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 »
Monthly Archives: January 2003
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 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 »
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 »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (January 24, 2003). — J.R.
* (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 »
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 »
From the January 17, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. For those who care about such things, there are spoilers ahead. — J.R.
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by David Benioff
With Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Tony Siragusa, and Levani.
I’ve complained a lot about Spike Lee as a filmmaker, before he made his remarkable Do the Right Thing (1989) and after. But the only time I’ve been tempted to accuse him of falling back on the tried and true was when he made Malcolm X and attempted to adapt his subject’s autobiography as if he were Cecil B. De Mille or David O. Selznick. I don’t mean that Lee hasn’t stubbornly stuck to the same stylistic tropes and mannerisms throughout most of his career — leaving them behind only when the occasion demanded it, as in his expert filming of Roger Guenveur Smith’s powerful performance piece The Huey P. Newton Story – but the stylistic consistency is his own. Moreover, taking on dissimilar projects he has always moved in exploratory directions, showing a lot of courage and initiative in his creative choices — even when they’re half-baked (as some are in Get on the Bus) or overblown (as in Bamboozled).… Read more »
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 »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 2003), where it was printed under the title “Against the Tide”. — J.R.
While putting together a collection of my film pieces for an upcoming book I included an appendix listing my 1,000 favorite films and videos made between 1895 and the present — features and shorts, live action and animation, narrative and experimental. The point was to cite not the works I consider the most important historically but the ones that still provide me with the most pleasure and edification.
This took more work than anticipated because I didn’t have a surefire method of recalling all the possible candidates. I worried about the inevitable oversights, including even ones from 2002. I also worried that I’d wind up weighting the list with more old than recent films — a fear that proved to be mainly groundless. The year between 1924 and 2002 for which I listed the fewest titles — five — was 1937. Four other years — 1926, 1939, 1942, and 1945 — yielded only six apiece. The peak year was 1955, with 21 titles. Generally speaking, there was a steady rise through the 50s, a decline in the 60s, then a leveling off: 17 items in the teens, 72 in the 20s, 95 in the 30s, 103 in the 40s, 160 in the 50s, 133 in the 60s, 130 in the 70s, 129 in the 80s, and 125 in the 90s.… Read more »
From Cinema Scope no. 17 (Winter 2003); reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties
by J. Hoberman (New York/London: The New Press, 461 pp., 2003.
“You know, I’m not someone who ever survived the Depression,” the great American film critic and painter Manny Farber once said to me, back in the late 1970s. “It’s not the sort of experience you ever really get over.” This was in part a gentle rebuke to someone born after the 1930s who tended to romanticize that era —- seeing glimmers of communal warmth and common cause leaking through all that picturesque poverty, especially in Hollywood pictures. For me, the 1930s were a legendary period —- the time in the U.S. when socialism came closest to being a mainstream position. Indeed, the next two decades in American history might be viewed as a series of desperate holding actions against the dreams nurtured in that epoch.
By contrast, the 1960s was a period of prosperity that nurtured outsized utopian dreams of its own —- dreams so grandiose that the succeeding decades up to the present could be viewed as another set of fearful responses.… Read more »