Monthly Archives: January 2003

Russian Ark

This Alexander Sokurov feature (2002) is one of the most staggering technical achievements in the history of cinema–a single shot lasting 95 minutes while moving through 33 rooms in the world’s largest museum, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (which also encompasses the Winter Palace). Part pageant and museum tour, part theme-park ride and historical meditation, it traverses two centuries of czarist Russia as smoothly as it crosses the Hermitage, with the offscreen Sokurov engaged in an ongoing dialogue with an on-screen 19th-century French diplomat (apparently suggested by Adolphe, marquis de Custine). Sokurov used close to 2,000 actors and extras and three live orchestras in making what may be the world’s only unedited single-take feature as well as the longest Steadicam sequence ever shot. This is also the first uncompressed high-definition film recorded on a portable hard-disk system rather than film or tape before being transferred to 35-millimeter. The problem with these feats is that they threaten to overwhelm the film’s content, both as complex historical commentary and as aesthetic and theoretical gesture. As critic J. Hoberman has suggested, this is an anti-October, challenging Eisenstein’s reliance on montage while using the Winter Palace as a gigantic set. All of which is to say that we’re only just starting to grasp the dimensions of this formidable achievement.… Read more »

Power And Terror: Noam Chomsky In Our Times

This Japanese video documentary (2002, 74 min.) about the most acute American critic of U.S. foreign policy is conventionally made but valuable for its currency and its capacity (which matches that of Chomsky) to remain upbeat about a seemingly hopeless topic. Director John Junkerman, an American based in Tokyo, records Chomsky’s comments about the war on terror at speaking engagements in Berkeley and the Bronx and interviews him at some length in his office at MIT, yielding some of the professor’s best long-range insights. (JR)… Read more »

Super Sucker

After reportedly making half a million dollars on his first indie comedy, Escanaba in da Moonlight, which played almost exclusively in the midwest, Michigan resident Jeff Daniels wrote and directed this feature about a grudge match between two small-town door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen (Daniels and Harve Presnell) and their respective teams to win a contest run by their company. The main plot twist involves one team’s idea to sell an archaic accessory to the Super Sucker as an aid to masturbation. Stridently overacted and very broadly directed, the movie is uninhibited and energetic, to say the least, but the giddiness tends to be too scattershot to work as either satire or farce. With Matt Letscher and Dawn Wells of Gilligan’s Island, playing herself. (JR)… Read more »

The Last Of The Blue Devils

A first-rate 1979 documentary by Bruce Riker about Kansas City jazz and its most famous musicians, with particular attention devoted to Count Basie and the players who worked for him. Much of it was shot over a five-year period at the Mutual Musicians Foundation and other Kansas City locations, though vintage film clips abound. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

On Snow’s Wavelength, Zoom Out

Despite its misleading title, this is not a film by Michael Snow but a Canadian documentary by Teri Wehn-Damisch (2001, 56 min.) about some of Snow’s work. A sort of Michael Snow 101, it’s a catalog focusing on his camera-related works and his piano playing, touching only briefly on Wavelength and ignoring his painting and sculpture, his jazz group, and other important aspects of his career. It’s also fairly sketchy even on its chosen terrain, overlooking at least one major film (So Is This) and other major works involving photography (e.g., Two Sides to Every Story, A Casing Shelved, and Flight Stop). The best parts are Snow’s own lucid explication of his oeuvre, much of which emphasizes his critiques of photographic illusionism, but the clips from his films are far too skimpy to give novices a clear sense of what they’re like. (JR)… Read more »

The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg

The enormous success of Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow led to a desire for spin-offs, and Ernst Lubitsch reluctantly took on this silent adaptation (1927) of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta after Stroheim turned it down. He did manage to infuse it with his own sort of wit, especially at the beginning, though the dorkiness of Ramon Novarro in the title role appears to have made this an uphill battle. Norma Shearer plays the lively barmaid with whom he has a fling. Approximately 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cluny Brown

This late, delicious comedy of manners by Ernst Lubitsch is a notch below his best, but the character acting is so good one hardly notices. A plumber’s daughter (Jennifer Jones) and a refugee (Charles Boyer) meet in England prior to World War II, and Una O’Connor, Peter Lawford, Helen Walker, Reginald Gardiner, C. Aubrey Smith, Reginald Owen, and Richard Haydn are around to take up what slack there is. This 1946 film is the last one Lubitsch completed. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Heaven Can Wait

Ernst Lubitsch’s only completed film in Technicolor (1943), and the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies’ man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from roughly The Merry Widow on, this is a movie about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the former been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson’s script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast–Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington–is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch’s testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance. 112 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Monday, January 27, 8:00, and Thursday, January 30, 6:00, 312-846-2800.… Read more »

Buyer Beware

From the Chicago Reader (January 24, 2003). — J.R.



