beraud

With Richard Bohringer, Elena Safonova, Romane Bohringer, Samuel Labarthe, Julien Rassam, Nelly Borgeaud, and Claude Rich.

“About six years before the disappearance of Ambrose Small, Ambrose Bierce had disappeared. Newspapers all over the world had made much of the mystery of Ambrose Bierce. But what could the disappearance of one Ambrose, in Texas, have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose, in Canada? Was somebody collecting Ambroses? There was in these questions an appearance of childishness that attracted my respectful attention.” — Charles Fort, Wild Talents (1932)

The Accompanist can be viewed as a producer’s film, as a writer-director’s film, and as a quintessentially French film. As a producer’s film, it is the latest in a recent cycle of French art movies involving classical musicians and including extended stretches of classical music — in other words, as a spin-off of Tout les matins du monde and Un coeur en hiver, both huge commercial successes, especially in France. As all three films have the same producer, Jean-Louis Livi, they can be regarded as “Livi films” rather than as the discrete expressions of three directors.… Read more »

The Thing Called Love

The late River Phoenix, Samantha Mathis, Dermot Mulroney, and Sandra Bullock all play young country-music hopefuls in a touching romantic comedy-drama inspired by Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe. For perverse reasons known only to itself, Paramount has elected to bury this movie, but the Music Box, bless it, has decided to open it anyway. It bears as little relation to the real Nashville as Altman’s 1975 feature, but director Peter Bogdanovich, the talented cast, and the credited (Carol Heikkinen) and uncredited screenwriters (Bogdanovich, cast members, and Pump Up the Volume’s Allan Moyle) are so busy conjuring up a charming world of their own that I certainly didn’t mind. Mathis and Bullock are especially good, and Phoenix and Mulroney do a fair job of playing out a jealousy-prone friendship as if they were Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms in Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. With Trisha Yearwood. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 21 through 27.… Read more »

On Second Thoughts [THE LAST BOLSHEVIK]

From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 1994); reprinted in Movies as Politics. “Special greetings to Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote a very perceptive note on THE LAST BOLSHEVIK,” Chris Marker kindly emailed John Gianvito a little over nine years ago. So I didn’t know how to respond to the news of his sad death, which occurred the day after his 91st birthday in 2012, except to reprint the note he was referring to, as well as a photo of the two of us the only time we met, at Peter von Bagh’s Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland in 1998 — actually a blurry frame enlargement from Peter’s Sodankyl√§, Forever. — J.R.

***

**** THE LAST BOLSHEVIK

(Masterpiece)

Edited and written by Chris Marker.

It seems central rather than incidental to the art and intelligence of Chris Marker that he studiously avoids the credit “directed by . . . ” A globe-trotting French filmmaker whose only work of pure fiction with actors is a classic SF short consisting almost exclusively of still photographs (La jet√©e, 1962), he appears to avoid obvious fiction only in the sense that he finds actuality more than enough grist for the endlessly turning mill of his irony and imagination.… Read more »

In the Name of the Father

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Gerry Conlon, a real-life Irishman wrongly sentenced to life in prison for the IRA bombing of a London pub in the mid-70s, and Peter Postlethwaite plays his father, who was also jailed. Adapted by director Jim Sheridan and Terry George from Conlon’s book, the movie falls over backward trying to avoid taking a political position and seems a few years off in its depiction of hippie London. But the acting’s so good it frequently transcends the simplicities of the script, and whenever Day-Lewis or Posthlethwaite are on screen the movie crackles. Emma Thompson is on hand as a lawyer who becomes interested in the Conlons’ case after they’re convicted. Evanston, Webster Place, McClurg Court.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Hession.… Read more »

D’est

From the Chicago Reader (January 20, 1994). — J.R.

