Not many recent films about heroism that one can still believe in. This is one of them. [12/11/10]
Yearly Archives: 2010
An extremely odd 1966 Steven Sondheim TV musical (1966) — 52 minutes, in black and white — adapted by James Goldman from an equally odd john Collier story of the same title about a poet (Anthony Perkins) who decides to live in a Manhattan department store and discovers an entire community of after-hours eccentrics already camped out there, including a wispy maiden (Charmian Carr) who’s spent most of her life there, whom he falls in love with and teaches how to read. Perkins, by the way, is a pretty delightful singer. The fact that part of this show was actually shot on location in and around a 42nd Street emporium is only part of what’s so strange about it. But I find it impossible to guess how peculiar it might have looked 44 years ago, because I’ve just seen it for the first time.
A good-quality, newly discovered kinoscope print of this ABC Stage 67 broadcast is what led to this recent DVD release. Among the useful and thoughtful extras is an extended interview with the now-retired director, Paul Bogart — a TV veteran who also directed Torch Song Trilogy back in 1988, and who offers a thoughtful autocritique, at once modest and apt, of his own contributions.… Read more »
One of my “En movimiento”columns for Cahiers du Cinéma España, written specifically for their special Godard issue (December 2010). — J.R.
Writing recently here about the largely negative American reception of Film Socialisme at Cannes, I noted – in response to the implications of such critics as Todd McCarthy and Roger Ebert that the film’s difficulties could somehow be attributed to flaws in Godard’s character — that I was “impressed not only by the film’s singular, daring, and often beautiful employments of sound and image, but also by its tenderness towards virtually all the contemporary characters and figures in the film (including the animals) — a virtue I don’t find at all present in For Ever Mozart.”
One could, in fact, go through many portions of Godard’s filmography and cite works that are humanist (such as Bande à part, Masculin-Féminin, and France/tour/detour/deux enfants) and those that are relatively nonhumanist (such as Weekend, Vladimir et Rosa, and Passion). Even though one could argue that Godard’s self-imposed social isolation since his departure from Paris has had harmful effects on his art, it is too simplistic to assume that he’s always or invariably the simple grouch that many journalists have claimed him to be.… Read more »
From Film Comment (November-December 2010). — J.R.
Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy
By Saul Austerlitz Chicago Review Press, $24.95
As an audacious and ambitious canonizing gesture, this highly readable critical volume comes closer to Sarris’s The American Cinema than it does to Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, if only because the author can always be counted on to have seen the work he writes about. Omissions are of course inevitable, and even though I don’t know Austerlitz’s age, I suspect that most of the lacunae I notice in the creative figures he selects for his 30 chapters and 105 shorter entries — such as Fred Allen, Danny Kaye, Martha Raye, and Red Skelton — are generationally determined for both of us; older and younger readers will come up with other missing names. But the amount that he actually covers is impressive.
Sometimes the organizational strategies get weird: the chapter on Dustin Hoffman, delving perceptively into the Jewish aspects of his persona, also manages to be a chapter about Warren Beatty. Some of the research is sloppy: Orson Welles couldn’t have “credited” The Power and the Glory as an “inspiration” if he maintained that he’d never seen it.… Read more »
Commissioned by Artforum‘s web site and published by them on December 8, 2010 in a somewhat different version. — J.R.
“The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed,” Stanley Kubrick reportedly said to screenwriter Frederic Raphael in the late 1990s. “Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t.” One of the most striking things about this remark is its placement of the Holocaust in the present and a film made half a century later in the past.
These are the priorities of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), 550 minutes long, widely and in some ways justly regarded as the greatest film about the Holocaust. But they’re also the priorities of Alain Resnais and Jean Cayrol’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), only thirty-one minutes long, which in many respects made Shoah possible. Shoah even quotes Night and Fog about forty-three minutes into the film — Resnais’s low-angle dolly following grassy railroad tracks that lead to an Auschwitz crematorium is virtually reprised and extended, though Resnais’ use of Eastmancolor is even more vivid.
