Monthly Archives: November 1998

Not the Same Old Song and Dance

  • From the Chicago Reader (November 27, 1998), and reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

The Young Girls of Rochefort

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, George Chakiris, Gene Kelly, Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, Grover Dale, Jacques Perrin, Geneviève Thénier, Henri Crémieux, and Jacques Riberolles.

As eccentric as this may sound, Jacques Demy’s 1967 Les demoiselles de Rochefort is my favorite musical. Yet despite my 30-year addiction to the two-record sound track, the first time I was able to see the movie subtitled was a couple of weeks ago — helpful considering my faltering French. It’s certainly the odd musical out in terms of both its singularity and its North American reputation — a large-scale tribute to Hollywood musicals shot exclusively in Rochefort in southwest France, and an unabashedly romantic paean to American energy and optimism that’s quintessentially French. It has a score by Michel Legrand that’s easily his best, offering an almost continuous succession of songs with lyrics by Demy, all written in alexandrines (as is a climactic dinner scene that’s spoken rather than sung); choreography that ranges from mediocre (Norman Maen’s frenchified imitations of Jerome Robbins) to sublime (Gene Kelly’s choreography of his own numbers); and perhaps the most beautiful dovetailing of failed and achieved connections apart from Shakespeare and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, shot during the same period.… Read more »

Remaking History [on SHULIE]

An article about remakes of independent films, from the November 20, 1998 Chicago Reader. – J.R.

Shulie

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Elisabeth Subrin

With Kim Soss, Larry Steger, Rick Marshall, Eigo Komei, E.W. Ross, Marion Mryczka, Ed Rankus, Kerry Ufelmann, and Jennifer Reeder.

What is it about American culture that compels the film industry to do remakes? The compulsion has been growing over the past two decades — one of my oldest friends, a cinephile and sometime screenwriter based in Hollywood, was already viewing it with philosophical resignation ten years ago. As she put it, “My best friends and I have been spending most of the 80s sitting in cars discussing remakes.”

Since the early 80s we’ve been inundated with more cultural objects than ever before, but we have less and less sense of what to do with them. It’s easy to explain the Hollywood remake syndrome as unimaginative cost accounting: it made money before, so why not do it again? Then there’s the expanding youth market, which encourages unimaginative cost accountants to figure that former hits can be recycled for younger generations — one of the justifications offered by Gus Van Sant for his forthcoming remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.… Read more »

Lives of Performers

Of all Yvonne Rainer’s films, this 1972 first feature most clearly bridges her formidable career as an avant-garde dancer and choreographer and her subsequent work as an experimental filmmaker. Its 14 fiction and nonfiction episodes chronicle and/or comment on Rainer’s performances, using sound and intertitles in various inventive and unorthodox ways and concentrating on issues of power and gender that culminate in a reenactment of the movie stills that illustrate the published screenplay of Pandora’s Box, the silent G.W. Pabst film starring Louise Brooks. Rainer’s dry vernacular humor is also much in evidence, bouncing off her feminism: “Well you know, Shirley, that I have always had a weakness for the sweeping revelations of great men.” Shot in ravishing black and white by Babette Mangolte; Rainer will attend the screening. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 20, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

A Simple Plan

Sam Raimi’s provocative, in some ways rewarding, but ultimately disappointing attempt to make a mainstream art film (1998) harks back to Erich von Stroheim’s Greed in terms of story material. The characters of Scott B. Smith’s novel, which he’s adapted for the screen, receive an unexpected windfall and their lives are destroyed by it. It’s a suggestive premise, but Raimi and Smith lack the focus of a Stroheim or a Frank Norris (Stroheim’s source for Greed) to work out precisely what’s being suggested. The script dawdles, and in spite of a good castBill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton (who’s especially resourceful), Bridget Fonda, and Brent Briscoethe movie tends to amble around its points rather than drive straight toward the heart of the matter. It’s still a better-than-average melodrama with thriller elements, and it uses its remote midwestern setting almost as well as its actors, but don’t expect a fully achieved work. R, 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Countercultural Histories of Rudy Wurlitzer

From Written By 3, no. 11, November 1998. — J.R.

Let me start this off (in April 2011) with an update: a plug for Wurlitzer’s most recent novel. — J.R.

http://www.rudywurlitzer.com/Images/dropedgeofyonder-cover.jpg

“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know how to answer that.”
I was suddenly afraid of losing the anonymity that existed between us, as if once we knew our names         the erotic focus we were falling into would dissolve. I curled my lower lip.
“We’re overloaded as it is.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” she said.
– Rudolph Wurlitzer, Quake (1972)

SQUIER  We must move southward. Only by expanding can we hope to avoid a civil war and save those in
situtions we hold most precious.
DR. JONES  I assume you are including slavery?
SQUIER  I certainly am. We must not be sentimental if we wish to preserve that which is most precious to
us.
The camera cuts to Ellen, enraged by the conversation. As her eyes dart around the room, she and Walker begin to move their hands in sign language. We see for the first time that Ellen is deaf.
Walker notices her agitation. In subtitles we read what she is saying.

