Monthly Archives: June 2018

If Looks Could Kill (I)

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the sixth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

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If Looks Could Kill

. . . Can it be that everybody is looking for a way to fit in? If so, doesn’t that imply that nobody fits? Perhaps it is not possible to fit into American Life. American Life is a billboard; individual life in the U.S. includes something nameless that takes place in the weeds behind it.
—Harold Rosenberg

 

I

Mommy was away at Payne Whitney, a hospital in New York City, for the better part of a year, from the fall of 1953 through the summer of 1954. She went there after she had a nervous breakdown toward the end of summer, sometime after we drove back to Alabama from Indian and Forest Acres; she said she needed to get away from the house and four boys and Stanley for a while, and Bo offered to pay for Payne Whitney, where she hoped to get better.Read more »

Station Identification I

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the fifth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

Station Identification I

The Conquistador has a heart condition. Despite the recent successes of some of his biggest exploits, the mounting fortunes, his exhaustion becomes increasingly apparent, showing up in the lines on his face, the heaviness of his stride. Out of respect to his power, position, and age, we breathe not a word about his deterioration, act as if everything is as it should be. Obediently we tote his luggage along with our own, slow our paces to his, and gaze with enchantment at the passing scenery.

Getting from here to there is all the Conquistador really cares about, and tough luck for whatever—and whoever—happens to be occupying the intervening spaces. Think of a country, an audience, a movie, a dream that is perpetually en route, refusing to stop anywhere and settle for a while; think of a life on the march that promises adventure, discourages reflection, and delivers the excitement of perpetual motion.Read more »

THE DEER HUNTER: Flabby Beyond Belief

This review, one of the most incendiary I’ve ever written, appeared in the March 1979 issue of the Canadian monthly Take One (vol. 7, no. 4). It’s probably over the top, but at least it’s sincere; I can’t recall another occasion when any acclaimed movie filled me with such absolute loathing. I can recall thinking, when Cimino subsequently collected his Oscar, that he should have said at the time, “I’d like to thank especially the Vietnamese people, without whose corpses this award wouldn’t have been possible.”

The film is currently screening on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, although I’m delighted to report that programmer Ehsan Khoshbakht had the brilliant idea of screening Cinetract 101 just before it. — J.R.

“You beat me, baby,” Francis Ford Coppola reportedly said to Michael Cimino, director of the $13 million The Deer Hunter, in reference to the fact that this new Vietnam atrocity movie has opened several months before Coppola’s Apocalypse Someday. Considering the degree to which slick media and its prize monoliths now seem to rule most of our cultural and ethical discourse, I wonder whether Coppola might have said the same thing to the Reverend Jim Jones if, after the Guyana “suicides,” the latter had been around to receive the compliment.… Read more »

ON MOONLIGHT BAY as Time Machine

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the fifth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

2— On Moonlight Bay as Time Machine

A small Midwestern town in 1916, possibly in June. Behind a succession of pink and green credits that they will never see, acknowledge, or understand—a list of names and functions that fasten themselves to a Warner Brothers release, On Moonlight Bay , dated 1951—a family is seated in the dark parlor of a Booth Tarkington house, watching slides of themselves on a screen.

Taste it if you can: 1916. Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam, a sequel to his very popular Penrod, has either just appeared in hardcover or is about to. Germany has declared war on Portugal, Russia has invaded Persia, 8,636 English and German sailors have perished in a naval battle off Jutland, and Gordon MacRae—whom we hear with Doris Day singing the title tune over the credits, but haven’t yet seen—has just completed his junior year at the University of Indiana, and is deeply shaken by all this strife in Europe.Read more »

The Plucking of Three Birds of Paradise

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the third.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

1: The Plucking of Three Birds of Paradise

1— Fifty Years of Show Business

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[Ritz Theatre, Athens, Alabama]

 


Formal Opening Ritz On Monday, April 30

After five months of work the Ritz theatre, Athens’ latest amusement place, is now ready for the formal opening which will take place at 7:00 o’clock, Monday evening, April 30th [1928], the picture for that occasion being Mary Pickford’s latest screen production “My Best Girl,” followed by a comedy, “Fair and Muddy.

“Prior to the picture showing the following program will be given:

Master of ceremonies—W. E. Willis.

Music by Gene Carter’s orchestra.

Welcome from the city of Athens [Alabama] to Muscle Shoals Theatres, Inc.—Mayor C. W. Sarver.

Orchestra.

Welcome on behalf of the businessmen of Athens—C. D. Beisley, president Athens Chamber of Commerce.

Orchestra.

