Yearly Archives: 2011

Subversion and Sexiness in Three Hollywood Depression Comedies

As much as I admire Ernest Lubitsch as a subversive force in 30s Hollywood, especially for The Man I Killed and Trouble in Paradise, I keep coming back to a particular anti-Lubitsch argument made to me by Elaine May, of all people, the one time I was lucky enough to meet her (in Bologna the summer before last). According to her argument, if I remember it correctly, Lubitsch pretended to be more daring, free, and worldly and less middle-class than his films actually were; her main example was Heaven Can Wait, which I suspect irked her in part on feminist grounds. When I asked her if she meant that Lubitsch was roughly akin to someone like H.L. Mencken, she said, “Exactly.”

I remembered this conversation when I recently went through Criterion’s excellent two-disc edition of Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933), including an interesting interview with Joseph McBride about the script that I saw before reseeing the feature, and William Paul’s superb analysis of both Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living, which I saw just afterwards. McBride is very good about Lubitsch’s collaboration(s) with Ben Hecht (screenwriter) and Noel Coward (playwright), and Paul is especially acute about the way the usual terms of praise heaped on Lubitsch (such as “sparkling” and “frothy”), which often relate to food and drink metaphors, are actually instruments for undermining the seriousness beneath his playfulness.… Read more »

Raúl Ruiz’s Interactivity: Some Reflections on His Evolution

Written in late November 2011 for a book on Ruiz published by the Spanish Cinematheque. A shorter version appears with the Blu-Ray of the theatrical version of Mysteries of Lisbon released in 2012 by Music Box Films. Apologies for some of the format problems below. — J.R.

It was disconcerting to see a passage from a 1997 article of mine about Raúl Ruiz quoted in several of his mainstream obituaries: “Ruiz is the least neurotic of filmmakers; he doesn’t even seem to care whether what he’s doing is good or not.” Not because this was false when I wrote it but because it related to my earliest encounters with his work and its seeming challenges to film commerce, not to his better known big-budget efforts such as Marcel Proust’s Time Regained and Klimt.

This is why some of these latter films disappointed me, pointing towards what Ruiz himself frankly described to me in a 2002 interview as a “capitulation”.Read more »

THE AGE OF MOVIES : “Globalized” Kael

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 »

Reflections on “List-o-mania”

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 2011). — J.R.

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It’s a fairly safe bet that “List-o-mania,” first published in June 25, 1998, was the most popular piece I published in the Reader during my 20 years there as film reviewer, roughly halfway through my stint there. I suspect its appeal had a lot to do with the growing popularity of movie lists ever since the video market started expanding the choices of most viewers.

Like a commercially successful Hollywood feature, “List-o-mania” had its share of sequels and spinoffs. Retitled “The AFI’s Contribution to Movie Hell,” it became a chapter in my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000), a rant that received over a hundred reviews despite the fact that its small Chicago publisher (a cappella books, a division of Chicago Review Press) couldn’t afford much advertising, aside from freebies in the Reader, and I never even met my publicist there.

In the book, I added in a footnote a list of 25 titles in the AFI’s list that I probably would have included if I’d started my own list from scratch. Then, as an appendix to my 2004 collection Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Johns Hopkins University Press), I compiled a chronological list of my 1000 favorite films, with asterisks next to my 100 crème de la crème, this time including shorts as well as features and non-American as well as American items—a list to which I added 60 more titles in my Afterword to the 2008 paperback.Read more »

Apology

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., 10/1/11Read more »

Misrepresented History, Displaced Emotion

Written in mid-July 2011 as my 22nd bimonthly column (“El movimiento”) for Cahiers du cinéma España, which might be described as a Spanish extension (rather than the Spanish “edition”) of Cahiers du cinéma. A Spanish translation of this appeared in their September issue, no. 48. — J.R.

