Monthly Archives: February 2018

History Happens

This appeared in the Chicago Reader (September 16, 1994). –J.R.

**** THE BLUE KITE

(Masterpiece)

Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang

Written by Xiao Mao

With Zhang Wenyao, Chen Xiaoman, Lu Liping, Pu Quanxin, Li Xuejian, Guo Baochang, Zhong Ping, and Chu Quanzhong.

Covering 15 years of modern Chinese history, from 1953 to 1968, The Blue Kite is powerful less for what it says about continuity in history than for what it implies about history disrupting people’s lives. The two things that matter most to Tietou, the fictional hero, apart from his mother, are the courtyard just off the Dry Well Lane apartment where his parents move in the opening scene and the title toy — actually a series of toys — he’s given to play with by his father. Each blue kite we see over the course of the film winds up getting stuck in one of the courtyard’s trees and needs to be replaced; more or less the same thing happens with the Tietou’s father (eventually supplanted by two stepfathers) and Tietou’s sense of home, not to mention his sense of identity. All that he retains, and only after a struggle, is a certain sense of morality bequeathed by his mother and a certain sense of place bequeathed by the courtyard.… Read more »

Feast From the East [Oshima's GOHATTO]

This originally appeared in the January 10, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader. It seems worth reprinting as a kind of adjunct to my overview piece about Oshima, written for Artforum in 2008 and also available on this site. –J.R.

Taboo

****

Directed and written by Nagisa Oshima

With Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano), Ryuhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda, Tadanobu Asano, and Yoichi Sai.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Mark your calendars. Over the next six weeks, the Music Box is offering three eye-popping masterpieces from Asia. This is a welcome sign–-as is the popularity of the breezy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the multiplexes–-that American theaters and audiences are finally recognizing that a lot of the best movies come from the other side of the planet and that there’s as much diversity among them as there is among ours.

Yi Yi, which opens March 2, is a three-hour feature set in contemporary Taiwan. It was just voted best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, the first foreign-language picture to receive this honor since Akira Kurosawa’s Ran 15 years ago. Its writer-director, Edward Yang, is one of the two or three undisputed masters of Taiwanese cinema, and the Film Center gave us a full retrospective of his work in 1997.… Read more »

The Way We Weren’t [REBEL HIGHWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (November 18, 1994). — J.R.

 RebelHighway

You can figure out a lot about the differences between our culture and French culture by comparing two current series of low-budget TV features about teenagers. The French series, Tous les garcons et les filles de leur age (“All the Boys and Girls of Their Age”), produced by the French “cultural” channel Arte, has yielded half a dozen features, most of them first-rate. The idea is for the filmmaker to make a fictionalized version of his or her own teenage years set in the appropriate period (different in each film) and to include at least one party scene in which pop songs of that era are used. (The series is financed in part by Polygram, which has furnished the appropriate recordings.) The first of these, Patricia Mazuy’s Travolta and Me, showed at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival; four others were programmed at the festival last month — Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water, André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, Cedric Kahn’s Too Much Happiness, and Chantal Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl From Brussels – but unfortunately the first and best of these was canceled at the last minute. One more, Claire Denis’ Boom Boom [later retitled U.S.Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Awards and Extras

Written for the Fall 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.

dvd-papadakis

DVD Awards 2016, Il Cinema Ritrovato

Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Lucien Logette, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. (Although Mark McElhatten wasn’t able to attend the festival this year, he has continued to function as a very active member of the jury.)

BEST SPECIAL FEATURES

Coffret Nico Papatakis (France, 1963-92) (Gaumont Vidéo, DVD). A comprehensive and cogent presentation of a neglected filmmaker from Ethiopia and a singular cultural figure in postwar France who ran an existentialist cabaret, produced major films by Jean Genet and John Cassavetes, gave the German singer Nico her name, and made many striking films over four decades. (JR)

BEST DVD SERIES

Coffret Collection 120 ans n.1 1885-1929 (France, 1885-1929) (Gaumont Vidéo, DVD). To celebrate its 120 years of activity in the film industry, Gaumont has published a series of nine beautiful box sets that summarize the whole history of cinema. Divided by decades, the box sets consist of 20 to 35 DVDs with the most representative films marked with a daisy symbol. The editions include films made by Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, Dreville, Duvivier, Gabin, Louis de Funès, Pialat, and Deville, but also masterpieces by Losey, Fellini or Bergman that the French company co-produced.… Read more »

Red Tape [THE STORY OF QIU JU]

From the Chicago Reader (May 28, 1993). — J.R.

