Monthly Archives: September 2009

Robert Frank’s ONE HOUR (1990)

Commissioned by and published in Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, a 2009 German retrospective catalogue published in English. It seems typical, alas, of Frank’s very Swiss anal-retentiveness that neither this video (my favorite audiovisual work of Frank’s) nor any image from it is readily available, which is why I’ve had to resort to pictures of the book version. You can see a few brief glimpses of the video in the fascinating recent documentary Don’t Blink — Robert Frank, showing twice today in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It was produced by Philippe Grandrieux for French television. – J.R.

“I’ve seen La chouette aveugle seven times,” Luc Moullet once wrote of Raúl Ruiz’s intractable masterpiece, “and I know a little less about the film with each viewing.” Apart from being both intractable and a masterpiece, I can’t say Robert Frank’s One Hour [also sometimes known as Sixty Minutes)  has anything in common with the Ruiz film, yet what makes it a masterpiece and intractable is the same paradox: the closer I come to understanding it, the more mysterious it gets.

My first look at this single-take account of Frank and actor Kevin O’Connor either walking or riding in the back of a mini-van through a few blocks of Manhattan”s Lower East Side — shot between 3:45 and 4:45 pm on July 26, 1990 — led me to interpret it as a spatial event capturing the somewhat uncanny coziness and intimacy of New York street life, the curious experience of eavesdropping involuntarily on strangers that seems an essential part of being in Manhattan, an island where so many people are crammed together that the existential challenge of everyday coexistence between them seems central to the city’s energy and excitement.… Read more »

The Consequences of Fame (in response to a 2009 New York Times symposium)

Written for the New York Times‘ online “Room for Debate: The Polanski Uproar” on September 29, 2009, in response to the following question:

“The recent arrest of Roman Polanski, the film director who fled to France from the United States in 1978 on the eve of sentencing for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, has caused an international ruckus. The French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, and the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, both issued statements of support for Mr. Polanski. But many others in France have expressed outrage at that support and said he should face justice for the crime.

“While it’s clear that the film industry forgave Mr. Polanski long ago, should society separate the work of artists from the artists themselves, despite evidence of reprehensible or even criminal behavior?”

Roman Polanski

Jonathan Rosenbaum:

I’m not at all in favor of giving artists free passes when it comes to their personal morality. But in the case of Roman Polanski, anyone who’s bothered to follow the history of his case in any detail is likely to conclude that (a) he’s already paid a great deal for his crime, (b) the interests of journalism and the entertainment industry in this matter usually have a lot more to do with puritanical hysteria and exploitation than any impartial pursuit of justice.… Read more »

On the Arrest of Roman Polanski [updated, 10/2/09]

American lynch mobs never die; they only become more self-righteous about their savagery. [9/28/09]

Postscript: Some readers of the above have asked me for some elaboration. By way of partial explanation, I can offer both an op-ed article by Robert Harris in the New York Times and my own briefer statement for the Times‘ Room for Debate blog. And, to quote myself again, from Richard Roeper’s blog: “I’m not claiming that artists deserve any special privileges of any kind. But if Polanski wasn’t famous, he wouldn’t have been arrested in Switzerland in the first place. The only reason why anyone’s writing about him now is because he’s famous. Focusing on a crime 30-odd years ago, however reprehensible, when so many other and bigger and more recent crimes are around and relevant (and unpunished) sounds to me like hysteria/exploitation/journalism/sensationalism/ entertainment — anything but impartial justice.”  [10/2/09]… Read more »

Recommended Reading: DANCING IN THE DARK

Recommended Reading: DANCING IN THE DARK: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION by Morris Dickstein, New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009, 598 pp.

