Written for Volume 34, Number 3, Issue No 135 of the Winnipeg-based Canadian arts journal Border Crossings in Fall 2015 (see below). — J.R.
I’m frequently troubled these days by the growing absence of global perspectives in what passes for news and other forms of mainstream discourse in the U.S. — the perpetually shrinking definitions of what we mean by ‘we’. A good many of the congealed stereotypes of foreign cultures that crop up in both Hollywood blockbusters and Internet chatter — ranging from the notion that ‘the French’ are crazy about Jerry Lewis to the pop images we still have of Latinos, Italians, Russians, Arabs, and Asians in SF blockbusters whenever ‘the world’ has to be represented — can paradoxically be traced back to the 50s and 60s, when the Cold War and all of its most rigid either/or assumptions were still in force. One might suppose that the combined resources of the Internet and digital viewing would widen our cinematic and other cultural reference points rather than shrink them. But the tendency of even respectable, adult media pundits to speak about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in the world at large suggests a metaphysics tailored to the dimensions of a Star Wars saga or a video game, where the cultural givens plunge back even further into the mythical past: Flash Gordon serials and Triumph of the Will from the mid-1930s, Roy Rogers Westerns and airborne World War 2 epics of the mid-1940s.… Read more »
This very lengthy essay was assembled in 2013 out of several previous pieces of mine, but I no longer recall the occasion for it. — J.R.
One of the problems inherent in using the term “cult” within a contemporary context relating to film, either as a noun or as an adjective, is that it refers to various social structures that no longer exist, at least not in the ways that they once did. When indiscriminate moviegoing (as opposed to going to see particular films) was a routine everyday activity, it was theoretically possible for cults to form around exceptional items — “sleepers,” as they were then called by film exhibitors — that were spontaneously adopted and anointed by audiences rather than generated by advertising. But once advertising started to anticipate and supersede such a selection process, the whole concept of the cult film became dubious at the same time it became more prominent, a marketing term rather than a self-generating social process.
Joe Dante deserves a special place in what I would call the post-cult cinema because he is one of the few commercial American directors I know who has refused to hire a personal publicist, and for tactical reasons — someone, in short, who chooses to be recognized at best only by initiates (that is, by fellow cultists or would-be cultists, his comrades-in-arms) rather than by the public at large.… Read more »
These are the original letters published in French translation in Trafic no. 24, Winter 1997 and subsequently published in English in a 2003 book edited by Adrian Martin and myself, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute). — J,R.
From Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago):
7 April, 1997
Almost a year has passed since I wrote in Trafic* about “the taste of a particular generation of cinephiles — an international and mainly unconscious cabal (or, more precisely, confluence) of critics, teachers, and programmers, all of whom were born around 1960, have a particular passion for research (bibliographic as well as cinematic), and (here is what may be most distinctive about them) a fascination with the physicality of actors tied to a special interest in the films of John Cassavetes and Philippe Garrel (as well as Jacques Rivette and Maurice Pialat).” I named four members of this generation — Nicole Brenez (France), Alexander Horwath (Austria), Kent Jones (U.S.), and you (Australia). Each of you, I should add, I met independently of the other three, originally through correspondence (apart from Kent), although Kent and Alex already knew each other. By now, I’m happy to say, all four of you have become acquainted, either by letters or in person, which has opened up many possibilities of both testing my hypothesis and, even more, of extending, refining, qualifying, and better understanding it.… Read more »
The following English translation of Pere Portabella’s “Prologue” to the Spanish edition of Movie Mutations (published in October 2010), commissioned by Portabella himself, was recently sent to me by Portabella’s secretary Helena Gomà. I have added a footnote to the text that I originally wrote in February 2011.
Helena also wrote me, “We also would like to let you know that Pere is filming, since several months ago, a film that we could call Informe General 2 – on the political, economic and social situation mostly in Spain but also [touching on] global facts [such] as the climate change. Still have no release date, but probably in the fall.” I’ve subsequently been able to see this film (in Spring 2016), with the title Informe General II (General Report II), a fascinating look at Spain now that I hope North Americans (and others) will able to see shortly. As described on Portabella’s web site, “This second Report is made in the context of a severe systemic crisis in the cultural, economic-financial, political and energy fields. Above all, it nevertheless bears witness to the way civil society is coming out of this crisis with a new prominence, consisting quite simply [of] ordinary people’s recovering politics.” — J.R.… Read more »
Even if he didn’t like Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, which I found immensely pleasurable and mesmerizing, I’m glad that Hollywood Reporter‘s Michael Rechtshaffen at least picked up on the fact that Bill Murray, who turns up very late in the film, is “channeling” Dick Cheney when he does. This is by no means a gratuitous detail. Trust a minimalist to make absences as important as presences. None of the characters in this movie is named, all of them are assigned labels in the cast list, and the only label assigned to Murray is “American”. Furthermore, unless I missed something, the European (specifically Spanish) landscape that Jarmusch and his cinematographer Chris Doyle capture so beautifully and variously, in diverse corners of Madrid and Seville, is otherwise utterly devoid of Americans of any kind — a significant statement in itself — until a foul-mouthed Murray makes his belated experience in a bunker, as ill-tempered as the American trade press is already being about this entrancing movie. Prior to that, we’re told repeatedly, in Spanish, by a good many others in the film, that he who tries to be bigger than all the others should go to the cemetery to understand a little bit better what life is: a handful of dust.… Read more »
This appeared in the May 28, 2004 issue of Chicago Reader. Coffee and Cigarettes, incidentally, proved to be one of the surprise hits of Jarmusch’s career — not as commercially successful as the subsequent Broken Flowers (though I prefer it to that), but more popular than anticipated. The overhead shots of expresso cups in a more recent Jamusch feature, The Limits of Control, recall those in Coffee and Cigarettes — providing even more of a contrast with some of the weird, transgressive, and uncharacteristic camera angles in the more recent film, starting with the very first shot. (Note: the first photograph below is by Jean-Daniel Beley, who has requested a credit.)—J.R.
Coffee and Cigarettes
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch
With Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joe Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renee French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach de Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Bill Rice, and Taylor Mead.
At first Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, made over a span of 17 years, looks like a departure for him. It consists of 11 entertaining, mainly comic short films in black and white that show people mainly sitting around in coffeehouses mainly drinking coffee, mainly smoking cigarettes, and mainly talking.… Read more »
From Film Quarterly, Spring 1984. -– J.R.
Two volumes. Edited by Jean-Pierre Coursodon, with Pierre Sauvage. New York: McGraw Hill, 1983. $21.95 per volume cloth, $11.95 per volume paper.
On the whole, Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s 874-page, two-volume American Directors is closer in genre to Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary than it is to Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema. Like both predecessors, it is an encyclopedia of opinions first and facts second — although, to its credit, it has many more facts per entry (in filmographies and career summaries) than either of the earlier monoliths. Like the Roud and unlike the Sarris, it attempts exhaustive surveys rather than suggestive critical miniatures, and is authored by many hands. Coursodon wrote 66 of the 118 essays and co-editor Pierre Sauvage, who furnished all the filmographies, contributed 13; the remaining 39 are by 20 other writers.
Again like the Roud, the Coursodon stands or falls as a compendium more than as a book with a sustained viewpoint; consecutive or continuous reading is neither recommended nor viable. Overall, the criticism is homogeneous, perhaps too much so: the standard auteurist form of career survey — already a bit fossilized — as developed out of Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier’s Trente ans de cinéma américain (1970) and The American Cinema (1968) is so predominant here that other critical persuasions of the past two decades might as well have never existed.… Read more »
From The Soho News, May 21, 1980. — J.R.
The Empire Strikes Back
Story by George Lucas
Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by Irwin Kershner
Let’s face facts. Whether you or I love, hate or feel indifferent to The Empire Strikes Back – or any of the seven sequels and “prequels” to Star Wars slated to interfere with our lives over the next two decades — doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference in the long run, on the cosmic scale of things. Nor does it matter all that much in the mundane short run, either. Even if you stay away from the movie, manage to shun the novel and T-shirt and comic, avoid the soundtrack album and toys and video cassette, you can bet that a skilled team of disinterested humanitarians and technocrats, working round the clock with computers has decided that it’s so good for you and your kids that there’s no way you can prevent it from being crammed down your throats, in one form or another.
You’d better grin and bear it, if you know what’s good for you. The celestial machinery that has already turned Star Wars into the biggest grosser to date (“of all time” might seem a little excessive in forestalling the future) isn’t taking any chances in its investment by branching our or experimenting much.… Read more »
Published in New York Newsday (Sunday, May 31, 1992). -– J.R.
CITY BOYS: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, by Robert Sklar. Princeton University Press, 311 pp., $27.50.
BY JONATHAN ROSENBAUM
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this comparative study of the Hollywood careers of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield is that it lacks the deference to the film industry that one has come to expect nowadays from movie books, journalistic as well as academic. Eschewing the puffery of popular star biographies and the equally dubious (and self-serving) idealism of such academic buzz terms as “the classical Hollywood cinema” and “the genius of the system,” Robert Sklar, professor of cinema studies at New York University, writes with the vernacular ease of a journalist without sacrificing the analytical rigor one expects from a prestigious university press. While he hasn’t always spread his net as widely as one might hope, he still offers a plausible portrait of three city boys and how they grew -– or didn’t.
A social historian at heart, Sklar is basically interested in charting the diverse forces that molded and altered the screen images of Cagney, Bogart and Garfield. Their overlapping careers offer many instructive parallels: New York origins, theatrical training, evolving hard-boiled screen personalities, leftist sympathies, artistic and economic exploitation by the studios, struggles for independence (including the formation of their own production companies) with mixed results and elaborate enforced recantations of former political allegiances during the Hollywood witch hunts.… Read more »
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 »