We all have different biases and thresholds when it comes to formulating our separate perceptions of history. Recently reading J. Hoberman’s new book, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, which I mainly find an apt ideological reading of Hollywood in the early 1950s, I experienced a rude shock when I read his interpretations of two 1950 features, William Wellman’s The Next Voice You Hear (a very strange suburban family drama about God addressing the world over the radio) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In both cases these interpretations were predicated on the assumption that both the Hollywood studios of 1950 and their audiences were preoccupied with television: “The Next Voice You Hear is of 1950 but not in it: the Smiths [the film’s archetypal central family] do not own a television set because, like God, TV cannot be shown on the screen.” And Sunset Boulevard “displaces Hollywood’s current crisis [i.e., the coming of television] to the technological crisis of twenty years earlier — the coming of sound.”

Hoberman is five years younger than me, so he was only two years old when these films came out, and he first saw The Next Voice You Hear in 1970, on television.… Read more »

Recommended: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES by Sarah Kozloff

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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On Robin Wood’s TRAMMEL UP THE CONSEQUENCE

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.

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The Curiosity of SKIDOO

From the online Moving Image Source (July 20, 2011),  — J.R

Everybody has their own Laurel and Hardy. A miniature Laurel and Hardy, one on each shoulder. Your little Oliver Hardy bawls you out -– he says, “Well, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” And your little Stan Laurel gets all weepy -– “Oh, Ollie, I couldn’t help it, I’m sorry, I did the best I could….”

– Groucho Marx on LSD

 

Living in a garbage can be a lot of fun….
Life is always equal in the can….

– the first and last lines of Skidoo’s Garbage Can Ballet

Seeing works of art, including films, in terms of success or failure, smash or flop, can be a form of tyranny, a limiting of options — not to mention a recipe for boredom, especially if one has no monetary stake in the outcome, which is true in most cases. So to say that Otto Preminger’s Skidoo –- which has finally become available on a letterboxed DVD, released by Olive Films -– failed at the boxoffice in 1968 and fails today, as it failed 43 years ago, as a lighthearted comedy, while certainly accurate, may not be the most helpful thing to say about it.… Read more »

Restoration Heaven: Il Cinema Ritrovato [2011]

Written for Sight and Sound‘s blog in July 2011. — J.R.

Not exactly a film festival or a conference in the usual sense, Il Cinema Ritrovato has many of the benefits of each without their professional drawbacks -– namely the frantic boom-or-bust atmosphere promulgated by the entertainment press at Cannes, and the relative dullness and institutional oppressiveness of a long succession of academic papers.

A relaxed yet intense eight-day bash devoted to film restorations, Il Cinema Ritrovato is held over some of the hottest days of the summer in the oldest university town in Europe, and sponsored by one of film restoration’s leading institutions, the Cineteca Bologna, which boasts the rejuvenation of Charlie Chaplin’s works among its achievements. Frequented chiefly by teachers, students, archivists, programmers, film historians and various others involved with restoration (such as people working for various DVD labels), the events are usually split between three auditoriums in the daytime –- although this year a fourth screen was added, making for many more choices as well as conflicts -– followed by huge, free outdoor screenings for everyone in the Piazza Maggiore every evening.

Whether the individual attractions are populist (among the Piazza restorations this year were Nosferatu (1922) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) with full-scale orchestral -– and in the latter case vocal -– accompaniments, Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), the 1940 Thief of Bagdad and Taxi Driver (1976)) or more specialized (some of this year’s retrospective subjects were Boris Barnet, Albert Capellani, early Howard Hawks, Elia Kazan and educational documentaries by Eric Rohmer, Maurice Tourneur and Conrad Veidt), the opportunities to reevaluate film history are plentiful.Read more »

IL CINEMA RITROVATO DVD AWARDS 2011 (Bologna, Italy)

IL CINEMA RITROVATO

DVD AWARDS 2011

VIII edition

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.

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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 »

Albert Brooks, Woody Allen, and Money

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 »

The Death of a Jazz Saint

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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Reviews of Two Terrence Malick Films

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:

U.S.A., 1973
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 »