Monthly Archives: October 2009

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 »

DOWN WITH LOVE (2003)

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.

One reason I took so long getting to see this movie (2003) was the number of friends who assured me it was nothing special. Most of them seemed to go along uncritically with the publicists’ claim, echoed by reviewers, that it was a simple point-by-point pastiche of three late-50s and early-60s comedies starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and Tony Randall: Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964). These films have never appealed to me in the slightest, though Mark Rappaport did an expert job of unpacking them in his 1992 Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. But Down With Love is also an affectionate satire of late-50s and early-60s studio glitz that often contradicts the pastiche. The filmmakers, who were too young to experience this era themselves, make plenty of errors, starting with a Fox CinemaScope logo (wrong studio and too late for that logo) and the snazzy rainbow credits (too hyperactive for the time). Then we get palatial Manhattan apartments (much more identified with How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953 and The Tender Trap in 1955) and bubble-gum-colored media blitzes (as in Funny Face and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?Read more »

THE KING OF COMEDY (1982)

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.

I was slow to appreciate this masterpiece, which I now regard as Martin Scorsese’s best feature, and I credit Wim Wenders for convincing me that there was far more going on in this movie than I was initially prepared to see. Perhaps the key to this creepy fable about the American obsession with celebrity and media comes in the climactic comic monologue of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), brimming with self-hatred and shame about his family and his nondescript suburban/ethnic background, which in a way all of the preceding film prepares us for. The script by Paul D. Zimmerman, a onetime film critic at Newsweek, manages to be both non-specific and spot-on about everything that separates the haves from the have-nots -– a subject Scorsese seems to know like the back of his hand, and one made all the more complex by the fact that it’s often hard to separate the privileged from the deprived in this film (a fact spelled out by another troubling climax, the confrontation between Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard).… Read more »

Three Comedies & Two Cartoons

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.

SHERLOCK JR. (1924)

In Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, which he directed
solo, he plays a lovesick movie projectionist who
climbs into the movie screen to solve a crime, walking
through several different kinds of movies and
landscapes in the process. Not simply a charming
dreamlike fantasy, this is also a lovely piece of
Americana circa 1924.

TWO TARS (1928)

A better-than-average Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
short about two sailors (or «two tars,» according to
the slang expression) on leave and their dates culminates
in an epic grudge match occurring in the midst
of an endless traffic jam, making this extravaganza
the ideal companion-piece to 1941. Supervised by
Leo McCarey and filmed by none other than
George Stevens, this was directed by Laurel and
Hardy regular James Parrott.

THE MUSIC BOX (1932)

Perhaps the greatest of Stan Laurel and Oliver
Hardy’s sound shorts (1932), which won them
an Academy Award, is a half-hour epic of sorts,
most of it devoted to their torturous efforts to deliver
a piano to a hilltop home.… Read more »

WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1919)

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.

Nominally a rather silly satire about various fads in 1919 America ranging from Ouija boards and diverse superstitions to crackpot psychological experiments, this energetic Douglas Fairbanks comedy -– the first directorial effort of Victor Fleming, Fairbanks’s former cinematographer –- is chiefly a free-form adventure.

Like the projectionist’s dream in Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., this is basically an occasion for the star’s athletic stunts and choreographic bursts of ardor and enthusiasm, as well as various playful breaches of the ordinary rules of space and time. Most of the latter occurs within an extended dream sequence that virtually opens the film -– set in motion by a sinister secret experiment being conducted by a mad scientist on the wealthy and brash hero, Daniel Boone Brown (Fairbanks) –- but the climactic rain storm and flood at the end, as the film shifts from New York to the countryside, seems almost equally dreamlike and arbitrary.

Read more »

A Handful of World: The Films of Peter Thompson, An Introduction and Interview

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2009. Note: Peter Thompson’s complete work as a filmmaker, along with many extras, is available here. There is also a web site devoted to his work at chicagomediaworks.com   — J.R.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to call Peter Thompson the best Chicago filmmaker you never heard of. His half a dozen films, four shorts and two features, span 28 years, and their continuities and discontinuities with one another seem equally important. Pertinent to all six films are diverse aspects of Thomson’s background: as a classical guitarist who studied with Andrès Segovia in Siena, as an undergraduate and graduate student in comparative literature (University of California, Irvine), as a onetime Navy photojournalist who teaches photography at Columbia College Chicago, and even as a first cousin of the special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull.(Full disclosure: Thompson has been a friend for almost two decades — and a neighbor for roughly half that time — but it was my enthusiasm for his first two films that initially sparked our friendship.)

