From the Chicago Reader (November 14, 1997). –J.R.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Errol Morris
With Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez, and Rodney Brooks.
To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which is composed of the pleasure of guessing little by little: to suggest…that is the dream. –Stéphane Mallarmé
If narratives are arrangements of incidents with precise beginnings, middles, and ends, then Errol Morris’s exciting and singular Fast, Cheap & Out of Control doesn’t really qualify. You can’t even call it a documentary in any ordinary sense, because you often can’t say exactly what’s being documented. I suspect that poetry offers a better model for what Morris is up to, particularly Mallarmé’s idea of what poetry should be: an obscure object shaped and defined in successive increments by the reader’s perception and imagination.
Four men are interviewed separately in Morris’s film — a lion tamer (Dave Hoover), a topiary gardener (George Mendonca), a mole-rat specialist (Ray Mendez), and a robot scientist (Rodney Brooks) — and they recount the origins as well as some of the development of their passion for their work. Who they are apart from their work almost never comes up.… Read more »
The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). I’m delighted that this prompted Adilkhan Yerzhanov to send me a very kind email along with a fresh link to his film. — J.R.
I’ve seen Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners (2014) only once, and if I dwell on my inability to see it a second time for this review, this is only to pay tribute to the issues and complications of ownership, which are so basic to the film’s universal relevance.
One year ago, I wrote the following as part of my bimonthly column for the Spanish film magazine Caimán Cuadernos de Cine: “12 June (Chicago): As preparation for serving as a ‘mentor’ to student film critics at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I watch online a film they’re assigned to write about, Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners from Kazakhstan. This is quite a revelation — at least for me, if not, as I later discover, for most of the students. Three city siblings arrive in the county to claim the ramshackle hut they’ve inherited from their deceased mother, and the tragicomic misadventures and forms of corruption that they encounter oscillate between grim realism, absurdist genre parody, and dreamlike surrealism, culminating in a doom-ridden yet festive dance in which both victims and victimizers participate….Yerzhanov’s use of genre staples actually expands his expressive and emotional palette without foreshortening our sense of the people involved.”
In my efforts to take residence in the film a second time, a year later, I subscribe to the online service FestivalScope.com and contact the film’s owners through this site to gain permission to watch this film again for this review.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1992). The Reader‘s web site claims this was published in 1985 — two years before I moved to Chicago and seven years before the film was made. — J.R.
Michael Almereyda, the writer-director of Twister, was sufficiently inspired by Sadie Benning’s highly personal black-and-white videosall made with a $45 toy camerathat he used the same kind of camera to shoot this highly personal hour-long feature (1992), a fictional work inspired by his own (mainly love) life in New York’s East Village, with his downstairs neighbor (Nic Ratner) playing himself. Like Twister, this is charming, quirky, poetic, and original — maybe even more so — and Almereyda’s use of the toy camera creates a fuzzy, intimate kind of space that actually seems to resemble the inside of someone’s head. With Barry Sherman, Mary Ward, Isabel Gilles, and Elina Lowensohn (Simple Men). (JR)
… Read more »
From The Soho News (June 10, 1981). I posted the first part of this, on Raiders of the Lost Ark, some time ago, but this, belatedly, is the full column — and, in my opinion, the best of my “Declarations of Independents” columns for The Soho News. (I believe there were ten of these in all.) Note: The film stills from Of Light and Texture are copyrighted by the Estate of Andrew Noren. — J.R.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams
History of the World, Part I
Of Light and Texture (Museum of Modern Art)
As the most gifted and congenial by far of all the New Hollywood tyros, Steven Spielberg may be the only consummate master of the post-TV movie spectacular — the blockbuster that’s diced out into bite-size narrative units like Chicken McNuggets (every structural hint of bone or body part processed out of existence, every juicy piece a separate unique experience, designed to vanish without a trace). Aspiring to the condition of continuous action as if that were a delirious state of grace — borne aloft by superbly timed jolts and impossibly narrow escapes, usually in three to five-minute setpiece doses — Raiders of the Lost Ark (rated PG for pretty good) all but bypasses character and logic for a string of stunning rides through Disneyland, one right after the other, each one a visceral treat.… Read more »
This appeared in the November 15, 1991 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
VIDEOS BY SADIE BENNING
“I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of the caméra-stylo [camera-pen],” Alexandre Astruc wrote prophetically in 1948 in the journal Écran français. “This metaphor has a very precise sense. By it I mean that the cinema will gradually break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and as subtle as written language . . .
“It must be understood that up to now the cinema has been nothing more than a show. This is due to the basic fact that all films are projected in an auditorium. But with the development of 16-millimeter and television, the day is not far off when everyone will possess a projector, will go to the local bookstore and hire films written on any subject, of any form, from literary criticism and novels to mathematics, history, and general science. From that moment on, it will no longer be possible to speak of the cinema.… Read more »
The following essay was commissioned by Michael Koresky at the Criterion Collection for their 2007 DVD release of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (which they brought out with La jetée), although they eventually decided not to include it in their booklet. They made it available on their web site for a spell until an infection obliged them to remove all their essays, but Koresky has informed me that these are being reposted now that their new web site is being launched. I’m reprinting it here, in any case, with their permission. I should add that it recycles some material from my essay “On Second Thoughts,” about The Last Bolshevik, reprinted at the end of my 1997 collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.
The Guarded Intimacy of Sans soleil
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
“The Sorbonne should be razed and Chris Marker put in its place.” —-Henri Michaux
“Contrary to what people say, using the first person in films tends to be a sign of humility: `All I have to offer is myself.’”—Chris Marker
Even though few film essayists are more mythological than Chris Marker, it might help to clarify some matters if a couple of the more persistent myths surrounding his legend were undermined a little.… Read more »
This was originally a lecture given at a conference on Godard held in Cerisy, France on August 20, 1998. It subsequently appeared in a printed form somewhat closer to that found below, in Screen magazine (vol 40, no. 3). in Autumn 1999, as part of a Godard dossier assembled by the estimable Michael Witt. But, if memory serves, it took about a year of correspondence and wrangling before anyone on the magazine’s staff agreed to send me any copy of the issue. (Note: for a more general essay and interview with Godard about Histoire(s) du cinéma, go here.) —J.R.
Le Vrai Coupable: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work
Since the outset of his career, Godard has been interested in two kinds of criticism — film criticism and social criticism — and these two interests are apparent in practically everything he does and says as an artist. The first two critical texts that he published–in the second and third issues of Gazette du cinéma in 1950 — are entitled “Joseph Mankiewicz” and “Pour un cinéma politique”, and his first two features, A bout de souffle and Le petit soldat, made about a decade later, reflect the same dichotomy.… Read more »
This originally appeared in the June 24, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader, with a slightly different title (“Can Film Be Fascist?”) —J.R.
** THE WONDERFUL HORRIBLE LIFE OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL
Directed and written by Ray Muller.
*** THE EYE OF VICHY
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Jean-Pierre Azema and Robert O. Paxton.
Last year, about the time that Ray Muller’s mediocre if watchable three-hour documentary about Leni Riefenstahl was getting widespread coverage in New York, a European friend thoughtfully sent me a tape of Looking at “Triumph of the Will”, an excellent 45-minute BBC program designed to introduce Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film to a contemporary audience. Interviewing such commentators as Hugh Hudson, Annette Insdorf, Claude Lanzmann, George Steiner, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Budd Schulberg, and Brian Winston, the program offered diverse historical, ideological, and aesthetic perspectives without privileging any single point of view. Riefenstahl herself refused to be interviewed, yet her own self-serving interpretation of her career was included, as well as that of one of her American apologists — David Hinton, the author of a book about her, who argues, as Riefenstahl does, that Triumph of the Will should not be regarded as propaganda.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 1995). — J.R.
Soft and Hard (A Soft Conversation Between Two Friends on a Hard Subject)
Directed and written by Anne-Marie Miéville and Jean-Luc Godard
With Godard and Miéville.
A 48-minute video that’s premiering in Chicago ten years after it was made, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Soft and Hard (A Soft Conversation Between Two Friends on a Hard Subject) is so far in advance of most films and videos made today about the essential properties of both media that it makes not so much Chicago but contemporary Western culture feel like an intellectual backwater. It was commissioned by and originally broadcast on England’s Channel Four, and although most of Godard and Miéville’s talk is in French and subtitled, the funding source is acknowledged in several ways: by the video’s English title, by English intertitles throughout, by many stills from Hollywood pictures (including Frankenstein, Scarface, Rear Window, and the 1948 Joan of Arc) employed as punctuation, by an early sequence of Godard speaking in English on the phone about business arrangements for his film King Lear, and by a brief but moving exchange in English between Godard and Miéville that concludes the work.… Read more »
From the January 15, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Thin Red Line
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Terrence Malick
With Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Arie Verveen, Dash Mihok, John Savage, John Travolta, and George Clooney.
Last week the National Society of Film Critics voted Out of Sight the year’s best picture, also awarding it best screenplay and best direction. If this baffles or bemuses you, you should know that the awards in each category are chosen by multiple ballots listing three titles in order of preference. What now seems like a collective preference for a sexy thriller over more ambitious pictures was in effect a tie-breaker between two irreconcilable positions.
As a participant in the meeting I saw partisans of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan square off against partisans of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s first film since Days of Heaven (1978). Practically no one voted for both — only Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune comes to mind — so Steven Soderbergh lurched forward as a second choice, finally copping 28 votes while Spielberg and Malick tied for second place with 25 votes apiece.… Read more »
Posted on Indiewire on January 6, 2012, with different illustrations. — J.R.
Critical Consensus: Kent Jones and Jonathan Rosenbaum Discuss Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard
By Kent Jones, Eric Kohn and Jonathan Rosenbaum | Indiewire January 6, 2012 at 11:20AM
Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Jonathan Rosenbaum (formerly of the Chicago Reader) and Kent Jones (executive director of the World Cinema Foundation and editor-at-large at Film Comment) discuss two legendary filmmakers: Robert Bresson, the subject of a retrospective beginning at New York’s Film Forum today, and Jean-Luc Godard, whose “Film Socialisme” comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on January 10. More details on films opening this week follow after the discussion.
ERIC KOHN: There’s no easy way to have a short conversation about Robert Bresson without shortchanging a career spanning 13 films and widely considered paramount to 20th-century film history. Bresson’s Catholicism, his narrative precision, use of non-actors and painterly formalism have been analyzed many times over.
However, the Bresson retrospective that begins at Film Forum today ahead of a national tour, and includes 35mm prints of 11 films, is the first one in 14 years.… Read more »
The following was put together for Jean-Luc Godard: Documents, a huge, large-format, 448-page (+ DVD) compendium put together by Nicole Brenez (in collaboration with Michael Witt) and published by the Centre Pompidou in 2006. I’ve decided to reproduce this assembly of texts exactly as I submitted it to Nicole. — J.R. [8/23/08]
Preface to Five Letters from Godard Apropos of Inside/Out
Not much (i.e., not enough) is known today about the three features of American independent filmmaker Rob Tregenza, all 35 millimeter—-Talking to Strangers (1988), The Arc (1991), and Inside/Out (1997)—- and possibly still less is known about Godard’s activity as a film producer, specifically of the third of these films. It isn’t even alluded to in Colin MacCabe’s detailed biography, where the fact that Godard helped to finance Straub-Huillet’s 1967 Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach equally goes unmentioned.
It also seems probable that the last film review published by Godard to date is his one of Talking to Strangers (see Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, tome 2, 1984-1998, pages 355-356, where this text is undated, though it was written specifically for the Toronto Film Festival catalogue and published there in English in September 1996). Financed by Tregenza himself with the money he earned from shooting TV commercials in Baltimore, Maryland, the film, shot on a one-to-one shooting ratio, consists of nine ten-minute takes.… Read more »
Eric Rohmer died in early 2010 at the age of 89. (See Dave Kehr’s very fine obituary in the New York Times.) Although my support for his work was often guarded, I hope that I did justice to his importance in this August 20, 1999 piece for the Chicago Reader.
I was distressed more recently to read A.O. Scott assert about Rohmer, in an article about him in the New York Times, that “some aspects of late-20th-century life -– most notably, politics –- were absent from his palette”. This immediately made me think about L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque (1993), one of Rohmer’s best and most neglected features, although, as Kent Jones subsequently noted on Dave Kehr’s blog, other Rohmer films with (direct or indirect) political content could also be noted. As usual, it appears that Scott is doing what many readers want from the Times‘ film writers: to assure them that their ignorance about certain matters is an “educated” ignorance, even if it isn’t. –J.R. [1/13/10]
Autumn Tale Rating *** A must-see
Directed and written by Eric Rohmer
With Marie Rivière, Béatrice Romand, Alain Libolt, Didier Sandre, Alexia Portal, Stéphane Darmon, and Aurélia Alcaïs.… Read more »
From the Summer 1974 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.
The Rattle of Armor, the Softness of Flesh: Bresson’s LANCELOT DU LAC
LANCELOT DU LAC embodies the perfection of a language that has been in the process of development and refinement for over thirty years. If it stuns and overwhelms one’s sense of the possibilities of that language— in a way, perhaps, that no predecessor has done, at least since AU HASARD BALTHAZAR — this is not because it represents a significant departure or deviation from the path Robert Bresson has consistently followed. The source of amazement lies in the film’s clarity and simplicity, a precise and irreducible arrangement of sounds and images that is so wholly functional that nothing is permitted to detract from the overall narrative complex, and everything present is used. It is a film where the rattle of armor and the neighing of horses are as essential as the faces and bodies of the characters, where indeed each of these elements serves to isolate and define the importance and impact of the others.
The sheer rawness of what is there disconcerts, but it shouldn’t lead one to focus unduly on what isn’t there, or track down some elusive clue to the Bressonian mystery.… Read more »
The following was written for CITIZEN PETER, a very handsomely produced and multilingual 476-page book celebrating the late Peter von Bagh’s 70th birthday, in late August 2013, coedited by Antti Alanen and Olaf Möller. — J.R.
Peter von Bagh is the man who convinced me to purchase my first multiregional VCR in the early 1980s. So he has a lot to answer for — including, just for starters, my DVD column in Cinema Scope.
We’ve met at various times in Paris, London, New York, Southern California, Chicago, Helsinki, Sodankylä, and Bologna — and probably in other places as well, although these are the ones I currently remember. The first times were in Paris in the early 1970s, when he looked me up, and it must have been either in San Diego in 1977 or 1978 or in Santa Barbara between 1983 and 1987 that he convinced me to buy a multiregional VCR. Most likely it was the latter, where I was mainly bored out of my wits apart from my pastime of taping movies from cable TV, and Peter maintained that if we started swapping films through the mail, a multiregional VCR would allow me to play some of the treasures he could send me.… Read more »