From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1995). — J.R.
Many friends and colleagues have been moaning about what a bad year 1994 was for movies, but I disagree. The main issue, I think, isn’t so much how we feel about the same movies — though there are a few differences there, including in some cases where and when we happened to see them — as it is what we saw. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Chicago, you had loads of terrific movies to see last year, new as well as old, and if you didn’t see very many of them, it’s possible that you were looking in the wrong places — where the mass media was telling you to look. Because of their running times, my two favorite films, the seven-hour Satantango and the nearly 26-hour The Second Heimat, received only limited exposure, yet I refuse to accept the standard alibi of most critics who neglected to see them — that they were too difficult or esoteric for the general public. I found them easier to sit through and vastly more involving and pleasurable than such overhyped and overattended European monoliths as Germinal and Queen Margot, which to the best of my knowledge gave little enjoyment to most people.… Read more »
Although it’s belatedly become available on Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (along with two other particular favorites, The Big Heat and 5 Against the House), Murder by Contract (1958) doesn’t quite qualify as an undiscovered gem. But it’s certainly neglected in terms of some of its singular virtues, including a sharp Zen-like wit and a minimalist style. And what tends to be most neglected is its satirical treatment of business as murder. This is a theme it shares with Monsieur Verdoux — which makes it all the more fitting that a climactic sequence of the film was shot in Chaplin’s old studio lot, on what remains of an exterior set used for The Great Dictator.
At least two of the main creative talents working on this black comedy about capitalism, director Irving Lerner and uncredited screenwriter Ben Maddow, were blacklisted leftists, and the terse portrayal of a hitman (Vince Edwards, the star) as an independent contractor working hard to buy a house on the Ohio River to share with his unseen girlfriend — a sort of Haliburton or Blackwater operative avant la lettre, hired by an equally unseen Cheney, and calmly regarding his work like a self-improving Zen master — is at times downright hilarious.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 25, 1996). In a recent and rather interesting book about Mike Leigh published by the University of Illinois Press, Sean O’Sullivan takes exception to this review (among others), with intriguing results. — J.R.
Secrets and Lies
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Mike Leigh
With Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Elisabeth Berrington, Lee Ross, Claire Rushbrook, Ron Cook, Michele Austin, and Lesley Manville.
I’ve seen Secrets and Lies three times since it premiered at Cannes in May, and each time the movie’s apparent rough patches have seemed smoother — clear evidence that writer-director Mike Leigh knows exactly what he’s doing and why. But whether his knowledge and a viewer’s recognition of it make this comedy-drama a masterpiece is another matter. Some of my hipper colleagues feel a little suspicious about the film’s mainstream pitch, wondering whether the whole thing finally goes down a bit too easily, given Brenda Blethyn’s quavering histrionics, the upbeat conclusion, the snugness of the whole concept. But I can hardly begrudge a filmmaker as talented as Leigh a way of conveying his gifts to a wider audience; after all, Secrets and Lies doesn’t represent the same sort of coarsening of a filmmaker’s vision as Jane Campion’s The Piano, coming after Sweetie.
… Read more »
The following was written at some point in the early 1980s, as a kind of postscript or pendant to my first book, the autobiographical Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1980; 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). I was living in Hoboken at the time, and secretly in love with another writer whose first name was Veronica. A slightly altered and doctored version of this piece eventually turned up in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond’s English anthology Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpant’s Tail, 1990). The version here has also been altered and doctored a little, and I’ve added all the photos, including those of the Ritz before and after its 1985 restoration. — J.R.
Putting Back the Ritz
Between about 1947 and 1951, when the Ritz Theater in Sheffield, Alabama was still open (it was built in 1928 and received an Art Deco upgrade for talkies about five years later), my main encounters with the place, between the ages of four and eight, were on trips with my father across the river to pick up the final reports on the daily receipts on all four of the Rosenbaum theaters our family owned in Sheffield and Tuscumbia.… Read more »
From Cineaste (Fall 2006). — J.R.
Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans
by Simon Callow. New York: Viking Adult, 2006. 528 pp., illus. Hardcover: $32.95.
