Monthly Archives: February 2007

Three idle questions about the Oscars [Chicago Reader blog post, 2/27/07]

Posted By on 02.27.07 at 11:19 PM

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Why wasn’t a single reference to George W. Bush made by anyone — including Ellen DeGeneres in her gently laid-back stand-up routines? Probably for the same reason that I rarely heard Bush mentioned by anyone in conversations when I was recently in Rotterdam, Toulouse, and Paris. Why beat a dead horse?, the deceased in this case being the fate of the world, or perhaps innocent civilians in Iran, not a spry but clueless leader. Once it’s become accepted and mutually acknowledged that the overall will of the world’s population and the will of the American people — insofar as either will can be correctly inferred — has almost no bearing on what Bush decides to do, speaking out of rage and impotence about a stupid dictator’s whims won’t accomplish very much. So instead of cracking jokes about how Clinton risked impeachment for getting a blow job while Bush risks nothing but a little wrist-slapping for endangering the survival of the planet as well as his own country, DeGeneres brings out a vacuum cleaner. The closest she ever got to evoking Bush was implying at one point that more of the American public voted for Al Gore.

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Unpublished Letter to THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS

This was written on February 25, 2007, provoked by yet another case of a Wellesian pseudo-expert bonding with another non-expert to lay down what is supposed to be the definitive history and wisdom on the subject. Sanford Schwartz did write me a short, polite, private response that, as nearly as I can recall, didn’t really engage with any of my arguments. — J.R.

To the Editors:

 

I’m grateful for Sanford Schwartz’s article about Orson Welles in the March 15 issue of the New York Review of Books,  which strikes me as being far more sensitive to Welles’s work and some of the issues posed by his troublesome career than most pieces I’ve read on the subject by nonspecialists. Even if Schwartz’s ideas about Welles as a proto-surrealist are more provocative than convincing to me, they do lead to some arresting observations about his visual style. So I hope he’ll forgive me for pointing out an error in his piece and a few assertions that I believe are misleading. They all derive from confusions that invariably greet any effort made to describe Welles in relatively simple terms.

First, the error: “Although [Welles] was involved with many films that for one reason or another weren’t brought off, he actually finished only twelve, a group that includes the fairly short F for Fake and The Immortal Story, both made for TV.” But if we’re including films made for TV (which incidentally don’t encompass F for Fake), there are at least four TV pilots Welles finished (one of them, in my opinion, a major work — the 25-minute, 1958 The Fountain of Youth).Read more »

The True Story Of Jesse James

Though hardly Nicholas Ray’s sturdiest effort, this 1957 ‘Scope western began as one of his more ambitious conceptions, with an unorthodox narrative structure and deliberately theatrical sets. Both ideas were rejected by 20th-Century Fox in favor of genre conventions, and the experience helped to precipitate Ray’s departure for Europe (he left even before the editing was completed, to embark on the much superior Bitter Victory). Ray’s special feeling for young mavericksin this case Frank and Jesse James (Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner)is still apparent, and one brief sequence offers a brilliantly compact lesson in anarchist economics. With Hope Lange, Agnes Moorehead, and John Carradine; the script is mainly by Walter Newman. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

Charles Burnett’s brilliant 2003 TV documentary about Nat Turner, the black slave in Virginia’s Southhampton County who led an 1831 revolt that resulted in the slaughter of 57 white men, women, and children and then, in retribution, the slaughter and mutilation of 60 to 80 slaves. Interviewing two dozen historians and theorists, half of them black, Burnett treats all their interpretations, many of which he dramatizes, as equally crediblea radical but plausible approach given how little is known about Turner. He’s most interested in charting how the interpretations were arrived at and why those of white and black commentators often differ, and that allows him to offer an exemplary history lesson on why, for a nation unable to come to terms with the legacy of slavery, Nat Turner remains a troublesome property. 57 min. (JR)… Read more »

2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her

The most intellectually heroic of Jean-Luc Godard’s early features (1966) was inspired by his reading an article about suburban housewives day-tripping into Paris to turn tricks for spending money. Marina Vlady plays one such woman, followed over a single day in a slender narrative with many documentary and documentarylike digressions. But the central figure is Godard himself, who whispers his poetic and provocative ruminations over monumentally composed color ‘Scope images and, like James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, continually interrogates his own methods and responses. Among the more memorable images are extreme close-ups of a cup of coffee, while another remarkable sequence deconstructs the operations of a car wash. Few features of the period capture the world with as much passion and insight. In French with subtitles. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Beautifully Fake and Just Plain Phony

From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 2007). — J.R.

NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY ****

DIRECTED BY CHARLES BURNETT | WRITTEN BY BURNETT, FRANK CHRISTOPHER, AND KENNETH S. GREENBERG

WITH CARL LUMBLY, TOM NOWICKI, TOMMY HICKS, JAMES OPHER, WILLIAM STYRON, ERIC FONER, MARY KEMP DAVIS, OSSIE DAVIS, EKEWUEME MICHAEL THELWELL, AND BURNETT

THE ASTRONAUT FARMER *

DIRECTED BY MICHAEL POLISH | WRITTEN BY MARK AND MICHAEL POLISH

WITH BILLY BOB THORNTON, VIRGINIA MADSEN, BRUCE DERN, MAX THIERIOT, TIM BLAKE NELSON, BRUCE WILLIS, KIERSTEN WARREN, AND RICHARD EDSON

Very little is known about Nat Turner, the black slave in Virginia’s Southampton County who led a revolt by more than 50 other black slaves in August 1831. Over two days they slaughtered 57 white men, women, and children, and after the rebellion was suppressed, 60 to 80 slaves were summarily executed and mutilated. As one historian notes in Charles Burnett’s hour-long TV documentary, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), screening Sunday at the DuSable Museum of African American History, we have precise information about Turner’s victims but know almost nothing about the slaughtered blacks.

Most of what’s known about Turner is based on his unverifiable “confession” to a white lawyer, Thomas Gray, before he was executed.… Read more »

Lessons Of Darkness

In his characteristically dreamy Young Werther fashion, Werner Herzog generates a lot of bombastic and beautiful documentary footage out of the post-gulf war oil fires and other forms of devastation in Kuwait, gilds his own high-flown rhetoric by falsely ascribing it to Pascal, and in general treats war as abstractly as CNN, but with classical music on the soundtrack to make sure we know it’s art. This 1992 documentary may be the closest contemporary equivalent to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, both aesthetically and morally; I found it disgusting, but if you’re able to forget about humanity as readily as Herzog there are loads of pretty pictures to contemplate. 54 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Lives of Others

From the Chicago Reader (February 16, 2007). — J.R.

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I spent only an afternoon in East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell, but the fearful silence in public places left a lingering impression. The reasons behind it are explored by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his accomplished first feature, about the Stasi, the country’s secret police, which had a staff of over 90,000, plus countless informers, and spied on friend and foe alike. The fictional story here, set between 1984 and 1991, focuses on the investigation of a popular and patriotic playwright (Sebastian Koch); that the captain assigned to his case (touchingly played by Ulrich Muhe) is mainly sympathetic and working surreptitiously on the playwright’s behalf only makes this more disturbing. With Martina Gedeck (The Good Shepherd). In German with subtitles. R, 137 min. a Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre.

thelivesofothersRead more »

Ten More Key Moments & Scenes

Here are ten more of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007).  – J.R.

Scene

1996 / Irma Vep – Maggie Cheung stealing Arsinée Khanjian’s jewels

France (Daica Films). Director: Olivier Assayas. Cast: Maggie Cheung, Arsinée Khanjian.

Why It’s Key: If a movie can be said to have an unconscious, here’s where this one’s secret is buried.

Costumed in a tight black latex suit, Maggie Cheung, playing herself, is in Paris to play the title role in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 crime serial, Les vampires. She also seems to be the object of the sexual fantasies of everyone working on the film —- most noticeably the director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and the woman handling costumes (Nathalie Richard).

After what seems like a restless, sleepless evening in her hotel room, Cheung goes out into the hallway, still in her suit, stealthily climbs the stairs, and, after spying a maid delivering a tray to a room and leaving, sneaks into the room herself. Still hidden, she sees a nude woman (Khanjian, wife and lead actress of Atom Egoyan) describing her lonely boredom on the phone to someone named Fred, then glimpses the woman’s jewels in another room, which she promptly steals.… Read more »

Five Key Moments

Here are five more of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007).  – J.R.

Scene

1957 / Paths of Glory – Timothy Carey kills a cockroach.

