Monthly Archives: July 2017

On the Denied Politics of THE HURT LOCKER

I’m really tired of hearing from American reviewers that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker “isn’t political”. This specious and even insulting claim is clearly part of their effort to convince people to see the movie, and I’m at least sympathetic to that part, since the film is far and away the best new American commercial feature I’ve seen in months — the best constructed and the most thoughtful and entertaining. It’s also the best commercial American film about the so-called “war in” (I prefer “occupation of”) Iraq, at least since In the Valley of Elah, on which writer Mark Boal also furnished much of the material.

First of all, the notion that any American film made today with an Iraqi setting could possibly be apolitical in any shape or form strikes me as being extremely naïve and myopic. Secondly, I can’t imagine what could make the notion of an apolitical film on this subject sound even remotely attractive. Are we really that helpless and hopeless?  And are we so blinkered in our perceptions of what politics consists of that we think it’s limited to how we vote in elections? (Spoiler ahead, so if you haven’t yet seen the film, you might want to stop reading here.)

This is a film whose most courageous character is shown to be myopic to the point of insanity when it comes to perceiving Iraqi people in his midst — or at least one Iraqi kid in particular whom he supposedly knows and has some fondness for.… Read more »

Action and Distraction (STRANGE DAYS)

From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 1995). — J.R.

Strange Days

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks

With Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, Glenn Plummer, Brigitte Bako, and Richard Edson.

In the introduction to his recently published first draft of the Strange Days screenplay, James Cameron offers a candid, suggestive description of what working on the script was like: “The problem was I had never written anything remotely this densely plotted and character driven. I circled and circled the computer, like a dog slinking around trying to work up the courage to steal food from a sleeping drunk.”

Cameron’s simile could be seen to apply not so much to Strange Days and other overhyped media events as to the sort of measures our legislators have been pushing through Congress lately. These measures more or less state that we can no longer afford to coddle criminals, the elderly, crack babies, the poor, the sick, or the homeless or support art, culture, or education — not because we’re living through any kind of depression but because millionaires still aren’t making as much money as they want to. Assuming that we’re the sleeping drunk in this scenario, it’s worth asking what sort of dreams we could possibly be having that would allow those congressional canines to find the courage to slink around us with this kind of hope.… Read more »

Expatriate Filmmaking, For Better and For Worse

From Stop Smiling, issue 36, 2008. — J.R.

It’s easy to argue that most of the greatest filmmakers in the history of movies can’t be reduced to single nationalities, and that an uncommon number of them worked as expatriates. “I’m not at home anywhere,” declares Friedrich Munro (Patrick Bauchau), the expatriate director-hero in Wim Wenders’ underrated The State of Things (1982) — shooting an apocalyptic SF film in a remote corner of Portugal until money suddenly runs out and he has to chase down the producer (Allen Garfield) in Hollywood, who appears to be fleeing from the Mafia. This line is actually a quote from a real-life, very great German expatriate director with a similar name, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. And it might be argued that a condition of homelessness has helped more major filmmakers than it’s hurt, maybe because it’s forced them to reinvent themselves — a process that has also often entailed reinventing their cinema.

Some examples of this tendency may not be immediately obvious. Luis Buñuel is usually regarded as quintessentially Spanish, yet he only made three films that fully qualify as Spanish — a short documentary called Land without Bread (1932) and two features, Viridiana (1961) and Tristana (1970).… Read more »

Millers’ High Life

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1990). — J.R.

HENRY & JUNE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Philip and Rose Kaufman

With Fred Ward, Uma Thurman, Maria de Medeiros, Richard E. Grant, Kevin Spacey, and Jean-Philippe Ecoffey.

“There are larval thoughts not yet divorced from their dream content, thoughts which seem to slowly crystallize before your eyes, always precise but never tangible, never once arrested so as to be grasped by the mind. It is the opium world of woman’s physiological being, sort of a show put on inside the genito-urinary tract. There is not an ounce of man-made culture in it; everything related to the head is cut off. Time passes, but it is not clock time; nor is it poetic time such as men create in their passion. It is more like that aeonic time required for the creation of gems and precious metals; an embowelled sidereal time in which the female knows that she is superior to the male and will eventually swallow him up again. The effect is that of starlight carried over into day-time.”

