Monthly Archives: April 2001

Benjamin Smoke

Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s 1999 documentary pays tribute to Robert Dickerson–better known as vocalist Benjamin Smoke of the offbeat Atlanta band Smoke–who died of AIDS shortly after the film was shot. It captures his unaffected honesty and charm and his poetic way with words, but what’s really fine is the filmmakers’ sensitivity in blending all kinds of disparate material. Patti Smith, Dickerson’s first inspiration, let Smoke open for her in Atlanta, which provides the film with a satisfying climax, yet the talking/singing/playing/goofing-off heads that precede this apotheosis are just as watchable (and listenable). 80 min. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, April 28 and 29.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

The Low Down

Writer-director Jamie Thraves makes his feature debut with this story of a prop-painting bohemian in north London (Aidan Gillen) who wants to move away from his crack-dealing neighbors and falls in love with the realtor he meets (Kate Ashfield). It doesn’t work all the time: I couldn’t always follow the action, the ending is too abrupt, and what appears to be the strong influence of John Cassavetes (the episode in which the hero’s macho pride is wounded by a lout in a pub, triggering the unraveling of various relationships, seems to come straight out of Too Late Blues) sometimes works against the kind of rough and intuitive movie Thraves is aiming for. But I was mesmerized by what seems like a new and exciting way of filming people: Thraves mixes objective and subjective impressions, and his eclectic style of framing sometimes cuts characters off at odd angles. His main actors (including Dean Lennox Kelly and Tobias Menzies) are both natural and unpredictable–even when they show some awareness of the camera’s presence. As with Cassavetes, you might say that the film is riddled with “errors,” but these mistakes are indistinguishable from the uncommon rewards, which made me grateful for them. Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

The Price Of Milk

Has South America’s magical realism rounded the southern hemisphere to take root in New Zealand farming country? This second feature by writer-director Harry Sinclair (whose first featureTopless Women Talk About Their LivesI missed) teems with so much free-form fantasy that you might accuse it of overload, but I was delighted by the unpredictable gags and plot turns. This is basically a love story set at a dairy farm in an exceptionally green valley (filmed in ‘Scope), where an attractive couple named Lucinda and Rob (Danielle Cormack and Karl Urban) manage to lose a quilt, their 117 cows, and each other. Rob also loses most of his voice. Their problems seem to have something to do with an old Maori witch (Rangi Motu) and her nephews, but aside from them there’s still plenty of magic and mischief in this movie, which offers a two-timing best friend (Willa O’Neill), a dog that lives under a carton, an Indian community, and carnal milk baths. The movie, just 87 minutes long, reminds me of a bygone era when such running times and lighthearted fancies were much more common. (JR)… Read more »

Under the Chador

From the Chicago Reader (April 6, 2001). This is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.– J.R.

The Day I Became a Woman

***

Directed by Marzieh Meshkini

Written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar, Hassan Nabehan, Shabnam Toloui, Cyrus Kahouri Nejad, Azizeh Seddighi, and Badr Irouni Nejad.

“Aren’t you afraid?” some of my stateside friends asked before I visited Iran for the first time last February. “Only of American bombs,” I replied. Notwithstanding all of the things that are currently illegal there — such as men and women shaking hands or riding in the same sections of buses — I’m not sure I’ve ever been    anyplace where people display more social sophistication in terms of hospitality, everyday courtesy, or sheer enterprise in the use of charm and persistence to get what they want. Some of this character came through in Divorce Iranian Style, a fascinating documentary that turned up at the Film Center a couple of years ago showing the aggressive resourcefulness of Iranian women in divorce court, despite the repressive laws they have to work with.

The locals I spoke to tended to be pessimistic about the reformist movement — regarding Mohammad Khatami about as skeptically as American liberals regarded Bill Clinton during his last year in office — but it also quickly became clear that some aspects of Iranian life are not defined by Islamic fundamentalism and that what might seem hopeless in one context might be possible in another.… Read more »