Super Sucker

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Jeff Daniels

With Daniels, Matt Letscher, Harve Presnell, Dawn Wells, John Seibert, Guy Sanville, Kate Peckham, Sandra Birch, Michelle Mountain, and Will Young.


Super Sucker, the second indie comedy feature written and directed by actor Jeff Daniels, is a terrible movie. But that doesn’t prevent it from being interesting and even admirable as a grassroots phenomenon. I haven’t seen its predecessor, Escanaba in da Moonlight (2001) — based on Daniels’s play, which he produced at his own 160-seat theater in Chelsea, Michigan, the Purple Rose (named after the Woody Allen movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, which Daniels has cited as a turning point in his career). The movie version of Escanaba passed through Chicago at some point and received a listing but not a review in this paper. In fact, Escanaba received few reviews anywhere (although the making of the film was the subject of an article in Harper’s in late 2000). The longest notice appeared in the Detroit News, whose Tom Long wrote that the film “is decidedly a Michigan experience, and there are questions as to how it will fly in lands that know nothing of the Mackinac Bridge, pasties, and the Department of Natural Resources.” But the film’s regional appeal was confirmed by its box office figures for Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota: in those three states alone, the film recouped its $1.8 million production budget and netted a half million dollars to boot.… Read more »

Bringing Down The House

Steve Martin plays an uptight tax lawyer whose on-line sweetheart turns out to be an escaped convict (Queen Latifah) trying to get some help disproving what she claims are false charges. Even though I expect glibness in a Disney comedy, I was rankled by the movie’s strategy of cheerfully ridiculing racial stereotypes that are already half a century out of date in order to revert to its own contemporary racial stereotypes (white as well as black) as if they were beyond criticism. In Jason Filardi’s sloppy script, characters undergo inexplicable changes in a flash (Martin can’t understand a word of hip-hop lingo until he decides to voyage into the hood, at which point he immediately becomes a master), though it may be quixotic to demand credibility from a screenwriter when almost every one of his characters is a liar. Eugene Levy is the only actor who emerges relatively unscathed in this fetid climate; as for Joan Plowright, I hope she took home a healthy check. Adam Shankman directed. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Smiling Lieutenant

This rarely shown Ernst Lubitsch musical (1931), derived from the Oscar Straus operetta The Waltz Dream, matches up Viennese lieutenant Maurice Chevalier with both Claudette Colbert (as leader of an all-woman orchestra, whom he fancies) and Miriam Hopkins (as a king’s unglamorous daughter, whom he doesn’t know how to refuse). Eventually everything gets resolved when Colbert teaches Hopkins how to jazz up her lingerie (this is pre-Production Code, in the best sense), but before this happens, the proceedings are a bit brittlenot exactly dark and funereal like Lubitsch’s later The Merry Widow, but still rather heartless, what with Chevalier’s forced gaiety and his sexual rejection of Hopkins. This was shot in Paramount’s Astoria studio, which may explain why some of the interiors feel cramped, but it’s quintessential Lubitsch in the way it suggests sexual dalliance with the brightening or darkening of a gas lamp outside a bedroom. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Nina Simone, Love Sorceress


