Monthly Archives: September 2000

Isolationism as a Control System (Part 2)

Chapter Seven of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover  below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press.  Because of the length of this chapter, I’m posting it in two parts. — J.R.

MOVIE WARS

 

TRANSATLANTIC REALITY AVOIDANCE: A REPORT FROM THE FRONT (MAY 1999)

thirteenth-floor

“ ‘I think, therefore I am,’ ” reads the opening epigraph of The Thirteenth Floor, the fourth virtual‐reality thriller I saw in Chicago in as many weeks in the spring of 1999, followed by the quotation’s source, “Descartes (1596–1650).” It’s an especially pompous beginning for a movie whose characters scarcely think, much less exist, but not an unexpected one given the metaphysical claims and pronouncements that usually inform these thrillers.
EXISTENZ 1

If any thought at all can be deemed the source of these pictures cropping up one after the other — with the exception of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, a film with a lot more than generic commercial kicks on its mind — this might be an especially low estimation of what an audience is looking for at the movies. The assumed desire might be expressed in infantile and emotional terms: “I don’t like the world, take it away.” In other words, the virtual-­reality thriller seems to solve the puzzle of how to address an audience assumed to be interested only in escaping without reminding them of what they’re supposed to be escaping from.… Read more »

Isolationism as a Control System (Part 1)

Chapter Seven of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover  below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press.  Because of the length of this chapter, I’ll be posting it in two parts. — J.R.

MOVIE WARS

Is it possible that because of the rise of the new media, which have given us the ability to manufacture what we call virtual reality, we are now able, without quite knowing what we are doing, to create a secondary world that we are liable to mistake for the primary world given to our senses at birth? If so, the prime need it serves is probably not political at all but the one Freud identified as the chief motive for dreaming: wish fulfill-­‐ ment—a need catered to both by our luxuriously proliferating sources of entertainment and the means of their support, namely, advertisement of consumer products. In our variant of self-­‐deception, pleasure plays the role that terror plays under totalitarianism.

— Jonathan Schell, “Land of Dreams,” The Nation, January 11/18, 1999

This chapter and the next explore complementary and mutually alienating attitudes: the desire to keep out foreign influences in order to preserve American “purity,” and the fact that what we consider American “purity” is often composed of foreign influences.

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Rock N’ Roll Fantasies

From the Chicago Reader (September 22, 2000). — J.R.

Almost Famous

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Cameron Crowe

With Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Zooey Deschanel.

Duets

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Bruce Paltrow

Written by John Byrum

With Maria Bello, Andre Braugher, Paul Giamatti, Huey Lewis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scott Speedman, Kiersten Warren, and Angie Dickinson.

Cameron Crowe’s first feature as writer-director, Say Anything… (1989), lost money, which broke my heart. His third feature, Jerry Maguire (1996), cleaned up, which broke my spirit. (In between was another romantic comedy, the 1992 Singles, which I barely remember.) You might conclude that I was out of step with the audiences that passed on Say Anything… – though I was hardly the only reviewer who fell for it — and with those who went to Jerry Maguire in droves. I prefer to believe that I was out of step with the publicity for each movie. Say Anything… didn’t get much. But Jerry Maguire was pushed hard, as a Tom Cruise movie rather than anything created by a mere writer-director, and much of it struck me as transparent Oscar mongering — with the film’s “Show me the money!” mantra brandished as shamelessly as Paul Newman’s line about Fast Eddie being back in The Color of Money.… Read more »

Human Resources

In Laurent Cantet’s 1999 French feature, written with Gilles Marchand, a student at a Paris business school returns home to Normandy to intern at the factory where his father has worked for 30 years. When the son and other workers go on strike and the antiunion father is let go, the son and father find themselves on opposite sides of the fence. This sharp, convincing, and utterly contemporary political film calls to mind some of Ken Loach’s work, full of passion as well as precision. Fine Arts.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Crime + Punishment In Suburbia

By now we’ve been sated with Pulp Fiction spin-offs. This is perhaps the first of the American Beauty spin-offs, and though I fear it won’t be the last, let’s hope it turns out to be the crudest; it’s so crude that even the sensitive teenage photographer/rebel/outcast is a lout like the others. As a believable and/or meaningful story, it gets worse by the minute, and despite the title and an opening quote, it has nothing to do with Dostoyevsky. The cast includes Vincent Kartheiser, Monica Keena, Ellen Barkin, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Ironside, and James DeBello; Rob Schmidt directed the Larry Gross screenplay. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bad Blood

One festival brochure describes this 1986 feature as a “dazzling film noir thriller,” yet the distinctive talents of French director Leos Carax have relatively little to do with storytelling. The vaguely paranoid plot concerns a couple of thieves (Michel Piccoli, Hans Meyer) hiring the son (Denis Lavant) of a recently deceased partner to help them steal a cure to an AIDS-like virus, but the noir and SF trappings are so feeble that they function at best as a framing device, a means for Carax to tighten his canvas. The real meat of this movie is his total absorption in the wonderful leads, Lavant and Juliette Binoche, which comes to fruition during the former’s lengthy attempt to seduce the latter, an extended nocturnal encounter that the various genre elements serve only to hold in place. The true source of Carax’s style is neither Truffaut nor Godard but the silent cinema, with its melancholy, its innocence, its poetics of close-up, gesture, and the mysteries of personality. Bad Blood uses color with a sense of discovery similar to that found in the morbidly beautiful black and white of Carax’s Boy Meets Girl, and its naked emotion and romantic feeling are comparably intense. Critics tend to link Carax with the much older Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva) and the much callower Luc Besson (Subway), but as Carax points out, Bad Blood is “a film which loves the cinema, but which doesn’t love the cinema of today.” From the standpoint of a Beineix or a Besson, Bad Blood might seem jerry-built and self-indulgent; from a cinematic standpoint, it blows them both out of the water.… Read more »

