Monthly Archives: July 2018

Great 30s Movies on DVD (…and a few that should be)

 Commissioned by DVD Beaver, and published by that site in February 2010. I’ve updated or added a few links, delighted to report that all the unavailable items can now be accessed in some form or another.

I was inspired to repost this after just reseeing Sternberg’s sublime Dishonored in Criterion’s handsome new Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood box set. I’ve also just reseen the lovely if politically incoherent  Shanghai Express in the same package, and I wonder if it’s possible that the relative neglect accorded to Dishonored, by cinephiles and academics alike, may have something to do with the fact that it’s the Hollywood feature of  Dietrich and Von Sternberg that has the most to say about the real world — not only because it begins and ends in Vienna, but also because, as an antiwar statement that a prostitute can do more for her countryman than a female spy can do for her country, it has the most effective strategies for combining genre elements with personal fantasies and moral convictions, in part through its diverse  metaphors regarding art (Dietrich’s piano playing as it serves both passion and state) and glamor (a sword blade used as a makeup mirror in the final scene).

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Junket Bonds

From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 2000). — J.R.

Nowadays the line between journalism and publicity is often blurred, and one common, systematic method of blurring it is the movie junket. Generally a studio flies journalists to a location where a movie’s being shot or to a large city where it’s being previewed, puts them up at fancy hotels, then arranges a series of closely monitored interviews with the “talent,” most often the stars and the director. The journalists are expected to go home and write puff pieces about the movies that run in newspapers and magazines as either reportage or as a form of film “criticism.” If the journalists don’t oblige — and sometimes obliging entails not only favorable coverage but articles that emphasize what publicists want emphasized and suppress what they want suppressed — then the studios won’t invite them on future junkets.

There are probably more of these articles about new or forthcoming movies in newspapers and magazines than any other kind, and many entertainment writers — including plenty who double as film reviewers — make a profession out of these junkets. The stories that result are meant to be read as news rather than as promotion, and most newspaper editors seem to have few qualms about fostering this impression.… Read more »

Looking Down on the Little People [RADIO DAYS]

This is the very first long review I ever published in the Chicago Reader. It was published in their March 13, 1987 issue, about five months before I moved to Chicago from Santa Barbara and started working as their regular film critic, and writing this piece  was part of my audition for the job. (They commissioned two other pieces from me, neither of which they ran, as part of the same audition; both of these reviews — on Oliver Stone’s Platoon and on Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight – are now available on this site.)

This article has never previously appeared online, on the Reader’s website or anywhere else. It ran originally with the same black and white still reproduced here. Readers familiar with my essay, “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen,” written about three years later, may notice that I borrowed a few passages in it from this review. My original title for this review, “Woody’n You,” was rejected by the Reader editors, who didn’t catch or dig the jazz reference. — J.R.

*RADIO DAYS

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Seth Green, Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, and Diane Keaton.

It’s hard to think of a contemporary American filmmaker who is more universally admired than Woody Allen –- a fact that may say more about us than it says about Woody. … Read more »

The Hot Spot

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). — J.R.

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Considering that the script for this 1990 movie (by the late Charles Williams and his wife Nora Tyson, adapted from Williams’s novel Hell Hath No Fury) was in development for about 30 years and that the film is Dennis Hopper’s worst as a director, this is still pretty enjoyable as a piece of campy sleaze — especially for the first half hour, before the storytelling starts to dawdle. There’s a score by John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis, who pursue waspy duets, and Hopper’s eye for color and composition is as sharp as ever. But even if one overlooks the noirish misogyny (no easy matter), the story is still an overheated hoot. Just when one hopes that the scumbag characters — including a footloose hustler (Don Johnson) who sidles into a job as a car salesman in a sleepy Texas town, his boss’s sexpot wife (Virginia Madsen), and a seedy, bemused banker (Jack Nance) — will develop beyond their cliches, they become even sillier. And the apparently innocent accountant (Jennifer Connelly) who becomes entangled in the morass isn’t any more believable. Some may view the film’s liabilities (e.g. the inexpressive Johnson filling the foreground like a block of wood) as assets and coast along with the steamy sex, but it’s still pretty slim pickings from the man who once made Out of the Blue.… Read more »

An American in Paris [ROUND MIDNIGHT] (previously unpublished)

Part of my 1987 application for the job of film reviewer at the Chicago Reader consisted of writing three long sample reviews for them in March and/or April — only one of which was published by them (Radio Days), although, as I recall, they paid me for all three. (Writing these pieces in Santa Barbara, I was limited in my choices of what I could write about.) I only recently came across the two unpublished reviews, of Platoon and Round Midnight, in manuscript, although I recall that I did appropriate certain portions of them in subsequent reviews. Otherwise, the first publications of these pieces are on this site. — J.R.

