Monthly Archives: March 2018

A Prophet in His Own Country [Jon Jost retrospective]

From the Chicago Reader (May 8, 1992). — J.R.

JON JOST RETROSPECTIVE

Last week Jon Jost, a Chicago-born independent filmmaker, was having the first commercial run of his career — All the Vermeers in New York, his tenth feature, at the Music Box. Typically, he couldn’t be around for the event because he was busy shooting his 12th feature in Oregon.

The Music Box engagement launches a Jost retrospective that continues at Chicago Filmmakers on weekends for the remainder of this month. It’s the most exciting and important American retrospective to hit town since the Music Box’s John Cassavetes series last fall, though like that series it isn’t quite complete: only about half of Jost’s shorts — most made in the 60s and early 70s — are included, and two of his features, Bell Diamond (1985) and Sure Fire (1990), are omitted. (Sure Fire may open here in the fall if enough people go to see All the Vermeers in New York.) Still, it’s the most comprehensive show of Jost’s work that’s ever come to Chicago, and it offers a great chance to catch up with a singular career that has been more subterranean than most, even among American independents.… Read more »

Cinemeteorology [Serge Daney on TOO EARLY, TOO LATE]

Here’s a piece by Serge Daney that I translated back in 1982, for a catalogue accompanying a Straub-Huillet retrospective that I curated in New York that fall. Danièle Huillet sent me the original review in French, suggesting that it be included. Too Early, Too Late, shot in 16mm, remains, for me, one of their two most beautiful landscape films, along with the much later Operai, Contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2001), making it all the more regrettable that neither of these favorites is available on DVD, even in France. [2018 note: Happily, both films are now available on French DVDs.] I’m also very sorry that the frame reproductions included here couldn’t be any better. — J.R.

What do John Travolta and Jean-Marie Straub have in common? A difficult question, I admit. One dances, the other doesn’t. One is a Marxist, the other isn’t. One is very well-known, the other less so. Both have their fans. Me, for instance.

However, one merely has to see their two films surface on the same day on Parisian screens in order to understand that the same worry eats away at both of them. Worry? Let’s say passion, rather — a passion for sound. I’m referring to BLOW OUT (directed by Brian DePalma) and TOO EARLY, TOO LATE (co-signed by    Danièle Huillet), two good films, two magnificent soundtracks.… Read more »

Thinking Inside the Box [EL VALLEY CENTRO]

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 »

Aspects of the Avant-Garde: Three lnnovators

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 »

The Self-Aware Action Hero [on LAST ACTION HERO]

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 »

Point Blank

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1987). — J.R.

POINTBLANK

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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)

POINT BLANK

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Pregnant Pas [MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN & JUNIOR]

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.

* JUNIOR

(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 »

Philosophical Treatises of a Master Illusionist: A Conversation about Abbas Kiarostami

This is a slightly different edit of a dialogue proposed and inaugurated by Ehsan Khoshbakht on July 5, 2016, edited by him, and published in the British Council’s online Underline magazine on July 8. — J.R.

Abbas-Kiarostami-001

Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), arguably the greatest of Iranian filmmakers, was a master of interruption and reduction in cinema. He, who passed away on Monday in a Paris hospital, diverted cinema from its course more than once. From his experimental children’s films to deconstructing the meaning of documentary and fiction, to digital experimentation, every move brought him new admirers and cost him some of his old ones. Kiarostami provided a style, a film language, with a valid grammar of its own. On the occasion of this great loss, Jonathan Rosenbaum and I discussed some aspects of Kiarostami’s world. Jonathan, the former chief film critic at Chicago Reader, is the co-author (with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa) of a book on Kiarostami, available from the University of Illinois Press. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

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Ehsan Khoshbakht: Abbas Kiarostami’s impact on Iranian cinema was so colossal that it almost swallowed up everything before it, and to a certain extent after it. For better or worse, Iranian cinema was equated with Abbas Kiarostami.… Read more »

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Film Criticism (interview by Ehsan Khoshbakht)

This piece by Ehsan for Fandor’s Keyframe originally appeared on the day before my 70th birthday (February 26, 2013). — J.R.

jr-15
Jonathan Rosenbaum at 15, imagination in the process of being liberated.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, at the cusp of seventy, talks about a life of jazz and cinema.

By Ehsan Khoshbakht February 26, 2013

The needs-no-introduction film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum turns seventy this month, but that does not mean that he has grown out of touch. His latest book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (University Of Chicago Press, 2010), displays Rosenbaum’s engagement with digital-era realities, and manages something few if any critics of his generation are capable of in the current environment: optimism. Self-catalogued on his own website, the critic’s life of writing, from his late teens to the two-thousand-and-teens, coheres, and the collection of work is unmatched by any living film writer for its breadth and rigor. A closer look at his contribution to film literature (with featured articles in the weightiest of magazines and translations of his baker’s dozen books into languages as diverse as Chinese and Farsi) finds Rosenbaum generally bringing a sense of urgency to his subjects, no matter the decade.

My rather personal ties with the Chicago-based critic comes from our mutual love of jazz, which, aside from its ecstatic pleasures (that sometimes surpasses cinema’s), can assist writers in the ways they approach any other art form.… Read more »

REMEMBER MY NAME

This review appeared in the Spring 1979 issue of Film Quarterly (vol. XXXII, no. 3). Consider it Part 1 of a two-part consideration of Alan Rudolph, carried out over a span of a dozen years, to be followed by my much more ambivalent take on Mortal Thoughts (1991) for the Chicago Reader, which deals with some of the same issues involving both class and music. (I suspect that Rudolph’s best movie remains Choose Me, but I’d have to see this again to be sure.) — J.R.

REMEMBER MY NAME

Director: Alan Rudolph. Script: Rudolph. Photography: Tak Fujimoto. Music: Alberta Hunter. Lagoon Films.

Alan Rudolph’s second film was financed by Columbia, then written off as a disaster before it was released, but it has been running successfully in Paris for months and opens shortly in New York. It strikes me as the most exciting Hollywood fantasy to come along in quite some time. Admittedly, I am a Rivette enthusiast; I am fascinated by narrative suspension and indeterminacy, and tend to lose interest when a plot is laid out in full view, because I’ve usually seen it before. Remember My Name deliberately suspends narrative clarity for the better part of its running time, and never entirely eliminates the ambiguities that keep it alive and unpredictable — even though its themes, thanks to Alberta Hunter’s offscreen blues songs, are never really in question.… Read more »

THE GODFATHER PART II (1975 review)

From Sight and Sound (Summer 1975). I think I probably did a better job with The Godfather 33 years later, when I wrote something about it for Filmkrant. — J.R.

The Godfather Part II

‘I believe in America,’ declares an undertaker in portentous close-up at the start of The Godfather, appealing to Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to dispatch an act of vengeance on his behalf. The sequel begins and ends with close-ups of Michael (Al Pacino), Vito’s youngest son and successor: in the first his hand is being kissed off-screen by yet another supplicant; in the last he sits alone biting his knuckle, with his wedding ring clearly in evidence — an apt symbol of his solitary dominion, with the Corleone family virtually destroyed so that itshollow emblems and relics might be preserved. The most obvious achievement of The Godfather Part II (CIC) over its predecessor can be seen in the quiet authority of this framing device, which tells us everything we need to know about the fate of the Corleones without recourse to rhetorical hectoring; its most obvious limitation is that it essentially tells us nothing new.

Perhaps more than anyone else in Hollywood, Francis Ford Coppola epitomizes the man in the middle.… Read more »

Paris Journal (January-February 1974)

From Film Comment. — J.R.

JULIEN: Have you ever thought that the true reverse angle, as one says in cinematography, of [Magritte’s] Madame Récamier, is the public much more than the painter at work?

— From the script of L’AUTOMNE

All but the last eight minutes or so of Marcel Hanoun’s L’AUTOMNE (AUTUMN) is filmed from a single fixed camera angle, which corresponds to the viewing screen in an editing studio.… Read more »

Godard in the Nineties: An Interview, Argument, and Scrapbook (Part 2)

From Film Comment (September-October 1998).  This is a restructured and substantially revised, updated, and otherwise altered version of my “Trailer for Histoire(s) du cinéma,” which appeared originally in French in the Spring 1997 issue of Trafic. Among the more important changes are a suppression of virtually all of my multiple comparisons of Histoire(s) du cinéma with Finnegans Wake in the original (which, paradoxically, seemed more appropriate in a French publication than in an American one), an expansion of much of the interview material, and an extended quotation from Godard’s review of Rob Tregenza’s  Talking to Strangers.

My apologies for some format irregularities that I wasn’t able to fix. -– J.R.

histoire(s)2

GODARD AS CRITIC

 

JLG (at press conference): I still look at movies the same way today than I did [at the time of the New Wave], but I know it’s not the same world, exactly. Even if we enter the theater the same way, we don’t go out the same way.             

                                                                                                                                                         Q: How is it different?                                                                                                           

JLG: Less hope.…Paris is the only city in the world where you can still see all the film production that’s interesting, especially independent movies, and if you don’t live there, you’re far away from the production.Read more »

Godard in the Nineties: An Interview, Argument, and Scrapbook (Part 1)

From Film Comment (September-October 1998).  This is a restructured and substantially revised, updated, and otherwise altered version of my “Trailer for Histoire(s) du cinéma,” which appeared originally in French in the Spring 1997 issue of Trafic. Among the more important changes are a suppression of virtually all of my multiple comparisons of Histoire(s) du cinéma with Finnegans Wake in the original (which, paradoxically, seemed more appropriate in a French publication than in an American one), an expansion of much of the interview material, and an extended quotation from Godard’s review of Rob Tregenza’s  Talking to Strangers.

My apologies for some format irregularities that I wasn’t able to fix. -– J.R.

 

histoire(s)

histoire(s)3

Part of the following derives from two film festival encounters — a panel discussion on Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma held in Locarno in August 1995, and some time spent with Godard in Toronto in September 1996. I participated in the first event after having seen the first four chapters of Godard’s eight-part video series; unlike my co-panelists, I’d been unable to accept Godard’s invitation to view chapters 3a and 3b, devoted to Italian neorealism and the New Wave, in Rolle a few days earlier.… Read more »

Poetry in Motion [THELMA & LOUISE]

From the June 7, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

THELMA & LOUISE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by Callie Khouri

With Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Pitt, Timothy Carhart, and Lucinda Jenny.

I’m not quite sure precisely when Thelma & Louise kicks into high gear. Does it happen when Thelma (Geena Davis) holds up a convenience store, or much earlier, when Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots a rapist (Timothy Carhart)? Does it happen when Thelma’s tyrannical husband (Christopher McDonald) steps on a pizza, or when Louise divests herself of her watch and jewelry in exchange for an old coot’s sun hat?

Whenever it happens, something starts to click, and the movie becomes mythical — mutates into a sort of classic before one’s eyes. This isn’t to say that it can thenceforth do no wrong; the flashback shots that punctuate the final credits are lamentable, a cheap attempt to add uplift to an ending that doesn’t need it. But the movie does take on a certain charmed existence, persuading one to forgive such lapses. After a rather slow beginning, this prosy film turns poetic; and when that happens, we’re no longer passive bystanders but active participants, along for the ride morally as well as physically.… Read more »