Monthly Archives: January 2018

Sirk’s Works

From the August 27, 1980 issue of The Soho News — only slightly tweaked almost three decades later. –J.R.

Douglas Sirk in Germany: Four Films

Museum of Modern Art, Aug. 15-18

It must have been in the late spring of 1959 — surrounded mainly be weeping matrons at a matinee of Imitation of Life in Florence, Alabama — that I first tangled with the considerable talents of major melodramatist Douglas Sirk. At the time, these were focused on the task of encouraging white middle-class segregationists and racists to weep bittersweet buckets over the sentimental death of an Aunt Jemima figure named Annie (Juanita Hall), a nas ole cullid  lady (as those matrons would have put it) who — unlike her sexy and evil light-skinned, teenage daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) — knew her place, accepted her color as a necessary cross to bear, and then died of a broken heart when Sarah Jane rejected her.

Bearing in mind this particular praxis of Sirk’s last Hollywood film, I’ve always felt just a little querulous when armchair Marxists in London have patiently explained to me that Sirk was actually a Brechtian subversive back in the ’50s, boring from within — subtly and secretly criticizing our American values.… Read more »

Wright in Japan [Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright's Buildings and Legacy in Japan]

This originally appeared in the July 22, 2005 issue of the Chicago Reader; I’ve slightly extended it here, pictorially as well as verbally, on February  8, 2010. — J.R.

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION: **
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S
BUILDINGS AND LEGACY
IN JAPAN

DIRECTED BY KAREN SEVERNS
AND KOICHI MORI
WRITTEN BY SEVERNS
NARRATED BY AZBY BROWN AND
DONALD RICHIE

It’s widely known that Japan had a profound influence on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. But how many of us have the chance to discover that the reverse is also true? According to the commentary written by Chicago native Karen Severns for Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s  Buildings and Legacy In Japan – a 128-minute American documentary (2004) she made with her Japanese husband Koichi Mori, which also exists in a Japanese version —- the effort to distinguish between emulations and imitations of Wright in Japanese architecture criticism is no small affair, and “At one point, there were 32 Wright-related terms in the [Japanese] architectural lexicon.”

One could posit a certain analogy between this oscillating cultural exchange and a process set in motion by some young, maverick French film critics in the 50s. Their eccentric enthusiasm for some Hollywood directors produced a new kind of French cinema and French film criticism, and this wound up influencing 60s Hollywood and American film criticism in turn.… Read more »

Hollywood Unchained [SPARTACUS]

From the May 10, 1991 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

SPARTACUS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Dalton Trumbo

With Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, and John Ireland.

“It has acres of dead people, more blood and gore than you ever saw in your whole life.

“In the final scene, Spartacus’s mistress, carrying her illegitimate baby, passes along the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified men on crosses.

“That story was sold to Universal from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go to see it.”

Despite these dire warnings from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper — and another from the American Legion, which sent a letter to its 17,000 local posts urging people to boycott the movie — Spartacus, released in 1960 and reportedly the most expensive movie ever shot in Hollywood, eventually turned a profit. It was even the top money-maker of 1962 after it went into general release — thereby, I suppose, making Commie symps of all of us who went to see it. It was the Kennedy era, and the blood and gore on view were pretty tame by today’s standards; for the record, the number of crucified men — rebel slaves — while high, is a good bit shy of 6,000.… Read more »

A View From The Past [VALLEY OF ABRAHAM]

From the Chicago Reader (August 25, 1995). — J.R.

Valley of Abraham

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Manoel de Oliveira

With Leonor Silveira, Cecile Sanz de Alba, Luis Miguel Cintra, Rui de Carvalho, Luis Lima Barreto, Diogo Doria, Jose Pinto, and Isabel Ruth.

I think the most important intellectual discovery I’ve made in the past year came from the early pages of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. In a way, it’s an observation so obvious that I wonder why it never occurred to me before: “Unlike the ‘long 19th century,’ which seemed, and actually was, a period of almost unbroken material, intellectual and moral progress…there has, since 1914, been a marked regression from the standards then regarded as normal in the developed countries and in the milieus of the middle classes and which were confidently believed to be spreading to the more backward regions and the less enlightened strata of the population….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.”

So thoroughly had I been brainwashed by the myth of perpetual progress that it didn’t even occur to me that the history of the 20th century might be one of regression.… Read more »

Benilde, or The Virgin Mother

If memory serves, I wrote this for the Chicago International Film Festival’s catalogue in 2003 after I selected it as a Critic’s Choice to be shown at that festival. — J.R.

My first encounter with the stupefying talent and singular career of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira — who turns 95 this December, and has been making at least one remarkable feature a year since 1990 —- was in 1981, when I saw his 1978 masterpiece Doomed Love, one of the greatest literary adaptations in the history of cinema. And when I had a chance to explore his work further, it was Carl Dreyer, the greatest of all narrative filmmakers, whom de Oliveira seemed to resemble the most: an eccentric, obsessive modernist who managed to make about one feature per decade during the sound era after starting out in silent cinema. At least that’s how it looked in the early 80s, when Doomed Love was only his fifth feature, and the film that immediately preceded it, Benilde (1975), was especially evocative of Dreyer in its spiritual ambiguity and its stylistic intensity, including its unabashed theatricality. It was adapted from a play of the mid-40s by José Régio — a writer who had enormous personal importance for de Oliveira, having written passionately about his first film, Douro, faina fluvial (1931), and then gone on to become a treasured friend and role model.… Read more »

Bridge Over Troubled Water [THE GRADUATE]

This review originally appeared in the March 28, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader.-— J.R.

The Graduate **

Directed by Mike NicholsWritten by Buck Henry and Calder WillinghamWith Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross,William Daniels, MurrayHamilton, Elizabeth Wilson,and Brian Avery.

If I feel myself as the producer of my life, then I am unhappy. So I would rather be a spectator of my life. I would rather change my life this way since I cannot change it in society. So at night I see films that are different from my experiences during the day. Thus there is a strict separation between experience and the cinema. That is the obstacle for our films. For we are people of the 60s, and we do not believe in the opposition between experience and fiction. –- Alexander Kluge, 1988

The Graduate opened in December 1967, the same month the first successful human heart transplant was performed. It was a few weeks after the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde and about three months before the launching of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Among the albums that came out the same year were the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free.… Read more »

Declarations of Independents: The Masterpiece You Missed [DOOMED LOVE]

From The Soho News (June 3, 1981). This is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.  — J.R.

How can I persuade you that the best new movie I’ve seen this year, the only one conceivably tinged with greatness, is a voluptuous four-and-a-half-hour Portuguese costume melodrama, shot in 16-millimeter? Obviously I can’t. So rather than make you feel guilty about missing a masterpiece — as a couple of my friends managed to do when it was at MOMA last spring — let me assume at the outset that you will miss DOOMED LOVE all ten times that it shows at the Public between May 26 and June 14. Bearing this in mind, the following notes are an account of what you missed, are currently missing, or will miss.

1. If it’s confusing and misleading for some to call DOOMED LOVE an avant-garde film, this seems mainly because of the widespread working assumption that “avant-garde” is a social category above and beyond an aesthetic one. As industry-oriented critics like Kael and Sarris are frequently reminding us (the former obliquely, the latter unabashedly), the crucial professional issue is not what movies we go to as critics but what parties, junkets, festivals, universities, grants, and other circuits of power we have easy access to — not what we see but what we have is our calling card, whereas “taste” is largely a rationalization for the personal erotics of self-gratification, cooperation, conflict, and flattery founded on such a system of exchange.… Read more »

The Universe in a Cellar (THE WIND WILL CARRY US)

This appeared in the December 8, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Wind Will Carry Us

****

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Written by Kiarostami and Mahmoud Ayedin

With Behzad Dourani, Farzad Sohrabi, Shahpour Ghobadi, Masood Mansouri, Masoameh Salimi, Bahman Ghobadi, Noghre Asadi, and Ali Reza Naderi.