“It seems to me there is a plain, if many-layered, truth to be told,” Simon Callow writes in his Preface to the second volume of his Welles biography — noting his impatience with academics whose sense of the truth is so far from plain that they can only countenance the term between quotation marks. It’s an understandable position for him to take, but he doesn’t always stick to it himself, and it’s hard to see how he could. In his second chapter, he asserts that, although no evidence supports Welles’s claim that Booth Tarkington had been his father’s best friend, it doesn’t matter at all “one way or the other; what is significant is that Welles believed it to be true, and wanted it to be true, and his conception of [Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons] is certainly an idealized version of his father.” In other words, Callow is privileging one kind of truth over another — like all of us who write about Welles, including those pesky academics. Like it or not, it comes with the territory.… Read more »
I’d like to beat the drum a little for a terrific new book just published by University of California Press, Catherine Benamou’s It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey, which is far and away the definitive book on It’s All True, Welles’s doomed documentary project about Latin America in the 1940s. Maybe the fact that the same publisher is bringing out a book of mine about Welles in a couple of months gives me a special interest in the subject; I should also note that Benamou, who’s been working on her book for well over two decades, is an old friend. (She also arranged recently for the purchase of two major Welles collections by the University of Michigan, which are going by the name “Everybody’s Orson Welles.” I was privileged to be the first visitor to this mountain of material in Ann Arbor last summer, which is where I collected the stills used on my own book jacket.)
Some readers may be put off a bit by Catherine’s academic language, but the fact remains that so much fresh and even startling information is available here—information that corrects countless myths—that if you care about Welles at all, you can’t afford to ignore this book.
… Read more »
My “Global Discoveries on DVD” column for the Winter 2015 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
For now the truly shocking thing was the world itself. It was a new world. and he’d just discovered it, just noticed it for the first time.
– Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book
I: Some Conspicuous Absences
As a rule, this column has been preoccupied with what’s available in digital formats, but I’d like to start off this particular quarterly installment with a list of some of the things that aren’t available, at least not yet. This alphabetical checklist is by no means even remotely exhaustive and is entirely personal, based on a few of my recent experiences:
Alain Resnais (two titles): The two most glaring lacunae here are Resnais’ first major film and the last of his features, neither of which can be found yet with English subtitles. Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), written by Chris Marker, a remarkable half-hour essay film about African sculpture, also qualifies as his own first major film work –- its beautiful and corrosive text is the first one Marker chose to print in his (still untranslated) two-volume 1967 collection Commentaires.… Read more »
Written for http://ojosabiertos.otroscines.com/la-internacional-cinefila-2016-las-mejores-peliculas-del-ano/. — J.R.
Top Five (alphabetical order):
- American Masters: Mike Nichols (Elaine May). The only film on my list by an old master — hence the only one not concerned to some degree with the morality of solipsism — this TV documentary, like May’s four previous fiction features, shows an exquisite balance between personal appreciation and criticism, which is another way of saying that her films are populated exclusively by monsters whom she adores. (Note: This was erroneously listed here as Becoming Mike Nichols until Adrian Martin alerted me to the error. My apologies to everyone!)
- Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater). If that second exclamation point seems immoderate, this is Linklater’s very Texan way of informing us that immoderation is something to be celebrated, even from a moderate point of view.
- Fire at Sea/Fuocoammare (Gianfranco Rosi). Like La La Land, I caught up with this too late to have included it on my end-of-the-year lists for Film Comment, Indiewire, and Sight and Sound, which also suggests I’m still in the process of sizing it up. The coexistence of everydayness and disaster on a Sicilian island is what makes this Italian documentary seem most contemporary.
- John From (João Nicolao).
… Read more »
The following is a lecture delivered at a symposium, “Yasujiro Ozu in the World,” organized by Shigehiko Hasumi in Tokyo on December 11, 1998. The other participants, apart from Hasumi himself, were Jean Douchet (the keynote speaker), Hou Hsiao-hsien, his screenwriter Tien-wen Chu, and Thierry Jousse. I’m proud to say that Hasumi, my favorite Japanese film critic, has included a link to this text on his own web site, mube.jp. — J.R.
I’d like to preface these remarks by citing a moment from Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932) and the particular significance it has for me. During the home movie projection which marks the critical turning point in the film from comedy to tragedy, and shortly before the clowning of the father in front of his boss appears in one of the home movies, the father’s two little boys start having a debate about the zebra they see on the screen — does it have black stripes on white, or white stripes on black? — creating a disturbance that momentarily halts the screening. In comparable fashion, a spurious, distracting, and no less innocent debate has been persisting about Ozu for years: is he a realist or a formalist? What seems lamentable about this debate is that it fails to perceive that cinematic forms and social forms are not alternatives in the world of Ozu but opposite sides of the same coin, so that it should be impossible to speak about one without speaking about the other.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 4, 1998). — J.R.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Written by Desplechin, Pascale Ferran, Noemie Lvovsky, and Emmanuel Salinger
With Salinger, Thibault de Montalembert, Jean-Louis Richard, Valerie Dreville, Marianne Denicourt, Bruno Todeschini, and Laszlo Szabo.
