Essential viewing: an intimate hour-long self-portrait on film, JLG by JLG, plus the third and fourth episodes of Godard’s ongoing video series Histoire(s) du cinema, each half an hour long; all three works were completed this year. Ostensibly a work of winter landscapes and brooding self-scrutiny, somewhat suggestive of German romanticism, the beautifully composed JLG occasionally gives you the uncomfortable feeling that Godard may be starting to fancy himself someone like Goethe, though he does include at least a couple of his characteristic ingenue employees, one of them in hot pants, along with a blown-up photograph of himself as a boy and various empty notebooks labeled with the first names of directors he admires: Roberto (Rossellini), Boris (Barnet), Nicholas (Ray), and Jacques (Rivette? Tati? Demy?). I prefer the equally private and contemplative but somewhat more accessible new chapters of Histoire(s) du cinema, titled “Only Cinema” and “Deadly Beauty”–both somewhat less frenetic than the first two episodes, though equally pungent and suggestive. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, June 26, 6:00, 443-3737.… Read more »
Monthly Archives: June 1994
Published by Santa Teresa Press (in Santa Barbara) in 1994 (twenty years later, this book is still available on Amazon) and reprinted in Discovering Orson Welles in 2007, along with the following introductory comments:
Critic Dave Kehr once said to me that encountering The Cradle Will Rock after The Big Brass Ring was a bit like encountering The Magnificent Ambersons after Citizen Kane. I appreciate what he meant — especially when it comes to this script’s nostalgia and its sharp autocritique compared to the more narcissistic and irreverent surface of its predecessor. But I hasten to add that this script, unlike The Big Brass Ring, is more interesting for its autobiographical elements than for its literary qualities. Perhaps for the same reason, writing an afterword about it was more difficult.
On the subject of Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock,I’d like to quote excerpts from an article of mine that appeared in the Chicago Reader on December 24, 1999:
For the past seven months, ever since Robbins’s movie premiered in Cannes, friends and associates who saw it there have been warning me that I, as an Orson Welles specialist, would despise it. Writer-director Robbins does make the character of Welles (Angus MacFadyen) a silly boozer and pretentious loudmouth without a serious bone in his body — something closer to Jack Buchanan’s loose parody of Welles in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon than a historically responsible depiction of Welles in 1937.… Read more »
A much more serious treatment of Buddhism than Little Buddha, this 1989 Korean feature by Bae Yong-kyun (who produced, directed, shot, and edited), winner of the top prize at the Locarno film festival, has already become something of a cult film, and it’s easy to understand why. The title is an unanswerable Zen koan, at one point echoing the narrator’s queries: “Who is Buddha? Who isn’t he?” The skeletal plot concerns an old master, a young disciple, and an orphaned boy in a remote Korean monastery in the mountains, but the film’s main offering is its contemplation of and inexhaustible fascination with the natural world; indeed, we periodically have the sensation that the narrative has been suspended almost entirely for the sake of this meditation. Full of ravishingly beautiful images rather than ravishingly beautiful shots, the film conveys not so much a filmic intelligence as a Buddhist intelligence that’s being translated, step by step, into movie terms; the film seems to reach us from a certain remove, with positive as well as negative consequences. Count on something slow, arresting, and lovely, and if you’re looking for drama, expect to find it internally. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, June 17 through 23.… Read more »
After personally thanking all the members of his cast and crew inside the film’s various sets, Sacha Guitry plunges into the most ferocious, and possibly the most subversive, masterpiece of his career (1951). The great Michel Simon plays a middle-aged village gardener who despises his alcoholic wife (who despises him in turn). After learning on the radio about an ace defense lawyer famous for getting murderers acquitted, he goes to see the lawyer, claiming to have already killed his wife, and learns from the lawyer’s questions and comments precisely how he should commit the crime to escape sentencing; meanwhile, his wife is hatching a murder plot of her own. Shot in just 11 days–in deference to Simon, who demanded that each of his scenes be filmed only once–this caustic social satire lasts 96 minutes, and not one of them is wasted; with Germaine Reuver and Jean Debucourt. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, June 18, 6:00, 443-3737.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 17, 1994). — J.R.
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski
With Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delphy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr, Grzegorz Warchol, and Jerzy Nowak.
“Imagine a kind of filmmaking that’s truly in tune with the ways you think and relate to other people. A deeply humane kind of filmmaking, but free from ‘humanist’ lies and sentimental evasions. Not a dry, ‘realistic’ kind of filmmaking, but one in which all the imaginative and creative efforts have gone into understanding the way we are. A kind of filmmaking as sensitive to silence as to speech, and alert to the kind of meanings we prefer to hide away. To my knowledge, only two directors in the world are currently making films like that. One is Krzysztof Kieslowski in Poland. The other is Edward Yang in Taiwan.”