***ROUND MIDNIGHT

Written by Bertrand Tavernier and David Rayfiel

Directed by Tavernier

With Dexter Gordon, François Cluzet, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, and Martin Scorsese.

I just can’t take that bullshit, you dig? They want everybody who’s a Negro to be an Uncle Tom, or Uncle Remus, or Uncle Sam, and I can’t make it. It’s the same all over, you fight for your life — until death do you part, and then you got it made.Read more »

Elia Kazan, Viewed from 1973

I wrote the Preface to this 1973 article in 2009 for its eventual reprinting in Kazan Revisited, edited by Lisa Dombrowski (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011). Note (early 2013): My favorite Kazan film, Wild River, has just been released on Blu-Ray, and it looks better than ever. — J.R.

Preface (2009): Rereading this essay 36 years after I wrote it for Richard Roud’s two-volume critical collection, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary – The Major Filmmakers (New York/The Viking Press, 1980), I can’t say that many of my positions or preferences regarding Kazan’s work have changed. But in a few cases I’ve been able to amplify some of my original impressions. For my 2007 essay “Southern Movies, Actual and Fanciful: A Personal Survey” (to be reprinted in my 2010 University of Chicago Press collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephila), for instance, I discovered that Kazan hired speech consultant Margaret Lamkin for his stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and then again for Baby Doll, to ensure that all the southern accents heard were letter-perfect. And the significance of Kazan having given the names of former friends or colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 – not in 1954, as my article stated — became a more prominent feature in his career profile when he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, almost half a century later, from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.… Read more »

The Bloody Glamour of Bloody War [PLATOON] (previously unpublished)

Part of my 1987 application for the job of film reviewer at the Chicago Reader consisted of writing three long sample reviews for them in March and/or April — only one of which was published by them (Radio Days), although, as I recall, they paid me for all three. (Writing my pieces in Santa Barbara, I was limited in my choices of what I could write about.) I only recently came across the two unpublished reviews, of Platoon and Round Midnight, in manuscript, although I recall that I did appropriate certain portions of them in subsequent reviews. Otherwise, the first publications of these pieces are on this site. — J.R.

**PLATOON

Directed and written by Oliver Stone

With Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem DaFoe and Keith David.

“I mean, you know that, it just can’t be done! We both shrugged and laughed, and Page looked very thoughtful for a moment. “The very idea!” he said. “Ohhh, what a laugh! Take the bloody glamour out of bloody war!”

Michael Herr, Dispatches

The myth of lost innocence that permeates American movies like some omnipresent air freshener ultimately has a lot to answer for.… Read more »

What Dope Does to Movies

The following essay was commissioned by Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann in 1992 for the book-spinoff of his documentary Grass. I wrote this around the same time that I reviewed Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai for the Chicago Reader, which helped to focus my conclusion; for more aspects of this argument, see “International Sampler”.—J.R.

What Dope Does to Movies

By Jonathan Rosenbaum


To the memory of Paul Schmidt

Consider how the camera cuts from Richie Havens’s face, guitar, and upper torso during his second number in Woodstock (1970) to a widening vista of thousands of clapping spectators, then to a much less populated view of the back of the bandstand, where there’s no clapping, watching, or listening — just a few figures milling about near the stage or on the hill behind it. What’s going on? This radical shift in orientation and perspective—a sudden movement from total concentration to Zenlike disassociation — is immediately recognizable as part of being stoned, and Michael Wadleigh’s epic concert film, which significantly has about the same duration as a marijuana high, is one of the first studio releases to incorporate this experience into its style and vision.

Or think of the way that Blade Runner (1982) starts: a long, lingering aerial view of Los Angeles in the year 2019, , punctuated by dragon-like spurts of noxious yellow flames, with enormous close-ups of a blue eye whose iris reflects those sinister, muffled explosions.… Read more »

SLOW FADE

Written for a feature in the August 2018 Sight and Sound about novels set in and around the world of movies. — J.R.

