One thing suggested by Sanford Schwartz’s editing of The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (Library of America) is that Kael’s editing of her own work is superior to his. I admire his discernment in including her thoughtful and uncharacteristically generous review of Marguerite Duras’ Le camion (The Truck) — even though I regret the suppression of its original context, in the September 26, 1977 issue of The New Yorker, where it was sandwiched between Kael’s eloquent two-paragraph dismissal of Star Wars and a longer mixed review of Short Eyes, in a column pointedly called “Contrasts”.
In her final collection For Keeps (1994), Kael omitted the other two reviews, but she also had the foresight to delete the final sentence of her review of The Truck, which referred to its original context: “At the opposite end from popcorn filmmaking, it’s a demonstration of creative force — which doesn’t always cut as clean as that laser sword in Alec Guinness’s hand.” Schwartz also leaves out the reviews of Star Wars and Short Eyes, yet he retains the final sentence in the review of The Truck, which now reads like a non sequitur coming from left field (or from outer space).… Read more »
…belonging to Yvette Biro and J. Hoberman. Let’s hope that both of these resources will grow and grow.
And meanwhile, here is a link to my review of Jim’s next-to-most-recent book. [10/02/11]… Read more »
Le gamin au vélo/The Kid with a Bike
I’ve recently been thinking that a considerable portion of what I find the most detestable in contemporary commercial filmmaking can be summed up in a single trend: exploitation movies that go out into the world as “serious” art movies,. Admittedly, two very early examples of this trend in talkies, Lang’s M and Hawks’ Scarface, are two of the greatest movies ever made, though neither of these can be accused of stroking and glorifying the audience’s hypocrisy. But ever since the Godfather pictures, it seems, artiness has been working overtime as a kind of built-in alibi for many of the baser impulses in the audience –- various kinds of cynicism viewing corruption as inescapable, everyday, and deeply profound (e.g., Avatar, The Girlfriend Experience, Contagion), extreme violence as a function of specious and hypocritical morality (or, even worse, “sensitivity,” as in Drive – or, for that matter, The Passion of the Christ), gimmicky temporal structures (e.g., Tarantino, Memento, Babel) or fatuous psychologizing that are somehow supposed to dignify various forms of boorishness or nastiness (ranging from McQueen’s sexist complacencies and brutalities in Shame to von Trier’s dubious and ongoing validation of his own depression as a practical tool for coping with glitzy catastrophes and atrocities of his own making), and even the sort of Oscar-mongering that can cast a liberal activist (Woody Harrelson) as a racist thug (Rampart) to show us how “complex” the modern world is supposed to be.… Read more »
Through a gross blunder on my part, I’ve just deleted all my posts in this section and under Notes over the past six weeks and all the future posts I had set up to go out over the next few weeks! Until or unless I can find a way of recovering some or all of these, the usual “new” content on this site will have to be held in abeyance. If anyone who works with WordPress and knows anything about recovering lost content can help me out with this, I’ll be immensely grateful; please email me at jonathanrosenbaum2002 at yahoo.com. Update, a few hours later: thanks to cached posts on Google, I’ve recovered most or all of the older posts by now, as users of this site can see. But I haven’t yet found a way to recover any of the future, not-yet-posted texts. I also no longer recall which long reviews from the Reader I had scheduled (which are easily recoverable, but only if I can identify which ones they are), so if any readers happen to notice any of these missing texts from this site, I’d welcome hearing about them. – J.R., 10/1/11… Read more »
The Best Years of Our Lives by Sarah Kozloff, London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 110 pp.
Part of my admiration for this intelligent and judicious contribution to the BFI Film Classics — a series that by now may qualify as the most successful and title-heavy book series in the history of film criticism, perhaps in any language — is my conviction, which I share with Kozloff, that William Wyler’s 1946, 171-minute masterpiece about returning American soldiers after the end of WW2 is, existentially speaking, a rare and almost unprecedented act of witness and social conscience for a Hollywood feature.
Many of the best American film critics have been either divided (James Agee and Manny Farber) or chiefly negative (Robert Warshow) about this picture. Interestingly enough, Farber went all the way from an almost unqualified rave in 1946 to calling the movie “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz” nine years later – maybe because by then he was rebelling against the Oscar-laden mainstream approval – but I think he was right the first time. (In 1957, he was using his disdain to illustrate the maxim, “No one asks the critics’ alliance to look straight backward at its `choices,’” without clarifying that he was part of that original alliance.) But like Kosloff, I suppose I value the film most of all because of some version of the liberal schmaltz Farber decried — one which might be called nostalgia, even though I was only three years old when this movie came out: “Once there was a time,” she writes, “when a Hollywood movie could draw the whole country to the theatres and speak to their hearts.”
But she isn’t blind to some of the contradictions involved in this process.It’s chilling to learn from this book that Harold Russell, the real-life veteran with hooks for arms who won one of the film’s seven Oscars, was paid only $6,000 for his participation, while three of the other leads received $100,000 each and Wyler earned $180,000 plus 20 per cent of the net profits.
