Monthly Archives: May 2017

American Beauty [on Chris Petit's NEGATIVE SPACE]

From the May 12, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader.  –J.R.

Negative Space

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Chris Petit

With Robert Mitchum, Manny Farber, Dave Hickey, and (as narrator) Petit.

There aren’t many films or videos about film criticism, especially ones that perform the actual work of film criticism. An interesting and ambitious exception is Chris Petit’s Negative Space (1999), an experimental 39-minute video made for BBC TV that’s being shown for free by Chicago Filmmakers at the Chicago Cultural Center this Friday, along with Petit’s The Falconer (1998). Named after the only book by film critic, painter, and teacher Manny Farber — a 1971 collection reprinted in an expanded edition in 1998 — Petit’s video wrestles with American landscape and culture, irony, memory, Las Vegas, the beginning of a new millennium, death, desert, film versus video, J.M.W. Turner’s painting, several movies (including Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy), as well as two critics, Farber and Dave Hickey. Petit also looks at Farber as a painter and an art critic and Hickey as an art critic, a resident of Las Vegas, an appreciator of Farber, and a commentator on American culture.… Read more »

Strange Bedfellows [on NANOU & WE THE LIVING]

From the Chicago Reader (January 27, 1989). — J.R.

NANOU

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Conny Templeman

With Imogen Stubbs, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Christophe Lidon, Valentine Pelka, Roger Ibanez, Daniel Day Lewis, and Lou Castel.

WE THE LIVING

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Goffredo Alessandrini

Written by Anton Giulio Majano

With Alida Valli, Rossano Brazzi, Fosco Giachetti, Emilio Cigoli, Cesarina Gheraldi, Giovanni Grasso, and Guglielmo Sinaz.

There’s obviously a world of difference between Nanou, a low-budget Anglo-French coproduction of 1986, playing this week at the Film Center, and We the Living, a big-budget Italian movie of 1942, adapted from Ayn Rand’s first novel, playing this week at Facets Multimedia. But in certain areas they have an interesting relationship to one another. Both films come to us filtered through diverse national contexts, and both are love stories in which intense political commitment plays a substantial role — a role that is erotic as well as ideological and ethical in its implications. Where they differ most strikingly is in their underlying political assumptions, and in the way their narratives relate to those assumptions.

Nanou, shot entirely on locations in France and Switzerland and utilizing mainly French dialogue, is nonetheless an English film, in style as well as overall conception.… Read more »

How to Read the Revolution [BLUSH]

From the Chicago Reader (October 4, 1996); also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Blush

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Li Shaohong

Written by Ni Zhen and Li

With Wang Ji, Wang Zhiwen, He Saifei, Zgang Liwei, Wang Rouli, Song Xiuling, Xing Yangchun, Zhou Jianying, and Cao Lei.

The use of multiple perspectives in Chinese painting was not for the purpose of making a hologram, nor was the use of parallel perspectives for the purpose of retaining the true dimensions of the objects represented. What was desired was rather a point of view which transcended that of the individual. The apparent horizon and vanishing point employed by Renaissance perspective made the image seem concrete, but demanded substantial identification with a particular viewer. Such images were perceived as both individual and momentary, seen by a particular person at a particular time. Chinese painting strove for a timeless, communal impression, which could be perceived by anyone, and yet was not a scene viewed by anyone in particular.

Chinese paintings did not portray reality; the world which the viewer entered was the realm of literature or philosophy, a realm which transcended nature. To enjoy a long tableau with small figures, one must shift one’s line of sight left and right, or up and down, a necessary condition for the appreciation of Chinese visual representation.Read more »

Laid But Lonely [ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, OR, & SAMARITAN GIRL]

From the June 24, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Me and You and Everyone We Know

*** (A must see)

Directed and Written by Miranda July

With John Hawkes, July, Miles Thompson, Brandon Ratcliff, Carlie Westerman, and Natasha Slayton

Or

*** (A must see)

Directed by Keren Yedaya

Written by Yedaya and Sari Ezouz

With Dana Ivgi, Ronit Elkabetz, Meshar Cohen, Katia Zinbris, and Shmuel Edelman

Samaritan Girl

no stars (Worthless)

Directed and written by Kim Ki-duk

With Kwak Ji-min, Seo Min-jeong, Lee Eol, Hyun-min Kwon, and Young Oh

“Sex is Confusing” could serve as an alternate title to these three movies, all high-profile film festival prizewinners. The first is an American woman’s debut feature, the second an Israeli woman’s first feature, and the third is Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s tenth.

Miranda July’s account of the inspiration for Me and You and Everyone We Know gives an indication of her wistful comedy’s strengths and limitations. “This movie was inspired by the longing I carried around as a child, longing for the future, for someone to find me, for magic to descend upon my life and transform everything,” she writes in the press packet. “It was also informed by how this longing progressed as I became an adult, slightly more fearful, more contorted, but no less fantastically hopeful.”

July’s main characters, all kids at heart, are a lonely video artist and driver for the elderly (July), a shoe salesman (John Hawkes) recently separated from his wife, and his two sons, ages 7 (Brandon Ratcliff) and 14 (Miles Thompson).… Read more »

THE CRIMINAL CODE (1984 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1984 (Vol. 51, No. 609). This was published long after I left the MFB staff in early 1977, and by this time, over seven years later, the magazine had finally abandoned its highly dubious practice of restricting all its reviews to single paragraphs. –- J.R.

The Criminal Code
U.S.A.,1930
Director: Howard Hawks

Cert–A.dist—Filmfinders. p.c–Columbia. A Howard Hawk production. p–Harry Cohn. sc–Seton I. Miller, Fred Niblo Jnr. Based on the play by Martin Flavin. ph–Teddy Tezlaff, James [Wong] Howe, (uncredited) William O’Connell. ed–Edward Curtiss. a.d–Edward Jewell. m–(not credited). sd. rec–Glenn Rominger. l.p–Walter Huston (Warden Martin Brady), Phillips Holmes (Robert Graham), Constance Cummings (Mary Brady), Mary Doran (Gertrude Williams), De Witt Jennings (Gleason), John Sheehan (MacManus), Boris Karloff (Galloway), Otto Hoffman (Jim Fales), Clark Marshall (Runch), Ethel Wales (Katie), lohn St. Polis (Dr. Rincwulf), Paul Porcassi (Spelvin), Hugh Walker (Lew), Andy Devine (Prisoner), Jack Vance (Reporter), Arthur Hoyt (Nettleford), Nicholas Soussanin, James Guilfoyle, Lee Phelps. 3,245 ft.

90 mins.… Read more »

Too Big for the Screen [on CHARLES MINGUS: TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG]

From the Chicago Reader, June 20, 2003. The posthumous Schuller-conducted premiere of Epitaph, incidentally, alluded to below, is now available on DVD, and is warmly recommended.  — J.R.

GuntherSchuller

Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Don McGlynn.

The sheer impossibility of encompassing jazz bassist, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus (1922-’79) in a single film limits Don McGlynn’s ambitious 1997 documentary, Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, from the outset. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it — it’s playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Mingus’s second wife, Celia Mingus Zaentz, will lead a discussion after the June 27 screening — but if you don’t already know something about the man’s music this may not be the ideal place to start. I’d recommend instead one of his best early albums — The Clown, Tijuana Moods, East Coasting, Mingus Dynasty, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (the best one with Eric Dolphy), or Mingus at Monterey.

No single book has succeeded in doing full justice to Mingus either. Maybe it’s because he had a genius for straddling musical categories such as traditional, modern, avant-garde, jazz, and classical (as Gunther Schuller points out in one of this film’s interviews, Mingus studied Arnold Schoenberg’s music in his teens, during the 30s, when few people here were familiar with it).… Read more »

Stupidity as Redemption [FORREST GUMP]

From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 1994). Also reprinted in  my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

** FORREST GUMP (Worth seeing)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Written by Eric Roth

With Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Humphreys, and Hanna Hall.

In the opening shot of Forrest Gump – a movie that might be described as Robert Zemeckis’s flag-waving Oscar bid — the camera meticulously follows the drifting, wayward trajectory of a white feather all the way from the heavens to the ground, just beside the muddy tennis shoes of the title hero (Tom Hanks). Forrest Gump, a slow-witted, sweet-tempered, straight-shooting fellow from Alabama with an IQ of 75, is waiting for a bus in a small park in Savannah, Georgia. Picking up the feather and placing it inside a book, he proceeds to recount his life story to various passing strangers; in the film’s final shot, over two hours later, we see a breeze carry the same white feather up and away.

These framing shots — a poetic statement about the vicissitudes of chance, how histories are made, unmade, and remade — are meant to say something about a half-century of American life, from the 40s to the present; and the tragicomic life of Forrest Gump, a saintly fool, is meant to embody those years.… Read more »

Is It Life, or Is It Media? (THE ICICLE THIEF)

From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 1990). — J.R.

THE ICICLE THIEF

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Maurizio Nichetti

Written by Nichetti and Mauro Monti

With Nichetti, Caterina Sylos Labini, Federico Rizzo, Heidi Komarek, Renato Scarpa, Carlina Torta, Lella Costa, and Claudio G. Fava.

There is still so much we have to learn about TV! — Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

Some people have called Maurizio Nichetti the Italian Woody Allen, an unfortunate appellation in more ways than one. Not only does it not do him justice, it also attributes to him an urban snobbishness that couldn’t be further from his world and persona. In the New York Times, where Allen’s movies are ranked higher than the late works of Welles and Antonioni — apparently because Allen, unlike Welles and Antonioni, reflects the worldview of many New Yorkers — the label can only backfire. But take a look at both actors and ask yourself which of the two is funnier.

The first time I saw a Nichetti movie, all it took was the opening sequence to convince me that there was no contest.

At an international conference in Milan, a distinguished participant suffers a stroke. A desperate call is made across the city to Colombo — a short nebbish with a mop of hair and a Groucho mustache, who operates a hilltop refreshment stand — for a glass of mineral water for the poor man.… Read more »

Nick’s Kicks

From The Soho News (November 24, 1981). — J.R.

Nick’s Movies (Nicholas Ray retrospective)

The Public Theater through December 13

Fantasy and counter-fantasy are perpetually at war in the films of Nicholas Ray — accounting in no small measure for the highly charged heat, light, fury, beauty, and pain that most of them project. In its most brilliant representations — the separate divisions of Vienna’s saloon  in Johnny Guitar (1954), an almost surrealist Western; the house and mind of Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956), an almost expressionist domestic melodrama —  this graphic warfare actually becomes expressed in terms of discrete zones of action and confinement. “Down there I sell whisky and cards,” announces the imperious Vienna (Joan Crawford) on a stairway, gun in hand, to an itchy search party below that’s somewhere between a lynch mob and a sheriff’s posse. “All you can get up these stairs is a bullet in the head.”

Or consider another scene, one of the most memorable jaded love duets in movies, again spelled out through architecture and spatial balances as well as words and faces. Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) sits at a kitchen table, drink in hand, while Vienna stands behind him, on the other side of a serving window, also facing us.… Read more »

Just Jost

From Film Comment (January-February 1982); reprinted in my book Film: The Front Line 1983. My thanks to Jon Jost himself for furnishing me with the frame grabs from Last Chants for a Slow Dance and Stagefright. — J.R.

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1. “This is a movie, a way to speak. It is bound, like all systems of communication, with conventions. Some of these are arbitrarily imposed, some are imposed by economic or political pressures, some are imposed by the medium itself. Some of these conventions are necessary: They are the commonality through which we are able to speak with one another in this way. But some of these conventions are unnecessary, and not only that, they are damaging to us, they are self-destructive. Yet we are in a bad place to see this. We are in a theater.” Jon Jost, addressing the camera and spectator in Speaking Directly (1974).

2. Despite five substantial and in many ways remarkable features under his belt since 1974, and nineteen shorts since 1963, Jon Jost at 38 is still a long way from becoming even an arcane household name in this country. Not that he makes it easy on anyone. His originality, technical virtuosity, and political sophistication have all tended to work against him by showing the rest of us up — thereby banishing him from most of the restricted genre and market classifications designed to protect us from his scorn, under avant-garde and mainstream umbrellas alike.Read more »

The Human Touch [MEN IN BLACK & CONTACT]

From the Chicago Reader (July 11, 1997).  — J.R.

Men in Black

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Written by Ed Solomon

With Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub, and Mike Nussbaum.

Contact

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Written by James V. Hart, Michael Goldenberg, Carl Sagan, and Ann Druyan

With Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett, and Rob Lowe.

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Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black and Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, both about the existence of extraterrestrials, are probably the first two blockbusters of the summer worthy of the name, even if many grains of salt are required to make much of a meal of either. I’m not claiming that Contact and Men in Black offer the only genuine chills and thrills around — I caught up with The Lost World: Jurassic Park a couple of weekends ago and enjoyed it more than its predecessor — only that they come closer to speaking my language. Given the preordained preeminence of Spielberg’s romp, I’m sure I would have slammed The Lost World, like most of my colleagues, if I’d seen it when they did.… Read more »

The Pluck of BARRY LYNDON

From the March-April 1976 Film Comment. I’m somewhat irritated today by the hectoring tone of this, but I tend to think most of my arguments are sound — apart from my far-too-facile insistence that Barry Lyndon is a failure, which I would now dispute. — J.R.

