Monthly Archives: July 2002

The Kid Stays in the Picture

If you ever suspected that assholes are running the world, this 2002 documentary adapting producer and former actor Robert Evans’s autobiography, narrated with relish by Evans himself–the cinematic equivalent of a Vanity Fair article, complete with tuxes and swimming pools–offers all the confirmation you’ll ever need. A particularly telling moment occurs when Evans boasts about convincing his pal Henry Kissinger to attend a premiere just before flying to Europe on a diplomatic mission, leading one to speculate whether the world would be different today if Evans had become secretary of state and won the Nobel Peace Prize in the mid-70s and Kissinger had been pegged to play Irving Thalberg and a matador, then star in The Fiend Who Walked the West. Evans is equally proud of having produced Love Story and Chinatown, and his friendship with such comrades in arms as Kissinger and Peter Bart, the current editor of Variety, is further evidence or how wide–or how narrow–his talents are. He’s also not bad at impressions–whether he’s imitating Kissinger or his producer pals. Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein do a swell job of making this self-dramatization entertaining. 93 min.… Read more »

Close-up

A dense and subtle masterpiece from Iran (1989, 97 min.) by the highly talented Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), this documentary–or is it pseudodocumentary?–follows the trial of an unemployed film buff in Tehran who impersonated acclaimed filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Marriage of the Blessed, Gabbeh, Kandahar) and became intimate with a well-to-do family while pretending to prepare a film that was to feature them. To complicate matters further, Kiarostami persuades all the major people involved to reenact what happened, finally bringing the real Makhmalbaf together with his impersonator for a highly emotional exchange. A great deal of the implicit comedy here comes from the way “cinema” changes and inflects the value and nature of everything taking place–the original scam, the trial, the documentary Kiarostami is making, and so on. Much acclaimed in France for its fascinating take on the cinematic apparatus, the film combines fiction with nonfiction in a novel and provocative manner: Werner Herzog has called this the greatest of all documentaries about filmmaking, and he may not be far off–if only because no other film does more to interrogate certain aspects of the documentary form itself. In Farsi with subtitles; a 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N.… Read more »

Trying To Catch Up With Raúl Ruiz: A Conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum

This appeared Cinema Scope no. 11 (summer 2002). — J.R.

“You can’t smell email,” Raúl Ruiz insisted to me the night before we had this interview at the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, explaining to me why he didn’t have any truck with the Internet. He added that lately he’s been collecting various first editions, excommunications, and death sentences, many of them from the 19th century and earlier, and he can smell all of them.

At first I was surprised by this old-fashioned form of resistance, but then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Raúl is basically a 19th century figure. His largely Borgesian canon of 19th and early 20th century English and American writers (Chesterton, Stevenson, Wells, Harte, Hawthorne, Melville, et al) and his taste for rambling narratives and tales within tales smacks of a Victorian temperament.

I first encountered Ruiz’s work during my first trip to the Rotterdam Film Festival, in 1983, and it was there where we first became friends three years later —- as well as where we had this interview on January 26, in the lobby of the hotel where we were both staying. (Raúl had a small DV camera with him, and from time to time would idly shoot people coming through the hotel’s revolving-door entrance from where we sat a few yards away –- something, he explained, that he needed for his new Chilean TV series.)

Asked to produce a Welles tribute at the festival three months after Welles’s death, in early 1986, I met Oja Kodar —- Welles’s companion and major collaborator since the 60s — for the first time, and on my own initiative, knowing Ruiz’s affinity for both Isak Dinesen and Welles, lobbied unsuccessfully for Ruiz as the ideal person to film The Dreamers -— a cherished late Welles project starring Oja -— incorporating the material that Welles had already shot for it.… Read more »

Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania

The greatest film to date by poet, critic, curator, and director Jonas Mekas, this highly personal 1971 feature chronicles his first trip back to Semeniskiai, Lithuania, the village where he was raised, after an absence of 25 years. It’s a moving act of memory and self-scrutiny, reflecting in some respects the diary films he’s made since the 60s but clearly standing apart from them. Narrated by Mekas, the film opens with footage of his first years in America and closes with contemporary visits to a Hamburg suburb (site of a labor camp where he and his brother Adolfas spent a year during World War II) and Vienna (where he enjoys the company of several friends, including filmmaker-curator Peter Kubelka and critic Annette Michelson). But its centerpiece, entitled “One Hundred Glimpses of Lithuania, August 1971,” is the segment that shows his highly charged sense of film poetry at its most distilled and emotional. Essential viewing. 82 min. Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, 6500 S. Pulaski, Friday, July 12, 7:00, 773-582-6500.… Read more »

Life and Nothing More . . .