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Now that I’ve finally read Robin Wood’s fascinating posthumous novel, an odd thriller involving amnesia, I’m pleased to report that it’s much better than I expected it to be, both as a page-turner and as what I would describe as a critic’s novel — even though the latter quality only became fully clear to me in the book’s closing pages.
The story as a whole can be described as a shotgun marriage or as a conversation — or perhaps as some of both — between a model of prose fiction that is literary, high- modernist, and intellectual and another model that is nonliterary, populist, and nonintellectual. These models and positions are represented by the novel’s two leading characters, a man and a woman respectively, the latter of whom is the story’s principal narrator and thus represents Wood’s own preferred position. It would be difficult to say much more about this without introducing spoilers — an especially heinous crime according to the nonintellectual model, and one that should clearly be avoided when it comes to the gradual revelations in this plot — but the degree to which the story as a whole represents a running debate between these positions reflects many of Wood’s own positions and tastes as a critic, which ran all the way from modernist art films to exploitation horror films — both of which are reflected, in different ways, in Trammel Up the Consequence.
… Read more »
IL CINEMA RITROVATO
DVD AWARDS 2011
Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Peter Von Bagh.
BEST DVD 2010 / 2011
Segundo de Chomón 1903-1912 (Filmoteca de Catalunya [ICIC]/Cameo Media s.l.) EL Cine de La Fantasia. A production by Cameo and Filmoteca Catalunya.
The first edition of a long awaited series devoted to the great Spanish master of magic films, hand coloring and technical special effects. Offering 114 minutes of 31 astonishing titles, complete with a 111-page tri-lingual book containing an informative essay by Jean M. Minguet and credits on each film and the 12 different archives that provided restored prints. (http://www.cameo.es/portal/tabid__13173/consulta__De%20Chomon/default.aspx)
BEST SPECIAL FEATURES (BONUS)
The Night of the Hunter (Criterion: www.criterion.com)
For the invaluable and detailed film record of Charles Laughton directing his only feature, drawing from the more than eight hours of outtakes discovered by Bob Gitt and including fascinating rehearsals in which Laughton acts out some of the roles himself.
MOST ORIGINAL CONTRIBUTION TO FILM HISTORY
Orphans 7 – A Film Symposium (New York University’s Orphan Film Symposium, www.orphanfilmsymposium.blogspot.com)
For bringing to the attention of DVD watchers a rich and fascinating area of film history: so-called “ephemeral” films, including amateur films, activist filmmaking, industrial films, etc., with magnificent, in-depth commentary.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (June 2011). Portabella continues to be the most flagrantly unseen and overlooked of major contemporary filmmakers, for reasons suggested in this sketch. — J.R.
Jonathan Rosenbaum voyages into the elusive and intriguing worlds created by Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella
Among the lost continents of cinema — major films and artists that have perpetually eluded our grasp because they fall outside the usual institutional frameworks that we depend upon to ‘keep up’ with cinema — there are few contemporary figures more neglected than Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella.
Born into a family of industrialists in Barcelona in 1929, Portabella has remained closely tied to that city’s art scene for most of his life, especially as a patron and friend of other Catalan artists. One of these was Joan Miró, the focus of a major retrospective at the Tate Modern this summer and the subject of five of Portabella’s shorter fiIms from the late 1960s and early 70s. (The two I’m most familiar with are Miró L’Altre, chronicling the artist’s painting and subsequent erasing of a mural at the Colegio de Arquitectos de Catalunya, and Miró 37/Aidez L’Espagne, which similarly explores a ‘making’ and ‘unmaking’, this time of Spain itself during the mid-1930s, via newsreel footage.)
Portabella’s relation to cinema has taken many different shapes.… Read more »
One wouldn’t expect Albert Brooks’s first novel (Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America) and Woody Allen’s latest movie (Midnight in Paris) to have much in common, especially after one considers that the former is set 19 years in the future whereas the latter is set at least partially between eight and nine decades in the past. But the main thing they do have in common is in fact very contemporary — a preoccupation with money, which Brook’s novel is especially up front about. Both are also ultimately more interested in wisdom than in laughs (or, for that matter, in literature, at least for its own sake); Brooks’s own form of humor, which he seems to find impossible to suppress, is mainly a creative form of sarcasm, which he plants in many of his characters (all of them male, as it happens); more generally, much of his novel’s tone is fairly dour and cautionary. And the principal thing it’s dour and cautionary about is a very contemporary preoccupation with not having enough money.… Read more »
I can’t easily find words to express my admiration for Bruce Ricker, whom I just learned from a New York Times obituary died last Friday of pneumonia, at age 68. He wasn’t only a man who distributed jazz documentaries and made a few of his own, all of them terrific (including a wonderful tribute to Brubeck, In His Own Sweet Way, which made my ten-best list last year), and who also played what I’m sure was incalculable role in advising Clint Eastwood in his multiple jazz ventures. He was also a lawyer, the literary executor of Seymour Krim, and an amazing human being. I already miss him, and cherish my memories of him. [5/19/11]
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Here are my reviews of two Malick films that I like much more than The Tree of Life, written almost a quarter of a century apart.
