One of the most debilitating facets of contemporary media discourse, at least in the U.S., is the unspoken assumption that serious discussion about such topics as torture, mass murder, and slavery can only enter the mainstream public sphere once it becomes tied to the sale of a current movie, regardless of how inane or or superficial or inadequate its treatment of that subject might be. If our discussion of American slavery can essentially be licensed by Django Unchained, which appeared to be the case last year, then I suppose 12 Years a Slave could be regarded as a partial corrective, even after one factors in the restrictive aspect of focusing on the relatively exceptional case of a non-slave forced to become a slave for many years. For me, the treatment of slavery as something relevant to both the present and more than just the U.S., in Pedro Costa’s sublime Sweet Exorcist (his half-hour episode in Centro Historico), is a more valid corrective and carries much greater force, not least because it has some access to poetry –- which, I would insist, is a crucial source of knowledge -– and beauty, and not merely to exploitation-movie assaults. Even though, paradoxically, Costa’s gives us the poetic insight without the concrete information that produces it.… Read more »
Gary Groth of Fantagraphics Books commissioned me to write this Introduction to the first volume of Charles Schulz’s Sunday color strips of Peanuts, covering the early 1950s, which was published in November 2013. — J.R.
“…I’ve made a lot of mistakes down through the years doing things I
never should have done. But fortunately, in a comic strip, yesterday
doesn’t mean anything. The only thing that matters is today and tomorrow.”
— Charles Schultz to Gary Groth (“At 3 O’clock in the Morning,”
Comics Journal #200, December 1997)
It was one thing to read Sunday color Peanuts comic strips from 1952 to 1955 at the rate of one per week, when they came out — and not only because they would have wound up in the trash like the rest of the Sunday paper, long before my brothers and I went to sleep that night. And it’s quite another thing to read them all today, piled together in the present volume, one after the other, seven or eight panels at a time, as if they’re the successive chapters of an ongoing serial — or maybe just the latest portions of an endless white picket fence that stretches towards some version of infinity or eternity (or at least roughly half a century of dependable continuity, in any case).… Read more »
A shorter version of these responses appeared with the responses of several other film critics in the November 2013 issue of Verite Magazine, a digital monthly. — J.R.
Film Criticism “Then and Now”:
1.How has film criticism and the role of a film critic evolved since you first started?
One very striking change is the inordinate number of surveys of this kind that exist now as opposed to then. Even after I factor in the frequency with which I’m asked to participate nowadays, because of being better known today than I was in the 1970s, I think the interest in film criticism as a topic has grown quite a bit.
Thanks to academia, the Internet, and other factors, there are many more forms of criticism and outlets for its dissemination now. We also have more ways of discovering these forms and outlets in the present, at least if we’re interested. The conversations and exchanges begin more quickly and can travel much greater distances. There’s much more good stuff and much more bad stuff, which means the task of determining and then focusing on what one is looking for becomes much more complicated — unless one is passive and simply follows the industry’s discourse, which of course is what most people tend to do, one way or another, and what most people also tended to do half a century ago.… Read more »
Written in early October for “En movimiento,” my bimonthly column for Caimán Cuadaernos de Cine, written in alternation with Adrian Martin, for their November 2013 issue. — J.R.
It was a little over 25 years ago, shortly after I moved to Chicago, that I first encountered the staggering work of Peter Thompson, a local independent filmmaker I’d never heard of. I saw his first four films (he was never to make more than six) –- two “diptychs” consisting of films about his parents (Two Portraits, both made in 1981) and Universal Hotel and Universal Citizen, both made in 1986, exploring respectively eleven photographs and two drawings of a Polish POW who was frozen and then thawed by a German prostitute as part of a Nazi experiment and Thompson’s attempts to photograph a Libyan Jewish smuggler and former Dachau inmate in a Guatemalan jungle. Not long afterwards, seeing Thompson interviewed one afternoon on local TV, I felt an urgent desire to become friends with him, and we met soon afterwards.
Eventually we became neighbors as well as good friends, and I saw his two subsequent films, the 83-minute El movimiento, (2003), charting the complicated relationship over a decade between himself, an American anthropologist (William C.… Read more »
I never expected to see any Margarethe von Trotta movie more than once, but Hannah Arendt proved to be well worth a second look. Some of my reasons for going back are undoubtedly personal; Arendt’s husband, Heinrich Blücher, astutely played in the film by Axel Milberg, is by far the greatest teacher I’ve ever had, two of whose seminars at Bard College I was fortunate to take, and Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, the main focus of the film, appeared in The New Yorker during the same period. The controversy it sparked among New York intellectuals at the time made it the major topic of discussion among visiting speakers; I can recall lengthy conversations I had or overheard with Harold Rosenberg and Dwight Macdonald, among many others who came to campus during that period. (Lionel Abel, perhaps the most intemperate of Arendt’s foes, also came, but as I recall I went out of my way to avoid broaching the subject with him.) And there were plenty of snack-bar dialogues at Bard with Blücher on the same subject.
