Monthly Archives: May 2003

Ghosts of Hollywood [THE DECAY OF FICTION]

From the Chicago Reader (May 30, 2003). — J.R.

The Decay of Fiction

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Pat O’Neill.

Truly original art tends to defy generic categories, and Pat O’Neill’s 35-millimeter, 73-minute The Decay of Fiction (2002), which Chicago Filmmakers is presenting this Saturday night at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema, is no exception. Inarguably an experimental work, it also reeks of classic Hollywood. The credits list O’Neill as producer, director, and editor and George Lockwood as cinematographer and sound designer, but no one is credited as the screenwriter — even though the film contains as much dialogue as any commercial feature, most of it apparently original. Forty-five cast members are cited alphabetically in those same credits, with no indication of who plays the most significant roles. Eight years in the making, the film partakes equally of the past (roughly the 1920s through the 1960s) and a disquieting version of the present.

It was filmed in and around LA’s Ambassador Hotel, which closed in 1989 and was slated for demolition at the time the film went into production in 1994 (although it was still standing when the film premiered last fall). The Decay of Fiction is both a color documentary about that crumbling edifice (where the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1929, and where Robert F.… Read more »

Cremaster 5

The third installment sequentially (1997) of writer-director Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle is just as lethargic and self-satisfied as the others I’ve seen, though less monotonous rhythmically. An opera set in late-19th-century Budapest, with extended portions of the action taking place underwater, it stars Ursula Andress in the only singing role (though her voice is dubbed by Adrienne Csengery) and Barney in three parts that seem to sum up his self-image (Diva, Magician, Giant). This avant-garde pageant is characteristically mythoprosaic (to coin a term), though it does make the most of its Hungarian locations. If it were less doggedly florid and had any sort of humorcamp or otherwiseit might qualify as a big-budget remake of an early Werner Schroeter opus. The music is by Jonathan Bepler. 55 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cremaster 4

With or without a comprehensible story, crosscutting is one of the least interesting forms of editing, and Matthew Barney addresses the problem much as Robert Altman does when he’s on autopilotby pretending it doesn’t exist. This lumbering avant-garde spectacular (1994) stars Barney as the Loughton Candidate, a tap dancing and crawling satyr juxtaposed with two motorcycle teams racing across the Isle of Man. The film invites us to consider the multiple meanings of its elaborate surrealist imagerymuch of it viewed from Barney’s favorite camera position, the celestial overhead shotbut all I could think about was hype and money. The colors are characteristically lurid. 42 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cremaster 1

Sculptor, writer-director, and former football player Matthew Barney returns to Bronco Stadium in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, to stage a Busby Berkeley-style dance routine while two Goodyear blimps float overhead. Inside each blimp are four air hostesses and an elaborately set banquet table, and under each table lies a winsome figure known as Goodyear (Marti Domination), whose idly created configurations of green or purple grapes are duplicated by the dancing girls below. This slick spectacle (1995), packed with metaphors relating to procreative biology, tries very hard to impress us with its production values, but I was bored by its programmatic literalism and mechanical crosscutting. 41 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Family Affair

An arch Jewish-lesbian comedy without laughs (2001), made outside the usual American independent circuits, this is largely the work of writer-director-star Helen Lesnick, who models her persona on Woody Allen (and even includes a couple of references to him in the dialogue, in case we’ve missed the point). After splitting up with her girlfriend in New York (Michele Greene), she visits her gay-sensitive parents in San Diego and hits it off with a California WASP (Erica Shaffer); a Jewish wedding between the two is threatened by Greene’s reappearance. The couple’s parents have a bit more personality than the other characters, but on the whole this is strictly by the numbers. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Decay Of Fiction

Eight years in the making, this haunting and highly watchable 35-millimeter experimental feature by Pat O’Neill (2002, 73 min.) is partly a color documentary on the ruins of Hollywood’s Ambassador Hotel (site of the first Oscar ceremony as well as the Robert Kennedy assassination) and partly a speculative patchwork of its decaying fictions. Working with sound designer George Lockwood and a team of 45 actors, O’Neill has superimposed transparent characters and props over the settings and added dialogue, music, and sound effects from black-and-white Hollywood features. A special-effects wizard whose day job is working on Hollywood blockbusters, O’Neill showed in his 1989 Water and Power a poetic feeling for human evanescence in relation to southern California locales; here he proves equally astute at showing how our sense of history becomes tainted by and entangled with Hollywood myths. (JR)… Read more »

The Last Letter

Frederick Wiseman’s first fiction film (2002), a one-woman performance by the Comedie Francaise’s skillful and expressive Catherine Samie, is so well made that I can only feel guilty for not liking it more. Its text is taken from a Russian novel by Vasili Grossman; in it the author tries to imagine a letter written to him by his mother, a Jewish doctor in a German-occupied Ukrainian city, shortly before her extermination. The text is vivid and powerful and the performance riveting, although the fancy configurations of expressionist shadow Wiseman employs throughout this black-and-white film suggest that he felt the package needed something more. It does: a little more breathing room for the viewer. In French with subtitles. 61 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Shape of Things

From the Chicago Reader (May 23, 2003). — J.R.

theshapeofthings2

Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty) delivers his most interesting and powerful film to date, though it’s also his most unpleasant and disturbing. Set at a small college, it concentrates on the evolving relationship between a shy nerd (Paul Rudd) and a brazen artist (coproducer Rachel Weisz), as well as his best friend (Frederick Weller) and the latter’s fiancee (Gretchen Mol) — and the less said about the plot the better. LaBute originally wrote this as a play while directing Possession (its opposite in every respect), and it often betrays its theatrical origins, though never to its disadvantage. LaBute has a lot of troubling things to say about both relationships and artists, and the writing and ensemble playing are so ruthlessly focused they hurt. 97 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre.

the-shape-of-things-trioRead more »

The Great Divide [FROM THE OTHER SIDE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 16, 2003). — J.R.