Paradoxically, Americans still tend to demonize Iranians at a time when Iranian cinema is becoming almost universally recognized as the most ethical in the world. It’s another sign of how limited our understanding of life outside our borders is — which only makes the varied and comprehensive images of Iranian cinema more precious.

It’s true that censorship has helped shape Iranian cinema, but that censorship has had interesting consequences. Women film characters are required to wear chadors, but ordinary Iranian women don’t wear them indoors — which has led to a good many films being set mainly or exclusively in exteriors and focused on public life and social appearances, including all of Abbas Kiarostami’s features since his 1990 masterpiece Close-up. The pivotal title sequence of his most recent feature, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), opening at the Music Box this week, is set in a dark cellar — and that has a lot to do with what makes this scene metaphysical and momentous and poetically charged, even though practically nothing of consequence happens there.… Read more »

Blue-eyes Is Back [LAWRENCE OF ARABIA]

From the Chicago Reader (March 24, 1989). — J.R.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by David Lean

Written by Robert Bolt

With Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, and Omar Sharif.

Thanks to a meticulous restoration carried out by Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten, working with a team of specialists that ultimately included director David Lean himself, Lawrence of Arabia has been rereleased in all its original glory in a version that includes some footage that wasn’t even seen by most of the film’s earliest audiences (the original road-show version, released in late 1962, was cut by about 20 minutes before it went into general release). I won’t dwell upon the complex detective work carried out by the restorers, except to note that in order to make the version currently playing as complete as possible, the original actors even redubbed some of their lines, which were then electronically altered so that their present voices would sound like their voices 27 years ago. Lean was also permitted to make a few minor modifications in the editing, so that the definitive version of this epic about the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence and his unorthodox military career is actually a “final cut” that incorporates practically all of the material that was in the original version.… Read more »

A Bankable Feast [BABETTE’S FEAST]

From the May 20, 1988 Chicago Reader.  — J.R.

BABETTE’S FEAST

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Gabriel Axel

With Stephane Audran, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Gudmar Wivesson, Jarl Kulle, Hanne Stensgard, Bodil Kjer, Vibeke Hastrup, and Birgitte Federspiel.

Only when she had lost what had constituted her life, her home in Africa and her lover, when she had returned home to Rungstedlund a complete “failure” with nothing in her hands except grief and sorrow and memories, did she be come the artist and the “success” she never would have become otherwise — “God loves a joke,” and divine jokes, as the Greeks knew so well, are often cruel ones. What she then did was unique in contemporary literature though it could be matched by certain nineteenth century writers — Heinrich Kleist’s anecdotes and short stories and some tales of Johann Peter Hebel, especially Unverhofftes Wiedersehen come to mind. Eudora Welty has defined it definitively in one short sentence of utter precision: “Of a story she made an essence; of the essence she made an elixir; and of the elixir she began once more to compound the story.” — Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen

When Ernest Hemingway accepted his Nobel prize in 1954, he was gracious enough to acknowledge that it should have gone to Isak Dinesen instead.… Read more »

Gypsy Melodies

From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1995). –J.R.

Latcho Drom

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Tony Gatlif.

If you haven’t heard of Latcho Drom — an exuberant and stirring Gypsy musical, filmed in CinemaScope and stereophonic sound in eight countries on three separate continents — you shouldn’t be surprised. Although the movie has been wending its way across the planet for the past couple of years and picking up plenty of enthusiasts en route, it has at least three commercial strikes against it, any one of which would probably suffice to keep it out of the mainstream despite its accessibility. The first two of these are the words “Gypsy” and “musical”; the third is the fact that it qualifies as neither documentary nor fiction, thereby confounding critics and other packagers.

These “problems,” I hasten to add, are what make the picture pleasurable, thrilling, and important; but media hype to the contrary, sales pitches and audience enjoyment aren’t always on the same wavelength. Though this movie is so powerful you virtually have to force yourself not to dance during long stretches of it, that fact doesn’t translate easily into a 30-second prime-time spot or a review in a national magazine (though CNN did devote a four-minute feature to Latcho Drom some time ago).… Read more »

Rotterdam 1987: the once and future cinema

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1987). –- J.R.

