Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Importance of Being Sarcastic [SATANTANGO]

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 1994). Bela Tarr, who arrived in Zagreb yesterday to join Abel Ferrara, myself, and others (including many students and staff members from Film.Factory) at Tanja Vrvilo’s tenth annual Movie Mutations event, will be showing Satantango here today and then discussing it. — J.R.

**** SATANTANGO

(Masterpiece)

Directed by Bela Tarr

Written by Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai

With Mihaly Vig, Putyi Horvath, Erika Bok, Peter Berling, Miklos B. Szekely, Laszlo Fe Lugossy, Eva Almasi Albert, Alfred Jaray, Erzsebet Gaal, Janos Derzsi, and Iren Szajki.

If great films invent their own rules, reinventing some of the standards of film criticism in the process, Bela Tarr’s Satantango surely belongs in their company. Showing Sunday as part of the Chicago Film Festival, this very dark Hungarian black comedy has more than a few tricks and paradoxes up its sleeve. Shot in black and white, with a running time of just under seven hours (it’s designed to be shown with two short intermissions), it boasts a decrepit, squalid rural setting enveloped in constant rain and mud and a cast of about a dozen greedy, small-minded characters, none of whom has any remotely redeeming qualities. Yet over two separate viewings it has provided me with more pleasure, excitement, and even hope than any other new picture I’ve seen this year.… Read more »

SÁTÁNTANGÓ at 15

Early in 2009, I received a phone call from Béla Tarr, asking me if I could write a page about Sátántangó (1994) for a Hungarian newspaper to celebrate its 15th anniversary. Here’s what I sent him. —J.R.

 

Sátántangó at 15

 

Congratulations to Sátántangó on its 15th anniversary. Now that it’s a teenager, I’m happy that English-speaking fans can finally, at long last, look forward to an English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel.  As a member of PEN, I was invited last year to suggest literary works for English translation. After I proposed Sátántangó and they published my response, I received a note from Barbara Epler of New Directions: “We are waiting on the delivery of its translation by the great George Szirtes, eagerly waiting, and will publish it as soon as we can. (We already have his translations of László’s The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War.)” So once it appears, I’ll no longer have to depend on the French translation by Joëlle Dufeuilly (2000) published by Gallimard, which I’ve owned for many years.

The film finally became available here last year on DVD from Facets Video, helping to demonstrate how much cinema as a “language” is more easily translatable than literature.… Read more »

Sights and Smells and…

From The Soho News (July 2, 1980). This was my first encounter with the delightful and inspired couple Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, subsequently known for their wonderful found-footage films, e.g. From the Pole to the Equator (1987) and Prisoners of War (1995). — J.R.

One interesting thing about aesthetic hybrids — movies with smells, or jazz posing as film criticism — is that nobody knows what to do with them, critics included. Whether these unusual and unlikely yokings represent examples of useful, exploratory or merely wishful thinking is essentially a matter of personal taste. In the two instances under review, a crucial factor in determining one’s taste is packaging, pure and simple — how and where an audience gets placed.

Apart from isolated experiments — including a recent one by Les Blank, reportedly utilizing the odors of red beans and rice — it seems that commercial efforts to link smells with movies have mainly come in two separate, pungent waves. A couple of early talkies, Lilac Time and The Hollywood Revue, played around with the idea in a few theaters; the latter, a plotless musical, climaxed with a snoutful of orange scent to go with “Orange Blossom Time,” performed by Charles King and the Albertina Rasch ballet company.… Read more »

Bright Spots in the Darkness [My 1998 Top Ten List]

In retrospect, it’s amazing to me how many good films I saw in 1998 — as evidenced by my ten-best piece for the Chicago Reader, published January 8, 1999. (P.S. The still at the very end of this article is from Masumura’s Red Angel, which I’m happy to say is now available on DVD, along with most of the films on this ten-best list.) 

On September 24, 2010, “The Stunner” [sic] sent me the following message on MUBI: “I found this entry on your blog, about Manoel de Oliveira’s ‘Inquietude’ on your top 10 movies of 1998:’I prefer the French and Portuguese title of this three-part feature — which my dictionary defines as ‘disturbed state’— to its English title, Anxiety.’ A better translation for ‘inquietude’, in my opinion, would be something like ‘intranquility,’ ‘agitation’, or “inquietness’ — these are all good and quite literal translations and I, being Portuguese, think they are accurate synonyms.” — J.R.