These rousing words by Tony Rayns in the June issue of Sight and Sound were just what I needed to read after returning last month from Cannes, where wonderful films by Yang and Kieslowski about contemporary life were showing in competition. They were the two best competing films that I saw, though neither won any prizes.… Read more »
The distinctive and unusual talents of French filmmaker Leos Carax have relatively little to do with story telling, and it would be a mistake to approach this, his second feature, expecting a “dazzling film noir thriller,” which is how it was described for the Chicago Film Festival in 1987. Dazzling it certainly is in spots, but its film noir and SF trappings–hung around a vaguely paranoid plot about a couple of thieves (Michel Piccoli, Hans Meyer) hiring the son (Denis Lavant) of a recently deceased partner to help steal a cure to an AIDS-like virus–are so feeble that they function at best only as a literal framing device, a means for Carax to tighten his canvas. The real meat of this movie is his total absorption in his two wonderful lead actors, Lavant and Juliette Binoche (Blue), which comes to fruition during a lengthy attempt by the former to seduce the latter, an extended nocturnal encounter that the various genre elements serve only to hold in place. The true sources of Carax’ style are neither Truffaut nor Godard but the silent cinema–its poetics of close-ups, gestures, and the mysteries of personality, its melancholy, and its innocence. Bad Blood uses color with a sense of discovery similar to that found in the morbidly beautiful black and white of Boy Meets Girl, and the rawness of naked emotion and romantic feeling is comparably intense.… Read more »
Three videos by George Kuchar, a master of underground funk in the flaky east-coast film shorts he made with his brother Mike in the 60s and more recently a no less flaky diaristic video artist, now based at San Francisco State. Judging from what I’ve sampled of the hour-long ID Came From Inner Space, it’s closer to his 60s work–deranged and sweaty bargain-basement versions of Hollywood exploitation–than to his more off-the-cuff video diaries. Yet Kuchar is playing with the giddy possibilities of video technology even as he indulges in the free-form paranoia that was latent in his low-budget Hollywood SF models. The other videos (all three were completed this year) are shorts: Andy’s House of Gary and The Tower of the Astro Cyclops. Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division, Wednesday, June 15, 7:30, 384-5533.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 3, 1994). — J.R.
** LITTLE BUDDHA
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Mark Peploe, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Bertolucci
With Keanu Reeves, Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda, Alex Wiesendanger, Ying Ruocheng, Jigme Kunsang, Raju Ial, and Greishma Makar Singh.
“Nirvana” is a word that comes from Sanskrit, the Reader’s Encyclopedia informs me, meaning “blowing out, extinction”; in Buddhist teaching it refers to “a complete annihilation of the 3 main ego-drives, for money, fame, and immortality.”
Bernardo Bertolucci has said that his aim in Little Buddha is low-key. Of the third film in his self-described orientalist trilogy, following The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990), he says, “My hope is to open the eyes for a glimpse of something, my hope is to trigger a curiosity about something. I can’t teach or ask anything more than just for others to participate in my emotional discovery of Buddhism.” But Little Buddha is a multimillion-dollar project designed to make money and to exploit and perpetuate Bertolucci’s fame while catering to the viewer’s desire for immortality. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that nirvana, one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought, plays a reduced role in Bertolucci’s “emotional discovery,” whereas reincarnation as a means of immortality plays a major role.… Read more »
A quirky 1993 documentary by Allie Light in which seven women, including Light, speak to the camera at length about their former madness and incarceration. The forms of insanity range from multiple personality disorder to manic depression to schizophrenia, and Light adds fictional and semifictional illustrations of the women’s visions and experiences. Much of what keeps it interesting is the overall lucidity of these women about their earlier states and about the abusive and insensitive treatment many of them received from institutions. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, June 3 through 9.… Read more »
Somewhere inside this moderately watchable if ultimately incoherent star vehicle is an old-fashioned grade-Z werewolf movie crying to be born. If that were the sort of thing money could buy it would undoubtedly have been factored into the $70-million-plus budget, but it seems beyond the reach of the creative participants, who try for a vague sort of profundity instead. Jack Nicholson plays an honorable failurea book editor about to discover that he’s being demoted and cuckoldedwho comes into his own after being bitten by a wolf, an event that brings out both good and bad aspects of his latent animal nature. Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen (1981), which also dealt with wolves in Manhattan’s Central Park, is a much more thoughtful and meaningful project; this one lurches along in fits and starts, mixing generic stereotypes (e.g., the villainy of James Spader and Christopher Plummer) with loftier (if more confused) ambitions, and winds up honoring neither art nor commerce. Mike Nichols’s direction is so-so; the two writers credited are Jim Harrison (though the film has no connection with his novel of the same title) and Wesley Strick. Michelle Pfeiffer, Kate Nelligan, and Richard Jenkins also star. (JR)… Read more »
