Monthly Archives: April 2009

On WINSTANLEY

The British Film Institute’s Roma Gibson recently contacted me about reprinting a review of Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley (1976) that I included in my “London Journal” for Film Comment (January-February 1976) with the BFI’s forthcoming DVD release of the film. I responded by requesting that she substitute a couple of lines from my Time Out capsule review of the same period for the last couple of lines in my already somewhat hyperbolic Film Comment review, and she agreed.

I thought it might be instructive for me to reproduce that composite review and then juxtapose it here with “Time Traveler” — my April 23, 1999 Chicago Reader review of Winstanley and Brownlow’s preceding feature, It Happened Here, which explains some of the polemical context that provoked some of the hyperbole in my earlier reviews.  —J.R.

 

 

 

There’s really not much to be said for Winstanley, except that it’s the most mysteriously beautiful English film since the best of Michael Powell (which it resembles in no other respect) and the best pre-twentieth-century historical film I can recall since The Rise of Louis XIV [Rossellini] or Straub-Huillet’s Bach film [Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach]. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t help it.… Read more »

A Piece of Folk Wisdom from Little Rock

I had a very pleasant time this past weekend in Little Rock attending the Arkansas Literary Festival and promoting my collection Essential Cinema there, at a very well-attended session hosted by the editor-in-chief of the Oxford American, Marc Smirnoff. I also enjoyed gobbling a good many hush puppies at Flying Fish, a hangout not far from my hotel on the river front. There was even an hour or two on Sunday, after the rain slackened, when I could take an old-fashioned streetcar ride across the Arkansas River to North Little Rock and back. This is where my grandfather, Louis Rosenbaum, once operated a movie theater called the Princess, roughly between 1916 and 1918, before he moved with his wife and son to Florence, Alabama and continued his career in movie exhibition there for another four decades. (My father had a dim memory of taking a streetcar from North Little Rock to Little Rock to see Intolerance when he was in the first grade.)

The only sour note I can recall during the weekend was making the mistake of opening a local newspaper while having breakfast Saturday morning and reading the lead letter to the editor, opposite the editorial page. This letter maintained that (1) hallucinogenic drugs were and should be illegal and (2) the worst of these drugs was socialized medicine, which, in spite of the wistfully misplaced idealism and delusions of people who believed in it, never worked and couldn’t work.… Read more »

High and Low: Eisenstein’s IVAN THE TERRIBLE

Written for Criterion’s Current (web site), April 21, 2009. — J.R.

I recently had occasion to show Ivan the Terrible in a course on forties world cinema I’m teaching at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, and found it more mind-boggling than ever. This has always been the Eisenstein feature that’s given me the most pleasure — the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made as well as a showcase for the Russian master’s boldest graphics. But ever since I first saw it in the 1960s, this is a pleasure I’ve often had to apologize for, thanks to the vagaries and confusions of cold-war thinking. This thinking maintained that Eisenstein caved into Stalinist pressures, denounced the montage aesthetic that was central to his best work, and turned out an archaic, made-to-order glorification of a dictator.

Part of the problem has been reconciling the film’s multiple paradoxes — how much it functions as Eisenstein’s autocritique and apologia as well as an attack and glorification of Stalin, meanwhile combining elements of both high and low art at virtually every instant with its tortured angles and extreme melodrama. (Though portions of Part II could be termed inferior to Part I, the moment the film switches to color, using Agfa stock seized from the Germans during World War II, it moves into dizzying high gear, reminding us that Walt Disney was one of Eisenstein’s favorite filmmakers.) Some critics did take a slightly more nuanced view of things in Part II, but even a few of these writers, such as Dwight Macdonald, wound up adding homophobic invective to their charges, maintaining that Eisenstein’s homosexuality distorted his view of history — a dubious complaint that, as I later discovered, tended to oversimplify Eisenstein’s (bi)sexuality as well as the historical record.… Read more »

FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES: THE STORY OF AMERICAN FILM CRITICISM

Full disclosure: Gerald Peary’s 80-minute documentary accords me two sound bites — one near the beginning (about Manny Farber), the other towards the end (about internet criticism) — and one lingering look at this web site (specifically, my 2005 essay about Susan Sontag).

Overall I’m fundamentally in agreement with David Bordwell’s verdict about this film on his own web site, after seeing it recently in Hong Kong: “In all, For the Love of Movies offers a concise, entertaining account of mass-market movie criticism, and I think a lot of universities would want to use it in film and journalism courses.”

