Monthly Archives: October 2008

Obscene

A tiresome film on an interesting subject, this 2007 documentary jives with fancy graphics and pop golden oldies as it profiles Barney Rosset, editor and publisher of the often scandalous Grove Press and Evergreen Review. The man who helped launch the career of Samuel Beckett is quickly overtaken by the one who operated a Soho literary salon while profiting as a porn merchant, and apart from noting Rosset’s wealthy Jewish-Irish origins, video makers Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg don’t give us much to differentiate him from someone like Hugh Hefner. A cable-TV interview of Rosset by Screw publisher Al Goldstein is given as much prominence as Rosset’s 1937 home movies of his trip through Europe, which suggests that swagger matters more than history or culture. There are more stupid sound bites than smart ones, but the directors don’t seem to care which is which. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Escaping the Numbers Racket (2008)

My sixth bimonthly column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, this ran in their April 2008 issue (No. 11). — J.R.

A personal highpoint for me at the 42nd annual voting session of the National Society of film Critics, held in early January, was successfully proposing two of the awards given that afternoon. One was for the best experimental film of 2007, which went to John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind — a beautiful 59-minute documentary about cemeteries and memorials in the U.S. commemorating political struggles, made by the writer-director of The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), a dedicated independent who might be described as an “amateur” filmmaker in the very best sense of the word (much as Jean Cocteau could be described in the same fashion). The other prize, the “Film Heritage Award,” went jointly “to Ford at Fox, a 21-disc box set from Fox Home Video” and “to Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive for the restoration of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and other independent films”. I should add that only the first of these two awards was my own idea; for the Film Heritage Award, I was simply conveying and arguing on behalf of the proposal of an absent member of the National Society of Film Critics, Dave Kehr (a critic who writes the excellent weekly DVD column for the New York Times).… Read more »

Among the Missing (Malraux’s ESPOIR versus Hawks’ ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS)

It’s a pity that André Malraux’s only film, a pre-neorealist feature about the struggle of his own Republican squadron in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, with a stirring original Darius Milhaud score — started in Barcelona in July 1938 (a few months after publishing his novel of the same title in France), suspended in January 1939 after the Franco Nationalists seized Barcelona, completed in the French Joinville studios just ahead of the German occupation, and finally released only after the Liberation, in 1945 — is virtually unknown today in the English-speaking world, even though a DVD of the restoration with English subtitles is available in France. James Agee compared its poetry to that of Homer, but it seems to have become a forgotten film in the U.S. since then.

I showed a couple of clips from the film in my World Cinema of the 1930s course last night, as a kind of irreverent and dialectical contrast to Howard Hawks’ dark and beautiful Only Angels Have Wings, shot almost simultaneously in Hollywood. Much as I love the Hawks film, which I would describe as profound hokum, I don’t think its ideological and colonialist trappings should be entirely ignored.… Read more »

Of Time and the City

It seems incredible that Terence Davies, the greatest living English filmmaker, has made only five features in two decades. His first documentary, a multifaceted, mesmerizing, and eloquent essay about his native Liverpool, is as autobiographical and as intensely personal as his Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), so that his evolution as a lapsed Catholic and as a homosexual are as operative here as his working-class background and his taste in music and cinema. Being made up chiefly of found footage, this film lacks the mise en scene of its predecessors, but it has the added benefit of Davies’ voice-over narration, which, thanks to his training and experience as an actor, has an enormous performative power. (Check out the witty way he conveys his disdain for the Beatles through his delivery of one of their best-known refrains.) 72 min. (JR)… Read more »

Synecdoche, New York

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) makes his directorial debut with this feature, but it seems more like an illustration of his script than a full-fledged movie, proving how much he needs a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry to realize his surrealistic conceits. Tortured and torturous, it centers on a theater director from Schenectady (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wins a MacArthur Fellowship but whose wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him; in response he tries to create a play that will represent his entire life experience, building a replica of New York City inside a warehouse. The usually resourceful Hoffman can’t sustain interest even after developing a receding hairline to make him resemble Jack Nicholson, and the other able players—Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, and Jennifer Jason Leigh—mainly tread water. R, 124 min. (JR)… Read more »

24 City

As evidenced by everything from Trouble the Water to WALL-E to Wendy and Lucy, the disastrous effects of unchecked capitalism may be the most urgent contemporary theme in movies. The brilliantly innovative Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke (Platform, The World, Still Life) has been able to create works of historical relevance partly because he considers this theme from the vantage point of a socialism that, far from being theoretical, is part of a complex lived experience. This beautiful and challenging documentary looks at a military factory in Chengdu that’s shutting down to make way for a luxury apartment complex, and in interviewing five former workers and three fictional characters (played by Joan Chen, Lu Liping, and his frequent collaborator Zhao Tao), Jia manages to convey how three generations are affected by this change. In Mandarin with subtitles. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

God as a Litigant

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Chambers’ may appeal after his suit against God is tossed out
BY CHRISTOPHER BURBACH
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER

You can’t sue God if you can’t serve the papers on him, a Douglas County District Court judge has ruled in Omaha.