His shorts come in two pairs, each one a diptych. Two Portraits (1982, 28 minutes) is devoted to his parents and each portrait works with a minimalist expansion of limited footage juxtaposed with offscreen voices—those of Thompson and his late father in the first part, Anything Else, and those of his mother reading from her diaries in the second part, Shooting Scripts.… Read more »

Capitalism: A Love Story

It’s been ten days since I saw the new Michael Moore film, when I was in New York. Then and now, it struck me as being inferior to Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Bowling for Columbine, yet singular none the less in a way that only a Michael Moore film can be, less for its own qualities (cinematic, political, aesthetic) than for the unique cultural function it has. In a country that essentially has no news, only a series of screeds designed to either stroke or else violently refute or ignore one’s own particular biases (pace Rachel Maddow, cued laughs and all), Moore’s movies wind up teaching us things even if we don’t see them because of the way that certain second-hand kernels of information get filtered down to us. And I certaiinly include myself in this process. Capitalism: A Love Story taught me several things I had known either nothing or very little about — perhaps most importantly, Franklin Roosevelt’s call for a “second Bill of Rights” shortly before his death that ensured the right of individuals to have a job, a decent wage, and health care. Seeing that clip of FDR giving that long-suppressed and forgotten speech is reason enough to see this film. … Read more »

Two Bugs Bunny cartoons

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.

RHAPSODY RABBIT (1946)

Bugs Bunny, dripping with mannerisms associated with classical music and attempting to perform Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody at a concert, is interrupted or distracted by problems with his sheet music, coughs from the audience, a carrot break, and a mouse living inside the piano with both a taste for boogie-woogie and a determination to outclass the rabbit and featured performer. James Agee celebrated this 1946 animated short by Friz Freleng at some length, calling it “the funniest thing I have seen since the decline of sociological dancing”: “The best of it goes two ways: one, very observant parody of concert-pianistic affectations, elegantly thought out and synchronized; the other, brutality keyed into the spirit of the music to reach greater subtlety than I have ever seen brutality reach before.”

WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? (1957)

Eleven years after Rhapsody Rabbit, in 1957, the joint ingenuity of writer Michael Maltese and director Chuck Jones once again demonstrates how Americans can neither feel entirely comfortable with classical music and opera nor leave it alone, resulting here in a love-hate relationship to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen featuring Bugs Bunny in drag, a golden-helmeted Elmer Fudd, snatches of ballet and Nuremberg lighting, outlandish sets that exceed any possibilities of stagecraft, and what may well be the strangest assortment of abstract shapes to be found anywhere in Jones’s work.… Read more »

DUCK SOUP & STOOPNOCRACY (1933)

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.

DUCK SOUP (1933)

Many reasons could be cited why this is the best of all
the Marx Brothers features, even though it was a
commercial disappointment when it was first released
in 1933. The last of the Marx Brothers movies in
which Zeppo -– the straight man among the brothers
and the youngest (who replaced Gummo, the one
who fulfilled this role on stage) –- appeared, it is perhaps
the only one whose anarchistic pleasures aren’t
crippled or interrupted by romantic and musical
interludes. (The climactic musical number here,
“Freedonia’s Going to War,” is an integral part of the
action.) Leo McCarey was inarguably the best director
the brothers ever worked with, and the ridiculing
of both nationalism and patriotism is more pointed
than most of their other satires. This comedy
also has the most beautiful (and beautifully abstract)
sequence in any Marx brothers picture, staged in
front of a mirror, developing a gag concept from
Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916) and extending it
to hallucinatory proportions. It also includes the
second and possibly best appearance of Margaret
Dumont (Groucho’s ideal foil) in a Marx Brothers
picture, and also features Edgar Kennedy and Louis
Calhern in memorable parts.… Read more »

A Dialogue about Death by Milan Kundera

“I must admit,” the Bear said in an icy voice, “that I have indeed always considered death a  tragedy.”

“And you were wrong,” said Paul. “A railway accident is horrible for somebody who was on the train or who had a son there. But in news reports death means exactly the same thing as in the novels of Agatha Christie, who incidentally was the greatest magician of all time, because she knew how to turn murder into amusement, and not just one murder but dozens of murders, hundreds of murders, an assembly line of murders performed for our pleasure in the extermination camp of her novels. Auschwitz is forgotten, but from the crematorium of Agatha’s novels the smoke is forever rising into the sky, and only a very naive person could maintain that it is the smoke of tragedy.”

–Milan Kundera, Immortality (1990) [10/4/09]… Read more »

1941 (1979)

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.

1941 (1979)

One of Steven Spielberg’s most underrated films is
not only a virtuoso piece of filmmaking but a flagrant
piece of mean-spiritedness and teenage irreverence
that underlines aspects of his work that his more popular
and commercially successful works tend to either
disguise or rationalize. Both of these qualities
are partially the contributions of cowriter Robert
Zemeckis –- who exhibits these traits more independently
on such later features as Used Cars (1980)
and Forrest Gump (1994). But there’s also a strain
that one might associate with the more progressive
and Tashlinesque reflexes of a Joe Dante, helping to
explain why John Wayne not only refused indignantly
to play in this comedy but also tried to persuade
Spielberg that making such a movie was tantamount
to spitting on the American flag. In Spielberg’s
hands, much of the comedy here seems to derive
from a desire to see large sets destroyed as if they
were Tinker toy constructions, complete with tuttifrutti
mixtures of splattered paint, and without the
messy inconvenience of either deaths or morals.… Read more »