Monthly Archives: September 2016

Robert Frank’s ONE HOUR (1990)

Commissioned by and published in Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, a 2009 German retrospective catalogue published in English. It seems typical, alas, of Frank’s very Swiss anal-retentiveness that neither this video (my favorite audiovisual work of Frank’s) nor any image from it is readily available, which is why I’ve had to resort to pictures of the book version. You can see a few brief glimpses of the video in the fascinating recent documentary Don’t Blink — Robert Frank, showing twice today in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It was produced by Philippe Grandrieux for French television. – J.R.

“I’ve seen La chouette aveugle seven times,” Luc Moullet once wrote of Raúl Ruiz’s intractable masterpiece, “and I know a little less about the film with each viewing.” Apart from being both intractable and a masterpiece, I can’t say Robert Frank’s One Hour [also sometimes known as Sixty Minutes)  has anything in common with the Ruiz film, yet what makes it a masterpiece and intractable is the same paradox: the closer I come to understanding it, the more mysterious it gets.

My first look at this single-take account of Frank and actor Kevin O’Connor either walking or riding in the back of a mini-van through a few blocks of Manhattan”s Lower East Side — shot between 3:45 and 4:45 pm on July 26, 1990 — led me to interpret it as a spatial event capturing the somewhat uncanny coziness and intimacy of New York street life, the curious experience of eavesdropping involuntarily on strangers that seems an essential part of being in Manhattan, an island where so many people are crammed together that the existential challenge of everyday coexistence between them seems central to the city’s energy and excitement.… Read more »

These Magic Moments (THE NEON BIBLE)

From the Chicago Reader (April 5, 1996). — J.R.

The Neon Bible

Directed and written by Terence Davies

With Gena Rowlands, Diana Scarwid, Jacob Tierney, Denis Leary, Leo Burmester, Frances Conroy, and Peter McRobbie.

Two paradoxical facts about Terence Davies’s first film adaptation:

(1) It follows fairly closely The Neon Bible, a novel written by John Kennedy Toole for a literary contest in the mid-50s, when he was 16 — a decade before he finished work on his second novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, and about 15 years before he, still unpublished, committed suicide (A Confederacy of Dunces was published ten years later, The Neon Bible ten years after that). I don’t care much for The Neon Bible, a hackneyed mood piece set in a rural backwater of the deep south, but I think the movie, which seems 100 percent Davies, is wonderful.

(2) Of all the English-speaking films shown at Cannes last May, the two that got the most boorish and least comprehending reception by the English-speaking press were The Neon Bible and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, though for nearly opposite reasons. Jarmusch, who’s long been criticized for coasting along in Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Night on Earth on the same kind of hip humor he virtually invented for Stranger Than Paradise, finally broke free and did something bold, original, political, dark, scary, outspoken, witty, and often beautiful — a black-and-white western that should be opening here sometime next month.… Read more »

Isolationism as a Control System (Part 2)

Chapter Seven of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover  below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press.  Because of the length of this chapter, I’m posting it in two parts. — J.R.

MOVIE WARS

 

TRANSATLANTIC REALITY AVOIDANCE: A REPORT FROM THE FRONT (MAY 1999)

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“ ‘I think, therefore I am,’ ” reads the opening epigraph of The Thirteenth Floor, the fourth virtual‐reality thriller I saw in Chicago in as many weeks in the spring of 1999, followed by the quotation’s source, “Descartes (1596–1650).” It’s an especially pompous beginning for a movie whose characters scarcely think, much less exist, but not an unexpected one given the metaphysical claims and pronouncements that usually inform these thrillers.
EXISTENZ 1

If any thought at all can be deemed the source of these pictures cropping up one after the other — with the exception of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, a film with a lot more than generic commercial kicks on its mind — this might be an especially low estimation of what an audience is looking for at the movies. The assumed desire might be expressed in infantile and emotional terms: “I don’t like the world, take it away.” In other words, the virtual-­reality thriller seems to solve the puzzle of how to address an audience assumed to be interested only in escaping without reminding them of what they’re supposed tobe escaping from.… Read more »

Isolationism as a Control System (Part 1)

Chapter Seven of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover  below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press.  Because of the length of this chapter, I’ll be posting it in two parts. — J.R.