From the Other Side **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Chantal Akerman.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost  to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

— from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, quoted on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty

More than 25 years ago, when I was living in a beachside bungalow in a suburb of San Diego, I eventually realized that the bungalow across the alley was a halfway house for Mexicans who’d just made it across the border. I had to figure this out on my own because none of my neighbors ever even alluded to the place or what it was. The constant arrival and departure of new faces was perfectly obvious yet completely unacknowledged—in fact, everything in the surrounding Elysian landscape seemed to encourage one not to observe it. The halfway house was there but not there, like the Mexican ghettos in other parts of suburban San Diego — too decorous to prompt a second look. If people needed to go there in search of cheap labor, they concentrated on what they were looking for.… Read more »

Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (the fifth dozen entries)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the fifth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

The Red and the White
This 1967 feature was one of the first by Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó to have some impact in the U.S., and the stylistic virtuosity, ritualistic power, and sheer beauty of his work are already fully apparent. In this black-and-white pageant, set during the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the reds are the revolutionaries and the whites are the government forces ordered to crush them. Working in elaborately choreographed long takes with often spectacular vistas, Jancso invites us to study the mechanisms of power almost abstractly (as suggested by the Stendhalian ring of his title), with a cold eroticism that may glancingly suggest some of the subsequent work of Stanley Kubrick. But this shouldn’t mislead one into concluding that Jancsó is any way detached from either politics or emotions.

For one thing, the markedly nationalistic elements in The Red and the White could be —- and were —-interpreted as anti-Russian, especially if one considers that the film was made less than a decade after the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution, which left over 7,000 Hungarians dead.… Read more »

L’avventura

From the Chicago Reader (May 14, 2003). — J.R.

The controversial, highly charged 1960 masterpiece that put Michelangelo Antonioni’s name on the international map. It’s a work that requires some patience — a 145-minute mystery that strategically elides any conventional denouement — but more than amply repays the effort. The ambiguous title adventure begins on a luxury pleasure cruise. The disconsolate girlfriend (Lea Massari) of a successful architect (Gabriele Ferzetti) mysteriously disappears on a remote volcanic island, and the architect and the woman’s best friend (Monica Vitti) set out across Italy looking for her, becoming involved with each other along the way. In the course of their epic travels, Antonioni paints a complex portrait of a crisis in contemporary values and relationships. His stunning compositions and choreographic mise en scene, punctuated by eerie silences and shots that linger expectantly over landscapes, made him a key Italian modernist director of the 50s and 60s, perhaps rivaled only by Rossellini. This haunting work — the first in a loose trilogy completed by La Notte and L’eclisse — shows him at the summit of his powers. In Italian with subtitles. (JR)

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Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (the sixth dozen)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the sixth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

Too Early, Too Late
This 1981 color documentary by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, one of their few works in 16-millimeter, is almost certainly my favorite landscape film. There are no “characters” in this 105-minute feature about places, yet paradoxically it’s the most densely populated work in their oeuvre to date. The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the “Notebooks of Grievances” compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants’ resistance to English occupation prior to the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film’s formal inspirations is Beethoven’s late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what’s remarkable about Straub and Huillet’s beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.… Read more »

Todo El Poder

Fernando Sarinana’s slick and show-offy Mexican comedy (1999, 102 min.) starts out as fun, but the laughs have drained away by the end. A recently divorced filmmaker (Demian Bichir) making a documentary about urban crime borrows his ex-wife’s car while she’s on holiday, then he and his young daughter are robbed by a masked gang who make off with the car. The ensuing mystery-thriller plot features a goofy crook who appears to be playing Nicolas Cage playing Elvis (Luis Felipe Tovar), a love interest (Cecilia Suarez), and an attack on police corruption; it all adds up to more than the movie can handle, especially when much of the cinematography looks like it was printed on sandpaper. In Spanish with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

The Matrix Reloaded

The first of two sequels to The Matrix released in 2003, courtesy of the original writer-directors, the Wachowski brothers, who have amplified the camp elements of the originalincluding the ultrasolemn performances of Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Mosswhile retreading the same metaphysical conceits. Lines like We’re all here to do what we’re here to do reverberate more than long enough for us to ponder their full profundity, and the martial arts choreography is neither graceful nor excitingit’s worthy of a video game. Only after cars, trucks, and a motorcycle join the actioneasily outclassing all the actorsdoes the movie take on a modicum of vitality. But if you’re 14 or younger in age or sensibility, you may giggle at some of the bons mots. 138 min. (JR)… Read more »

Lilya 4-ever

The 16-year-old title heroine (Oksana Akinshina), living in the former Soviet Union, is abandoned when her mother leaves for the States, befriended by an equally desperate 14-year-old boy, and ultimately forced into white slavery in Sweden after being promised a job and furnished with a fake passport. For all the social realism of this 2002 feature, it still seems rather dubious; writer-director Lukas Moodysson lays on the misery and the tear-jerking dream sequences (complete with angel feathers), not to mention the techno tunes, seldom bothering with character nuance or social analysis. The production company was the one behind Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, and one finds here a similar kind of sadism posing as humanism, albeit without von Trier’s flair for melodrama. The result is grimly effective, but it made me long for Hollywood junk. In Russian and Swedish with subtitles. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »