This was written in early 2003 for Trafic no. 46, their summer issue, where it was translated into French by Jean-Luc Mengus, their managing editor. It’s part of a very wide range of “letters” from cities around the world that they’ve been running for many years. It’s very sad to report that Alexis A. Tioseco, whom I’d recommended to the magazine as the perfect person to write their “Letter from Manila,” was in the middle of fulfilling that assignment when he was murdered. — J.R.
Letter from Chicago
Approaching my 60th birthday and the sort of self-definition that stems in part from the various places I’ve lived, I’ve recently noted that I’ve been anchored in the same place for roughly the first quarter of my life (Florence, Alabama) as well as the past quarter (Chicago). Yet it seems equally significant that two-thirds of the remaining half of my life have been spent in New York, Paris, and London, where the world is measured and perceived quite differently from the ways it’s encountered in either Florence or Chicago. This includes the world of cinema, which has figured for me as a distinctly separate entity when viewed from the separate vantage points of these five localities.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 16, 1998). — J.R.
Jour de fête
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Jacques Tati
Written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and Rene Wheeler
With Jacques Tati, Paul Frankeur, Guy Decomble, Santa Relli, and Maine Vallee.
Every Tati film marks simultaneously (a) a moment in the work of Jacques Tati; (b) a moment in the history of French society and French cinema; (c) a moment in film history. Since 1948, the six films that he has realized are those that have scanned our history the best. Tati isn’t just a rare filmmaker, the author of few films (all of them good), he’s a living point of reference. We all belong to a period of Tati’s cinema: the author of these lines belongs to the one that stretches from Mon oncle (1958: the year before the New Wave) to Playtime (1967: the year before the events of May ’68). There is hardly anyone else but Chaplin who, since the sound period, has had this privilege, this supreme authority: to be present even when he isn’t filming, and, when he’s filming, to be precisely up to the moment — that is, just a little bit in advance. Tati: a witness first and last.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 10, 2000). — J.R.
Films by Luis Buñuel
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
It seems to be universally agreed that Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) is the greatest Spanish-language filmmaker we’ve ever had, but getting a clear fix on his peripatetic career isn’t easy. The authorized biography, John Baxter’s 1994 Buñuel, isn’t available in the U.S., and the deplorable English translation of Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh (1983), is actually an unacknowledged condensation of the original French text. Better are an interview book translated from Spanish, Objects of Desire, and a recently published translation of selected writings by Buñuel in both Spanish and French, An Unspeakable Betrayal, which includes his priceless, poetic early film criticism.
A more general problem is that Buñuel is not only “simple” and direct but full of teasing, unresolvable ambiguities. A master of the put-on, he often impresses one with his earthy sincerity. A political progressive and unsentimental humanist, he was also, I’ve learned from Baxter, an active gay basher in his youth, and those who’ve read the untranslated but reputedly fascinating memoirs of his widow report that he was a very old-fashioned and prudish male chauvinist throughout his life. He was a onetime devout Catholic who lost his faith in his youth and was fond of exclaiming years later, “Thank God I’m still an atheist!” Yet Orson Welles, who never met him, may have had a point when he said, “He is a deeply Christian man who hates God as only a Christian can, and, of course, he’s very Spanish.… Read more »
This review appeared originally in Cineaste, Fall 2001. — J.R.
Searching for John Ford
by Joseph McBride. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. 838 pp., illus, Hardcover: $40.00
Only sixty pages longer than his other lengthy biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992), Joseph McBride’s Searching For John Ford is, in fact, a very different sort of book, and not only because the size and importance of Ford’s work is considerably greater. The earlier volume — a devastating act of demystification that sought to dismantle not only a populist hero, but also the national mythology that virtually willed him into existence — made the value of Capra’s films appear almost secondary. It was suggested, moreover, by Gilberto Perez that McBride even seemed to gloat over the failure of Capra’s farm — that the author’s apparent animus toward his subject spilled over into his cultural critique. For me, the self-deluding aspects of Capracorn — in contradistinction to the erotic splendors of Capra’s best Thirties work — made such a relentless assault on the mythology both useful and necessary.
One might argue that Ford’s career, by contrast, is much too varied and complex to suit any such monolithic agenda, moral or otherwise.… Read more »
This is the last in a series of four essays I wrote in 2008 about Fassbinder films for Madman, the Australian DVD label. The others, on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Martha, have already been posted on this site. — J.R.
Katzelmacher is only the second feature of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, yet the gulf that separates it from its predecessor, Love is Colder Than Death, is enormous. His first feature, shot over 24 days in April 1969, was later described by its writer-director as the first of his “cinema” films, apparently because its minimal story about petty gangsters seems conceived in relation to genre films. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in June, where it was roundly booed and received mixed reviews; it seems fairly safe to conclude that if Fassbinder had made nothing else, most of us would never have heard of him.
This is no doubt why Fassbinder’s somewhat mysterious epigraph for Katzelmacher, credited to his friend and collaborator Yaak Karsunke, reads like a directive to himself: ”It’s better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness.” Another directive, more ironic, crops up in one of the film’s final lines of dialogue — “We need a bit of order here” —- which has formal as well as political implications.… Read more »
In my more than 20 years at the Chicago Reader, whenever an old film came to town that had a Reader capsule on file by Dave Kehr, my long-term predecessor at that paper (who left the paper in the mid-1980s), I always had the option of either using that old capsule or writing a new one. On almost every occasion when this happened, I opted for the former — for my money, Dave was and is the best capsule reviewer in the business, bar none. But when it came to The Best Years of Our Lives, I eventually decided that I had to write a new one. Below are the two capsules in question:
Perceived in 1946 (to the tune of nine Academy Awards) as a sign that the movies had finally “grown up,” William Wyler’s study of a group of men returning to civilian life after the war was a tremendous commercial success and helped to create Hollywood’s postwar highbrow style of pseudorealism and social concern. The film is very proud of itself, exuding a stifling piety at times, but it works as well as this sort of thing can, thanks to accomplished performances by Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews, who keep the human element afloat.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 491).
It’s really a pity that the version of California Split that eventually came out
on DVD, due to musical clearances, had to eliminate some of the play with
Phyllis Shotwell’s songs alluded to here. (For a much later consideration of
this film, including these changes, go here.) — J.R.
U.S.A., 1974Director: Robert Altman
In a poker game at a gambling casino near Los Angeles, Charlie
Waters, a winner, is accused by Lew, a sore loser, of playing in
cahoots with the dealer, Bill Denny. Bill and Charlie become
acquainted afterwards in a nearby bar and get cheerfully drunk
together; outside, they are beaten up by Lew (with the help of
friends), who makes off with their winnings. Charlie invites
Bill to stay over at his house, which he shares with two
prostitutes, Barbara and Susan. In the morning, Bill returns to
his job on a glossy magazine but is persuaded to take off that
afternoon and join Charlie at the racetrack, where they make
a small fortune on one of Charlie’s hunches. Wanting to celebrate
with Barbara and Susan, they pretend to be policemen in order to
intimidate the girls’ transvestite client “Helen” and persuade
him to leave, then go to a prizefight.… Read more »
Posted on Artforum’s web site, 12/23/09. –- J.R.
Terry Gilliam’s ambitious fantasy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, set to open in the US on Christmas Day, already did well in some parts of Europe when it premiered there in October—notably Italy and the UK, where it placed third during its opening weekends in both countries. I saw it the first time myself in Saint Andrews, Scotland, with an appreciative audience in early November. The lead character, Tony — played by the late Heath Ledger and three other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell), who were called in when Ledger died halfway through the filming — is partly conceived as a spoof on Tony Blair, though one wonders whether this conceit will register with much clarity for the American audience. But it’s also unclear how much this will matter, given all the other points of attraction (such as Tom Waits as the devil and Christopher Plummer as the Methuselah-like Parnassus). Far more relevant, it seems, is the way Gilliam has ingeniously adapted the avant-garde multiple-casting ploy of everyone from Yvonne Rainer (Kristina Talking Pictures ) to Todd Haynes ) in terms of his own mainstream fantasy plot.… Read more »
This review was published in the June 1985 issue of Video Times. Twilight Time has just brought out a lovely Blu-Ray edition of this film that I can highly recommend — along with Thomas Pynchon’s Foreword to the 2003 Penguin edition of Orwell’s novel. — J.R.
(1984), C, Director: Michael Radford. With John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, and Cyril Cusack [see below]. 110 min. R. USA, $79.95.
Director Michael Radford’s 1984, filmed in England between April and June of 1984 (the same period during which the action of George Orwell’s famous 1949 novel takes place), is a film adaptation that succeeds brilliantly. In one fell swoop, it repoliticizes the novel — translating it into terms that speak directly to the present. Paradoxically, it pulls off this singular feat not through any spurious “updating” of Orwell’s terrifying novel but by situating the novel squarely in its own period. Consequently, the film’s action can be said to unfold simultaneously in three separate time frames: the past (specifically the 1940s, during which Orwell conceived and wrote his novel), the future (as we postulate it in this decade), and the present (the mid-1980s).… Read more »
A slightly edited version of this article entitled “Devotional Reading” appeared in the November-December 2012 issue of Film Comment. For whatever it’s worth, I find Geoff Dyer’s taped interview about Stalker on Criterion’s forthcoming Blu-Ray (to be released on July 18) more perceptive than anything in this book. I guess he’s had more time to think about it by now. — J.R.