For me, part of the singularity of both Blücher and Arendt (whom I met only briefly, once in their Riverside Drive apartment) was the degree to which art, politics, philosophy, moral seriousness, and a remarkable passion for ethics interfaced in their discourse and lives with an unflagging intensity, and what I cherish most about von Trotta’s movie is the degree to which she — and, above all, Barbara Sukowa as Arendt — capture this.… Read more »
Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto
By Jonas Mekas
As you well know it was God who created this Earth and everything on it. And he thought it was all great. All painters and poets and musicians sang and celebrated the creation and that was all OK. But not for real. Something was missing. So about 100 years ago God decided to create the motion picture camera. And he did so. And then he created a filmmaker and said, “Now here is an instrument called the motion picture camera. Go and film and celebrate the beauty of the creation and the dreams of human spirit, and have fun with it.”
But the devil did not like that. So he placed a money bag in front of the camera and said to the filmmakers, ‘Why do you want to celebrate the beauty of the world and the spirit of it if you can make money with this instrument?” And, believe it or not, all the filmmakers ran after the money bag. The Lord realized he had made a mistake. So, some 25 years later, to correct his mistake, God created independent avant-garde filmmakers and said, “Here is the camera. Take it and go into the world and sing the beauty of all creation, and have fun with it. … Read more »
The following was written for CITIZEN PETER, a very handsomely produced and multilingual 476-page book celebrating the late Peter von Bagh’s 70th birthday, in late August 2013, coedited by Antti Alanen and Olaf Möller. — J.R.
Peter von Bagh is the man who convinced me to purchase my first multiregional VCR in the early 1980s. So he has a lot to answer for — including, just for starters, my DVD column in Cinema Scope.
We’ve met at various times in Paris, London, New York, Southern California, Chicago, Helsinki, Sodankylä, and Bologna — and probably in other places as well, although these are the ones I currently remember. The first times were in Paris in the early 1970s, when he looked me up, and it must have been either in San Diego in 1977 or 1978 or in Santa Barbara between 1983 and 1987 that he convinced me to buy a multiregional VCR. Most likely it was the latter, where I was mainly bored out of my wits apart from my pastime of taping movies from cable TV, and Peter maintained that if we started swapping films through the mail, a multiregional VCR would allow me to play some of the treasures he could send me.… Read more »
Sight and Sound commissioned the following from me for its “Home Cinema” feature in its September 2013 issue, but then, without telling me (or explaining why), decided not to use it. — J.R.
I haven’t yet caught up with Jerry Lewis’ spotty directing for TV, such as his episodes for Ben Casey (1964) and The Bold Ones (1970) or — more intriguing — L’uomo d’oro, fifteen two-minute sketches made for Italian TV in 1971. But there’s no doubt that his main creative bond with television is from live broadcasts — chiefly appearances with Dean Martin between 1948 and the mid-1950s in which the cascading, anarchic improvs, significantly erupting during one of America’s most repressive periods, made the whole notion of any plotted mise en scène superfluous. Luckily, I did get to see a late manifestation of this tendency in the mainly live segments of the 90-minute L’invité du dimanche in 1971, when Lewis, using hardly a single word of French, held a large audience captive (including Jean-Pierre Cassel, Louis Malle, and Pierre Etaix, virtually at his feet) with his prolonged and highly inventive antics. Just as no one turns to Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) for proof of Richard Pryor’s genius, or even cares about who directed Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Lewis’s distinction as an auteur, both dangerous and enduring, is founded on the threat of his physical presence.… Read more »
It seems that class anxiety has become Woody Allen’s key and obsessive theme ever since his movies started to become “serious”, and it’s usually around in some form even in the purer comedies. Indeed, almost all of the cultural concerns of his work wind up having something to do with class issues — almost as if Allen really believed the crazy American myth that espresso and wealth are inextricably interconnected. The main fantasy about expatriate American bohemians in Midnight in Paris isn’t really about art; it’s about Hemingway or somebody like that stepping into a cab and not worrying about having to pay the driver (which F. Scott Fitzgerald or T.S. Eliot can always take care of), and if Gertrude Stein likes your novel, the bottom line is social acceptance and approval, not artistic license or accomplishment.
From this point of view, Blue Jasmine represents Allen’s coming-out film, by virtue of placing his class anxieties front and center, not through embarking on any themes that are significantly new for him. The vague use of A Streetcar Named Desire (movie and play) as a loose model, with Cate Blanchett serving as a sort of Yankee Blanche DuBois, parallels the vague uses of A Place in the Sun and An American Tragedy in Match Point.… Read more »
IL CINEMA RITROVATO
DVD AWARDS 2013
Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, chaired by Peter von Bagh
Because we were faced this year with an embarrassment of riches, we adopted a few new procedures. Apart from creating three new categories for awards, we more generally selected eleven separate releases that we especially valued and only afterwards selected particular categories for each of our choices. We also decided to forego our usual procedure of including individual favorites because doing so would have inflated our choices to seventeen instead of eleven, which is already two more than we selected last year.
