Commissioned for a 2011 collection in French devoted to the work of Marylène Negro. My friend Nicole Brenez, who engineered this commission and who translated this piece into French, added a couple of footnotes that I’ve adapted and appropriated here. — J.R.
“I don’t believe in a cinema of literary narrative,” Abbas Kiarostami says in Around Five (2005), “but I don’t believe that cinema can exist without telling a story.” He elucidates this paradox by arguing that viewers consciously or unconsciously impose their own narratives, even on still photographs. And indeed, Roads of Kiarostami [see illustration below], a 32-minute film which Kiarostami also made in 2005, largely consists of imposing his own narratives on his own black-and-white photographs, all of which show roads passing through landscapes. The imposed narratives in this case consist of zooming in and out of or panning across these photographs, which are initially connected to one another by lap dissolves, and then of Kiarostami speaking in voiceover about how and why these photographs came to be taken.
To contemplate roads passing through seemingly uninhabited landscapes — which is what Kiarostami mainly does, and is what Marylène Negro does in her 22-minute film Seeland, also made in 2005 — is fundamentally to ask two different questions: what is nature with and without mankind, and what is narrative?… Read more »
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 »
Written for a Sara Driver retrospective at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, held in early November 2011. — J.R.
All four of Sara Driver’s works belong to what the French call la fantastique – a conflation of fantasy with surrealism, science fiction, comics, horror, sword-and-sorcery, and the supernatural that stretches all the way from art cinema to exploitation by way of Hollywood. But it’s hard to find many other stylistic affinities between them, and only a few thematic overlaps. A 48-minute piece of Poelike horror set inside the mind of a schizophrenic in rural New Jersey (You Are Not I, 1981), closely adapted from a Paul Bowles story; a pulpy, scary feature-length fantasy about Oriental curses set over a few blocks in lower Manhattan (Sleepwalk, 1986); a gentle, nonscary comedy partly inspired by the whimsical 1937 Hollywood feature Topper, about the encounter between a jazz musician and two female ghosts in a small seaport town (When Pigs Fly, 1993); and a short documentary about the history and diverse arcane local details of Driver’s own neighborhood (The Bowery, 1994), which also served as the setting for the very different Sleepwalk.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t various connections between these works going well beyond the recurrence of various collaborators.… 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.
… Read more »
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 »
Some of the most successful and fruitful ongoing enterprises related to film history have been either ignored or taken for granted (which sometimes amounts to the same thing) due to their omnipresence. In book publishing, the two most outstanding examples that come to mind are, in France, the series of monographs devoted to film directors issued by Seghers(which finally expired many years ago, I believe in the 70s or 80s) and, in the U.K., the BFI Classics and BFI Modern Classics, launched in 1992 and, to be the best of my knowledge, still going strong.
Considerably more formidable is the series of 80-odd French television documentaries about filmmakers produced by Janine Bazin (the widow of André Bazin) and André S. Labarthe, initially called Cinéastes de notre temps when it was produced by the ORTF between 1964 and 1972, and revived as Cinéma, de notre temps when it was produced by Arte between 1990 and 2003, the year that Janine Bazin died, and then taken up again by Cinécinéma in 2006. Some of the more interesting of the earlier documentaries were remarkable in the various ways that they stylistically imitated their subjects, as in the programs on Cassavetes, Samuel Fuller, and Josef von Sternberg.… Read more »
This was put together at Victoria’s instigation when both of us were employed in the Art History department at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010-2011 (probably during the latter portion). It hasn’t appeared elsewhere. — J.R.
VHFS: What medium is more modernist, television or film?
JR: For me, it’s fairly obvious that film (from, say, the Lumière brothers to Pedro Costa) is quintessentially modernist and television, from the live transmission of the 1950s to “reality TV,” is quintessentially postmodernist. One could find notable exceptions, of course, such as Ernie Kovacs’ highly modernist comic experiments in the 50s and (say) Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s and Quentin Tarantino’s appropriations of TV in their films, which I consider far more important than their appropriations of (or, rather, derivations from) Jean-Luc Godard.
For me, the parts of film history that matter the most are invariably the parts that counteract or refute the so-called “realism” of the medium (pace André Bazin) in a modernist direction, whereas I would argue that the televisual alienation of Fassbinder and Tarantino (among others) doesn’t even know sufficiently what realism is or could be or should be in order to counteract or refute it.
VHFS: Despite those exceptions, what makes film essentially modernist and television postmodernist?… Read more »
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 »
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
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 »