Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Problem with Poetry: Leos Carax

From the May-June 1994 Film Comment; also reproduced in my collection Movies as Politics. (For some briefer and more recent comments about Carax’s Merde and Holy Motors, go here.) — J.R.

First come words. No, emotions . . .
— line overheard in party scene of BOY MEETS GIRL

Introducing André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View in the late 70s, François Truffaut registered his opinion that “all the difficulties that Orson Welles has encountered with the box office . . . stem from the fact that he is a film poet. The Hollywood financiers (and, to be fair, the public throughout the world) accept beautiful prose — John Ford, Howard Hawks — or even poetic prose — Hitchcock, Roman Polanski — but have much more difficulty accepting pure poetry, fables, allegories, fairy tales.” [Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1991, 26.]

I’m not at all sure about fables and allegories — think of Campion’s THE PIANO and Kieslowski’s BLUE for two recent examples, neither of which the public seems to have much difficulty in accepting — and the Disney organization churns out fairy tales on a regular basis. But when it comes to poetry, pure and otherwise, I think Truffaut had a point.… Read more »

Leos Carax’s MERDE

For me the most interesting “ten best” list included in the January-February 2009 issue of Film Comment is the dozen titles offered by my favorite Japanese film critic, Shigehiko Hasumi. And what’s especially interesting about his list is the inclusion of Leos Carax’s Merde – the middle episode in the three-part feature Tokyo! (2008), flanked by contributions from Michel Gondry and Joon-ho Bong. Decidedly over-the-top in both theme and style as well as execution, and starring former circus acrobat Denis Lavant, who also plays the lead role in Carax’s first three features — an actor who’s surely even more important to this filmmaker’s work than Jean-Pierre Léaud was to the early features of Truffaut — Merde is a provocation and something of an anomaly, even for someone as eclectic as Carax. (It’s also his first film of any length since his 1999 Pola X, his only major film without Lavant.)

Clearly inspired, at least in its opening stretches, by Jean-Louis Barrault in Jean Renoir’s odd Jekyll-and-Hyde adaptation, Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (1961) [see below], Lavant plays a monster who emerges from the Tokyo sewers to wreak random and violent havoc on Tokyo pedestrians until he gets brought to trial, where he gets defended by an equally strident French lawyer (Jean-François Balmer, in a performance that’s almost as extravagant as Lavant’s).… Read more »

En movimiento: The Crimes of Harvey Weinstein

Written in November 2017 for my  “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

En movimiento: The Crimes of Harvey Weinstein

Although we routinely assume that social trends have a rational basis, the processes by which irrational forms of displacement also affect those trends are no less routinely ignored. For instance, it’s commonly thought that the Watergate scandal leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation as U.S. President was merely a matter of exposing his crimes, but it could also be argued that many of these crimes were already evident to U.S. citizens before Nixon won his last Presidential election. As Mary McCarthy would later theorize, it was because the public needed a scapegoat for the U.S. debacle in Vietnam that the Watergate crimes belatedly became important. And one might similarly theorize that the recent public exposure and condemnation of producer-distributor Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator, which has led to many similar exposures of predatory sexual behavior by others in the film world (such as James Toback and Kevin Spacey) as well as in separate fields, has been a displaced response to the debacle of Donald Trump’s Presidency, not to mention his own primitive sexual politics, which were exposed by the release of a private tape during the Presidential campaign.… Read more »

Death by a Thousand Director’s Cuts

From Slate (posted June 23, 2009). — J.R.

One of the key paradoxes of contemporary movie culture is that some film lovers claim that cinema is dying, others maintain that it’s entering a renaissance, and both factions are right. It all depends on whose movie culture you’re talking about.

The problem is how elastic and imprecise our terminology has become. Nowadays, when somebody says, “I’ve just seen a movie,” we don’t necessarily know whether the speaker saw it in a theater or on a mobile phone, alone or with a thousand other people, on celluloid or on a disc. These aren’t really the same experiences, even if we choose to call them all The Godfather or Up. And when it comes to distinguishing between film history and advertising, we may be even more confused.

One reason why we may be entering a renaissance in film viewing is that we no longer have to go to Paris or New York in order to learn anything comprehensive about the history of the medium as an art form. We can, in fact, live almost anywhere, at least if we own a multiregional DVD player — and nowadays one can acquire one of these for less than $50.Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: A Few Items That You May Not Know About

From the Spring 2012 issue of Cinema Scope. Some of the facts here may be out of date, so prospective customers should proceed with caution. — J.R.

The arrival on DVD of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s three solo features — Poto and Cabengo (1980), Routine Pleasures (1986), and My Crasy Life (1992) — has been long overdue, and it’s possible that part of the delay can be attributed to how unclassifiable and original these nonfiction films really are. The first of these has something to do with young twin sisters who were believed to have developed a private language between them, the second has something to do with both Manny Farber (as both a painter and a film critic) and a group of model train fans, and the third has something to do with the members of a Samoan street gang. But apart from Gorin’s presence and (quite diverse) Southern California settings, they’re very hard to describe or encapsulate, much less generalize about as a “trilogy” in any ordinary sense, which is part of their enduring fascination. (The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil [1982], which roams freely across the planet, already available with La jetée [1962] on a Criterion DVD and now out on a Criterion Blu-ray with the same materials — including terrific monologues by Gorin about both films that show how finely attuned he is to their special qualities, both as a friend of Marker and as a film essayist in his own right.) Criterion’s Eclipse has now issued all three as its 31st package, but in a refreshing departure from its usual “no-frills” format, this set includes three essays by Kent Jones — a longer one included with Poto and Cabengo about all three films, and shorter pieces with and about the other two — that are thoughtful explorations and meditations in their own right.… Read more »

1991 in Movies

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 1992). — J.R.

Looking at the big-time U.S. studio releases of 1991 — most of which enjoyed free supplements to their hefty advertising budgets from every branch of the media — we’d have to conclude that this was a year without enduring masterpieces. The best are intelligent entertainments, most of which faded quickly from memory. If I had to choose the ten best from this group, they’d be (in alphabetical order): Barton Fink, Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, Defending Your Life, The Fisher King, For the Boys, Jungle Fever, Once Around, Rambling Rose, and Thelma and Louise. Equally good or even better are some new American pictures that didn’t get anything like the same national attention: Chameleon Street, City of Hope, The Deadman (only 37 minutes long, but better than most features I saw), Hangin’ With the Homeboys, A Little Stiff, My Own Private Idaho, Poison, Reunion, and Trust. The best American documentaries that come to mind are Butoh: Body at the Edge of Crisis, Inside Life Outside, Lines of Fire, Paris Is Burning, Private Conversations on the Set of Death of a Salesman, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and the videos of Sadie Benning.… Read more »

Old Wave Saved from Drowning (with Sandy Flitterman)

From American Film (November 1981). — J.R.

Old Wave Saved from Drowning

By Sandy Flitterman and Jonathan Rosenbaum

Think of French cinema, and the New Wave springs immediately to mind. This association is hardly accidental. History, it is often said, gets written by the victors. And the victories recounted in the standard film histories — whether they are critical successes or box-office triumphs — are inevitably at the expense of other movies, individuals, or social trends that presumably failed to scale the same heights.

But the New Wave, like other movements in film history, is significant not only for what it gave us — films like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Godard’s Breathless, and Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour — but also for what it took away, for the films it rebelled against, repudiated, buried in the dustbin of history. Now a fascinating new program of forty-six subtitled French films made between 1930 and 1960 helps sketch out the rudiments of just such an alternative history.

This group of films, appropriately entitled “Rediscovering French Film,” has been put together by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in cooperation with the French government and, after premiering in Manhattan this month, is scheduled to travel next year to Washington, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago.… Read more »

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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

rosencrantz guildenstern

Tom Stoppard freely adapts, directs, and all but destroys his own enjoyable and provocative absurdist play about two minor characters in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth), victims of a drama taking place in the wings that they can neither understand nor control. Critic Kenneth Tynan suggested that the play may have been the first to use another play as decor; if so, then the film uses two plays — Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — and often the consequences are even more confusing than Stoppard could have intended. I can’t imagine a play less suited for a film adaptation, although Stoppard might have turned this to his advantage had he confronted that paradox. Instead he tries to open up a work that depends upon a sense of claustrophobic limbo, then undermines that approach by focusing the camera so tightly on the characters that he muddles our sense of spatial continuity. In Stoppard’s play, Hamlet is something semi-inexplicable that happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while the screenplay turns it into something they’re obliged to chase after; unfortunately, Stoppard’s sense of film is so inferior to his feeling for the stage that he makes the same compromises and reductions a Hollywood hack might have brought to the material.… Read more »

Questions about Film Acting: A Dialogue with James Naremore

Written for the Savannah-based, online Cine-Files in May 2014, posted circa early June, and reprinted here, with their permission (and some added illustrations). — J.R.

Acting-in-the-Cinema

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: For me, a key part of your argument in Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) occurs in your fourth chapter, “Expressive Coherence and Performance within Performance,” when you argue that even a sincere expression of one’s feelings is an actorly performance, “because the expression of ‘true’ feeling is itself a socially conditioned behavior.”  Which then leads you to quote from Brecht:

“One easily forgets that human education proceeds along theatrical lines. In a quite theatrical manner a child is taught how to behave; logical arguments only come later. When such-and-such occurs, it is told (or sees), one must laugh….In the same way it joins in shedding tears, not only weeping because the grow-ups do so but also feeling genuine sorrow. This can be seen at funerals, whose meaning escapes children entirely. These are theatrical events which form the character. The human being copies gesture, miming, tones of voice. And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” (69)

It seems to me that one reason why acting tends to be neglected in film criticism is that we can too easily confuse it with other elements — writing, directing, the ‘auras” of certain personalities, even certain casting decisions — in much the same way that we’re often confused or misguided about the sources of our own behavior (such as, are we weeping to express sorrow or to produce sorrow?) Or do you see this neglect stemming from other reasons?… Read more »

Swinging Both Ways [HIT AND RUNWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (September 7, 2001). — J.R.

Hit and Runway

**

Directed by Christopher Livingston

Written by Jaffe Cohen and Livingston

With Michael Parducci, Peter Jacobson, Judy Prescott, Kerr Smith, Hoyt Richards, John Fiore, and J.K. Simmons.

Hit and Runway – a comedy about a straight aspiring screenwriter in Greenwich Village taking on a gay playwright as a writing partner — comes from the writing team of Jaffe Cohen, who’s gay, and Christopher Livingston, who’s straight (he also directed). I knew nothing about this semiautobiographical movie until I saw it and nothing about the filmmakers until I looked at the press book, and I was fascinated to learn how semi the autobiographical aspects were.

That this movie exists at all deserves some consideration. It won a couple of festival prizes for best screenplay in 1999 and was copyrighted in 2000. I assume one reason it’s taken so long to get released — apart from being an independent feature without the clout of a major studio behind it — is the way it defies the assumptions of most publicists by refusing to address itself to either a straight or a gay audience to the exclusion of the other. It might not seem subversive for gay and straight viewers to watch the same comedy at the same time or even to laugh at the same jokes, but apparently this possibility conflicts with the way the big studios think about us as customers.… Read more »

Recycled Cinema [DIVERTIMENTO & NATURAL BORN KILLERS]

This appeared in the August 26, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

*** DIVERTIMENTO

(A must-see)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette

With Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Béart, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marianne Denicourt, and the hand of Bernard Dufour.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS

(No stars–Worthless)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, Stone, and Quentin Tarantino

With Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Edie McClurg, Sean Stone, and Russell Means.

One of the more deceitful explanations for the compulsive repetition that informs most contemporary movies is that Hollywood is simply giving the public what they want. The idea that they even know what they want is pretty dubious to begin with — especially if one factors out all the publicity and hype that supposedly speaks for them. And the argument that moviemakers have any better sense of what the public wants is usually self-serving propaganda.

A more likely explanation for all the recycling is that it serves business interests — and contrary to what you read in Variety and Premiere, that is not necessarily the same thing as serving the public.… Read more »

The Unmaking of I’LL DO ANYTHING

From the January-February 2011 Film Comment. — J.R.

“In describing rarely screened movies like Lev Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler or Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik,” wrote a Boston Globe reviewer of my latest collection, “Rosenbaum is like a restaurant critic describing the mouth-watering meal he had at a restaurant that just closed in another city.” Since both films are available on DVDs with English subtitles to anyone who knows how to Google, this is a dubious compliment at best. But it might apply to the following, from my 2000 book Movie Wars: “Having had the opportunity to see I’ll Do Anything as a musical, I can report that it was immeasurably better in that form — eccentric and adventurous, to be sure, but also dramatically and emotionally coherent.”

I hope that someday Brooks can find a way of releasing his original cut of this film on DVD, though I’m told that the cost of the song rights might make this prohibitive. (Nine of these original songs are by Prince, and at least two others are by Carole King and Sinéad O’Connor.) So what follows is an attempt to explain what I like about a movie you may never be able to see, which is still my favorite Brooks feature.Read more »

An Epic of Understanding: John Gianvito’s WAKE (SUBIC)

Posted on Film Comment‘s blog, February 2, 2016. — J.R.

Wake (Subic)

Consider the lengths of time between Jean Vigo’s death and the first appearances of Zéro de conduite and  L’Atalante in the U.S. (thirteen years), or between the first screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 and its recent appearances on Blu-Ray (forty-five years), and it becomes obvious that the popular custom of listing the best films of any given year is unavoidably a mythological undertaking. By the same token, film history in the present should be divided between important filmmakers skilled and successful in hawking their own goods, from Alfred Hitchcock to Spike Lee to Lars von Trier, and those who, for one reason or another, aren’t — a less definitive roll call that includes, among many others, Charles Burnett, Ebrahim Golestan, Luc Moullet, Peter Thompson, Orson Welles, and John Gianvito.

I haven’t seen Gianvito’s early shorts, one of which is called What Nobody Saw (1990), but its very title seems emblematic of his career — as does the epigraph from Cesare Pavese opening the first part of his first feature, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), which introduced me to his work and remains my favorite: “Everywhere there is a pool of blood that we step into without knowing it.” His second and best known feature, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), testifies to the same conviction, and his nine-hour documentary diptych, For Example, The Philippines, which he has working on for the past decade, is a epic demonstration of the wisdom of Pavese’s remark; Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010, 264 minutes) and now Wake (Subic) (2015, 277 minutes) concentrate on the human ravages left by the Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base — for almost a century, the two largest U.S.… Read more »

Lost in the Woods [BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2]

From the Chicago Reader (November 3, 2000). — J.R.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

rating: 0

Directed by Joe Berlinger

Written by Dick Beebe and Berlinger

With Kim Diamond, Jeffrey Patterson, Erica Geersen, Tristine Ryler, and Stephen Ryan Parker.

Call me naive, but unlike many of my colleagues I thought the unexpected runaway success of The Blair Witch Project in the summer of 1999 was encouraging, not depressing. I saw it as an indication that contemporary teenagers are far from the hardened cynics media “experts” make them out to be and that special effects and a handful of stars aren’t their sole reasons for wanting to see a movie. Its appeal offered a clear challenge to the studios and even forced the film industry to let it play in malls — an astonishing accomplishment for an independent pseudodocumentary that cost only $30,000.

I don’t consider the movie any sort of masterpiece and fully acknowledge its primitive conceptual and technical aspects, but I still think it expresses something about its young fans that’s authentic and powerful: a feeling of helplessness about their isolation and ignorance in relation to the world that’s central to its impact as a horror movie. If that isolation and ignorance led some viewers to initially see it as a real documentary, this is a tribute to the movie’s effectiveness — which makes it similar in some respects to Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, a 1967 low-budget pseudodocumentary that also fooled many young viewers.… 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)

ExorcistRead more »