Our first new category is the best film or program at this year’s edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato that we would most like to see released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Our selection in this case is the French TV series Bonjour Mr Lewis (1982) by Robert Benayoun.
For best extras or special features, we made two selections:
BEST SPECIAL FEATURES ON DVD 2012/2013: RAMEAU’S NEPHEW BY DIDEROT (THANX TO DENNIS YOUNG) BY WILMA SCHOEN (1974) by Michael Snow (Re:Voir Video).… Read more »
Almost seven years have passed since I quoted from the manuscript of this wonderful book in the Introduction to my own Discovering Orson Welles. At that point the subtitle of Todd Tarbox’s book was A Friendship in Four Acts, but if anything, the book has only grown since then, both physically and in terms of readability. In short, it’s been well worth the wait. (June 2014 footnote: For more details, including an excerpt from one of the Welles/Hill conversations, go to Todd Tarbox’s recent radio interview with Rick Kogan, here.) — J.R.
The major and longest-lasting close friendship of Orson Welles’s life was with one of his earliest role models — his teacher, advisor, and theatrical mentor at the Todd School who later became the school’s headmaster, Roger Hill. By editing and arranging many of their recorded conversations at the end of Welles’s life and career, Hill’s grandson, Todd Tarbox, has given us invaluable and candidly intimate glimpses into many of its stages, especially ones towards the beginning and end of that diverse and complicated saga. In the process, he also confounds and complicates the array of “weak” and flawed father figures that populate most of Welles’ films, all the way from Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersonsthrough The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, Don Quixote, and The Other Side of the Wind, with a bracing and ennobling alternative to that pattern, an unwavering relationship of mutual admiration and respect that was a clear source of strength to both of them.… Read more »
From the online Screening the Past, issue 36, posted 17 June 2013. — J.R.
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Christophe Dupin (ed.)
The British Film Institute, the Government and Film Culture, 1933-2000
Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 2012
ISBN: 978 0 7190 7908 5
(Review copy supplied by Footprint Books/Warriewood)
The most interesting job I’ve ever had was my two and a half years of working for the British Film Institute, between 1974 and 1977–as both assistant editor of the Monthly Film Bulletin (under Richard Combs) and staff writer for Sight and Sound (under Penelope Houston, who was directly responsible for my getting hired), occasioning at the time a move from Paris to London. This is what sparked my particular interest in this impressively detailed history, coedited and mostly written (apart from four of its 15 chapters) by the University of London’s Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and the International Federation of Film Archives’ Christophe Dupin after more than six years of research—and the fact that it retails for $95 at Amazon in the U.S. and 65 quid at Amazon in the U.K. meant that the only reasonable way I could acquire it was to ask to review it. (By contrast, my hardcover copy of Ivan Butler’s long out-of-print and much sketchier–albeit useful–208-page “To encourage the art of the film”: The Story of the British Film Institute [London: Robert Hale, 1971], which includes a comparable number of illustrations, carries a price of only £2.30on its flyleaf.)
This is a pity, because it’s the sort of book that should be more widely available to more than the university libraries that can still afford it.… Read more »
Born July 24, 1944, San Mareno, California. Died May 23, 2013, Chicago, Illinois.
Here’s something I said at a special tribute to Peter held in his presence at Columbia College, on October 4, 2012:
“For me, Peter Thompson is one of those special filmmakers who reinvents cinema for his own purposes, a trait that he shares not only with people like Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, and Jacques Tati, but also with filmmakers like Chaplin, Welles, and Kubrick.
“On some level, all of Peter’s films are mysteries and detective stories, but ones in which Peter is inviting us to join him in becoming the detectives, not in giving us puzzles that he knows how to solve but in inventing new ways for us to share in his curiosity. You might even say that part of the mysteries of his films is determining what they’re about, because in addition to reinventing cinema they might be said to reinvent things like subject matter and research as well as still more difficult-to-define entities such as poetry and history and truth.
“Peter has been a friend for about two decades, but I hasten to add that we became friends because of my enthusiasm for his early work, which existed before we ever met.… Read more »
This very lengthy essay was assembled in 2013 out of several previous pieces of mine, but I no longer recall the occasion for it. — J.R.
One of the problems inherent in using the term “cult” within a contemporary context relating to film, either as a noun or as an adjective, is that it refers to various social structures that no longer exist, at least not in the ways that they once did. When indiscriminate moviegoing (as opposed to going to see particular films) was a routine everyday activity, it was theoretically possible for cults to form around exceptional items — “sleepers,” as they were then called by film exhibitors — that were spontaneously adopted and anointed by audiences rather than generated by advertising. But once advertising started to anticipate and supersede such a selection process, the whole concept of the cult film became dubious at the same time it became more prominent, a marketing term rather than a self-generating social process.
Joe Dante deserves a special place in what I would call the post-cult cinema because he is one of the few commercial American directors I know who has refused to hire a personal publicist, and for tactical reasons — someone, in short, who chooses to be recognized at best only by initiates (that is, by fellow cultists or would-be cultists, his comrades-in-arms) rather than by the public at large.… Read more »