Judge Marlon Polk threw out Nebraska Sen. Ernie Chambers’ lawsuit against the Almighty, saying there was no evidence that the defendant had been served. What’s more, Polk found “there can never be service effectuated on the named defendant.”

Chambers had sued God in September 2007, seeking a permanent injunction to prevent God from committing acts of violence such as earthquakes and tornadoes.

The senator said today that he is considering an appeal of Polk’s ruling.

“It is a thoughtful, well-written opinion,” Chambers said. “However, like any prudent litigator, I want to study it in detail before I determine what my next course of action will be.”

Polk dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, which means it can’t be refiled. But his ruling can be appealed.

Although the case may seem superfluous and even scandalous to others, Chambers has said his point is to focus on the question of whether certain lawsuits should be prohibited.

“Nobody should stand at the courthouse door to predetermine who has access to the courts,” he said.… Read more »

Two Ambitious Web Sites

1. The preceding four images, and apparently thousands more, come from moviemags.com, “the site of movie magazines,” which Chicagoan Bill Stamets has just alerted me to. The gaps are in some ways more awesome than the inclusions, and the taste may seem closer to zines and the Video Search of Miami than to the usual library indexes and bibliographies, but there’s still a lot of information squirreled away here, and the search engine certainly helps.

2. The other site, Moving Image Source, is already mentioned elsewhere on this site because they’ve been commissioning several articles from me, and because they’ve featured an article that I’ve recommended by Chris Fujiwara. (Actually, two articles if one includes a postscript about his more recent piece on Jacques Tourneur’s Stranger on Horseback—a piece I still like, though I wish I liked the film more.) But I’d like to call attention here to two other features there, Research Guide and Calendar, both of which are invaluable. Below are abbreviated versions of two items included in each:

Pinewood Dialogues
An archive with downloadable audio and transcripts of talks with filmmakers and actors, including Robert Altman, David Cronenberg, Mira Nair, Forest Whitaker, and more.

Millenium Film Journal
Published since 1978 by the Millenium Film Workshop, the Millenium Film Journal focuses on avant-garde cinema and practice, and covers a range of moving image technologies.… Read more »

Kenneth Fearing

Some wisdom from the last Depression, courtesy of Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961), taken from his 1935 Poems. (My apologies for not being able to transcribe the spacing more accurately.)

Dirge

1-2-3 was the number he played but today the number came 3-2-1;

bought his Carbide at 30 and it went to 29; had the favorite at Bowie but the track was slow —-

O, executive type, would you like to drive a floating power, knee-action, silk- upholstered six? Wed a Hollywood star? Shoot the course in 58? Draw to the ace, king, jack?

O, fellow with a will who won’t take no, watch out for three cigarettes on the same, single match; O, democratic voter born in August under Mars, beware of liquidated rails—-

Denoument to denouement, he took a personal pride in the certain, certain way he lived his own, private life,

but nevertheless, they shut off his gas; nevertheless, the bank foreclosed; nevertheless, the landlord called; nevertheless the radio broke,

And twelve o’clock arrived just once too often,

just the same he wore one gray tweed suit, bought one straw hat, drank one straight Scotch, walked one short step, took one long look, drew one deep breath,

just one too many,

And wow he died as wow he lived,

going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and biff got married and bam had children and oof got fired,

zowie did he live and zowie did he die,

With who the hell are you at the corner of his casket, and where the hell we going on the right-hand silver knob, and who the hell cares walking second from the end with an American Beauty wreath from why the hell not,

Very much missed by the circulation staff of the New York Evening Post; deeply, deeply mourned by the B.M.T.,

Wham, Mr Roosevelt; pow, Sears Roebuck; awk, big dipper; bop, summer rain; Bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.… Read more »

Happy-Go-Lucky (Vancouver International Film Festival)

