Monthly Archives: January 1996

The Last Filmmaker

From the January 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Films by Robert Bresson

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Two types of film: those that employ the resources of the theater (actors, directors, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create….Cinematography: a new way of writing, therefore of feeling.  – Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography

Among the people of my acquaintance who know a lot about film, most — perhaps all — consider Robert Bresson the greatest living filmmaker. Because he’s in his early 90s, the possibility of his making another movie — his last was L’argent (“Money”) in 1983 — is remote. (Most biographical sources place his birthdate in 1907, but reliable informants have told me that this very private individual shaved at least a couple of years off his age some time ago, apparently to extend his credibility as a working director with insurance companies.)

In spite of its importance, his work may have difficulty surviving, because most of it doesn’t “translate” to video. The reasons are complex, but for starters I would suggest that two central factors involved are sound presence and the framed image.… Read more »

Spirit Stream Storm

From the Chicago Reader (January 26, 1996). — J.R.

This program of 35-millimeter experimental films selected by Bruce Posner is a mixed bag, though there’s no denying the intensity of the works. That may be part of the problem: including musical interludes between clusters of films is a good idea, but it backfires because two of the interludes are as aggressive as the films, denying us a contemplative moment when we might catch our breath. But I can still think of two good reasons for seeing this show. There’s an awesome eight-minute fragment by Sergei Paradjanov, literally made on his deathbed, called Confession (1990) that easily surpasses his last two features and deserves to be ranked alongside his sublime Sayat Nova; it centers mainly on a long take juxtaposing a group of musicians (whose music is unheard), an apparent funeral, and various ritualistic activities — all happening at once in the same hallucinatory space in a way that recalls juxtapositions in medieval paintings. And then there are the dated but undeniably lively silent abstract expressionist works made between 1967 and 1992 by Stan Brakhage, the best of which are Night Music (1986) and The Dante Quartet (1987), where the tempi are sufficiently varied to justify the poetic and musical analogies implied in the titles.… Read more »

Joan the Maid: The Battles and Joan the Maid: The Prisons

Paradoxically yet appropriately, Jacques Rivette’s only “superproduction” to date, his two-part, no-nonsense 1993 opus about Joan of Arc, is his first realistic film since L’amour fou (1968)–and perhaps the only movie that offers a plausible portrait of what the 15th-century teenager who led the French into battle was actually like. Apart from the stylized effect of having various participants in the action narrate the plot while facing the camera, this is a materialist version of a story that offers no miracles, though it does offer a pertinent attentiveness to gender issues (such as the nervousness and sexual braggadocio of the soldiers who sleep beside Joan) and a Joan who’s girlish as well as devout, capable of giggling as well as experiencing pain; when she wins over the dauphin the scene is pointedly kept offscreen, and when she’s interrogated by priests about her faith she could almost be a graduate student defending a dissertation. (Rivette himself plays the priest who blesses her just before she leaves home.) The two features, though comprising a unit, can be seen separately; if I had to see only one I would opt for The Battles (somewhat mislabeled because battle scenes crop up only in the last third), because Rivette is doing things, especially with landscape and period detail (both traversed by inquisitive pans), that he’s never done before.… Read more »

Once Upon A Time . . . When We Were Colored

A warm and likable chronicle (1995) about growing up black in Mississippi between 1946 and 1962, shortly before the end of jim crow laws, adapted from a memoir by Clifton Taulbert and directed by first-timer Tim Reid. Even as a southerner and near contemporary of Taulbert, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of every detail here, but on the whole this feels right (even the colors employed in the decor smack of the 50s), and it certainly puts to shame the egregious nonsense of Mississippi Burning. The film has its hokey moments but also a good many quiet virtues and strengths, which is perhaps why it was rejected by the trendy Sundance festival: there’s hardly an ounce of hyperbole in it. The excellent cast includes Al Freeman Jr., Phylicia Rashad, Isaac Hayes, Taj Mahal, Polly Bergen, and Richard Roundtree. PG, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bottle Rocket

