Written for Sight and Sound (March 2017). — J.R.
WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA
The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie
By Noah Isenberg. W.W. Norton & Co., 334 pp. US$27.95. ISBN 9780393243123.
Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I’ve never been asked to select my favourite ‘guilty pleasures’ in movies, but I suspect that if I were, Gone With the Wind and Casablanca — two highly accomplished and engrossing pieces of dubious Hollywood hokum — could easily head the list. Yet it’s one of the signal virtues of Noah Isenberg’s We’ll Always Have Casablanca to suggest that the true sources of Casablanca’s popularity place it well beyond the racial and racist subtexts of Gone With the Wind.
In the case of the latter film, we have the benefit of Molly Haskell’s Frankly, My Dear (2009), a superb critical and ideological unpacking of both the Margaret Mitchell novel and the David O. Selznick blockbuster. Isenberg, an academic and a scholar more than a critic — director of screen studies and professor of culture and media at New York’s New School, and best known among cinephiles as an Edgar G. Ulmer specialist — hasn’t given us the same sort of book as Haskell, although he’s produced a volume that’s equally accessible and nearly as valuable in explaining the appeal of a popular classic.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 21, 2001). — J.R.
The Affair of the Necklace
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Charles Shyer
Written by John Sweet
With Hilary Swank, Adrien Brody, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Walken, and Joely Richardson.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Michael Mann
Written by Gregory Allen Howard, Stephen Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth, and Mann
With Will Smith, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Jamie Foxx, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, and Giancarlo Esposito.
Kate & Leopold
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Steven Rogers and Mangold
With Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, and Philip Bosco.
Kiss Me Kate
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by George Sidney
Written by Sam and Bella Spewack and Dorothy Kingsley
With Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller, Bobby Van, Keenan Wynn, James Whitmore, and Bob Fosse.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
*** A must see
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson
With Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, and John Rhys-Davies.
Rating 0 Worthless
Directed by Frank Darabont
Written by Michael Sloane
With Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, David Ogden Stiers, James Whitmore, and Jeffrey DeMunn.… Read more »
This is the second of two interviews I’ve had with Michael Snow. (The first, “The `Presents‘ of Michael Snow,” can be found elsewhere on this site.) Commissioned by Simon Field, it ran in the Winter 1982/83 issue (no. 11) of the excellent English magazine Afterimage, a special issue called “Sighting Snow,” and it concerns both So Is This and Presents. I’ve incorporated some but not all of the additions from the version of this article that was reprinted in my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Arden Press). I regret some of the hectoring tone of my political rhetoric here, and it became clear to me after Film: The Front Line 1983 was published that Snow objected to some of this rhetoric in the book even more, thus curtailing some of our friendship that had prevailed beforehand. – -J.R.
Snowbound: A Dialogue with a Dialogue
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
A few specifics about what follows. Last September 15th, I taped an interview with Michael Snow at his home in Toronto.… Read more »
This is my Introduction to The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.
I cannot tell a lie: the initial concept and impulse behind this retrospective weren’t my own. More precisely, they grew out of a series of email exchanges between myself and Hans Hurch and/or Alexander Horwath last April. Everything started when Hans proposed that I select a program devoted to American film comedy, “not as a history or anthology of the genre but in a more open and at the same time more concrete way…not [to] just dedicate it to comedy as such but to various aspects, different forms, ideas, and functions of the comic – from the earliest works of American cinema to recent films.”
Over three months later, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve fulfilled this proposal, at least if one can accept a fairly loose definition of “earliest” (i.e., 1919 –- which is already a good quarter of a century into what might be described as the history of American film, describing my own limitations better than the limits of my subject.) As for the most recent films in the list, technically these are Idiocracy (2005) and My Son’s Wedding to My Sister-in-Law (2008), but psychologically and existentially I would probably pick Mr.… Read more »
From the January-February 1978 issue of Film Comment, with a few tweaks added in June 2010. I’ve also included, at the very end of this piece, a photograph of the real-life survivors of Anatahan that I found on the Internet. And to clarify the mimetic form of this piece, which has nine sections corresponding to the nine sections of Sternberg’s film, I’ve number each of those sections, for the first time.
This was written while I was teaching film at the University of California, San Diego and was able to study a 16-millimeter print of Anatahan that I was using in a course. This article was reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), where I added the following: “One of the critical commonplaces about THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN is that everything in the film with the exception of the ocean waves is artificial and created, and Sternberg has often been uncritically quoted as saying that the only thing he regretted in the film were these waves, precisely because they were not of his making. But to accept this statement is to ignore one of the key sequences in the film — the newsreel segment of Japanese soldiers returning home after the war — and to misconstrue the meaning of the artifice in the remainder of the film as a consequence.” I continue to find this sequence extremely moving, and suspect that my failure to find any stills from it on the Internet is a direct consequence of the misrepresentations of Sternberg as well as many of his critics.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 5, 2005). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Ingmar Bergman
With Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephon, Borje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius, and Gunnel Fred
*** (A must see)
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch
With Bill Murray, Julie Delpy, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Alexis Dziena, Frances Conroy, Christopher McDonald, Chloe Svigny, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, and Mark Webber
Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers are two minimalist features about burned-out individuals picking over the wreckage of relationships they can barely remember and about the special art of not really giving a shit. (A third is Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, scheduled to open here next week.) With its sprawling and far from symmetrical plot, Saraband, made in 2003 for Swedish television, is stark and economical, with a small cast of characters and sparse rural settings, and it seems like an apocalyptic endgame in terms of Bergman’s own career — the end of the world as he knows it. It was shot in digital video, and at Bergman’s insistence is being projected as such — and his peculiar use of that medium is what makes this work compelling.
