From Cineaste (Spring 2010; Vol. XXXV, No. 2). Considering the continuing lack of contact between most Americans and the remainder of the world, it probably shouldn’t be too surprising to find James Wolcott still rattling on about the alleged French worship of Jerry Lewis in the September 2011 Vanity Fair — a myth addressed briefly in my second paragraph here, whose limited factual basis in fact hasn’t really been operative for almost half a century. As Lewis himself has often pointed out, his popularity in many places around the world has clearly surpassed his reputation in France. (Today, for instance, Woody Allen is immensely more popular there, with intellectuals as well as the general public — and more popular there than he has ever been in the U.S., which has never been true with Lewis.) But presumably this cherished piece of idiocy will continue to be trotted out as long as Americans remain clueless about France and its culture and proud of its ignorance. It’s a little bit like saying, “Oh, those naughty French — ooo-la-la!” — J.R.
by Chris Fujiwara. Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press,
162 pp., illus. Hardcover: $60.00. Paperback: $19.95.
I hope I can be forgiven for repeating an anecdote I recounted in these pages in 2004,while writing about Charlie Chaplin’s films on DVD.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 1995). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stephen J. Rivele,
Christopher Wilkinson, and Stone
With Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, J.T. Walsh, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce, E.G. Marshall, Madeleine Kahn, David Paymer, and Mary Steenburgen.
Did we really win the cold war? I know that capitalism prevailed on the economic front, but I’m less sure about the cultural front. I suspect a capitalist version of Stalinist culture has triumphed rather than any sort of democracy: Stalinist culture meaning calcified, state-supported art built around solemn, hulking father figures — something like Oliver Stone’s latest two-ton Christmas turkey, Nixon. If we recognize that Disney has effectively become the federal government, the rest of the scenario falls into place. Just as Stalin’s flunkies had to praise the official “masterpieces” of Stalinist art no matter how inert or uninventive they were, Nixon‘s producers (who’ve spent millions promoting the movie) have guaranteed that media savants are already describing Stone’s Nixon as a figure of Shakespearean proportions rather than the poorly cast, two-dimensional numskull decked out with a few grade-Z horror-movie traits that he is.
Toddlers have been treated a lot more like adults by the movies this year than grown-ups have.… Read more »
Chapter Four of my book Movie Wars. It was originally written for Another Kind of Independence: Joe Dante and the Roger Corman Class of 1970, a critical collection coedited with Bill Krohn for the Locarno International Film Festival in 1999, which came out in French and Italian editions. -- J.R.
During the spring of 1998, not long before the American release of Small Soldiers, I happened upon “The Toys of Peace,” a wise and wicked tale by Saki included in A. S. Byatt’s recent collection, The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. Set in 1914, it recounts the noble and doomed efforts of the hero to interest his two nephews, aged nine and ten, in “peace toys”: models of a municipal dustbin and the Manchester branch of the YWCA, lead ﬁgurines of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, and a district councillor. Forty minutes later, he looks in on the boys and ﬁnds that they’ve converted these objects into war toys: the municipal dustbin punctured with holes to accommodate the muzzles of imaginary cannons, Mill dipped in red ink to approximate an eighteenth‐century French colonel, with a grisly game plan mapped out to yield a maximum amount of bloodshed, including the remainder of the red ink splashed against the side of the YWCA building.
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 3, 1999). — J.R.
El Valley Centro
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by James Benning.
El Valley Centro, James Benning’s latest feature, is a fairly minimalist effort consisting of 35 shots, each of them two and a half minutes long, filmed in direct sound with a stationary camera in California’s Central Valley. About halfway through I found myself, to my surprise, thinking about Joseph Cornell’s boxes, those surrealist constructions teeming with fantasy and magic — dreamlike enclosures that make it seem appropriate that Cornell lived most of his life on a street in Queens called Utopia Parkway.
