Monthly Archives: September 2008

Derek

If you’re already familiar with the experimental and queer cinema of English artist Derek Jarman (1942-1994), you won’t want to miss this multifaceted tribute by Isaac Julien. Built around a late interview with Jarman, it draws on a personal lecture by his actress and friend Tilda Swinton and many clips, homes movies, and other materials. On the other hand, if you’d like an introduction to his art, your time would be better spent seeing The Last of England, Edward II, or Wittgenstein. This tribute has too many cooks and too many agendas to permit easy comprehension, especially when it comes to distinguishing the brief, unidentified clips from the empathetic curlicues, voiceovers, and
commentaries of others. 76 min. (JR)

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Patti Smith: Dream of Life

I’d read enough about this documentary, made over 11 years by Steven Sebring, to know not to expect a concert film. What I was less prepared for was the paradoxical view of my favorite punk star that emerges, making her seem like the ultimate postmodernist heroine — the edgy outlaw that, to all appearances, has never been in even modest rebellion against any part of her family, and modulates from angry iconoclast to contented Detroit housewife and back again with scarcely a bump. (At one point she avows that her principal claim to being a taboo-breaker as a child-rearing launderer is that she doesn’t use bleach.) It seems fairly evident that she’s very much in control of her own image here, and that image manages to encompass a sense of a rock star’s glamor while suggesting that she’s never shampooed her hair even once in her life.

Maybe the source of my confusion is her unusual capacity to shift back and forth repeatedly between ultra-theatricality and mundanity, which made the only concert of hers I’ve ever attended, in London in the mid-70s, a little off-putting. One moment she’d be leading the audience like a Dionysian Joan of Arc; the next moment, she’d be sitting on the floor cross-legged, apparently oblivious to the same audience, while playing idly with her guitar as if it were a kitten rather than a musical instrument.… Read more »

History and Egotism: ME AND ORSON WELLES

Written for the FIPRESCI web site from the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival in September 2008. — J.R.

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The continuing mythological status of Orson Welles in the realm of cinephilia complicates the challenge of representing Welles on film in many different ways. It’s one of the clearest merits of Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, to have met and grappled responsibly with many if not all of the issues of this formidable challenge.

Working uncharacteristically with a script written by others — Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, adapting a novel by Robert Kaplow that I haven’t yet read — Linklater tells the story of a fictional high school teenager (played by Zac Efron, best known for his role as Link Larkin in the recent remake of Hairspray) in 1937 who by sheer chance lands a bit part as a lute player in Welles’s famous stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a highly edited modern-dress adaptation known as Caesar built around the conceit of the story taking place in contemporary fascist Italy, with a bare set illuminated by “Nuremburg” lighting. Linklater has obviously researched existing records of this production (which include photographs, a script published some years ago by Welles scholar Richard France, and at least two audio recordings of the play performed by essentially the same cast around the same time) in considerable detail.

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THE LUCKY ONES

Seeing Neil Burger’s ironically titled third feature at the Toronto Film Festival a few days ago, I gradually come to realize that Burger can be classified as an auteur insofar as his three vastly different features to date can all be related to the same theme: the means by which powerless people assume power. (For a consideration of his first two features — the 2002 Interview with the Assassin and the 2006 The Illusionist – one can read my Chicago Reader review of the later film here.)

Three wounded U.S. soldiers in The Lucky Ones (a film scheduled to open in the U.S. later this month), all traveling “home” from Iraq, played by Michael Peña, Rachel McAdams, and Tim Robbins (see above), have almost nothing in common with one another except for their war service, yet they wind up getting entangled with one another for practical as well as existential reasons, sharing a rented car. What we gradually come to realize is that the reason why they went to Iraq in the first place is subtly tied to the fact that they have nowhere to go now — which is why they wind up forming a temporary and makeshift family with one another.… Read more »

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, this beautiful documentary by John Gianvito (The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein) documents not only graves and memorials across the U.S. for people (both famous and unknown) who died in political struggles, but also the surrounding landscapes that nestle and sometimes hide these largely unremarked sites. The casual way Gianvito introduces us to these settings via sound and image, the varying cinematic means employed (including stretches of animation), and the powerful maximal effects he achieves from his supposedly minimalist agenda are all essential facets of the film’s haunting poetry. This was named best experimental film of 2007 by the National Society of Film Critics, but it also displays a strong passion for history–including film history, from Griffith, Stroheim, and Dovzhenko to Straub-Huillet. 58 min. a Gene Siskel Film Center. –Jonathan RosenbaumRead more »

Cinema versus TV News (2008)

This is the 8th bimonthly column I’ve published in Cahiers du Cinéma España; it ran in their September 2008 issue. — J.R.

Ever since I retired from my twenty-year stint as a film reviewer at the Chicago Reader, I’ve been reluctant to see new releases, either as a freelance reviewer or as an ordinary spectator. One reason for this attitude is a reaction to having been obliged for so long to see many hundreds of films I had no personal interest in, many of which I gratefully forgot about shortly after submitting my reviews. Another motivation is that I’m usually so happy seeing or reseeing older films, most often on DVD, that it’s hard to find many new films that are equally enticing.

Undoubtedly my age and physical laziness both play roles in this bias, but I honestly think that the diminishing quality of commercial releases also has a significant influence. I’m not saying that there’s been a decline in cinema more generally — apart from such factors as the eclipse of the Hollywood studios or (for example) the increasing censorship in Iran — because I think it’s arrogant to make such sweeping generalizations on the basis of the tiny fraction of what gets made that one has access to.… Read more »

A Reduced GIANT

One of my many disappointments in recently reseeing Giant (1956), George Stevens’ blunderbuss effort to preach tolerance to some of the more biased Republicans, is that the once-memorable and semi-audacious use of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” over the final credits — a very significant reprise of a song that plays over a climactic fistfight provoked by anti-Mexican behavior in the movie’s penultimate sequence — is no longer part of the movie on the DVD, presumably because the owners of the song rights demanded too much money. So one of the few facets of this overblown blockbuster that seemed slightly progressive in the mid-50s has been deleted.

Apart from this change, there’s a curious double standard in the way this movie regards prejudice against Mexicans. When it’s displayed throughout much of the film by the Texas patriarch hero, played by Rock Hudson, it may be lamentable and hypocritical but it’s also ultimately forgiveable and redeemable — especially once he rises to the defense of a Mexican family refused service in a diner in the aforementioned fisticuffs. But when the movie’s white-trash villain (James Dean) — a working- class malcontent and crybaby alcoholic who becomes a zillionaire after striking oil on his property — displays the same bias, it’s not only beyond redemption; it even incurs the Wrath of God, Who dramatically whips up a raging thunderstorm to express His indignant rage when this pathetic hick who refuses to stick to his own class also bars Mexicans from attending the festivities at the opening of an airport.… Read more »