How refreshing it is to encounter a treatment of Busby Berkeley’s Depression musicals as something other than escapism — as genuine engagements with their own period and audience. Part literary criticism, part film and art criticism, part history of popular as well as intellectual culture, Morris Dickstein’s magnum opus is full of sensible revisionist observations of this kind to counter received wisdom, and it’s always a pleasure to read. Even if he doesn’t always accord full justice to the ideological and ethical underpinnings of some Depression novels (I’m perhaps the only one on the planet who regards Faulkner’s 1932 Light in August, my supreme favorite, as a communist novel, at least existentially), Dickstein is almost always deepening my understanding of whatever he happens to be writing about. [9/28/09]… Read more »

Wild Grass (Les herbes folles)

Not so much a fantasy as a fantasia, Alain Resnais’ first novel adaptation, his second adaptation (after Mélo) and, unless my memory fails me, his fifth film in CinemaScope (after Le chant du styrène, Last Year at Marienbad, L’amour à mort, and Private Fears in Public Places), this brittle comedy may also be the most purely surrealist of all his films, especially in its emphasis on irrational impulses (as well as its non-sequitur final shot). And the fact that it’s often creepy (as well as very personal) is surely more of a plus than a minus; it hasn’t been acknowledged nearly enough that Resnais’ best and most beautiful films — including Statues Also Die, Toute la mémoire du monde, Le chant du styrène, Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon amour, Marienbad, Muriel, Providence, Mon oncle d’Amérique, Mélo, and Not on the Lips, among others — usually turn out to be his creepiest. (An exception to this rule is L’amour à mort, which is exceptionally creepy but also far from Resnais’ best.)

Seen twice on Friday at the New York Film Festival — first at a press screening, then at the $40 opening — this is a film whose pastel hues and intricate color coding (e.g., the multiple associations of blue with the hero, played by André Dussollier, and the various associations of red with at least two of the main women in the story, played by Sabine Azéma and Anne Consigny) may come even closer to comic-book images than those in I Want To Go Home.Read more »

THE GOLD DIGGERS Reconsidered

Written for the BFI DVD release of The Gold Diggers in 2009. — J.R.

A quarter of a century after its initial unfriendly reception, it’s worth puzzling over why a film as beautiful, as witty, as imaginative, and as brilliant as Sally Potter’s first feature could have given so much offense to certain spectators in 1983. The recoil was so unforgiving in some quarters that Potter, after touring extensively with the film, came to seriously question it herself — or at least the wisdom of having made it, insofar as it was already threatening to end her ambitious career in filmmaking almost before it had properly started, thereby eventually persuading her to withdraw the film from circulation. (By contrast, the exceptional success of her 34-minute Thriller in 1979, an unpacking of Puccini’s La Bohème, made with many of the same collaborators — most notably Colette Laffont, Lindsay Cooper, and Rose English — had clearly heightened her expectations.) Now that it’s belatedly becoming available again on DVD, it’s more than entitled to a fresh look — including a consideration of what originally perturbed some people about it.

Even after one totes up all of the most obvious of the possible objections that could be raised against The Gold Diggers – boredom, anti-feminist backlash, envy of other independent filmmakers for Potter’s lavish funding from the National Film Board, pretentiousness, allegorical and metaphorical density, sheer difficulty (as Ruby Rich, a sympathetic analyst, put it in her 1998 book Chick Flicks, `Its commitment to narrative [is] minor’) — the inability or refusal of many viewers to grasp or even notice The Gold Diggers’ no less obvious and unassailable strengths continues to confound me.… Read more »

The Farber Mystery

From Moving Image Source (www.movingimagesource.us), posted September 22, 2009. Also reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

Following James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism (2005), and American Movie Critics (2006), Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber is the Library of America’s third and so far most ambitious effort to canonize American film criticism — a daunting task that’s been lined at every stage with booby traps, at least if one considers the degree to which film criticism might be regarded as one of the most ephemeral of literary genres. And this is certainly the volume that adds the most to what has previously been available; by rough estimate, it easily triples the amount of film criticism by Manny Farber that we have between book covers.

As Karl Marx once pointed out, quantity changes quality, but this doesn’t entail any lessening of Farber’s importance. I would even argue that both the nature and evolution of his taste and writing over 30-odd years, before he gave up criticism to concentrate on his painting, still make him the most remarkable figure American film criticism has ever had.

Bringing a painter’s eye to film criticism and couching even his most serious observations in a snappy, slangy prose, Farber was the first American in his profession to write perceptively about the personal styles of directors and actors without any consumerist agendas or academic demonstrations.… Read more »

Masterpiece Alert (UN SOIR, UN TRAIN) (updated)

I just saw a great film tonight for the first time, the second feature of the Belgian surrealist André Delvaux (1926-2002), known in English as One Night…A Train, with Yves Montand and Anouk Aimée,which dates from 1968. It starts off as something quite ordinary and gradually gets weirder and crazier, winding up eventually somewhere in the vicinity of both Kafka and Tarkovsky (the latter in his Stalker mode). It isn’t available commercially, but you can download it for free, and with English subtitles, from The Pirate Bay, a very nifty site where you also can download Rivette’s complete Out 1 with English subtitles, and you can also watch the film with English subtitles on YouTube.

