Daily Archives: November 10, 2006

Rare and Revelatory

From the Chicago Reader (November 10, 2006). — J.R.

Pere Portabella: Cinema From the Spanish Underground

The first North American retrospective of Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella started last week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and it’s one of the year’s biggest cultural events. None of his films has ever been screened in Chicago, and none has ever been released anywhere on DVD or VHS. All five of his features are showing here (though none of his ten shorts), and if you don’t see them now, chances are you never will.

Most of Portabella’s films can be classified as experimental, though they have little in common with the films usually given that label, which tend to be nonnarrative and shot in 8- or 16-millimeter or on video. All of his features are in 35-millimeter and use narrative, though they never tell a complete story. They all have rich sound tracks that go in and out of sync with the images, sometimes reinforcing what we see, sometimes contradicting it. They all drift smoothly, often unexpectedly, from narrative to reverie and from fiction to documentary, interjecting rude shocks along the way. They’re full of comic incongruities as well as creepy interludes, and they’re all intensely physical experiences — sounds and images that assault or caress.… Read more »

Jack Smith And The Destruction Of Atlantis

Maria Montez gave socialistic answers to a rented world, declared underground filmmaker, photographer, and performance artist Jack Smith (1932-’89) in a statement that was reportedly printed and handed out at his funeral. It’s to the credit of Mary Jordan’s documentary that whatever else it overlooks, it makes that pronouncement comprehensible. Smith was a visionary anarchist artist whose pansexual and exotic utopian fantasies yielded only two finished films, Scotch Tape and Flaming Creatures, the first of which is mentioned only in Jordan’s final credits. He resisted commodification by continuously reediting his other films and reworking his live performancesa dazzling legacy that influenced everyone from Warhol to Fellini to John Waters. In some ways Smith’s art became commodified only after he died and his estranged sister gained control over his work, though that did lead to this documentary, a fascinating introduction to his special world. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Happy Feet

Let’s see if I have this straight: in an animated tribe of penguins who talk and sing like inner-city residents, Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) can’t sing but can tap-dance like crazy. When the tribe starts ailing due to lack of fish, he follows the aliens netting the fish all the way to the city, where he discovers that his dancing just might persuade them to stop overfishing. This curious ecological parable was directed by George Miller (Babe: Pig in the City), who still has an eye and a sense of humor but on this particular outing can’t get the script he wrote with three others to make much sense. Other voices include those of Hugh Jackman, Robin Williams, Nicole Kidman, and Brittany Murphy. PG, 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Copying Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven never had a woman copyist, much less the gifted and attractive 23-year-old student and aspiring composer played by Diane Kruger, which might tempt one to scoff at this romantic biopic as eyewash. But Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, The Secret Garden) directs with obvious feeling rather than cynicism, and I was swept away by it despite the story’s anachronisms. Ed Harris, offering another mad-genius portrait after playing Jackson Pollock, goes to town with his hokey part, and one gets to hear a sizable chunk of the Ninth Symphony at its 1824 premiere. Writer-producers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson won’t win over any purists, but if they introduce a few people to the excitements of Beethoven, they can hardly be accused of wasting their time. PG-13, 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Summer In La Goulette

A 1996 feature by the talented Tunisian filmmmaker and film critic Ferid Boughedir (Halfaouine) focusing on teenage girls during the summer of 1967. In French, Arabic, and Italian with subtitles. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Vampir-Cuadecuc

The second word in the title of Pere Portabella’s ravishing 1970 underground masterpiece, made in Spain while General Francisco Franco was still in power and shown clandestinely, means both worm’s tail and the unexposed footage at the end of film reels. The film is a silent black-and-white documentary about the shooting of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula, with Christopher Lee, that becomes much more: the lush, high-contrast cinematography evokes deteriorating prints of Nosferatu and Vampyr, and the extraordinary soundtrack by composer Carles Santos intersperses the sounds of jet planes, drills, syrupy Muzak, and sinister electronic music, all of which ingeniously locate Dracula and our perceptions of him in the contemporary world. Moving back and forth between Franco’s film (with Dracula as an implicit stand-in for the generalissimo) and poetic production details, Portabella offers witty reflections on the powerful monopolies of both dictators and commercial cinema. The only words heard are in English, spoken by Lee and written by Bram Stoker. 75 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Bridesmaid

Like The Ceremony (1995), Claude Chabrol’s previous adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel, this 2004 French feature seems concerned not so much with the psychopathology of everyday life as with psychopaths who lurk behind the everyday. On a more obvious level the hero (Benoit Magimel) falls in love with his sister’s bridesmaid (Laura Smet) but gradually discovers how weird she is; on a more subtle and in some ways more interesting level he lives in denial of how weird his own supposedly normal family is. Chabrol develops both stories with a great deal of finesse. With Aurore Clement. In French with subtitles. 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

Iraq in Fragments

Documentary filmmaker James Longley (Gaza Strip) has a flair for cinematography and editing and a poetic sensibility that informs both these talents. He’s also responsible for this film’s music. But the most significant credits for this examination of Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds may be the dozen translators listed. (“The future of Iraq will be in three parts,” says one Kurd. “How can you cut a country into three parts?” asks another.) Much as Emile de Antonio’s neglected In the Year of the Pig (1968) may be the only major documentary about Vietnam that actually considers the Vietnamese, this film allows the people of Iraq to speak, and what they say is fascinating throughout. In Kurdish and Arabic with subtitles. 94 min. a Landmark’s Century Centre. … Read more »

Cuadecuc-Vampir

The first word in the title of Pere Portabella’s ravishing 1970 underground masterpiece, made in Spain while General Francisco Franco was still in power and shown clandestinely, means both “worm’s tail” and the unexposed footage at the end of film reels. The film is a silent black-and-white documentary about the shooting of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula, with Christopher Lee, that becomes much more: the lush, high-contrast cinematography evokes deteriorating prints of Nosferatu and Vampyr, and the extraordinary sound track by composer Carles Santos intersperses the sounds of jet planes, drills, syrupy Muzak, and sinister electronic music, all of which ingeniously locate Dracula and our perceptions of him in the contemporary world. Moving back and forth between Franco’s film (with Dracula as an implicit stand-in for the generalissimo) and poetic production details, Portabella offers witty reflections on the powerful monopolies of both dictators and commercial cinema. The only words heard are in English, spoken by Lee and written by Bram Stoker. 75 min. Reviewed this week in Section 1. a Sat 11/11, 5 PM, and Wed 11/15, 8 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center. I will introduce the Wednesday screening and lecture on Portabella afterward. … Read more »