What do we mean when we declare something or someone “the best”? Last month, during my first visit to Tokyo, I served on a panel about the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu along with director Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hou’s principal screenwriter, the president of Tokyo University, and two French critics associated with Cahiers du Cinema.… Read more »

Rotterdam: New director, old traditions

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1990). — J.R.

Despite worries that the passionate eclecticism of the late Hubert Bals in steering the Rotterdam Festival would be a hard act to follow, Marco Müller, in his first year as director, maintained the festival’s maverick spirit and cozy intensity while adding his own personal stamp. Increasing the usual number of films by 50 per cent may have taxed his staff, but publishing excellent bilingual monographs (on Ritwik Ghatak, David Cronenberg and Gennadi Sjpalikov) gave the audience a good head start.

Best of all, Müller continued the Rotterdam tradition of offering a slew of uncommon pleasures unavailable elsewhere. Where else could one find André Labarthe’s TV interview-portraits of directors, the multiple versions of Straub and Huillet’s The Death of Empedocles and Black Sin (as well as the premiere of their intriguing 51-minute Cézanne), Nanni Moretti’s daffy and lively Palombella Rosa, and perhaps the best films to date of Eduardo de Gregorio, Wayne Wang and Otar Iosseliani?

The work by American independents was especially strong and varied. Leslie Thornton’s freakishly disturbing and still-in-progress Peggy and Fred in Hell, split between film and video, plants two odd children in an apocalyptic black and white universe of found objects, found footage and lost meanings, perpetually reinventing culture as it slips from their (and our) grasp.… Read more »

Dead Ringers

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1988). — J.R.

DeadRingers

David Cronenberg’s finely tuned psychological thriller (1988, 115 min.) explores the complex lives of two gynecologists, identical twins (both played by Jeremy Irons) who share everything from their lovers to their successful fertility clinic. Their close mutual ties become challenged when both are attracted to the same actress (Genevieve Bujold). A tour de force — especially for Irons, whose sense of nuance is so refined that one can tell almost immediately which twin he is in a particular scene — and the special effects involving both twins simultaneously are so well handled that one quickly forgets about the underlying illusion. But the sheer unpleasantness of the plot, inspired by a real-life case, guarantees that this isn’t a film for everyone, and people like myself who find the character played by Bujold (in one of her best performances) more interesting than either of the twins are bound to feel rather frustrated by the end. (JR)

dead-ringersRead more »

Performing Spectators: The Audience as Stray Dogs

Written for Cinema Guild’s Blu-Ray of Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, released in mid-January 2015. — J.R.

STRAYDOGS

Stray-dogs-signs

Stray Dogs (2013), winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, is Tsai Ming-liang’s tenth theatrical feature. It was described by Tsai at its premiere as his last, and in many ways it’s his most challenging. Considered as the apotheosis of his film work to date — which also includes eleven telefilms made between 1989 and 1985, and ten shorts or segments of portmanteau features, culminating in the 2014, 56-minute Journey to the West – it constitutes a kind of nervy dare to the viewer, and to prime oneself for it, it might help to look at Journey to the West first.

journey-to-the-west-monk-climbing-dark-stairs

journey-to-the-west-subway-stairs

Even though both films flirt with stasis, usually in the midst of extremely long takes, they’re also performance pieces that hark back to Tsai’s roots in experimental theater and television. And the performers are not only hired actors but also unsuspecting street pedestrians, places, weather conditions, the camera, and, perhaps most crucial of all, viewers watching the activity of all of the above. If Tsai’s films typically qualify as questions rather than answers, foremost among the questions is how we perform as spectators – a question that we’re obliged to pose in relation to all the materials offered.… Read more »

A Radical Idea [HALF NELSON & THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED]

From the Chicago Reader (September 15, 2006). — J.R.