Response to addresses of welcome by Mayor W.Read more »

MOVING PLACES: A LIFE AT THE MOVIES Acknowledgements & Looking Back at MOVING PLACES & Dedication

I will be reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the first.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

Acknowledgments

For specific, invaluable, and diverse forms of assistance to me in preparing this book, I owe particular thanks to Lizzie Borden, Meredith Brody, W. L. and Diane Butler, Ian Christie, David Ehrenstein, Aston and Mae Murray Elkins, Manny Farber, Carolyn Fireside, Sandy Flitterman, Vicki Hiatt, Penelope Houston, Allan Kronzek, Lorenzo Mans, David Meeker, Cynthia Merman, Patricia Patterson, Carrie Rickey, Paul Schmidt, Allan Sekula, Wally Shawn, Charles Silver, David Sobelman, Bobby Stewart, Beulah Sutton, Amos Vogel, and Bibi Wein;

the staffs of the Florence Public Library, Florence, Alabama; the Information Department at the British Film Institute in London; the Film Study Center at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.;

and National Endowment for the Arts, for an Art Critics Fellowship Grant which permitted me to launch this project in 1977.… Read more »

Cassavetes’ Prelude and Postscript

This article was commissioned by the Torino Film Festival to accompany a John Cassavetes retrospective in November 2007, and was published there in a substantial catalogue/collection in Italian translation. I’m sorry I can’t do a better job of illustrating this: apart from some pictures of Cassavetes, Rowlands, and Carol Kane, there are no appropriate images available to me. I’m grateful, in any case, to Jim Healy and Emanuela Martini for asking me to write this. — J.R.

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Cassavetes’ Prelude and Postscript: The Original Shadows and A Woman of Mystery

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

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I consider myself unusually fortunate in having been able to see the original version of Shadows in January 2004. Shot in the spring of 1957 and screened publicly only four or five times, the first completed version of the first film of John Cassavetes had been considered irretrievably lost for almost half a century.

More specifically, I saw the first of two public projections at the Rotterdam International Film Festival of a good video transfer of the rediscovered 16-millimeter print, presented by Ray Carney, the man who rediscovered the print. After these two screenings, objections were raised by Cassavetes’ widow, Gena Rowlands, with the result that subsequent public screenings have been forbidden by her.… Read more »

IMITATION OF LIFE (1934)

Written for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s catalogue for June 2018. — J.R.

imitation-of-life-stahl

Americans know that Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” means “Make America white again”—a nostalgic longing for the repressive 50s, when Eisenhower spent as much time golfing as Trump does today, and when black men were caddies rather than players if they were visible at all. This is the America that warmly greeted Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life in 1959, and when I saw it in a whites-only Alabama theater, this was with sobbing white matrons responding to the film’s deeply conservative message about knowing your place. Consequently, when I was informed by armchair Marxists in the 70s that the film was a work of Brechtian subterfuge, I recalled that the film was released during the Civil Rights movement, when Sirk’s bitter ironies were far too subtle to affect the status quo. As Sirk noted himself, “Imitation of Life is a picture about the situation of the blacks before the time of the slogan `black is beautiful.’ In Alabama, this isn’t called Brechtian, it’s called scaredy-cat.

imitation-of-life-footrub

Twenty-five year earlier, John Stahl’s original adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s then-current (1933) novel was also conservative, but because the Depression was a far more progressive period than the conformist 1950s, it comes across today as considerably more enlightened.… Read more »

Criticism on Film (expanded 2016 version)

Written for the Pesaro International Film Festival (July 2016). Most of this piece is made up of earlier articles on the same general subject, so the reader should bear in mind that some of my positions and opinions (such as my estimation of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma) have changed over the years.  — J.R.

Criticism on Film

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1990/91):

It’s no secret that serious film criticism in print has become an increasingly scarce commodity, while ‘entertainment news’, bite-size reviewing and other forms of promotion in the media have been steadily expanding. (I’m not including academic film criticism, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field which has developed a rhetoric and tradition of its own — the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating book Making Meaning). But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, and in some cases supplanting the sort of work which used to appear only in print.

I am not thinking of the countless talking-head ‘documentaries’ about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios or production companies — which include even such a relatively distinguished example as Chris Marker’s AK (1985), about the making of Kurosawa’s Ran.… Read more »

THE PRODUCERS

Written for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s catalogue in June 2018. — J.R.

TP

 “My movies rise below vulgarity,” Mel Brooks once allegedly declared. No movie of his better illustrates that proposition than his first and most successful feature (1967), which won him an Oscar for best original screenplay and, over three decades later, was remade first as a Broadway musical (by Brooks himself) and then as a movie (directed by Susan Stroman) based on that production. Yet it was originally deemed unreleasable due to its bad taste by Embassy Pictures, then given an inauspicious premiere in Pittsburgh.  It won a second life only after Peter Sellers — who’d originally been cast in the leading role of Max Bialystock (before apparently chickening out) — saw the film privately and bought an ad in Variety arguing for a wider release.

 

The eponymous heroes, Bialystock (Zero Mostel)  and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) — a bombastic gigolo who gets old ladies to invest in his failed Broadway shows and a hysterical, mousy accountant, respectively — decide to rise below vulgarity themselves in order to make a bundle by producing a costly, sure-fire flop, a show so awful and offensive that it can only fail, so they can thereby pocket the surplus on all the investments, only to discover that Springtime for Hitler winds up as a satirical hit.… Read more »

Backyard Ethics [REAR WINDOW]

From the Chicago Reader, February 25, 2000. This essay is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Rear Window

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by John Michael Hayes

With James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Wendell Corey, Judith Evelyn, Ross Bagdasarian, Georgine Darcy, and Irene Winston.

Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie, Rear Window, is as fresh as it was when it came out, in part, paradoxically, because of how profoundly it belongs to its own period. It’s set in Greenwich Village during a sweltering summer of open windows, and it reeks of 1954. (A restored version, by Robert A. Harris, opens this week at the Music Box, and it’s so beautiful and precise it almost makes up for his botch of Hitchcock’s Vertigo a few years back.)

Peter Bogdanovich notes in Who the Devil Made It that Hitchcock “didn’t use a score” in the movie, “only source music and local sounds,” which isn’t exactly true. In fact, we get quite traditional theme music from Franz Waxman behind the opening credits, and, more important, the film subtly integrates hit tunes of the mid-50s into the ambient sound track, most noticeably “Mona Lisa” and “That’s Amore,” which was introduced the previous year by Dean Martin in another Paramount picture, The Caddy.… Read more »

THE BIRDS

Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in June 2018. — J.R.

the birds melanie

The Birdsoverhead

The-Birds-last-shot

The Birds 22-last shot

 A subtle, complex follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest hit, Psycho, his 50th feature (1963) is quite different — and not just because this apocalyptic fantasy is his most abstract film, as Dave Kehr has noted, but also because his shift from black and white to widescreen color works in tandem with the abstraction. The same abstraction extends to cosmic long shots worthy of Abbas Kiarostami that seem posed more as philosophical questions than as rhetorical answers. And as soon as we notice that the flippant heroine, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), has been color-coordinated, thanks to her blond hair and green dress, with the two lovebirds in their cage that she’s bringing to Bodega Bay as part of an elaborately flirtatious grudge match waged against a disapproving stranger, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), it’s already clear that Hitchcock has something metaphysical as well as physical in mind.

The-Birds-1

birds-lovebirds

The Birds junglegym3

thebirdsschool

What keeps his scare show so unnervingly unpredictable is that the explanation we crave for why birds have started to attack humanity is never forthcoming. (Hitchcock said in interviews that The Birds was about “complacency,” without spelling out whether he meant that of his characters, his audience, or both.)… Read more »

For Queen And Country

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). — J.R.

ForQAC

Denzel Washington (Cry Freedom) stars in this new British thriller by Martin Stellman about a black veteran who returns from nine years in the British army to encounter poverty and racism in London. A West Indian by birth, he finds that he is unable to renew his passport because of a new law, and a series of other misfortunes and injustices gradually force him against his will into a life of crime. Effective radical agitprop, relentless in its anger, this film is more outspoken about contemporary racism in England than any other feature that comes to mind; the story is structured a bit like a Warner Brothers thriller of the 30s, and the script (by Stellman and Trix Worrell), direction, and performances all give it a powerful impact. With George Baker, Amanda Redman, Dorian Healy, Geff Francis, and Bruce Payne. (JR)

FQACRead more »

Lost in the Desert [THE SHELTERING SKY]

From the Chicago Reader (January 25, 1991). — J.R.

THE SHELTERING SKY ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci

With Debra Winger, John Malkovich, Campbell Scott, Jill Bennett, Timothy Spall, Eric Vu-An, and Paul Bowles.

Ever since the 60s the adjective “personal” has been frequently used in relation to commercial movies, and it has almost always been used as an expression of praise. As a reaction to the relatively “impersonal” directorial styles of a Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kramer, or David Lean, the celebration of the “personal” styles of directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock ushered in a critical bias that favored the director’s subjective involvement in his or her material — an involvement that is often autobiographical in its implications (such as Ford’s feelings for the Irish and the military, or Hitchcock’s sexual repression and his fear of imprisonment) — over the self-effacement that has often been regarded as both the norm and the ideal of conventional filmmaking.

But in order to argue that the films of supposedly “invisible” stylists like Hawks were highly personal, many auteurists wound up overstating their case, arguing in effect that any director with a discernible “personality” was automatically better than any director without one.… Read more »

Foreword to Dave Kehr’s MOVIES THAT MATTERED

Commissioned by the University of Chicago Press and written in September 2016; published in November 2017. — J.R.

MoviesThatMattered

For all the differences between the history of cinema and the history of the Internet, one disturbing point they have in common is the degree to which our canons in both film and film criticism are determined by historical accidents.  Thus we’ve canonized F.W. Murnau’s third American film, City Girl (1930), ever since a copy was belatedly discovered in the 1970s, but not his second, The Four Devils (1928), because no known print of that film survives. Similarly, we canonize Josef von Sternberg’s remarkable The Docks of New York (1928), but not the lost Sternberg films that preceded and followed it, The Dragnet (1928) and The Case of Lena Smith (1929). And it’s no less a matter of luck that all my long reviews for the Chicago Reader, published between 1987 and 2008, are available online, but none of Dave Kehr’s long reviews for the same publication, published between 1974 and 1986—a body of work that, together with Kehr’s columns for Chicago magazine in the 1980s, strikes me as being the most remarkable extended stretch of auteurist criticism in American journalism.

I hasten to add that, unlike the missing films of Murnau and Sternberg, Kehr’s writing for the Reader and Chicago has never been lost.… Read more »