This is excerpted from my “Paris-London Journal” in the November-December 1974 Film Comment, written in August when I was starting work at the British Film Institute after living for five years in Paris.
I can’t recall now whether it was this review or my inclusion of Cockfighter on my ten-best list in Sight and Sound — or could it have been both? — that led eventually to Charles Willeford sending me a note of thanks, along with his a copy of his self-published book A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided, a short account of his own hemorrhoid operation. Not knowing Willeford’s work at the time — today I’m a big fan, especially of his four late Hoke Mosley novels — I’m sorry to say that I didn’t keep this book, which undoubtedly has become a very scarce collector’s item.
But first, before reprinting the Film Comment review, here is my capsule review of Cockfighter for the Chicago Reader, written almost three decades later and published in mid-August 2003: “Except for Iguana, which is almost completely unknown, this wry 1974 feature is probably the most underrated work by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 2001). — J.R.
This exciting existentialist road movie by Monte Hellman, with a swell script by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry and my favorite Warren Oates performance, looks even better now than it did in 1971, although it was pretty interesting back then as well. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are the drivers of a supercharged ’55 Chevy and Oates is the owner of a new GTO (these nameless characters are in fact identified only by the cars they drive); they meet and agree to race from New Mexico to the east coast, though side interests periodically distract them, including various hitchhikers (among them Laurie Bird). (GTO hilariously assumes a new identity every time he picks up a new passenger, rather like the amorphous narrator in Wurlitzer’s novel Nog.) The movie starts off as a narrative but gradually grows into something much more abstract — it’s unsettling but also beautiful. 101 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown; film scholar Hank Sartin will introduce the film and give a lecture after the screening. Gene Siskel Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, February 27, 6:00, 312-443-3737.
– Jonathan Rosenbaum
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This book review appeared in the December 14, 1984 issue of the Los Angeles Reader. For more on Wurlitzer, readers are invited to check out my reviews of Walker and Candy Mountain in the Chicago Reader, both available on this site, as well as a more comprehensive piece about his work as a novelist and screenwriter, published in Written By. — J.R.
By Rudolph Wurlitzer
Alfred A. Knopf: $13.95
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
The difference between the art novel and the Hollywood novel can be as vast as the reaches between the East coast and the West coast, and any effort to wed the two in a shotgun marriage is liable to blow up in one’s face. Slow Fade, while an exceptionally and deceptively easy read, is far from being an easy book — which is one of the best things about it. That’s probably what Michael Herr means by “dangerous” in his jacket-blurb patter: “Slow Fade comes out of the space between real life and the movies and closes it up for good. A great book: beautiful, funny, and dangerous.” Any novel that begins with one character losing an eye and ends up with another losing his index finger is bound to be fraught with scary Oedipal tensions, and Slow Fade goes out of its way to make the most out of them.… Read more »
From the Winter 1984/1985 Sight and Sound. Only years after writing and publishing this essay, I recalled seeing a test reel of Cinemascope with my father at an Atlanta movie exhibitors convention in 1953, part of which included a refilming of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in CinemaScope. I have no idea whether this still exists, but it may help to account for why some people misremember or wrongly identify the entire film as being in CinemaScope.
For those who might be puzzled by the third illustration from the end, this is Dominique Labourier’s character performing in a nightclub in Céline et Julie vont en bateau, in a sequence that precisely parallels the courtroom sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. – J.R.
First Number: “We’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock”
I don’t believe in the kino-eye; I believe in the kino-fist. — Sergei Eisenstein
Before even the credit titles can appear, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell arrive to a blast of music at screen center from behind a black curtain, in matching orange-red outfits that sizzle the screen — covered with spangles, topped with feathers — to look at one another, toss white ermines toward the camera and out of frame and sing robustly in unison.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound, Winter 1982/1983, and reprinted in my collection Placing Movies. It was initially commissioned by Peter Biskind for American Film, who decided not to run it and paid me a kill fee, so I sent it next to Penelope Houston, who accepted it without hesitation. Originally, this piece was designed to be run with my translation of a brief, early piece by Barthes (“Au Cinemascope,” originally published in Les Lettres Nouvelles, February 1954). To my frustration, after Sight and Sound secured the rights to run this piece, they wound up omitting it due to lack of space, but it has subsequently appeared online in at least two places: here and here (the latter on this site). – J.R.
One reason for looking at the late Roland Barthes’ writings about film is that we all tend to be much too specialized in the ways that we think about culture in general and movies in particular. Far from being a film specialist, Barthes could even be considered somewhat cinephobic (to coin a term), at least for a Frenchman. Speaking to Jacques Rivette and Michel Delahaye in 1963, he confessed, “I don’t go very often to the cinema, hardly once a week” — inadvertently revealing the French passion for movies that can infect even a relative nonbeliever.… Read more »
This is a very short and very early article by Roland Barthes, one of his “Mythologies” that remains uncollected in English, that I translated in 1982, originally so it could be run with an article of mine, “Barthes & Film: 12 Suggestions,” that I published in Sight and Sound — although it wound up not appearing there due to a lack of space. (I did, however, use some extracts from it in an article I did for the same magazine two years later about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; both of these articles are reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.) Many years later, in 1999, James Morrison asked me if he could post it on the Internet, and you can still access it, along with an essay of his about it, here. — J.R.
- If, for lack of the proper technical background, I can’t define Henri Chrétien’s [anamorphic] process, at least I can judge its effects. They are, in my opinion, surprising. The broadening of the image to the dimensions of binocular vision should fatally transform the internal sensibility of the filmgoer. In what respect? The stretched-out frontality becomes almost circular; in other words, the ideal space of the great dramaturgies.
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This essay — commissioned originally in the mid-1990s by Alexander Horwath for a collection in German published by the Viennale, and later published in 2004 by the Amsterdam University Press as The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s, coedited by Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, and Noel King — overlaps with various other pieces of mine, and is obviously out of date in some of its details, but it seems worth reprinting for some of the arguments it draws together. And it’s been fun hunting up illustrations for it on the Internet. — J.R.
“New Hollywood” and the 60s Melting Pot
Let me begin with a few printed artifacts, all of them from New York in the early 60s: two successive issues of the NY Film Bulletin published in early 1962, special numbers devoted to Last Year at Marienbad and François Truffaut; and three successive issues of Film Culture, dated winter 1962, winter 1962-63, and spring 1963. Cheaply printed but copiously illustrated, the two special numbers of the NY Film Bulletin are the 43rd and 44th issues of a monthly, respectively twenty and twenty-eight pages in length. The Last Year at Marienbad issue consists exclusively of interviews with Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and editor Henri Colpi, all translated from French magazines, and a briefly annotated Resnais filmography.… Read more »
From the January 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Films by Robert Bresson
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Two types of film: those that employ the resources of the theater (actors, directors, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create….Cinematography: a new way of writing, therefore of feeling. – Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography
Among the people of my acquaintance who know a lot about film, most — perhaps all — consider Robert Bresson the greatest living filmmaker. Because he’s in his early 90s, the possibility of his making another movie — his last was L’argent (“Money”) in 1983 — is remote. (Most biographical sources place his birthdate in 1907, but reliable informants have told me that this very private individual shaved at least a couple of years off his age some time ago, apparently to extend his credibility as a working director with insurance companies.)
In spite of its importance, his work may have difficulty surviving, because most of it doesn’t “translate” to video. The reasons are complex, but for starters I would suggest that two central factors involved are sound presence and the framed image.… Read more »
Written for a Sara Driver retrospective at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, held in early November 2011. — J.R.
All four of Sara Driver’s works belong to what the French call la fantastique – a conflation of fantasy with surrealism, science fiction, comics, horror, sword-and-sorcery, and the supernatural that stretches all the way from art cinema to exploitation by way of Hollywood. But it’s hard to find many other stylistic affinities between them, and only a few thematic overlaps. A 48-minute piece of Poelike horror set inside the mind of a schizophrenic in rural New Jersey (You Are Not I, 1981), closely adapted from a Paul Bowles story; a pulpy, scary feature-length fantasy about Oriental curses set over a few blocks in lower Manhattan (Sleepwalk, 1986); a gentle, nonscary comedy partly inspired by the whimsical 1937 Hollywood feature Topper, about the encounter between a jazz musician and two female ghosts in a small seaport town (When Pigs Fly, 1993); and a short documentary about the history and diverse arcane local details of Driver’s own neighborhood (The Bowery, 1994), which also served as the setting for the very different Sleepwalk.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t various connections between these works going well beyond the recurrence of various collaborators.… Read more »
From the September-October 1978 issue of Film Comment. — J.R.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Doubling the number of featured players in Nashville from twenty-four to forty-eight while shrinking the time scale from three days to one, A Wedding offers an extension rather than an expansion of Robert Altman’s behavioral repertory. Variations on the same dirty little secrets, social embarrassments, and isolating self-absorptions that illustrate his last ten movies are trotted out once again -– articulated as gags or tragicomic mash notes, molded into actors’ bits, arranged in complementary or contrasting clusters, orchestrated and choreographed into simultaneous or successive rhythmic patterns, and strategically timed and placed to coincide with unexpected plot or character reversals.
The execution of these pirouettes has never presented critics with much of a problem, for the level of craft is pretty consistent. (Some gags are funnier than others, but all get the same careful/offhand inflection.) What remains a bone of contention is their justification, which shifts more discernibly from film to film. M*A*S*H’s was that war could be fun while Brewster McCloud’s said that escape was impossible; Images and 3 Women depended on shopworn arthouse symbols while Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians put the American flag to comparable use.… Read more »
This is second and (to date) final time that I did Cannes film festival coverage for The Village Voice, which ran in their June 29, 1972 issue. –J.R.
Surprises at Cannes: Huston redeemed, Tashlin reincarnated
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
CANNES, France — After 15 days of feeding in darkness, and blinking at the sun only between screenings, the Cannes Festival inevitably turns the persistent moviegoer into a blood relative of Dracula. regrettably, this year’s festival was long on celluloid — 700 films’ worth, according to Variety — but short on the lifeblood necessary to keep an honest vampire going.
Of the 34 films that I stayed to the end for, only one seemed to have the earmarks of an old-fashioned classic. Curiously enough, this came from neither Hitchcock nor Fellini nor Skolimowski nor Altman, but from john Huston — a director who has remained in limbo for so long that, until Fat City, it was hard to remember he still existed. Fat City may not be a great film, but it has the uncommon virtue of achieving practically everything it sets out to do.
Working in the U.S. for the first time since The Misfits, Huston returned to a milieu of failed boxers in Stockton, California, that he knew intimately as a young man, shot his story (from Leonard Gardner’s novel) in continuity, and wound up with what may prove to be his definitive statement.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 22, 1993). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Altman and Frank Barhydt
With Anne Archer, Bruce Davison, Robert Downey Jr., Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Andie MacDowell, Frances McDormand, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Madeleine Stowe, Lili Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, and Tom Waits.
Annie Ross — the tough and resourceful British-born jazz singer Kenneth Tynan once called “a carrot-head who moves us and then brushes off our sympathy with a shrug of her lips” — projects the kind of caustic soul that seems made for a Robert Altman film. And nothing in Altman’s 189-minute Short Cuts moves me quite as much as her rendition of “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” sung and swung over the final credits, which roll past a set of overlapping maps of Los Angeles.
The number meshes with the movie in unexpected and mysterious ways. Its trout-fishing motif sends us back to one of the film’s key episodes and its aftermath — a trout dinner for two couples on a terrace overlooking LA that expands into an all-night party, a recapitulation of many of this movie’s other motifs and themes: Jeopardy, clown costumes, makeup, marital infidelity, partying, unemployment.… Read more »
The following was commissioned by and published in Frank Tashlin, edited by Roger Garcia and Bernard Eisenschitz, Éditions du festival international du film de Locarno, 1994. — J.R.
“According to Georges Sadoul, Frank Tashlin is a second-rank director because he has never done a remake of You Can’t Take It With You or The Awful Truth. According to me, my colleague errs in mistaking a closed door for an open one. In fifteen years’ time, people will realize that The Girl Can’t Help It served then — that is, today – as a fountain of youth from which the cinema now — that is, in the future — has drawn fresh inspiration ….To sum up, Frank Tashlin has not renovated the Hollywood comedy. He has done better. There is not a difference in degree between Hollywood or Bust and It Happened One Night, between The Girl Can’t Help It and Design For Living, but a difference in kind. Tashlin, in other words, has not renewed but created. And henceforth, when you talk about a comedy, don’t say ‘It’s Chaplinesque’; say, loud and clear, ‘‘It’s Tashlinesque’.“
Jean-Luc Godard’s review of Hollywood or Bust in the 73rd issue of Cahiers du cinéma (July 1957) is founded on a frank prophecy, only a small part of which has come true.… Read more »
From The Movie No. 71, 1981. — J.R.
From Psycho and Spartacus (both 1960) to The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider (both 1969), the Sixties might be regarded as the period when screen violence gained a new aesthetic self-consciousness and something approaching academic respectability, at least in the public mind. To put it somewhat differently, the contemporary spectator of 1960, shocked by the brutal shower murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho as an event — without observing that it was a composite film effect created by several dozen rapidly cut shots –- would have been much likelier to notice, in 1969, the use of slow motion in the depiction of several dozen violent deaths in The Wild Bunch.
The key film document of the decade, endlessly scrutinized and discussed, was not an entertainment feature at all, but the record of an amateur film-maker named Abe Zapruder of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963; the close analysis to which this short length of film was subjected was characteristic of a changing attitude towards the medium as a whole.
In the Sixties many established cultural, social, and political values were radically thrown into question, at the same time that the media -– including television and pop music as well as cinema — were becoming closely examined in their own right.… Read more »
This appeared in the November 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The ironic aftermath of the final sentence in my review is that another five years would pass before the release of Malick’s second feature, and then 20 more before the release of his third. — J.R.
U.S.A., 1973 Director: Terrence Malick
It would hardly be an exaggeration to call the first half of Badlands a revelation -– one of the best literate examples of narrated American cinema since the early days of Welles and Polonsky. Compositions, actors, and lines interlock and click into place with irreducible economy and unerring precision, carrying us along before we have time to catch our breaths. It is probably not accidental than an early camera set-up of Kit on his garbage route recalls the framing of a neighborhood street that introduced us to the social world of Rebel Without a Cause: the doomed romanticism courted by Kit and dispassionately recounted by Holly immediately evokes the Fifties world of Nicholas Ray -– and more particularly, certain Ray-influenced (and narrated) works of Godard, like Pierrot le fou and Bande à part. Terrence Malick’s eye, narrative sense, and handling of affectless violence are all recognizably Godardian, but they flourish in a context more easily identified with Ray.… Read more »