Monthly Archives: May 2009
Alas, the fact that you can’t access the Spring 2009 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review online means that a good many people, including other Welles fanatics, won’t bother to hunt it down in bookstores or order it online. But this is a pity, because “Treasures from the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan: Letters and Memos Mainly on Macbeth,” compiled and introduced by Catherine L. Benamou, is an important step forward in Welles studies. The two massive collections of “written, illustrated, recorded, and photographic materials pertaining to the writer-actor-director’s artistic career from around 1931 to 1985,” “totaling some one hundred linear feet,” have been in place for about five years now, even though they’re still being catalogued, and I’m proud to say I was the very first “outside” scholar who paid them a visit when I selected the photographs used on the cover of my most recent book, Discovering Orson Welles (University of California Press, 2007).
These two collections consist of the Welles-related papers of (a) Richard Wilson, associate producer of Mercury Theatre projects starting with Too Much Johnson in 1938 and continuing until Wilson became a film director in his own right in the 1950s, and (b) Oja Kodar, Welles’ companion, muse, and major collaborator over the last two decades of his life and career, a sculptress who worked on his films in multiple capacities (though chiefly as writer and actress).… Read more »
A wealthy young Englishman (Ben Barnes) marries an American widow he meets in France (Jessica Biel) and brings her back to his family estate, causing various kinds of havoc. Noel Coward’s drawing-room comedy was loosely adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928 but is seldom revived these days; assigning it to Australian cult filmmaker Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) seems perverse, but if you’re looking for a simple-minded farce with campy overtones, this 2008 feature might be your dish. Elliott retains the 20s setting, improbably makes the widow a sports-car racer from Detroit, drastically changes the plot in other ways, adds lots of tunes by Coward and Cole Porter (along with more recent hits like “Car Wash”), and awkwardly introduces a few gags involving a dead dog. The only characters who seem anchored in some form of reality are the hero’s parents (Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth) and former fiancee (Charlotte Riley); all the others, from siblings to servants, are standard-issue eccentrics or the subjects of running gags. PG-13, 96 min. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
If you’re in Los Angeles in June (I won’t be), you might want to check out The Cinefamily‘s Jerry Lewis retrospective (page down), playing on Saturdays. This culminates in his last feature to date, Cracking Up (the poster for its European version is seen below).
I’m cited in the ad for the latter film in the following way: “In some ways it comes off as so formally brazen that the end result of this Airplane!-style gag-fest was avant-garde enough to appeal to academically inclined critics and Lewis lovers — Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, sandwiched Cracking Up between Bresson’s L’Argent and Kiarostami’s Fellow Citizen on his list of best films of 1983 (the only English-language pick on the list).” I’m not sure what makes me “academically inclined,” but for the record, the (alphabetical) list of my favorite films of 1983 [in Essential Cinema] also includes, immediately below Fellow Citizen, Potter’s The Gold Diggers, Wenders’ Hammett, Dante’s It’s a Good Life [from Twilight Zone: The Movie], Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding, and, a bit further down the list, Wenders’ The State of Things, Brownlow and Gill’s The Unknown Chaplin, and Cronenberg’s Videodrome – all of them “English-language picks”.… Read more »
HEAVEN’S MY DESTINATION by Thornton Wilder (New York: Harper Perennial), 2003, 240 pp.
In fact, the copy that I’ve just reread with pleasure for the second time is a first edition (New York/London: Harper & Brothers, 1935). But Wilder as a novelist is so unfashionable that there’s nothing very pricey about this book in any shape or form. I persist in regarding Heaven’s My Destination as one of the truly great American novels, and I’ve pretty much felt this way ever since I first encountered it in the 1960s — and not just an archetypal middle-American road farce with memorable period settings (including trains, cars, hotels, campsites, boarding houses, bordellos, restaurants, and movie theaters) but also the potential basis for a great movie. It concerns a 23-year-old textbook salesman and devout Baptist from Michigan named George Brush, moving through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas during the height of the Depression, spreading havoc and consternation wherever he goes with his hilarious and maddening fanaticism. (A key line towards the end: “`Isn’t the principle of a thing more important than the people that live under the principle?’”)
I can’t really fathom why this incredible mini-epic has never been canonized — shunned by the Library of America, ignored by Alfred Kazin.… Read more »
From Moving Image Source (May 18, 2009). — J.R.
I wouldn’t say that video art per se makes me break out in hives. I even like some examples of it, including work by Thom Andersen, Gregg Bordowitz, Joan Braderman, Pedro Costa, Adam Curtis, Steve Fagin, Jean-Luc Godard (for me, his best work over nearly the past two decades), Ken Jacobs, Jia Zhangke, Abbas Kiarostami, Alexander Kluge, Mark Rappaport, Raúl Ruiz, Aleksandr Sokurov, Michael Snow, Leslie Thornton, and Bill Viola. But when it comes to most early American video art, I have an allergic reaction. A dozen years ago, while co-teaching a course with video artist Vanalyne Green at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute called “Film and Video: What’s the Difference?” I even tried -— without much sustained success — to combat this allergy homeopathically.
More recently, I’ve tried again by attempting to come to terms with the Video Data Bank’s multiregional DVD box set, Surveying the First Decade: Video Art and Alternative Media in the U.S. — a mammoth compilation curated by Christine Hill, encompassing eight discs, 68 titles, and over 16 hours, produced for institutional rather than consumerist use. (The cost is otherwise prohibitive: $1,350 before September 1, $1,500 afterward, and postage is extra.) And once again I’ve failed, though not without some edification and enlightenment along the way.… Read more »
I’m sorry that the Chicago Reader in its current issue chooses not to acknowledge that it’s anything special or worthy of more than cursory notice, but Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is probably the greatest Taiwanese film ever made, and it doesn’t turn up here often. Doc Films is showing it at 7 pm. Here’s my original capsule review, only slightly updated:
Bearing in mind Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, this astonishing 230-minute epic (1991) by Edward Yang (1947-2007), set over one Taipei school year in the early 60s, would fully warrant the subtitle “A Taiwanese Tragedy.” A powerful statement from Yang’s generation about what it means to be Taiwanese, superior even to his later masterpiece (and final film) Yi Yi (2000), it has a novelistic richness of character, setting, and milieu unmatched by any other 90s film (a richness only partially apparent in its three-hour version). What Yang does with objects — a flashlight, a radio, a tape recorder, a Japanese sword — resonates more deeply than what most directors do with characters, because along with an uncommon understanding of and sympathy for teenagers Yang has an exquisite eye for the troubled universe they inhabit. This is a film about alienated identities in a country undergoing a profound existential crisis — a Rebel Without a Cause with much of the same nocturnal lyricism and cosmic despair.… Read more »
I just heard the very upsetting news that the great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold, Offside) was deprived today of his passport in Tehran, now making it impossible for him to leave Iran — reminding me, alas, of what happened to Pere Portabella in Franco Spain roughly half a century ago.
The two following short essays were commissioned by the Jeonju international Film Festival in February and March, 2009 and published in a bilingual catalog to accompany a Portabella retrospective held there in May.
It’s hard to keep up with all of Portabella’s activities these days, but his wonderful web site — which one can access in English, and which grows periodically in leaps and bounds — makes it somewhat easier to try. My most recent visit reveals that it’s now apparently possible to download several of his films on the Internet, directly from this site. I’m still eagerly anticipating the DVD box set that’s still apparently in the works, for which I wrote a commissioned essay (to be printed or reprinted in my next collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition: see Publications and Events on this site), but meanwhile here are a couple of commentaries about two of his early films — one of which, Cuadecuc, Vampir, remains my favorite of his works to date.… Read more »
“Is this the end of Nero?” cries Peter Ustinov towards the end of his superbly hammy death scene in Quo Vadis (1951). I can’t recall anyone ever accusing director Mervyn LeRoy, one of Sam Fuller’s favorite directors, of being an auteur, but this clear reference to Edward G. Robinson’s “Is this the end of Little Rico?” in LeRoy’s Little Caesar suggests some kind of sly skullduggery. Even more, I wonder if Ustinov’s eye-rolling Nero occasionally made some of the participants at MGM on this picture think of Louis B. Mayer, just as Leo Genn’s Petronius (see below) might have occasionally suggested Dore Schary.