Benning’s films are typically about farmland, deserts, or industrial landscapes. The two features preceding this one are Four Corners, shot around the point where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet, and Utopia, shot in desert country starting in Death Valley and heading south across the Mexican border. Benning hails from Wisconsin, and most of his early films are made up of midwestern landscapes. He moved to the west coast several years ago to teach at Cal Arts, and ever since he’s been shooting various kinds of midwesternlike emptiness and decay in the western states. Two years ago he started offering free December screenings of his new films at a private loft in Wicker Park, when he was back for the holidays, and apart from screenings at Cal Arts, these have been the films’ American premieres.… Read more »
From American Film (September 1978). -– J.R.
Talking about avant-garde film these days raises a quandary. For one thing, no one can agree on precisely what the label means. Start by asking the proverbial man on the street what an avant-garde movie is. Chances are, if you don’t get insulted, the description that’s offered won’t exactly be a heartening one.
On the other hand, address your query to “an avant-garde filmmaker,” and you’re just as likely to get a moralistic distinction between art and commerce — or between art and entertainment calculated to shrivel your own sense of seriousness to the size of a pea.
The fact that there are such disagreements about simple definitions only helps to keep the term loaded and half-cocked. A Cuban director at a film festival once allegedly shunned an American director’s gesture of friendship by saying, “I only talk to people with guns. My film is a gun; your film isn’t. ” In analogous fashion, the mere concept of avant-garde film is often used as a gun by friends and foes alike. This scares off countless spectators who fall in between these categories — less committed souls who understandably run for cover as soon as any shots are fired.… Read more »
Children of Men ***
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby with Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine, Pam Ferris, and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Pan’s Labyrinth ****
Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro
With Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, and Doug Jones
Over the past few years three highly talented and ambitious young Mexican film directors — Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — have made their way into the American mainstream. All three seem to have managed this trick by defining themselves mainly in terms of genre, which isn’t surprising given the industry’s insistence that everything be defined according to pitches and formulas, all in 25 words or less — the consequence of a desire to exhaust existing markets rather than attempt to nurture or create new ones.
Cuaron’s done some children’s fantasy (A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and literary adaptation (Great Expectations), a sex comedy/road movie/coming-of-age story (Y Tu Mama Tambien), and now an action-adventure/SF/war movie (Children of Men). His most ambitious movies seem to cram together several genres — or at least the suits’ notions of genres.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 1994). I haven’t reseen The Second Heimat since then, and it would be interesting to discover how it holds up today. — J.R.
**** THE SECOND HEIMAT
Directed and written by Edgar Reitz
With Henry Arnold, Salome Kammer, Daniel Smith, Noemi Steuer, Armin Fuchs, Martin Maria Blau, Laszlo I. Kish, Frank Roth, Anke Sevenich, Franziska Traub, Michael Schonborn, Hannelore Hoger, Susanne Lothar, Alexander May, and Peter Weiss.
Why is it so hard to be happy? — Clarissa in the seventh episode of The Second Heimat
The 60s and early 70s reveled in long, ambitious works — movies and music alike — epic, multilayered statements that through their unwieldy lengths alone challenged and disrupted the flow of everyday life. In jazz there were Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, in rock Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, We’re Only in It for the Money, and Tommy, and when rock and movies came together in Woodstock (1970) the running time was three hours — about as long as a marijuana high.
An interesting paradox: to go to a long concert or long movie during that period was to be “somewhere else,” but that didn’t necessarily mean to escape.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 24, 1993). — J.R.
LAST ACTION HERO
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Shane Black, David Arnott, Zak Penn, and Adam Leff
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austin O’Brien, Charles Dance, Anthony Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, and Robert Prosky.
The word is out: Last Action Hero is an unmitigated disaster. The sound of studio panic was plainly audible in a report in the June 17 New York Times that Columbia Pictures threatened to sever all communications with the Los Angeles Times if it didn’t guarantee it would “never again run a story written or reported by Jeff Wells about (or even mentioning) this studio, its executives, or its movies.” Wells’s crime was a June 6 article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that a test-marketing preview of Last Action Hero held in Pasadena about two weeks earlier had been disappointing. The article contained “categorical denials” from several studio executives that such a screening had ever taken place, but clearly this wasn’t enough for the industry people. As Wells told the New York Times, “You’re talking about a studio in a major meltdown mode. These guys are blitzing out here.”
I read this story only hours before seeing another “disappointing” preview of Last Action Hero in Chicago, after several weeks of hearing rumors that the picture was a “mess” and in deep, deep trouble.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1987). — J.R.
John Boorman’s modernist, noirish thriller (1967) is still his best and funniest effort (despite the well-phrased demurrals of filmmaker Thom Andersen regarding its cavalier treatment of Los Angeles). Lee Marvin, betrayed by his wife and best friend, finds revenge when he emerges from prison. He recovers stolen money and fights his way to the top of a multiconglomerate — only to find absurdity and chaos. Boorman’s treatment of cold violence and colder technology has lots of irony and visual flash — the way objects are often substituted for people is especially brilliant, while the influence of pop art makes for some lively ‘Scope compositions — and the Resnais-like experiments with time and editing are still fresh and inventive. The accompanying cast (and iconography) includes Angie Dickinson, John Vernon, and Carroll O’Connor; an appropriate alternate title might be Tarzan Versus IBM, a working title Jean-Luc Godard had for his Alphaville. 92 min. (JR)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 25, 1994). — J.R.
* MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN
(Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont
With Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, Richard Briers, and John Cleese.
(Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by Kevin Wade and Chris Conrad
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito, Emma Thompson, Frank Langella, Pamela Reed, and Judy Collins.
Through a perverse coincidence, Kenneth Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson worked simultaneously, on separate continents, on two lousy features about men usurping the reproductive roles of women. In many respects, these movies are radically different: Branagh’s pre-Thanksgiving turkey, misleadingly titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is the umpteenth screen adaptation of what is arguably one of the greatest feminist novels and perhaps the first serious example of science fiction. Thompson’s movie, a Thanksgiving release, is a Ivan Rietman “family-values” fantasy-comedy about Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming pregnant — a high-concept obscenity that seems inspired by the combined successes of Twins (which also starred Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito) and Tootsie (which also contrived to show how men make better women than women, a project also taken up by The Crying Game).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 13, 2003). — J.R.
Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by Andrew Jarecki.
It’s disconcerting to be appalled and even slightly nauseated by a masterpiece. But Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans is a documentary, and so it’s disconcerting largely because of its subject matter — it shocks us with the truth.
Yet if Capturing the Friedmans were less shapely and less of a masterpiece, I’d find it less troubling. Both times I’ve seen it I’ve felt that by the end practically everyone associated with the film seems tarnished in one way or another: the ostensible subjects (the Friedmans, an upper-middle-class Jewish family in the Long Island town of Great Neck), the members of their community who helped destroy much of their lives, the filmmakers, and the audience. We’re all tainted by the graphic exposure of family wounds, diminished by what we think and feel — and by what we don’t think and don’t feel. Frankly, I’m not sure whether the film deserves to be applauded or attacked for this.
The film’s story, most of which transpires over a dozen years, begins on Thanksgiving in 1987. Arnold Friedman — a highly respected and popular middle-aged schoolteacher who gives piano and computer lessons at home, and who, as Arnito Rey, led a mambo band in the late 40s and early 50s — is arrested for possessing child pornography and subsequently charged with sexually assaulting dozens of his former computer students.… Read more »
THE RACK, written by Stewart Sterm and Rod Serling, directed by Arnold Laven, with Paul Newman, Wendell Corey, Edmond O’Brien, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, and Cloris Leachman (1956, 100 min.)
TIME LIMIT, written by Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey, directed by Karl Malden, with Richard Widmark, Richard Basehart, Dolores Michaels, June Lockhart, Rip Torn, Martin Balsam, Carl Benton Reid, and James Douglas (1957, 96 min.)
