The first part (roughly the first half) of Chapter One of my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000). The second half will be posted tomorrow; the illustration below is from the now out-of-print English edition. – J.R.
Is the Cinema Really Dead?
[The] early nineties have not been as encouraging as the early seventies.. . . It is not as easy now to believe in the medium’s vitality or its readiness for great challenges. So many of the noble figures of film history aredead now, and who can be confident that they are being replaced? . . . .The author sees fewer films now. He would as soon go for a walk, look at paintings, or take in a ball game. 
It has become harder, this past year, to go back in the dark with hope or purpose. The place where “magic” is supposed to occur has seemed a lifeless pit of torn velour, garish anonymity, and floors sticky from spilled sodas. Forlornness hangs in the air like damp; things are so desolate, you could set today’s version of Waiting for Godot in the stale, archaic sadness of a movie theater.… Read more »
The second part (roughly the second half) of Chapter One of my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000); for the first half, go here. The illustration below is from the now out-of -print English edition. – J.R.
Is the Cinema Really Dead?
Susan Sontag’s essay “A Century of Cinema” — a generational lament whose validity for me both rests on and is partially thrown into doubt by its generational stance — has by now appeared in many languages around the world as well as in many different English-language publications, including the The New York Times Magazine (February 25, 1996), the “movie issue” of Parnassus: Poetry in Review (volume 22, nos. 1 & 2, 1997), The Guardian, and at least two book-length collections of essays. I’ve noted many interesting variations in this piece as it’s appeared in various settings, and assume that some of these represent subsequent revisions or afterthoughts on Sontag’s part. But the most striking differences appear between the ﬁrst version published in America — in The New York Times Magazine, with the strikingly different title “The Decay of Cinema” — and all the others, and I assume that these, including the title, stem from editorial interventions, or at the very least collaborations between Sontag and her editor or editors at the Times.… Read more »
A very special movie, about two jazz musicians with Tourette’s syndrome getting acquainted in Greenwich Village. One’s a white 12-year-old pianist (Christopher George Marquette); the other’s a black tenor saxophone player (Gregory Hines). Polly Draper (Thirtysomething), who does a beautiful job of playing the boy’s mother, wrote the sensitive script, which falters only when it reaches for an overly hasty resolution. She’s the wife of jazz pianist Michael Wolff, who’s in charge of the music here and has a mild case of Tourette’s, so she has a particular reason to be thinking about some of the fascinating questions posed hereabout willful and involuntary improvisation and how they might live together. The moments when the story and music become one are sublime, and more generally this is a very sweet and touching story about various West Village people. The jazz milieu is caught with flavor and feeling. With Desmond Robertson, Bill Nunn, and Tony Shalhoub. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »
With the possible exceptions of Killer’s Kiss and A Clockwork Orange all of Stanley Kubrick’s features look better now than when they were first released, and Barry Lyndon, which fared poorly at the box office in 1975, remains his most underrated (though Eyes Wide Shut is already running a close second). This personal, idiosyncratic, and melancholy three-hour adaptation of the Thackeray novel may not be an unqualified artistic success, but it’s still a good deal more substantial and provocative than most critics were willing to admit. Exquisitely shot in natural light (or, in night scenes, candlelight) by John Alcott, it makes frequent use of slow backward zooms that distance us, both historically and emotionally, from its rambling picaresque narrative about an 18th-century Irish upstart (Ryan O’Neal). Despite its ponderous pacing and funereal moods, the film is highly accomplished as a piece of storytelling, and it builds to one of the most suspenseful duels ever staged. It also repays close attention as a complex and fascinating historical meditation, as enigmatic in its way as 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Music Box’s weeklong Kubrick retrospective includes a new print of this and several other films, and it offers an excellent opportunity to reevaluate a filmmaker whose work continues to deepen after his death.… Read more »
