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 »
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 »
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 »
I’ve already blurbed this book, both on this site for its French edition and on Amazon for its e-book Kindle edition (where you can also read a couple of perceptive five-star reviews from other fans), so let me just reiterate here that if you haven’t yet checked this sucker out, you’ve got a lot of unhealthy fun awaiting you. [4/17/13]… Read more »
This is my 31st “En movimiento” column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as the Spanish Cahiers du Cinéma, written in late March, 2013.
For other thoughts of mine about Resnais, here are a few links:
After recently having caught up with Alain Resnais’ magisterial Vous n’avez encore rien vu, I belatedly discovered from diverse sources on the Internet that “Axel Reval,” the credited cowriter on both this film and Les herbes folles, is in fact a Resnais pseudonym, making it a typically sly acknowledgment of the personal nature of his filmmaking, which has been an essential part of his work since the 1950s. Remember the glimpse of the Mandrake the Magician comic strip found in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Toute la mémoire du monde? One could even argue that the fact that personal moments of this kind tend to be veiled or masked in Resnais only makes them more intense, as they sometimes are in the films of Sternberg. (Claude Ollier’s alternate title for The Saga of Anatahan: My Heart Laid Bare.)
Indeed, it might make an interesting exercise to run through Resnais’ oeuvre picking out such intense but half-hidden and fleeting details spelling out his personal investments in the films.… Read more »
Given to Indiewire in March 2013:
THE SPIELBERG POLL
You may vote for up to 5 films.
1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
BEST DIRECTING JOB
You may vote for up to 5 films.
2. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE
You get five votes. Remember to list both an actor’s name and the title of the film he or she appears in.
1. Haley Joel Osment (David) in A.I. Artificial Intelligence
2. John Belushi (Captain Wild Bill Kelso) in 1941
BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE
You get five votes. Remember to list both an actor’s name and the title of the film he or she appears in.
1. Teddy (teddy bear/prop/special effect) in A.I. Artificial Intelligence
2. Jude Law (Gigolo Joe) in A.I. Artificial Intelligence
You get five votes. Feel free to include an explanation of why a certain scene/moment/sequence made your list.
1. last scene in A.I. (emotional virtuosity and bleakness)
2. restaurant sequence in 1941 (technical virtuosity and exhilaration)
You get five votes. Include the character name and the film in which he/she appears.
1. Haley Joel Osment (David) in A.I.… Read more »
Written for the February 2013 issue of Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, as one of my bimonthly columns for that magazine (“En movimiento”). It continues to amaze me how American movies who preach the inescapable inevitability of corruption in American life — Citizen Kane, the Godfather films, and now Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty — are invariably regarded as more profound and much likelier to wind up as Oscar fodder than those that are less resigned to accepting corruption. — J.R.
Two inordinately praised big-studio releases of the holiday season, Lincoln and Argo, seem to depend in part on the innocence of the American audience in order to score their ideological successes. The first of these, a high-minded art movie, starts with a familiar subject, while the second –- which, I must confess, I’ve only sampled — incorporates the relative unfamiliarity of Iranian culture as part of its action-thriller mechanics. That both films have been overpraised seems hard to dispute; “Long after its commercial run, Lincoln will remain an invaluable teaching tool,” Joe Morgenstern declared characteristically in the Wall Street Journal, while Rex Reed, no less typically in the New York Observer, called Argo, “A movie that defines perfection.… Read more »
That’s me on the extreme right, next to my new boss at the time, Richard Combs. The address is 81 Dean Street, the main headquarters at the time of the British Film Institute. I’d started my new job there as assistant editor of Monthly Film Bulletin on August 5, working under Richard, and had joined the staff’s trades union, ASTMS, around the same time. But only a week or so later, after the National Film Archive’s acting curator, Kevin Gough-Yates, was summarily sacked, I attended my first union meeting, and seconded the motion that we go on strike to protest management’s refusal to follow proper procedures.
Our strike lasted a couple of weeks, and, as I recall, it was mainly successful. For me, it was an ideal way to get to know many of my fellow staffers at the BFI, and I also successfully collared Otto Preminger, emerging from an editing studio next door, where he was working on Rosebud, to sign our petition. (I had watched a morning’s shoot on Rosebud in Paris a month or so earlier and had been part of Preminger’s lunch party, so he remembered me.) According to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith in The British Film Institute, the government and film culture, 1933-2000, a recent book from Manchester University Press that he coedited and partially wrote (which is where this photo comes from), “Preminger sent a message from his suite at the Dorchester Hotel”.… Read more »
My 30th “En Movimiento” column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as the Spanish Cahiers du Cinema, written in late January, 2013. — J.R.
The debates about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty in the United States have been substantial. Critical positions have ranged from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s measured defense at mubi.com/notebook/posts to Steve Coll’s attack in The New York Review of Books (to cite two of the less hysterical and more intelligent responses), and have only been exacerbated by the five Academy Award nominations the film has received. When I finally saw the film myself, it was apparent that part of the controversy derived from a certain ambiguity in the film’s depiction of torture, made all the more ambiguous by the filmmakers’ misleading and mainly unconvincing claims of political neutrality — a battle still being waged in the February issue of Sight and Sound, where Nick James, the editor of that English monthly, begs to differ with the negative judgments of two of his writers towards the film, even though he concedes that Bigelow’s naïve contention that “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge” has only helped to confuse matters. I agree with James that the climactic killing of Osama bin Laden registers largely as a hollow and morally dubious victory, but I also believe that the film’s commercially motivated attempt to be circumspect about its overall critical position makes it easy to misinterpret.… Read more »