The Rotterdam Festival is gradually expanding in scope and attendance, while its survival seems to become increasingly polemical and precarious. Now in its 16th edition, the festival continues to honor its director Hubert Bals’ stubborn, utopian precept that, ‘An audience should be found for a film, not a film for an audience.’

Thus, while Libération critic Serge Daney was lecturing persuasively on the growing impossibility of critics mediating between films and audiences, it was possible to watch a videotape, Joan Does Dynasty, in which New York critic Joan Braderman, with the aid of Manuel De Landa’s computer graphics, does precisely that for the TV series.She appears in front of Dynasty in different sizes, shapes and positions, from diverse angles and with varying degrees of transparency, and delivers an exuberant, madcap critique of the show. Part of a cycle of low-budget, leftist media critiques known as Paper Tiger Television which appears on us public access cable and boasts more than a hundred titles in its catalogue, Braderman’s pungent intellectual stand-up is the likely formal masterpiece of a variable, slapdash series ranging from the unfocused and obvious (Peter Wollen on the U.S.… Read more »

Reflections on Kiarostami’s Two-Way Mirrors by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

A recent essay. Note: the much-expanded second edition of Mehrnaz’s and my book about Kiarostami for the University of Illinois Press will be out in early March. — J.R.

AK

Reflections on Kiarostami’s Two-Way Mirrors

Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

 

“The power of cinema is to create believable illusions.” Abbas Kiarostami

 

As I begin to write about Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema, my profound sadness about his loss emerges again. The vivid memories of several meetings and conversations with him in different countries (Iran, Europe, Canada, and the US) and at different times and on various occasions in the last four decades are now mixed with images from his films. How ironic that his death happened so abruptly, like the many unexpected and unresolved open-endings of his films.

Abbas-Kiarostami-001

The filmmaker I was fortunate to know was a graceful, thoughtful dignified man, observant and playful with a great sense of humor. Despite his fame, he was very humble. He was very supportive of other filmmakers, new directors, and especially his students in many of his workshops around the world.

I remember meeting him for the first time in Tehran after the screening of his second feature, The Report (Gozaresh, 1977). The dark bleak film had very little resemblance to its warm friendly-looking approachable serene director who always wore a sweet smile when greeting people.… Read more »

The Squid And The Whale

From the Chicago Reader (November 4, 2005). — J.R.

TheSquidandtheWhale

This big step forward by comic writer-director Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy) is a tragicomic autobiographical account of the breakup of his parents’ marriage. The father (Jeff Daniels) and mother (Laura Linney) are both fiction writers living in Brooklyn, and their determination to remain liberated about sexual matters as they separate and divorce drives their two sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) nuts. The implied critique of progressive, bohemian parenting is devastating — wise and nuanced, with the painful hilarity of truth. With William Baldwin and Anna Paquin. R, 88 min. (JR)

squid3Read more »

Choreography With a Camera [on Ruiz's MAMMAME] (re-upgraded)

This review appeared in the November 6, 1987 issue of the Chicago Reader. A visitor of this site, Mark Goldberg, has alerted me to a French site devoted to dance where the 1986 Mammame can now be accessed via streaming for free; he has also generously grabbed some frames from this version as much better substitutes for the poor illustrations I had up originally, and I’ve drawn a few other illustrations from the same site, which is another reason for reposting this review now. — J.R.

mammame-longshot

MAMMAME

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Raoul Ruiz

Choreographed by Jean-Claude Gallotta

With the Emile Dubois Dance Company.

The more attention is paid to stylizing the screen, to make the quality of how it looks convey the meaning, the closer you get to dance, which is precisely that — the communication of meaning through the quality of movement. — Maya Deren

mammame-CU

While it seems plausible, even likely, that Raoul Ruiz is currently the most inventive filmmaker working in Europe, one does not ordinarily go to his work looking for masterpieces. An obsessive doodler — in the same serious way, one should add, that the cartoonist Saul Steinberg is, combining philosophical and metaphysical wit with a penchant for rethinking the world so that it encompasses his boundless energies — Ruiz is blessed and cursed by never knowing when to stop.… Read more »