Monthly Archives: July 1999

Welles in the Lime Light

From the July 30, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. This is also reprinted in my book Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.

The Third Man

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Carol Reed

Written by Graham Greene

With Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, and Erich Ponto.

Ironically, the most successful and beloved movie Orson Welles was ever associated with — and the one that may have had the most significant effect on the remainder of his career — has not been one of his own. Admittedly, Citizen Kane has more prestige, but that’s a relatively recent development; for the first quarter of a century after it was made, it was criticized as “uncinematic” in the few standard works of film history available, such as The Liveliest Art and The Film Till Now. Instead it was The Third Man (1950) that was most often cited with pleasure when Welles’s name came up. “Didn’t he direct that?” was something I used to hear a lot. Today I hear “Didn’t he direct at least some of the scenes?”

From the testimony of everyone involved, including Welles, we know that he wrote one brief and highly memorable speech comparing Italy and Switzerland (which he once claimed he cribbed from an old Hungarian play) and rewrote a couple of his other lines in the same scene.… Read more »

Eyes Wide Shut

From the Chicago Reader (July 30, 1999). — J.R.

Initial viewings of Stanley Kubrick’s movies can be deceptive because his films all tend to be emotionally convoluted in some way; one has to follow them as if through a maze. A character that Kubrick might seem to treat cruelly the first time around (e.g., Elisha Cook Jr.’s fall guy in The Killing) can appear the object of tender compassion on a subsequent viewing. The director’s desire to avoid sentimentality at all costs doesn’t preclude feeling, as some critics have claimed, but it does create ambiguity and a distanced relationship to the central characters. Kubrick’s final feature very skillfully portrays the dark side of desire in a successful marriage; since the 60s he’d been thinking about filming Arthur Schnitzler’s brilliant novella “Traumnovelle,” and working with Frederic Raphael, he’s adapted it faithfully — at least if one allows for all the differences between Viennese Jews in the 20s and New York WASPs in the 90s. Schnitzler’s tale, about a young doctor contemplating various forms of adultery and debauchery after discovering that his wife has entertained comparable fantasies, has a somewhat Kafkaesque ambiguity, wavering between dream and waking fantasy (hence Kubrick’s title), and all the actors do a fine job of traversing this delicate territory.… Read more »

The Iron Giant

Like many children’s movies these days, this 1999 animated feature by writer-director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) is an E.T. spin-off, but it’s a very likable and imaginative one. Set in a small town in Maine in 1957, it features a nine-year-old hero and his friend, a 50-foot extraterrestrial robot with a big appetite for metal and a peaceful, playful nature that turns threatening only when the paranoia of grown-ups activates its destructive possibilities. Adapted by Tim McCanlies from the book The Iron Man by British poet Ted Hughes, this is enjoyable in part because of its flavorsome period ambience and its lively and satiric charactersespecially a beatnik sculptor and a government agent voiced respectively by Harry Connick Jr. and Christopher McDonaldthough its graphic and dramatic virtues are nothing to sneeze at either. Some of the other voices are furnished by Jennifer Aniston, Eli Marienthal, Vin Diesel, Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney, and M. Emmet Walsh. PG, 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl

The impressive directorial debut of actress Joan Chen, who’s appeared in everything from Twin Peaks to The Last Emperor to Heaven and Earth. Adapted from the novella Tian Yu by Yan Geling, who collaborated with Chen on the screenplay, and filmed in Tibet, this feature has enraged mainland Chinese government officialsnot only because it was shot without an official permit but apparently also because its tragic plot gives such a dark portrait of the effects of the Cultural Revolution. The young title heroine, who like many others in her generation travels from a city to a remote part of China, winds up working with a horse trainer in Tibet, a solitary and stoic figure whose quiet love for her is the main focus of the story. Desperate after a spell to return to her native Chengdu, Xiu Xiu winds up sleeping with a series of men who she believes have influence on such state decisions. Exquisitely acted, and shot by Zhang Yimou cinematographer Lu Yuean impressive director in his own rightwith a sharp feeling for landscape, this is a powerful piece of filmmaking. (JR)… Read more »

Dick

Two teenage girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) touring the White House in the mid-70s stumble upon some secrets of Richard Nixon (Dan Hedaya) without realizing what they are, and when things snowball wind up as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Deep Throat informant. This is silly and shameless stuff that made me laugh quite a lot, in part because it provides the perfect antidote to the neo-Stalinist pomposity of Oliver Stone’s Nixon and glib self-importance of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Andrew Fleming (Threesome, The Craft) , who directed from a script he wrote with Sheryl Longin, lacks the polish and pizzazz of Stone and Pakula, but arguably his notions about American politics are healthier and more earthbound than theirs; in his book, Nixon and Kissinger and Woodward and Bernstein are all deserving of ridicule. In some ways this is like Forrest Gump without the neocon trimmings, which for me makes it bracing and energizing, though younger viewers may not catch all the historical references. With Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy, Saul Rubinek as Kissinger, and Teri Garr. (JR)… Read more »

New Rose Hotel

From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 2999). — J.R.

It’s not at all surprising that Abel Ferrara’s most recent feature (1998) has failed to find an American distributor or that some of his most eloquent defenders have labeled this transgressive adaptation of a William Gibson story the collapse of a major talent. A murky and improbable tale about prostitution, industrial espionage, and manufactured viruses, it works on the very edge of coherence even before the final 20 minutes or so, during which earlier portions of the film are replayed with minor variations and additions. On the other hand, few American films in recent years have been so beautifully composed and color coordinated shot by shot, and the overall experience of an opium dream is so intense that you might stop making demands of the narrative once you realize that none of the usual genre expectations is going to be met. Almost all the principal action occurs offscreen, and most of Ferrara and Christ Zois’s script concentrates on scenes between a corporate raider named Fox (Christopher Walken); his deputy, X (Willem Dafoe); and Sandii (Asia Argento, daughter of cult horror director Dario Argento), an Italian prostitute hired to seduce a Japanese scientist.… Read more »

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

This appeared originally in the July 23, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Eyes Wide Shut

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael

With Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Madison Eginton, Todd Field, Julienne Davis, Vinessa Shaw, Rade Sherbedgia, Leelee Sobieski, and Abigail Good.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Writing about Eyes Wide Shut in Time, Richard Schickel had this to say about its source, Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle: “Like a lot of the novels on which good movies are based, it is an entertaining, erotically charged fiction of the second rank, in need of the vivifying physicalization of the screen and the kind of narrative focus a good director can bring to imperfect but provocative life — especially when he has been thinking about it as long as Kubrick had” — i.e., at least since 1968, when he asked his wife to read it. This more or less matches the opinion of Frederic Raphael, Kubrick’s credited cowriter, as expressed in his recent memoir, Eyes Wide Open. But I would argue that Traumnovelle is a masterpiece worthy of resting alongside Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Kafka’s The Trial, and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl.… Read more »

The Thomas Crown Affair

A remake of the 1968 heist movie that starred Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, with Dunaway returning as the hero’s psychiatrist. This time Pierce Brosnan plays the gentleman thief, and he’s pursued by Rene Russowho depicts an insurance detective and all-around superwoman with so much sexy panache that she’s the main reason for seeing this movie. Too bad the script (by Alan R. Trustman, Leslie Dixon, and Kurt Wimmer) eventually demotes her in favor of Crown’s superior genius. John McTiernan (Die Hard, Die Hard With a Vengeance) directed and Denis Leary costars. Like the original, it’s highly enjoyable trash that probably needs the big screen in order to register as pop mythit may evaporate entirely on video. But the myth by now is slightly shopworn, and the older folks in the audience might get the most pleasure out of it. (JR)… Read more »

My Life So Far

This charming adaptation of Son of Adam, the autobiography of British TV executive Sir Denis Forman, was left on the shelf for a while, and given that it’s a Miramax production it’s probably been tampered with. But though it fades fairly quickly from memory, it’s a pretty flavorsome portrait of an eccentric family in the Scottish Highlands, complete with a crotchety inventor-father (Colin Firth), a more practical mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and lots of children and animals. Scripted by Simon Donald and reuniting the director (Hugh Hudson) and producer (David Puttnam) of Chariots of Fire, this registers as a class act to be enjoyed more for the performances and period decor than for the mise en scene. With Rosemary Harris, Irene Jacob, Tcheky Karyo, and Malcolm McDowell. (JR)… Read more »

Robert Bresson’s AFFAIRES PUBLIQUES

From Film Comment (July-August 1999). I’ve done a light edit, trimming part of my original conclusion. It’s worth adding that at least two additional pieces about this film have recently turned up on the Internet — a new essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (the first part of an ongoing series) and a detailed account by the late Gilbert Adair that was originally published in 1987, not long after Affaires Publiques was rediscovered in Paris.

I apologize for the poor quality of the illustrations from Bresson’s short film, which are the best that I could find. — J.R.

Ten years ago, I flew all the way from Chicago to the San Francisco Film Festival for a weekend to see    Robert Bresson’s first film, which had been discovered in incomplete form at the Cinémathèque Française, bearing the title Béby Inauguré. Shorn of three of its musical numbers and now totaling 23 minutes,       this rather elaborate piece of slapstick and surrealist tomfoolery was written and directed by Bresson and released in 1934, a full nine years before shooting started on his first feature, Les Anges du péché, and      I had been hearing about it for years as an irretrievably lost curiosity.… Read more »

Summer of Sam

New York City during the summer of 1977, with the Son of Sam serial killings providing a frame for (and backdrop to) the main action. This sprawling, highly ambitious film, adapted from a script by Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio, is the first in which director Spike Lee has concentrated almost exclusively on white characters (most of them Italian-American), and if his own cameo as a TV reporter is the least convincing performance, it nonetheless offers a succinct and fascinating summary of his complex relation to the story. Among the classic films echoed here are M (the tracking of a serial killer by everyone, including organized crime), the first half of Fury (the making of a lynch mob), and Lee’s own Do the Right Thing (a sizzling New York summer and what it does to people). Perhaps the most remarkable achievement is the lead performance of John Leguizamo as a hairdresser who epitomizes the sexual double standards the movie is designed to critique–it’s one of the most fascinating portraits of a proletarian lunkhead since Brando in On the Waterfront. Like most of Lee’s work, this movie bites off a lot more than it can possibly chew, and it bristles with the worst kind of New York provincialism.… Read more »

Problems of Access: On the Trail of Some Festival Films and Filmmakers

Adapted from “Problemes d’accès: Sur les traces de quelque films et cinéastes ‘de festival,’” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, Trafic no. 30, été 1999. — J.R.

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“Festival film”: a mainly pejorative term in the film business, especially in North America. It generally refers to a film destined to be seen by professionals, specialists, or cultists but not by the general public because some of these professionals decide it won’t or can’t be sufficiently profitable to warrant distribution. Whether these professionals are distributors, exhibitors, programmers, publicists, or critics is a secondary issue, particularly because these functions are increasingly viewed today as overlapping, and sometimes even as interchangeable.

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The two types of critic one sees at festivals are those (the majority) who want to see the films that will soon be distributed in their own territories, and those who want to see the films that they’ll otherwise never get to see — or in some cases films that may not arrive in their territories for a few years. The first group is apt to be guided in their choices of what to see by distributors, or else by calculated guesses of what distributors will buy. The second group, if it hopes to have any influence, will ultimately seek to persuade potential distributors as well as ordinary spectators, but whether it functions in this way or not, its spirit is generally guided by cinephilia more than by business interests.… Read more »

Voices of Cabrini

Terse, informative, and convincing, Ronit Bezalel’s half-hour video documents the eviction of longtime residents from Chicago’s mid-city ghetto due to what’s euphemistically called “city planning” (the city claims that these people will be able to move back into the area, but so far most of them haven’t been able to find affordable housing). The story is basically told by the people being uprooted, and the feel for the neighborhood and its history is what leaves the strongest impression; Bezalel and her cinematographer, Antonio Ferrera, are especially good in handling the closing down of a barbershop. A discussion will follow the screening. Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, Thursday, July 8, 6:30, 312-346-3278 or 773-728-1879. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Robinson In Space

Art teacher and former architect Patrick Keiller followed up his debut feature, London, with this 1997 film, and it’s equally worth seeing. Like the earlier film it’s a fictionalized documentary about contemporary England that at times suggests an anglicized Chris Marker. Paul Scofield narrates, playing the fictional hero’s sidekick and researcher. (JR)… Read more »

Gallivant

Andrew Kotting’s touching, personal 1997 documentary about his 6,000-mile journey along the coasts of England, Wales, and Scotland with his 90-year-old grandmother and his 7-year-old daughter, who suffers from the serious neurological disease Joubert’s syndrome. Far from depressing and often funny, this has as many quirky aspects as the films of Ross McElwee and manages to cover an interesting range of topics as well. (JR)… Read more »