Known less accurately as And Life Goes On…(to distinguish it from Bertrand Tavernier’s Life and Nothing But), this 1992 masterpiece by Abbas Kiarostami uses nonprofessional actors to restage real events. Accompanied by his little boy, a film director from Tehran drives into the mountainous region of northern Iran, recently devastated by an earthquake that’s killed more than 50,000 people. He searches through various villages for two child actors who appeared in Where Is the Friend’s House? (a 1987 Kiarostami feature), but what we find is more open-ended and mysterious: the resilience and in some cases the surprising optimism of people putting their lives back together, the beautiful landscapes, the alternating and overlapping viewpoints of the director and his son. A picaresque narrative with a profound sense of place and a philosophically weighted use of the long shot that occasionally calls to mind Tati, this haunting look at what does and doesn’t happen to people confronted by natural disaster won the Rossellini prize at the 1992 Cannes film festival, and it’s still one of the very best Iranian features I’ve seen. In Farsi with subtitles. 108 min. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Saturday and Thursday, July 13 and 18, 6:00, 312-846-2800.… Read more »

K-19: The Widowmaker

The intriguing novelty in this cold war thriller, based on a true story, is that we perceive everything from the Russian viewpointthough the fact that the two leading Russian characters are played by Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson somewhat undercuts this strategy. In 1961 in the North Atlantic, the reactor on the first Soviet nuclear ballistic submarine malfunctions during its first trip out, and the big question is how far the tyrannical captain (Ford) will go in sacrificing his men to prevent a nuclear explosion that could set off a world war. Kathryn Bigelow, who’s shown her gifts as an action director on other occasions, does a competent job with a hokey if serviceable script by Louis Nowra and Christopher Kyle. Perhaps the post-cold-war attitudes behind this film are progressive, but the old prenuclear worship of the military goes all but unchallenged. With Peter Sarsgaard and Ingvar E. Sigurosson. 138 min. (JR)… Read more »

Letters Not About Love

A key Russian formalist text, Viktor Shklovsky’s remarkable novel Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (1923) was based on a correspondence between the author and fellow expatriate Elsa Triolet, which ensued after Triolet asked him not to write her love letters and he responded with many different kinds of lyrical sublimation. For this beautifully composed and poetically edited experimental film (1998, 58 min.), Jacki Ochs asked American poet Lyn Hejinian and Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko to start a correspondence based on ordinary words like home, poverty, book, violence, and window, a project that lasted five years while each poet learned the other’s language. In the film actors Lili Taylor and Victor Nord read excerpts from these letters (all of them in English), while Ochs accompanies them contrapuntally with documentary images. Her highly suggestive combinations of word and montage, at times evoking Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, are rich in surreal juxtaposition as well as functional illustration; music and sound effects play an important role, and Ochs fashions striking combinations of found footage and original camerawork. The result, as critic Ray Privett has noted, is a post-cold-war historical inquiry in which the imaginations of the correspondents, the filmmakers, and the spectators all interact.… Read more »

Les destinees

Jacques Charonne’s novel Les destinees sentimentales follows a Protestant minister turned factory owner over the first three decades of the 20th century, and one suspects that director Olivier Assayas (Cold Water, Irma Vep, and Late August, Early September) was attracted to the material partly as a way of exploring his own Protestant roots. The hero (Charles Berling), doubting the fidelity of his wife (Isabelle Huppert), asks her to leave their home in the Charente region of France, and she takes their daughter with her. Years later he decides he was wrong, gives his wife the fortune from his family’s porcelain factory, leaves the ministry, and marries a friend’s niece (Emmanuelle Beart); his life takes another unexpected turn after his uncle dies and he’s asked to take over the factory. Assayas is masterful in using offscreen sounds to conjure up a novelistic sense of milieu and in handling various ceremonies (from a cotillion to a young woman’s ordination as a deaconess), and the film’s lush texture explains why he called it his anti-Dogma film (one lap dissolve that links lovemaking to an Alpine lake seems to come straight out of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise). Even at 173 minutes, this 2000 release is surprisingly brisk for a period picture: Assayas practically skips across the story, making his somewhat mysterious characters even more elusive.… Read more »

