Yearly Archives: 2009

As seen from the U.K., “American Cinema”

Thanks to John Iltis, the estimable dean of Chicago film publicists, here is a link to a rather eye-opening piece from a few days ago by the London Telegraph‘s Sukhdev Sandhu about changes in Anglo-American film culture over the past decade. Some of the thoughts here seem to corroborate a few of my own recent observations about respective differences — a widening rift, really — in the reception and perception of both Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in the U.K. and the U.S. (in the latter case in particular, the cross-referencing of Heath Ledger’s character with Tony Blair). –J.R.… Read more »

Robin Wood’s Final Top Ten

Thom Loree, one of Robin Wood’s dearest friends, has sent me the following, and kindly given me permission to reproduce it here. This list was dictated to Robin’s friend John Anderson two days before he died. (Correction, 1/7/10: Thom has informed me that he misunderstood the date; this list was in fact composed “a few weeks” before Robin died, not  two days, although he was already “gravely ill at the time”.) Rio Bravo was clearly in the number one slot; the others weren’t ranked, and are given in the order in which he dictated them. –J.R.

Rio Bravo

Either I Can’t Sleep or I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Robin wasn’t articulating well, but probably the former)

Sansho Dayo

Tokyo Story

Ruggles of Red Gap or Make Way for Tomorrow

Code inconnu

The Reckless Moment or Letter from an Unknown Woman

Angel Face (something of a surprise, this)

The Seven Samurai

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange or La Règle du jeu

Thom adds: “No Hitchcock, curiously enough.”








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Ten Best Lists, 1972-1976

A list of lists, the first in a series of six, first posted on December 21, 2009. Some time ago, Eric Johnson kindly went to the trouble of compiling many of my old ten-best lists and placing them on his web site. I’ve pasted these in here with some corrections regarding sources and precise titles, and added a few others. (Beware of a few anomalies and oddities below, such as the films by Mizoguchi and Renoir that I’d happened to see those years in London. I’m sure I must have had some polemical slant in mind, but I’m no longer able to define this slant more than vaguely.)

In mid-June 2015, I’ve just discovered that Charley Varrick, #7 in my Village Voice list of 1973, was originally misspelled by me as Charlie Varrick. Having just reseen this very impressive masterpiece on a new German Blu-Ray, I can only add that it deserves a lot more recognition than I was able to give it at the time. — J.R.

The Village Voice, 1972 (ranked):

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
(Luis Buñuel)
L’amour fou (Jacques Rivette)
The Central Region
(Michael Snow)
Such Good Friends
(Otto Preminger)
Phantom India (Louis Malle)
Umbracle
(Pere Portabella)
Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertrolucci)
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (Jonas Mekas)
Fat City (John Huston)
Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock)

The Village Voice, 1973  (ranked):

Playtime
(Jacques Tati)
A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Who is Beta?Read more »

Roman Polanski and The Catastrophe of Public Discourse

Almost two months ago, while I was in Vienna, helping to launch my film series “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” Der Standard commissioned the following article from me. Since they still haven’t run it, I’ve decided to post it here, spurred in part by an excellent article by David Walsh on a related subject that Christa Fuller has just brought to my attention. —J.R.

Roman Polanski and The Catastrophe of Public Discourse

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

The recent arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland, on charges for fleeing to France 31 years earlier before standing trial for illegal sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, was obviously a notable news item. But that alone could hardly have accounted for the indignant outcries from the American press and blogosphere about the nature of Polanski’s crime and the justice of his arrest.

Why should the case of Polanski be considered more relevant to the present moment than the multiple war crimes of Dick Cheney, for instance? And even though Bernie Madoff was arrested and incarcerated for his massive financial swindles, what about the many other criminals in and around Wall Street and Washington, D.C. who continue to be rewarded rather than punished — not to mention torturers of innocent people, war profiteers, and racist hate mongers?… Read more »

A Quote from a Famous General

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
–Dwight D. Eisenhower, from a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953

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WINTER DREAMS: Fitzgerald Meets Frankenheimer (& Sternberg & Cassavetes)

1957 was clearly a bumper year for John Frankenheimer on Playhouse 90: the eleven shows that he directed included The Ninth Day (January 10, the only one I can faintly recall having seen at the time), The Comedian (February 14), The Last Tycoon (March 14), and then a second F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, which I’ve just seen for possibly the first time, Winter Dreams (May 23), costarring John Cassavetes and Dana Wynter. (That’s Phyllis Love, another costar, in the above illustration.) All of which probably helps to explain why I considered Frankenheimer an auteur before I ever used that term, during my early teens, for his work on Studio One as well as Playhouse 90.

As masterful in way as The Comedian and The Last Tycoon, Winter Dreams departs from Fitzgerald’s material a lot more than The Last Tycoon by concentrating on the sort of details that the original story leaves out, involving (for instance) the hero’s parents and college room mate, and by ending many years before the story does. (The script is by James B. Cavanagh.) The tone is quite different, too; Fitzgerald’s 1922 story is a reverie whereas the adaptation is much more obviously obsessional.… Read more »

The Undermining of Intimacy: HOME and EVERYONE ELSE

It’s been over five months since I submitted this brief article to FIPRESCI for their web site, at their (characteristically urgent) request, in mid-June, just after attending the Seattle International Film Festival as a member of the FIPRESCI jury. It seems pretty certain by now that they won’t be running it, because Seattle isn’t even listed among the fourteen “coming soon” festival reports currently promised on their site.This is basically why I’m running it here — so it won’t go to waste. — J.R.

The Undermining of Intimacy: Home and Everyone Else
By Jonathan Rosenbaum

As different as they are in other respects, one interesting facet shared by two tragicomic European features included in the New Directors Showcase at the Seattle International Film Festival, Ursula Meier’s Home (2008) and Maren Ade’s Alle Andersen (Everyone Else, 2009), is that they both show the gradual deterioration of intimate relationships that starts to occur between or among individuals in isolation from “everyone else”, after they start to become less isolated. In both cases, contact with the outside world seems to operate as a kind of contamination, although the possibility is posed in each case that the
sickness is already present from the outset, but needs the objectification provided by the outside world in order to become fully evident.… Read more »

A Serious Man

Since I’m no longer a regular reviewer and never have been much of a fan of the Coen brothers’ special brand of scornful, smart-ass caricature, I’ve been slow in catching up with A Serious Man, which turns out to be one of their most interesting (not to mention most serious, or at least most “serious”) movies. Even though they’ll never come nearly as close to Franz Kafka as Kubrick does in the costume-shop sequences of Eyes Wide Shut, there’s something about their taste for surrealist nightmare that flourishes here when it’s tied to a sense of Jewish misery and doom; and even though their sense of period here is as post-modernist-faulty as it’s ever been, and some of their weirder forays are plainly misfires (e.g., the precredits sequence), their personal take on what it meant to be Jewish in Minneapolis in the 60s still carries a certain charge.

As for their penchant for stylistic pastiche, what’s most striking to me about the behavioral freakishness and geekiness on display here is the degree to which they seem to derive in this case from a non-Jewish model — specifically, David Lynch’s very WASPy Eraserhead. (If memory serves, the only other time that the Coens went in for Jewish stereotypes was in Barton Fink, and then their principal stylistic guides, Polanski and Kubrick, were both Jewish and specifically Eastern European in their gallows humor.) The clearest sign of this appropriation is the way Amy Landecker’s super-seductive Mrs.… Read more »

Bright Star


What’s most disconcerting about Jane Campion’s affecting evocation of Fanny Brawne and John Keats, which I caught up with tonight in Edinburgh, is that it has an exquisite soundtrack for me — erotic, tactile, essentialist in the best sense — only when Keats’ poetry remains unheard. Whether it’s being recited by Ben Wishaw as Keats or by Abbie Cornish as Brawne, the issue isn’t how or how well it’s being recited, which I have no particular quarrels with, but the fact that it gets recited at all. I was admittedly grateful in a way to hear Wishaw recite all of “Ode to a Nightingale” over the final credits, despite the distracting musical accompaniment, even while a good half of the audience was leaving the theater, because there, at least, it wasn’t competing with Campion’s filmmaking.  But I’m less sure about the other employments of Keats’ writing in the film, even though the letters arguably seem more justifiable than the poetry, at least from a narrative standpoint.

 

One of Campion’s strongest suits has always been her eroticism, and the best part of A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times (as it often is, for him as well as for Manohla Dargis) comes not in the review proper but in the squib at the end appended to the MPAA rating: “It is perfectly chaste and insanely sexy.” Amen.… Read more »

The Unknown Statue

Written for Moving Image Source and posted online November 6, 2009. — J.R. It’s fascinating to consider the possibility that the essential film oeuvres of both Alain Resnais and Chris Marker commence with the same remarkable, rarely seen essay film from 1953 — a film whose direction is co-signed in the credits by Resnais (also credited for editing), Marker (script and conception), and Ghislain Cloquet (cinematography). (Cloquet [1924-1981], who went on to shoot most of Resnais’s other major films until his own camera assistant, Sacha Vierny, basically replaced him, also subsequently shot major films by Jacques Becker, Robert Bresson, André Delvaux, Jacques Demy, Marguerite Duras, Louis Malle, and Roman Polanski.) And it’s no less fascinating (and significant) to ponder the implications of the fact that the only Oscar-winning film of Resnais’s career came five years before this neglected early peak. The film in question was the 1948 documentary Van Gogh, and in keeping with the Academy’s procedures, the Oscar went not to Resnais, again the director and editor, but to the producer, Pierre Braunberger. Largely because I prefer to look at paintings from static vantage points and with my own itineraries, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with Resnais’s exploratory camera movements here and in Paul Gauguin and Guernica (both 1950).… Read more »

Orson Welles’ Failure vs. David Thomson’s Success (updated, 10/25)

It’s obvious by now that David Thomson is never going to relinquish his unwarranted and unvarying baseline assumption about Orson Welles (see his column in today’s Guardian) that he was a failure whose life and career consisted of nothing but “decline”. Why? Because what Thomson means by success is precisely what he’s achieved himself: uncontroversial popularity and acclaim, taking popular and comforting positions that irritate no one except for a few diehards like me. If failure actually means failure to tell people what they already think and failure to support what they already believe, then I can only agree — Welles was a failure through and through. Unlike Thomson, a glorious success whose career can be described only as continuous ascent into the stratosphere. If only Welles could have turned himself into a David Thomson, goes the apparent assumption, then everybody would be happy. [10/23/09]

Postscript (10/25/09]: In a state of relative calm, I’ve just reread Thomson’s column, and can see that, okay, he’s trying to imply that Welles might have conceivably been happy when he died even without having millions in the bank. Fair enough. But his insufferable pose of pseudo-knowingness about matters he knows little or nothing about, which also suffuses every page of his Welles biography, continues to gall me.”He died, alone and broke, in a cottage in the Hollywood hills…” Has Thomson ever been there?… Read more »

Shirin

One of Abbas Kiarostami’s trickiest and most radical experimental works, this fascinating 2008 feature focuses on women spectators of a movie that we hear but don’t see—a lush and seemingly action-packed drama adapted from a famous Persian medieval poem by Nazami Ganjavi, “Khosrow and Shirin.” Typical of Kiarostami’s mastery as an illusionist is that he created the offscreen soundtrack himself, but only after he’d shot close-ups of Juliette Binoche and 112 Iranian film actresses watching the fictional film. (The makeshift audience contains some males too, but they’re never featured.) It’s as if Kiarostami had capitulated to the requests of his friendly critics that he make a movie with stars and an easy-to-follow story, then perversely turned the movie into a nonnarrative film. In Farsi with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Dialogue about Abbas Kiarostami’s SHIRIN

The following piece appeared in the October 22, 2009 issue of the Chicago Reader. Due to a technical error which was belatedly corrected (in March 2010), the Reader omitted Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s name as coauthor, but I’ve restored it here. — J.R.

Shirin

Kiarostami Returns

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa discuss the Iranian master’s first film to screen in Chicago since 2002.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Introduction

It’s been six years since Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and I published Abbas Kiarostami (University of Illinois Press), about Iran’s most famous and most controversial filmmaker. The book combined the perspectives of myself, an American film critic with a Jewish background, and Mehrnaz, an Iranian-American filmmaker and teacher with an Islamic background, on Kiarostami’s films, which are neither narrative features nor documentaries but something in between. Where Is the Friend’s House? (1986), Close-Up (1990), Life and Nothing More . . . (1992), Through the Olive Trees (1994), Taste of Cherry (1997), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) keep altering the balance between what’s actually seen in a story and what’s implied or imagined, and this is part of what continues to make Kiarostami such a contested and fascinating figure. Building, perhaps, on his talent as a visual artist (he’s a photographer, painter, and graphic artist) and his interest as a chronicler of Iranian life, he’s been a nearly constant innovator in both form and subject matter.Read more »

BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

On the Riviera, an American multimillionaire (Gary

Cooper) with many ex-wives meets and romances the

daughter (Claudette Colbert) of a ruined Marquis

(Edward Everett Horton) and proposes marriage;

after she accepts, she learns about his former wives

and refuses to consummate their marriage, baiting

him with a string of pretended infidelities (including

one with a very young David Niven). This is an uncharacteristic

comedy of Ernst Lubitsch by virtue of its relative cruelty

and unpleasantness, both of which seem ascribable in

part to the writing team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

-– who would later show similar traits in their scripts for

such noncomic films as The Lost Weekend (1945) and

Sunset Boulevard (1950) -– adapting here a not-very-

well-known French farce by Alfred Savoir, La huitième

femme de Barbe-Bleue. Paradoxically, 34 years later,

working with I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder would remember certain

aspects of this film -– above all, the depiction of an

obnoxious and wealthy American abroad and a tense

romantic dialogue conducted on a float in the Mediterranean

— in the much sweeter and clearly Lubitsch-inspired

Avanti!Read more »

Recommended Reading: By and About Lindsay Anderson

NEVER APOLOGISE: THE COLLECTED WRITINGS by Lindsay Anderson, edited by Paul Ryan, London: Plexus, 2004, 612 pp.

MOSTLY ABOUT LINDSAY ANDERSON by Gavin Lambert, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, 384 pp.

I’ve never considered myself a particular fan of Lindsay Anderson, either as a filmmaker or as a film critic, so what am I doing recommending these two books? I wound up reading the Lambert memoir, which I now regard as perhaps Lambert’s most affecting book, for what it had to say about Nicholas Ray, but what it has to say about Anderson turned out to be pretty moving and compelling as well. And then running across a copy of Anderson’s collected film criticism, quite by chance, in a New York Barnes & Noble outlet last month eventually encouraged me to order a copy from Amazon U.K., which turned up today. Judging from the sampling that I’ve done so far, I don’t expect to agree with very much in it, but this is beside the point: as a mammoth film chronicle covering several decades, it seems comparable in importance, simply as a historical artifact, to the more recent Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, with plenty of flinty iconoclasm in its own right, as its title suggests.… Read more »