From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). — J.R.
Assault on Precinct 13
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jean-Francois Richet
Written by James DeMonaco
With Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Gabriel Byrne, Maria Bello, Brian Dennehy, Drea de Matteo, and Ja Rule
John Carpenter’s first solo feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), is an effective low-budget genre piece — a perfectly proportioned, highly suspenseful action story about a few individuals under siege. It’s derived in part from Howard Hawks’s 1959 western Rio Bravo: Carpenter directly quotes from the dialogue and action, and he jokily adopts the pseudonym of John T. Chance, the name of John Wayne’s character, as the credited editor. The film is also influenced by claustrophobic horror movies such as The Thing (which Carpenter subsequently remade), The Birds, and Night of the Living Dead, especially their depiction of how unstable group dynamics are affected by an impersonal menace.
After most of the employees of a police station in a Los Angeles ghetto have moved to a new building, the station is attacked by a vengeful gang that uncannily expands into a mob, to the accompaniment of Carpenter’s relentlessly minimalist, percussive synthesizer score. A black rookie named Bishop and two white secretaries are the only remaining staff, and once Bishop realizes they can’t survive without help, he frees two prisoners, one black, one white — both hardened criminals en route to the state pen.… Read more »
In my original review of this documentary, I cited and recommended some writing by Eliot Weinberger that three of my editors regarded as irresponsible and unreliable and therefore something that shouldn’t be mentioned, along with some of my own pronouncements. Readers who would like to judge this matter for themselves can read my unedited draft, which I’ve added below the published version. The edited version appeared in the February 7, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times
*** (A must-see)
Directed by John Junkerman.
As a work of cinema, John Junkerman’s documentary about Noam Chomsky doesn’t set the world on fire. The film is a prosaic compilation of interview footage of the linguist and political analyst in his office at MIT intercut with footage of him speaking in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and the Bronx last spring. He’s also shown chatting with students about U.S. foreign policy, the “war on terrorism,” and representations of both in the American media. Unlike Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), a Canadian film that’s well over twice as long, Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times doesn’t try to offer a comprehensive portrait of its subject or a wide-ranging survey of his thought.… Read more »
From Cinema Scope #17 (Winter 2003). Over a decade later, much of this is clearly out of date, including some of the links, but it seems worth acknowledging that the Internet, like everything else, has a history of its own. — J.R.
I’d like to begin this installment by alerting readers to a couple of excellent online tools that I’ve recently discovered, both of which are indispensable to anyone interested in tracking down the best DVDs of the greatest films: Masters of Cinema and DVD Beaver.
The first of these, at www.masterofcinema.com, is an ongoing international newsletter in English maintained by four rotating editors, with regular updates, devoted to what’s coming out, when and where, and in what condition and with what features. The moment you get to their home page, you see all their regular features, including The News Fountain, a “worldwide DVD calendar” with upcoming releases listed by months, a few discerning articles, and a column of links. The latter is especially valuable, the pièce de résistance comprising a list of directors that at last count included 85 web sites devoted to no less than 76 directors. (In case you’re curious, the directors that have two web sites apiece on this list are Tex Avery, Jean-Luc Godard, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chuck Jones, Buster Keaton, Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, F.W.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 2001). — J.R.
Film scholar Jane Feuer has argued that the Hollywood musical is a politically conservative genre, a notion challenged by the Warners musicals of the 30s, Bells Are Ringing (1969), and this exuberant, underrated 1957 movie. Adapted from George Abbott’s Broadway hit, it concerns a strike in a pajama factory, with Doris Day as the shop steward and John Rait as her boss. Though the sexual politics are far from progressive, this is the sort of labor musical that inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s admiration. Bob Fosse’s airy choreography is terrific, and so is the score, which includes “Seven and a Half Cents” and a steamy “Steam Heat”. Stanley Donen directed with verve and energy. 101 min. (JR)
… Read more »
Commissioned by Iranian Film Magazine in early December, 2017. — J.R.
It might be argued that domestic melodramas are often based on contrivances. This is true of both Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016) and Mohammed Hamzei and Ehsan Biglari’s Azar (2017), two of the better Iranian domestic melodramas that I’ve seen in recent years. But the different ways in which these films handle their contrivances is instructive.
Farhadi — whom I tend to regard as the Elia Kazan of Iranian cinema, for better and for worse, typically generating more heat than light in his most popular works, as Kazan did in On the Waterfront and East of Eden — is more conventionally skillful with his Big Scenes than the team of Biglari (writer) and Hamzei (director) are with theirs. This is because Farhadi knows how to disguise his contrivances so that they don’t seem contrived at all, but dramatically inevitable, such as the sexual impropriety that spurs most of the action in The Salesman as well as the various dramatic confrontations that result from this.