Whatever might be said for or against Abbie Hoffman, the radical founder of the yippies, he wasn’t the glib figure that Vincent D’Onofrio presents him as, in this misshapen and obfuscating biopica picture that invests practically all its intelligence in chronicling how Hoffman’s life was destroyed by the FBI and CIA after he was forced into hiding. The relative candor about the damage wreaked by J. Edgar Hoover is pretty small compensation for the lack of any clear sense of what Hoffman did in the 60s and why it meant something. With Janeane Garofalo as Hoffman’s wife and Jeanne Tripplehorn as his mistress; produced and directed by Robert Greenwald, from a script by Bruce Graham that Paul Krassner should have written. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »
It’s obvious that Ben Berkowitz and Benjamin Redgrave were thinking of John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1960) when they made this impressive Chicago-based feature. Both features grew out of acting classes and were written by their leads, and both even have titles that relate allegorically to their themes, with sexual orientation playing a role in Straightman similar to that of race in Shadows. Berkowitz (who also directed) plays the heterosexual manager of a comedy club, and Redgrave plays his best friend, a construction worker; the two become flatmates after losing their girlfriends, and only later does Redgrave admit that he’s gay. The actors’ delicacy, originality, and depth are what make this sensitive movie so affecting and justify the comparison to Cassavetes. But only up to a point: the two Bens dominate the proceedings, for better and for worse, making this more a two-man show than a genuine ensemble piece. None of the other able actors is given enough time or leeway to establish herself or himself as fully as one might like, and at times this even limits our understanding of how the two leads handle their various relationships. The plot, moreover, doesn’t seem fully shaped and concludes rather awkwardly and arbitrarily. But both these demurrals are minor next to the sizable achievements of this feature, a recipient of the 1999 Chicago Underground Film Fund.… Read more »
If you thought virtual-reality thrillers and spin-offs of The Silence of the Lambs had run their course, guess again. Jennifer Lopez, who looks great in a rubber suit, keeps putting one on in order to enter the unconscious of a serial killer/mad scientist-genius (Vincent D’Onofrio) and discover where he’s hidden his latest victim; meanwhile, hot and bothered FBI agent Vince Vaughn is also on the case. There’s almost no plot here and even less characterjust a lot of pretexts for S-M imagery, Catholic decor, gobs of gore, and the usual designer schizophrenia. Tarsem Singh, a specialist in commercials and music videos (assuming one can distinguish between the two), directed a script by Mark Protosevich, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste costars as the voice of reason, present to offer an occasional change of pace. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 11, 2000). — J.R.
Luis Bunuel’s 1972 comic masterpiece about three well-to-do couples who try and fail to have a meal together is perhaps the most perfectly achieved and flawlessly executed of all his late French films, produced by Serge Silberman and coscripted by Jean-Claude Carriere. The film proceeds by diverse interruptions, digressions, and interpolations (including dreams and tales within tales) that, interestingly enough, identify the characters, their class, and their seeming indestructibility with narrative itself. One of the things that makes this film as charming as it is, despite its radicalism, and helped Buñuel win his only Oscar, is the perfect cast, many of whom bring along the nearly mythic associations that they acquired in previous French films (Delphine Seyrig, Stephane Audran, Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Cassel), as well as many Buñuel regulars (Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Julien Bertheau). Frightening, funny, profound, and mysterious. A restored 35-millimeter print will be shown (101 min.). Music Box, Friday through Thursday, August 11 through 17.