THE STORY OF QIU JU

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Written by Liu Heng

With Gong Li, Lei Lao Sheng, Liu Pei Qi, Ge Zhi Jun, and Yang Liu Chun.

For a comedy that takes bureaucratic negotiation as one of its overriding themes, Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju has negotiated quite a bit for its director from the Chinese government, bureaucracy and all. This is only one of the film’s many ironies. Another is that in the course of showing us much more of China’s particularity than ever before Zhang has realized his most universal and accessible film to date, offering a virtual reproach to the artiness of its predecessors.

Until this feature was made, Zhang’s previous two films, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), both huge international successes, were banned in China. Zhang was widely regarded as both a dissident and a scandalous figure, thanks to his adulterous relationship with his leading lady, Gong Li (who has played in all five of his features), which was given much publicity in abusive newspaper articles under the byline of his estranged wife. At least one semireliable commentator thinks it may have been this scandal more than the political meanings of Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern (dramas about the persistence of Chinese feudalism set in the early part of this century) that led to their suppression.… Read more »

To Live

From the Chicago Reader (December 9, 1994). — J.R.

ToLive3

With this epic account of a Chinese family from the 40s to the 70s, Zhang Yimou seems to have abandoned the high aestheticism of his Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern for a more popular and didactic kind of filmmaking (The Story of Qiu Ju can be seen as a transitional work). To Live (1994, 125 min.) is masterful in its own right, and filled with so many barbs at the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath that Zhang was forbidden to make any films in China with foreign financing for two years (though the stated charge against him was illegal distribution of this film). Adapted by Yu Hua and Lu Wei from Yu’s novel Lifetimes, the film focuses on a wealthy gambling addict (comic actor Ge You) with a pregnant wife (Gong Li) and young daughter who loses his family’s fortune and becomes a shadow puppeteer shortly before civil war erupts; ironically, it’s his recklessness as a gambler that eventually saves him from execution, the first of many sociopolitical paradoxes the movie has to offer. Some of the story’s details recall Farewell My Concubine and The Blue Kite, but Zhang has his own story to tell and his own points to make.… Read more »

Acts of Defiance [SAVAGE NIGHTS]

From the Chicago Reader (March 25, 1994).  — J.R.

*** SAVAGE NIGHTS

Directed by Cyril Collard

Written by Collard and Jacques Fieschi

With Collard, Romane Bohringer, Carlos Lopez, Corine Blue, Claude Winter, Denis D’Archangelo, and Jean-Jacques Jauffret.

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If memory serves, the first time I ever heard of Sylvia Plath was the first time a lot of other people heard of her — in the mid-60s, a few years after she committed suicide, when her posthumous collection Ariel was published. I recall a teacher of mine in graduate school remarking that Plath’s suicide validated her late poetry, implying that if she hadn’t actually taken her own life, poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” wouldn’t have meant as much as they did — indeed, may not even have been “as good.”

The remark offended me at the time, but in retrospect I wonder if in some awful, seldom-acknowledged way my teacher was right. Many of us prefer to believe that works of art should be self-justifying, and therefore demand to be taken on their own terms, without “outside” information, but the fact remains that the hyperactive media and life itself rarely offer us that luxury. Take, for instance, these two consecutive stanzas in “Lady Lazarus” — “Dying / Is an art, like everything else.… Read more »

A Notorious French Conspiracy Exposed

SAILORBEWARE ad

The following sentence is spoken in Variety writer Peter Debruge’s informative and interesting audiovisual essay “Abel & Gordon The Quest for Burlesque,” included on Arrow Academy’s Blu-Ray of Lost in Paris (to be released on December 4):

“There are all kinds of styles from within the burlesque tradition, from the blatantly silly likes of Jerry Lewis, for which the French notoriously have a far greater appreciation than Americans do, to the more refined French comedian Pierre Etaix, who did most of his pratfalls in a suit and hat.”

