Monthly Archives: November 2017

Comrades, Almost a Love Story

From the Chicago Reader  (April 22, 1997). — J. R.

ComradesAALS

Despite its sentimental aspects, this youthful, semitragic tale of two Chinese mainlanders in Hong Kong — the wonderful Maggie Cheung (Actress, Irma Vep) and pop star Leon Lai — and their fluctuating relationship as friends and lovers is the most moving film I’ve seen yet about that city’s last years under colonial rule (though the film’s final sections are set mainly in New York, where both characters emigrate). I suspect many Chinese viewers feel the same, because the film cleaned up at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, sweeping no less than nine categories (including best director, film, screenplay, and actress). Set between 1986 and 1996, and visualized by director Peter Chan with a great deal of inventiveness and lyricism, this movie is full of heart and humor, capturing the times we’re living in as no Western film could. Watch for a charming cameo by Christopher Doyle, the premier cinematographer of the Hong Kong new wave, as an English teacher. Film scholar and former Chicagoan Patricia Erens, now based at Hong Kong University, will introduce the Friday screening. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 22, 6:00; Saturday, August 23, 8:00; Sunday, August 24, 4:00; and Tuesday, August 26, 7:30; 312-443-3737.… Read more »

Kazan on Directing

From Film Comment (July-August, 2009). — J.R.

Kazan on Directing

Elia Kazan

Alfred A. Knopf, $30.00

This is a class act, given something like the Library of America treatment. The editor, Robert Cornfield, is similarly credited not on the title page but two pages later, and similarly provides a Chronology and Notes at the end (as well as an Introduction and Afterword). Extra boosts come from a canny Foreword (John Lahr) and fleeting Preface (Martin Scorsese). Virtually all the plays and films in Kazan’s oeuvre get entries, chronologically placed, apart from some of the less canonical items, accorded “Short Takes” at the end of each section.

But apart from some letters and notebook entries, this is a recycling operation — and that includes the final 40-page stretch, “The Pleasures of Directing”, the only portion not assembled by Cornfield (though no other editor gets mentioned). Even though this book was started by Kazan himself in the 1980s, it was always a paste-up job. On many occasions when the prose moves into high gear, a quick look at the Notes reveal that it comes from either Kazan’s autobiography (A Life) or An American Odyssey (a collection of his writing edited by Michel Ciment), both published in 1988.… Read more »

Guys And Dolls

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1991). — J.R.

guysanddollsbrando

Conceivably the best picture Sam Goldwyn ever produced, this 1955 blockbuster musical has an undeservedly bad rep, largely because the two leads — Marlon Brando as professional gambler Sky Masterson and Jean Simmons as Salvation Army recruiter Sarah Brown — aren’t professional singers. In fact, they both do wonders with Frank Loesser’s dynamite score because they perform their numbers with feeling and sincerity, and their efforts to live up to their material are perfectly in tune with the aspirations of their characters (as well as the songs themselves). In short, this may be the only Method musical. Joseph L. Mankiewicz does a creditable job with the stylized, stagy sets and the pungent vernacular of the original Damon Runyon material (which he also adapted). Also on hand, and at their very best, are Frank Sinatra (as Nathan Detroit), Vivian Blaine (as Adelaide), Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully, Veda Ann Borg, and Johnny Silver. 150 min. (JR)

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The Wild One

This book review appeared in the July 7, 1991 issue of Newsday. More recently (Christmas eve, 2014), I’ve been reading Susan L. Mizruchi’s instructive new book, Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work (Norton), which finds far more coherence in Brando’s career than Schickel did. — J.R.

BRANDO: A Life in Our Times, by Richard Schickel. Atheneum, 271 pp., $21.95

“Of the many illusions celebrity foists upon us the illusion of coherence, the senses that these are privileged people in the world who somehow know what they are doing in ways that we do not, is the largest, and possibly the most dangerous. But Marlon Brando has kept faith with his incoherence.”

