My column for the Spring 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
Let me start with a correction and adjustment to the final entry in my last column, furnished by Chris Fujiwara and relating to the appearance of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 131-minute The Honey Pot (1967) on a Kino Lober Blu-ray:
“When I did my stint at the Frieda Grafe favorite films series at Arsenal in Berlin two or three years ago, they showed a good 35mm print of The Honey Pot that ran about 150 minutes. It had a BBFC [British Board of Film Censors] card on it and it came from Park Circus. (By the way I took detailed notes of the differences from the DVD version, which I had recently watched several times.)….The cutting that was done to the film to get it down to 131 minutes was quite extensive and elaborate. In a few cases whole scenes were cut out (including scenes with the three ex-lovers, and a scene showing Cliff Robertson at work as a male escort). But a good deal of the shortening was done by cutting out individual shots or parts of shots from scenes that are otherwise kept in. Not only the rhythm but also the tone and the thematic content of these scenes are changed, sometimes drastically….It’s a very good film in the short version, but watching the longer version I became convinced it was great.”
As a Frieda Grafe fan who participated in the same Arsenal program (introducing Billy Wilder’s similarly neglected Avanti!… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 26, 1992). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm
With Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy, Cristi Conaway, and Andrew Bryniarski.
Even the title of Batman Returns is something of a lie, referring not to the fictional world of the story — where Batman can’t be said to return because he’s never been away — but to the dent this sequel is supposed to make in our lives. But how much of a dent can it make when it has virtually no characters, no plot, no fictional world, no mise en scene, no ideas, no developed feelings, no inspiration, no adventure, no sense of inner necessity beyond its status as an investment and marketing tool? It’s arrested development on every possible level.
Like everyone else who squeezed into Webster Place’s after-midnight shows on opening night, I was primed for some sort of revelation, however minor. It didn’t have to be elation; a good dose of mean-spirited negativity might have sufficed. I was ready for anything that could qualify as a mood changer — or barring that, a simple harking back to the original Batman, which had plenty of flaws but at least could boast the demonic vigor of Jack Nicholson’s Joker and his nihilistic media crimes, and a certain obsessional uniformity of mood and decor.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 2, 1990). — J.R.
MEN DON’T LEAVE ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Paul Brickman
Written by Barbara Benedek and Brickman
With Jessica Lange, Chris O’Donnell, Charlie Korsmo, Arliss Howard, Joan Cusack, and Kathy Bates.
A central part of Paul Brickman’s talent as a director, apart from his skill with actors, is the use he’s made in his two features of the throbbing, semieuphoric rhythmic monotony of New Age music as a kind of figured bass to the melodic flights of his mise en scene. A master in orchestrating precise cuts, unorthodox camera angles, and camera movements that propel or embellish his story telling, Brickman may depend in part on slightly shopworn plots and familiar generic characters, at least as putative starting points. But he scores almost every time he articulates a fancy transition or highlights a telling detail, occasionally setting the story slightly adrift as he draws us into these lyrically abstract interludes. And the musical regularity of his scores — by Tangerine Dream in Risky Business (1983) and by Thomas Newman (son of Alfred and cousin of Randy) in Men Don’t Leave — tends to protect these well-crafted maneuvers, providing them with a kind of safety net (or, to alter the metaphor slightly, trampoline) from which he can make his expressive leaps.… Read more »
From American Film (September 1979). –- J.R.
Academic film conferences in the United States seem to be growing more plentiful every year. But there’s only one that can properly be called a theory conference, where theorists congregate, report on works in progress, and generally talk shop. It takes place in Milwaukee, at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Twentieth Century Studies, usually when there’s still snow on the ground. A few avant-garde filmmakers also traditionally turn up to show their latest wares and join in the discussions.
For academics, the conference functions as a combined brainstorming session, trade fair, and social gathering. For an interested outside observer, it can offer still another way of keeping up — by serving as a kind of barometer of intellectual currents in both films and film studies.
Last year the topic was “The Cinematic’ Apparatus: Technology as Historical and Ideological Form,” and the main attraction was papers by and discussions with many of the reputed superstars of film theory, ranging from Jean-Louis Comolli and Christian Metz [see below] to Stephen Heath and Laura Mulvey. This year the title was “Cinema and Language,” and although there was a lot of both to be squeezed into four days, it was the movies shown that left the strongest impression.… Read more »
From the Autumn 1977 Sight and Sound. — J.R.
Perhaps it is time to study discourse not only according to its expressive values, or in its formal transformations, but also according to its modes of existence: the modes of circulation, attribution and appropriation of discourse vary with each culture. . . . [T]he effect on social relationships can be more directly seen, it seems to me, in the interplay of authorship and its modifications than in the themes or concepts contained in the works.
— Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?”
It seems likely that Hollywood Directors 1914–1940 and Movies and Methods[*] are the two most interesting anthologies of writing about film recently published in English. Each marks a substantial foray beyond the standard recycling operations of most anthologies, making available a wealth of helpful material that is otherwise hard to come by. An easy enough assessment, on the face of it, yet one that conceals a nagging question: what do we mean by “interesting” and “helpful”? In what way can both books be considered deserving of the same ambiguous adjectives? How far do they allow themselves to be considered within the same universe of discourse?
First, a few basic distinctions.… Read more »
This book review, which I’ve alluded to previously on this site, appeared in the November 2, 1980 issue of The Soho News. —J.R.
Under the Sign of Sontag
Under the Sign of Saturn
By Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $10.95
If, dialectically speaking, every book can be said to have an unconscious — a repressed subtext — one can find glimpses of the unconscious of this one in the misleading flap copy that quotes from an interview (“Women, the Arts, and the Politics of Culture,” Salmagundi 31-32) and mentions the inclusion of a “famous exchange on fascism and feminism” (apparently with Adrienne Rich, in the March 20, 1975 New York Review of Books), both regrettably missing from this slim volume of seven essays.
These omissions betray the absence of a gritty, indecorous social context — a sense of Sontag existing in the world, not merely staging grand Platonic shadow-plays in the theater of her mind. Much as Illness as Metaphor (1978) was partially structured around her refusal to allude once to her own personal struggle, this book discreetly, indirectly dances around the notion that the subject of every essay proposes a different kind of mirror to the author, a speculative self-portrait.… Read more »
From Tikkun, November/December 1990, Vol. 5, No. 6. This was my second and (to date) final contribution to this magazine. As I recall, I wasn’t too happy with the way I was edited on this one (although the published version — which they called “Out to Lynch,” and is only slightly altered here — is the only one I have now); I was much happier working with Peter Cole on my previous article for Tikkun, “Notes Towards the Devaluation of Woody Allen“. -– J.R.
“All I know for sure is there’s already more’n a few bad ideas runnin’ around loose out there.” — Sailor to Lula in Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula
I couldn’t care less about changing the conventions of mainstream television. — David Lynch, November 1989
From The Birth of a Nation to Fatal Attraction, puritanism and political naïveté have frequently turned out be a winning combination in American movies. The recent popularity of David Lynch, however, puts a new spin on this formula. Sailor’s line — repeated in Lynch’s new movie based on Gifford’s novel — in a way summarizes Lynch’s work to date: an oeuvre that has recently expanded from paintings, movies, and a weekly comic strip to include two new TV series (Twin Peaks and American Chronicles, both coproduced by Mark Frost), an opera, a pop record album, commercials for Calvin Klein, a coffee-table book due out next fall, and undoubtedly other enterprises as well.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, July 25, 2003. –J.R.
A Woman Is a Woman
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Marie Dubois.
Even after 40 years I’m still not sure how I feel about A Woman Is a Woman (1961), Jean-Luc Godard’s third feature. The first time I saw it, as a college junior in New York, it was an unmitigated delight. But that had a lot to do with its arrival at a time when it seemed to validate ideas I and other cinephiles had about French and American film culture. It was the fourth Godard feature to open in New York (after Breathless, Vivre sa vie, and Contempt, his first, fourth, and sixth films), and the second in color and ‘Scope (after Contempt). The very notion of someone subverting the way big-budget Hollywood used canvas and palette while also taking pleasure in those elements carried an enormous charge (Contempt had been a bit too close to big-budget Hollywood to look like subversion). But the most recent time I saw it — the umpteenth time — was at a Chicago press screening, and it was one irritation after another.… Read more »
If memory serves, this essay, which first appeared in the Winter 1985/86 issue of Sight and Sound, and was later reprinted in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995), took me at least a year to write — and maybe even longer than that — because of all the research it required. I’ve recently revised the title slightly from “GERTRUD as Nonnarrative” to “Gertrud as Nonnarrative” because my basic argument concerns the character Gertrud rather than the film as a whole. — J.R.
There are narrative and nonnarrative ways of summing up a life or conjuring a work of art, but when it comes to analyzing life or art in dramatic terms, it is usually the narrative method that wins hands down. Our news, fiction, and daily conversations all tend to take a story form, and our reflexes define that form as consecutive and causal — a chain of events moving in the direction of an inquiry, the solution of a riddle. Faced with a succession of film frames, our desire to impose a narrative is usually so strong that only the most ruthless and delicate of strategies can allow us to perceive anything else.
Carl Dreyer allows us to perceive something else, but never without a battle.… Read more »
From the November-December 1981 issue of Film Comment. I was gratified to learn recently from David Bordwell, via his own web site (as well as an email to me), that he’s eventually come around to agreeing with my major complaint about his book. (For an update to his link to my subsequent essay about Gertrud, go here.)
The photograph of Dreyer immediately below is by Jonas Mekas. — J.R.
The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer by David Bordwell. 251 pp., illustrations, index, University of California Press, $29.50
In relation to Roland Barthes’ distinction between readerly and writerly texts, David Bordwell — an academic marvel who organizes huge masses of material with an uncanny sense of what can or can’t be assimilated –- should be considered a master of the teacherly text. His ambitious textbook written with Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Addison-Wesley, 1979), has rightly been regarded as a landmark to many film teachers – a sort of Whole Systems Catalog of formal registers in film that, like Dudley Andrew’s The Major Film Theories, makes a good bit of relatively difficult material accessible to students. Almost alone among prominent American film academics. Bordwell has drawn a lot of sustenance from the Russian formalists and more contemporary critics such as Noël Burch to articulate a modernist position that, for better and for worse, has avoided most of the ideological debates that his predecessors have engaged in.… Read more »
From the July-August 1978 Film Comment, only slightly tweaked in March 2014. In retrospect, it must have been an act of sheer defiance and perversity for me to have structured the order of the films discussed here in alphabetical order, perhaps as a way of further brandishing all my globetrotting at the time. Thirty-six years later, I regret some of the swagger here, including the facile wisecrack-putdown of Jean-Pierre Gorin. I was still under the excessive influence of Manny Farber at the time -– a great writer whose style one imitates, consciously or unconsciously, at one’s peril –- combined with some of the early stirrings that led to my 1980 memoir Moving Places. – J.R.
Back And Forth (London, 1/10/78), in Pam Cook and Simon Field’s avant-garde film course. Each time I encounter Michael Snow’s crisscrossed classroom, I learn a little bit more about how to watch it. Following those relentless, oscillating pans with the eyes — equating one’s head and ego with the camera or vice versa in some sort of anthropomorphic/illusionist perversion conditioned by Hollywood — turns out to be about as useful as climbing into a Mix Master and throwing the switch. Sitting still, in your head as well as in your seat, affords a smoother, subtler, and more contemplative experience.… Read more »
From The Financial Times (July 4, 1975); this was the first of my two annual weekly film columns for that newspaper, replacing Nigel Andrews as his “deputy” while he was away.
A couple of asides: I had attended the press conference at Cannes for The Panic in Needle Park, and recall being disturbed by the heartlessness with which Didion and Dunne described their dispassionate and seemingly indifferent “research” about New York addicts. And on the matter of Mizoguchi, I would no longer define Yang Kwei Fei as any sort of “masterwork,” and am still making up my mind about Street of Shame.–- J.R.