MOVIE WARS

Is it possible that because of the rise of the new media, which have given us the ability to manufacture what we call virtual reality, we are now able, without quite knowing what we are doing, to create a secondary world that we are liable to mistake for the primary world given to our senses at birth? If so, the prime need it serves is probably not political at all but the one Freud identified as the chief motive for dreaming: wish fulfill-­‐ ment—a need catered to both by our luxuriously proliferating sources of entertainment and the means of their support, namely, advertisement of consumer products. In our variant of self-­‐deception, pleasure plays the role that terror plays under totalitarianism.

— Jonathan Schell, “Land of Dreams,” The Nation, January 11/18, 1999

This chapter and the next explore complementary and mutually alienating attitudes: the desire to keep out foreign influences in order to preserve American “purity,” and the fact that what we consider American “purity” is often composed of foreign influences.

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ROOM 237 (and a Few Other Encounters) at the Toronto International Film Festival, 2012

Like so much (too much) of contemporary cinema, Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is at once entertaining and reprehensible. Alternating between the extravagant commentaries of five analysts of Kubrick’s The Shining (Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Julie Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner), it refuses to make any distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic, conceivable or ridiculous, implying that they’re all just “film criticism” and because everyone is a film critic nowadays, they all deserve to be treated with equal amounts of respect and/or mockery (assuming that one can distinguish between the two) -– that is, uncritically and derisively, with irony as the perpetual escape hatch. Thus we’re told, in swift succession, that The Shining is basically about the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, Kubrick’s apology for having allegedly faked all the Apollo moon-landing footage, the Outlook Hotel’s “impossible” architecture, and/or Kubrick’s contemplation of his own boredom and/or genius. Images from the movie and/or digital alterations of same are made to verify or ridicule these various premises, or maybe both, and past a certain point it no longer matters which of these possibilities are more operative. Unlike his five experts, Ascher won’t take the risk of being wrong himself by behaving like a critic and making comparative judgments about any of the arguments or positions shown, so he inevitably winds up undermining criticism itself by making it all seem like a disreputable, absurd activity.Read more »

Diane Johnson

The following was written in April 2010 for a projected volume on Stanley Kubrick that was being prepared at the time by the Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, who commissioned this and a few other pieces by me for it. For a variety of reasons, including the discontinuation of the magazine, the book has never appeared, and the editor, James Hughes, has recently (and very kindly) given me permission to post it here. — J.R.

The reasons given most often of why Stanley Kubrick collaborated in 1979 with this woman on the script for The Shining are confirmed by Johnson herself (in an essay about her eleven weeks of work with him, “Writing The Shining” — one of the best accounts of working with Kubrick that we have): her 1974 psychological novel The Shadow Knows, which he briefly considered adapting, and her expertise about Gothic fiction. To this one should add her sharp critical intelligence, apparent in both her fiction and her non-fiction. The latter ranges from her superb 1982 collection Terrorists and Novelists to her 1984 Life of Dashiell Hammett, and from her introductions to novels by the Bronte sisters, Stendhal, Wharton, and Voltaire to her canny 2005 guidebook Into a Paris Quartier.… Read more »

Shelley Winters

The following was written in April 2010 for a projected volume on Stanley Kubrick that was being prepared at the time by the Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, who commissioned this and a few other pieces by me for it. For a variety of reasons, including the discontinuation of the magazine, the book has never appeared, and the editor, James Hughes, has very kindly given me permission to post it here. —- J.R.

Shelley Winters performance as Lolita’s Charlotte Haze offers one of the best refutations of the notion that Kubrick was a misogynist who could depict women only as bitches like Marie Windsor in The Killing or as bimbos. (Maybe Christiane Kubrick in the last scene of Paths of Glory, then known as Susan Christian, is another counter-example, but unlike Charlotte, she hardly has time to register as a character.) Winters’ overbearing yet highly vulnerable culture vulture, who has to bear the full brunt of both Humbert Humbert’s patronizing and his private scorn, is portrayed with genuine warmth and sympathy — indeed, more of both than can be found in Nabokov’s novel or original screenplay.

