Monthly Archives: September 2017

Reasons for Kicking and Screaming

This essay about Noah Baumbach’s first feature was commissioned by Criterion for their DVD of Kicking and Screaming, and was written around May 2006. — J.R.

“There’s plenty of wit on the surface,” I wrote in my capsule review of Kicking and Screaming when it was released a little over a decade ago, “but the pain of paralysis comes through loud and clear.” Having voluntarily spent five years as an undergraduate myself, I could and still can find plenty of reasons to identify with the four desperate antiheroes of this brittle comedy, who graduate from college and then proceed to spend the next half year on or around campus, doing as little as possible.

Grover (Josh Hamilton), expecting to live in Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Jane (Olivia d’Abo), is so dumbstruck and angry when she accepts a scholarship to study in Prague that he won’t reply to any of her phone messages, and can only brood over their past in five strategically placed flashbacks, each one heralded by a black-and-white snapshot of her. Otis (Carlos Jacott) finds himself incapable of flying to grad school in Milwaukee, only one time zone away, and reverts to living with his mother. Max (Chris Eigeman), who’d rather label broken glass as such on the floor than sweep it up, finds nothing better to do than chide Otis, do crossword puzzles, and have sex with Miami (Parker Posey), the girlfriend of Skippy (Jason Wiles).… Read more »

True Romances [HAV PLENTY & MR. JEALOUSY]

From the Chicago Reader (June 19, 1998). — J.R.

Hav Plenty

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Christopher Scott Cherot

With Chenoa Maxwell, Cherot, Tammi Catherine Jones, Robinne Lee, and Reginald James.

Mr. Jealousy

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Noah Baumbach

With Eric Stoltz, Annabella Sciorra, Chris Eigeman, Carlos Jacott, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Brian Kerwin, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bridget Fonda.

Two eclectic, youthful, and surprisingly upbeat romantic comedies open this week, both by writer-directors; both about blocked novelists, relationships, fear of commitment, jealousy, self-torturing neurosis, betrayal, and ultimate fulfillment; and both set in upscale, urban east-coast milieus. I had a good time at Christopher Scott Cherot’s Hav Plenty and Noah Baumbach’s Mr. Jealousy both times I saw them, though I couldn’t believe in either all the way through, and neither made me laugh out loud very often. Presented as hand-crafted self-portraits that have agreed to play by certain commercial rules and genre conventions, both teem with eccentric tics and personal energies, giving us the pleasure of contact with an individual intelligence — something that seldom happens with bigger-budget fare.

The eccentric tics in Hav Plenty begin with the title — which conflates the first name of heroine Havilland Savage (Chenoa Maxwell) and the last name of hero Lee Plenty (Cherot) — and include Philippians 4:12 (“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.… Read more »

Whose Current American Cinema?

Commissioned by and written for the Italian web site 8 1/2, published in September 2017. — J.R.

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When asked what I think about current American cinema, my first response is to ask another question: whose American cinema?  Because given the splintering of both the audience and all the possible venues for what we now call American cinema, it’s no longer possible to describe it as a single homogeneous entity.

Perhaps it was always wrong to describe it as such, but when I was growing up in the 1950s, there was still an American cinema that appeared to belong to everyone. Today we have only a series of separate niche markets and venues that seem to exist independently of one another. For the sake of both clarity and candor, I should confess that from 1987 through 2007, I was the principal film critic for the principal alternative newspaper in Chicago, the Chicago Reader, which meant that I was professionally obliged to keep up with what was regarded, rightly or wrongly, as “current American cinema”. Since my voluntary retirement from that post, I’ve been a cinephile with no professional obligations, and my preferences in that capacity have been to systematically avoid films featuring superheroes, most horror films and war films, sports films, blockbusters, and most of the other releases mainly targeted for teenage and preteen boys.… Read more »

Die Marquise von O… (1976 review)

This review appeared in the December 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. For whatever it’s worth, my favorite among Rohmer’s features remains, alas, his most unjustly neglected — Perceval le Gallois (1978), the feature he made immediately after Die Marquise von O… –J.R.

Marquise von O…, Die

West Germany/France, 1976
Director: Eric Rohmer

Probably the most faithful of all the disciples of André Bazin, Eric Rohmer has shared his mentor’s philosophical fascination with “ambiguity” in his criticism and films alike. A position derived from Catholic existentialism which adheres to a “realist” aesthetic whose prime model is the naturalistic novel as exemplified by Dos Passos, Hemingway and Hammett, this orientation is clearly at the root of his version of Kleist’s masterpiece, which subtly betrays the awesome energies of the original while maintaining an overall fidelity to its plot and characters that is rare in contemporary cinema. Widely and justifiably praised for its immaculate direction, acting, and visual sophistication, it can none the less be regarded as a Jamesian re-write of the novellas that dims the passion of the latter with a form of delicate detachment quite in keeping with the tenor of Rohmer’s Contes Moraux. A minor omission like the very Kleistian blood “gushing” from the mouth of a would-be rapist whom the Count “smashes” in the face with the hilt of his sword — a detail which the film tastefully keeps off-screen -– reveals this strategy on a rather trivial level; and the splitting in half of the Count’s childhood anecdote about the swan of which he is reminded by the Marquise -– so that its conclusion now comes at the end of the plot -– can easily be defended as a sensible dramatic expedient.… Read more »

Bigger Than Life: The Man Who Left His Will on Film

From The Soho News (October 29, 1980). I’m delighted to report that, at long last, the second version of We Can’t Go Home Again is scheduled to premiere shortly at the Venice International Film Festival. (For more information, go here.) — J.R.

Nicholas Ray — supreme Hollywood hero of Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, Truffaut; passionate outlaw and bullshit artist; director of They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause – died last summer at the age of 67. But he made two films about his dying before he went. Actually it would be more precise to say he worked on two films about his dying, neither of which is complete, both of which I’ve been able to see this year.

The first of these is We Can’t Go Home Again, an epic 35mm feature made by Ray in collaboration with his wife, Susan, and his film students in the early ’70s. Susan is trying to raise money to complete the film, and I’m hoping that she can find it. When she showed the tattered workprint to me and a few other interested parties on a Steenbeck early last July, pieced together from about 30 percent of the material, it was apparent that this remarkable, impossible, impressive and irritating work in progress is all of a piece — unlike the version that I’d seen at the Cannes Festival in 1973.

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PERCEVAL LE GALLOIS

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.

Eric Rohmer’s least typical film, Perceval might also be his best: A wonderful version of Chrétien de Troyes’ 12-century epic poem, set to music, about the adventures of a callow and innocent knight (Fabrice Luchini). Deliberately contrived and theatrical in style and setting -– the perspectives are as flat as in medieval tapestries, the colors bright and vivid — the film is as faithful to its source as possible, given the limited material available about the period.

Luchini, who would later play Octave in Rohmer’s much more characteristic Full Moon in Paris (1984), called Perceval “a scholarly project, touched by insanity.” That is both its charm and its ineffable strangeness, enhanced by the fact that it represents an almost complete departure from the carefully crafted realism of Rohmer’s other films. As Australian critic G.C. Crisp has described this realism, “The cinema is a privileged art form because it faithfully transcribes the beauty of the real world….Any distortion of this, any attempt by man to improve on [God’s handiwork], is indicative of arrogance and verges on the sacreligious.”

Though this might seem to make Pervecal a betrayal of Rohmer’s aesthetic, his medieval musical -– which actually feels at times like a studio-shot Western, complete with artificial sky -– cogently illustrates his stated conviction as a critic that a true preservation of the past ultimately produces a kind of modernity.… Read more »

Master of Reality (updated, 1/13/2010)

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 »

A Motivated Author [on THE MOTIVE]

Written for the Fipresci web site on September 18 2017. — J.R.

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Adapting a novella of the same title by Javier Cercas (available in English in the 2006 volume The Tenant and the Motive, translated by Anne McLean for Bloomsbury Publishing), writer-director Manuel Martín Cuenca’s black comedy about the lures and potential perils of yarn-spinning focuses on a hapless and naïve bureaucrat in Seville named Álvaro (Javier Gutiérrez) working as a notary clerk and longing to be a serious and successful novelist, unlike his author wife Amanda (Maria Léon), who writes best-selling but unserious novels (at least according to her husband).

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Curiously, the Spanish title of both the novella and the film, El Autor, means “the author,” not “the motive” (the English title of both). But it must be conceded that Álvaro is a highly, even willfully and monomaniacally motivated author as well as a rather stupid sociopath. Taking a writing course from a testy and critical teacher named Juan (Antonio de la Torre), who berates his clichéd prose, he leaves his wife after he discovers via their pet dog that she’s having an affair and, after his boss, noticing his distractedness, urges him to take an extended vacation, moves into a flat of his own to concentrate full-time on writing his first novel.… Read more »

Can Films Be Fascist?

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

(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Ray Muller.

*** THE EYE OF VICHY

(A must-see)

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 »

Both Sides Now [THE CEREMONY]

Claude Chabrol died at the age of eighty, and I’d like to celebrate his work by focusing on what I regard as probably the greatest and most masterful of his later films, made in 1995 but released in the U.S. two years later. This review, which was later used as liner notes for the film’s American DVD, ran in the Chicago Reader on February 14, 1997. — J.R.

The Ceremony

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Claude Chabrol

Written by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff

With Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ledoyen, and Valentin Merlet.

It’s odd that Claude Chabrol is the most neglected filmmaker of the French New Wave today, at least in this country, because he started out as the most commercial and has turned out to be the most prolific, with the possible exception of Jean-Luc Godard. I’ve seen 33 of his 46 features, but nothing in over a quarter of a century that’s quite as good as La cérémonie, an adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone.