The culmination of this three-hour spectacle, based on an international best seller (1895) by a Polish Nobel prizewinner is, of course, Christians getting thrown to the lions or roasted at stakes as scapegoats for Nero having recently burned down Rome so he could write a tacky musical poem about it — leading Petronius, his main yes-man, after suavely slitting his wrist, to dictate a witty, urbane letter to his studio head in his dying breath, proclaiming that it’s perfectly okay to wipe out the multitudes, but does he have to produce bad art in the bargain? Of course the Roman masses don’t mind at all about filling up the gigantic stadium to be amused and entertained by the slaughter of these Jewish martyrs, which they’re happy to cheer and laugh at, at least until Robert Taylor tells them not to and to cheer the overthrow of Nero instead.… Read more »
Recommended Reading: “Long Shot” by Evan Osnos. in the May 11, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. Not so much for critical insights into the films as for biographical information that one wouldn’t likely come across elsewhere, at least in English. [5/11/09]
Cinema. Film Study. What a pity that the left hand rarely knows what the right hand is doing, and vice versa.
Thanks to the generosity of Girish Shambu, I’m the happy owner of a copy of Timothy Barnard’s retranslated, reselected, and annotated edition of André Bazin’s What is Cinema?, recently published in a handsome hardcover by www.caboosebooks.com, based in Montreal, with Varvara Stepanova’s 1922 woodcut of Charlie Chaplin, Sharlo Takes a Bow, gracing the cover.
First, here is the selection: “Ontology of the Photographic Image,” “The Myth of Total Cinema,” “On Jean Painlevé” (a short fragment that Barnard has translated for the first time), “An Introduction to the Charlie Chaplin Persona,” “Monsieur Hulot and Time,” “William Wyler, the Jansenist of Mise en Scène,” “Editing Prohibited,” “The Evolution of Film Language,” “For an Impure Cinema: In Defense of Adaptation,” “Diary of a Country Priest and the Robert Bresson Style,” “Theatre and Film (1),” “Theatre and Film (2),” and “Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation”.
Regrettably, the 354-page book, with a ten-page Publisher’s Foreword, the aforementioned 13 essays by Bazin, 61 pages of helpful annotation, a combined 19-page Glossary of Films and Film Title Index, and a six-page Index of Names, is unavailable to most people outside of Canada, and for legal reasons, including copyright laws, you can’t even order this from Canadian Amazon.… Read more »
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  and The War Game , 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 »
This fairly recent (and much more recently updated) piece is a sequel to my earlier “À la recherche de Luc Moullet: 25 Propositions,” originally written and published in 1977 and now also available on this web site, posted a couple of weeks ago. –J.R.
Almost thirty years have passed between my extended defense of Luc Moullet in Film Comment and the long-overdue launch of the first American retrospective devoted to this mainly comic French filmmaker, who’s also a critic. But it was worth the wait. In the spring of 2006, “Luc Moullet: Agent Provocateur of the New Wave,” including eight of his 32 films, showed up at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center. And three years later, a complete Moullet retrospective was shown in Paris, accompanied by much fanfare, including the publication of a DVD featuring ten of his best short films, Luc Moullet en shorts, and three separate books: a lengthy interview with Emmanuel Burdeau et Jean Narboni (Notre Alpin Quotidien, 130 pages) and a long-overdue collection of his film criticism (Pige Choisies [De Griffith à Ellroy], 372 pages), both published by Capricci, and a study of King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (Le Rebelle de King Vidor: les arêtes vives), published by Yellow Now.… Read more »
This is plainly a bumper season for Luc Moullet, who recently had an exhaustive retrospective in Paris, the release of a DVD featuring ten of his best shorts (some of which might be considered his best films), and the publication of no less than three books by him: a book-length interview with Emmanuel Burdeau et Jean Narboni (130 pages) and a long-overdue collection of his film criticism (372 pages), both published by Capricci (who were kind enough to send me copies), and a study of King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (Le Rebelle de King Vidor: les arêtes vives) published by Yellow Now that I haven’t ordered because the cost of postage from French Amazon and FNAC virtually doubles the 11,88-Euro price.
By luck, the two Capricci books and Luc Moullet en shorts (which I did pay for, postage and all) both arrived in today’s mail, and in some ways the real jewel in the bunch — or at least the item I’ve been spending the most time with so far — is the collection, Pige Choisies (De Griffith à Ellroy), which interestingly enough uses the titles of two of his best shorts, Essai d’Ouverture and Le ventre de l’Amérique, in his Table of Contents.… Read more »