I’ve recently reseen these two taut black and white 50s melodramas about the impending courtmartials of American POWs in North Korea who broke under torture, including brainwashing, and became traitors–characters played respectively by Paul Newman and Richard Basehart, and interrogated by Wendell Corey and Edmond O’Brien in the first film, Richard Widmark in the second. Indeed, there are so many close similarities and parallels between these films and their existential issues that I’ve often mixed them up in my memory, although it’s now clear after reseeing them that Time Limit, the only film ever directed by Karl Malden, is by far the better of the two. The Rack is adapted by Stewart Stern from a 1955 TV drama by Rod Serling that aired on the United States Steel Hour; Time Limit is adapted by Henry Denkler from a 1956 play that he coauthored with Ralph Berkey.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Summer 1989). — J.R.
The degree to which contemporary cinema has become a desperate recycling operation was pain fully evident in Berlin this year, where even the better films seemed mired in familiar habits. Aki Kaurismaki’s Ariel, a hard-luck story of an unemployed miner pushed into a life of crime, is basically a Warners B-film of the 1930s, cleanly told and decked out with a few 80s ironies, but really nothing new. Martin Donovan’s Apartment Zero, a baroque male-bonding thriller set in Buenos Aires, superbly acted by Colin Firth and Hart Bochner, offers a chilling and complex view of the American abroad, yet its precise genre positionings would be unthinkable without its cues from Hitchcock, Chabrol and Polanski.
For many colleagues, a major disappointment in the competition was Chantal Akerman’s first English-language feature, Food, Family and Philosophy in French (or Histoires d’Amériquein French), a string of monologues and jokes by Jewish immigrants, delivered against Brooklyn exteriors within hailing distance of the Manhattan skyline over what appears to be a single night.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 11, 1987). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jon Jost
With Marshall Gaddis, Sarah Wyss, Terri Lyn Williams, Kristi Jean Hager, Dan Cornell, Hal Waldrup, Ron Hanekan, Alan Goddard, and Anne Kolesar.
The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality. — James Agee
1. Jeff Doland (Marshall Gaddis), a Vietnam veteran in Butte, Montana, sits watching a baseball game on TV. Passing through the kitchen, he tells his wife Cathy (Sarah Wyss) that he’s going out to pick up some more beer. Cathy continues to unpack groceries and switches on a tiny toy train that runs in an elaborate loop on the kitchen table. Jeff returns with a six-pack and resumes watching TV. Cathy comes into the room and announces that she’s leaving him.
Bell Diamond‘s point of departure is about as ordinary and as banal as a plot can get — and not much happens after it, either. Neither Jeff nor Cathy is especially interesting or attractive or articulate, and the same can be said of the rest of the characters in this mainly eventless movie.… Read more »
This piece had a somewhat tortured history. Commissioned but rejected by Artforum (for reasons that were never explained) circa 1982, it first appeared in a special issue of New Observations (#36, 1983) edited by the late Gilberto Perez, entitled “Horses, Hegel and Film,” where by necessity the illustrations were relatively sparse. In its present form, it first appeared in the 12th issue of the online journal Rouge in 2008. — J.R.
|1. Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Da Capo, 1998), p. 361.
||‘The brutal fact is that they’re exactly the same thing’, Manny Farber replied in 1977 to an interviewer inquiring about the relationship between his dual activities as a painter and film critic. (1) The remark points to a two-part obsession that by now has persisted for more than four decades. A master at perceiving the delicate nuances of brutal facts, Farber has always had an uncanny knack for hitting on truths in a language of wisecracking braggadocio that eliminates any possibility of a dispassionate or precise scientific observation. With his feet firmly planted in the anonymous turf of an underground termite (to conflate two of his favourite terms), Farber paradoxically aims at a notion of bull’s-eye that can exist only in a marketplace context where objects and ideas compete for our attention.
… Read more »