Born in 1930, about six months ahead of Godard, Chabrol came from a family of pharmacists (as did Jacques Rivette). At the age of 17 he met François Truffaut at a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and ten years later he collaborated with Eric Rohmer on the first critical study of Hitchcock to appear anywhere.… Read more »

The Crying Game

From the Chicago Reader (December 18. 1992). I was reminded of this capsule by Thom Andersen’s references to it when he reviewed The Crying Game  at length for the Reader, in an  essay reprinted in his excellent recent collection, Slow Writing. — J.R.

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An adroit piece of story telling from Irish writer-director Nell Jordan (Mona Lisa, The Miracle) that is ultimately less challenging to conventional notions about race and sexuality than it may at first seem. Like other Jordan features, this one centers on an impossible love relationship, and the covert agenda of the plot is to keep it impossible by any means necessary. The theories of literary critic Leslie Fiedler about the concealed and unconsummated lust of the white male for the nonwhite male in such American classics as Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick seem oddly relevant to certain aspects of this tale about an IRA volunteer (Stephen Rea) who assists in the kidnapping of a black British soldier (Forest Whitaker) and subsequently becomes involved with his mulatto lover (Jaye Davidson) in London; the plot, held in place by a parable about a scorpion and a frog that’s filched from Orson Welles’s Mr Arkadin, features a startling twist about halfway through; among the cleverly concealed safety nets that hold this movie’s conceits in place is an implied misogyny that only becomes evident once the story is nearly over.… Read more »

Criminal Genius [THIEVES]

This review of a major film, Andre Téchiné’s Les voleurs (Thieves), that was (perhaps typically, at least for this period) completely ignored in The New Yorker – along with Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man from the previous year — appeared in the December 27, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Thieves

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Andre Téchiné

Written by Téchiné, Gilles Taurand, Michel Alexandre, and Pascal Bonitzer

With Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Laurence Côte, Fabienne Babe, Julien Riviére, Benoît Magimel, Didier Bezace, and Ivan Desny.

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

“Before Christ was a time of orgies. Then came love.”

“Love’s less fun.”

“Probably. In orgies you give your all. No more, no less. In love, it’s never enough. It’s always too much or not enough.” –a conversation in Thieves between a philosophy professor (Catherine Deneuve) and a policeman (Daniel Auteuil) in love with the same woman

When was the last time you saw a movie that was truly for as well as about grown-ups? Whatever the virtues of Breaking the Waves, a mature point of view certainly isn’t one of them.… Read more »

Sirk’s Works

From the August 27, 1980 issue of The Soho News — only slightly tweaked almost three decades later. –J.R.

Douglas Sirk in Germany: Four Films

Museum of Modern Art, Aug. 15-18

It must have been in the late spring of 1959 — surrounded mainly be weeping matrons at a matinee of Imitation of Life in Florence, Alabama — that I first tangled with the considerable talents of major melodramatist Douglas Sirk. At the time, these were focused on the task of encouraging white middle-class segregationists and racists to weep bittersweet buckets over the sentimental death of an Aunt Jemima figure named Annie (Juanita Hall), a nas ole cullid  lady (as those matrons would have put it) who — unlike her sexy and evil light-skinned, teenage daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) — knew her place, accepted her color as a necessary cross to bear, and then died of a broken heart when Sarah Jane rejected her.

Bearing in mind this particular praxis of Sirk’s last Hollywood film, I’ve always felt just a little querulous when armchair Marxists in London have patiently explained to me that Sirk was actually a Brechtian subversive back in the ’50s, boring from within — subtly and secretly criticizing our American values.… Read more »

Rocky Horror Playtime Vs. Shopping Mall Home

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the eighth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

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Rocky Horror Playtime Vs. Shopping Mall Home

Seven weeks ago, when I received a call from Adriano Aprà in Rome inviting me to speak at this conference, I was in my hometown, Florence, Alabama, where my parents live today.[1] I have moved with all my belongings seventeen times in the past twenty years, and I will have to find and move to yet another place in New York as soon as I return from this conference. Nevertheless, I consider myself unusually fortunate, fortunate not only in being here—in this city and this country for the first time in my life—but in having a hometown to return to year after year: a fixed reference point. And fortunate in being the grandson of the man who ran most of the local movie theaters when I was growing up, which meant that I had virtually unlimited access to most of what was shown.… Read more »

Female Trouble [MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR]

From the July 29, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by George A. Romero

With Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, and Janine Turner.

You’ve got to get through a few layers of foam rubber before you reach what’s good (or better than good) about George Romero’s new feature. There’s a series of obstacles — cultural, corporate, ideological, stylistic, aesthetic, commercial — standing in the way of what the movie is doing at its best; they may not count for much in the long run, but it’s better to be forewarned and forearmed.

First there’s the problem of the title. I appreciate that the producers did not want to suggest that the movie is a comedy — as sticking to the title of Michael Stewart’s source novel, Monkey Shines, would have done. So a subtitle is understandable as a means of labeling the contents. But An Experiment in Fear? Whose experiment and whose fear? The phrase describes nothing in the film (except for a brief undeveloped scene with a rodent and a beady-eyed behaviorist) and nothing you can say about the film (except as an easy platitude).… Read more »