SlowFade 

The fourth novel (1984) of Rudy Wurlizer, a remarkable writer better known for his screenplays (including those for Two-Lane Blacktop and Walker, both recently canonized by Criterion), is the only one about movies, but it views salvation as a distinctly precinematic or postcinematic postulate. Following his psychedelic Nog (1969), minimalist Flats (1971), and apocalyptic Quake (1974), Slow Fade is more of a page-turner — as is The Drop Edge of Yonder (2008), a Western that grew out of an unrealized script. It focuses on a wasted septuagenarian macho filmmaker named Travis Hardin contemplating his own demise. Many assume it’s a portrait of Sam Peckinpah, whom Wurlitzer worked with on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, though he also suggests John Huston and Nicholas Ray. And the surrounding dead-beat hustlers, all hoping to turn some aspect of his legend into coin, include his alienated son and a roadie whom Hardin hires to write a script recounting what happened to his equally alienated daughter when she ran off to India on a spiritual quest. The script’s progress is intercut with the director’s drift back to his modest origins, combining the Beckett-like/Buddhist theme of identity loss from Wurlitzer’s earlier novels with a road-movie ambience.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Diverse Displacements (6th column)

From Cinema Scope #19 (Summer 2004). This is obviously out of date in many respects, fourteen years later, but I repost it now a period piece. — J.R.

Joan Hawkins opens her book Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000) with an interesting and useful observation:

“Open the pages of any horror fanzine —- Outré, Fangoria, Cinefantastique —- and you will find listings for mail-order video companies that cater to aficionados of what Jeffrey Sconce has called `para-cinema’ and trash aesthetics. Not only do these mail-order companies represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the video market, but their catalogs challenge many of our continuing assumptions about the binary opposition of prestige cinema (European art and avant-garde/experimental films) and popular culture. Certainly, they highlight an aspect of art cinema generally overlooked or repressed in cultural analysis: namely, the degree to which high culture trades on the same images, tropes, and themes that characterize low culture.”

As a direct illustration of Hawkins’ point, check out the web site www.xploitedcinema.com, a U.S. importer of overseas DVDs that also sells some domestic items and caters mainly to trash aesthetics, but among whose 86 pages of sex, horror, action, and gore items I also recently found an Italian two-disc set of my favorite Bernardo Bertolucci film, Prima della Rivoluzione/Before the Revolution (his second feature, 1964 — subtitled in English, along with all the extras), not to mention English-friendly Spanish and/or Mexican editions of my two favorite Alex Cox films (the 1987 Walker and the 1994 Highway Patrolman), a Spanish edition of Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, a Korean edition of Sam Peckinpah’s scandalously underrated Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), and Italian editions of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St.Read more »

True Believers

From the Chicago Reader (August 20, 2004); I’ve revised this slightly [in June 2011]. — J.R.

 

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Revolution ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Stephen Jones

Written by Bob Avakian

With Avakian.

 

Queimada **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

Written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio

With Marlon Brando, Evaristo Marquez, Norman Hill, and Renato Salvatori.

 

The Last Emperor **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci

With John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ruocheng Ying, and Victor Wong.

 

August is traditionally the month when films people don’t know what to do with surface, a time when those films are less apt to be noticed. This August three of these films happen to be about revolution. Actually Revolution, showing Wednesday at the 3 Penny, isn’t a movie but a DVD of the first 136 minutes of a long, four-part lecture by Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, in what is reportedly his first public appearance since 1979. The other two are director’s cuts of celebrated movies, both being screened here for the first time. Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography that Gillo Pontecorvo’s Queimada (1969), showing several times this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, contains “the best acting I’ve ever done,” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), screening August 28 at Facets Cinematheque, won five Oscars, including those for best picture and best director.… Read more »

PARADE

Written in 2013 for a forthcoming Taschen publication. — J.R.

 

Parade

Parade poster

1.Why is Parade Tati’s least known feature?

Parade-fishing

It’s surprising how many of Jacques Tati’s fans still haven’t seen his last feature, and in some cases don’t even know about its existence. Yet the reasons for this neglect aren’t too difficult to figure out.

