Monthly Archives: December 2008

Revisiting THE GODFATHER

This was written in December 2008, after Dana Linssen, the editor-in-chief of the independent Dutch film monthly  de Filmkrant, sent out a request early that month for contributions to what she called a “Slow Criticism” dossier, to appear in their special English-language newspaper at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in late January. I revived it in 2011 as my own contribution to the avalanche of journalism that had been appearing about Pauline Kael, capped by Frank Rich’s lengthy piece in the New York Times; it’s also included in my most recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, where it concludes the book’s penultimate section, “Films,” just before its final section, “Criticism”. There isn’t a piece about Kael in the final section, but this broadside helps to explain why.

One aspect of  recent journalism about Kael that seems to confirm the provinciality of American film criticism in general is the tacit assumption that “the world of film” in the U.S. is somehow (and automatically) coterminous and equivalent to global film culture — unless the assumption is simply that global film culture is too esoteric and inconsequential a subject to be worthy of discussion in the U.S. But it’s worth stressing that outside the English-speaking world, Kael’s critical status was and is pretty limited.Read more »

Two Nervy End-of-the-Year Pictures

I’m still doping out what I think of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Gran Torino, although I did see the latter in time and liked it enough to slip into some of my end-of-the-year ten-best lists. (Since my thoughts and inclinations tend to change over time, I’m reluctant to keep recycling the same list every time I’m asked for one.)

Having just seen Benjamin Button, I still don’t know whether I might have included it in any of my lists, but I have to admit that I suspect I already prefer it to all of Fincher’s other films, with the possible exception of Se7en. It took me a while to warm to the weird premise and some of the grotesqueries it involves, but I think part of what impresses me is how nervy it is in playing out the poetry of the conceit for all that it’s worth and letting all the social-historical elements—from two world wars to Hurricane Katrina (and not overlooking the degree to which it sidesteps all the racial issues)–take a back seat to the love story. It’s also more impressive to me visually than Fincher’s other works. Whatever one concludes about the story and all its ramifications, he certainly knows how to fill a frame.… Read more »

On the Web: Cinema Treasures

Thanks to a post by , I’ve just discovered the existence of a remarkable site cataloging almost 23,000 movie theaters around the world, including all nine of those in northwestern Alabama that were owned and/or operated by my grandfather between roughly 1919 and 1960, only a couple of which are still standing today (neither of which still shows movies). There’s also quite a lot of factual information about these theaters available on this site.

Cinema Treasures also features almost 1600 photographs of theaters, though, alas, not any of the nine run by my grandfather. It seems that the people in charge of this site got inundated with more photos of theaters than they could cope with, so they’re not currently adding any more, at least for the time being. But since a good many photos of my family’s former theaters are available in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), I’ve decided to reproduce a few here, restricting myself to exterior views of four of them. Directly overhead are the two that are still standing—the Shoals in Florence (which opened in 1948, and is seen here just after it opened) and the Ritz in Sheffield (which opened in 1928).… Read more »

Recommended Reading: Sadeq Hedayat’s THREE DROPS OF BLOOD

I find it curious that the great Iranian prose writer Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951) should remind me so much of Edgar Allan Poe, because their backgrounds couldn’t be more dissimilar. Poe (1809-1849) was poor his entire life and Hedayat came from a very wealthy and privileged background; Poe lived in several American cities but never left the U.S. whereas Hedayat lived for extended periods in Belgium, France, and India as well as Iran.

Before the recent publication of Three Drops of Blood, a collection of Hedayat stories, I’d read only his novella The Blind Owl (1936), one of the most terrifying and unsettling horror stories I know, as well as a few of his other stories in French. It seems that most of his work is (or at least has been) available in French, but until the appearance of this slim anthology, The Blind Owl–freely if brilliantly adapted by Raul Ruiz in one of his craziest features, La Chouette Aveugle (1987)–has been virtually the only thing of his available in English. (12/25 postscript: Adrian Martin has just informed me that one can access many Hedayat stories in English translation, including The Blind Owl, for free here.Read more »

THE STRANGER’S RETURN (1933)

What a pleasurable experience it is to pass directly from a slew of end-of-the-year screeners, most of which I can’t watch to the end, to a 1933 King Vidor opus that still isn’t commercially available on DVD. (According to Scott Simmon, Raymond Durgnat’s coauthor on King Vidor, American [1988], this is Vidor’s most underrated movie; Durgnat opts for Ruby Gentry.) A characteristic virtue of this character-driven adaptation of a Phil Stong novel set in farming country is a shot devoted to a dog wandering into a Sunday morning church service during the sermon, noticing that the place is full, and gradually sitting down under one of the pews. It’s the sort of inessential detail that I wouldn’t expect to find in any contemporary movie. I have no way of knowing whether or not this was scripted, but considering how little it has to do with the plot, I suspect it wasn’t—that Vidor happened on such a shot as an afterthought. Apart from the economy of 30s features, this sort of meandering poetry seems increasingly rare in today’s movies. [12/20/08]… Read more »

Elizabeth Drew on FROST/NIXON

Given my overall admiration for Elizabeth Drew as a sensible and straightforward political commentator, I’m happy to have her account in The Huffington Post of what’s dishonorable about the historical distortions of the recent Frost/Nixon movie. Even though I enjoyed the latter as middlebrow entertainment in the Stanley Kramer mode, which goaded me into ordering and watching some of the original David Frost/Richard Nixon dialogues—generally finding Ron Howard as a director to be one of the abler purveyors of this kind of  dubious material, which I sometimes have a weakness for—it’s always useful to have someone like Drew pointing out the various misrepresentations.

Why, then, can’t I count on Drew to sidestep the grotesque Hollywood distortions about Nixon that automatically come with seeing him as “a tragic Shakespearean figure”—an absurd inflation that appears to have been invented by either Oliver Stone or his publicist (assuming that there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between the two) as part of the promotional campaign for his 1995 White Elephant Nixon starring Anthony Hopkins?

For me, there’s something unnerving about the way Nixon (the person) has been absurdly elevated and even validated in this cheesy fashion in order to sell a ridiculously overheated piece of merchandise, which Drew is all ready to buy into without blinking.… Read more »

DVD Beaver’s New Toolbar

The energetic and resourceful Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver has recently created a DVD Beaver Toolbar that, among many other useful features (such as listing the current temperature anywhere in the world–e.g., in Chicago right now, “25̊̊ F, few clouds, feels like 17̊̊”), includes a link to this web site, under Cinephilia (which so far includes only four other entries). You can also get notified about new emails, access some radio stations, and be routed to various film-related forums with this gizmo. [12/11/08]… Read more »

Notes on Charles Burnett

Commissioned in December 2008 by London’s National Film Theatre or the South Bank — I can’t recall now which of these appellations it was using then — for a small Burnett retrospective. These notes were written according to precise specifications, as indicated in the word lengths mentioned below. — J.R.

Charles Burnett

1. 35-word stand first

Versatile yet focused, Charles Burnett offers an in-depth portrait of the ghetto community he grew up in, South Central Los Angeles, in an oeuvre that’s both witty and tragic, continuing to expand and surprise us.

 

2. 350-word introduction

Born in Mississippi in 1944 but raised in Watts, Charles Burnett is a filmmaker as steeped in his community as William Faulkner was in his. But he hails from an invisible community, so it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the supreme living masters of American cinema should also be among the slowest to gain recognition.

That he’s worked memorably for both Miramax (The Glass Shield, 1994) and the Disney channel (Nightjohn, 1996) has only helped to give him a scattered and confused mainstream profile, typically omitting such bold independent experiments as The Final Insult (a 1997 digital video about the homeless, mixing documentary, fiction, and poetry) and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (a 2003 TV essay that fictionalizes and dramatizes many conflicting versions of its title figure — a Virginia slave who led a 1839 revolt that slaughtered 59 whites).… Read more »

Campaign and Post-Campaign Mode (THE ORDER OF MYTHS and MILK)

Now that it’s winter, it shouldn’t be surprising that a large part of the American populace seems locked into some sort of hibernation mode–a state of mind that suggests that virtually all of the country’s problems can be blamed on George W. Bush and virtually none of them can be blamed on the people who voted for George W. Bush. But a more immediate problem is one that involves adjusting to the fact that the very long and recently concluded presidential campaign is no longer in operation. Milk addresses a mindset I would associate with campaign agitprop mode, a mindset that forsakes nuanced and complex analysis for the sake of immediate uplift; The Order of Myths addresses us in a more analytical mode. Of course, given the outlawing of same-sex marriage in California in the last election, an election-mode form of agitprop may be more functional at the moment, at least where homophobia is concerned, but this doesn’t necessarily entail more thoughtful filmmaking.

As nearly as I can remember, Mobile is the only city in Alabama of any significant size that I never visited during the first 16 years of my life, when I was growing up in that state—nor have I ever made it to Mobile since.… Read more »

American Self-Scrutiny, Writ Large

“I just don’t think America’s ready for a black president. And I don’t mean that in a racial way whatsoever.” (McCain supporter, quoted by Matt Taibbi in “Requiem for a Maverick” in the November 27 Rolling Stone)… Read more »