U.S. Director: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey.

Why It’s Key: A quintessential character actor achieves his apotheosis when his character kills a bug.

To cover up his vain blunders, a French general (George Macready) in World War I orders three of his soldiers (Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, Timothy Carey), chosen almost at random, to be court-martialed and then shot by a firing squad for dereliction of duty, as an example to their fellow soldiers. When their last meal is brought to them, they can mainly only talk desperately about futile plans for escape and the hopelessness of their plight. Then Corporal Paris (Meeker) looks down at a cockroach crawling across the table and says, “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead and it’ll be alive. It’ll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I’ll be nothing, and it’ll be alive.” Ferrol smashes the cockroach with his fist and says, almost dreamily, “Now you got the edge on him.”

We’re apt to laugh at the absurdism and grotesquerie of the moment — especially Timothy Carey’s deadpan delivery, as if he had a mouthful of mush and was soft-pedaling the phrase like Lester Young on his tenor sax.… Read more »

The Dead Girl

Unrelievedly grim, this searing second feature by TV actress Karen Moncrieff (Blue Car) guides an unusually able cast through a five-part feature that’s closer to a collection of interconnected short stories than to a novel. The episodes all revolve around the brutal murder of a young woman, and Moncrieff’s psychological and sociological perspective on the characters–and on the sickness and unhappiness that seem to bind them together–is almost always acute and never merely sensational. With Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Brittany Murphy, Kerry Washington, Giovanni Ribisi, Piper Laurie, Mary Steenburgen, and Josh Brolin. R, 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Breaking And Entering

Juliette Binoche won an Oscar for her role in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of The English Patient (1996), but in many ways I prefer her soulful performance here: portraying a Bosnian Muslim working as a tailor in London, she’s reason enough to see Minghella’s contrived though absorbing 2006 feature based on his original script. Jude Law (earnest but a bit overtaxed) plays a dissatisfied landscape architect living with a Swedish woman (Robin Wright Penn) and her troubled teenage daughter; his office in the King’s Cross area is twice burglarized by Binoche’s teenage son, and the complicated interactions involving class and culture that ensue between all these characters remain fascinating even when they seem overly schematic. (It’s too bad Minghella’s usual editor, Walter Murch, wasn’t around this time; some of the overly obvious crosscutting suggests the meddling of producer Harvey Weinstein.) R, 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

One Key Event & Two Key Scenes (March 2009)

Three brief entries commissioned by Chris Fujiwara and submitted in March 2009 for the updated Italian edition of his stupendous 2007 collection Defining Moments in Movies, entitled Cinema: 1000 Momenti Fondamentali. — J.R.

Key Event

Rossellini goes to India

Roberto Rossellini’s extended trip to India comes at the end of his richest period as a filmmaker in which his various staged encounters between fiction and non-fiction were most adventurous. At  the war’s end he was primarily concerned with the human devastation in Italy and Germany, but once he began working with Ingrid Bergman, with whom he was living after their affair busted up both their marriages, domestic issues came to the fore, particularly in such features as Europa 51, Voyage to Italy, and Fear. Other bold forays during this period include a feature about Saint Francis of Assisi, a comic fantasy called The Machine That Killed Bad People (about a still camera that turns its subjects into statues), and a direct-sound recording of a play starring Bergman, made at a time when all films in Italy were dubbed.

When he traveled to India at age 51, Rossellini worked concurrently on his masterpiece India Matri Buhmi (1959), a set of interlocking tales and commentaries which Jean-Luc Godard once called “the creation of the world,” and a ten-part television miniseries that was broadcast in both France and Italy the same year.… Read more »

Bless Their Little Hearts

Scripted and photographed by Charles Burnett and directed by his former film-school classmate Bill Woodbury, this wonderful neorealist look at a working-class black family in South Central LA (1984) is worthy of being placed alongside Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Passionately recommended. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

Secret Beyond The Door

Fritz Lang’s third thriller with Joan Bennett (after Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window), a Freudian version of the Bluebeard story, is probably the most psychoanalytically oriented of his features, and because it’s Lang, the murkiness is mainly a strength. Silvia Richards, who later worked on both Lang’s Rancho Notorious and King Vidor’s Ruby Gentry, is credited with the script, adapting a story by Rufus King. With Michael Redgrave and Ann Revere. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »