Written for 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.
The brassy and obnoxious show-biz type that
Albert Brooks plays in his first and funniest feature
(1979) –- so close to Brooks’s own public persona that
he’s called Albert Brooks –- professes to be impervious
to all the self-consciousness that engulfs him.
Even when he’s shooting an extended documentary
about the life of a “typical” family in Phoenix,
Arizona in the style of the infamous 1973 cinéma-
vérité TV series An American Family, he claims
that anything the family does in front of the camera is
“right,” without ever admitting that the acute self-consciousness
created by his film and camera crew
ultimately has more to do with movies than with real
life. Charles Grodin brilliantly plays the animal
doctor at the head of this family, and Brooks is so
skillful at juggling all the mannerisms of pseudo-documentary
and all the specious claims of pop psychology
that his periodic and compulsive regressions to
old-time show business -– whether it’s the big-time
pop vocal in the opening sequence or the conflagration
inspired by Gone with the Wind at the
end –- manage to be both welcome and ludicrous.… Read more »
Here’s the unedited version of a review I wrote for In These Times, published in their September 3, 2008 issue. — J.R.
I can’t quite follow all of the offscreen sound bites preceding the main title of Tia Lessen and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water. But it’s clear from the media voices I can transcribe that they concisely present this documentary’s agenda — at the same time we see the intertitle “September 14th 2005/Central Louisiana” appear onscreen and then get our first glimpses of some of the people who’ll shortly become this documentary’s central characters, seated around a picnic table.
Two of the offscreen voices come from George W. Bush; the others all sound like they come from newscasters or interviewees:
1.… Read more »
The following is a chapter from my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver, CO: Arden Press, 1983), a volume commissioned as the first in a projected annual series that would survey recent independent and experimental filmmaking. (A second volume, Film: The Front Line 1984, by David Ehrenstein, appeared the following year, but lamentably the series never continued after that, for a variety of reasons, even though both volumes remain in print.) I have followed the format used in both books.
It’s worth adding that De Landa abandoned filmmaking not long after this article appeared –- after planning, as I recall (but not shooting), a film starring his penis, to be entitled My Dick — and went on to pursue a distinguished academic career as a professor of art, architecture, and philosophy in New York, Pennsylvania, and Switzerland, with at least four books to his credit: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002), and A New Philosophy of Society (2006). For this reason, I couldn’t originally illustrate this piece with any images from his films, as I did in Film: The Front Line 1983, until some frame enlargements were recently made from Incontinence,a month after this article was originally posted, by Georg Wasner of the Austrian Film Museum, to use in a catalogue for a retrospective that I programmed (see below).Most of the other illustrations either come from more recent periods or are used to illustrate some commercial films that crop up in my discussion, e.g.… Read more »
The following was commissioned for and included in the 17th edition of the Time Out Film Guide, (2008), and is being reprinted with the publisher’s permission. Thanks also to John Pym, the book’s editor, who proposed that I write this piece so that it would come out before the Presidential election. –J.R.
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
When the history of American movies during the eight-year reign of George W. Bush (2001-2009) eventually comes to be written, one might hypothesize that the commercial development of the mobile phone during the 1980s and 1990s and the introduction of the iPod during the first year Bush took office were crucial in setting the stage for some of the basic conditions of that era. Arguably for the first time, one could easily sustain one’s ignorance about and indifference to one’s fellow citizens even while sharing the same public space with them–on the street or in other public locations dedicated to some form of transport: terminals, buses, subways, trains, planes, fairgrounds, theme parks, and, above all, cinemas.
So the phenomenon of a U.S. President who, to all appearances, preferred to remain blissfully (and strategically) ignorant about the news and the overall state of the world, and ran his office accordingly, was part and parcel of this growing trend to eliminate the public sphere from American life and subdivide the entire culture and society into `special interest’ groups and niche markets.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 27, 2004). — J.R.
