My column for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, written on September 23, 2015. — J.R.
Early last September, the first week of my visit to Croatia was occasioned by Tanja Vrvilo’s ninth annual “Movie Mutations” event in Zagreb, this time devoted to Godard. An illuminating highlight was the visit of Fabrice Aragno, Godard’s cinematographer and all-around technical assistant since Notre Musique. And my last three days in Croatia was a social visit to Oja Kodar at the Villa Welles in Primosten. Kodar was Orson Welles’ muse, companion, and major collaborator over the last two decades of his life, and, I’m proud to say, a valued friend in the three decades since then.
Both Kodar and Aragno qualify as the sort of major collaborators who complicate and even confound the sort of solid auteurist profiles that we usually associate with both Welles and Godard — profiles that we also paradoxically associate with their uncanny capacities to engage with the creative imaginations of their viewers. (“I like to think of myself as an airplane, not an airport.” Godard once said to me in a 1980 interview, implying that the proper destination of one of his films is the spectator and where he or she wants to go, not Godard and his own preferred destination — and the same “open” and interactive principle applies to Welles and his own films.)
One of the first things that Aragno said to me when I met him in Zagreb was that he doesn’t consider himself a “Godard fan” — his own aesthetic preferences were closer to Antonioni and Kiarostami — but that he loved “working with Jean-Luc”.… Read more »
My DVD column in Cinema Scope 44, Fall 2010. — J.R.
1. A confession
Since retiring from my job as a weekly reviewer in early 2008, I’ve been discovering that I usually prefer watching mediocre films of the past (chiefly from the 30s through the 70s) to watching mediocre films of the present — unlike some of my former readers, who irrationally conclude that I’ve stopped writing about movies because I no longer work for the studio airheads in implementing their latest ad campaigns. That is, I no longer train most of my attention on contemporary industry releases, as I was obliged to do for the preceding 20 years, because, in keeping with Raymond Durgnat’s apt observation that dated films sometimes have more to teach us than “timeless” classics, I’m looking for stuff I can chew on. (Try to imagine what literary criticism would be like if most or all of its practitioners decided that 2010 publications currently on sale at K-Mart comprised the bulk of all the literature ever published that was worthy of our close attention.)
This is why, for instance, I wound up picking up a copy of Delmer Daves and Philip Dunne’s sequel to The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), at a video store in Córdoba, Argentina in late July (although, as I later discovered, I could have picked it up on Amazon for roughly the same price): not because it’s any sort of masterpiece (though it’s probably a better movie than The Robe), but because I find it interesting from multiple vantage points, e.g., as one more example of Daves’ interracial utopianism (as also found in, say, Broken Arrow and Bird of Paradise a few years earlier), for the juxtaposition of Susan Hayward’s blood lust as Messalina with the virginal purity of Debra Paget as Lucia (mysteriously sustained even by her catatonia after Richard Egan tries to rape her), and for various rhyme effects between Michael Rennie’s Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still and his Peter the Fisherman in both The Robe and Demetrius.… Read more »
Written in September 2014 for my December “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
Last September, I ordered from Amazon a three-disc DVD box set released by Lionsgate called Big History consisting of 17 episodes lasting almost seven and a half hours. My curiosity was spurred by an article by Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times Magazine about billionaire Bill Gates enthusiastically discovering this package — a college course taught by Australian professor David Christian — while working out in his private gym, and then deciding to use this TV series to try to revolutionize the teaching of history in both American high schools and colleges.
To my amazement, and in spite of all my qualms, Big History proves to be one of the most exciting things I’ve seen this year — not as moral instruction or as a technical tour de force (unlike Steven Knight’s Locke, which resurrects the heroism of the great Westerns, or Godard’s Adieu au langage, which reinvents 3-D) and not as distilled and hallucinatory poetry (unlike Pedro Costa’s Horse Money), but as a series of lucid pedagogical lessons, especially welcome for someone like me who has always been weak in science.… Read more »
Written for my “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine in July 2015. — J.R.
En movimiento: Young Orson
Out of all the discoveries that have come my way in the wake of the Welles centennial, the most interesting and exciting so far has been Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, a biography that comes to 785 pages, at least in the bound uncorrected proofs sent to me by HarperCollins in mid-July. (The official publication date is November 17.) As I wrote in a blurb solicited by the publisher, “In many ways, Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson is my favorite of all the Welles biographies to date. Not only because he’s read all the others, and makes judicious calls about how far we should trust them, but because his own prodigious research has turned up so much rich, fresh, and clarifying material. The overall portrait of Welles’s character and background that emerges, uncharacteristically sympathetic, is both dense and persuasive — and a page-turning pleasure to read.” I’m especially impressed by how much McGilligan has turned up about Welles’s parents, his guardian, and his childhood in general.… Read more »
Written for the Library of America’s web site The Moviegoer. The version published there on May 3, 2017 differs somewhat from the original version posted here, especially the ending. — J.R.
No less than seven features to date have been based on works by Philip Roth, and three of these have been directed by first-timers, all of whom previously made their cinematic mark in other professional capacities. Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) had a long and distinguished screenwriting career before directing his own adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1972, and Ewan McGregor acted in over four dozen features before directing American Pastoral 44 years later. James Schamus, a film professor at Columbia University, had over fifty producing credits — plus writing and producing credits on all but three of Ang Lee’s features — before he added direction to his producing and writing on Indignation. This has yielded what Stephen Holden in the New York Times has called “easily the best film made of a Roth novel, which is saying a lot.”
Schamus’s dexterity in navigating both commercial film production and academia has served him well on this project, enabling him to honor his source while rendering it both accessible and personal.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1999). — J.R.
Dr. Akagi Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Shohei Imamura
Written by Imamura and Daisuke Tengan
With Akira Emoto, Kumiko Aso, Jyuro Kara, Jacques Gamblin, and Masanori Sera.
If you saw Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry you may recall a joke told by the Turkish taxidermist: When a man complains to a doctor that every part of his body hurts — “When I touch my chest, that hurts; when I touch my arm and my leg, my arm and my leg hurt” — the doctor suggests that what’s actually bothering him is an infected finger. Similarly, when we think about Japan we may be prone to confuse what we’re pointing at with the finger that’s doing the pointing — especially given how much of a role our country played in the rebuilding of Japan after the war. (Perhaps significantly, scant attention is paid to Japanese movies about — and made during — the American occupation, such as Yasujiro Ozu’s devastating and uncharacteristic A Hen in the Wind and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women, a period film whose theme of artistic imprisonment is clearly addressed to his contemporaries.)
Even when it comes to Japan before the occupation, we may tend to overlook or misinterpret American influences, seeing them instead as Japanese traits.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 515). — J.R.
Utamaro O Meguru Gonin No Onna (Five Women Around Utamaro)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Dist–Artificial Eye. p.c–Shochiku. p. manager–Toyokazu Murata. sc–Yoshikata Yoda. Based on the novel by Kanji Kunieda. ph–Shigeto Miki. ed–Sintaro Myamoto. a.d–Isamu Motoki. m–Hiseto Osawa, Tamezo Mochizuki. sd. rec–Hisashi Kase.historical adviser–Sonao Kahi. l.p–Minosuke Bando (Kitagama (Utamaro), Kotaro Bando (Seinosuke Koîde), Tanaka Kinuyo (Okita), Kowasaki Hiroko (Oran), Izuka Toshiko (Dayu Tagasode), Kinnosuke Takamatsu (Juzaburo), Shotaru Nakamura (Shizaburo), Minsei Tomimoto (Takemoro), Katsuhisa Yamaguchi (Kisuke), Aitzo Tamasuma (Sobe), Eiko Ohara (Yukie Kano), Kyoko Kusajima (Oman), Kimiko Shirotae (Oshin), Junko Kajami (Maid in Kano Family), Mitsuei Takegawa (Tayu Karauta), Kimie Kawikami (Matsunami), Aiko Irikawa (Shodayu), Junnosuke Hayama, Masao Hori. 3,399 ft. 94 mins. (16 mm.). Subtitles.
Tokyo in the late eighteenth century. Seinosuke Koide, a student at the Kano Art School, is enraged when he discovers in a print shop that the artist Utamaro has written on one of his own prints that even his rough sketchesare “full of life”.… Read more »
Written in late November 2013 for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
En movimiento: The Season of Critical Inflation
Am I turning into a 70-year-old grouch? Writing during the last weeks of 2013 — specifically a period of receiving screeners in the mail and rushing off to various catch-up screenings, a time when most of the ten-best lists are being compiled — I repeatedly have the sensation that many of my most sophisticated colleagues are inflating the value of several recent releases. And my problem isn’t coming up with ten films that I support but trying to figure out why so many of the high-profile favorites of others seem so overrated to me. All of these films have their virtues, but I still doubt that they can survive many of the exaggerated claims being made on their behalf.
Gravity, hailed by both David Bordwell and J. Hoberman as a rare and groundbreaking fusion of Hollywood and experimental filmmaking, and not merely an extremely well-tooled amusement-park ride, is now being touted as a natural descendent of both Michael Snow’s La région central as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey, as if its metaphysical and philosophical dimensions were somehow comparable.… Read more »
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
… Read more »
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.
… Read more »
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 »