Monthly Archives: July 2004

A Night At The Nickelodeon

Northwestern professor Scott Curtis will present a program of films from the first decade of the 20th century, including The Dancing Pig (1907), The Acrobatic Fly (1908), D.W. Griffith’s early masterpiece A Corner in Wheat (1909), and Teddy Roosevelt in Africa (1909). (JR)

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Maria Full of Grace

This watchable and well-made feature debut by American independent writer-director Joshua Marston is also very much a showcase for Catalina Sadino Moreno, who plays the eponymous lead with grit and energy. Maria is a fearless and attractive 17-year-old Colombian who leaves her job on a rose plantation to work as a drug mule. For $5,000 she swallows more than 60 rubber pellets of heroin, to be reclaimed from her stool after flying to New Jersey; should a pellet break internally, death will quickly ensue. The depiction of her risky voyage and what happens afterward is highly suspenseful and entirely believable. R, 101 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Pipers Alley.… Read more »

THE ROOF OF THE WHALE

From Rouge No. 2 (2004). — J.R.

OnTopoftheWhale-poster

The Roof of the Whale aka On Top of the Whale
(Hek dak van de Valvis/Le Toit de la baleine, Netherlands/France, 1981)

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The Roof of the Whale – the film of Ruiz’s with the most pronounced ideological/political/polemical thrust – deals brilliantly with the plight of an anthropologist trying to learn the language of an obscure Patagonian Indian tribe whose last surviving members he has discovered. Beautifully and inventively shot in colour by Henri Alekan, the film proceeds less as narrative or as drama than as a prodigious stream of visual, verbal and conceptual ideas centring around this theme. The performances are either minimal to the point of indifference or deliberately curtailed (so that, for instance, Willeke van Ammelrooy, who plays the anthropologist’s wife, appears to have learned her speeches in English phonetically) and, despite periodic bursts of portentous music, suspense exists only on a purely formal level.The Roof of the Whale b&wTwo sample narrative ideas, neither of which lead anywhere in particular: in a weird parody of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the anthropologist’s child – a creature of indeterminate gender – becomes pregnant after gazing into a mirror; as an apparent gloss on this event, his or her mother remarks that poetry is dangerous because ‘metaphors become a religion, and religion is the opiate of the masses’.

LE JEU DE L’OIE

From Rouge No. 2 (2004). — J.R.

Snakes and Ladders
(Le Jeu de l’Oie: La Cartographie, short, France, 1980)
Snakes&Ladders In the delightful Snakes and Ladders, ‘a didactic fiction about cartography’ made for French television to promote a map exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris – a Borgesian metaphysical fantasy whose hero progressively discovers that France is a life-size board game (devoted to Snakes and Ladders or ‘The Goose’s Game’) – one has to deal with tatty special effects of Edward D. Wood Jr calibre, along with the brilliant conceits and two separate off-screen narrators, male and female. Snakes&Ladders-mapAt the outset, the troubled hero (Pascal Bonitzer) – who is found to be vomiting out dice on one occasion, and shaken as dice by an enormous hand on another – discovers that ‘he is the victim of the worst kind of nightmare, the didactic nightmare.’ Some form of didacticism seems evident in every Ruiz project but, as with Borges, it is a didacticism that often parodies itself and becomes camp, yielding precisely the kind of nightmare that ensues when, through a delirium of literalism, thought becomes flesh and the universe becomes a brain dreaming of thoughts yet unborn.Snakes&Ladders3

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Seamen’s Wives

Henk Kleinman’s gritty 1930 drama in seven acts was meant to be the first Dutch talkie, but technical difficulties made it the last Dutch silent film. In 2003 composer Henny Vrienten did a postmodernist reconstruction of the original, adding music, sound effects, and synced dialogueand creating an obvious disjunct between the 30s visuals and the modern stereo sound. It’s a fascinating experiment, and not bad as a period melodrama: the realistic working-class details of waterfront life in Amsterdam occasionally evoke Stroheim’s Greed, and there are some hallucinatory split-screen effects toward the end. In Dutch with subtitles. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Door In The Floor

A dysfunctional family drama to end all dysfunctional family dramas, Tod Williams’s adaptation of the John Irving novel A Widow for One Year depends a lot on delayed exposition to explain why a writer of children’s books (Jeff Bridges) and his wife (Kim Basinger), who have a four-year-old daughter but have lost their grown son in an accident, are so estranged. The dramatic catalyst is a teenager from the city (Jon Foster) who’s hired as the writer’s assistant and becomes the wife’s lover, and I wish some of Williams’s critical view of the family had extended to that character as well. The cast, which also includes Mimi Rogers, is strong, and by the end the story is more satisfying than you might expect. R, 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

Little Rascal

This rarely seen and recently restored Dutch feature was directed by Douglas Sirk in 1939, when he was still calling himself Detlef Sierckhe’d recently fled Germany and would soon depart for the U.S. Adapted by Carl Zuckmayer from a popular play about a thieving ragamuffin in Rotterdam, it’s one of Sirk’s least personal efforts, most notable for having the 12-year-old boy hero played by the 45-year-old actress who had the part onstage, Annie van Ees. The prominent role played by a priest in the story may call to mind The First Legion, one of Sirk’s most interesting early features in the U.S., but the mise en scene is far more routine. Also known as Wilton’s Zoo. In Dutch with subtitles. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Little Giant

A reasonably plucky spin-off of Little Caesar made three years later (1933), with Edward G. Robinson playing a bootlegger who tries to improve himself and crash high society. With Mary Astor and Helen Vinson; the reliable Roy Del Ruth directed. 75 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Corporation

Absorbing and instructive, this 2003 Canadian documentary tackles no less a subject than the geopolitical impact of the corporation, forcing us to reexamine an institution that may regulate our lives more than any other. Directors Mark Achbar (Manufacturing Consent) and Jennifer Abbott and writer Joel Bakan cogently summarize the history of the chartered corporation, showing how it accumulated the legal privileges of a person even as it shed the responsibilities. This conceit allows the filmmakers to catalog all manner of corporate malfeasance as they argue, wittily and persuasively, that corporations are clinically psychotic. The talking heads include not only political commentators like Noam Chomsky, Milton Friedman, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, and Howard Zinn, but CEOs such as Ray Anderson, Sam Gibara, Robert Keyes, Jonathon Ressler, and Clay Timon, whose insights vary enormously. This runs 165 minutes, but it’s so packed with ideas that I wasn’t bored for a second. Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy

From the Summer 2004 issue of Cineaste. — J.R.