Reminiscences Of A Journey To Lithuania

The greatest film to date by poet, critic, curator, and director Jonas Mekas, this highly personal 1971 feature chronicles his first trip back to Semeniskiai, Lithuania, the village where he was raised, after an absence of 25 years. It’s a moving act of memory and self-scrutiny, reflecting in some respects the diary films he’s made since the 60s but clearly standing apart from them. Narrated by Mekas, the film opens with footage of his first years in America and closes with contemporary visits to a Hamburg suburb (site of a labor camp where he and his brother Adolfas spent a year during World War II) and Vienna (where he enjoys the company of several friends, including filmmaker-curator Peter Kubelka and critic Annette Michelson). But its centerpiece, entitled One Hundred Glimpses of Lithuania, August 1971, is the segment that shows his highly charged sense of film poetry at its most distilled and emotional. Essential viewing. 82 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

Suggested by Ray Bradbury’s story The Fog Horn, this influential disaster movie from 1953 serves up a Godzilla-like tale of a prehistoric rhedosaurus resurrected by an atomic bomb. Directed by Eugene Lourie and enhanced by Ray Harryhausen’s special effects; with Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey (The Thing), and Lee Van Cleef. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ghost Cities

Sergei Eisenstein once described the ideas of Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky as a string of pearls without a string. This ambitious 2002 first feature by Chicagoan Ines Sommer, a cinematographer who can conjure up more arresting images with digital video than most industry professionals can with 35-millimeter, is tenuously centered on a young woman (Terri Reardon) who does temporary cleaning work. She’s deliberately defined by her lack of definition (which is apparently what inspires her to change her name from Therese to Joan halfway through her lonely odyssey), but she provides only a slender thread for Sommer’s essayistic pearls, which document the city in terms of real estate, Native American origins (alluded to in the title), and invisible lower-income working women. The improvised performances are persuasive, and the heroine’s dreams are eerie and suggestive despite their seeming to develop independent of her personality; unfortunately not even the inserted text crawls explaining her background and supplying various statistics can make a satisfying narrative of this multifaceted collage. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Penthouse

A dry run for The Thin Man, with W.S. Van Dyke directing Myrna Loy in a comedy thriller (1933) about a hatcheck girl caught up in a murder. With Warner Baxter, Mae Clarke, and Charles Butterworth. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Tesis

Set at a Spanish film school, this 1996 thriller about a snuff movie kept me on the edge of my seat. It’s the second feature by Alejandro Amenabar, and I’d rank it higher than his subsequent and artier Open Your Eyes (as well as its American remake, Vanilla Sky). It never got a proper U.S. release, possibly because people in the industry are reluctant to show subtitled movies in multiplexes and seem to think genre films are the domain of Hollywood studios. In any case, though I usually avoid slasher movies, I’d recommend this one without hesitation. The title translates as thesis. In Spanish with subtitles. 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

L’appartement

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 2002). — J.R.

l'appartement
I saw this French mystery thriller, the first feature of writer-director Gilles Mimouni, shortly after its 1996 release, and it left little residue. However, it has Romane Bohringer (Savage Nights), and that’s definitely a plus. Just before leaving Paris for Tokyo, the hero (Vincent Cassel), who’s engaged, thinks he spots an old flame (Monica Bellucci) in a cafe. He becomes obsessed with seeing her again, finds out where she lives, and hides out in her apartment — though he winds up having sex with Bohringer instead. In French with subtitles. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Maltese Falcon

No, this 1931 adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel isn’t as good as John Huston’s a decade later, but it has a few quirky virtues of its own, including brevity (at 80 minutes, it’s 20 minutes shorter than the Bogart version). The underrated Roy del Ruth, a fixture at Warners, directed quite capably, and the cast is offbeat if not always convincing: Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, Una Merkel as his secretary, Bebe Daniels as his lovely client, and Dudley Digges as the scheming Casper Gutman. (JR)… Read more »