I wouldn’t dream of contesting Bergman’s status as a film master.… Read more »
From DVD Beaver (posted June 2008). Some of these listings may be out of date — and in the case of Godard’s Histoire(s), superseded by subsequent American and/or Blu-Ray editions. – J.R.
Coming up with my favorite box sets from abroad is a far cry from compiling a list of my favorite films on DVD, foreign or otherwise, even if some of my favorite films are represented here. The problem is, as Mick Jagger puts it, you can’t always get what you want. To start with an extreme example, my favorite Hou Hsiao-hsien film is most likely The Puppetmaster (1993), but my least favorite of all the DVDs of Hou films in my collection happens to be the Winstar edition of that film. It’s so substandard —- not even letterboxed, and packaged so clumsily — that I’m embarrassed to find myself quoted on the back of the box, especially with the quotation mangled into tortured grammar.
I’ve aimed for a certain geographical spread as well as some generic balance: popular comedies, art films, experimental films, and one serial; DVDs from Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Admittedly, roughly half of my selections come from France, and a quarter of them, to my surprise, comes from a single label, Gaumont —- maybe because this blockbuster company seems to specialize in blockbuster box sets.… Read more »
This was written for a brochure to accompany a retrospective held
by Northwestern University’s Block Cinema in January 2008.
Over five years later, now that I’ve recently caught up with Jia’s
episodic A Touch of Sin, I must confess that I find myself
more than a little baffled by colleagues of mine who have
praised these earlier films and now seem to find little difficulty
in placing this semi-desperate sellout effort on the same plateau
as his previous work. Despite the sincerity and urgency of the
film’s political content, its reduction of potentially interesting
characters to pop-movie stereotypes seems to be at least
partially and grimly acknowledged (and autocritiqued) by
Jia’s casting himself in a cameo as a customer at a sleazy
upscale bordello. This is the only time I’ve felt disappointed
or betrayed by any of his films. — J.R.
ZHANGKE JIA, POETIC PROPHET
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
What is it about Zhangke Jia that makes him the most exciting
mainland Chinese filmmaker currently working? It might be
oversimplifying matters to describe this writer-director, born in
1970, as a country boy. But the fact that he hails from the small town
of Fenyang in northern China’s Shanxi province clearly plays an
important role in all his features to date.… Read more »
Commissioned by a Spanish-language retrospective catalogue devoted to Richard Linklater. — J.R.
A prefatory caveat
My favorite Richard Linklater feature, Bernie (2011), is many different things at once, some of which are in potential conflict with one another. How we ultimately judge it depends on either reconciling or suspending our separate verdicts on how we judge it as fiction (and art) and/or how we judge it as fact (and justice). Because I’ve chosen to suspend my judgment on how we can judge the film as fact, for reasons that will be dealt with below, I can enjoy the luxury of celebrating the film as fiction and as art at the same time that I would maintain that it opens up factual questions about truth and justice that it can’t pretend to resolve in any definitive manner.
The film was inspired by a lengthy article, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth, that appeared in the January 1998 issue of Texas Monthly, about the confessed murder of Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, an 81-year-old widow and the wealthiest woman in town, by 39-year-old Bernie Tiede, a former assistant funeral director in the same town (Carthage, with a population of 6,500) who had become her paid companion and the sole inheritor of her considerable fortune.… Read more »
I’m of two minds about Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain (1992), thanks to
Arrow Video’s spiffy three-disc dual format edition—specifically, about
what’s called Raising Cain: The Director’s Cut on disc #3 (“limited edition
Blu-Ray exclusive”), “a De Palma-endorsed recreation of the film by Peet
Gelderblom, re-ordered as originally planned”.
One of my minds agrees with Gelderblom that this is a
(slightly) more satisfying edit of a film I reviewed in the
Chicago Reader as follows: “Brian De Palma’s 1992 thriller
perform stylistic pirouettes around a void, it’s full of sleek
and pleasurable moments. If I’m right about the story,
which is mainly composed out of loose pieces of Psycho
and Peeping Tom, a warped child psychologist (John
Lithgow) kidnaps his own granddaughter to avenge the
adultery of his son’s wife (Lolita Davidovich), and
frames her lover (Steven Bauer) for the crime. But
maybe I’ve got it all wrong and it’s the son’s evil twin
who’s doing the kidnapping; Lithgow also plays this
character, along with the son and other personalities
too numerous and obscure to fathom. Produced by
De Palma’s wife Gale Anne Hurd (The Abyss); with
Frances Sternhagen, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, and
Mel Harris.… Read more »
Written at the request of Jae-cheol Lim, the editor of this Korean edition of Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (second edition, 2008), which was translated by Ahn Kearn Hyung and was published in late February 2016. Now that three copies of this hefty volume have just arrived in the mail (637 pages long, which is considerably more than the 449 pages of the original, apparently due in part to a different font size), this seems like a good time to repost the new Afterword. — J.R.
Afterword to the Korean Edition of ESSENTIAL CINEMA (January 2016):
The closer one comes to the present, the harder and more hazardous it becomes to compile a list of the best films. As I’ve recently pointed out elsewhere, one should consider the lengths of time between Jean Vigo’s death and the first appearances of Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante in the U.S. (thirteen years), or between the first screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 and its recent appearances on Blu-Ray (forty-five years), and it becomes obvious that the popular custom of listing the best films of any given year is unavoidably a mythological undertaking derived more from faith than from any secure knowledge.… Read more »
A slightly edited version of this article entitled “Devotional Reading” appeared in the November-December 2012 issue of Film Comment. — J.R.
There are at least two intriguing recent trends reflected in the publications of Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (New York: Pantheon, 2012) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011) — book-length studies of masterpieces (Stalker and Late Spring, respectively) and film criticism by amateurs (both of them prestigious literary Brits). A couple of much older attitudes underlying both is a view of cinema as literature by another means and, conversely, a view of film analysis as a literary and linear pursuit.
It’s obvious that what links these two trends historically is the phenomenon of home viewing, which has made every viewer a potential “expert” for the first time. Prior to VCRs and DVD and Blu-Ray players, the only tools available for studying films at length were 16 mm projectors and moviolas, most often belonging only to “professionals” of one kind or another. But if we recall that amateur also means devotee, these books demonstrate how acts of devoted attention are more available now to everyone.… Read more »
A reprint from the Taipei Times (October 13, 2014), with different illustrations. For the record, I don’t think it was betel nuts that I was chewing at Hou’s 1991 party; what I recall was a kind of barklike Taiwanese form of speed. — J.R.
Narrating Taiwanese identity
The Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image educates American film buffs about Taiwanese history and identity
By Dana Ter / Contributing reporter in New York
The year was 1991. American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was experiencing his first authentic night out in Taipei at a late night karaoke party hosted by renowned Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (侯孝賢). Fueled by bottles of cognac and a generous supply of betel nuts, the duo belted out Beatles songs until 3am before stumbling home.
Having reviewed Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, 1986) and A City of Sadness (悲情城市, 1989) for the Chicago Reader, long-time film critic Rosenbaum was no stranger to Hou’s work. But being in Taipei for the Asia-Pacific Film Festival gave him a better appreciation of the local culture, history and setting.
“I was able to spend my 19 days there less as a tourist than as a part of everyday life in Taipei,” said Rosenbaum, who was in New York this past week for the retrospective “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien” at the Museum of the Moving Image.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 2006). — J.R.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Written by Chu T’ien-wen and Hou
With Chang Chen, Shu Qi, Di Mei, Liao Su-jen, and Mei Fang
For decades Chinese history has been suppressed in China, on the mainland and in Taiwan, whether the subject is occupation or revolution, communism or capitalism. Recovering that history has become an obsession for art film directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, Stanley Kwan, Edward Yang, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wong Kar-wai, whose films are set in both the past and the present.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (2005) is split into three episodes set in Taiwan, each running about 40 minutes and featuring Chang Chen and Shu Qi; all three reflect Hou’s overriding concern with the way one’s sense of freedom, desire, and life possibilities is inflected by the age one lives in. The episodes are also about romantic disconnection and failed communication, with the romantic tensions reflecting international ones.
In “A Time for Love,” set in 1966 in Kaohsiung, Chen (Chang) receives his draft notice, then writes a love letter to May (Shu), who works at the snooker parlor where he hangs out. He discovers that she’s taken a job at another snooker parlor, and to the strains of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Rain and Tears” he heads off to find her before reporting for duty.… Read more »
From the March 17, 1989 Chicago Reader. At least in memory, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen continues to remind me of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. — J.R.
THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Charles McKeown and Gilliam
With John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Robin Williams, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce, Winston Dennis, and Valentina Cortese.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Emile Ardolino
Written by Perry Howze and Randy Howze
With Cybill Shepherd, Robert Downey Jr., Ryan O’Neal, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Christopher McDonald.
I can no longer recall whether any of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s late-18th-century best-seller The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen was read to me as a child. But there’s no question that these tall tales of comic extravagance — based on stories told by one Karl Friedrich Hieronymous (the Baron von Munchhausen) to his German poker buddies during the same period — have held a special place in children’s literature ever since. Reportedly about a dozen and a half film versions of the stories precede Terry Gilliam’s current entry, although I presume that most of these are silent and/or European, because I can find only one listed in Leonard Maltin’s extensive TV Movies (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen by Karel Zeman).… Read more »