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy

by Colin MacCabe. Filmography and picture research by Sally Shafto. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 432 pp, illus. Hardcover: $25.00.

This isn’t an authorized biography of Jean-Luc Godard. But it appears to have qualified briefly as a book that might have become one after Colin MacCabe first embarked on it in the mid-Eighties. “Two years later,” he reports in his Preface, “he” — meaning Godard — “asked me how the work was progressing and this encouraged me to bury my own doubts and to prepare a very detailed treatment. By the early nineties, however, it was clear that Godard no longer had any faith in the project.”

MacCabe says nothing to explain this change of heart and loss of faith. A look, however, at one version of his detailed treatment — “Jean-Luc Godard: A Life in Seven Episodes (to Date),” published in Raymond Bellour’s 1992 Museum of Modern Art collection Jean-Luc Godard Son + Image, 1974-1991 – provides a plausible reason, especially if one zeroes in on the following passage in the second episode: “The South American journey came to an end [in Rio] when Godard’s father once again refused to support his son any longer.… Read more »

The Last Of The Mohicans

French director Maurice Tourneur, father of cult director Jacques, was a commanding figure during the silent era and a very talented visual stylist in his own right, known for his taste and subtlety. This was especially evident during the teens and early 20s, when he was working in the U.S. on many prestigious projects, including this lovely 1920 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel about the French-Indian War. After Tourneur was incapacitated by an accident, Clarence Brown took over the direction, setting the stage for his own distinguished career. 73 min. (JR)… Read more »

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

English postnoir specialist Mike Hodges follows up his successful Croupier with this moody, stylistically assured 2003 feature, written by Trevor Preston. Superficially it’s a standard-issue revenge story set among gangsters (rather like Hodges’s first film, the 1971 version of Get Carter), but upon closer inspection its story and characters grow more mysterious, ultimately bordering on the unfathomable. After being raped by a respectable businessman (Malcolm McDowell), a small-time London drug dealer (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) kills himself, and his older brother (Clive Owen), a dour and solitary ex-gangster enduring some inexplicable depressive penance, returns to the city to get even. Charlotte Rampling seems to know more about what’s going on than anyone else, but she doesn’t say much. R, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Springtime in a Small Town

Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Horse Thief), one of China’s greatest living filmmakers, has had a difficult career because of his political outspokenness, and this 2002 feature was his first since The Blue Kite in 1993. It’s a remake of the 1948 masterpiece Spring in a Small City by Fei Mu, widely considered the nation’s greatest film by Mandarin speakers but tragically neglected by almost everyone else. A young doctor visits an ailing aristocrat, who’s an old friend, and the man’s alienated wife, who was the doctor’s first sweetheart years earlier. The only other characters are the aristocrat’s sister and aging male servant, and the concentration gives Tian’s magisterial mise en scene enormous potency. This erotically charged drama may not be quite as great as the original, but it’s an amazing and beautiful work just the same. In Mandarin with subtitles. 116 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Reviewed this week in Section One. Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Love Among the Ruins [SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN]

From the Chicago Reader (July 9, 2004). — J.R.

Springtime in a Small Town

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang

Written by Ah Cheng

With Hu Jingfan, Wu Jun, Xin Baiqing, Ye Xiaokeng, and Lu Sisi.

It’s strange and very telling that the film most highly regarded in the Chinese-speaking world –especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan — is hardly known outside China. Fei Mu’s 1948 Spring in a Small City, as it’s usually called in English, is a film I doubt I ever would have seen if a Chinese friend hadn’t sent me a subtitled copy taken from a rare showing on SBS, Australia’s state-funded multicultural TV channel, several years ago.

Once I discovered that Fei Mu’s black-and-white film lives up to its reputation, I mentioned it casually to a local Chinese film buff, who told me it was readily available at the video store he frequents in Chinatown. Why then are English subtitled versions so scarce? After all, the film was a key inspiration for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), which has been savored by non-Asians across the globe. And Tian Zhuangzhuang’s color remake of Fei Mu’s classic, Springtime in a Small Town (2002), showing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is no less accessible.… Read more »

Spur of the Moment [BEFORE SUNSET]

From the Chicago Reader (July 2, 2004). — J.R.

Before Sunset

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Linklater, Kim Krizan, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke

With Delpy and Hawke.

“The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.”
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time….
“O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.”

– from W.H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” (1937)

Richard Linklater, like Wong Kar-wai on the opposite side of the globe, is a lyrical and elegiac filmmaker. In many of his films, as in many of Wong’s, the subject is time — the romance and poetry of moments ticking by, the wonder and anguish of living through and then remembering an hour or a day.

Future generations may look back at Linklater and Wong as poets laureate of the turn of the century who excelled at catching the tenor of their times. In Days of Being Wild and Slacker, Ashes of Time and The Newton Boys, Happy Together and Dazed and Confused, and In the Mood for Love and Before Sunrise they’re especially astute observers of where and who we are in history.… Read more »