Star Spangled to Death
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Ken Jacobs
With Jack Smith, Jerry Sims, Cecilia Swan, Gib Taylor, Bill Carpenter, Laurie Taylor, Reese Haire, Bob Fleischner, Jim Enterline, and Jacobs.
Young man, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. — opening intertitle of Star Spangled to Death
Ken Jacobs’s 1969 Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son – a 115-minute visual analysis of a 1905 short film with the same title, probably directed by D.W. Griffith cameraman Billy Bitzer — introduced me to the modernist appreciation of so-called primitive cinema, teaching me with its seven swarming tableau-like shots that these films were rich and complex and in no way deserving of the term “primitive.” When I saw his 1978 short The Doctor’s Dream, which intricately reedits a trite educational narrative with sound, it too knocked my socks off. The only other Jacobs works I’ve seen are a couple of “film-performance” pieces that use early documentaries projected in 3-D, and Little Stabs at Happiness (1960) and Blonde Cobra (1963), shorts devoted to the cavortings of performer and future filmmaker Jack Smith and a few of his cohorts in run-down Manhattan locations.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 13, 2006). — J.R.
Directed and written by Douglas McGrath
With Toby Jones, Daniel Craig, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels, Peter Bogdanovich, Sigourney Weaver, and Hope Davis
Two recent features about Truman Capote, coincidentally made around the same time, concentrate on Capote’s work on his true-crime best seller In Cold Blood, about the slaying of a family in rural Kansas. Both suggest that Capote’s life and career were destroyed by the emotional strain of researching and writing that book, yet they’re fascinatingly different in what they try to do and in how they depict their subject. Capote – which professes to be based on Gerald Clarke’s standard biography of the same title — came out a year ago and won its lead actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Oscar. Infamous – which claims to be based on George Plimpton’s Truman Capote, a collection of gossipy sound-bites assembled in the same manner as his “oral histories” about Edie Sedgwick and Robert F. Kennedy — was released a year after it was completed to avoid comparisons with Capote. Now that it’s out, comparisons are in order — and not all of them are to Capote‘s advantage.… Read more »
From Film Quarterly (Winter 2008-09: Volume 62, Number 2). — J.R.
It’s been gratifying to see the almost instant acclaim accorded to John Gianvito’s beautiful, 58-minute Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), especially after the relative neglect of his only previous feature-length film, the 168-minute The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001).
The more recent film — a meditative, lyrical, and haunting documentary about grave sites that won the grand prix at the Entervues Film Festival in Belfort in 2007 and both a Human Rights Award and a special mention at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2008 —- also received an award at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in Ohio and was named the year’s best experimental film by the National Society of Film Critics. (Full disclosure: I nominated Profit Motive for the last of these awards, and headed the jury of the same Buenos Aires film festival in 2001, which gave The Mad Songs its top prize.)
The Mad Songs focuses on the irreparable effects of the first Gulf war in 1991 on three separate powerless people in New Mexico (which is where the film in its entirety was shot). Profit Motive focuses on the grave sites of several dozen heroes of progressive struggles throughout American history.… Read more »
From the April 28, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. I was just reminded of Khroustaliov, My Car! when, thanks to Roger Alan Koza, I recently discovered a more recent and rather amazing feature by the son of Alexi Guerman (or German), Alexei Guerman Jr.’s Paper Soldier (2008). — J.R.
Fun and infuriating in roughly equal proportions, Mike Figgis’s Timecode is an unusually bold experiment for a major studio. Its plot is outlandish and its characters the most overblown parodies this side of Robert Altman. In some respects, it’s even more cockamamy than James Toback’s Black and White and its sensationalist riffs. So you can’t laugh at much of it without feeling either self-satisfied or stupid.