Duets

Slight but savory, this is a road comedy about karaoke competitions, a potent and neglected subject, with three intercut stories about contenders en route to a contest in Omaha. Scripted by John Byrum (writer-director of the underrated Inserts and Heart Beat, not heard from in ages), and directed by Bruce Paltrow, this is largely cast with talented unknowns, apart from Angie Dickinson, Andre Braugher, and Paltrow’s daughter Gwyneth (Braugher and Paul Giamatti are especially effective). With Maria Bello, Huey Lewis, Scott Speedman, and Kiersten Warren. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

Almost Famous

Writer-director Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical fourth feature (2000)after Say Anything . . . , Singles, and Jerry Maguireconcerns the adventures of a 15-year-old rock journalist (Patrick Fugit) touring with a band (the fictional Stillwater) in 1973 for Rolling Stone. This has much of the warmth and feeling for adolescence that Crowe displayed in his first feature, though the slick showboating of Jerry Maguire isn’t entirely absent either. Part of what Crowe’s exploring here is the ethical confusion that can arise from the differences between being a journalist and being a groupie. With Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Philip Seymour Hoffman (especially good as the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs), Zooey Deschanel, and Anna Paquin. 122 min. (JR)… Read more »

Orfeu

It’s been about 40 years since I’ve seen Black Orpheus, and much as I sympathize with Carlos Diegues’s desire to do a politically correct remake of the Vinicius de Moraes playthe view of a Brazilian rather than a French tourist, without the racism, and updated to incorporate contemporary economic realitiesI wish he’d made this as much fun as the original. Focusing on the misery of crime and corruption in the favelas, Diegues has kept the Rio carnival too much in the margins, and since the story is just as mythological as it ever wasexcept that hell is now the junkyard where dead bodies are thrownI’m not sure how much has been gained in the updating. Still, the ‘Scope cinematography by Affonso Beato is colorful and attractive (as is the city itself), and the music and dancing are as infectious as ever; too bad that Diegues won’t let us enjoy more of them (1999). 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The first Ang Lee film I’ve liked without much qualification (2000). It’s also the most exuberant action movie in ages, thanks to the choreography of Yuen Wo-ping and the powerhouse cast of Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen. There’s an undeniable lift to watching the young girl Zhang wipe out the ruffians who go after her, while the affectionate references to King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan (among other Hong Kong action touchstones) also add something flavorsome to the brew. Adapted by James Schamus (one of the executive producers), Wang Hui Ling, and Tsai Kuo Jung from Wang Du Lu’s novel of the same title, this sincere and magical fairy tale might be self-consciously celebratory at times (it’s Ang Lee’s homecoming movie, his first Asian film since Eat Drink Man Woman), but it still succeeds in putting the same spirited spin on martial arts that Singin’ in the Rain did on early Hollywood. In Mandarin with subtitles. 119 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Willow And The Wind

Abbas Kiarostami wrote the story for this charming Iranian suspense picture (1999), reportedly for director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon), though it was eventually realized quite competently by Mohammad Ali Talebi. A variation on The Wages of Fear, it follows a schoolboy assigned the task of carrying a plate-glass window several miles through a windstorm to his schoolroom to replace one that’s broken. The landscape is beautiful, and the tale itself is pretty mesmerizing. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Satan Met A Lady

An inferior and unacknowledged adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, with a ram’s horn replacing the falcon. William Dieterle directed this 1936 feature; with Bette Davis, Warren William, and Alison Skipworth. 75 min. (JR)… Read more »

Sixth Happiness

Derived from the fictionalized autobiography of Firdaus Kanga, who plays himself, this is a British feature about the life of a man born in Bombay with a disease that made his bones brittle and kept him from growing taller than four feet; Waris Hussein directed. Based on what I’ve sampled, it’s an eclectic and far from negligible picture. (JR)… Read more »

Stage Door

Hu-Du-Men, the Cantonese title of this entertaining 1996 film from Hong Kong, is an opera term for the imaginary line separating the stage from backstage, and it becomes emblematic of the various crossovers in the story. Adapted by Raymond To Kwow-wai from his own play, it concerns the producer and star of a Cantonese opera company (Josephine Siao) who’s about to abandon her career to emigrate to Australia with her husband and adopted daughter. (As in many recent Hong Kong films, anticipation of the colony’s return to the mainland is a major theme here.) The adopted daughter is showing lesbian tendencies, and the heroine, a specialist in male roles, is experiencing some gender confusion of her own. Director Shu Kei is a central figure in the Hong Kong film scene, a novelist, a programmer, the country’s most outspoken film critic, and a prolific screenwriter who’s worked for the likes of Ann Hui, Yim Ho, and John Woo; he navigates genre and gender alike with wit and aplomb. (JR)… Read more »

Curtain Of Eyes

This striking black-and-white dance film (1997), composed for the camera by Daniele Wilmouth, is the product of a six-month collaboration with four Japanese dancers from Kyoto’s Saltimbanques Buton troupe. The dancers move in an abstract space, mainly in closeups and medium shots, and Wilmouth’s textured imagery is every bit as detailed as the dancing. (JR)… Read more »