By contrast, the Big Scenes in Azar tend to be awkwardly unconvincing (notably, the accidental death of Saber from a brief scuffle with his cousin Amir arising from a financial dispute), or played down (the uncle of Amir smashing windows in his nephew’s pizzeria with his fist), or else omitted entirely (the pivotal meeting between Amir and his uncle in prison).… Read more »
Written for and originally published (in French translation) in Trafic no. 37 (printemps 2001); also reprinted in my 2010 collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
Chicago, November 13, 2000
Dear Jean-Claude, Patrice, Raymond, and Sylvie,
Trying to find a useful way to discuss Serge Daney in an Anglo-American context, it’s hard not to feel a little demoralized. I recently looked up the letter I wrote to a university press editor in early 1995, not very much shorter than this one, enumerating -– to no avail -– all the reasons why bringing out a collection of Serge’s film criticism in English was an urgent matter and a first priority, almost comparable in some ways to what making Bazin available in English had been in the ’60s.
I believe this might have been the longest “reader’s report” I’ve ever written for a publisher. I was trying to persuade the editor to publish a translation of Daney texts that in fact had already been commissioned and completed in England, but, for diverse reasons, had never appeared in print. All the texts chosen came from Ciné journal and Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main. I thought this translation needed some revision to make it more graceful and user-friendly, and I would have preferred a broader selection.… Read more »
From The Soho News (May 20-26, 1981). I’m sorry that I still haven’t managed to see Vermont in 3 1/2 Minutes, a 1963 film made by a childhood friend of mine — and that I haven’t been able to find any more illustrations for the small-gauge films that I wrote about here….My expressed feeling of solidarity with Squeeze Play was no doubt inflected by the fact that I was living in Hoboken at the time. — J.R.
May 8: At Anthology Film Archives, to see a program in “Home Made Movies: 20 Years of American 8mm and Super-8 Films” — an intriguing and varied series selected by Jim Hoberman that runs through the end of next month, warmly recommended to everyone without money who nurtures fantasies about taking over the media. I learn straight away that Linda Talbot’s Vermont in 3 1/2 Minutes is being replaced by Bear and Jane Brakhage’s Peter’s Dream, a title glossed by Jonas Mekas as referring to Peter Kubelka.
This reminds me of a somewhat troubled notion that first reared its inglorious head when I had the occasion to view all the films in the Whitney’s previous Biennial. The idea is simply that a surprising number of North American avant-garde films seem to center on the same general obsession as The Deer Hunter or Manhattan — namely, a boastful inventory of male possessions: This is my hometown, my house, my rifle, my dog, my Bolex, my woman, my art.… Read more »
From Film Comment (May-June 1973). — J.R.
LES IDOLES, Marc’O’s film version of his theater piece, originally opened in Paris in May, 1968, when many of its spectators were out in the street and presumably had other things to think about. It was released again early this year; but after a nominal run in one of several new mini-cinemas that have springing up lately all over the Left Bank, it seemed to vanish into oblivion a second time, only to re-emerge in a neighborhood house in early February, where it is currently playing. Talent does usually seem to find a way to reassert itself. Marc’O’s sarcastic parody about the making and merchandising of pop has nothing particularly profound or original to “say” about its subject, but it happens to have three of the liveliest performances in the modern French cinema.
Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, and Pierre Clementi, as the three pop stars, dive into their parts with such enthusiasm and expertise that the screen comes alive with their electric energies, and one can only speculate on how much more spectacular they must have been on the stage. (Despite some clever attempts at adaptation, LES IDOLES stubbornly remains another variant of filmed theater — a good thing to have, under the circumstances, but like Shirley Clarke’s ingenious recording of THE CONNECTION, it cannot really offer an equivalent to the excitements of a live performance.)… Read more »
From the September 2, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Costa-Gavras
Written by Joe Eszterhas
With Debra Winger, Tom Berenger, John Heard, John Mahoney, Ted Levine, Maria Valdez, Betsy Blair, and Richard Libertini.
Although I liked Betrayed enough to make it a Critic’s Choice last week, a second look has convinced me that it has a fair number of strikes against it. Joe Eszterhas’s script clearly plows more than it sows, and sows (in a rather scattershot fashion) more than it reaps. The dialogue tends to fall back on so many familiar notions about simple farmers and hard-nosed federal agents that if less talented actors than Debra Winger, Tom Berenger, John Heard, and John Mahoney were assigned the lines, I doubt that we could accept them even half-heartedly.