This friend and one-time flat mate of Marilyn Monroe, whose stint with the Actors Studio preceded and probably encouraged her own, Winters (1920-2006), born Shirley Schrift, has suffered no less from the stigma of playing dumb blondes when Hollywood sexism was at its height, implanting the similarly false impression that she was as dumb and as unlettered as her characters.… Read more »

Early Kubrick: An Exchange with James Naremore

The following was written in February 2009 for a projected volume on Stanley Kubrick that was being prepared at the time by the Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, which commissioned this and a few shorter pieces by me for it, including a short “sidebar” text about James Naremore’s On Kubrick, written in April 2010, which I’ve appended to our exchange. For a variety of reasons, including the discontinuation of the magazine, the book has never appeared, and the editor, James Hughes, gave me permission to post it here, originally in September 2013….I obviously guessed wrong when I surmised here that Kubrick’s family would probably keep Fear and Desire “off the market”. — J.R.

Early Kubrick: An Exchange

By Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore

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Dear Jim,

As you note in your book on Kubrick, he removed his first feature, Fear and Desire (1953), from circulation at some point during the 60s. I know this couldn’t have been during the early 60s because I saw it for the first time in 1961 or ‘62, at the Charles Theater, a legendary, eclectic arthouse on the Lower East Side, when I was a freshman at NYU.

Even though our aesthetic and political tastes are pretty similar, one thing that divides us about Kubrick is that you tend to prefer his second feature, Killer’s Kiss (1955), to his first, while I opt for its predecessor.Read more »

Full Metal Jacket

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1987). — J.R.

Stanley Kubrick shares with Orson Welles and Carl Dreyer the role of the Great Confounder — remaining supremely himself while frustrating every attempt to anticipate his next move or to categorize it once it registers. This odd 1987 adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, with script-writing assistance from Michael Herr as well as Hasford, has more to do with the general theme of colonization (of individuals and countries alike) and the suppression by male soldiers of their female traits than with the specifics of Vietnam or the Tet offensive. Elliptical, full of subtle inner rhymes (for instance, the sound cues equating a psychopathic marine in the first part with a dying female sniper in the second), and profoundly moving, this is the most tightly crafted Kubrick film since Dr. Strangelove, as well as the most horrific; the first section alone accomplishes most of what The Shining failed to do. With Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, and R. Lee Ermey. R, 116 min. (JR)

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Cul-de-sac

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.

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Roman Polanski’s second British film (Repulsion was the first) is a mean little absurdist comedy (1966) set on a remote Northumberland island; it’s also one of the best and purest of all his works. An odd couple (Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorleac) living in an isolated castle find their world invaded by two doomed gangsters on the run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran), and the ensuing standoffs are funny, cruel, disquieting, and unpredictable, especially after various other unwelcome guests turn up. Stander is especially goodthis may be the definitive performance of the blacklisted gravel-voiced character actor, best known for his 30s and 40s work. With Robert Dorning and Iain Quarrier; watch for Jacqueline Bisset as one of the guests. 111 min. (JR)

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FIG LEAVES (previously unpublished)

The year before I started my Paris Journal for Film Comment, in late 1970 and/or early 1971, I wrote a couple of prototypes for it for a short-lived magazine, On Film, that didn’t survive long enough to print either one of them. In fact, On Film never made it past its lavishly glossy first issue, which was devoted mainly to Otto Preminger. Not all of either of these columns has survived either, but here is the first entry in the second of these columns, which did. — J.R.

 

November 6: Howard Hawks’s FIG LEAVES at the Cinémathèque.