Greed

Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent classic is more famous for its original eight-hour version than for this 88-minute cut that MGM carved out of it (though apparently there were several prerelease versions, which Stroheim screened privately for separate groups). The studio junked the rest of the footage, and apart from a reconstruction cobbled together recently with production stills and the shooting script, the release version is all that remains today. But even in its butchered state this is one of Stroheim’s greatest films, a passionate adaptation of Frank Norris’s great naturalist novel McTeague in which a slow-witted dentist (Gibson Gowland) and the neurotic woman he marries (the great ZaSu Pitts) are ultimately destroyed by having won a lottery. Stroheim respected the story enough to extend it imaginatively as well as translate it into cinematic terms, and he filmed exclusively on location (mainly San Francisco, Oakland, and Death Valley). Greed remains one of the most modern of silent films, anticipating Citizen Kane in its deep-focus compositions and Jean Renoir in the emotional complexity of its tragic humanism. Jean Hersholt costars. Essential viewing. (JR)… Read more »

Just Visiting

An American remake of the enormously popular 1993 French farce Les visiteurs, with the same lead actors (Jean Reno and Christian Clavier), the same producers, two of the same writers (Clavier and Jean-Marie Poire), and the same director (Jean-Marie Gaubert). I haven’t seen the original, and this mishmashwhich has little to offer apart from the charm of Christina Applegate and some Chicago locationsdoesn’t make me want to. A medieval count and his servant are magically transported to a Chicago museum; the movie tries very hard to be as dumb as possible, but apart from its flurries of special effects at the beginning and end nothing is allowed to stretch, and genuine lightheartedness is at a premium. The scatological gags aren’t nearly as good as those in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you can track down Tarzan’s New York Adventure, which does a fine job with the same sort of comic conceits, check that out instead. With Malcolm McDowell, Matthew Ross, Tara Reid, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, and an awkward George Plimpton, who’s doing his best to seem dithering rather than simply inept. John Hughes did something or other with or on the script. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Radical Humanism and the Coexistence of Film and Poetry in THE HOUSE IS BLACK

This article began as a lecture delivered on April 1, 2001 at the conference “Women and Iranian Cinema,” held at the University of Virginia and organized by Richard Herskowitz and Farzaneh Milani. Two years later it appeared in French translation in Cinéma/06, then in a booklet accompanying Facets Video’s DVD release of The House is Black in 2005, and it has also appeared in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010). — J.R.

The Iranian New Wave is not one but many potential movements, each one with a somewhat different time frame and honor roll. Although I started hearing this term in the early 1990s, around the same time I first became acquainted with the films of Abbas Kiarostami, it only started kicking in for me as a genuine movement — that is, a discernible tendency in terms of social and political concern, poetics, and overall quality  – towards the end of that decade.

Some commentators — including Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa — have plausibly cited Sohrab Shahid Saless’s A Simple Event (1973) (1) as a seminal work, and another key founding gesture, pointing to a quite different definition and history, would be Kiarostami’s Close-up (1990) (2).… Read more »

Daney in English: A Letter to Trafic

Written for and originally published (in French translation) in Trafic no. 37 (printemps 2001); also reprinted in my 2010 collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

Chicago, November 13, 2000

Dear Jean-Claude, Patrice, Raymond, and Sylvie,

Trying to find a useful way to discuss Serge Daney in an Anglo-American context, it’s hard not to feel a little demoralized. I recently looked up the letter I wrote to a university press editor in early 1995, not very much shorter than this one, enumerating -– to no avail -– all the reasons why bringing out a collection of Serge’s film criticism in English was an urgent matter and a first priority, almost comparable in some ways to what making Bazin available in English had been in the ’60s.

I believe this might have been the longest “reader’s report” I’ve ever written for a publisher. I was trying to persuade the editor to publish a translation of Daney texts that in fact had already been commissioned and completed in England, but, for diverse reasons, had never appeared in print. All the texts chosen came from Ciné journal and Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main. I thought this translation needed some revision to make it more graceful and user-friendly, and I would have preferred a broader selection.… Read more »

Careful

The third feature (1992) of Guy Maddin, whose poker-faced period extravaganzas suggest early, scratchy talkies, is his first in color, which means subdued pastels in some spots and lush tinting of black-and-white footage in others. Set in a remote Alpine village where everyone speaks in whispers to avoid setting off avalanches and everyday repression breeds deranged incestuous lust, the outrageous story seems characteristic of Maddin in its dual nature: in part a hilarious satire about Canadian timidity, it also comes across periodically as a formalist gem about nothing at all. The ably somnambulistic cast includes Australian director Paul Cox and Canadian character actor Jackie Burroughs, along with Sarah Neville, Brent Neale, and Victor Cowie in prominent parts; film academic George Toles (who also worked on Archangel) assisted Maddin on the script. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Ruination Of Men