Half Nelson

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Ryan Fleck | Written by Anna Boden and Fleck | With Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Karen Chilton, and Tina Holmes

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Kirby Dick | Written by Dick, Eddie Schmidt, and Matt Patterson

Half Nelson is open about its radical politics — remarkable at a time when most mainstream movies are being marketed as apolitical. But of course most movies have biases, the most common of which is a belief that the world can be meaningfully divided into good guys and bad guys. The real issue isn’t whether there’s pure good or pure evil in the world, as Bush keeps insisting. It’s whether we’re willing to view the world as nuanced and complex. If as Americans we believe we’re the good guys regardless of what we do — even if that includes torturing and killing as many innocent people as we deem necessary to defeat the bad guys — then we’re more likely to lose sight of what’s actually being done. It’s not hard to conclude that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are bad guys, but when Americans helped arm them both did that make us bad guys too?… Read more »

Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision (book review)

This review was written in June 2004 for the Guardian — who paid me for the piece but then chose not to run it — before I read Nicole Brenez’s remarkable book on Ferrara, translated into English by Adrian Martin and published by the University of Illinois Press in 2007. (This same book came out in French, published by Cahiers du Cinéma.) The Stevens book is also still in print, and still very much worth reading and having. –-J.R.

Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision
by Brad Stevens
367pp, FAB Press, £16.99

Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum

I have to confess I’m a slow learner when it comes to Abel Ferrara — even though his talent is hard to shrug off, and the degree to which some of my smarter colleagues swear by him has made him impossible to ignore. For many of them, one sometimes feels Ferrara isn’t so much a major filmmaker as the major filmmaker. But this is a wild man whose first official feature, in which he plays the title role, a starving painter in lower Manhattan, is called The Driller Killer (1979) — and whose first unofficial feature, made three years earlier, is a porn item called 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy.… Read more »

Action and Distraction (STRANGE DAYS)

From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 1995). — J.R.

Strange Days

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks

With Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, Glenn Plummer, Brigitte Bako, and Richard Edson.

In the introduction to his recently published first draft of the Strange Days screenplay, James Cameron offers a candid, suggestive description of what working on the script was like: “The problem was I had never written anything remotely this densely plotted and character driven. I circled and circled the computer, like a dog slinking around trying to work up the courage to steal food from a sleeping drunk.”

Cameron’s simile could be seen to apply not so much to Strange Days and other overhyped media events as to the sort of measures our legislators have been pushing through Congress lately. These measures more or less state that we can no longer afford to coddle criminals, the elderly, crack babies, the poor, the sick, or the homeless or support art, culture, or education — not because we’re living through any kind of depression but because millionaires still aren’t making as much money as they want to. Assuming that we’re the sleeping drunk in this scenario, it’s worth asking what sort of dreams we could possibly be having that would allow those congressional canines to find the courage to slink around us with this kind of hope.… Read more »

The Films of Vincente Minnelli

From Cineaste, Fall 1995. – J.R.

The Films of Vincente Minnelli

by James Naremore. Cambridge University Press, 1993.  202 pp, illus., Hardcover: $65.00. Paperback: $27.99.

The critical position of James Naremore is Frankfurt school auteurism, a seeming contradiction. That is, he shares the Marxist orientation of many Frankfurt school intellectuals but not their disdain for the artifacts of mass culture. (To be sure, not all Frankfurt school members can be characterized in quite so monolithic a fashion; see, for instance, the prewar journalism of Siegfried Kracauer published this year in The Mass Ornament.) As a consequence, Naremore’s work shows an interest in style and pleasure that runs against the puritanical grain of most American Marxists, without ever losing sight of the social and political issues avoided by most American auteurists.

This is an idiosyncratic and progressive book in a series, the Cambridge Film Classics, that has mainly been conformist and conservative, especially in relationship to non-American filmmakers. Its volumes always focus on a few “representative” features rather than complete oeuvres, and Naremore’s study of Minnelli focuses on Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, Father of the Bride, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Lust for Life, but only after an Introduction and first chapter that take up a quarter of the book and lay a considerable amount of contextual groundwork.… Read more »

Acts of Defiance [SAVAGE NIGHTS]

From the Chicago Reader (March 25, 1994). Although I’ve posted this once before, it seems worth bringing it back now, upgraded, to recall one of the neglected screen appearances of Maria Schneider  (1952-2011). — J.R.

*** SAVAGE NIGHTS

Directed by Cyril Collard

Written by Collard and Jacques Fieschi

With Collard, Romane Bohringer, Carlos Lopez, Corine Blue, Claude Winter, Denis D’Archangelo, and Jean-Jacques Jauffret.

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If memory serves, the first time I ever heard of Sylvia Plath was the first time a lot of other people heard of her — in the mid-60s, a few years after she committed suicide, when her posthumous collection Ariel was published. I recall a teacher of mine in graduate school remarking that Plath’s suicide validated her late poetry, implying that if she hadn’t actually taken her own life, poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” wouldn’t have meant as much as they did — indeed, may not even have been “as good.”

The remark offended me at the time, but in retrospect I wonder if in some awful, seldom-acknowledged way my teacher was right. Many of us prefer to believe that works of art should be self-justifying, and therefore demand to be taken on their own terms, without “outside” information, but the fact remains that the hyperactive media and life itself rarely offer us that luxury.… Read more »

A Bluffer’s Guide to Bela Tarr

From the Chicago Reader (May 25, 1990). This is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. — J.R.

ALMANAC OF FALL

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Bela Tarr

With Hedi Temessy, Erika Bodnar, Miklos B. Szekely, Pal Hetenyi, and Janos Derzsi.

1. Problems

One reason that Eastern European films often don’t get the attention they deserve in the West is that we lack the cultural and historical contexts for them. If Eastern Europe’s recent social and political upheavals took most of the world by surprise, this was because most of us have been denied the opportunity to see the continuity behind them: they seemed to spring out of nowhere. The best Eastern European films tend to catch us off guard in the same way, and for similar reasons.

My own knowledge of Hungarian cinema is spotty at best, despite the fact that, according to David Cook in A History of Narrative Film, the Hungarians “seem to have identified film as an art form before any other nationality in the world, including the French.” (One of the first major film theorists, Bela Balazs, was Hungarian, and a contemporary film studio in Budapest is named after him.) Among the pioneers were Mihaly Kertesz and Endre Toth, who emigrated to the U.S.… Read more »

The Potent Manic-Depressiveness of LA LA LAND

emma-stone-ryan-gosling-la-la-land

I was too late in catching up with La La Land to have included it in my best-of-the-year lists for Sight and Sound and Film Comment, where it likely would have figured in both cases. But one telling aspect of the movie that I find missing from the reviews that I’ve read is just how desperate its euphoria turns out to be — which is not an argument against this euphoria but a statement of what gives rise to it and what makes it so poignant. Of course this is a fact about many of the greatest musicals (and greatest post-musicals, such as those of Jacques Demy that Damien Chazelle is so obviously emulating) that characteristically gets overlooked, which is how much the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat. The most salient thing about the musical numbers here is how they figure as interruptions to misery and diverse irritations and frustrations — interruptions that are typically interrupted in turn by the hell of a freeway traffic jam or the anguish of a failed audition.  

La-La-Land

This is what makes the singing and dancing seem absolutely necessary, not merely a simple flight from unpleasantness.… Read more »

*CORPUS CALLOSUM

A short review commissioned by Film Comment (July-August 2002), which left out the asterisk in the title.  – J.R.

*Corpus Callosum

 

I recently read in a film festival report that Michael Snow’s new 92-minute feature was a bit longer than it needed to be. This conjured up visions of a test-marketing preview — cards handed out at Anthology Film Archives with questions like, “Would an ideal length for this be 82 minutes? An hour? Three minutes? 920 minutes?” For even though this may be the best Snow film since the La Région Centrale in 1971 — a commemorative (and quite accessible) magnum opus with many echoes and aspects of his previous works   — it enters a moviegoing climate distinctly different from the kind that greeted his earlier masterpieces. In 1969, the late, great Raymond Durgnat could find the same “mixture of despair and acquiescence” in both Frank Tashlin and Andy Warhol; today, on the other hand, avant-garde art is expected to perform like light entertainment.

Up to a point, Snow seems ready to oblige with his irrepressible jokiness —- a taste for rebus-style metaphors (often banal) and adolescent pranks (a giant penis hovering over a blonde’s backside) that makes this the least neurotic experimental film about technology imaginable — the precise opposite of Leslie Thornton’s feature-length cycle Peggy and Fred in Hell.… Read more »