Monthly Archives: September 1996

Arresting Images [THE BLOODY CHILD]

From the September 27, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nina Menkes

With Tinka Menkes, Russ Little, Sherry Sibley, Robert Mueller, and Jack O’Hara.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

For several weeks I’ve been arguing with myself about The Bloody Child, the fourth film and third feature of Nina Menkes — a maddening, obsessive minimalist movie that fails to satisfy me but refuses to leave me alone. This deeply threatening American experimental feature, which has yet to find a distributor, is getting its first extended run anywhere at Facets Multimedia Center this week. Facets recently brought out on video all of Menkes’s previous films — The Great Sadness of Zohara (1984), Magdalena Viraga (1987), and Queen of Diamonds (1991) — and I’ve been seeing and reseeing them as well, mainly because I can’t decide what to do with them either. “For me,” the director has said, “cinema is sorcery,” and there’s little doubt in my mind that all of her work — the worst as well as the best — casts a spell.

All four films star Menkes’s sister Tinka, who’s also credited as coconceiver and coeditor (there are no writing credits on any of them); Nina is credited as producer, cinematographer, director, coconceiver, and coeditor.… Read more »

Paradise Lost

A fascinating, revealing, and deeply disturbing–if highly imperfect–documentary feature by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, codirectors of the excellent Brother’s Keeper, about the trials and convictions resulting from the brutal murder and mutilation of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Most of what we see persuades us that two teenage boys have been convicted of these crimes more because of their nonconformity within the community than from any hard evidence (the likeliest suspect, the stepfather of one of the victims, hasn’t even been charged). Unfortunately, the filmmakers refuse to acknowledge their own role in the proceedings, which makes for an incomplete version of the story. Adding to the confusion is the film’s popular assumption that seeing excerpts of a trial qualifies one to reach an independent verdict. Moreover, there are times when the intrusiveness and callow exploitativeness of TV reporters (one early on asks a bereaved mother whether she’s contemplating suicide) seem to be matched by some of the moves of the filmmakers: though it appears that one of the defendants is being railroaded in part because of his taste for heavy metal, the use of songs by Metallica behind much of the footage seems obscene rather than ironic. By the time the second trial’s verdict is read and the defendant’s mother, sister, and girlfriend are seen rushing into the ladies’ room, you half expect the filmmakers to follow them.… Read more »

Basquiat

Painter Julian Schnabel’s feature is a biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), a black graffitist in New York who became famous in 1981 and died seven years later. Art critic Robert Hughes titled his obituary for Basquiat “Requiem for a Featherweight,” and part of what’s so interesting and unexpected about this picture is that it makes fresh observations without actually refuting that judgment. It’s also quite energetic–there isn’t a boring shot anywhere, and writer-director Schnabel is clearly enjoying himself as he plays with expressionist sound, neo-Eisensteinian edits, and all sorts of other filmic ideas. What emerges may be unfocused as narrative, but it’s lively as filmmaking. Others in the cast include David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Michael Wincott as Rene Ricard, Paul Bartel as Henry Geldzahler, and Elina Lowensohn as art dealer Annina Nosei; the actors playing fictional characters include Gary Oldman (as an apparent stand-in for Schnabel himself), Christopher Walken (in a brilliant bit as a slimy interviewer), Willem Dafoe, and Courtney Love. Fine Arts, Davis.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

2 Days In The Valley

The standard line on this actor-heavy, brain-light concoction by writer-director John Herzfeld (1996) is that it’s Short Cuts meets Pulp Fiction, but it isn’t a tenth as good as either. It does, however, have a good many dog reaction shots, so if you happen to think the other two movies were lacking in those, credit Herzfeld for making up the difference. Crosscutting between various San Fernando Valley miniplots that prove to be interlocking, Herzfeld has a tolerable eye for filling a ‘Scope frame but a tin ear when it comes to creating dialogue; these are all characters we’ve met before, and most even seem bored with themselves. With Danny Aiello, Greg Cruttwell, Jeff Daniels, Teri Hatcher, Glenne Headly, Peter Horton, Marsha Mason, Paul Mazursky, James Spader, Eric Stoltz, and Charlize Theron, plus cameos by Keith Carradine, Louise Fletcher, and Austin Pendleton. (JR)… Read more »