— Jonathan Rosenbaum
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One of the best contemporary war films I know is this singular 1988 feature, the first by Guinea-Bissau filmmaker Flora Gomes (Po di sangui). The first half, as elemental and as unadorned as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, concentrates on women fighting alongside guerrillas at the end of Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence in 1973, attacked by Portuguese helicopters as they travel on foot close to the border. The second half, more diffuse and at times more rhetorical, deals with the ambiguous conditions of the war’s aftermath. The title means “those whom death refused,” and true to that notion the heroine (Bia Gomes) has been fighting for about a decade. Gomes (no relation to the director) manages to convey the loss of her children in a wordless and underplayed moment that shook me to my core. Flora Gomes appears in a cameo as president of a postwar sector. 93 min. Film Center, Saturday, August 12, 4:00, and Thursday, August 17, 6:00.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
A lot of uninteresting and unpleasant people torture, abuse, and fire guns at a lot of other uninteresting and unpleasant people, in a repulsive, interminable would-be crime thriller by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. The central intrigue involves the kidnapping of a pregnant surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) by a couple of hoods, who head for the Mexican border so they can do more unpleasant things. The pretentious narration and dialogue includes one memorable line: “There’s always free cheese in a mousetrap.” Unfortunately, this piece of cheese will cost you money to see. With Benicio del Toro, Taye Diggs, Ryan Phillippe, and James Caan. 119 min. (JR)… Read more »
A woman (Juliette Binoche) with an illegitimate young daughter moves to a French village in 1959 and opens a confectionary shop across from the church. She’s an imaginative confectioner and even something of a mind reader in guessing her customers’ tastes; the villagers give in to temptation, and controversy rages. The director (Lasse Hallstrom) and cast (which also includes Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin, Peter Stormare, Johnny Depp, and Leslie Caron) are all excellent, though the material of this comedy-dramaRobert Nelson Jacobs’s adaptation of a novel by Joanne Harrisis a bit on the smarmy side, predicated mainly on the audience feeling very wise and moral. 121 min. (JR)… Read more »
A 16-year-old scholar-athlete (Rob Brown) in inner-city Manhattan who’s more or less Michael Jordan and James Joyce rolled into one (although this doesn’t account for his having memorized the first three or four words of famous lines by Kipling, Coleridge, and several other poets) gets to be tutored by a Scottish J.D. Salinger who’s a reclusive genius (Sean Connery aiming to win the Robin Williams sweepstakes). The young hero gets a scholarship at an exclusive New York school, where he’s bullied by a ludicrously spineless teacher (F. Murray Abraham), and he has a budding interracial romance with the daughter (Anna Paquin) of the school’s biggest donor that confusedly goes nowhere (I presume because it test-marketed poorly). If director Gus Van Sant had always been a hack it wouldn’t matter so much, but personally I find this form of licking the audience’s cheeks like an obsequious puppy deeply offensive. 133 min. (JR)… Read more »
Stanley Kubrick’s second feature (1955, 67 min.) is one of only two with a New York setting, and unlike Eyes Wide Shut, it was shot entirely on location, on what looks like the lowest of low budgets. A noirish thriller with experimental trimmings that holds back most of the emotions, sensitive as well as otherwise, that threatened to make Kubrick’s first feature mawkish, it views all its low-life characters from a considerable distance. Starring Frank Silvera (as a boxer), Irene Kane, and Jamie Smith. (JR)… Read more »
The Seattle uprising in December 1999, occasioned by the World Trade Organization’s convention there, seems to have politicized Rustin Thompson, director of the highly watchable personal video documentary 30 Frames a Second (2000). His analysis of the issues behind the demonstrations is minimal, but the sense of what it was like to be there is pungent throughout, and Thompson includes brief clips from Medium Cool, Godard’s Le petit soldat, and The Grapes of Wrath to pinpoint his own subjectivity. His main discovery, which he conveys in affecting detail, is the continuing capacity of all sorts of Americans to feel passionate about political issues; his principal blind spot is treating opposition to the WTO, and multicorporate greed in general, as an American phenomenon rather than as a global movement. (As a corrective, check out Naomi Klein’s recent book No Logo.) 73 min. (JR)… Read more »
Stand-up comic and stripper Julia Query collaborated with Vicky Funari on this 1999 documentary, about unionizing Query’s coworkers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady, a North Beach peep show. However groundbreaking the labor struggle, at no point does the resulting movie ever threaten to become truly interesting, perhaps because the feminist discourse, prostripping and antistripping alike, remains fairly primitive and sound-bitey. This is somewhat more serious than the recent Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, but the exhibitionism trivializes and vulgarizes the investigative journalism, so that when Query decides to videotape herself telling her feminist mother for the first time that she’s a stripper, at a conference on prostitution at which they’re both giving presentations, the ploy makes her look fairly shallow and heartless while her mother comes across with considerable dignity. The closing epigraph from Emma GoldmanIf I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolutionepitomizes this documentary’s tendency to piggyback on the serious work of others to score its not terribly well-defined points. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »