From the March 1978 American Film, when Hollis Alpert was still the editor. If memory serves, this was my first contribution to this magazine. I suspect that the not-quite-accurate title wasn’t mine; like American Film and its parent organization, the American Film Institute, its agenda tends to be needlessly and provincially restricted to American industrial product, unlike those of, say, the British Film Institute or the Cinémathèque Française.
One important informational update: David Meeker’s invaluable reference book has more recently been expanded into an even more invaluable online reference tool that can be accessed here. – J.R.
Cuing the audience into the threat of impending violence in Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), director Richard Brooks has very different aces up his sleeve. In the earlier film, he uses jazz — a blaring, evil-sounding Stan Kenton record. It’s played on a jukebox by Josh (Richard Kiley), a mild-mannered jazz buff and schoolteacher, who is mugged by a gang in an alley while the song is still playing. In the more recent film — where, incidentally, Richard Kiley plays the heroine’s bombastic father — Brooks uses disco singles blasting away in bars, and a strategically placed strobe light.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 22, 1997). — J. R.
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 »
From Film Comment (July-August, 2009). — J.R.
Kazan on Directing
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 »
This appeared in the July 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Up Down Fragile
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Written by Laurence Côte, Marianne Denicourt, Nathalie Richard, Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette
With Côte, Denicourt, Richard, Anna Karina, André Marcon, Bruno Todeschini, Wilfre Benaiche, Enzo Enzo, and the voice of László Szabó
The inspiration of Up Down Fragile? The MGM low-budget films of the 50s that were shot in four or five weeks on sets left over from other films. In particular, a Stanley Donen movie, Give a Girl a Break , a simple film shot in next to no time with short dance numbers. — Jacques Rivette in an interview
Entertainment does not…present models of utopian worlds, as in the classic utopias of Sir Thomas More, William Morris, et al. Rather the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized. — Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia”
Out of Jacques Rivette’s 17 features to date — in which I include his 12-hour serial Out 1 (1970) as well as both parts of his Jeanne la pucelle (1994) — 9 are set in contemporary Paris.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1991). — J.R.
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)
… Read more »
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 »
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 »
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).
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 »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1976 (Vol. 43. No. 510). — J.R.
Jivin in Be-bop
U.S.A., 1947Director: Leonard Anderson
Dist—TCB. p.c—Alexander Productions. p—William D. Anderson. sc—Powell Lindsay. ph—Don Malkames. ed—Gladys Brothers. m/songs–(including) “Salt Peanuts”< “I Waited for You”, “Dizzy Atmosphere” by Dizzy Gillespie, “Bop-a-Lee-ba” by Dizzy Gillespie, John Brown, “Oop Bop Sh-‘Bam” by Gil Fuller, Dizzy Gillespie, Roberts, “Shaw ‘Nuff” by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, “A Night in Tunisia” by Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Paparelli, “One Bass Hit”, “Things to Come” by Dizzy Gillespie¸ Gil Fuller, “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker, Benny Harris,” “E Beeped When He ShouldaBopped” by Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Fuller, John Brown, “Crazy About a Man”, “Boogie in C”, “Boogie in D”, “Shoot Me a Little Dynamite Eight”, “Grosvenor Square”. sd—Nelson Minnerly. with—Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra, Sahji, Freddie Carter, Ralph Brown, Helen Humes, Ray Sneed. San Burley and Johnny Taylor, Phil and Audrey, Johnny and Henny, Daisy Richardson, Pancho and Dolores, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Ray Brown, Kenny “Pancho” Hagood. 1,160 ft. 60 min. (16 mm.)
A continuous series of musical performances and dance routines shown on stage, without a visible audience, occasionally interspersed with comic repartee between Dizzy Gillespie and an emcee identified variously as “Peanut Head” Jackson and Burt.… Read more »
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
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 »
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 »
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.
The cinema isn’t easy
Because life is complicated
And art indefinable.
Making life indefinable
— 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 »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (April 22, 1994). — J.R.
Directed and written by Ousmane Sembène
With Omar Seck, Mame Ndoumbe Diop, Thierno Ndiaye, Ndiawar Diop, Moustapha Diop, Marie-Augustine Diatta, Samba Wane, and Joseph Sane.
We like to think that the essential works of any art form are readily available to everyone; but when it comes to film we still aren’t within hailing distance of that goal, even if we agree to the debatable proposition that a film’s transfer to video equals its availability. The canons of film history taught in film departments across the country are based almost entirely on the titles that film, video, and laser disc companies choose to place or keep on the market, which is all that most film professors have seen in the first place. And now that 16-millimeter film distribution is already on its last legs, the history and breadth of the medium, even for most film students, is quickly being reduced to what can be found at local video stores.
Among the many key items that can’t be found there are virtually all the major African films, including the seven features and four shorts of Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembène, by most accounts the greatest African filmmaker.… Read more »
This appeared in Take One, July 15, 1979 (vol. 7, no. 8). Check out Dave Kehr’s recent column on 70s Akerman in the New York Times for some other reflections. —J.R.
Chantal Akerman is a tough filmmaker to tangle with, make up one’s mind about or describe. One thing’s clear enough though: Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, her fifth feature, is the most assertive film by a woman that I’ve seen since Marguerite Duras’ Le Camion — and probably the most accessible that Akerman has made to date. It might wind up serving as a calling card for the rest of her work.
A film that assumes the ambition (and pretention) of taking the pulse of Western Europe while pursuing a narcissistic autobiographical meditation obviously isn’t going to win everyone over — particularly when every shot has the visual weight of a battleship and nearly every facial expression has enough glumness to sink one. Take that, Akerman seems to be saying, offering up yet another drab, anonymous hotel room or train station at night, each one lit with precise, uncanny radiance, and hammering these cold, elegantly symmetrical compositions into our skulls with an obstinate will to power that makes Milius and Peckinpah seem like frollicking pussy-cats in comparison.… Read more »