d'est

Chantal Akerman’s haunting 1993 masterpiece documents without commentary or dialogue her several-months-long trip from east Germany to Moscow — a tough and formally rigorous inventory of what the former Soviet bloc looks and feels like today. Akerman’s painterly penchant for finding Edward Hopper wherever she goes has never been more obvious; this travelogue seemingly offers vistas any alert tourist could find yet delivers a series of images and sounds that are impossible to shake later: the countless tracking shots, the sense of people forever waiting, the rare occurrence of a plaintive offscreen violin over an otherwise densely ambient sound track, static glimpses of roadside sites and domestic interiors, the periphery of an outdoor rock concert, a heavy Moscow snowfall, a crowded terminal where weary people and baggage are huddled together like so many dropped handkerchiefs. The only other film I know that imparts such a vivid sense of being somewhere is the Egyptian section of Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late. Everyone goes to movies in search of events, but the extraordinary events in Akerman’s sorrowful, intractable film are the shots themselves — the everyday recorded by a powerful artist with an acute eye and ear.… Read more »

Careful

The third feature of the wild and weird Guy Maddin, the brilliant independent Canadian filmmaker (Tales From the Gimli Hospital, Archangel) based in Winnipeg whose poker-faced period extravaganzas all suggest early, scratchy talkies. This 1992 film is his first in color, but that means various subdued pastels in some spots, lush tinting of black-and-white footage in others. The typically outrageous plot–set in a remote alpine village where everyone has to speak in whispers to avoid setting off avalanches and where other forms of everyday repression result in diverse cases of deranged incestual lust–seems characteristic of Maddin in its dual nature: in part a hilarious satire about Canadian timidity, it also comes across periodically as a formalist gem about nothing at all. The ably somnambulistic cast includes Australian director Paul Cox and Canadian character actor Jackie Burroughs, along with Sarah Neville, Brent Neale, and Victor Cowie in prominent parts; film academic George Toles (who also worked on Archangel) assisted Maddin on the script. If you like the early work of David Lynch you should definitely check this out; Maddin’s work is every bit as beautiful and in certain respects a lot more sophisticated. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 14 through 20.… Read more »

Rosenbaum’s List [The Best Films of 1993]

From the Chicago Reader (January 7, 1994). — J.R.

One of the funnier remarks in Variety late last year came from a Universal Pictures executive who noted that because of the special nature of Schindler’s List his company wasn’t really promoting the picture, but simply informing people it was out. I’d wager that if the other movies on my ten-best list had been given the same amount of “nonpromotion” — one of those modest multimillion-dollar campaigns — you would have heard nearly as much about them.

As it happens, only about half the items on my list have had — or are having — a normal commercial run in Chicago. Still, Bitter Moon, which has so far had only one fleeting engagement here (in the fall, at the Polish film festival), is expected to have a belated U.S. release early this year, and Silverlake Life: The View From Here was aired nationally on PBS.

The limited number of Hollywood films on my list and the prominence of Chinese language ones demands some comment. It used to be a truism that American cinema excelled in unpretentious entertainment but faltered when it came to art movies, while the standard line about foreign films — meaning the foreign films Americans saw — tended toward the reverse.… Read more »

The Saint of Fort Washington

It would appear that many of my colleagues have been trashing this powerful and moving look at friendship among the homeless in New York–directed by Tim Hunter (River’s Edge) from a script by Lyle Kessler (Orphans) and starring Danny Glover and Matt Dillon at their rare best–simply because of its subject matter and authenticity; apparently, contemporary man-made tragedies are inappropriate topics for the big screen, unlike ghosts, dinosaurs, mythical serial killers, and former holocausts. But if epic grandeur is what you’re looking for, this movie gives you glimpses of the Fort Washington Armory, which currently shelters 700 people nightly, that recall the famous shot of the Confederate wounded in Gone With the Wind, and if noir finality is your meat, this movie tells you things about New York’s potter’s field that easily might have found their way into Pickup on South Street. This isn’t a perfect movie, and it may occasionally err on the side of Dickensian sentiment, but I it has so much to say about the world we live in and says it with such grace, wit, and raw feeling that I recommend it without qualification. With Rick Aviles, Ving Rhames, Nina Siemaszko, and Joe Seneca. McClurg Court.… Read more »

