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 »
This review, from the February 4, 1981 issue of The Soho News, is most likely harsher than it needed to be. Since Mary McCarthy’s death, I’ve been moved to reformulate some of my positions about her after reading the wonderful book Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1995) edited by Carol Brightman, which reveals a side of McCarthy that seems quite contrary to her much better-known bitchiness as a critic. It proves to me that unforeseen and unforeseeable sides of some people tend to come out only in specific relationships with certain other people, and the loving generosity of McCarthy’s letters to Arendt are a particular striking example of this. —J.R.
Ideas and the Novel
By Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95
Despite her wicked way with some words and ideas, Mary McCarthy has never exactly thrilled me with her aesthetics. With a taste stuck so comfortably, nostalgically, even trivially in the prosaic 19th century that even the avant-garde that she values often seems furnished with fog and brass doorknobs à la Doyle, Verne, or Poe, her acute critical intelligence usually whiles away its time polishing statues and suits of armor — rather like the New York Times Book Review — whenever she turns to the Novel.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 6, 1993). — J.R.
LYRICAL NITRATE *** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Peter Delpeut
VISIONS OF LIGHT: THE ART OF CINEMATOGRAPHY *** (A must-see)
Directed by Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, and Stuart Samuels Written by Todd McCarthy.
I realize it sounds strange to put it this way, but the special pleasures to be found in Lyrical Nitrate -– a 50-minute compilation of fragments of silent films made between 1905 and 1915, showing this Saturday and Sunday at the Music Box -– are closely related to the voyeuristic appeal of pornography, specifically old-fashioned stag reels. The experience of watching these fragments is, like the fragments themselves, fleeting and therefore tantalizing, suggestive and therefore provocative -– and so far off the beaten track of what’s supposed to be viewer friendly in our culture that I’m reminded of J. Hoberman’s speculation in the second edition of Midnight Movies, a book we coauthored: “Imagine if one had to go out at midnight to some seedy theater to see projected tapes of The Simpsons.… Read more »
From The Soho News (November 17, 1981). Ironically, this review was originally copyedited rather clumsily, so I’ve tried to restore some of its original logic and meaning. Incidentally, for those who might be interested, my earlier review of Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature for Soho News can be accessed here. — J.R.
Lectures on Russian Literature
By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited and introduced by Fredson Bowers
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95
Compare the book under examination to Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, reviewed in these pages last November. Is Volume II a worthy successor, an arguable improvement, or a distinct letdown? Explain. (Use concrete examples.)
All three. Issued in a uniform edition at the same price, only 50-odd pages shorter -– the jacket Indian-red in contrast to last year’s sky-blue –- the book can be considered a worthy successor. Insofar as it contains meaty selections from what I take to be Nabokov’s supreme act (and work) of literary criticism (not counting his voluminous notes on his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which I haven’t read) –- namely, his eccentric and indelible Nikolai Gogol, first published by New Directions in 1944 -– it can arguably be deemed an improvement, even over his exhilarating and enlightening lectures on Flaubert and Kafka in the first volume.… Read more »
Even though much of this early piece of mine about Ruiz (also available in my collection Placing Movies), originally published in separate versions in 1987 and 1990, is out of date by now, and also incorrect in spots, I’ve decided to reprint and illustrate it here, well over two decades later, because of the way Ruiz inspired me to play various games of my own, as he did several years later when I wrote about him at some length again (here). (August 2011, shortly after Ruiz’s tragic death, I’ve also updated the illustrations for my 2002 interview with him for Cinema Scope.) — J.R.
The sheer otherness of Râúl Ruiz in a North American context has a lot to do with the peculiarities of funding in European state-operated television that make different kinds of work possible. The eccentric filmmaker in the United States or Canada who wants to make marginal films usually has to adopt the badge or shield of a school or genre — art film, avant-garde film, punk film, feminist film, documentary, or academic theory film— in order to get funding at one end, distribution, promotion, and criticism at the other. Ruiz, however, needs only to accept the institutional framework of state television — which offers, as he puts it, holes to be filled — and he automatically acquires a commission and an audience without having to settle on any binding affiliation or label beyond the open-ended rubric of “culture” or “education.” Consequently, the sheer existence of Ruiz’s massive, varied work constitutes a genuine affront to the capitalist definitions of experiment governing our own culture.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 24, 1992). — J.R.
HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Eleanor Coppola
Written by Bahr and Hickenlooper.
A little over a decade ago in an English film magazine I made a rather foolish prediction: “Perhaps by the 90s a sufficient time gap will have elapsed to allow [American] filmmakers to approach the subject of Vietnam in a more detached, balanced, and analytical manner.” Cockeyed optimist that I was, I reasoned that some historical distance would allow certain blank spots in our knowledge and understanding of Vietnam to be filled — not doused in amber and framed in gold while remaining blank spots. I took to heart Ernest Hemingway’s famous declaration in a Paris Review interview: “If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.” I reasoned that the gaping holes in our Vietnam cover story would finally reduce that protective garment to tatters and permit some light to shine through.
Little did I know that the holes themselves would come to be defined as points of illumination — a bit like George Bush’s “thousand points of light” — and would decorate our consciousness like Christmas trees.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 17, 1993), also reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Zaillian
With Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, and Embeth Davidtz.
The ideological structures of Spielberg’s films “hail” the spectator into a world of the obvious that affirms the viewer’s presence (even while dissolving it), affirms that what the viewer has always believed or hoped is (obviously) right and accessible, and assures the viewer excitement and comfort in the process. The films offer nothing new beyond their spectacle, nothing the viewer does not already want, does not immediately accept. That is their conservative power, and it has spread throughout the cinema of the 80s. — Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (1988)
Confessions are in order. From Duel to Jurassic Park, there are few Steven Spielberg movies I admire, and none I fully respect — though I respond to a good many of them as obediently as any well-oiled automaton. My first look at Close Encounters of the Third Kind actually brought tears to my eyes. I can’t say that on reflection I felt much pride in this response, though the experience of becoming a boy again in relation to the imagined parental benevolence of the cosmos — which also happens with Ray Bradbury’s best early tales about Mars — may be morally preferable to feeding on the murderous xenophobia of Star Wars, released the same year (1977); at worst one winds up feeling silly rather than dirty afterward.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Autumn 1974). — J.R.
The first and perhaps the final question to be asked about Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of Henry James’ novella is simply why he chose to embark on it. A revealing interview with the director by Jan Dawson which appeared in Sight and Sound last winter affirms that he is anything but a Jamesophile (‘The social aspects of it don’t really concern me’), and one would imagine that taking up an admittedly minor — if commercially celebrated — work by the grey eminence would at least be dictated by an interest in the tale as ‘raw material’, an expedient for arriving at his own creation. But the confounding thing about his Daisy Miller is that it comes across as neither fish nor fowl: too indifferent to Jamesian nuance to qualify as appreciation, too faithful (in terms of the overall plotting and dialogue in Frederic Raphael ‘s script) to gain credence as an attack on the original — and yet too amorphous and uncertain in its own terms to register as an independent and autonomous work.
One suspects that the attractions of the project were the mythic elements: American innocence and charm in confrontation with European decadence.… Read more »
Written for and published in Outsider Films on India, 1950-1990, edited by Shanay Jhaveri, Mumbai: The Shoestring Publisher, 2009 –a very handsomely produced book that I can highly recommend. — J.R.
The Creation of the World: Rossellini’s India Matri Buhmi
In my mind, there isn’t as much distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one. — Abbas Kiarostami
From the beginning, film has owed an important part of its fascination to ambiguous overlaps between documentary and fiction —- sometimes experienced as conflicts between the separate aims of showing the world and telling a story, and frequently associated with incorporating both unforeseeable and carefully planned elements in a given film. It’s a tendency that can already be seen in the contrived gags of the Lumière brothers films, the re-enactment of recent famous events in some films of Georges Méliès, and the coexistence of fantasy and on-location actuality in Louis Feuillade serials. Later, of course, the same mix becomes re-animated in Italian neorealism and in work by French New Wave directors (perhaps most notably Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette and some of their immediate successors, such as Luc Moullet and Jean Eustache), in the improvisational strategies of Robert Altman, in some of the ambiguities found in the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi, and in practically all the films of Pedro Costa and Pere Portabella.… Read more »
My column for the Summer 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
J.P. Sniadecki’s feature-length The Iron Ministry (2014), available on DVD from Icarus Films, is by far the best non-Chinese documentary I’ve seen about contemporary mainland China. (Just for the record, the best Chinese documentary on the same general subject that I’ve seen is Yu-Shen Su’s far more unorthodox—and woefully still unavailable — 2012 Man Made Place; a couple of snippets are available on YouTube and Vimeo.) Filmed over three years on Chinese trains, it’s full of revelatory moments, and not only in its surprisingly outspoken interviews: the non-narrative stretches, which compare quite favourably with the more abstract portions of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012), are pretty stunning as well. Skip this one at your peril.
Second Run’s very first Blu-ray — Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2015) — is gorgeously transferred, and has splendid extras: Costa’s 2010 short film O nosso homem, essays by Jonathan Romney and Chris Fujiwara, an introduction to Horse Money’s introduction by Thom Andersen, and Laura Mulvey’s conversation with Costa at London’s ICA. The extras on Criterion’s Blu-ray of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) are too numerous to mention here, but suffice it to say that just about every intertextual reference in this cherished object are teased out in one way or another.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 505). — J.R.
With an outsized budget estimated variously at $12,600,000 (Variety) and £10,000,000 (Daily Mirror), three box-office favourites and a script deliberately written, according to co-author Gloria Katz, as “the most commercial thing we could think up”, Lucky Lady is both conspicuously overproduced and undernourished.
The presence of Stanley Donen seems to count for little in a project that might more logically have been entrusted to a computer. All it has to express, quite simply, are its deliberations: to combine as many saleable features as can be packed on a screen within the space of two hours. A little of everything is thus tossed into the mixture; and a great deal of nothing emerges out of the isolation and autonomy of the assorted elements. For Cabaret-like nostalgia, Geoffrey Unsworth creates a hazy milk-of-magnesia look with a dull sheen that obscures the details of the expensive sets and sea battles, both of which seem to derive from other models.
As the leading lady, Liza Minnelli is dressed in a fright wig worthy of a nightmare dreamt by Robert Aldrich, given two unmemorable songs to sing, and encouraged or allowed to deliver each comic line (sample: “It’s so quiet you can hear a fish fart”) as if she were explaining it to a child of four, crushing gags like so many acorns in her wake.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 16, 1996). — J.R.
My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud
Directed by Gerard Mordillat
Written by Mordillat and Jerome Prieur
With Sami Frey, Marc Barbe, Julie Jezequel, Valerie Jeannet, and Charlotte Valandrey.
Gerard Mordillat’s 1993 French feature My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud, showing this week at the Music Box, can be regarded only nominally as a biopic. Adapted from the diary of an obscure poet, En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud (which is also the film’s original, superior title), it tells the story of the poet’s relationship with Artaud over a two-year period, from May 1946 to March 1948, when Artaud died at the age of 52. In 1946 Artaud had just returned to Paris after nine years in an insane asylum, and Jacques Prevel befriended him and procured drugs for him, mainly laudanum, opium, and chloral. But the film has relatively little to say about Artaud’s work, except in passing, and virtually nothing about Prevel’s writing apart from his diary. Shot in beautiful, crisp high-contrast black and white, the movie certainly has something to do with the “life and times” of this bohemian duo — and Sami Frey and Marc Barbe do creditable jobs as Artaud and Prevel.… Read more »
IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, and Dolores Gray.
Has there ever been a more deceptive title and ad for a movie than this Belgian poster for the depressive 1955 musical IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER? Not that the original title or the strained happy ending are exactly apt either. [I resaw this movie yesterday, on my last day at Il Cinema Ritrovato, and might have written about this sooner– i.e., before I returned to Chicago–if I’d been able to figure out a way to paste in photos on my laptop.] But in fact it expresses more negative feelings about American culture at mid-century than anything by Frank Tashlin. Tashlin, after all, always seems to love his characters, but what mainly typifies the satirical feelings here about television, advertising, and other forms of corruption are disgust, disillusionment, self-hatred, and anger. It seems characteristic that Kelly and Charisse, the romantic leads, never even get to dance together, and that Dolores Gray’s climactic number, “Thanks a Lot, but No Thanks” (see still), registers as a conscious ripoff of Monroe’s glacially bitter “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.… Read more »
Thanks to a passing reference by Andy Rector on Girish’s excellent blog, I’ve just stumbled upon an invaluable online reference tool — the William K. Everson Collection, which has been set up by New York University’s Cinema Studies, where Everson taught from 1972 to 1996. As someone who used to attend some of the memorable screenings of The Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society that were organized by Everson, at two or three of its separate locations, I’m especially delighted to recover some of the program notes he wrote for those events, such as those for F.W. Murnau’s rediscovered City Girl (a screening I attended) on March 2, 1970. In fact, the two most impressive individual archives to be found at this site are Everson’s voluminous program notes, beautifully cross-referenced and reproduced for easy access, and his collection of press kits. (There are also some other things here as well — including the photograph reproduced above, of Everson imitating Cesare in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari set that was rebuilt inside the Cinémathèque Française’s Musée du Cinéma at the Palais de Chaillot.)
Everson’s immense value when he was alive was more his extraordinary generosity, the breadth of his knowledge as a film scholar, and his enthusiasm than his critical acumen, so there are times when one wants to quibble with some of the own opinions in his notes (such as his own quibbles about Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece Stars in My Crown, for example).… Read more »
From Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], posted March 5, 2009. The last time I checked, the box set Cinéma Cinémas was still available from French Amazon, for 25.56 Euros. — J.R.
How does one distinguish American cinephilia from the original, hardcore French brand? Based on an exchange I had with French critic Raymond Bellour and several other friends a dozen years ago — a round of letters first published in the French film magazine Trafic that later grew into a collection in English that I co-edited with Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia — there’s some disagreement about how serious a role French cinema actually plays in “classic” (i.e., French) cinephilia. According to Raymond, spurred in part by remarks from the late Serge Daney — a mutual friend and the founder of Trafic — modern French cinephilia was from the outset basically American, as suggested by the archetypal question, “How can one be a Hitchcocko-Hawksian?”:
It’s a question of theory, but even more of territory. This is what necessarily divides me from Jonathan, in whom cinephilia was born, like in everyone else, through the nouvelle vague, but who, as an American, takes the nouvelle vague itself as an object of cinephilia — whereas the cinephile, in the historical and French sense, trains his sights on the American cinema as an enchanted and closed world, a referential system sufficient to interpret the rest.… Read more »