The film is adapted from a novella by Johan Daisne, who also wrote the source novel of Delvaux’s previous feature, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (1965). I’m less fond of that film than I am of Delvaux’s second feature and his third, Rendez-vous à Bray (1971), which I recently described on this site as my favorite Belgian feature. Rendez-vous à Bray is also based on a very mysterious novella, in this case a Gothic tale by Julien Gracq set during World War 1, although it isn’t really a war film.… Read more »

The Humanity of the Defeated: GERMANY YEAR ZERO

Written in September 2009 for a Criterion’s DVD box set devoted to Roberto Rossellini’s War trilogy, released a few months later. — J.R.

Unlike the more aesthetically and intellectually conceived French New Wave, Italian neorealism was above all an ethical initiative — a way of saying that people were important, occasioned by a war that made many of them voiceless, faceless, and nameless victims. But this was, of course, a conviction that carried plenty of aesthetic and intellectual, as well as spiritual, consequences, including some that we’re still mulling over today.

Deliberately or not, Germany Year Zero concludes Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy by posing a kind of philosophical conundrum, a fact already signaled by its title, which he borrowed, with permission, from a book by French sociologist Edgar Morin. It was a title that stumped even Joseph Burstyn and Arthur Mayer, the American producers of Rome Open City and Paisan, and the fact that Rossellini, characteristically trusting his instincts, refused to say what he meant by it eventually encouraged them to back out of the project, which was largely financed by the French government.… Read more »

Alexis A. Tioseco, R.I.P.

I no longer recall who snapped this deliberately lopsided photo of Oliver Baumgarten (left), Alexis Tioseco (right), and me in spring 2007, when the three of us were the entire FIPRESCI jury at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. Our prize that year went to an eye-popping masterpiece, Amit Dutta’s Kramasha (To Be Continued…), from India which later became one of the five late (2007) entries to my list of all-time favorite films in the Afterword of the second edition of my collection Essential Cinema – and discovering that great film with Alexis was for me the absolute high point of the festival.

As some of you have heard by now, Alexis, who was 28, and his Slovenian partner Nika Bohinc, who was almost 30 and another very talented film critic, were murdered yesterday in their home in Quezon City, the Philippines, apparently by burglars. Nika, whom I also knew, but less well, had only recently moved there from Ljubljana, Slovenia; Gabe Klinger has just posted a very tender and affectionate piece about both of them a few hours ago. And for the moment, at least, one can still access Alexis’ excellent web site, Criticine. (Postscript, 9/3/09: Adrian Martin writes from Melbourne that Nika’s own Ekran blog, also [mostly] in English, which I haven’t encountered until now, “with many fine pieces, is still also accessible”.)

I still have a good many emails from Alexis on my server, spanning at least four years.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: “Otto Preminger and the Surface of Cinema”

Christian Keathley is currently writing a book about Otto Preminger. I don’t know whether this lucid theoretical essay, centered around a textual analysis of an early scene in Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949) — which appeared in the second issue of World Picture Journal last fall, and which I’ve just discovered (following a Paul Fileri lead in the new Film Comment) — will form part of this book. But it does suggest that Keathley will have plenty to say on the subject of Preminger.

Consider, just for starters, the end of his fifth paragraph, before he even gets around to Whirlpool:

The social issues under interrogation in Preminger’s films were not subtextual — they were the manifest content. Indeed, to point out that there is a subtext of incest in Anatomy of a Murder, Bonjour Tristesse, and Bunny Lake is Missing is merely to state the obvious. As a result, since the early 1970s, Preminger has been a severely under-examined filmmaker.

And when Keathley analyzes the sequence from Whirlpool, charting the dialogue and gestures between a kleptomaniac (Gene Tierney) and her psychiatrist husband (Richard Conte), he has more to say about Preminger’s mise en scène and its power than just about anyone I’ve read on the subject.… Read more »