First, my review of Badlands from the November 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin:
Director: Terrence Malick
It would hardly be an exaggeration to call the first half of Badlands a revelation -– one of the best literate examples of narrated American cinema since the early days of Welles and Polonsky. Compositions, actors, and lines interlock and click into place with irreducible economy and unerring precision, carrying us along before we have time to catch our breaths. It is probably not accidental than an early camera set-up of Kit on his garbage route recalls the framing of a neighborhood street that introduced us to the social world of Rebel Without a Cause: the doomed romanticism courted by Kit and dispassionately recounted by Holly immediately evokes the Fifties world of Nicholas Ray -– and more particularly, certain Ray-influenced (and narrated) works of Godard, like Pierrot le fou and Bande à part. Terrence Malick’s eye, narrative sense, and handling of affectless violence are all recognizably Godardian, but they flourish in a context more easily identified with Ray.… Read more »
Until recently, it has appeared that the Library of America has completely embraced the contemporary gentrification of “trashy” crime fiction to the highest ranks of literary canonization while it has almost as completely rejected the premise of according this same treatment, or anything that even distantly approaches it, to science fiction or western fiction. (I’ve already posted a little bit about this issue, last month.) But now that Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. have recently entered LOA’s Hall of Fame, I wonder how unreasonable it might be to hope that, say, Ray Bradbury (see below), Fredric Brown, Robert Heinlein, Henry Kuttner and/or C.L. Moore (see below), and Theodore Sturgeon (see below), among others, might be among the next in line for consideration. (I wouldn’t presume to list any candidates for canonizing western fiction.)
There will always be differences and disputes regarding LOA’s choices, of course. And the fact that I prefer Philip K. Dick’s Pi in the Sky to most of the 13 other Dick novels selected by Jonathan Letham for LOA, or that I value Charles Willeford’s four Hoke Moseley novels of the 1980s as literature far more than his second novel, Pick-up (1955), doesn’t factor in various other considerations, such as editor Robert Polito selecting Pick-up as one of the five novels included in LOA’s American Noir of the 1950s volume, whereas there isn’t an American Noir of the 1980s volume edited by anyone.… Read more »
Below are some images from José María de Orb’s Aita (Father), a very beautiful Basque film that was just awarded the best feature prize at FICUNAM — a new film festival in Mexico City, held at the enormous and very impressive-looking Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México, where I was privileged to be president of the international feature film competition jury. My fellow jurors were Sergei Dvortsevoy, Emmanuel Burdeau, Nicolás Echevarría, and Roberto Fiesco Trejo, and we viewed sixteen features in all.
Here is our statement about our selection:
“We would like to thank this brand-new festival for adopting the overall strategy of challenging viewers rather than following more traditional paths.
“The three films we have selected are very different from one other, but one important thing they have in common is the struggle and the uncertainties about living in the present in relation to the weight of the past.
“We would first of all like to give a special mention to a very original comedy from Uruguay that confronts the so-called death of cinema with charm, modesty, and precision. Our special mention goes to La vida útil by Federico Veiroj.
“Our selection of best director goes to a filmmaker whose story about the love between a father and daughter plays against the uncertainties of life, sex, and death in relation to the cataclysmic transition in Greece from peasant culture to industrialization.… Read more »
One more photo of a family theater, this one taken at a war bond rally and furnished to me by my brother Alvin. My parents, standing on top of the marquee, are just above the letter E; my grandfather, on the ground, can be seen under the second S, in front of the one-sheet advertising the current attraction, Thank Your Lucky Stars. [2/17/11]
… Read more »
Note: Unlike some of my colleagues, when I say “available,” I mean in this case available on region-2 discs that can be played on multiregional players, which are easy and inexpensive to come by.
By the Law aka Dura Lex (Po kanonu), directed by Lev Kuleshov 1926 from a script by Viktor Shklovsky that’s adapted from a Jack London’s story (“The Unexpected”), packaged with an 18-minute fragment of Kulshov’s 1927 Your Acquaintance and a bilingual, illustrated 16-page booklet, is available from www.edition-filmmuseum.com for a little under 20 Euros via PayPal.
The other two DVDs are of Alexander Dozhenko’s first two masterpieces, Zvenigora (1928), seen above, and Arsenal (1929), seen below. (In both cases, as in By the Law, these frame-grabs come from my own reviewer copies, and were selected almost at random.) The two Dovzhenkos are currently available from an English company, Mr. Bongo that previously released an excellent version of Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), the final feature in what is sometimes called his silent war trilogy, which my west coast colleague Doug Cummings was kind enough to alert me to. From February 14, when Zvenigora and Arsenal are being released, English Amazon is offering each for just under 8 pounds (a little under $13), an incredible bargain.… Read more »