Monthly Archives: November 2017

Hollywood’s Jazz

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 »

Comrades, Almost a Love Story

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 »

Life Intimidates Art [IRMA VEP]

From the June 13, 1997  Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Irma Vep

Rating ****

Directed and written by Olivier Assayas

With Maggie Cheung, Nathalie Richard, jean-Pierre Léaud,  Lou Castel,  Dominique Faysse, Bulle Ogier, Arsineé Khanjian, and Antoine Basler.


The whole point is that the world is constantly changing, and that as an artist one must always invent new devices, new tools, to describe new feelings, new situations….If we don’t invent our own values, our own syntax, we will fail at describing our own world. — Olivier Assayas, in a letter to critic Kent Jones

Like many other eras, ours is not inordinately fond of examining itself, and any movie that does that work for us risks being overlooked, resented, or simply misunderstood. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Taiwanese Goodbye, South, Goodbye, one of the major films at Cannes last year to perform this task, was greeted mainly by bored puzzlement. But a Peruvian film critic in Chicago a few weeks back mentioned to me that this movie told him more about what was happening in contemporary Peru than any other he’d seen — which suggests that our awareness of global capitalism’s recent activities may be more germane to appreciating certain movies than their particular nationalities.… Read more »

True Believers

From the Chicago Reader (August 20, 2004); I’ve revised this slightly [in June 2011] — J.R.

Revolution ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Stephen Jones

Written by Bob Avakian With Avakian.

Queimada **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

Written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio

With Marlon Brando, Evaristo Marquez, Norman Hill, and Renato Salvatori.

The Last Emperor **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci

With John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ruocheng Ying, and Victor Wong.

August is traditionally the month when films people don’t know what to do with surface, a time when those films are less apt to be noticed. This August three of these films happen to be about revolution.

Actually Revolution, showing Wednesday at the 3 Penny, isn’t a movie but a DVD of the first 136 minutes of a long, four-part lecture by Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, in what is reportedly his first public appearance since 1979. The other two are director’s cuts of celebrated movies, both being screened here for the first time.

Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography that Gillo Pontecorvo’s Queimada (1969), showing several times this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, contains “the best acting I’ve ever done,” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), screening August 28 at Facets Cinematheque, won five Oscars, including those for best picture and best director.… 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 »

Ragged But Right [on UP DOWN FRAGILE]

This appeared in the July 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Up Down Fragile

**** (Masterpiece)

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 [1953], 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 »

Guys And Dolls

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)

guysanddolls_ifiwereabell_FC_470x264_030220160329Read more »

The Tower Of The Seven Hunchbacks (with an emailed postscript)

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1987). — J.R.

Edgar Neville — an aristocratic Republican filmmaker and writer who was friends with everyone from Lorca and Chaplin to Ortega y Gasset and Lacan — is one of the great undiscovered auteurs of the Spanish cinema. This remarkable turn-of-the-century fantasy, which suggests an eerie encounter between the tales of Borges and the early melodramas of Feuillade and Lang, starts off as a supernatural mystery as the hero (Antonio Casal) is persuaded by a one-eyed ghost to solve the case of his murder. This leads him first to the ghost’s niece (Isabel de Pomes) and eventually to a hidden underground city beneath the old section of Madrid that contains an ancient synagogue and is presided over by hunchbacked counterfeiters. Based on a novel by Emilio Carrere, this hallucinatory fiction ends rather abruptly and never manages to account for all the mysteries it uncovers, but as pure, primal storytelling it is as creepy a spellbinder as one could wish for (1944). (JR)

On November 27, 2017 I received the following email, sent from Spain:

You refer to Edgar Neville in your online review of TOWER OF THE SEVEN HUNCHBACKS as a “Republican”. He was actually one of the other guys, if you know what I mean.… Read more »

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).


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 »

JIVIN IN BE-BOP (1976 review)

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 »

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin No. 507, April 1976. –- J.R.


The Man Who Fell To Earth


Great Britain, 1976                                             Director: Nicolas Roeg


A stranger from another planet lands in New Mexico; calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton, he sells a series of rings to various jewellery stores and soon amasses a small fortune. He approaches Oliver Farnsworth, a homosexual lawyer in New York specializing in patents, shows him his plans for nine inventions destined to transform the communications industry, and concludes an agreement whereby Farnsworth supervises Newton’s World Enterprises Corporation and communicates with Newton, who wishes to maintain his privacy, chiefly by phone. Dr. Nathan Bryce, a chemical engineering professor, becomes intrigued by the corporation and decides to learn more about its master-mind. When Newton faints in an elevator, unaccustomed to the acceleration, the attendant, Mary-Lou, nurses him back to health and becomes his lover, tempting him into a taste for gin. After building a house on the lake where he landed and inaugurating a private space program, Newton hires Bryce as a consultant, and the latter discovers with a hidden X-ray camera that Newton s metabolism is not human. Newton intimates that he came to Earth because his race was dying from a lack of water and that his space program is designed to return him to his wife and children.… Read more »


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


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 »