From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 1991). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Todd Haynes
With Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman, Scott Renderer, James Lyons, John R. Lombardi, Tony Pemberton, and Andrew Harpending.
“The whole world is dying of panicky fright,” reads the title that opens Todd Haynes’s startling and original Poison. It’s a correct and judicious observation, one that helps to “explain” a fascinating and provocative movie, particularly if one sees it alluding directly to the specter of AIDS.
But if one starts to enumerate the symptoms produced by panicky fright in our culture, I’m afraid that the usual set of liberal grievances — greed, intolerance, xenophobia, repression, classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, war fever, and flag waving — doesn’t quite exhaust them. Some of the most cherished and least controversial emblems of postmodernist discourse — irony, stylistic pastiche, and a foreshortened sense of history and politics, all of which are usually employed together — may be symptoms of panicky fright as well. While the list of liberal grievances points to a fear of the world (especially the social world) as it is, postmodernist discourse suggests a fear of discourse (especially art) as it used to be and as it might be once again — a fear of unambiguous self-expression that implies another way of refusing to confront the present directly.… Read more »
If I’d had to depend entirely on the quality and interest of the films released in any given week, I probably wouldn’t have remained a movie reviewer for several decades. Luckily, I often found ways of writing about other topics, using the film or films being released as excuses. This was especially true during my extended stint of writing for Soho News almost every week for about about a year and a half (1979-1981), reviewing books (mainly fiction and literary criticism) as well as movies, and during my more than twenty years of writing about films for the Chicago Reader, I usually had the same freedom, at least as long as I had a fair amount of length at my disposal. Perhaps the most obvious example of this freedom at Soho News was the following piece about Mad that I did in 1980, for the July 16 issue, occasioned by a very forgettable comedy released that week. — J.R..
A Fond Madness
Though the ads for the crude, uneven Up the Academy are at some pains to link the movie to Mad — a publication (first a comic book, then a magazine) –- now in its 28th year, the connection clearly has more to do with packaging than with contents.… Read more »
How much of the pain of Sadaf Foroughi’s first feature — winner of one of my Fipresci jury’s two prizes at the Toronto International Film Festival, a film from Iran — is the pain of being a teenager, and how much is it being a teenager at a particular place and time? How much is personal and how much is institutional, familial, cultural, social, political, architectural?
These are the questions raised by Foroughi’s exquisite, unorthodox framings and reframings of her characters, each one posing a separate inquiry. [9-20-17]
… Read more »
The outrage of the mainstream press in Cannes about Godard’s Film Socialisme was quite predictable. In his Scanners, Jim Emerson has even gone to the trouble of compiling excerpts from 15 New York Times reviews of Godard’s films, spread out over half a century and all offering variations on the same complaint: “[approaching] the films themselves as though they are puzzles designed to frustrate (and to eventually be ‘solved’), then [blaming] Godard for not doing a better job of solving them himself because they’re too hard.” And it was apparent even to me, witnessing everything from Chicago, that this anger was only intensified by the minimalist pidgin-English subtitles and Godard’s last-minute cancellation of his press conference. I was reminded of the near-riot once occasioned by a screening of his Un Film comme les autres (perhaps the emptiest and the most talkative of all of Godard’s films to date), in New York’s Lincoln Center in 1968, thanks in part to an attempt at adding an English voiceover on the spot that made the French and English equally incomprehensible. Which suggests that Godard’s aesthetic and ideological provocations often help to clear the way for still other sources of anger that may or may not be related to them.… Read more »
From the April 8, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. When I reprinted this article in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics, I gave it a different title: “Polanski and the American Experiment”.
For me, The Ghost Writer is easily Polanski’s best film since Bitter Moon. And certainly his most masterful. — J.R.
**** BITTER MOON
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski, Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Jeff Gross
With Peter Coyote, Emmanuelle Seigner, Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Victor Bannerjee, Sophie Patel, and Stockard Channing.
Fairly late in What? (1973), Roman Polanski’s least seen and least critically approved feature — an absurdist, misogynist, yet oddly affectionate ‘Scope comedy filmed in the seaside villa of its producer, Carlo Ponti — the bimbo American heroine (Sydne Rome), an Alice set loose in a decadent wonderland belonging to a dying millionaire named Noblart, wanders for the second time into a living room where she encounters a middle-aged Englishman. Once again this Noblart employee bemoans his arthritis, cracks his knuckles, then sits down at a piano to play the treble part of a Mozart sonata for four hands. Immediately recognizing the piece, she joins him, performing the bass part. After a rose petal drops from a bowl of flowers on the piano onto the keyboard, which also happened before, the wide-eyed heroine has an epiphany:
“It’s so strange — this keeps happening to me more and more often.… Read more »
This review of Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared in the February 13, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. I’m not positive that the second image I’ve used to represent Sokurov’s Oriental Elegy actually comes from that video and not from another Sokurov work, but it evokes my memory of that video so well that I hope I can be granted poetic license for this. – J.R.
Other Voices, Other Rooms
Directed by David Rocksavage
Written by Sara Flanigan and Rocksavage
With Lothaire Bluteau, Anna Thomson, David Speck, April Turner, and Frank Taylor.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
I cannot tell a lie: my first exposure to two great tragic novels, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), was the dreadful Hollywood adaptations released during my teens, both of which had happy endings. As silly as these movies were — Vincent J. Donehue’s Lonelyhearts (1958) and Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959) — they piqued my interest in the original novels, and I discovered, among many other things, the blatant inadequacy of the movie versions.
The same thing could happen to a teenager attending the dreadful film adaptation of Truman Capote’s first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) — not a novel of the same caliber as West’s and Faulkner’s, though still a work of real distinction, from his best period — but the odds are slim.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 20, 1990). — J.R.
JESUS OF MONTREAL
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Denys Arcand
With Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening, Johanne-Marie Tremblay, Remy Girard, Robert Lepage, Gilles Pelletier, Yves Jacques, and Arcand.
It must have been about 30 years ago that I saw Jules Dassin’s He Who Must Die, a popular art-house movie at the time and one of my first foreign films. Dassin, an American expatriate chased to Europe by the Hollywood blacklist, was a highly skilled film noir director whose best efforts included The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City. He Who Must Die, set on Crete in 1921, was a French picture based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Greek Passion, concerning the performers in a passion play whose theatrical roles take over their real lives as they suffer from Turkish oppression; the theme was that if Christ came back today, he would be crucified all over again.
I was a teenager at the time, and being none too versed in what was considered sophisticated in film in 1959, I was moved to tears. This was at a time when the French New Wave had barely made a ripple in the American consciousness, and shortly before Dassin’s film was ridiculed by critics I admired, like Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald, as the acme of arty pretension.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 1996). — J.R.
Ghosts of Mississippi
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Lewis Colick
With Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Ladd, Bonnie Bartlett, Bill Cobbs, William H. Macy, Virginia Madsen, and Michael O’Keefe.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Written by Arthur Miller
With Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Jones, Peter Vaughan, and Karron Graves.
“This story is true,” reads the opening title of Ghosts of Mississippi, a movie about the murder of NAACP activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in June 1963, and the conviction of his murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, which took a little more than 30 years.
“This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian,” Arthur Miller wrote in a note prefacing his 1953 play The Crucible, which depicts events that occurred in 1692, and which has now been turned into a movie adapted by Miller. Miller went on to detail the ways he’d changed history — he sometimes fused many people into one character, and he made a central character, Abigail, older.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 23, 1994). — J.R.
QUIZ SHOW ***
Directed by Robert Redford
Written by Paul Attanasio
With Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, David Paymer, Christopher McDonald, Elizabeth Wilson, and Paul Scofield.
Behind the opening and closing credits of Quiz Show we hear two different pop versions of “Mack the Knife” — Bobby Darin’s bright, Lyle Lovett’s funereal — perhaps an indication that director Robert Redford has something faintly Brechtian in mind. If so, probably the most relevant Brecht passage is the exchange that concludes the 12th scene of Galileo, when Andrea, the son of Galileo’s housekeeper, quotes the maxim “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo replies, “No, Andrea: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’”
On the other hand, this is Robert Redford we’re talking about, who’s been a hero in this unhappy land for the past three decades, not someone who’s ever been known to seriously rock any boats. A better indication of what makes Quiz Show so interesting, suggestive, and fruitful (if not Brechtian) is the showroom spiel for a glittering Chrysler 300 given to the movie’s hero, congressional investigator Richard N. Goodwin, shown out shopping just before the opening credits.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 20, 1992). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Clifton Ko
Written by Ko, Michael Hui, and Raymond Wong
With Hui, Wong, Olivia Cheng, Ricky Hui, Maria Cordero, and Joi Wong.
KING OF CHESS
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Yim Ho and Tsui Hark
Written by Yim and Tony Leung
With Leung, John Sham, Yong Lin, Yia Ho, King Shin Chien, and Chan Koon Cheung.
Past, present or future . . . China will always belong to the Chinese people. — opening title in King of Chess
In this country there is probably no important national cinema more neglected than the Chinese — actually a transnational entity, as I’m defining it here, including movies from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. And probably no programmer in this country is more dedicated to making Chinese cinema known than Barbara Scharres, director of the Film Center.
I have to admit to a certain resistance to Chinese cinema in the past, and to Hong Kong movies in particular. It’s a bias shared by many of my colleagues, for reasons that are in part self-serving: if we were to suddenly acknowledge the importance of Hong Kong movies, we’d be forced to acknowledge many years of negligence on our part, and obliged to admit an embarrassing lack of knowledge and sophistication on the subject.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 2003), where it was printed under the title “Against the Tide”. — J.R.
While putting together a collection of my film pieces for an upcoming book I included an appendix listing my 1,000 favorite films and videos made between 1895 and the present — features and shorts, live action and animation, narrative and experimental. The point was to cite not the works I consider the most important historically but the ones that still provide me with the most pleasure and edification.
This took more work than anticipated because I didn’t have a surefire method of recalling all the possible candidates. I worried about the inevitable oversights, including even ones from 2002. I also worried that I’d wind up weighting the list with more old than recent films — a fear that proved to be mainly groundless. The year between 1924 and 2002 for which I listed the fewest titles — five — was 1937. Four other years — 1926, 1939, 1942, and 1945 — yielded only six apiece. The peak year was 1955, with 21 titles. Generally speaking, there was a steady rise through the 50s, a decline in the 60s, then a leveling off: 17 items in the teens, 72 in the 20s, 95 in the 30s, 103 in the 40s, 160 in the 50s, 133 in the 60s, 130 in the 70s, 129 in the 80s, and 125 in the 90s.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 515). — J.R.
Utamaro O Meguru Gonin No Onna (Five Women Around Utamaro)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Dist–Artificial Eye. p.c–Shochiku. p. manager–Toyokazu Murata. sc–Yoshikata Yoda. Based on the novel by Kanji Kunieda. ph–Shigeto Miki. ed–Sintaro Myamoto. a.d–Isamu Motoki. m–Hiseto Osawa, Tamezo Mochizuki. sd. rec–Hisashi Kase.historical adviser–Sonao Kahi. l.p–Minosuke Bando (Kitagama (Utamaro), Kotaro Bando (Seinosuke Koîde), Tanaka Kinuyo (Okita), Kowasaki Hiroko (Oran), Izuka Toshiko (Dayu Tagasode), Kinnosuke Takamatsu (Juzaburo), Shotaru Nakamura (Shizaburo), Minsei Tomimoto (Takemoro), Katsuhisa Yamaguchi (Kisuke), Aitzo Tamasuma (Sobe), Eiko Ohara (Yukie Kano), Kyoko Kusajima (Oman), Kimiko Shirotae (Oshin), Junko Kajami (Maid in Kano Family), Mitsuei Takegawa (Tayu Karauta), Kimie Kawikami (Matsunami), Aiko Irikawa (Shodayu), Junnosuke Hayama, Masao Hori. 3,399 ft. 94 mins. (16 mm.). Subtitles.