Wes Anderson’s 1996 first feature (before Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) is fresh, character driven, often funny, and unfashionably upbeat (as well as offbeat). And it doesn’t beat you over the headwhich made it a hard sell in industry terms and explains why it was almost completely ignored upon release. But I found its Kerouac-like goofiness both charming and sustaining. Owen Wilson, his brother Luke, and Robert Musgrave play three young, immature friends and aspiring thieves in Texas; another Wilson brother, Andrew, also appears, and the film benefits from its relaxed cast consisting largely of friends and siblings. (The presence of such producer godparents as Polly Platt, James L. Brooks, Monte Hellman, and L.M. Kit Carson probably helped as well.) Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson; with James Caan and Lumi Cavazos (Like Water for Chocolate). R, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Juror

Demi Moore plays a sculptor and single mother serving on the jury in a dangerous mobster’s trial who is forced to campaign for a not guilty verdict in order to save her son’s life. Brian Gibson directed this terrible psychological thriller from a script by Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs), based on a book by George Dawes Green; Alec Baldwin costars. While trying to distract myself from everything that seemed cliched, unbelievable, stupid, and/or mean-spirited about this useless exercise, I ruefully reflected that, just as an obviously guilty mobster gets off scot-free, this bad movie probably garnered as many rave blurbs from reviewers as a good one would. The reason isn’t that producer Irwin Winkler threatened to kill anybody’s loved ones, but some miscarriage of justice occasioned by heaps of money. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Heche, and Lindsay Crouse. (JR)… Read more »

Antonia’s Line

I didn’t much take to this humorless, Oscar-winning 1995 feminist fable from the Netherlands by Marleen Gorris (A Question of Silence, Broken Mirrors), set in the Dutch countryside and spanning four matriarchal generations of a single family over the second half of the 20th century. But if you’re looking for a movie that expresses feminist rageGorris’s specialty, to the exclusion of most other concernsyou shouldn’t pass this up. With Willeke Van Ammelrooy, Jan Decleir, and Els Dottermans. In Dutch with subtitles. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bed Of Roses

Reasonably sincere and decently scripted, this love story between an investment banker (Mary Stuart Masterson) and a florist’s delivery boy (Christian Slater) is such familiar stuff that you probably won’t have sharp memories of it afterward, but it’s not bad on its own modest terms. A first feature by writer-director Michael Goldberg; with Pamela Segall, Josh Brolin, Kenneth Cranham, Ally Walker, and Mike Haley. (JR)… Read more »

From the Journals of Jean Seberg

As in his Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Mark Rappaport offers a trenchant piece of film criticism, revisionist history, and social commentary in the form of a movie star’s fictionalized autobiography–specifically Jean Seberg (Mary Beth Hurt) speaking from beyond the grave about her life and career, as well as the careers of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, who, like Seberg, have also been associated with radical politics. Rappaport is a highly entertaining raconteur as he speaks through his title character, always justifying his many digressions on such subjects as movies about Joan of Arc, close-ups, expressionless actors, film directors who depict their actress-wives as whores, the Vietnam war, the FBI, and the Black Panthers; he also has a rather chilling story to tell–not only about Seberg but also about what her audience did and didn’t see in her films from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, including Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse, Breathless, Lilith, and Paint Your Wagon. Essential viewing; a U.S. theatrical premiere. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 19, 6:00 and 7:45, and Saturday, January 20, 8:00, 443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Four Rooms

From the Chicago Reader (January 19, 1996). — J.R.

Four Rooms

no stars

Directed and written by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino

With Tim Roth, Sammi Davis, Lili Taylor, Valeria Golino, Madonna, Ione Skye, Jennifer Beals, David Proval, Antonio Banderas, Lana McKissack, Danny Verduzco, Bruce Willis, Paul Calderon, and Tarantino.

Fair is fair. Though I’m calling Four Rooms worthless — an opinion that’s uncontroversial — it’s a better picture than, for example, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. In fact Four Rooms is rather interesting in spite of — or perhaps because of — its disturbing awfulness. Declaring a movie worthless usually means something beyond a strictly aesthetic evaluation; there’s something punitive and moralistic, even tribal about our disapproval and rejection. (The same sort of thing often happens when we call a movie “great”: the longtime absence of any movie for and about black women obviously has influenced the recent success of Waiting to Exhale.)

Maybe calling a movie worthless is a way of getting even. Many reviewers, myself included, were excessively dismissive of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me — backlash against the media hype around David Lynch (including an appearance on the cover of Time) that built up expectations and could only lead to his immolation as a sacrificial victim.… Read more »

Bed And Sofa

Made in 1927, Abram Room’s silent comedy about the Moscow housing shortage offers a rare and nonjudgmental look at the free love side of the Russian Revolution, with adultery and abortion both treated as significant issues. Viktor Shklovsky, the father of Russian formalism, worked on the script. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

From Dusk Till Dawn

Robert Rodriguez directs a script by Quentin Tarantino, who also costars. About halfway through, this 1996 crime thriller turns into a gory vampire bloodbath a la The Evil Dead; the result is better than Rodriguez’s Desperado, but there’s a similar feeling of disassociation among the various elements. Harvey Keitel plays a former minister who’s recently lost his faith; he and his two kids (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu) are taken hostage by brother robbers (George Clooney and Tarantino) fleeing for the Mexican border. On a mindless exploitation level this is pretty good, but on other levels it seems to make promises that it fails to deliver on; none of the deaths carries any moral weight, and the climactic special-effects free-for-all tends to drown out all other interests. (What are we to make of all the curious third-world references, ranging from the fact that one of Keitel’s kids is Chinese to Fred Williamson’s memoriesin a Mexican vampire bar, no lessof wasting a lot of Vietnamese? And Tarantino’s character, a somewhat deranged sex offender, also throws out various hints that go unexplored.) But if your critical horizons are low and you’re feeling in a nasty mood, you probably won’t be bored. With Cheech Marin (in three separate roles), Salma Hayek, Tom Savini, and John Saxon.… Read more »

Screamers

A Canadian SF action thriller with nice art direction, loads of echoes of Dune and the three Aliens, and a director (Christian Duguay) who doesn’t seem to have much idea of how to handle action sequences. Set on a remote mining planet almost a century from now during a decade-long war, the story is derived from Philip K. Dick’s Second Variety and has some of his trademark paranoia (also found in Blade Runner and Total Recall) about who’s a friend and who’s a killer machine; but even though Peter Weller and Jennifer Rubin make interesting leads, the results are oddly unaffecting. With Roy Dupuis, Andy Lauer, and Michael Caloz; written by Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores. (JR)… Read more »

Riddles of a Sphinx

From the Chicago Reader (January 12, 1998). — J.R.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Mark Rappaport

With Jean Seberg and Mary Beth Hurt.

For most of the remainder of this month the Film Center is presenting the U.S. theatrical premiere of Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of Jean Seberg, and using this occasion to show some other important programs as well. We had revivals of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, featuring one of Seberg’s key early performances, and Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), both important touchstones in Rappaport’s film — the second as a cross-reference to Seberg’s first film, Saint Joan. This week, in addition to seven showings of From the Journals of Jean Seberg (to be followed by four more over the next couple of weeks), there are two screenings of a brand-new print of one of Rappaport’s best narrative features, The Scenic Route (1978), along with his remarkable 36-minute tour de force Exterior Night (1994) — a noirish narrative about film noir in which actors filmed in color walk around inside vintage black-and-white Warners sets and locations from the 40s and 50s, shot originally on high-definition video in Germany, and recently transferred to 35-millimeter film.… Read more »

Dead Man Walking

Tim Robbins’s second feature as a writer-director, adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s autobiographical book of the same title, depicts Prejean’s efforts to save (in more ways than one) a rapist and killer in Louisiana who’s on death row. The direction has its awkward and square moments, but the film is uncommonly honest and serious–a rare quality these days. Not the simple polemic against capital execution one might have expected, it works very hard to acknowledge and even honor the viewpoints of the victims’ families, and ultimately respects the audience’s ability to make up its own mind. This film is about hatred on both sides of the law–the kind of subject Samuel Fuller has often powerfully dealt with–and for the most part it doesn’t settle for easy effects or platitudes. If nothing else, the two powerful and highly intelligent lead performances by Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as the criminal are ample reason to see the picture. McClurg Court, Webster Place.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »