Mother Courage and Her Children and History Lessons
One of the most abused critical terms we have is “Brechtian,” and the weeklong series “Brecht and Film” offers the rare opportunity to discover what that adjective really means. As it turns out, Brechtian practice and Brechtian theory are different matters entirely, occupying opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum, and this series offers superb examples of both. To understand and experience Brechtian practice at its finest, hightail it to Peter Palitzsch and Manfred Wekwerth’s intelligent and resourceful 1961 filming in black-and-white ‘Scope of the most celebrated Berliner Ensemble production, Mother Courage and Her Children, starring Helene Weigel and directed by Brecht and his longtime associate Erich Engel. It’s a play with musical interludes about the psychology of war profiteering, viewed from the inside; shot in a studio, the film employs all the stage scenery and skillfully masks different portions of the frame to honor and enhance the original mise en scene. For the more challenging rigors of Brechtian theory–which argues against the emotional engagement of the audience, something Brechtian practice never fully abandons–try History Lessons. One of the most beautiful and difficult features of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, this 1972 filming of portions of Brecht’s novel The Business Affairs of Mr.… Read more »
An incoherent title for a less than coherent satire originally known as just An Alan Smithee FilmAlan Smithee being the pseudonymous directing credit conferred when a real director has his name taken off a film, usually due to interference from the producer. Ironically, this labored send-up of Hollywood greed and foolishnessscripted by Joe Eszterhas in what appears to have been uncontrolled rage rather than recollected tranquillitywas apparently directed by Arthur Hiller, who had his own name removed from the credits, yielding a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. The premise of this muddled, hit-or-miss comedy, done in pseudodocumentary form, is that an Englishman (Eric Idle) whose name actually is Alan Smithee becomes the director of an action-adventure blockbuster starring Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jackie Chan, then flips out and steals the negative. I laughed a couple of times but can no longer remember at what; mostly I was simply amazed that the aforementioned actors, Ryan O’Neal, Coolio, Chuck D, Sandra Bernhard, and a good two dozen industry insiders ranging from Harvey Weinstein to Larry King to Eszterhas himself, could disgrace themselves with such submoronic material as if it were the height of hipness. If you harbor an interest in watching so-called industry smarts autodestruct, this carries a certain morbid appeal, but that’s about the extent of it.… Read more »
I haven’t read Margaret Rosenthal’s biography, The Honest Courtesan, which formed the basis of Jeannine Dominy’s script, but I found this a much more enjoyable, enlightening, and intelligent treatment of Venice and sex than the specious movie version of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. Set in the 16th century, it’s about a beautiful and brilliant woman (Catherine McCormack) who’s unable to marry the aristocrat she loves (Rufus Sewell) because of her family background. Trained as a courtesan by her mother (Jacqueline Bisset), she becomes a formidable political figure through her liaisons with the most powerful men in Venice as well as visiting royalty, until the Inquisition threatens to brand her as a witch. (The title’s something of a misnomer, by the way, since she’s much more a feminist heroine than a bitch goddess.) Though the dialogue is predictably anachronistic in flavor, producer-director Marshall Herskovitz, best known for his work on Thirtysomething, gives this a narrative sweep and polish that makes it consistently entertaining. The city is used beautifully, and so, for the most part, is the cast (though Fred Ward seems a bit uncomfortable with his part). With Oliver Platt and Moira Kelly. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »
Apart from the eye-filling black-and-white video Oriental Elegy, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s painterly, visionary side has seldom been more evident than in this gorgeous 1997 contemplation of a son caring for his dying mother. The story is minimal, but the color images are so breathtaking that there… Read more »
Mother and Son
Apart from the eye-filling black-and-white video Oriental Elegy (see separate listing), Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s painterly, visionary side has seldom been more evident than in this gorgeous 1997 contemplation of a son caring for his dying mother. The story is minimal, but the color images are so breathtaking that there’s never a lax moment; even when the already slow action is reduced to a virtual standstill, Sokurov’s intensity insures that something is always happening, both on the screen and inside us. (This is only 73 minutes long, but if you’re hungry for plot, it will seem like an eternity.) In his taste and his patience, Sokurov may be our only truly 19th-century avant-gardist–which means in effect that his works are timeless. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, February 20 through 26. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »
This review of Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared in the February 13, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. I’m not positive that the second image I’ve used to represent Sokurov’s Oriental Elegy actually comes from that video and not from another Sokurov work, but it evokes my memory of that video so well that I hope I can be granted poetic license for this. – J.R.
Other Voices, Other Rooms
Directed by David Rocksavage
Written by Sara Flanigan and Rocksavage
With Lothaire Bluteau, Anna Thomson, David Speck, April Turner, and Frank Taylor.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
I cannot tell a lie: my first exposure to two great tragic novels, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), was the dreadful Hollywood adaptations released during my teens, both of which had happy endings. As silly as these movies were — Vincent J. Donehue’s Lonelyhearts (1958) and Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959) — they piqued my interest in the original novels, and I discovered, among many other things, the blatant inadequacy of the movie versions.
The same thing could happen to a teenager attending the dreadful film adaptation of Truman Capote’s first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) — not a novel of the same caliber as West’s and Faulkner’s, though still a work of real distinction, from his best period — but the odds are slim.… Read more »
An astonishingly beautiful and hypnotic 1996 video by Alexander Sokurov, most of it in black and white, but with brief patches in color and sepia. Basically it’s a 45-minute mood piece with a disembodied narrator who moves through a village on a remote Japanese island that’s wreathed in mist; the sound track consists of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Wagner, and traditional Russian and Japanese music. At times the vague narrative suggests a gothic novel, though the ending recalls one of the final images in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. One shot of the mist rising over the village is worthy of Murnau’s Faust, and most of the rest resembles a series of fine engravings in constant, dreamlike flux. In Russian with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »
Robert Duvall is the writer, director, executive producer, and star of this commanding 1997 portrait of a southern Pentecostal preacher, but far from being any sort of one-man show, this feature is powerful mainly for what it has to say about a community and a way of life. Duvall’s character is a troubled and troubling scoundrel who critically assaults a younger preacher (Todd Allen) who’s taken his wife (Farrah Fawcett), then hightails it from Texas to Louisiana in flight from the law to start a new congregation. He remains a morally ambiguous figure throughout, but in defiance of the usual Elmer Gantry stereotype, the film never questions the sincerity of his religious beliefs. The fact that he’s inspired by black preachers and preaches to integrated (but mainly black) congregations only adds to the complicated response we’re invited to have, though Duvall’s direction of a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, especially in the extended church sessions, is never less than masterful. His gifts for storytelling are more uneven but, under the circumstances, less relevant. A fresh and open-minded look at a major strain in American life that’s rarely depicted with any lucidity, this is an invigorating achievement. With Miranda Richardson, John Beasley, Rick Dial, and Billy Bob Thornton.… Read more »
An astonishingly beautiful and hypnotic 1996 video by Alexander Sokurov, most of it in black and white, but with brief patches in color and sepia. Basically it’s a 45-minute mood piece with a disembodied narrator who moves through a village on a remote Japanese island that’s wreathed in mist; the music consists of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Wagner, and traditional Russian and Japanese music. At times the vague narrative suggests a gothic novel, though the ending recalls one of the final images in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. One shot, of the mist rising over the village, is worthy of Murnau’s Faust, and most of the rest resembles a series of fine engravings in constant, dreamlike flux. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, February 13 and 14, 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, February 15, 5:30 and 7:30, 773-281-4114. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore make an appealing couple in this silly but very likable 1998 romantic comedy set in 1985. The focus is on the budding relationship between a suburban wedding singer and aspiring songwriter who’s been stood up at the altar and a waitress with uncertain wedding plans of her own. The movie has more heart than head, but the cast makes a fine mesh. Directed by Frank Coraci from a script by Tim Herlihy; with Christine Taylor, Allen Covert, Angela Featherstone, Matthew Glave, Alexis Arquette, and cameo appearances by Billy Idol and Steve Buscemi. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »
An especially lamentable example of a good novel (in this case, Truman Capote’s first) adapted to the screen in such a way that its major significance appears to be the light it throws on the author’s life. Capote was in his early 20s when he wrote his third-person southern gothic about a 13-year-old boy sent to a remote plantation to live with his father, whom he’s never met. Director and cowriter David Rocksavage (best known for his British TV documentaries) makes the fatal errors of having an actor imitate Capote in middle age to narrate in the first person and of treating a highly unrealistic world in a realistic manner. The novel, by Capote’s own account, was written intuitively, and its autobiographical meanings were mainly unconscious. This 1994 feature, backing away from the novel’s politically incorrect and darkly ambivalent treatment of homosexuality, also reverses the book’s ending. Lothaire Bluteau does a fair job in the lead as the boy’s gay role model, and some of the South Carolina locations seem well chosen, but overall this is a mishmash of inauthentic accents, uncertain performances, and original material mangled beyond recognition. Cowritten by Sara Flanigan; with Anna Thomson, David Speck, April Turner, and Frank Taylor.… Read more »
Though slightly trimmed by director-writer Emir Kusturica for American consumption, this riotous 167-minute satirical and farcical allegory about the former Yugoslavia from World War II to the postcommunist present is still marvelously excessive. The outrageous plot involves a couple of anti-Nazi arms dealers and gold traffickers who gain a reputation as communist heroes. One of them (Miki Manojlovic) installs a group of refugees in his grandfather’s cellar, and on the pretext that the war is still raging upstairs he gets them to manufacture arms and other black-market items until the 60s, meanwhile seducing the actress (Mirjana Jokovic) that his best friend (Lazar Ristovski) hoped to marry. Loosely based on a play by cowriter Dusan Kovacevic, this sarcastic, carnivalesque epic won the 1995 Palme d’Or at Cannes and has been at the center of a furious controversy ever since for what’s been called its pro-Serbian stance. (Kusturica himself is a Bosnian Muslim.) However one chooses to take its jaundiced view of history, it’s probably the best film to date by the talented Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream), a triumph of mise en scene mated to a comic vision that keeps topping its own hyperbole. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, February 6 through 12.… Read more »
Like the three accompanying Jack Smith shorts in this programReefers of Technicolor Island (1967), I Was a Male Yvonne De Carlo (1970), and Song for Rent (made at some point in the 70s)this 50-minute Smith feature of the late 60s, which has been shown in many different versions, is less a finished work than an arrangement of footage with nonsynchronized musical and voice accompaniment, so you may have trouble telling where one work leaves off and another one begins. While no Flaming Creatures, this is still chock-full of weird and wonderful stuff, and the sound elements, all found material, are often as arresting as the images. Some of the ingredients include Smith in a wheelchair, sporting a red wig, red satin gown, and orange-rimmed sunglasses, as Kate Smith sings God Bless America; lovely black-and-white footage of New York traffic punctuated by jets of steam and exhaust; voluptuous color double-exposures of lagoon and shellfish fantasies; Wendell Willkie addressing the Future Farmers of America and the 1940 Republican Convention; lengthy instructions on how to dance the male part in a tango; staged and costumed fantasies in Smith’s cluttered loft; and a diverse selection of arcane found footage shown without its original sound. Consider it a kind of banana split of the imagination, put together by a blindfolded soda jerk.… Read more »
A two-hour program stretching from the 50s to the 70s, most of it films by Ken Jacobs featuring Jack Smith as a performer: in The Death of P’Town: Fragment of a Movie That Never Was (1961) Smith cavorts in a cemetery; in Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice and Little Cobra Dance (both 1957) he cavorts in drag for kids and cops in Tribeca; in Little Stabs at Happiness (1962) he nibbles on a doll and a balloon, the latter while dressed as a harlequin; excerpts from Jacobs’s unfinished magnum opus Star Spangled to Death (1962) feature more kids and some extended play with a Rockefeller-for-governor poster. Of the Jack Smith shorts, only one qualifies as a completed workthe lovely, three-minute color Scotch Tape (1959), a costumed frolic around a demolition site. The othersthe silent, black-and-white Overstimulated (1963); the silent 70s fragment Hot Air Specialists; the tedious, silent, black-and-white mid-60s fragment Wino; and the sound and color Respectable Creatures (1966), featuring everything from banal touristic footage of Rio’s Mardi Gras to scenes from an apparent Maria Montez remakeare at best suggestive fragments, none of them a patch on either Scotch Tape or Smith’s magnificent Flaming Creatures. His finished work is too alive to belong in a museum, but unfortunately most of the other stuff doesn’t look like it could belong anywhere else.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1998); updated and upgraded in December 2012. — J.R.
One of the most neglected and underrated Hollywood films of its era, Richard Fleischer’s blistering and undeniably lurid 1975 melodrama about a slave-breeding plantation in the Deep South, set in the 1840s, was widely and unjustly ridiculed as camp in this country when it came out. But apart from this film, Herbert J. Biberman’s 1969 Slaves, and Charles Burnett’s 1996 Nightjohn, it’s doubtful whether many more insightful and penetrating movies about American slavery exist. (2012 note: Quentin Tarantino’s thigh-slapping Django Unchained — a film so historically whimsical that it can show us a slave who’s an expert marksman, can read, and even puts on sunglasses after he becomes a free man — clearly isn’t one of them; at best it’s another Tarantino True Life Adventure for ten-year-old boys — ten-year-old girls need not apply.) Scripted by Norman Wexler from a sensationalist novel by Kyle Onstott; with James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, and Ken Norton. (For further and much more detailed edification on this subject, check out Robin Wood and Andrew Britton.) (JR)
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