Basquiat

Painter Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), a black graffitist in New York who became famous in 1981 and died seven years later. Art critic Robert Hughes titled his obituary for Basquiat Requiem for a Featherweight, and part of what’s so interesting and unexpected about this picture is that it makes fresh observations without refuting that judgment. It’s also quite energeticthere isn’t a boring shot anywhere, and writer-director Schnabel is clearly enjoying himself as he plays with expressionist sound, neo-Eisensteinian edits, and all sorts of other filmic ideas. What emerges may be unfocused as narrative, but it’s lively as filmmaking. Others in the cast include David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Michael Wincott as Rene Ricard, Paul Bartel as Henry Geldzahler, and Elina Lowensohn as art dealer Annina Nosei; the actors playing fictional characters include Gary Oldman (as an apparent stand-in for Schnabel himself), Christopher Walken (in a brilliant bit as a slimy interviewer), Willem Dafoe, and Courtney Love. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Reflection in a Mirror

This exquisitely filmed 1992 experimental feature by Svetlana Proskurina, starring her husband Victor Proskurin and written by Andrei Chernykh, concerns a famous stage actor undergoing an identity crisis–a theme that may call to mind Bergman, though the mesmerizingly slow camera movements often recall Tarkovsky. Much of the film is erotic and lyrical, with a fair amount of nudity, and there’s an eclectic score with jazz elements by Vyacheslav Gaivaronsky. The unidiomatic and often confusing subtitles make this difficult to follow in spots, but the color images are so ravishing that you may not care. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, September 22, 4:30, 443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Krzysktof Kieslowski: I’m So-So

This hour-long 1995 Danish documentary by Krzysztof Wierzbicki, made shortly before Krzysztof Kieslowski’s untimely death, feels incomplete when it comes to fleshing out every important stage of writer-director Kieslowski’s career with clips, but as an extended interview giving us some notion of why he retired and what his state of mind was like in his last days it’s priceless. Kieslowski’s mordant wit is trained on a good many subjects, including the behavior of Americans, and we learn that the script he was working on when he died was for a project he had no intention of directing. On the same program at the Polish Film Festival are two short films I haven’t seen–Michal J. Dudziewicz’s The Cinema Workers Come to Light out of the Dream Factory (1995), a documentary about half a century of Polish filmmaking, and Mariusz Malec’s half-hour The Quiet Harbor, which will be shown without English subtitles. Gateway, 5216 W. Lawrence, Saturday, September 21, 4:00, and Wednesday, September 25, 8:00, 486-9612.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Last Man Standing

A Texas drifter (Bruce Willis) works on both sides of the law to decimate a corrupt town during Prohibition. This 1996 thriller was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which in turn was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, and that itself begat a whole cycle of spaghetti westerns. Writer-director Walter Hill, known earlier in his career for his American versions of French thrillers by Jean-Pierre Melville (indebted in turn to Hollywood noir), specializes in tweaking much-used material. With Christopher Walken, Alexandra Powers, David Patrick Kelly, William Sanderson, Karina Lombard, Michael Imperioli, and Bruce Dern. R, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

Surviving Picasso

One more chapter in the tasteful, intelligent anticinema of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and producer Ismail Merchant (teamed here with David L. Wolper), as well as another celebrity impersonation by Anthony Hopkins. These tried-and-true strains converge in an adaptation of Arianna Huffington’s Picasso: Creator and Destroyer; it’s basically a domestic biopic about how the philandering artist treatedand mainly exploitedhis many mistresses. Most (but not all) of the continental characters, including Picasso and Matisse (a Joss Ackland cameo), are inexplicably furnished with English accents. Not a movie that needs to exist, but it passes the time, and at least Hopkins manages to look like Picasso at odd moments. With Natascha McElhone, Julianne Moore, Peter Eyre, Jane Lapotaire, Joseph Maher, Bob Peck, Diane Venora, and Joan Plowright. (JR)… Read more »

Home Truths [THE ASTHENIC SYNDROME]

From the September 13, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. This film was probably the most popular of the dozen features I showed to MA students in my World Cinema Workshop at Film.Factory in Sarajevo (September 15-19, 2014). — J.R.

The Asthenic Syndrome

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Kira Muratova

Written by Sergei Popov, Alexander Chernych, and Muratova

With Popov, Olga Antonova, Natalya Busko, Galina Sachurdaewa, Alexandra Ovenskaya, and Natalya Rallewa.

Every time I am asked what the film is about, I reply, quite honestly, “It’s about everything.” — Kira Muratova, 1990

Seven years have passed since I first saw Kira Muratova’s awesome The Asthenic Syndrome at the Toronto film festival, and while waiting for it to find its way to Chicago I’ve had plenty of time to speculate about why a movie of such importance should be so hard for us to see. Insofar as movies function as newspapers, this one has more to say about the state of the world in the past decade than any other new film I’ve seen during the same period, though what it has to say isn’t pretty. So maybe the reason it’s entitled to only one local screening — at the Film Center this Sunday — is the movie business’s perception that it must offer only pretty pictures.… Read more »

Opening Night

For all of John Cassavetes’s concern with acting, this 1977 film is the only one of his features that takes it on as a subject; it also boasts his most impressive cast. During the New Haven tryouts for a new play, an aging star (Gena Rowlands), already distressed that she’s playing a woman older than herself, is traumatized further by the accidental death of an adoring teenage fan (Laura Johnson). Fantasizing the continued existence of this girl as a younger version of herself, she repeatedly changes her lines onstage and addresses the audience directly, while the other members of the company–the director (Ben Gazzara), playwright (Joan Blondell), costar (Cassavetes), and producer (Paul Stewart)–try to help end her distress. Juggling onstage and offstage action, Cassavetes makes this a fascinating look at some of the internal mechanisms and conflicts that create theatrical fiction, and his wonderful cast–which also includes Zohra Lampert as the director’s wife, assorted Cassavetes regulars, and cameos by Peter Falk and Peter Bogdanovich as themselves–never lets him down. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, September 14, 3:00, 443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

The Battle over Orson Welles

From Cineaste 22, no. 3, 1996; reprinted with further comments in Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.

citizenkane-light

 

Biographies of Orson Welles reviewed in this article:

Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, by Simon Callow (New York: Viking, 1995). 640 pp.

Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, by David Thomson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). 461 pp.

Orson Welles, revised and expanded edition, by Joseph McBride (New York: Da Capo, 1996). 243 pp.

OrsonWelles1937

Two prevailing and diametrically opposed attitudes seem to dictate the way most people currently think about Orson Welles. One attitude, predominantly American, sees his life and career chiefly in terms of failure and regards the key question to be why he never lived up to his promise — “his promise” almost invariably being tied up with the achievement of Citizen Kane. Broadly speaking, this position can be compared to that of the investigative reporter Thompson’s editor in citizen kane , bent on finding a single formula for explaining a man’s life. The other attitude — less monolithic and less tied to any particular nationality, or to the expectations aroused by any single work — views his life and career more sympathetically as well as inquisitively; this position corresponds more closely to Thompson’s near the end of kane  when he says, “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.”

The first attitude can be found in relatively undiluted form in six extended works by four authors — Charles Higham’s The Films of Orson Welles  (1970) and Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius (1985), Robert L.… Read more »

American Buffalo

An OK if basically stagebound adaptation of David Mamet’s play about honor and betrayal among thieves, written by Mamet himself and starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, and Sean Nelson; Michael Corrente (Federal Hill) directed, with focus if not much imagination. Though Hoffman is more restrained than usual, there’s little here to convince me that my life is incomplete because I didn’t see this on the stage. (JR)… Read more »

Killer: A Journal Of Murder

A rather thoughtful and curious period drama from writer-director Tim Metcalfe, based on the published journal of Carl Panzram (played here by James Wood), an early-20th-century serial killer improbably befriended in the 1920s by a Jewish guard at Leavenworth. The guard, Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard), encouraged him to write about his life. Oliver Stone served as one of the executive producers here, but apart from a hyperbolic moment or two there’s little of his bombast. The period details are well handled, and the performancesby the two leads and by Cara Buono, Robert John Burke, Ellen Greene, and Steve Forrestare solid. (JR)… Read more »

Fly Away Home

At a time when so few American movies believe in anything, it’s cheering and satisfying to see one that believes in geese. Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) directed this 1996 feature, based on the autobiography of Bill Lishman, about a father and daughter (Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin) bonding after a long separation as they teach an orphaned flock of geese first how to fly and then to migrate; the digitally created spectacle of the birds in flight is glorious to behold. Written by Robert Rodat and Vince McKewin; with Dana Delany (as the father’s girlfriend), Terry Kinney, Holter Graham, and Jeremy Ratchford. PG, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »