Monthly Archives: March 2009

Hoberman in French & in English


It’s very good to have a selection of J. Hoberman’s film criticism finally available in French translation, so Emmanuel Burdeau should be commended for bringing out a French edition of Hoberman’s most recent (2003) collection, moderately priced at 14 Euros and translated by Marie Mathilde Burdeau, in his film book series published by Capricci (which has also published the wonderful Les Aventures de Harry Dickson —one of the first things I wrote about on this website). The only thing that gives me pause is that only 16 of Hoberman’s articles have been included in the French edition, leaving roughly 50 other pieces in the same book untranslated and unacknowledged in any way. (More precisely, this French edition includes only 14 of the 66 separate items in the original, though it adds two others.) This must be a reflection of the ongoing recession on both sides of the Atlantic—even if Hoberman’s given name has been upgraded in French from J. to Jim. [3/31/09]… Read more »

Correction of Previous Post

Hi Jon,
The photo is mine, provided years ago to Alabama Public Television when they were shooting “Rosenbaum House in Alabama” and to Debbie Wilson, who runs the Florence tourism promotion office. PBS picked it up when they did their FLLW series in 1999. The photo (yes, it is chez Rosenbaum) has been on the web in reverse since October 13, 1999. As in this instance, you can sometimes check the provenance of a website through the Wayback Machine ( http://web.archive.org). I never bothered to write to correct the error of the left to right reversal.

Love,
Alvin

P.S. A much better item on the PBS website is FLW’s rendering of the house. Find it at http://web.archive.org/web/20041229231416/www.pbs.org/flw/buildings/usonia/usonia.html
A

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Stanley Rosenbaum Residence: The Dream Version

Cruising on the Internet, I just accessed on the PBS website a photograph that purports to be an exterior view of the Usonian house that I grew up in, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Florence, Alabama. I got there by following a link on the Wikipedia entry for “Stanley Rosenbaum Residence”—an entry that incidentally includes an accurate view of the exterior, reproduced directly below:

I know my memory isn’t playing tricks on me—not only because I know the house by heart, after living there for the first 16 years of my life, but also because I visited it quite recently, earlier this month. The first photograph is clearly the exterior of another, albeit quite similar, Wright house, and I’m sorry that I’m not enough of a Wright expert (as my brother Alvin is) to be able to identify it precisely. If you look closely at the row of glass doors on the left in the second photograph, you can barely see the thin line of a stone terrace just underneath them that is remarkably similar to the one seen much more clearly in the top photograph that juts to the right in a diagonal line and then ends, with three steps just below it.… Read more »

Fredric Brown, Madness, and CRACK-UP

One of my favorite writers since childhood has been the prolific Fredric Brown (1906-1972), both for his mysteries and his science fiction. The former is much more plentiful than the latter—so much so that it’s been possible in recent years to publish practically all his science fiction in two thick hardcover volumes, From These Ashes (the short stories, 690 pages) and Martians and Madness (the novels, 633 pages). (The “madness” in the latter title partially relates to What Mad Universe, Brown’s best SF novel, as well as one of his very best SF stories, “Come and Go Mad”, although it also qualifies as an ongoing Brown theme in some of the mystery plots as well.)

On the other hand, it might take an AIG bonus to pay for all of Brown’s out-of-print mystery, crime, and detective fiction; some of the 19 or so limited-run paperback collections devoted to the stories that were published in the 80s and 90s now sell on the Internet for close to a thousand bucks apiece, and a few of the novels are comparably pricey.

Probably the two best known Hollywood features derived from Brown mysteries are Screaming Mimi (Gerd Oswald, 1958) and Crack-Up (Irving Reis, 1946)—the latter derived from a 1943 Brown novella called “Madman’s Holiday” that’s now available only in one of those limited-run paperbacks that currently sells for $995 and $950 on Amazon, hideous jacket (see below) and all.… Read more »

FLANNERY

FLANNERY: A LIFE OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR by Brad Gooch (New York/Boston/London: Little, Brown and Company), 2009, 449 pp.

So far, I’ve basically been reading in and around this book rather than reading it, so I can’t with a clear conscience make it “recommended reading”, at least not yet (something I can do for Wendy Lesser’s astute and very thoughtful review of it in a recent Bookforum). I can, however, pick a bone with what I consider a couple of significant omissions: neither the names “Nathanael West” nor “Stanley Edgar Hyman” appears in the Index. The latter, who wrote a superb monograph on O’Connor that was published in 1966 (no. 54 in the University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers), argues rather persuasively (on p. 43) that the “writer who most influenced [O'Connor], at least in her first books, is Nathanael West. Wise Blood is clearly modeled on Miss Lonelyhearts (as no reviewer noticed at the time),” and then goes on to cite four examples of her prose that amply bear this out: “Hazel Motes has a nose `like a shrike’s bill’; after he goes to bed with Leora Watts, Haze feels ‘like something washed ashore on her’; Sabbath Lily’s correspondence with a newspaper advice-columnist is purest West; and all the rocks in Wise Blood recall the rock Miss Lonelyhearts first contains in his gut and then becomes, the rock on which the new Peter will found the new Church.” (For further corroboration, there’s a favorable comment by O’Connor about West’s The Day of the Locust in a  1949 letter she wrote to a close college friend.) Significantly, Joyce Carol Oates’ mainly disappointingly routine review of the Gooch biography in the New York Review of Books briefly sparks some interest in its last three paragraphs when she deals with O’Connor as a “caricaturist” whose writing resembles “cartoon art”—a trait that clearly links O’Connor to West (although Oates doesn’t mention him).… Read more »

Addressing the Present (2009)

This is 11th one-page bimonthly column that I’ve published in Cahiers du Cinéma España. which runs in alternation with a column by the Australian critic Adrian Martin; it appeared in their March 2009 issue. — J.R.

Tomorrow I start teaching the final semester of a course and film series I’ve been offering at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute devoted to world cinema of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.  To provide a segue between the Depression of the 30s and the 40s, I’ll be starting with a double feature devoted to economic desperation, Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July (1940) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945).

Two of the most popular films I showed last fall were Lubitsch’s The Man I Killed (1932) and McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). I selected them before last year’s economic recession started, and the congruence and relevance of certain themes — remorse about warfare and spurious patriotism, crowded family apartments and neglect of the elderly — probably added to their appeal.  But the contemporary impact of films is always difficult to predict. I’m convinced that a significant part of what inspired Clint Eastwood to make Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima was the U.S.… Read more »

Britton on Film

From Film Comment (March-April 2009). — J.R.

Britton on Film

The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton

Wayne State University Press, $39.95

Even if you don’t agree with the claim in Robin Wood’s Introduction that Britton (1952-1994) “was, and remains, quite simply, the greatest film critic in the English language,” this hefty collection edited by Barry Keith Grant, 534 large-format pages long, certainly proves that Wood’s cantankerous Marxist disciple, who published mainly in Movie (U.K.) and CineAction (Canada), was a formidable figure. To my taste, the two best demonstrations of his intellectual and ethical strength are his separately published Katherine Hepburn: The 30s and After (1984), the best book-length study of a film actor that I know (misleadingly retitled Katherine Hepburn: Star as Feminist in its U.S. edition), and his passionate defense of Mandingo in Movie (1976), which single-handedly established that film’s importance amidst a chorus of jeers. And even if the absence of the first study from this book already makes its subtitle not quite accurate, the full range of Britton as both a polemicist and an analyst of everything from Detour to Madame de… to Jaws to Tout va bien is amply on display here.

One limiting factor here is the amount of space devoted to refuting such academic touchstones as Screen in the 70s and The Classical Hollywood Cinema — engaging with labyrinthine debates that seem less consequential now, at least to nonacademics like myself, than they did at the time.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: THE INVISIBLE DRAGON, revised & expanded edition

THE INVISIBLE DRAGON: ESSAYS ON BEAUTY (revised and expanded edition) by Dave Hickey (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press), 2009, 123 pp.

Fellow fans of art critic Dave Hickey should be alerted to the fact that an extensively upgraded edition of his 1993 book The Invisible Dragon has recently appeared that seems to be almost twice as long as its predecessor, with a new introduction and an additional essay, “American Beauty,” that’s considerably longer (over 50 pages) than any of the four essays in the first edition. Even if you find the new introduction, written entirely in the third person, a mite off-putting, the new essay reaffirms Hickey as a major critical voice and terrific prose stylist. I’m not sufficiently well-versed in art history to be able to judge it confidently on those terms, but the erudition on display is pretty daunting, to say the least.

I discovered Hickey thanks to film scholar Dudley Andrew through Hickey’s extraordinary 1997 collection Air Guitar (see below) a radically populist and semiautobiographical look at pop culture that remains a particular favorite–although I subsequently bought Hickey’s two collections of short stories, the 1989 Prior Convictions and the 1999 Stardumb, that I’m still intending to read.… Read more »

Never Too Late [on a Carl Dreyer retrospective]

Posted on Artforum‘s web site (March 12, 2009). — J.R.

One reason why it never seems like an inappropriate time to have a Carl Theodor Dreyer retrospective is that most of his films haven’t dated, even though reactions to his works have fluctuated quite a bit over the years. Based on my own experiences in recently showing his 1943 Day of Wrath to students, I would venture that fewer spectators nowadays are likely to regard the film’s slow tempo as intolerable the way that the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther did over sixty years ago. (“Dreyer has kept his idea so obscure and the action so slow and monotonous that the general audience will find it a bore,” he claimed.)

One might go further and argue that unlike most other film masters who started out in the silent era, Dreyer’s major works were not only cinematically ahead of their own times; without ever becoming quite contemporary, they’ve even remained slightly ahead of ours. There are multiple reasons for this, including his penchant for making highly personal adaptations of preexisting works, most of them period films; his dialectical camera movements, in which he simultaneously pans and tracks in opposite directions; and, during the sound era (when he was generally able to make only one feature per decade), his unorthodox preference for using direct sound inside studio settings.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: FRANKLY, MY DEAR

FRANKLY, MY DEAR: GONE WITH THE WIND REVISITED by Molly Haskell (New Haven/London: Yale University Press), 2009, 244 pp.

I’m glad that Armond White gave this book a favorable review in the New York Times, which it clearly deserves. But I wish he hadn’t muddied his kindness with lazy misinformation and lazier prose.

Misinformation: “Haskell gave up regular reviewing in the early ’90s, leaving criticism that seriously examined the big-screen image of women and the popular representation of female social roles to go underground — into academic studies where abstruse, tenure-seeking jargon is used to rebuff popular taste.” I’m not aware that Haskell ever left the kind of criticism White describes; unless one decides to make a very big deal out of her brief stint of teaching, she certainly didn’t go into “academic studies”, abstruse, jargony, or otherwise; and if White knows something that the rest us don’t about her rebuffing of popular taste, I wish he’d enlighten us further on this subject.

autant en emporte le vent

Prose: “Haskell inter­twines her own history with Mitchell’s Georgia background, Leigh’s British origins and Selznick’s Jewish American determination.” (Whenever White gets around to identifying Haskell’s abstruse, jargony rebuffing of popular taste, he might also explain what Jewish American determination consists of — unless Haskell explains this herself, which I doubt.… Read more »

Can a “Complete History of American Film Criticism” Exist?

The following is the 16th column I’ve written for Cahiers du Cinéma España, a bimonthly feature that I write for this magazine called “En movimiento,” translated into Spanish by Carlos Reviriego, the editor-in-chief; it appears in their March 2010 issue (no. 32). – J.R.

The bound galleys of a new book by Jerry Roberts (a name unfamiliar to me), 480 pages long, has just arrived in the mail, and its title already made me uneasy before I even looked inside: The Complete History of American Film Criticism. Santa Monica Press announces a publication date of April 1, 2010. Even though this appears to be a serious and careful work within its own limits, there are reasons at the outset for both defining and challenging these limits.

At least three separate problems are raised by three of the seven words in the title — “the,” “complete,” and “American”:

(1) Why “the” and not “a”? To suggest something definitive at the outset is already to fib — in the same way that I believe that Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound, fibbed, presumably without realizing it, in the Spring 2009 issue of Film Quarterly when he wrote, “The wonderful golden run of great international cinema in the 1990s that brought us the best of Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano, and Abbas Kiarostami, among many others, petered out several years ago.” Anyone who makes such a claim — even though, I’m sorry to say, this is a completely commonplace statement for a film critic to make — assumes in advance either that he or she has already seen every film ever made in the 1990s and is qualified at the present moment to evaluate them all, or that one can depend totally on the judgments (both current and lasting) made by programmers, distributors, and other writers.… Read more »

Trying to Compute DON’T COUNT ON YOUR FINGERS

Written for the Jeonju International Film Festival in March 2009. I can happily report that, according to Portabella, his DVD box set containing all or most of his films to date will finally be released later this year. — J.R.

My first problem in coming to terms with No Compteu Amb Els Dits (1967, 26 minutes), Pere Portabella’s first film, is my inability to distinguish between every one of what he himself identifies as its 28 separate fragments, each one reportedly lasting between 15 seconds and two minutes. Counting the segments myself — not with my fingers, but with a pen, a piece of paper, and a VCR — I come up with only 24, not 28 But then again, the only obvious ways of distinguishing one sequence from another are (a) changes in themes, characters, and/or settings, (b) changes in the music, (c) other changes in the soundtrack involving sound effects, dialogue, or narration, (d) switches between black and white and color (or vice versa), and (e) graphic transitions that are apparently similar to those used in Spanish commercials shown in cinemas during this period. And at one point or another, Portabella seems to defy most of these conventions by eliminating or obfuscating such markers.… Read more »