Could Mike Leigh’s latest feature really be his “mellowest work yet,” as Alissa Simon maintained in her Variety review when it premiered in Berlin back in February? I guess it could seem that way if you focus on Sally Hawkins’ winning performance and factor out all the creepy characters in her orbit–including her nearly psychotic driving instructor (the terrifying Eddie Marsan, seen with her above), her pregnant sister, her flamenco dance teacher, and an incoherent tramp she encounters at one point (among others), most of whom are viewed as volatile monsters who are apt to explode at any moment. But for me this is probably Leigh’s scariest and bleakest movie since Naked, no less remote from any ordinary kind of realism (despite Hawkins’ frequent impression to the contrary) and packed with all sorts of disquiet, anxiety, and trouble. [10/5/08]

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A Note on Mass Murder as Child’s Play

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I don’t believe that Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, or Carter ever used the terms “good guys” or “bad guys” in public speeches, at least not without any trace of irony. Whether this started with Reagan, the first Bush, or the second, these terms have finally become coin of the realm in the campaign speeches of both McCain and Palin, seemingly as acceptable indexes of reality. If Obama and Biden have more recently used these terms unironically as well, out of some misplaced sense of self-defensiveness, then this may rule out the possibility that I’ve been idealistically entertaining, that Obama may be the first full-fledged grownup to have run for President in several decades.

I hasten to add that calling people you want to obliterate “bad guys” is hardly the same thing as calling Hitler and/or Stalin and what they stood for “evil”. The latter is an ethical position of some kind; the former is a reference to games played (and concepts played with) by children. And not being able to tell the difference between the two–which may bear some relation to not being able to tell the difference between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, or between any of the leaders deemed as “bad guys” and any of the civilians who would likely be the first to be hit by any bombs or missiles–is clearly related to a child’s desire to make contemporary warfare understandable in the same simplistic terms as Star Wars, thus helping to account for CNN logos and James Earl Jones intoning station identification.… Read more »

RR again (Vancouver International Film Festival)

2. 

 

Part of what makes James Benning’s masterpiece such a satisfying culmination of his prodigious work in 16-millimeter is the way it both clarifies and intensifies the tension in his work between formal and political preoccupations, which could also be described as his love-hatred for industrial waste–a near-constant in his work. 

You can find an excellent account of many of this film’s formal preoccupations from Kristin Thompson, who has just posted her comments on RR (seen at the same festival) here. (Page down a bit.) The political preoccupations of the film are partially outlined in Mark Peranson’s interview with Benning in Cinema Scope; they figure in some of the added sound materials (most obviously, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Our Land”), but even more crucially in the way many of the images (perhaps most notably the very last) manage to be both nostalgic and apocalyptic in the way they sum up what trains mean and have meant in relation to both American life and the American landscape. (As the interview suggests, sometimes the trains have to be understood not as parts of the landscapes but as despoilers of them.)

After one viewing, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what seems somehow part of American literature–akin to the work of writers like Sandburg, Wilder, and Dos Passos as well as that of American painters and musicians.… Read more »

RR (Vancouver International Film Festival)

Here is a link to the formidable cast list of James Benning’s RR, announced as his last work to be shot in 16-millimeter and seen last night at the Vancouver International Film Festival. I hope to follow with some more details about this beautiful epic soon. [10/3/08]

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On a favorite film review

From Sight and Sound (October 2008), in response to a poll query about what film criticism had had the greatest effect on me and inspired me to become a film critic — J.R.

From Penelope Houston’s review of Last Year in Marienbad in the Winter 1961-62 issue of Sight and Sound:

…And so she goes to the midnight meeting with the stranger, sits waiting rigidly for the clock to strike, leaves with him. But about this ending there is no sense of exaltation or relief. She goes because she has no choice, because for her all the possibilities have narrowed down to a single decision, but she has no idea where she is going. The stranger’s final words offer no comforting clue: “It seemed, at first sight, impossible to lose yourself in that garden… where you are now already beginning to lose yourself, for ever, in the quiet night, alone with me.” The film’s last shot is of the great chateau; and, with its few lighted windows, it no longer looks like a prison but like a place of refuge.

I read this review in my late teens, before I saw Resnais’ glorious masterpiece and quite a few years before I ever met Penelope.… Read more »

The Sun Also Sets [The Films of Nagisa Oshima]

From the October 2008 issue of Artforum. (This is also reprinted in my 2010 collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia.) — J.R.

No major figure in postwar Japanese cinema eludes classification more thoroughly than Nagisa Oshima. The director of twenty-three stylistically diverse feature films since his directorial debut in 1958, at the age of twenty-six, Oshima is, arguably, the best-known but least understood proponent of the Japanese New Wave that came to international prominence in the 1960s and ’70s (though it is a label Oshima himself rejects and despises). Given the size of his oeuvre and the portions that remain virtually unknown in the West — including roughly a quarter of his features and most of his twenty-odd documentaries for television — the temptation to generalize about his work must be firmly resisted.Read more »