This elegant huffing and puffing belongs to Henry Miller, writing about the journals of Anais Nin in a 1939 essay called “Un Etre Etoilique” (A Starlike Being), collected in The Cosmological Eye.… Read more »

Talking Back to the Screen (Toronto 1992)

From Film Comment, November-December 1992. I’m not sure which of the stills directly below is printed backwards, so I’m including both of them.– J.R.

My 13th year at the Toronto Festival of Festivals reconfirmed my feeling that it’s large enough to satisfy many disparate and even contradictory viewing agendas. But even with a reported 320 films this year, it can’t be said to accommodate every taste. That is, one can generally count these days on the festival showing every new film by Paul Cox, Manoel de Oliveira, Henry Jaglom, Stanley Kwan, and Monika Treut, but not every new feature by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Raul Ruiz, or Trinh T. Minh-ha (whose latest offerings were all absent this year) — or any work at all by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Harun Farocki, or Leslie Thornton. Certain thresholds are maintained regarding difficulty, and while Toronto audiences are possibly the most polite and appreciative that I know of anywhere, the programmers don’t seem eager to test their limits. After the screening of his delightful and significantly titled Careful, Winnipeg weirdo Guy Maddin pointedly observed that if a Canadian sees a great movie, he or she says it’s pretty good, and if a Canadian sees a terrible movie, he or she says it’s pretty good.… Read more »

Cinematic Obsessions [THE GANG OF FOUR and SANTA SANGRE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 22, 1990). — J.R.

THE GANG OF FOUR

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, and Christine Laurent

With Bulle Ogier, Benoit Regent, Laurence Cote, Fejria Deliba, Bernadette Giraud, Ines de Medeiros, and Nathalie Richard.

SANTA SANGRE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Written by Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, and Claudio Argento

With Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Dennison, Adan Jodorowsky, and Faviola Elenka Tapia.

In nearly half his films, 6 features out of 13, Jacques Rivette allows his characters only two possibilities. One is work in the theater, specifically rehearsals — an all-enveloping, all-consuming activity that essentially structures one’s life and assumes many of the characteristics of a religious order. The other, more treacherous possibility is involvement in a real or imagined conspiracy outside the theater — a plot or (the French term is more evocative) complot that is hard to detect yet seemingly omnipresent, sinister yet seductive for anyone who strays from the straight and narrow path offered by the rehearsals. Art versus life? Not exactly; a bit more like two kinds of art, or two kinds of life.

Both possibilities convey a sense of forging a fragile meaning over a gaping void.… Read more »

There’s Somebody Out There

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1999). — J.R.

rosetta

I recently heard about an American teenager visiting Wales who insisted on calling the Welsh people she met English. When it was pointed out to her that the Welsh didn’t like being identified that way, she said she was sorry but that’s what she’d been taught in school — and it would be too complicated for her to change what she called them.

Given the isolationism of Americans, which seems to grow more pronounced every year, an event like the Chicago International Film Festival has to be cherished. This year it’s offering the city 108 features from 31 countries — 32 from the U.S. and 76 from elsewhere, 49 of them U.S. or North American premieres, as well as five programs of shorts and five tributes. Consider them cultural CARE packages, precious news bulletins, breaths of fresh, or stale, air from diverse corners of the globe — even bad or mediocre foreign movies have important things to teach us. However you look at them, they’re proof that Americans aren’t the only human beings and that the decisions Americans make about how to live their lives aren’t the only options — at least not yet.… Read more »

WR, Sex, and the Art of Radical Juxtaposition

Commissioned and originally published by Criterion for their DVD of WR: Mysteries of the Organism in 2007. — J.R.


Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, it was generally felt among Western intellectuals and cinephiles that cutting-edge, revolutionary cinema came from Western Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Among the touchstones were Jean-Luc Godard’s films in France, Newsreel’s agitprop documentaries and their spin-offs (like Robert Kramer’s Ice and Milestones) in the United States, such diverse provocations as Lindsay Anderson’s If…. and Godard’s 1+1 in the United Kingdom, and, in Latin America, films like LucíaThe Hour of the Furnace (Cuba), (Argentina), and Antonio das Mortes (Brazil).

By contrast, the wilder politicized art movies coming out of Eastern Europe at the time — such as those of Vera Chytilová, Miklós Jancsó, and Dušan Makavejev — were treated as curiosities, aberrations that wound up getting marginalized by default. The fact that they came from Communist countries made them much harder for Westerners to place, process, and understand; in most cases, an adequate sense of context was lacking.

Part of the problem was a certain intellectual as well as sensual impoverishment arising from the one-dimensional view of Communism fostered by the cold war, even among some of the better-educated leftists and cinephiles, which tended to lump together the Eastern European countries as if they were all part of the same stereotypical gray wasteland.… Read more »

VIRIDIANA on DVD

From Cineaste, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, September 2006. — J.R.

 

Spoilers ahead: The title heroine (Silvia Pinal) of

Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece, a Spanish novice

about to take her final vows, is ordered by her

mother superior to visit her rich uncle (Fernando

Rey), Don Jaime, who’s been supporting her over

the years but whom she barely knows. A

necrophiliac foot fetishist, he’s preoccupied with

how closely his beautiful niece resembles his

late wife, who died tragically on their wedding night,

and somehow manages to persuade Viridiana

to put on her wedding dress, which he’s

faithfully preserved. With the help of his servant

Ramona (Margarita Lozano), he then drugs her with the

intention of raping her, but deeply mortified by

his behavior, ultimately holds back and hangs

himself instead, using the skipping-rope he

previously gave to Ramona’s little girl.

If this opening strongly evokes the horror of a

Gothic novel — a form of literature Luis Buñuel

was especially drawn to — it takes on

further dimensions just after this suicide, an outcome

already complicated by the fact that Don Jaime,

no simple villain and highly principled, is shown rather

sympathetically.… Read more »

RED PSALM (1971)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

A recent documentary about communist musicals called East Side Story (Dana Ranga, 1997) assumes that communist-bloc directors were just itching to make Hollywood extravaganzas and invariably wound up looking strained, square, and ill-equipped. But Red Psalm (1971), Miklós Jancsó’s dazzling, open-air revolutionary pageant, is a highly sensual communist musical that employs occasional nudity as lyrically as the singing, dancing, and nature. That is to say, within its own specially and exuberantly defined idioms, it swings as well as wails.

Set near the end of the 19th century, when a group of peasants have demanded basic rights from a landowner and soldiers arrive on horseback to quell the uprising, Red Psalm is composed of only 26 shots. (With a running time of 84 minutes, this adds up to an average of three minutes per shot. Jancsó’s earlier feature from 1969, Winter Sirocco, is said to consist of only 13 shots.) Each long take is an intricate choreography of panning camera, landscape, and clustered bodies that constantly traverse, join, and/or divide the separate groups.… Read more »

A Short Note on Béla Tarr

Written for a Persian collection about Béla Tarr, published in May 2016. — J.R.

 

Damnation

My first encounter with the work of Béla Tarr was Damnation (1987), seen in 1989, followed soon afterwards by Almanac of Fall (1984), but the point at which I became an acolyte rather than a mere fan was Sátántangó (1994), which remains for me the towering pinnacle of his work.  Other favorites include The Turin Horse (2011) and his nearly impossible-to-see short film The Last Boat (1989), but I know plenty of other viewers who were first won over by Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), and another good starting point might be Tarr’s 1982 production of Macbeth (1982), made for Hungarian television in only two shots.

Damnation

Most of his films qualify as black comedies filmed in black and white, spiritual without being religious and peopled most often by grubby and not especially honorable individuals who are followed with lengthy takes and elaborately choreographed camera movements that implicate the viewer in their activities and thwarted destinies. Starting with Damnation, they are mostly written by the great Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, whose endless and labyrinthine sentences in his novels are as relentless and as passionately serene as Tarr’s camera movements.… Read more »

Deep in the Tarr Pit [THE TURIN HORSE]

From Film Comment (September-October 2011). — J.R.