Anyone who saw the three-hour My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument (1997) when it showed at the Film Center last year knows that, for better and for worse, writer-director Arnaud Desplechin, born in 1960, has a generational voice, speaking for and about French yuppies in their late 20s and early 30s. The same is true of his only previous feature, The Sentinel (1992), an eerie 139-minute espionage thriller that has been accruing a cult reputation here and abroad (it’s playing this week as part of Facets Multimedia’s New French Cinema Film Festival). My Sex Life, for all its virtues, was a bit conventional and bland, but The Sentinel is genuinely crazy and a lot more interesting, mainly because it has a meatier subject: the end of the cold war and what this means to French yuppies.
“French yuppies” sounds condescending, but a lot more than the Atlantic Ocean separates Americans from the worldview of the French.… Read more »
My lists for Indiewire, submitted before I saw La La Land, Fire at Sea, 20th Century Women, and Passengers (among others). — J.R.
2. Cemetery of Splendour
3. Everybody Wants Some!!
6. The Love Witch
8. Hell or High Water
9. Certain Women
10. Miles Ahead
1. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
2. Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!!
3. Jim Jarmusch, Paterson
4. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Cemetery of Splendour
5. Anna Biller, The Love Witch
1. Isabelle Huppert, Elle
1. Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
1. Becoming Mike Nichols
2. I Am Not Your Negro
3. OJ: Made in America
4. The Thoughts That We Once Had
Best undistributed film:
1. The Death of Louis XIV
2. Scarred Hearts
3. John From
Best first feature:
1. Indignation (also best screenplay)
… Read more »
Written for a retrospective catalog devoted to Jacques Demy, published by the San Sebastian International Film Festival, September 15-24, 2011. — J.R.
“Braque, Picasso, Klee, Miro, Matisse….C’est ça, la vie.”–- Maxence in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort
“Life is disappointing, isn’t it?”
–- Kyoko in Tokyo Story
I’ve never come across any critical discussion of common traits in the separate films of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda, who lived together for three decades. Their oeuvres are in fact quite different and distinct from one another, but one striking characteristic they share as filmmakers is their preoccupation with indexing and cross-referencing their own works within their own films.
In chronicling and excerpting her own previous work, Varda’s Les Plages d’Agnès (2008) brings this tendency to a climax, but her DVD containing Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (2000) and its sequel, Deux Ans Après, already formalizes and optimizes this tendency — which can be traced within and between some of her previous films — by allowing one to leap via one’s remote control from a character in the former documentary to the same person being filmed two years later (or vice versa). In a comparable spirit, Demy transplants Cécile/Lola (Anouk Aimée), the title heroine of his first feature (1960), from Nantes to Los Angeles in his fifth feature, Model Shop (1968), after having had her killed offscreen in Rochefort in his fourth feature, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1966).… Read more »
Written for the Second Run DVD of Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava, released in the U.K. in 2012, and developed from separate articles in the Chicago Reader, November 15, 2007, and the Portuguese collection cem mil cigarros: OS FILMES DE PEDRO COSTA, edited by Ricardo Matos Cabo, Lisboa: Orfeu Negro, 2009. — J.R.
The cinema of Pedro Costa is populated not so much by characters in the literary sense as by raw, human essences — souls, if you will. This is a trait he shares with other masters of portraiture, including Robert Bresson, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Demy, Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jacques Tourneur. It’s not a religious predilection but rather a humanist, spiritual, and aesthetic tendency. What carries these mysterious souls, and us along with them, isn’t stories — though untold or partially told stories pervade all of Costa’s features. It’s fully realized moments, secular epiphanies.
Born in Lisbon in 1959, Costa grew up, by his own account, without much of a family. Speaking about O sangue, his first feature, he admitted that there was a personal aspect in his concentration on the incomplete family in that film “because I never really had a family.… Read more »
I believe this is the last of my reviews of early Hitchcock films for the Monthly Film Bulletin that I’ve transcribed, after The Ring, Blackmail, and Number Seventeen; this one appeared in the July 1975 issue. –J.R.
Great Britain, 1930 Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock has described Murder as his “first and only whodunit”, accounting for his antipathy to the form with the complaint that it “contains no emotion”, and bringing to mind Edmund Wilson’s comparison of reading several with unpacking “large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails”. Certainly the most evident lack in this 1930 movie — apart from the creakier aspects of the play which it adapts — is the sort of emotional continuity and momentum of controlled viewpoints which sustained Blackmail so brilliantly the previous year, and the more dubious cerebral rewards offered in their place are not quite enough to fuse its comparable experiments into a consistently workable style. After an effective, rather UFA-inspired opening (prompted, no doubt, both by Hitchcock’s work at the German studio in the mid-Twenties and by the fact that he concurrently shot a German version of Murder entitled Mary), which features a lengthy dolly past the windows of neighbors responding to a mysterious commotion, the film mainly tends towards a stagier conception of dialogue units which the various stylistic departures often inflect rather than unify, thus usually registering as isolated “touches”.… Read more »