Daily Archives: March 19, 2004

Introduction to ESSENTIAL CINEMA (December 2002)

A slightly different version of the Introduction to my 2004 collection, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. — J.R.

essential-cinema

Introduction

As the son and grandson of small-town exhibitors — a legacy explored in detail in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980/1995) — I find it difficult to pinpoint with any exactitude when my film education started. But I can recall two pivotal early steps during my freshman year at New York University in 1961, when I was an English major still aspiring to become a professional novelist: taking the first and only film course I’ve ever had in my life and purchasing my first film magazine.

The course was an introductory survey taught by the late Haig Manoogian, who was serving as Martin Scorsese’s mentor in production courses around the same time. For me, it mainly afforded me my first opportunity to see The Birth of a Nation, The Last Laugh, and a few other film history staples; since I had no interest in making movies — or at this point in writing about them — I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for such matters as “story values” that Manoogian tended to emphasize.… Read more »

A Stylist Hits His Stride (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND)

From the March 19, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Michel Gondry

Written by Charlie Kaufman, Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth

With Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Tom Wilkinson.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;

“Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;”

Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,

Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n.


–Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717)

Only once in a blue moon does a screenwriter who isn’t a director become known as an auteur. Plenty of distinctive movie writers have reputations as actors or as actor-directors, starting with such giants as D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Erich von Stroheim, but they’re rarely celebrated for their writing. You have to go back to Robert Towne, who’s done only a little directing, and Paddy Chayefsky, who never did anything but write and produce, to find auteurs known mainly as writers.

A Chayefsky movie isn’t hard to identify, but I think it’s safe to say that these days a Charlie Kaufman movie is even more recognizable.… Read more »

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

The best work to date (2004) by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), this was developed from a story by director Michel Gondry and artist Pierre Bismuth. It has as much challenging originality as its predecessors, as well as a more satisfying ending and a keener sense of lived experience. The SF premise has a ring of contemporary truth: emerging from a failed romantic relationship, the hero (a subdued Jim Carrey) discovers that his ex (an aggressive Kate Winslet) has hired a company to erase all her memories of him. He enlists their services too, but technical screwups send him into a kind of temporal free fall in which past and present consciousness bleed together. Brilliantly constructed and engagingly executed, this has quite a few tricks up its sleevethe most impressive being that all concerned trim their talents to the particular needs of the movie. With Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood. R, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Twentynine Palms

An American who speaks only English (David Wissak) and an eastern European woman who speaks only French (Katia Golubeva) travel to Twentynine Palms, California, and the neighboring Joshua Tree National Park, barely communicating apart from their sexual encounters. Considering how much Bruno Dumont’s first two features (The Life of Jesus and L’humanite) were geared to his French hometown, I worried that he would lose his bearings for this foray to the U.S. Like many a European filmmaker before him, he seems transfixed by the landscape, deserts in particular, and his minimal story held me as long as the scenery was allowed to speak more than the characters. Alas, the plot eventually takes over, and it’s exceptionally ugly and unpleasant. 119 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mondo Mod

Peter Perry directed this 1967 exploitation documentary about youth culture (apparently defined as broadly as possible), whose main claim to fame is that it was shot by Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, two of the best cinematographers of the period. 147 min. (JR)… Read more »

Kitchen Stories

Set in the early 50s, when Swedish home researchstudies aimed at streamlining household kitchen activitieswas all the rage, this Norwegian minimalist comedy follows the poker-faced relationship between a Norwegian bachelor farmer (Joachim Calmeyer) and the Swedish researcher (Tomas Norstrom) assigned to study him. Much of the comedy derives from the researchers’ being forbidden to converse with their subjects, though these two become friendly in spite of themselves. The humor is a bit dry for my taste, but director Bent Hamer and his actors know what they’re doing every step of the way. In Norwegian with subtitles. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

Good Morning, Night

Widely and perhaps justly regarded as a comeback film for Marco Bellochio (China Is Near, Devil in the Flesh), this somber docudrama (2003) reflecting on the kidnapping and killing of Italian prime minister and Christian Democrat party head Aldo Moro in 1978 concentrates mainly on the four Red Brigade members who sequestered Moro, in particular the woman in the group. Lacking the historical background that would enable me to judge Bellochio’s treatment of this event politically as well as factuallyit has been called both detached and loaded, unfairly slanted as well as balanced by some of its criticsI can only testify that I found the film both troubling and absorbing over two separate viewings. In Italian with subtitles. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Night Passage

Two Asian women who are best friends and a little boy, all realistically established characters, travel by train at night, disembarking at each stop to encounter enigmatic and highly unrealistic events. This feature by Trinh T. Minh-ha (A Tale of Love, Naked SpacesLiving Is Round) and Jean-Paul Bourdier unfolds as an avant-garde picaresque, though unlike other examples that spring to mind (Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus, Pasolini’s Hawks and Sparrows), it seems neither autobiographical nor ethnocentric, and tends to emphasize theatrical elements (including forthright use of music, choreography, and spoken text). Such seemingly unanchored work is obliged to entertain on some level, and this succeeds pretty well, aided by Bourdier’s lighting and production design. The credited inspiration is Kenji Miyazawa’s novel Milky Way Railroad, and the effective music is by the Construction of Ruins. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Threads

This striking and poetic experimental feature (2003) was shot in Morocco, but its maker, Hakim Belabbes, is a former graduate student at Columbia College who did much of the pre- and postproduction work in Chicago. This seems appropriate, because the film is constructed as an urgent dialogue between Moroccan traditionalism and Western modernityor should we say, given the current state of the world, between Moroccan modernity and Western traditionalism? This conversation is expressed formally as well as thematically through several interwoven stories. Beautifully shot in vibrant colors, the film shifts between characters, story lines, and perspectives with the prismatic grace of a kaleidoscope. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The best work to date by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), this was developed from a story by director Michel Gondry and artist Pierre Bismuth. It has as much challenging originality as its predecessors as well as a more satisfying ending and a keener sense of lived experience. The SF premise has a ring of contemporary truth: emerging from a failed romantic relationship, the hero (a subdued Jim Carrey) discovers that his ex (an aggressive Kate Winslet) has hired a company to erase all her memories of him. He enlists their services too, but technical screwups send him into a kind of temporal free fall in which past and present consciousness bleed together. Brilliantly constructed and engagingly executed, this has quite a few tricks up its sleeve–the most impressive being that all concerned trim their talents to the particular needs of the movie. With Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood. R, 108 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Crown Village 18, Davis, Gardens 7-13, Lake, Pipers Alley, River East 21. (Reviewed this week in Section One.)… Read more »