Recalling the incident in Turin that reportedly occasioned Friedrich Nietzsche’s final breakdown into madness — his weeping and embracing a cab horse that was being beaten by its driver for refusing to budge — Béla Tarr’s regular screenwriter, novelist László Krasznahorkai, has noted that no one seems to know or ask what happened to the horse. But The Turin Horse is only nominally concerned with this riddle. It’s more concerned with the horse’s driver and his grown daughter, who live in a remote stone hut without electricity, subsisting on an exclusive diet of potatoes and palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) while a perpetual storm rages outside, then arbitrarily subsides, over a carefully delineated six days. Their abject life remains fixed by a few infernal routines, such as dressing, undressing, drawing water from a well, or looking out the window. (One exterior shot of the daughter doing just that towards the end of the film will haunt me the rest of my life). What passes for plot gradually becomes even more minimal by the driver’s horse first refusing to pull the wagon, then refusing to eat.… Read more »

Lost in Auschwitz [SON OF SAUL]

From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2016). — J.R.

Son of Saul ****

Directed by László Nemes

 

“The sense of being lost is what we wanted to convey. That is what was missing before [in most earlier movies about the Holocaust]: one individual being lost.” — László Nemes to Andrea Gronvall, Movie City News

sonofsaul

László Nemes’ Hungarian debut feature, Son of Saul, opening this week at the Music Box, is easily the most exciting new film I’ve seen over the past year, and a casual look at the prizes and accolades it’s received over the past eight months, starting with the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, shows that I’m far from alone in feeling this way. Even my colleagues who dislike or dismiss the films concede that it’s a stunning technical achievement. But the moment one starts to describe what the film does, or even what it’s about, a certain amount of dissension sets in.

 

Nemes and his lead actor Géza Röhrig have consistently described their intentions as wanting viewers to experience viscerally and as accurately as possible what Sonderkommando members went through in Auschwitz in October 1944. These were the Jewish prisoners obliged to lead other Jews into the gas chambers, search their clothes for valuables before, during, and after they were being gassed, and then dispose of their bodies — carting them off, burning them, and then shoveling away their ashes, receiving in return slightly better food and quarters before eventually being exterminated themselves.… Read more »

Commercial Correctness

I can happily report that some portions of the following–which originally appeared in the December 24, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader—are out of date, because all the films reported here as unavailable (I Want To Go Home, The Decalogue, The Lovers of Pont-Neuf) have subsequently become available. —J.R.

We all know what political correctness is–though the nuances of the term may vary depending on whether you’re inside or outside academia and whether or not you regard it as exclusively the preserve of the left. (Personally, I consider Rush Limbaugh and Andrea Dworkin both charter members of the club.) Commercial correctness in movie ideology, however, has yet to be defined, even though it currently engulfs both the entertainment industry and the audience.

Political correctness can be defined as the demand by members of an oppressed minority—or at least those like Limbaugh who consider themselves equivalent to members of an oppressed minority—to be treated with respect. Commercial correctness, on the other hand, can be defined as the demand of members of a reigning majority—or at least those who consider themselves equivalent to members of a reigning majority—that minority works and positions be treated without respect. The goal of commercial correctness, in fact, is to ignore, impede, and eliminate these works and positions—to remove them from the face of the planet as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible.… Read more »

My Filmgoing in 1968: An Exploration

This essay was written for That Magic Moment: 1968 Und Das Kino Eine Filmschau, a film program and publication organized by the Viennale and Stadtkino in late May and early June, 1998. Like some of the other pieces reproduced on this site as featured texts, this has various passages that have been recycled elsewhere in my work — in this case, both in the Chicago Reader and in my book Movie Wars – but it still seems worth reprinting, chiefly for its personal reflections on film history and, more generally, the 60s. — J.R.

My Filmgoing in 1968: An Exploration

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

In 1968, the year I turned 25, I bought my first appointment book — or at least the first appointment book that I’ve bothered to save, and I’ve saved all 30 of the appointment books that I’ve bought and filled since then. For the most part, I use these appointment books to list appointments of various kinds: meetings with friends, planned trips to other cities and countries, classes I plan to teach or lectures I plan to attend or deliver. But most of the entries concern films I plan to see and when or where they’re playing.… Read more »