Costa-Gavras’s direction, moreover, is more competent than inspired; the film functions as a thriller, but only barely. What the movie has going for it, really, is a germ of an idea — but one that is potent enough to give this story a sharp and unsettling charge. That the movie deals with rabid American racism without hedging on either its ugliness or its intensity is itself an accomplishment of some note.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, April 9, 1993. — J.R
FILMS BY MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI
Jean-Luc Godard: The drama is no longer psychological, but plastic . . .
Michelangelo Antonioni: It’s the same thing.
— from a 1964 interview
Just for my own edification, I’ve put together a list of the 12 greatest living narrative filmmakers — not so much personal favorites as individuals who, in my estimation, have done the most to change the way we perceive the world and are likeliest to be remembered and valued half a century from now. The names I’ve come up with are Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini, Samuel Fuller, Jean-Luc Godard, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Alain Resnais, and Ousmane Sembene.
Only five have had their most recent feature distributed in the U.S. — Bergman, Bresson, Kubrick, Kurosawa, and Sembene. Fellini may have recently earned a special Oscar, but that doesn’t mean we can expect to see his latest film anytime soon, and though Godard’s next-to-last feature, Nouvelle vague, has finally come out on video, that doesn’t mean we can expect to see it properly, on a big screen.
We can, however, see nearly all of Antonioni’s work — 14 of his 15 feature films and most of the dozen or so shorts — in brand-new prints at the Film Center this month and next.… Read more »
From Cineaste, Spring 1993. I must say that I continue to be stupefied that a very respected academic French film critic reviewed this book favorably in Sight and Sound. — J.R.
The historical amnesia currently infecting much of film scholarship, in academic and mainstream publishing alike, is so pervasive that it might be said to affect our sense of the present as well as the past. In theory, then, the most valuable thing about this annotated collection of early film criticism by François Truffaut would be less what it has to tell us about individual films than what it has to impart about film criticism itself in Paris during the Fifties. In practice, however, it proves to be highly problematical on both counts. While I would find a first volume in English of the criticism of Serge Daney, Jean-André Fieschi, Luc Moullet, Claude Ollier, or several other French critics immensely more valuable than a second Truffaut collection (after The Films of My Life, not to mention his collected letters and many other related books in English), additional samplings of his critical work are still certainly welcome. Even a decision to translate his ephemeral early work rather than the sturdier later pieces gathered in Le plaisir des yeux (1987) could be defended if an adequate sense of historical context and scholarship were brought to the task.… Read more »
This article appeared in the April 1989 issue of The Independent (vol. 12, no. 3); slightly tweaked in late January, 2010. –J.R.
Having attended the San Sebastian Film Festival on two separate occasions 16 years apart — in 1972 and 1988 — I find it surprising how little the basic ambience of the event has changed.. Apart from the fact that the festival has grown, the major differences that I noticed are those between Franco and post-Franco Spain. One no longers buys a copy of the International Herald Tribune on the Avenida de la Libertad only to find that a state censor has neatly clipped out an article or two from every copy. Even more noticeable, to the eyes as well as ears, is Basque, a language that was rigorously outlawed under Franco. One now sees it on street signs and hears it on TV. One of the many sidebars of the 36th International Film Festival at San Sebastian was even devoted to Basque films.
Sidebars, in fact, have for a long time been the festival’s strength. In 1972 there was a Howard Hawks retrospective, with Hawks himself attending as a jury member for the films in competition. Back then, the festival was held in July, and was still small enough to offer excursions for all the guests” a bus ride to Pamplona to attend the bullfight encouraged Hawks to divulge some of his favorite Hemingway stories.… Read more »
Written for the Mexican magazine La Tempestad (No. 85), which published it in Spanish translation in late 2012. It was published online in February 2013. — J.R.
I’m very fortunate in having had a prolonged and comprehensive exposure to cinema both as mainstream entertainment and as an art form. But my experience has been somewhat atypical insofar as these two forms of exposure have been in different places and at different stages in my life, with relatively little interaction between them.
Born in Alabama in 1943, I grew up as the son and grandson of small-town film exhibitors, giving me a virtually unlimited access to popular cinema for practically all of the 1950s. This was followed by my discovery of film as an art form during much of the 1960s and 1970s, chiefly in New York, Paris, and London, and even though this entailed in certain cases some rediscoveries and reassessments of films I had seen earlier in Alabama, the discontinuities were usually more striking than the continuities because my family, although very much interested and invested in the arts in general (especially music, literature, and architecture), saw cinema almost exclusively in terms of business and light entertainment — which of course was and is the way most people everywhere in the world tend to see it.… 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 »