There are at least two intriguing recent trends reflected in the publications of Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (New York: Pantheon, 2012) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011) — book-length studies of masterpieces (Stalker and Late Spring, respectively) and film criticism by amateurs (both of them prestigious literary Brits). A couple of much older attitudes underlying both is a view of cinema as literature by another means and, conversely, a view of film analysis as a literary and linear pursuit.
It’s obvious that what links these two trends historically is the phenomenon of home viewing, which has made every viewer a potential “expert” for the first time. Prior to VCRs and DVD and Blu-Ray players, the only tools available for studying films at length were 16 mm projectors and moviolas, most often belonging only to “professionals” of one kind or another.… Read more »
Written for the July-August 2017 Film Comment. This is the unedited version. — J.R.
Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies
By Joseph McBride, Hightower Press, $38.50.
Anyone who’s read his astute critical biographies of Capra, Ford, Spielberg, and Welles knows that Joseph McBride is one of our most invaluable film historians. No less ambitious but more personal are his three most recent books, all brought out expertly under his own imprint and available from Amazon: his hefty Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J. D. Tippit (2013), his very moving and painfully candid The Broken Places: A Memoir (2015), and now an even heftier volume collecting half a century’s worth of his film journalism and criticism, encompassing 56 separate items and almost 700 large-format pages. It’s the sort of old-fashioned bedside compendium and browser’s paradise that we seldom get nowadays from academic publishers—with a few rare exceptions, such as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’ delightful 2009 New Literary History of America (which included one of the better McBride essays reprinted here, “The Screenplay as Genre,” about Citizen Kane). McBride prefaces each piece with a contextualizing introduction, and part of what makes this volume fun is the informal history it offers of McBride’s own taste and career.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 29, 2002). Soberbergh’s Contagion confirms his bottomless cynicism, as well as the cynicism of those reviewers who seem to like him because he expresses their jaundiced views. I continue to find that same cynicism lethally dull and all too familiar. — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Steven Soderbergh
With George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies, and Ulrich Tukur.
It’s easy to scoff at Monarch Notes, but before I quit graduate school in disgust I reached for them every time I thought a professor might be ruining a literary masterpiece for me — and vowed to read the work later, on my own time, for my own reasons. As a teacher, I also used them when I suspected a student of plagiarism, and they did help me spot an offender or two. But having read the outlines, I rarely read the works — the crib had robbed me of the desire.
If you haven’t seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 SF masterpiece Solaris, can’t see it Friday night, November 29, on Turner Movie Classics, and don’t want to watch the just-released DVD or wait for the Music Box’s rerelease in January, you might find Steven Soderbergh’s remake intriguing and compelling, because the story it tells is certainly haunting.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 12, 1990). I was disappointed to hear from one of the audio commentators on the Criterion DVD of Solaris that he regarded the lengthy highway sequence as one of the film’s “weaker” sections; for me it’s one of the highlights, both as a provocation and as a “musical” interlude that becomes an occasion for hypnotic drift. — J.R.
SOLARIS **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Written by Friedrich Gorenstein and Tarkovsky
With Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Yuri Jarvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Anatoly Solonitsin, and Sos Sarkissian.
“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin.… Read more »
From the January 19, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Written by Hou and Chu T’ien-wen
With Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano, Masato Hagiwara, Kimiko Yo, and Nenji Kobayashi
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
*** (A must see)
Directed and written by Albert Brooks
With Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney, and Fred Dalton Thompson
“It’s very difficult to cross national borders and shoot a film about a different culture. How many films have you seen that do that successfully? There are very few. The reason is very simple. When we look at films [about our own country] made by foreign companies, they’re not accurate. . . . But it’s an interesting challenge.”
This could be Albert Brooks talking about the making of his funny new feature, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, most of it filmed in New Delhi. But it’s actually Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien speaking about Cafe Lumiere, which was shot in Japan. Both filmmakers are pushing 60, and both prefer filming in long shot and extended takes. And both their movies are acute, measured observations of contemporary life and thought, whether we happen to be based in LA or Tokyo.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 18, 2000). More recently, Naomi Klein, one of my heroes, has written about some of the more salient differences between the WTO demonstrations and the more recent ones on Wall Street: see, for instance, this article, as well as others on her website. — J.R.
30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Rustin Thompson.
If I had to review Rustin Thompson’s video documentary 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle in only three words, I’d say it’s honest, energizing agitprop. Some readers may regard this as an oxymoron, but it’s one account of the Seattle events I’ve been waiting for, receiving its world premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival this Sunday at 1:30 PM. Yet the information it has to convey is almost entirely of the you-are-there variety — there’s no genuine analysis. It evokes 60s demonstrations in a number of ways — including such standbys as bare-breasted, body-painted teenyboppers and burning dollar bills — and pays particular attention to the music performed by demonstrators (one folksinger even sounds like Arlo Guthrie), coming much closer in feeling to something like Woodstock than to radical 60s documentaries produced by Newsreel.… Read more »