Arturo Ripstein’s 2000 absurdist comedy in black and white, sharply scripted by Paz Alicia Garciadiego, begins with a peasant being beaten to death by two of his friends. Initially the reasons for this are quite obscure, but the motivations and back story gradually emerge as his friends, his wife, and his lover bicker over his corpse, both at his house and the morgue. This is the most interesting Ripstein feature I’ve seen, and though it resembles a play in certain respects, it’s energized by an able cast and the filmmaker’s vigorous mise en scene. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Low Down

Writer-director Jamie Thraves makes his feature debut with this story of a prop-painting bohemian in north London (Aidan Gillen) who wants to move away from his crack-dealing neighbors and falls in love with the realtor he meets (Kate Ashfield). It doesn’t work all the time: I couldn’t always follow the action, the ending is too abrupt, and what appears to be the strong influence of John Cassavetes (the episode in which the hero’s macho pride is wounded by a lout in a pub, triggering the unraveling of various relationships, seems to come straight out of Too Late Blues) sometimes works against the kind of rough and intuitive movie Thraves is aiming for. But I was mesmerized by what seems like a new and exciting way of filming people: Thraves mixes objective and subjective impressions, and his eclectic style of framing sometimes cuts characters off at odd angles. His main actors (including Dean Lennox Kelly and Tobias Menzies) are both natural and unpredictableeven when they show some awareness of the camera’s presence. As with Cassavetes, you might say that the film is riddled with errors, but these mistakes are indistinguishable from the uncommon rewards, which made me grateful for them. 96 min.… Read more »

Benjamin Smoke

Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s 1999 documentary pays tribute to Robert Dickersonbetter known as vocalist Benjamin Smoke of the offbeat Atlanta band Smokewho died of AIDS shortly after the film was shot. It captures his unaffected honesty and charm and his poetic way with words, but what’s really fine is the filmmakers’ sensitivity in blending all kinds of disparate material. Patti Smith, Dickerson’s first inspiration, let Smoke open for her in Atlanta, which provides the film with a satisfying climax, yet the talking/singing/playing/goofing-off heads that precede this apotheosis are just as watchable (and listenable). 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

Kinetica 2: A Centennial Tribute To Oskar Fischinger

Abstract animator Oskar Fischinger (1900-’67) contributed to the German expressionist movement (Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Moon) and the Hollywood dream factory (The Big Broadcast of 1937) and later divided his energies between experimental films and commercials. This retrospective comes in several parts: Masterworks and Rarities offers a comprehensive look of his work between 1927 and 1952, all presented in restored 35-millimeter prints. A panel discussion follows, which will include Barbara Fischinger, the Filmmaker’s daughter; the University of Chicago’s Yuti Tsivian and Reinhold Heller; the School of the Art Institute’s Jim Trainor; and the University of Notre Dame’s Donald Crafton. A second program, Legacy, features works by Jordan Belson, Norman McLaren, Sara Petty, Jules Engel, Mary Ellen Bute, and others influenced by Oskar Fischinger. For anyone interested in animation, this should be a landmark presentation. (JR)… Read more »

Salut Cousin!

Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouache, whose remarkable 1993 feature Bab El-Oued City led to his exile, switches to a lighter mode in this entertaining and flavorsome 1996 comedy about an Algerian who turns up in Paris to collect a suitcase of contraband clothes (for his boss to sell back home) and winds up spending a few days with his cousin, a con artist. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

James Cameron’s slam-bang 1991 sequel-cum-remake brings back Arnold Schwarzenegger as another killing machine from the future. This time his mission isn’t to kill the heroine (Linda Hamilton) but to protect her son (Edward Furlong) from an even more high-tech killing machine (Robert Patrick). To spice things up, Schwarzenegger is dressed as a biker and Patrick as a cop, the latter displaying quicksilver capacities that hark back to the friendly alien force in The Abyss. All the virtues of the originalintelligent postmodernist irony, spiffy special effects, effective action, tons of destruction, and Schwarzenegger in the nonhuman role he was born to playare present here, though when Cameron tries to milk some sentiment out of the personality and fate of his top machine he comes up flat and empty, and the other characters are scarcely more interesting. As a fancy mechanism fueled by the pleasure of watching legions of people and equipment being summarily destroyed, this is pretty hot stuff. Written by Cameron in collaboration with William Wisher. R, 136 min. (JR)… Read more »