I only know the 30s radio show by hearsay, so I can’t vouch for the faithfulness of this big-scale movie version, but if I had to choose between a sequel to this and another Batman or Indiana Jones romp, I’d opt for a second Shadow, if only because the visual design of this onea comic-book fever dream of 30s Manhattan so well imagined and lived-in that one could almost crawl inside ithas more enchantments than the Wagnerian pretensions and Pavlovian cliff-hangers of the other two cycles. Admittedly, this visual designwhich recalls more than once some of the classic Universal horror pictures of the 30stends to triumph over and thereby diminish everything else in the picture. The characters are fairly dim (Alec Baldwin in the title role, alias Lamont Cranston, is a bit of a stick, and Penelope Ann Miller is just a slinky icon, though John Lone seems well cast as the occult villain); the plotlargely a matter of telepathy, hypnosis, and mind over matterwhile true enough to its origins in Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang, is not especially memorable; and the action thrills tend to be obligatory rather than inspired. But the look of this movie is such a delight that even passing detailsan apple twirled in Miller’s hands, a striped sofa beside which subvillain Tim Curry falls to his deathseem integral parts of the production design; and when an anachronistic, spherical atomic bomb barrels down a hotel hallway, even if it occasions much less suspense than the rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it has all the sleek decorum of a Magritte painting.… Read more »
Robert Zemeckis, combining his taste for brittle comedy (Used Cars), mutilated bodies (Death Becomes Her), and recycled history (Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), won an Oscar for this tear-jerking 1994 comedy about a slow-witted southerner (Tom Hanks) living through an absurdist half century of American great events. Zemeckis banks on the innocence of two parties, Gump and the spectator, homogenizing culture and politics into a safe, sweet, palatable nugget. Judging by the the movie’s enduring popularity, the message that stupidity is redemption is clearly what a lot of Americans want to hear. With Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, and Sally Field; Eric Roth and Zemeckis adapted a novel by Winston Groom. PG-13, 142 min. (JR)… Read more »
Another overproduced and undernourished mad bomber movie, just as formulaic as Speed but not nearly as gripping; there’s some undigested Irish material involving the hero and villain that is supposed to count as motivation but merely takes up space. Set in Boston, the story features Tommy Lee Jones as the demon bomber, Jeff Bridges, his father Lloyd, and Forest Whitaker as bomb squad members, and Suzy Amis as Jeff Bridges’s wife. Stephen Hopkins directed this thriller, fairly routinely, from a script by Joe Batteer, John Rice, and M. Jay Roach. (JR)… Read more »
A Canadian musical fantasy (1993) by John Greyson (Urinal) involving Sir Richard Burton (transported from the Victorian era to the present to mount a sensationalistic multimedia art exhibit about the origins of AIDS) and Patient Zero, the legendary French Canadian flight attendant credited with bringing AIDS to North America. Disappointing as a follow-up to Greyson’s brilliant short The Making of Monsters and undercut toward the end by a surfeit of solemn preaching, this satire on media myopia still has its share of laughs, especially during the musical numbers. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »
Lawrence Kasdan’s ambitious effort to rewrite the Wyatt Earp story for Kevin Costner (here at his most inexpressive) is an improvement over Tombstone, but you’re still better off renting My Darling Clementine or even Gunfight at the O.K. Corral if you want the story told with action and drama. Running beyond three hours, the movie more than overstays its welcome, and despite some vague genuflections in the general direction of The Godfather regarding family ties and revenge, there are simply too many years and locations covered, too many crane shots and rainstorms. On the plus side, Dennis Quaid has a very charming turn as a southern-hipster version of Doc Holliday (at times he seems to come straight out of a Jim Jarmusch movie), and Owen Roizman’s ‘Scope cinematography is often handsomely lit and framed. But overall the movie gets lost in its own lumbering aspirations. The script is by Dan Gordon and Kasdan, and the other actors include Gene Hackman, Jeff Fahey, Mark Harmon, Michael Madsen, Catherine O’Hara, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rossellini, Tom Sizemore, and JoBeth Williams. (JR)… Read more »