One shouldn’t have to choose between these masterpieces. But it’s important to stress that they aren’t about precisely the same Holocaust and that their formal strategies for juxtaposing past and present are quite different.… Read more »
This essay was written in late November 2010 for The Common Review, whose editor commissioned it, but was subsequently and recently withdrawn from that magazine once it became clear that the editor wasn’t giving me any straight or candid answers about whether or when he would publish it. Which is why I’m publishing it here. I’ve only updated it slightly to incorporate the recent distressing news about the government’s sentencing of Jafar Panahi. And more recently, thanks to Danny Postel, this article has been reposted here, at Tehran Bureau. — J.R.
To what extent does Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s best known and most celebrated filmmaker, still belong to Iran, and to what extent does he now belong to the world? Insofar as the first sixteen of his seventeen features have been shot in Iran –- only Certified Copy, filmed in Italy, which premiered in Cannes last May, qualifies as a feature shot in exile –- he might be said to “belong” in some fashion to his native country. But the last of his features to date to have opened commercially in Iran was his tenth, Taste of Cherry (1997), and one wouldn’t expect this situation to change anytime in the near future.… Read more »
They call it their “Self-Improvement” issue, and while flying today from Richmond to Chicago, I read three especially good articles about the sorry state of our nation, each one a pretty good substitute for the sort of news and editorials that we’re no longer getting. Here are teasers from each one:
From “Revolt of the Elites” (unsigned) in The Intellectual Situation (p. 15):
“Who…is guility of elitism, if not the elitely educated in general? The main culprits turn out to be people for whom a monied and therefore educated background lies behind the adoption of aesthetic, intellectual, or political values that demur from the money-making mandate that otherwise dominates society.”
From “Caucasian Nation” by Marco Roth in Politics (p. 14):
“The robust case for dominating other people sounds awful to most American ears today. So the contemporary idea of ethnocracy relies instead on an opposite rhetoric of victimization. The simple-minded mantra we’re taught in grade school goes like this: blacks good because oppressed, whites bad because oppressors. So if whites suddenly became oppressed, even while remaining the majority, they would magically become good again. Many Americans are now being taught to think this way.”
From “The Two Cultures of Life” by Kristin Dombek in Essays (p.… Read more »
Two consecutive items from Harper’s Index (Harper Magazine, December 2010):
Percentage of Americans who believe that Stephen King wrote Moby-Dick: 4
Number of U.S. states in which it is legal to own a tiger without a license: 9
Written in 2010 for Criterion’s DVD and Blu-Ray. This is the second of my essays about Terry Zwigoff’s documentary; for the first one, written 15 years earlier, go here. — J.R.
Now that Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is about fifteen years old, it seems pretty safe to say that it has evolved from being a potential classic to actually becoming one. But what kind? A documentary portrait of a comic-book artist, musician, and nerdy outsider? A personal film essay? A cultural study? An account of family dysfunction and sexual obsession? Or maybe just a meditation on what it means to be an American male artist — specifically, one so traumatized by his adolescence that he has never found a way of fully growing past it.
In fact, Crumb is all these things, with a generous amount of thoughtful art criticism thrown in as well. An old friend of Robert Crumb’s, Terry Zwigoff shot the movie over six years and edited it over three, and the multifaceted density and sometimes disturbing nature of what he has to show and say over two hours seems partly a function of the amount of time he had to mull it over. It’s worth adding that he was in therapy for part of that time, which surely had an impact on the film’s searching thoughtfulness and on Zwigoff’s own investment in the material.… Read more »
This piece by Gary Younge appeared a little over a week ago but is still relevant. Here are two particularly salient passages:
It is not unrealistic to believe that a country as wealthy as the US should be able to provide healthcare for all, a dignified life for its elderly, an infant mortality rate better than Cuba’s, a life expectancy higher than Bosnia’s, a foreign policy that does not hinge on military aggression, and an economy where fewer than one in seven live in poverty. What is unrealistic is to believe that any of those things can be achieved, or even seriously tackled, with just a single vote.
Republicans will head to the polls to elect people who will actually cut jobs and support bankers. Democrats may well stay at home because their candidate has not made things better, and in so doing make things worse. Neither disaffection nor rage are electoral strategies. But in the absence of an alternative, frustration has political consequences.