Tokyo in the late eighteenth century. Seinosuke Koide, a student at the Kano Art School, is enraged when he discovers in a print shop that the artist Utamaro has written on one of his own prints that even his rough sketchesare “full of life”.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1976, Vol. 43, No. 504. — J.R.
Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox)
West Germany, 1975
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Ce r t–X. dist–Cinegate. p.c–Tango-Film. p–Rainer Werner Fassbinder. p. manager–Christian Hohoff. asst. d–Irm Hermann. sc—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Christian Hohoff. ph–Mictrael Ballhaus. col–Eastman Colour. ed–Thea Eymèsz. a.d–Kurt Raab. m–Peer Raben. songs–”One Night” by Pearl King, Dave Bartholomew, performed by Elvis Presley; “Bird on the Wire” by and performed by Leonard Cohen. l.p–Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“Fox” Franz Biberkopf), Peter Chatel (Eugen Theiss), Karl- Heinz Böhm (Max), Harry Bär (Philip), Adrian Hoven (Eugen’s Father), Ulla Jacobsen (Eugen’s Mother), Christiane Maybach (Hedwig), Peter Kern (Florist “Fatty” Schmidt), Hans Zandler (Man in Bar), Kurt Raab (Barman Springer),Irm Hermann (Mlle. Chérie de Paris), Barbara Valentin (Max’s Wife), Walter Sedlmayr (Car Dealer), Ingrid Caven (Singer in Bar), (El Hedi Ben Salem (Moroccan), Brigitte Mira (Shopkeeper),Bruce Low (Soldier), Ursula Strätz, Elma Karlowa, Evelyn Künneke, Marquart Bohm, Liselone Eder, Klaus Löwitsch.
11,077 ft.… Read more »
Written for Volume 34, Number 3, Issue No 135 of the Winnipeg-based Canadian arts journal Border Crossings in Fall 2015 (see below). — J.R.
I’m frequently troubled these days by the growing absence of global perspectives in what passes for news and other forms of mainstream discourse in the U.S. — the perpetually shrinking definitions of what we mean by ‘we’. A good many of the congealed stereotypes of foreign cultures that crop up in both Hollywood blockbusters and Internet chatter — ranging from the notion that ‘the French’ are crazy about Jerry Lewis to the pop images we still have of Latinos, Italians, Russians, Arabs, and Asians in SF blockbusters whenever ‘the world’ has to be represented — can paradoxically be traced back to the 50s and 60s, when the Cold War and all of its most rigid either/or assumptions were still in force. One might suppose that the combined resources of the Internet and digital viewing would widen our cinematic and other cultural reference points rather than shrink them. But the tendency of even respectable, adult media pundits to speak about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in the world at large suggests a metaphysics tailored to the dimensions of a Star Wars saga or a video game, where the cultural givens plunge back even further into the mythical past: Flash Gordon serials and Triumph of the Will from the mid-1930s, Roy Rogers Westerns and airborne World War 2 epics of the mid-1940s.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 18, 1994). — J.R.
You can figure out a lot about the differences between our culture and French culture by comparing two current series of low-budget TV features about teenagers. The French series, Tous les garcons et les filles de leur age (“All the Boys and Girls of Their Age”), produced by the French “cultural” channel Arte, has yielded half a dozen features, most of them first-rate. The idea is for the filmmaker to make a fictionalized version of his or her own teenage years set in the appropriate period (different in each film) and to include at least one party scene in which pop songs of that era are used. (The series is financed in part by Polygram, which has furnished the appropriate recordings.) The first of these, Patricia Mazuy’s Travolta and Me, showed at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival; four others were programmed at the festival last month — Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water, André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, Cedric Kahn’s Too Much Happiness, and Chantal Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl From Brussels – but unfortunately the first and best of these was canceled at the last minute. One more, Claire Denis’ Boom Boom [later retitled U.S.… Read more »