Arriving at this judgment toward the end of a head-scratching appraisal of the logic and meaning of Marlon Brando’s career, critic Richard Schickel seems to be breathing a sigh of relief, and some readers may feel like joining him. It’s an honorable and instructive admission of defeat, and while one may disagree by finding some coherence where Schickel does not — I happen to relish Brando’s modest and earthy performance in The Freshman as a refreshing autocritique of his posturing role in The Godfather (which Schickel considers his last “real” performance) — it’s still a premise that one can hang an exploratory book on.… Read more »

Otto Preminger

This was written in the mid-1970s for Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, a two-volume reference work edited by Richard Roud that wasn’t published until 1980 (by The Viking Press in the U.S. and Secker & Warburg in the U.K.), and reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Otto Preminger (born 1906) directed five films before Laura (1944) — one Austrian, four American — but since he disowns them, I haven’t seen them, and no commentator to my knowledge has ever spoken well of them, we might as well begin with the (false) assumption that a tabula rasa preceded his early masterpiece.

False assumptions — and clean slates that tend to function like mirrors — are usually central to our experience of Preminger’s work. His narrative lines are strewn with deceptive counter-paths, shifting viewpoints, and ambiguous characters who perpetually slip out of static categories and moral definitions, so that one can be backed out of a conventionally placid Hollywood mansion driveway by somebody and something called Angel Face (1952) (and embodied by Jean Simmons) only to be hurtled without warning over the edge of a cliff. As for tabulae rasae, there is Angel Face herself and her numerous weird sisters — among them Maggie McNamara in The Moon Is Blue (1953), Jean Seberg in Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Eva Marie Saint in Exodus (1960) and, closer to the cradle, the almost invisible Bunny Lake in Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) and Alexandra Hay in Skidoo (1968).… Read more »

Potamkin (in more ways than one, a preliminary report)

It’s hard to think of a major American film critic who’s more flagrantly neglected than Harry Alan Potamkin (1900-1933), a globetrotting Marxist poet and intellectual whose prodigious output as a critic, found in the over 600 pages of The Compound Cinema (New York and London: Teachers College Press [Columbia University], 1977) — a posthumous collection edited by Lewis Jacobs — covered only the last six years of his life (1927-1933).

Compound

It seems that this neglect can be attributed to such interlocking factors as Cold War mentality (Potamkin was a Communist, albeit not a Party member), anti-intellectualism, pro-Hollywood bias, and a reluctance to deal with silent cinema, all of which place Potamkin firmly at loggerheads with the overrated Otis Ferguson (1907-1943), who typically gets thirty pages in Philip Lopate’s boringly mainstream American Movie Critics anthology versus Potamkin’s measly eight. But Potamkin, who could be as witty as Ferguson on occasion, was also an angry polemicist who made a few enemies (check out his vitriolic pan of Shanghai Express as racist and fascist claptrap, for New Masses, or see Jay Leyda’s rave review of The Compound Cinema), which probably didn’t help matters. Whatever the causes, the fact that I can’t even find a photograph of Potamkin on the Internet (including the one by Irving Lerner included in The Compound Cinema) or a Wikipedia entry for him seems entirely characteristic.… Read more »

Review of WILLIAM FAULKNER AT TWENTIETH CENTURY-FOX: The Annotated Screenplays

From Sight and Sound, July 2017. — J.R.

WILLIAM FAULKNER AT TWENTIETH CENTURY-FOX

The Annotated Screenplays

Edited by Sarah Gleeson-White, Oxford University Press, 949 pp., ISBN 9780190274184

Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum

William-Faulkner-at-Twentieth-Century-Fox-The-Annotated-Screenplays

 We know that Faulkner was no cinephile, but it’s less known that he referenced Eisenstein in The Wild Palms and cited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as two of his favourite films (along with High Noon) in a 1958 interview. One also can’t read the present-tense opening of Light in August without noting its cinematic immediacy, which suggests that consciously or not, Faulkner learned a lot from the movies.

Yet when it comes to his screenwriting, it’s closer to alienated, assembly -line labour than any significant form of self-expression. Editor Sarah Gleeson-White, a Sydney-based literary scholar, is well aware of this problem, beginning her Introduction with contradictory statements from Faulkner about how seriously he took this work (both of which, unsurprisingly, sound perfectly sincere) while noting that he wrote around fifty Hollywood screenplays between 1932 and 1954. That Faulkner was fully capable of working simultaneously on both his novel Absalom, Absalom and Hawks’ The Road to Glory is also duly noted. But Gleeson-White’s ambivalence about what actually constitutes screen authorship is reflected in the fact that several photographs in her commentaries are devoted to Faulkner’s Fox collaborators and none at all to Faulkner himself.… Read more »

Nightfall

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1988). Kino Lorber is bringing this out on DVD in December. — J.R.

Whether you like this or not — and it’s quite possible that you won’t — this has got to be one of the weirdest and most original movies around. Written and directed by former film critic and scriptwriter-turned-director Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth), whose previous solo feature never hit these shores, this is produced by Julie Corman, wife of Roger, and harks back to a lot of 60s Corman productions in various ways, for better and for worse; it also may be the first U.S. exploitation film to show the influence of Raul Ruiz in its striking use of colors and color filters, and Jasper Johns springs to mind in relation to some of the set painting. Mayersberg’s starting point and putative focus is Isaac Asimov’s famous SF story, set on the planet Lagash, where it is always daylight, shortly before its civilization collapses; David Birney, Sarah Douglas, Andra Mylian, and Alexis Kanner head the cast, and much of the action and decor reflect a series of interesting solutions for representing an alien culture as cheaply as possible.… Read more »

The Classical Modernist [on Manoel de Oliveira]

Reposted to mourn the death in 2015 of a titan, at age 106. From the July-August 2008 Film Comment, with the subhead “Negotiating the singular career of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira on the eve of his 100th birthday “. – J.R.

 

Films, films,
The best resemble
Great books
That are difficult to penetrate
Because of their richness and depth.

The cinema isn’t easy
Because life is complicated
And art indefinable.
Making life indefinable
And art
complicated.
— Manoel de Oliveira, “Cinematographic Poem,” 1986 (translated from the Portuguese)

Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our 19th-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.
— Eric Hobsbawm,
The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991


To insist that all great filmmakers contain multitudes is to risk a counter-response — that the same might equally be said of the not-so-great. Just as much labor can be expended on bad work as on good, and this applies to the labor of viewers and filmmakers alike.… Read more »

Survey Of A Sadist [Films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder]

From the Chicago Reader (May 2, 1997). — J.R.

Films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

I’m still trying to figure out what I think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982), the German whiz kid who’s the focus of a nearly complete retrospective showing at the Film Center, Facets Multimedia Center, and the Fine Arts over the next couple of months. An awesomely prolific filmmaker (he turned out seven features in 1970 alone), Fassbinder became the height of Euro-American fashion during the mid-70s, then went into nearly total eclipse after his death from a drug overdose — reminding us that the fate of a fashionable filmmaker is often to be discarded (as, more recently, have been David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino).

As skeptical as I often was in the 70s about Fassbinder as a role model, I’ve been more than a little disconcerted by the speed with which he’s vanished from mainstream consciousness. Having now seen two dozen of his 37 features, one of his four short films, and one of his four TV series — though I haven’t seen many of them since they came out — I find much of his work, for all its deliberate topicality, as fresh now as when it first appeared.… Read more »

FILMMAKERS UNITE (FU): A COLLECTIVE RESPONSE TO THE CURRENT REGIME OF THE U.S.

Filmmakers Unite

It’s the last day of the Cine Palium Fest in Palo del Colle, a medieval

village in southern Italy, where I’ve been serving on one of the juries,

and for me the highlight of the week has been the world premiere this

morning of an omnibus feature coproduced by Jay Rosenblatt and

Ellen Bruno consisting of thirteen very diverse but entertaining

pieces of anti-Trump agit-prop by seventeen filmmakers, in the

following order: Sarah Clift (a charming fiction about a Mexican

mother riding on her motorbike to a remote cave to acquire a huge

Trump doll from a mysterious shaman to serve as her little boy’s

birthday piñata), Pacho Velez and Nicole Salazar (the Trump

Inauguration as seen or ignored at the Tijuana border control), Kate

Amend and Pablo Bryant, Shy Hamilton, Ferne Pearlstein, Rosenblatt

(a characteristically Rosenblattian creepy and funny reworking of found

footage), Kris Samuelson and John Haptas, Usama Alshaibi (a scary look

at and listen to what American talk radio sounds like to someone with a

Muslim background who’s driving), Chel White, David Sampliner and

Rachel Shuman, Alan Berliner (a succinct way of summarizing what a

divided country consists of and feels like), Eva Ilana Brzeski (heart-

stopping portraiture of fellow Americans that reminds me of both

Dovzhenko and Costa), and Jeremy Rourke (reminding us of how joy

can be an empowering form of resistance).… Read more »

Raúl Ruiz’s Interactive Testament: MYSTERIES OF LISBON

Written in October 2011 for the Blu-Ray released by Music Box Films. It seems like the gift of Ruiz never stops giving: a film cosigned by him and his widow Valeria Sarmiento suggestively called The Wandering Soap Opera has turned up on a few South American ten best lists for 2017 as well as MUBI. –  J.R.

MysteriesofLisbon1

It was disconcerting to see a passage from a 1997 article of mine about Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011) quoted in some of his mainstream obituaries: “Ruiz is the least neurotic of filmmakers; he doesn’t even seem to care whether what he’s doing is good or not.” Not because this was false when I wrote it but because it related to my earliest encounters with his work and its seeming challenges to film commerce, not to his better known big-budget efforts such as Marcel Proust’s Time Regained (1999) and Klimt (2006).

Mysteries-of-Lisbon

This is why some of these latter films disappointed me, pointing towards what Ruiz himself frankly described to me in a 2002 interview as a “capitulation”. But Mysteries of Lisbon shows that he may have gained as much from these bigger budgets as he lost, and I’m not speaking about pocket change. What he actually broadened was his film vocabulary, especially his employments of long takes and camera movements.… Read more »

The Exorcist

theexorcist-poster

“Doubtless this tale of spirit possession in Georgetown packs a punch, but so does wood alcohol,“ wrote Reader critic Don Druker in an earlier review of this. I wouldn’t be quite so dismissive: as a key visual source for Mel Gibson’s depiction of evil in T as well as an early indication of how seriously pulp can be taken when religious faith is involved, this 1973 horror thriller is highly instructive as well as unnerving. William Friedkin, directing William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own novel, aims for the jugular, privileging sensation over sense and such showbiz standbys as vomit and obscenity over plodding exposition. This 2000 rerelease runs 132 minutes, 11 minutes longer than the original; with Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and Lee J. Cobb. R. (JR)

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The Promise

Chen Kaige clearly intended this Chinese fantasy-action spectacle to top Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and I must admit that I prefer it to the earlier movie: the digital effects are sometimes excessive, yet Chen’s story of a loyal slave, his master, and a wealthy, seemingly doomed princess is more affecting, especially in the closing stretch. Chen’s original U.S. distributor, the Weinstein Company, ordered him to shorten the movie from its original running time of 128 minutes and then dropped it. (It’s worth recalling that his 1996 feature Temptress Moon was severely damaged by Miramax’s recutting.) Now Warner Independent Features is releasing the abbreviated, 102-minute version, and it’s well worth checking out. PG-13. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre.

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Stillness and Life: Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Published online on October 12, 2017 by the British Council. — J.R.

Stillness and Life: Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames

By Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

24Frames-4

24 Frames (2017), the last film by Abbas Kiarostami, is a feature length experimental work comprising twenty-four vignettes, each four-and-half minutes long and shot mostly in black and white. The majority of these vignettes take place in natural surroundings. In fact, the first shot, of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow (1565), establishes the template for most of the following scenes, which portray different kinds of animals and birds moving around in snowy landscapes. Elsewhere in the film, hunters are kept offscreen but we hear their gunshots. In one instance, they kill a bird and in another, a peaceful fawn. Other segments of the film focus on interior spaces, represented by large, dark windows that reveal only a limited view of the natural world beyond them (birds, or trees, or their shadows). With the exception of the homage to Bruegel, all of the segments are based on Kiarostami’s own photographs.

P_Bruegel_Hunters

In 2015, Kiarostami confirmed that he was working on the project, which he began after completing his previous feature, Like Someone in Love (2012).

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