November 3: American voters have spoken, and the message appears to be to leave Tomorrowland for Frontierland while remaining in the same Disney theme park, albeit this time without any tickets.… Read more »
Commissioned by Criterion’s The Current, and published there on October 26, 2010. — J.R.
For many decades now, William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) and Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) have been major touchstones for me—not only separately but also in some mysterious relation to each other. I even managed to find a way of discussing these two works together over the first four paragraphs of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (I also published a lengthy essay about Gertrud, in which I make glancing reference to the novel). The fact that Dreyer once expressed some interest in adapting Faulkner’s Light in August — an interest he shared with Luis Buñuel (and with actors Zachary Scott and Ruth Ford, a couple who once actually held the film rights) — was part of the inspiration and pretext for my musings about Dreyer and Faulkner, but for me the affinities run much deeper.
Both are works I take pleasure in revisiting every few years — they seem to grow in density each time — and I had occasion to revisit both of them this fall. I’m presently teaching film at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and last month, after starting a weekly cine-club there with a colleague, we hit upon the idea of showing Gertrud as our first film after another colleague, filmmaker Rob Tregenza, said he’d always wanted to see it.… Read more »
From the October 2010 Sight and Sound. I regret a few errors that crept into this piece as originally published, all of which were my own fault and all of which are corrected here. — J.R.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention at the outset that Françoise Romand has been a good friend for over two decades. But I hasten to add that she became a friend because of my immoderate enthusiasm for Mix-Up (1985), her first film — one of the strangest as well as strongest documentaries that I know.
To make matters even more mixed-up, I should also point out that, on the region-free DVD bonus of this hour-long French documentary in English, Françoise, after interviewing herself in French, shows her filming of my talking head in English while I attempt to explain why I find her film so powerful and exciting. What follows represents another try.
Filmed over just twelve days, but recounting a multilayered real-life story that covers nearly half a century, Mix-Up recounts and explores what ensued after two English women, Margaret Wheeler and Blanche Rylatt, respectively upper-middle-class and working-class, gave birth to daughters in November 1936 in a Nottingham nursing home, and the babies were inadvertently switched.… Read more »
The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). — J.R.
A Brighter Summer Day was inspired by a true incident, a touchstone from Yang’s youth: the killing of a 14-year-old girl by a male high school student in Taipei on June 15, 1961. Yang frames the film with recitations over the radio of the names of students graduating from the same school in 1960 and ’61. The title comes from the lyrics of the Elvis Presley song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, phonetically transcribed by the hero’s sister so that a younger friend, Cat, can learn to sing them.
This song is only one of many cherished artifacts belonging to the film’s characters that come from somewhere else. A samurai sword found by the hero, Si’r, in his family’s Japanese house becomes the murder weapon, and a tape recorder left by the American army in the 50s records Cat’s version of the Elvis song. An old radio that for most of the picture doesn’t work eventually broadcasts the list of graduating students. And a flashlight Si’r steals in the first extended scene from a film studio next to the school, where he periodically hides in the rafters to watch movies being shot, makes a fascinating progress through the film.… Read more »
I’ve been haunted lately by a very moving and eloquent comment made last Saturday at a panel discussion which I participated in, held at the Smithsonian. The occasion was a screening of a restoration of Hai Ninh’s lovely 1974 North Vietnamese feature The Little Girl from Hanoi, a film so scarce that I can’t find any stills from it on the Internet to illustrate this post. [Update, 6/13/12: Some stills have subsequently appeared and have been posted with my review of the film, here, as well as on this page.]
After one of my (American) copanelists remarked that even though “we [sic] lost the war in Vietnam,” the country had a thriving market economy today, and then either he or someone else alluded to America “winning” the Cold War (which provoked an angry riposte from me that if the Cold War had any “winners” at all, these were gangsters on both sides), a Vietnamese diplomat in the audience, who said he was speaking not as a diplomat but simply as a Vietnamese, stated that he thought it was inappropriate to claim that anyone “won” the war in Vietnam. He was right, of course, which got me thinking that the American compulsion to see all of life (and death) in the simplistic terms of sports and games has a lot to answer for.… Read more »