I’m writing this in one-sentence paragraphs because that’s pretty much Gerry’s discursive style and manner here, largely carried by the narration (delivered by Patricia Clarkson), for better and for worse. So — to expand my own discursive style here into two sentences, one of them fairly long — in the two or three minutes devoted to Manny Farber, unless you’ve already read and digested a couple of his key articles, you might wind up concluding that “termite art” has something directly to do with “low-budget crime melodrama,”  even though snippets of Farber’s prose and a couple of lines from a late onstage interview are also included.… Read more »

THE COMEDIAN (1957)

During my early teens, I watched Studio One fairly often, but Playhouse 90 went on too late for me to be able to watch it more than occasionally. So about two weeks prior to my 14th birthday, I missed The Comedian (1957), which I’ve just seen for the first time on a DVD compilation called The Golden Age of TV Drama – starring Michael Rooney in the title role as an abrasive, tyrannical TV  star, Mel Tormé as his weak-willed brother, Kim Hunter as the latter’s despairing wife, and Edmond O’Brien as the comedian’s harried scriptwriter, and powerfully directed by John Frankenheimer. (I initially thought that was Frankenheimer on the left in the publicity photo below, but a friend suggests that it’s more likely Edmond O’Brien.)

Frankenheimer was probably the only TV director in that period whom I recognized by name, and it was a name that I valued highly. (He shot his first film feature the same year, and by the time The Manchurian Candidate came out five years later, his auteurist stamp was already unmistakable—especially in his volatile way of doubling one’s view of the action via TV monitors, already apparent at the very beginning of The Comedian.) Even though it must have been very carefully blocked in advance, this overheated drama has a mise en scène that feels improvised, giving it a kind of headlong excitement (both in spite of and because of its excess) that would be unobtainable on film, at least in the same fashion.… Read more »

Portabella and Continuity

The following essay was commissioned by Pere Portabella himself in 2009 when he was planning to include some written materials with a DVD box set of his complete works — a box set that he eventually decided to release four years later without any written material. This essay has subsequently appeared in my 2010 collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia and, in Spanish translation, in El mundo in March 2013.  — J.R.

Filmmakers who reinvent the cinema for their own purposes generally operate under certain distinct handicaps. In a few privileged cases (Griffith, Feuillade, Chaplin, Hitchcock) it’s the cinema itself, as art form and global institution, that winds up readjusting to the reinvention. But what happens more often is either a prolonged banishment of the filmmaker’s work from public awareness or a protracted series of misunderstandings until (or unless) the new rules are recognized, understood, and assimilated.

In the case of Pere Portabella, where some of the principles of production, distribution, and exhibition have been reinvented along with some concepts of reception, the frequent time lags between completed projects have only exacerbated some of the difficulties posed to uninitiated viewers. Interestingly, these difficulties have relatively little to do with an audience’s receptivity to the films themselves and a great deal to do with an audience discovering the very fact of their existence.Read more »

Sexism in the French New Wave

From Film Quarterly (Spring 2009). — J.R.

 

One way of looking back at the sense of male privilege underlying much of the French New Wave would be to consider Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) as a belated commentary on it. I’ve long regarded that masterpiece as a late-blooming, final flowering of the New Wave, especially for its referentiality in relation to cinephilia and film criticism. For one thing, it glories in the kind of compulsive doubling of shots and characters that François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette himself all discovered in Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. But it also puts a kind of stopper on the New Wave in the way it both underlines and responds to that movement’s sexism through the services of its four lead actresses, all of whom collaborated on its script: Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, and Marie-France Pisier. Every male character, both in the story proper and in the film-with-in-the-film, is viewed as absurd, both as a romantic fop and as a narcissist who ultimately elicits the heroines’ scorn and ridicule: the patriarch (Barbet Schroeder) in the Phantom Ladies over Paris segments, playing his two phantom ladies (Ogier and Pisier) off against one another; and, in the story proper, Julie’s small-town suitor (Philippe Clévenot), Céline’s boss (Jean Douchet), and various male customers at the cabaret.Read more »

Trial and Error (on Jim McBride)

This was written for Artforum‘s web site, and appeared there April 3, 2009. — J.R.

A considerable part of what’s most fascinating and enjoyable about Jim McBride’s early films is also what’s most dated and therefore forgotten about them. So it seems pertinent that McBride’s first two films, David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and My Girlfriend’s Wedding (1969), an especially (and provocatively) dialectical twosome, are available on a DVD released in the UK by Second Run (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes) but can’t be found on their home turf.

The first of these movies virtually launched the American pseudo-documentary long before postmodernist skepticism ungracefully redubbed the form “mockumentary” (and only a couple years after Peter Watkins’s more earnest pseudo-documentaries Culloden [1964] and The War Game [1965], made for the BBC). The title hero (L. M. Kit Carson) — a compulsively diaristic filmmaker who offers his own life for inspection, scaring away his girlfriend in the process — is, like McBride himself, smitten with the textures of the present moment, which ultimately makes him a doomed figure. Some 1960s audiences found him so compellingly believable that they could even accept Holzman, in the final sequence, having lost his Éclair and Nagra, reduced to recording his face and voice in a penny arcade — even though it is left unexplained how these abject substitutes could get conveyed to us on film.… Read more »