Rene Letzgus’ 1998 French documentary of a 1976 concert is hampered by a few distractions such as shots from inside a car cruising through Paris and actor Richard Bohringer in a studio muttering comments in unsubtitled French. (To all appearances these intrusions are simply efforts to paper over gaps in the visual continuity.) But the event being documented is so riveting and so eccentric in its own right that the interruptions hardly matter. The only time I’ve seen Simone live was when she sang “Mississippi Goddam” on the last lap of the Selma-Montgomery march, and although she doesn’t reprise that fiery anthem here, she’s just as unforgettable. This isn’t so much a concert as a work of performance art — one of the best I’ve seen since Richard Pryor–Live in Concert — in which Simone’s divalike behavior is as much a part of the show as her Juilliard-trained piano playing and her stupendous untrained voice. Whether she’s performing “Little Girl Blue” and a Langston Hughes tribute, alternately barking at or complimenting the audience (or getting them to sing with — or instead of — her), making cryptic comments to herself about show business or life in general, or dancing in high heels to African drums (when she isn’t simply listening to them, or adding a piano riff), she’s such a commanding and powerful presence that I was mesmerized for most of the film’s 75 minutes.… Read more »

On the New Renaissance (Philippe Grandrieux)

This was written in early 2003 at the invitation of Nicole Brenez for a French collection that she edited, La Vie nouvelle/nouvelle vision: à propos d’un film de Philippe Grandrieux (Éditions Léo Scheer, 2005), and she uses the French translation of it by Aïcha Bahcelioglu to lead off the book; the volume also includes a DVD of the film. — J.R.

I’ve witnessed and partly experienced two massive surges of interest in avant-garde cinema during my lifetime. The first, centered on North American films during the 1960s, was spearheaded by Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney in New York; the second, centered on films in both Europe and North America around the turn of the century, has been masterminded as well as celebrated by, among others, Simon Field at the Rotterdam Film Festival and Nicole Brenez at the Cinémathèque Française.

I was slow in appreciating the first of these movements, in part because it tended to draw up battle lines between believers and atheists and was not very hospitable towards agnostics; for all that it accomplished, it was somewhat alienating to anti-institutional types such as Jack Smith and more pluralistic cinéphiles such as myself, who had trouble understanding why Marcel Hanoun was the only French avant-garde figure since the 20s admitted into Anthology Film Archives, which also managed to exclude such figures as Godard, Resnais, Rivette, and Straub-Huillet —- not to mention Lang and Mizoguchi — from its pantheon.… Read more »

Unknown Pleasures

At least since I Vitelloni and The Wild One in the 50s, movies about disaffected youth have constituted a kind of subgenre for filmmakers interested in historicizing the present. Distinguished practitioners of this undertaking in Chinese-language cinema include Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang; now they’re joined by the much younger Jia Zhang-ke, whose stunning epic Platform (2000) marks him as the most gifted Chinese filmmaker to have emerged in years. His third feature, shot on digital video, isn’t an achievement on the same order, though it takes on the same theme, in a story about two unemployed 19-year-olds. Jia’s virtuoso long takes, choreographed mise en scene, and feeling for character and behavior place him in a class by himself, yet in China his films have mainly circulated on black-market videosa point alluded to here in a sequence where his first two features are being sold, along with Pulp Fiction, by a vendor on a bicycle. In Mandarin with subtitles. 113 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Uncertainty Principle

One of the most remarkable things about Manoel de Oliveira, now in his 90s, is the supple way in which he’s been shifting gears between features. This film follows I’m Going Home, which focused on France and the theater; here he takes up Portugal and the novel, adapting Agustina Bessa-Luis’s Joai de familia. This is the fourth Oliveira film based on Bessa-Luis’s workthe others are Francisca (1981), Valley of Abraham (1993), and the third episode of Inquietude (1998)and she also furnished the original idea for The Convent (1995) and the dialogue for Party (1996). Valley of Abraham was something of an update of Madame Bovary, and in some ways this feature suggests a gothic version of Henry James. Beautifully shot by Renato Berta, effectively accompanied by bursts of Paganini, it deals with a modern-day, apparently innocent young heroine (the film’s title refers mainly to the ambiguity of her innocence), the daughter of a compulsive gambler who compares herself to Joan of Arc and winds up in an arranged marriage with a corrupt, well-to-do man who brings her to live in the same house as his brothel-owning mistress. This is more difficult than other recent Oliveira films because of the slow, highly stylized mise en scene, with characters often looking past one another, which evokes Dreyer’s Gertrud, and because of its old-fashioned mannerist treatment of decadence, which suggests late Bressonand in one visual trope, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.… Read more »