So BARRY LYNDON is a failure. So what? How many “successes” have you seen lately that are half as interesting or accomplished, that are worth even ten minutes of thought after leaving them? By my own rough count, a smug little piece of engineering like a CLOCKWORK ORANGE was worth about five. I’m reminded of what Jonas Mekas wrote about ZAZIE several years ago: “The fact that the film is a failure means nothing. Didn’t God create a failure, too?”

Anyway, what most Anglo-American critics appear to mean by failure is that they were (a) bewildered and (b) bored by their bewilderment. To some extent, I was bewildered and befuddled too. So what? Who says we have to understand a film back to front before we can let ourselves like it? “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

London critics got to see BARRY LYNDON at least a couple of weeks before their New York counterparts, so the contrasts and comparisons that were drawn were somewhat different: while most of the former chastised Kubrick for his beautiful images before going on to rave about HARD TIMES (known over here as THE STREETFIGHTER) or A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, the latter were usually more equitable in establishing that BARRY LYNDON and LUCKY LADY were both failures, leading the unwary to suspect that they might as well be equivalents.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: Repertory Movie Theaters of New York City

Jonathan Rosenbaum writer at the 59th International Film Festival of San Sebastian

Labors of love can be executed well or badly, and one of the many pleasures of this new book from McFarland – quite apart from the fact that its author, Ben Davis, interviewed me at some length for it (full disclosure), and quotes me accurately — is that it’s done so well. This is above all a work of social history, and because the 34 years that it covers includes all of my own extended sojourns in Manhattan and environs (in particular, 1961-1963, 1966-1969, 1978-1983), I can vouch for its accuracy as well as its success in evoking a now-vanished film culture without ever succumbing to the distortions of nostalgia. (I was interviewed mainly about my adventures in programming at the Carnegie Hall Cinema and the Bleecker Street Cinema, thanks to the support and assistance of Jackie Raynal and Sid Geffen.) The fine selection of photographs also helps a lot — although, thanks to the vagaries of the Internet, only one of these (the first) is posted below. [5/25/17]

NewYorkerTheater

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Thalia

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Washington_Square_Village_Bleecker_Street_CinemaRead more »

Structures and Strictures in Suburbia

Written for Criterion’s Blu-Ray release of Ozu’s Good Morning and I Was Born, But… — J.R.

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Structures and Strictures in Suburbia

Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

From its very opening, Good Morning is deeply and delightfully musical, both in its orchestrations of static visual elements in the first two shots (the juxtaposition of adjacent houses with fences and clotheslines, and all these horizontals with the verticality of electrical towers) and in its varying rhythmic patterns of human movement, which are no less orchestrated, as various figures cross the pathways between houses, between houses and hill, and on top of the hill itself—always, mysteriously, moving from right to left. And what could be more musical than the opening gag, occurring on the same sunny hilltop, of little boys farting for their own amusement, still another form of theme and variations?

GM-farts

All of which prompts me to disagree respectfully with the late Ozu specialist Donald Richie when he maintained, “Good Morning, in some ways Ozu’s most schematic film, certainly one of his least complicated formally, is an example of a film constructed around motifs.” Certainly the motifs are there, and these are vital; the two examined by Richie as sterling examples are the farting and the greeting embodied in the film’s title, and numerous variations are run on both.… Read more »

Art Imitates Love (THE SHAPE OF THINGS)

From the Chicago Reader (May 9, 2003). — J.R.

The Shape of Things

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Neil LaBute

With Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Frederick Weller, and Gretchen Mol.

The first time I saw Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things it packed a wallop. When I saw it again three weeks later it didn’t. Its force depends largely on a shock ending that transforms one’s sense of the characters, action, and overall theme with the authority of a masterpiece. Without this shock value, the film is still an infernal machine — designed, like LaBute’s In the Company of Men, to goad us into dark reflection — but its meanings tend to contract rather than expand.

Surprise endings either cancel out the impressions that come before, making the story seem contrived and artificial the second time around, or they enhance and complicate those impressions. The twist at the end of The Shape of Things comes closer to doing the first. The second time I saw it I felt I was watching the demonstration of a theorem more than the unraveling of characters, though it was only after having absorbed the disclosures of a first viewing that I became aware of certain interesting ambiguities.… Read more »