There are two rather strange assumptions lurking behind this commonplace sentence. Let me bypass the one that defines refinement strictly according to class and clothes and focus on the seemingly more innocuous one about Lewis, which in fact exposes the secret conspiracy accounting for the release of two to three Jerry Lewis features a year during the 1950s — namely, the fact that France was surreptitiously funneling millions of dollars in production costs to Paramount and Hal Wallis so that they could jointly service the French market, all unbeknownst to Americans, who were staying away from the Martin and Lewis pictures in droves. Consequently, one can only surmise that the estimated 80 million people who saw Sailor Beware, Martin and Lewis’s fourth feature, in 1952, consisted of the entire population of France and only 20 million or so Americans, and the fact that Living It Up a year later made more money than Singin’ in the Rain, On the Waterfront, or The African Queen can only be explained by the hyperbolic activities of Lewis’s French fans.… Read more »

Total Eclipse

From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 1995). — J.R.

003 Romane Bohringer as Mathilde Maute

A lot of talented people are involved in this atrocity in one way or another — not only French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, whose doomed relationship forms the core of the plot, but writer Christopher Hampton, director Agnieszka Holland, and lead actors Leonardo DiCaprio (Rimbaud), David Thewlis (Verlaine), and Romane Bohringer — so it’s hard to know who to blame. I suspect that Hampton is the guiltiest party: piling on the lurid, middlebrow, middle-class shock values inherent in the material, and jettisoning practically all the poetry of both writers, he comes up with a script that’s well-nigh impossible to transcend. This isn’t exactly boring, but for anybody who cares about these actors and much of the earlier work of Holland, it’s a painful lesson in how far gifted people can go in deluding themselves. (JR)

total-eclipse_03Read more »

Eye of the Beholder

From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2000). — J.R.

L’ennui

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Cedric Kahn

Written by Kahn and Laurence Ferreira Barbosa

With Charles Berling, Sophie Guillemin, Arielle Dombasle, Robert Kramer, Alice Grey, Maurice Antoni, and Tom Ouedraogo.

“To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” This despairing reflection by Swann about Gilberte appears at the very end of “Swann in Love,” the longest chapter — a little over 200 pages — in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. The chapter serves as a rehearsal for the even more torturous obsessive love of Marcel, the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past, for Albertine — a topic that practically becomes the novel’s principal subject over the thousands of pages to come.

This acknowledgment of the neurotic irrationality that underlies amorous and erotic obsessions is one of Proust’s key passages, and I was reminded of it periodically over the course of Cedric Kahn’s brilliant and hilarious new sex comedy, L’ennui. Yet one of the most striking aspects of the film — adapted from La noia, a 1960 novel by Alberto Moravia that I haven’t read (also the source for a trashy Bette Davis vehicle, The Empty Canvas) — is the way it confounds its Proustian model of jealousy and sexual paranoia with a dash of healthy common sense.… Read more »

Dogmatic Subterfuge [THE CELEBRATION]

From the Chicago Reader (November 13, 1998). It seems like there are some cinephiles around who still regard Dogme 95 as an honest-to-Pete aesthetic position and not as a lucrative business, ignoring that as far back as 2000, official Dogme Certificates were being sold in Denmark for roughly $1,000 apiece — apparently as a adjunct to von Trier’s main form of income, his ongoing porn-film business (which has also been widely ignored). — J.R.

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The Celebration

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Written by Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov

With Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neuman, Trine Dyrholm, and Helle Dolleris.

In 1961 we wrote this manifesto of the New American Cinema. Eugene Archer was working for the New York Times then, and I showed it to him and asked him if they could print it. He said, ‘No, we couldn’t — maybe the Village Voice could run it.’ Then I understood, of course, that the only kind of manifesto that the New York Times would print would be a press release, not a manifesto at all. In the same way, for an idea to get into the Village Voice today, it has to become not an idea but something else.Read more »

Sampling in Rotterdam

Written for Trafic no. 26, Summer 1998, and published there in French translation; it has also appeared in English in the collection I coedited with Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia. – J.R.

 

This year [1998] the Rotterdam Film Festival ran for twelve days in late January and early February. But I could only attend the first half — five days apart from opening  night. And thanks to a vidéothèque at the festival with copies of most of the films being shown -– including many that were scheduled for the festival’s second half -– l found myself alternating most days between screenings at the Pathé and the Lantaren, the festival’s two multiplexes, where I was always watching something with an audience (between twenty and several hundred people), and solitary sessions with earphones at the vidéothèque  (located on the ground floor of the Hotel Central, which served as Gestapo headquarters during the war).

HotelCentral

A few other facts: I managed to see about forty films and videos, but only ten of these were full features; I also, for one reason or another, walked out of or only sampled five other features at the multiplexes and wound up fast-forwarding my way through one other feature at the Central – Gunnar Bergdahl’s documentary The Voice of Bergman (1997), where I went looking for Bergman’s dismissal of Dreyer as a filmmaker who made only two films of value, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Day of Wrath (1943).… Read more »

History and Love [THREE TIMES]

From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 2006). — J.R.

Three Times

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Written by Chu T’ien-wen and Hou

With Chang Chen, Shu Qi, Di Mei, Liao Su-jen, and Mei Fang

For decades Chinese history has been suppressed in China, on the mainland and in Taiwan, whether the subject is occupation or revolution, communism or capitalism. Recovering that history has become an obsession for art film directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, Stanley Kwan, Edward Yang, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wong Kar-wai, whose films are set in both the past and the present.

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (2005) is split into three episodes set in Taiwan, each running about 40 minutes and featuring Chang Chen and Shu Qi; all three reflect Hou’s overriding concern with the way one’s sense of freedom, desire, and life possibilities is inflected by the age one lives in. The episodes are also about romantic disconnection and failed communication, with the romantic tensions reflecting international ones.

In “A Time for Love,” set in 1966 in Kaohsiung, Chen (Chang) receives his draft notice, then writes a love letter to May (Shu), who works at the snooker parlor where he hangs out. He discovers that she’s taken a job at another snooker parlor, and to the strains of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Rain and Tears” he heads off to find her before reporting for duty.… Read more »

Chinese Puzzle [ASHES OF TIME]

From the Chicago Reader (March 10, 1995). — J.R.

Ashes of Time

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Wong Kar-wai

With Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Kar-fai, Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia,Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, and Karina Lau.

There’s no question that Chinese cinema is in a state of upheaval. On the mainland the government’s film bureau has introduced new legislation that would discourage foreign financing of local production, and it’s blacklisted many of the best (and best-known) independent filmmakers and video artists, including Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), Zhang Yimou (To Live), and Zhang Yuan (Mama). Meanwhile the market for Chinese movies in both Taiwan and Hong Kong has taken a nosedive. Last summer, for the first time in Hong Kong in three decades, Hollywood movies outgrossed locally made movies (with Speed and The Flintstones leading the pack). And according to Asian film specialist Tony Rayns, most of the best Taiwanese directors are seeking new sources of financing and exploring foreign markets now that their local audiences are drifting away. Even the most publicized romance in the Chinese film world, the one between director Zhang Yimou and star Gong Li, is on the rocks.… Read more »

Can a “Complete History of American Film Criticism” Exist?

The following is the 16th column I’ve written for Cahiers du Cinéma España, a bimonthly feature that I write for this magazine called “En movimiento,” translated into Spanish by Carlos Reviriego, the editor-in-chief; it appeared in their March 2010 issue (no. 32). – J.R.

The bound galleys of a new book by Jerry Roberts (a name unfamiliar to me), 480 pages long, has just arrived in the mail, and its title already made me uneasy before I even looked inside: The Complete History of American Film Criticism. Santa Monica Press announces a publication date of April 1, 2010. Even though this appears to be a serious and careful work within its own limits, there are reasons at the outset for both defining and challenging these limits.

At least three separate problems are raised by three of the seven words in the title — “the,” “complete,” and “American”:

(1) Why “the” and not “a”? To suggest something definitive at the outset is already to fib — in the same way that I believe that Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound, fibbed, presumably without realizing it, in the Spring 2009 issue of Film Quarterly when he wrote, “The wonderful golden run of great international cinema in the 1990s that brought us the best of Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano, and Abbas Kiarostami, among many others, petered out several years ago.” Anyone who makes such a claim — even though, I’m sorry to say, this is a completely commonplace statement for a film critic to make — assumes in advance either that he or she has already seen every film ever made in the 1990s and is qualified at the present moment to evaluate them all, or that one can depend totally on the judgments (both current and lasting) made by programmers, distributors, and other writers.… Read more »