Road and The Firm

These two recent short features for British television by the late Alan Clarke (1935-1990), each running a little over an hour, are separate entries but should be seen back to back. They’re not only strong examples of Clarke’s corrosive social vision and his skill in directing actors but also impressive demonstrations of his stylistic range. Road (1987), written by playwright Jim Cartwright, offers a potent look at poverty and alcoholism in Lancashire, with impressive on-location camera work and dialogue that exults in its own theatricality and musicality (rather like that of Alan Bowne in Forty Deuce and John Guare in Six Degrees of Separation). The energetic cast includes Life Is Sweet’s Jane Horrocks, Naked’s David Thewlis, and Lesley Sharpe. The Firm (1988), not to be confused with the John Grisham cream puff, is a horrifying look at middle-class thugs who start fights at soccer games. Filmed naturalistically, it was written. by Al Hunter; the cast includes Gary Oldman, Lesley Manville, and Philip Davis. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 7, Road: 6:00, The Firm: 7:15, 443-3737.… Read more »

Sunset

A Jewish smorgasbord from the former Soviet Union, a fantasy on Isaak Babel’s story of the same title, directed by Alexander Zeldovitch. This freewheeling 1990 feature interweaves erotic pageantry, illustrated tales from the Old Testament, and diverse stylistic exercises around the central story of a son of a Jewish laborer who becomes involved with the decadent Odessa underworld in the 20s. Sergei Eisenstein planned his own film version of this story with Babel himself in 1925, and while this is undoubtedly another kettle of gefilte fish, some over-the-top acting and lively mise en scene keep it watchable. (JR)… Read more »

The Saint Of Fort Washington

Some colleagues trashed this powerful look at friendship among the New York homeless(1993)directed by Tim Hunter from a script by Lyle Kessler and starring Danny Glover and Matt Dillonsimply because of its subject matter; apparently, contemporary man-made tragedies are inappropriate topics for the big screen, unlike ghosts, dinosaurs, mythical serial killers, and former holocausts. But this movie gives you glimpses of the Fort Washington Armory (sheltering 700 people nightly) that recall the famous shot of the Confederate wounded in Gone With the Wind in its epic grandeur; and it tells you things about New York’s potter’s field that easily might have found their way into Pickup on South Street. This may occasionally err on the side of Dickensian sentiment, but it has so much to say about the world we live in, and says it with such grace, wit, and raw feeling, that I recommend it without qualification. With Rick Aviles, Ving Rhames, and Nina Siemaszko. R, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Harms Case

If Ken Russell invented the postmodernist biopic, Slobodan D. Pesic has taken the form to delirious extremes. Pesic directed this daffy tragicomedy about the late Russian literary visionary Danil Harms in Yugoslavia in 1988. Apart from a prologue and epilogue in color, the picture is in black and white with occasional dabs of yellow; several characters (both male and female) are played arbitrarily in drag; and among the anachronistic elements is post-50s elevator music that accompanies scenes from the 30s and 40s. Harms sounds like a fascinating figure, though something tells me this picture isn’t the best way to find out about him. Still, it can be recommended as an intriguing novelty, bursting with irreverence and eclecticism. (JR)… Read more »

The War Room

An entertaining if humdrum 1993 documentary by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus that follows Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, with particular emphasis on master strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, shot on video and transferred to film. Seeing the actual deliberations behind image making has a certain built-in interest, but I expected more surprises. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Romeo Is Bleeding

This gory, postmodernist fruit salad may be the most misogynistic piece of noir since Body Heat, though as in Basic Instinct a certain amount of giddy dominatrix worshipin this case focused on Lena Olin as an evil mobstergets mixed into the brew of producer Hilary Henkin’s script. It’s the sort of fancy-pants movie that can have a wealthy hoodlum (Roy Scheider) threatening its hero (Gary Oldman), a crooked cop on the take, by recounting an anecdote about Robert Lowell. As in The Grifters, another exercise in Hollywood noir directed by a non-American (here it’s the Hungarian Peter Medak, who works mostly in England), one can’t easily tell whether this is taking place in the 40s or half a century later; but with so many baroque plot moves and narrative devices, and so much self-consciously ornate dialogue and voice-over narration, you’re not supposed to notice or care. The film certainly held me, and even fooled me in spots (when it wasn’t simply confusing), but when the whole thing was over I felt pretty empty. It would be facile to say it substitutes style for content; actually, it substitutes stylishness for style. With Annabella Sciorra, Will Patton, Michael Wincott, and Dennis Farina. (JR)… Read more »