ELLEN (subtitles)  Screw your institutions.Read more »

Dogmatic Subterfuge [THE CELEBRATION]

From the Chicago Reader (November 13, 1998). It seems like there are some cinephiles around who still regard Dogme 95 as an honest-to-Pete aesthetic position and not as a lucrative business, ignoring that as far back as 2000, official Dogme Certificates were being sold in Denmark for roughly $1,000 apiece — apparently as a adjunct to von Trier’s main form of income, his ongoing porn-film business (which has also been widely ignored). — J.R.

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The Celebration

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Written by Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov

With Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neuman, Trine Dyrholm, and Helle Dolleris.

In 1961 we wrote this manifesto of the New American Cinema. Eugene Archer was working for the New York Times then, and I showed it to him and asked him if they could print it. He said, ‘No, we couldn’t — maybe the Village Voice could run it.’ Then I understood, of course, that the only kind of manifesto that the New York Times would print would be a press release, not a manifesto at all. In the same way, for an idea to get into the Village Voice today, it has to become not an idea but something else.Read more »

The Inheritors

An exciting and visually beautiful 1997 period film from Austria by writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky, set in a farming village after World War I. A tyrannical farmer is found murdered, and in his spiteful will he leaves all his holdings to his peasants. A rival farmer tries to buy the farm at a discount, but the peasants rebel and decide to run the place themselves. An enormous number of ideas get played out in this bucolic mystery-action-comedy-drama–about class, collectivity, bigotry, and independence–but Ruzowitzky makes it work dramatically as well as intellectually; with some justice he calls the film an Alpine western, and his sense of place and landscape is especially sharp. Fine Arts. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

What Farocki Taught

Jill Godmilow describes this recent half-hour short as a precise remake, in color and English, of Harun Farocki’s 1969 black-and-white German film Inextinguishable Fire, and while I have some quarrels with it, this fascinating intervention is bound to generate some interesting debate (at this screening she’ll discuss it with experimental filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, which should throw the issues into even sharper relief). Farocki’s powerful film, never shown in the U.S. until recently, describes Dow Chemical’s development and manufacture of Napalm B and the effects of its use during the Vietnam war. By adroitly remaking the film three decades later Godmilow wants to call attention to a model of political filmmaking, though one might argue that she runs into trouble when she describes her own work as “agitprop” in the same sense that Farocki’s was: after all, he was addressing a contemporary issue, and in a sense her kind of political filmmaking is yet another excuse for avoiding our current problems. (A curious and fascinating coincidence: Elisabeth Subrin was remaking another 60s political documentary in the midwest around the same time, though her film, Shulie, showing later this month at the Film Center, fosters a more dialectical relationship between past and present.) On the other hand, Godmilow does a fine job of stirring the pot, and what she and Rainer say about this postmodernist experiment should be well worth hearing.… Read more »

The Way We Weren’t (PLEASANTVILLE & AMERICAN HISTORY X)

This appeared in the November 6, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. Reseeing Pleasantville recently on DVD, I continue to find its diverse perceptions and confusions equally fascinating. On his audio commentary, producer-director-writer Gary Ross alludes to his childhood as the son of an activist screenwriter who was blacklisted, and part of what’s so intriguing about the film is the way its own theme of innocence crossed with sophistication is matched at times by its own multiple forms of ideological doublethink. Ross’s ongoing and seemingly untroubled assumption, for instance, that black and white film is innately artificial and stylized whereas color film is innately “realistic” makes me wonder how he can perceive MGM Technicolor of the 50s as being closer to reality (and thus presumably further away from fantasy) than all the black and white cinematography from the same period — or whether, for that matter, he can even distinguish sufficiently between the alleged “realism” of the contemporary color sections of this film and the subsequent expressionism of the hallucinogenic colors impinging on a 50s sitcom’s black and white to confidently declare that both of these kinds of color are automatically and unproblematically superior to black and white in representing reality accurately.Read more »

Public Housing

This in-depth 1997 look at everyday life in Chicago’s Ida B. Wells housing project, running 195 minutes, is one of Frederick Wiseman’s greatest documentaries to date. Few of the points in its epic analysis are obvious ones; though it gives the overall impression that public housing is like living in a concentration camp, the film favors exploration and understanding over finger-pointing and polemicizing. Wiseman presents a wide array of materials, and because you have to reflect on the film to realize how the various pieces of its design hang together, you’re liable to be thinking about it for months afterward. Wiseman will attend the screening, and the following afternoon, Saturday, November 7, at 1, he’ll take part in a panel discussion at the Film Center chaired by Studs Terkel and featuring CHA and other officials. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 6, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

The Inheritors

An exciting and visually beautiful 1997 period film from Austria by writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky, set in a farming village after World War I. A tyrannical farmer is found murdered, and in his spiteful will he leaves all his holdings to his peasants. A rival farmer tries to buy the farm at a discount, but the peasants rebel and decide to run the place themselves. An enormous number of ideas get played out in this bucolic mystery-action-comedy-dramaabout class, collectivity, bigotry, and independencebut Ruzowitzky makes it work dramatically as well as intellectually; with some justice he calls the film an Alpine western, and his sense of place and landscape is especially sharp. (JR)… Read more »

The Siege

Edward Zwick’s liberal, semisuccessful efforts to upgrade our notions of the Civil War (Glory) and the gulf war (Courage Under Fire), aided in both cases by Denzel Washington, are roughly matched by his efforts here to make sense of Palestinian terrorists, at least from a relatively uncomprehending American point of view, in a 1998 thriller about their setting off explosions in New York City. On the other hand, the Arab American Action Network has understandably denounced the film for its demonizing stereotypes. The problem, as always, is that when you try to mix cliches with more complicated data it’s often the cliches that win out. Washington in this case plays a virtuous special agent of the FBIan organization that is treated here with hushed piety, at least in comparison with the muddled CIA (represented by Annette Bening’s case officer) and the relatively unscrupulous army (represented by Bruce Willis’s general). What emerges is a better than average assemblage of platitudes, with some occasionally witty and pertinent dialogue (by screenwriters Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes, and Zwick) andyou guessed itplenty of explosions. The always interesting Tony Shalhoub plays Washington’s Lebanese-American partner, but like everyone else in the movie he’s playing a type, not a character.… Read more »

The Young Girls Of Rochefort

In choosing Jacques Demy’s greatest feature, one might argue strongly for Lola (1960), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), or the lesser-known Une Chambre en Ville (1982). But Demy’s most ambitious film and the one I cherish the most is this 1967 big-budget musical shot exclusively on location, a tale of various dreamers searching for and usually missing their ideal mates, who are usually only blocks away. The score is Michel Legrand’s finest, with various jazz elements, lyrics in alexandrines by Demy, and intricately structured reprises that match the poetic, crisscrossing plot. Demy pays tribute to the American musical yet mixes in accoutrements of French poetic realism: dreams and reality coexist more strangely and stubbornly than in most other musicals. The results may be quintessentially French, but the energy and optimism are clearly inspired by America, and Gene Kelly’s appearances are sublime. With Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac, Daniele Darrieux, George Chakiris, Grover Dale, and Michel Piccoli. In French with subtitles. 124 min. (JR)… Read more »

Celebrity

Woody Allen at his most inconsequential and insubstantial; don’t expect to remember this black-and-white throwaway of comic sketches five minutes after it’s over. The art movie reference this time is La dolce vita, and Kenneth Branagh has been enlisted to play Allen playing the Marcello Mastroianni part. Judy Davis, as Branagh’s estranged spouse, also plays Allen, at least until she starts imitating Mia Farrow. It appears that the widespread critical support of sexist and racist films like Mighty Aphrodite and Deconstructing Harry has further emboldened Allen in depicting women as blow-job machines and blacks as sexual athletes; he knows in advance that most of the New York press will never desert him and probably will applaud his courage in the bargain. Others in the cast include Melanie Griffith, Leonardo DiCaprio (playing himself much as Quentin Tarantino did in Four Rooms), Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, Michael Lerner, Famke Janssen, Charlize Theron, Hank Azaria, and Bebe Neuwirth (1998). (JR)… Read more »

Shulie

For the most part, this is a precise, shot-by-shot video remake of a little-known half-hour documentary film made in Chicago in 1967. The original film, made by Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy, and Alan Rettig, was a portrait of 22-year-old Shulamith Firestone as she was earning a BFA in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute, working for the postal service, and taking photographs (three years later she would publish The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution). The remake was made by Elisabeth Subrin (Swallow), a former grad student at the School of the Art Institute who worked with actors and detailed reproductions of Firestone’s paintings and drawings. This fascinating attempt at duplication ultimately has more to say about the 90s than the 60s: though it has some impact of its own as a document about prefeminist awakening, it… Read more »