To score or not to score
The Panic in Needle Park (X)
Diagnosis: Murder (A)
Brewster McCloud (A)
Ugetsu Monogatari (X)
National Film Theatre
Of the two new releases on offer this week, The Panic in Needle Park is the better of an impossibly gloomy choice. Arriving here four years after its premiere at the Cannes Festival (where its female lead, Kitty Winn, was awarded Best Actress prize) — a delay apparently caused by its graphic depiction of heroin rituals being deemed unfit for local consumption — it offers at least one potential source of interest which was less evident in 1971: Al Pacino in his first major movie role.… Read more »
Written for the Japanese literary magazine Eureka‘s special issue devoted to Shigehiko Hasumi in early 2017. — J.R.
14 December 2016
I’m indebted to you for a good many things, including my very first visit to Japan. This was eighteen years ago, in December 1998, to participate in a panel about Ozu that you organized for Shochiko in Tokyo, significantly titled “Yasujiro Ozu in the World,” along with Jean Douchet, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Thierry Jousse, and Tien-wen Chu. Undoubtedly the most luminous moment of that event for me was being approached in the lobby immediately afterwards by an elderly gentleman who spoke in Japanese to Hou and myself, shook our hands, and then walked away — a puzzling encounter that immediately (and appropriately) became explained to me via mime, as soon as Hou imitated for me the signature comic gesture of Tomio “Tokkankozo” Aoki, the younger son in I Was Born, But… – thus identifying the child actor discovered by Ozu who went on to enjoy a screen career that would eventually last seventy-five years, encompassing even Suzuki’s Pistol Opera. All of which made up for the disturbing fact that apparently none of the film students I spoke with at Tokyo University had seen any of Ozu’s silent films, even though all of the surviving ones were available on VHS.… Read more »
Most of what makes this 1986 Robert Mugge documentary, named after Rollins’ best early album and produced by his late wife Lucille (seen above), so special is Sonny Rollins himself — currently approaching his 87th birthday — as a performer and improviser and his irrepressible stamina and power, combined with his choreographic skill in standing, walking, leaping, and tilting every which way while he plays his tenor sax and pours out his endless inventions. I’ve often thought in the past that jazz vibes players are the most cinematic of performers, because they can only play vibes by dancing, but Rollins has the rare and paradoxical capacity of doing the same thing while looming before us like a veritable mountain. At one point we even see him breaking his heel after leaping from the stage but continuing to play while lying on his back.
The most memorable portions of Saxophone Colossus are two rollicking numbers, “G-Man” and (more abbreviated) “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” performed by Rollins with his quintet at Opus 40, the 6.5-acre environmental sculpture in Saugerties, N.Y. (see above) by the late Harvey Fite (1903-1976), who founded the fine arts program at my alma mater, Bard College. Less memorable to see and hear are portions of a concerto with a symphony orchestra performed at a premiere in Tokyo — not the sort of Third Stream monstrosity one might imagine, but still a composition that unavoidably reins Rollins in, both musically and gymnastically, at the same time that it inflates his cultural profile.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 15, 1993). — J.R.
Blues buffs have some genuine cause for rejoicing: Robert Mugge’s 1991 documentary about blues performers in the Mississippi Delta, made for England’s Channel Four, contains some of the best blues I’ve ever heard or seen on film. Using blues critic and historian Robert Palmer — accompanied by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) — as tour guide, the film proceeds from a sadly gentrified Beale Street in Memphis to funky Mississippi outposts like Holly Springs, Greenville, Clarksdale, and Betonia, where we’re treated to brief interviews with and extended live performances by Booker T. Laury, R.L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes and the Playboys, “Big” Jack Johnson, Jack Owens, Bud Spires, and Lonnie Pitchford. Palmer wears his erudition lightly, but he’s very good on the African origins of such things as the word “juke” and the homemade blues instrument called the diddly bow. This isn’t anything special as cinema, but if you’re into blues it’s a bonanza. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 15 through 21)
… Read more »