Twenty days ago, I concluded my previous column with remarks about Ozu’s TOKYO STORY. Since then, I’ve seen or reseen a dozen films; Mizoguchi’s SISTERS OF THE GION and THE CRUCIFIED WOMAN, Franju’s THOMAS L’IMPOSTEUR, Kramer’s ICE, Malraux’s L’ESPOIR, Tati’s PLAYTIME, Demy’s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY, Mankiewicz’s THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN, Godard’s MASCULIN-FEMININE, Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE, and now Hawks’s second film, a comedy made in 1926.… Read more »

There Will Be Blood

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2008). I much prefer this film to Paul Thomas Anderson’s next feature, The Master, an incoherent mess with fewer compensations (despite the heavy breathing from some of my colleagues, who have compared it to Herman Melville); but for my money, neither film holds a candle to Magnolia.  — J.R.

there-will-be-blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature, a striking piece of American self-loathing loosely derived from Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, is lively as bombastic period storytelling but limited as allegory. The cynical shallowness of both the characters and the overall conception — American success as an unholy alliance between a turn-of-the-century capitalist (Daniel Day-Lewis) and a faith healer (Paul Dano), both hypocrites — can’t quite sustain the film’s visionary airs, even with good expressionist acting and a percussive score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Day-Lewis, borrowing heavily from Walter and John Huston, offers a demonic hero halfway between Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and James Dean’s hate-driven tycoon in Giant (shot on the same location as this movie), but Kevin J. O’Connor in a slimmer part offers a much more interesting and suggestive character. This has loads of swagger, but for stylistic audacity I prefer Anderson’s more scattershot Magnolia.… Read more »

Pynchon on the Beach

My review of Thomas Pynchon’s lamentable Inherent Vice, for Slate (August 3, 2009). Much less lamentable — actually quite good in spots — is Pynchon’s more recent Bleeding Edge, which I prefer to everything of his since Vineland. But even more lamentable, in my opinion, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which even after a second viewing strikes me on most counts as his worst film to date. (I’d been hoping for something more transformative, such as Norman Mailer’s superb film adaptation of his own worst novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.) Despite a few glancing virtues (e.g., Josh Brolin’s Nixonesque performance) and the (so far) unsubstantiated enthusiasm of many of my smarter colleagues, Anderson’s film strikes me as being just as cynical as its source and infused with the same sort of misplaced would-be nostalgia for the counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, pitched to a generation that didn’t experience it, as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. [Postscript, January 27, 2015: The first semiplausible defense of the film that I've read can be found here.]  — J.R.

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“In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there … or … if you were there, then you … or, wait, is it …” Once again, for his seventh novel, Inherent Vice, it sounds as if the author has furnished his own jacket copy, exploiting the doper humor that’s often been part of his signature.

Hard Eight

From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 1997). — J.R.

hardeight

A pared-down crime thriller set mainly in Reno, this first feature by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is impressive for its lean and unblemished storytelling, but even more so for its performances. Especially good is Philip Baker Hall, a familiar character actor best known for his impersonation of Richard Nixon in Secret Honor; he’s never had a chance to shine on-screen as he does here. In his role as a smooth professional gambler who befriends a younger man (John C. Reilly), Hall gives a solidity and moral weight to his performance that evokes Spencer Tracy, even though he plays it with enough nuance to keep the character volatile and unpredictable. Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, both of whom have meaty parts, are nearly as impressive, and when Hall and Jackson get a good long scene together the sparks really fly. Pipers Alley. — Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Magnolia

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). Even though I still (in Spring 2004) don’t understand what the title of this film means, looking recently at the excellent Blu-Ray from New Line Cinema (which includes a feature-length “making of” documentary) has persuaded me that maybe it’s not such a mess after all — and maybe, like the even more underrated Margaret, it needs to be seen more than once. For the time being, at least, I’m prepared to regard it as Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film to date, as well as his most coherent. — J.R.

magnolia-cruise

magnolia-psh

A wonderful mess. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature (1999), over three hours long, represents a quantum leap in ambition from Hard Eight and Boogie Nights and is much more interesting, though he’s no longer in full command of everything he’s trying to do. He’s handicapped himself with the worst kind of TV-derived crosscutting among his (ultimately interconnected) miniplots. But the movie has a splendidly deranged essayistic prologue (which tries to justify an outrageous climax), the best Tom Cruise performance I’ve ever seen (which, incidentally, is a scorching critique of his other performances), some delicate work by John C. Reilly as a sensitive cop, and provocative material about the unhealthy aspects of hyping whiz kids on TV.… Read more »