For one thing, Parade is the only Tati feature apart from Jour de fête in which his best known and most beloved character, Monsieur Hulot, doesn’t appear. For another thing, it was made on an extremely modest budget, and shot mostly on video for Swedish television; it never received even a fraction of the advertising and other forms of promotion, much less distribution, accorded to his five earlier pictures. And some of those who have seen it don’t even regard it as a feature, but think of it merely as a documentary of a circus performance in which Tati appears only as an emcee and as one of the performers, doing some of his more famous pantomime routines. It doesn’t have a story in the sense that all his previous films do on some level, including even his early short, L’école des facteurs (1947).

On the other hand, what we mean by “story” is already a bit different in the work of Tati than it is in the work of most other important filmmakers, comic and otherwise.… Read more »

Ten Overlooked Noirs

Published by DVD Beaver in April 2006. I’ve updated this to include further links for films that have subsequently become available; there are in fact quite a few of these, and, unless I’ve missed something, only one title that isn’t currently available, The Argyle Secrets. — J.R.

Most of my favorite offbeat musicals are commercially available on DVD, and I wrote about them for DVDBeaver in March. I can’t say the same about most of my favorite noirs, and I’m not sure why this is so.

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OddManOut

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party-girl-club


It’s also important to stress that “noir” isn’t a genre; it’s a category that’s applied retroactively to films with certain traits in common — a practice started by French critics and eventually continued by us Yanks and others. (Check out James Naremore’s definitive 1998 book on the subject, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts.) This makes it something more flexible than a genre, and I’ve tried to honor this factor in some of my choices.


In the following list I’ve managed to make peace with myself by appending one
SBA title (which stands for “should be available”) to each one that you can currently buy, in the same general category, with brief explanations added.Read more »

En movimiento: Film Noir as Escape Hatch

 A column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, submitted May 28, 2018. — J.R.

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The commodification of film categories that publicists otherwise find difficult to market — especially “independent,” “restoration,” and “film noir”—often involves a certain amount of deception when it comes to existential identities.

“Independent” became a commercial category only after moguls maintained that the Sundance Festival was devoted to celebrating films without studio backing — even though “success” at Sundance meant a studio sale that typically entailed a loss of independence. “Restoration” is a label that absurdly gets slapped onto all sorts of real or alleged upgrades of older films, such as one with a newly mutilated and reconfigured soundtrack (the 1992 rerelease of Orson Welles’ Othello), a re-edit (the 1998 Touch of Evil), a belated first edit (the posthumous 2018 The Other Side of the Wind), and sometimes merely a new print. And “film noir” — a term whose meaning has already been slippery to begin with, applied retrospectively to a group of films said to share certain stylistic, formal, and thematic traits — now functions ahistorically and sometimes deceptively while increasing the market value of a given feature by obfuscating its politics.

On Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1948), Peter Cowie’s interview with Hervé Dumont — whose book on the director should be shelved alongside Chris Fujiwara’s book for the same publisher (McFarland) on Jacques Tourneur — primed me perfectly for my second look at this masterpiece.… Read more »

JOUR DE FETE

Written in 2013 for an expensive book on Jacques Tati prepared for Taschen by Alison Castle but still unpublished and apparently unscheduled five years later. I wrote separate essays on each of Tati’s features for this volume. — J.R.

 

Jour de fête

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JDF-cinema

1. A Parisian Discovers the Countryside

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In 1943, Jacques Tati, age 34, was living in occupied France. He had played rugby, become a successful music hall performer, and acted in a few short comic films. That year he left Paris with a screenwriter friend named Henri Marquet in search of the remotest part of the country they could find, hoping to escape recruitment as workers in Germany. They finally settled on a farm near Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, located in the dead center of France — not far from where George Sand had entertained such house guests as Chopin, Liszt, Flaubert, and Turgenev — and spent a year or so getting acquainted with the village and its inhabitants.

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EDF

Two years after Germany’s surrender, Tati and Marquet returned to the village to make a short film, L’école des facteurs (“The School for Postmen”), in which Tati played François, the village postman, who delivers the mail on a bicycle. François was based loosely on a bit character — a befuddled postman, played by another actor — in Soigne ton gauche (1936), a comic short Tati had written and starred in. … Read more »