The silliness and the daring of Timecode are often made to seem like opposite sides of the same coin — a kind of cagey self-protection that cheerfully self-destructs to ensure that the movie poses little threat to anyone. Back in the 60s, critic Noël Burch tartly observed that there would always be an 8½ to provide a refuge from the implications of a Last Year at Marienbad. Timecode suggests an unlikely synthesis: a flamboyantly obvious and carnivalesque satire of Tinsel Town and its excesses tied to an open-ended, highly interactive, and somewhat abstract form.… Read more »
From the October 21, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Good Night, and Good Luck
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by George Clooney
Written by Clooney and Grant Heslov
With David Straithairn, Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Ray Wise, Heslov, Jeff Daniels, and Dianne Reeves
*** (A must see)
Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by Dan Futterman
With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Mark Pellegrino, and Amy Ryan
Good Night, and Good Luck and Capote view journalism as an intricate mix of principles, bravado, and negotiation. Working in a minefield, their star journalists are victims of their vocations. Good Night, and Good Luck, set in the early 50s, celebrates Edward R. Murrow’s bravery, eloquence, and sense of justice in challenging Joseph McCarthy at the height of his power — a kind of heroism that evokes John Wayne’s in a western like Rio Bravo (a movie I cherish, though its view of good and evil is similarly unshaded). Good Night, and Good Luck – named for Murrow’s sign-off line — also explores how internal politics at CBS were shaped by the network’s relations with its sponsors. The victimization of Murrow can be seen in his early death from lung cancer — his chain smoking, like James Agee’s and Albert Camus’, was somehow connected in the public mind with his moral seriousness — and in the way his weekly show, See It Now, was bumped to a Sunday-afternoon slot after he challenged McCarthy.… Read more »
This review of Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared in the February 13, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. I’m not positive that the second image I’ve used to represent Sokurov’s Oriental Elegy actually comes from that video and not from another Sokurov work, but it evokes my memory of that video so well that I hope I can be granted poetic license for this. – J.R.
Other Voices, Other Rooms
Directed by David Rocksavage
Written by Sara Flanigan and Rocksavage
With Lothaire Bluteau, Anna Thomson, David Speck, April Turner, and Frank Taylor.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
I cannot tell a lie: my first exposure to two great tragic novels, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), was the dreadful Hollywood adaptations released during my teens, both of which had happy endings. As silly as these movies were — Vincent J. Donehue’s Lonelyhearts (1958) and Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959) — they piqued my interest in the original novels, and I discovered, among many other things, the blatant inadequacy of the movie versions.
The same thing could happen to a teenager attending the dreadful film adaptation of Truman Capote’s first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) — not a novel of the same caliber as West’s and Faulkner’s, though still a work of real distinction, from his best period — but the odds are slim.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, May 14, 1999. —J.R.
The Lovers of the Arctic Circle
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Julio Medem
With Fele Martinez, Najwa Nimri, Nancho Novo, Maru Valdivielso, Peru Medem, Sara Valiente, Victor Hugo Oliveira, and Kristel Diaz.
Julio Medem’s fourth feature is a love story spanning 17 years — from the time Otto and Ana first meet, as children in a Spanish school yard, to their improbable reunion in the wilds of northern Finland when they’re 25. But the film starts at the end rather than the beginning, and like the names of the two characters, the story can be read backward as well as forward. That story is told by Otto and Ana in alternate bursts, inflected mainly by how Otto views Ana and vice versa, skipping back and forth in time. To make things trickier, the two versions of what happens are sometimes at variance.
When The Lovers of the Arctic Circle joined Open Your Eyes at the Fine Arts last week, it became possible to conclude, with a sigh of relief, that the age of Pedro Almodovar was finally over. I don’t mean that Almodovar won’t continue to make movies or get American distribution, but that his brand of smart-aleck entertainment will no longer have to stand for the whole of Spanish cinema.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 2003). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Christine Jeffs
Written by John Brownlow
With Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Amira Casar, Andrew Havill, Lucy Davenport, Blythe Danner, and Michael Gambon.
In the Mirror of Maya Deren
Directed by Martina Kudlacek
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.
– Sylvia Plath, “Fever 103 °“
In film, I can make the world dance.
– Maya Deren
In college it always seemed like the guys who were poets got more girls than the prose writers. The assumption was that poets had all the romance and sensuality associated with their medium working for them. Poetry, after all, isn’t just a block of printed material; it’s an activity, and one that can turn people on sexually as well as spiritually.
In cultures such as those of Russia and Iran sexual and spiritual qualities tend to run neck and neck: the great Persian poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-’67), a fan of Sylvia Plath, retains a mythic allure that combines the auras of Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday, and Marilyn Monroe. And an erotic charge is one of the first things that Sylvia, a biopic about Sylvia Plath (1932-’63), gets right.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1991). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Written by Malia Scotch Marmo
With Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Aiello, Gena Rowlands, Laura San Giacomo, Roxanne Hart, Danton Stone, and Tim Guinee.
“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” This standard expression of cheerfully blinkered American consumption tells us a lot about the way we think, especially if we substitute other words and phrases for “art” — terms such as life, the world, democracy, the Middle East, Kuwait, or Iraq. By concentrating on what we like, our media excel in holding and gratifying our attention — without broaching the broader issue of our ignorance, which might, after all, upset and confound the steady (if highly selective) information flow. Whether the movie in question is CNN’s recent made-for-TV miniseries Crisis in the Gulf and its popular sequel War in the Gulf (both assigned catchy, lurid logos with flaming red letters) or an effective theatrical release like Once Around, its power to grip us and persuade us is largely predicated on a series of absences and elisions designed to forestall and even silence our curiosity about what we don’t know, along with well-prepared servings of what we know we like.… Read more »
From the April 8, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. When I reprinted this article in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics, I gave it a different title: “Polanski and the American Experiment”.
For me, The Ghost Writer is easily Polanski’s best film since Bitter Moon. And certainly his most masterful. — J.R.
**** BITTER MOON
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski, Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Jeff Gross
With Peter Coyote, Emmanuelle Seigner, Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Victor Bannerjee, Sophie Patel, and Stockard Channing.
Fairly late in What? (1973), Roman Polanski’s least seen and least critically approved feature — an absurdist, misogynist, yet oddly affectionate ‘Scope comedy filmed in the seaside villa of its producer, Carlo Ponti — the bimbo American heroine (Sydne Rome), an Alice set loose in a decadent wonderland belonging to a dying millionaire named Noblart, wanders for the second time into a living room where she encounters a middle-aged Englishman. Once again this Noblart employee bemoans his arthritis, cracks his knuckles, then sits down at a piano to play the treble part of a Mozart sonata for four hands. Immediately recognizing the piece, she joins him, performing the bass part. After a rose petal drops from a bowl of flowers on the piano onto the keyboard, which also happened before, the wide-eyed heroine has an epiphany:
“It’s so strange — this keeps happening to me more and more often.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Autumn 1976). — J.R.
Behind the credits, a face peering out through a window; a downward pan revealing a vertiginous drop to the courtyard below; a pan back to the window and round the court to another face, a girl’s, which quickly turns into Roman Polanski’s; a continuing movement past a chimney, across more windows-down one side of the building, over a railing and up another side — eventually coming round to the door leading to the street, which Polanski enters . . . If the remainder of The Tenant were as impressive as the first shot, we conceivably might have had a masterpiece on our hands. Nearly as concise as the extended crane shot opening Touch of Evil, it differs from the latter by arranging its arsenal of elements into a non-narrative pattern — a set of materials which, except for the girl turning into Polanski, are related spatially but nor chronologically, until Polanski’s entrance through the street door launches the story proper.
A naturalised Pole named Trelkovsky is interested in seeing a flat, and the unfriendly concierge (Shelley Winters) gives him a hard time about it, agreeing to take him upstairs only after he slips her some money.… Read more »