What dispiriting news, to learn of Raúl Ruiz’s death at age 70 upon waking today [in August 2011], just after receiving the Portuguese DVD box set of his extraordinary Mysteries of Lisbon yesterday and watching the first half of it last night. I knew, of course, that his health had been very poor, so this wasn’t entirely a shock. But it’s clearly a major loss. (A curious coincidence: Raúl lived the same number of years as the filmmaker he admired the most, Orson Welles.)
We had been friends for a time, then drew apart — mainly, I’m sorry to say, because he became a little fed up with my inability to speak and understand French more fluently. But I’m very grateful for the many hours we were able to spend together, including one opportunity I had to appreciate what an excellent cook he was. (For an excellent memoir about him, as well as one of the best appreciations of Ruiz that I know — even though I disagree with its premise that Klimt qualifies as a biopic [at least in its original, longer, and better version], and Raúl himself disagreed with the premise that Three Lives and Only One Death was one of his best films — check out Adrian Martin’s “A Ghost at Noon” on Girish Shambu’s indispensable blog.)
An annotated, critical Ruiz filmography through early 2005 can be found here.
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 26, 1993); reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.
NIGHT AND DAY **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Chantal Akerman
Written by Akerman and Pascal Bonitzer
With Guilaine Londez, Thomas Langmann, François Negret, Nicole Colchat, Pierre Laroche, and Christian Crahay.
Considering all the oppositions that inform the work of Chantal Akerman — such as painting versus narrative, France versus Belgium, being Jewish versus being French and Belgian, and the commercial versus the experimental — it’s only logical that both the plot and the title of her recent Night and Day, one of her best features to date, should reflect the same pattern. The situation it refers to is so simple that it’s hard to describe without making it sound singsongy: Julie (Guilaine Londez) and Jack (Thomas Langmann) — an infatuated young couple from the provinces who’ve recently come to Paris — live in a small flat near Boulevard Sebastopol. During the day they make love; at night Jack drives a taxi and Julie walks the summer streets, singing happily to herself. One night they meet Joseph (François Negret) — another isolated newcomer to Paris — who drives Jack’s cab during the day. Jack heads for his shift; Julie goes walking with Joseph, and they quickly fall in love.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 10, 1993). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Jane Campion
With Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon, Tungia Baker, and Ian Mune.
Given how sexy and volatile it is, it’s no surprise that The Piano is a hit. It’s also no surprise, given the strong-arm tactics of the distributor and the hype of some reviewers, that a certain critical backlash is already setting in, as evidenced by a lucid and considered dissent by Stuart Klawans in the Nation and a rather lazy dismissal by Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic. People like myself who are passionate fans of Jane Campion’s previous work may be somewhat churlish that many other people are finding their way to her work only after it has become juiced up, simplified, and mainstreamed — like the people who bypassed the dreamy finesse of Eraserhead on their way to the relative crudeness of Blue Velvet. It’s certainly regrettable that viewers who weren’t interested in seeing Campion’s 1989 film Sweetie until after they saw The Piano now have to contend with a lousy video transfer that doesn’t begin to do justice to Campion’s colors and compositions.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 16, 1993). For a more detailed commentary on the Histoire(s), including Godard’s own input, go here. — J.R.
HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA **** (Masterpiece)
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Jean-Luc Godard.
MONTPARNASSE 19 ** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Jacques Becker
With Gerard Philipe, Lilli Palmer, Anouk Aimee, Gerard Sety, Lila Kedrova, Lea Padovani, Denise Vernac, and Lino Ventura.
If you want to be “up to the minute” about cinema, there’s no reason to be concerned that it’s taken four years for Jean-Luc Godard’s ambitious video series to reach Chicago. After all, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the artwork to which Histoire(s) du cinéma seems most comparable, written between 1922 and 1939, was first published in 1939, but if you started to read it for the first time this week, you’d still be way ahead of most people in keeping up with literature. For just as Finnegans Wake figuratively situates itself at some theoretical stage after the end of the English language as we know it — from a vantage point where, inside Joyce’s richly multilingual, pun-filled babble, one can look back at the 20th century and ask oneself, “What was the English language?” — Godard’s babbling video similarly projects itself into the future in order to ask, “What was cinema?” Indeed, the fact that it’s a video and not a film already tells you a great deal about its point of view.… Read more »
From the June 5, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Truman Show
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Andrew Niccol
With Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, and Ed Harris.
Undeniably provocative and reasonably entertaining, The Truman Show is one of those high-concept movies whose concept is both clever and dumb. Let’s start with the clever part. A 29-year-old insurance salesman named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who lives in a seemingly utopian small town named Seahaven on an island off the coast of somewhere like Florida or California, gradually discovers that he’s the unwitting star of a TV show — a show that’s been running 24 hours a day since his birth. Everyone else on the island is an actor or an extra — including his wife Meryl (Laura Linney), his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), and his mother (Holland Taylor) — and 5,000 hidden cameras are planted all over town to record his every movement. The show has no commercials in the usual sense, subsisting instead on product placements accompanied by advertising patter from Seahaven residents, including Truman’s wife, who extols the virtues of a new gadget she bought at the supermarket or recommends that he try a new brand of cocoa.… Read more »
This may be Antonioni’s most unjustly neglected fiction feature, at least in the U.S. (though even in France, where it’s on DVD, it’s only available in a box set). I reviewed it for the May 1975 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. –J.R.
Signora Senza Camelie, La
(The Lady Without Camelias)
Italy, 1953 Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
If it lacks the final fusion of purposes characterizing a masterwork, La Signora Senza Camelie is nevertheless so unmistakably and remarkably the work of a master that one is shocked to discover the rather cursory critical treatment is has generally been accorded. A frequent bone of contention is Lucia Bosè’s performance as the starlet in search of an identity –- recalling that the part was first offered, in turn, to Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren, and usually implying some difficulty in accepting Bosè as a persuasive Milanese-shopgirl-turned-sex-symbol. Yet what strikes one at once today is how totally her cold, somewhat remote beauty establishes and “places” the tone of the film, clarifying her cosmic distance from the brassy world of popular filmmaking as well as the natural way in which she might become the goddess of such a realm. In anticipation of Godard’s Vivre sa vie, Antonioni brilliantly opens the film with an image of Clara seen from behind, as an anonymous pedestrian -– tracing her fingers across a move poster and then strolling down the street, the camera gliding slowly after her until she turns into the cinema entrance.… Read more »
Written in late 2006 and published in Discovering Orson Welles the following year. — J.R.
The process-oriented methods that permitted at least four Welles features and a number of short works to be left unﬁnished are easier to understand than they would be if we adopted the mental habits of producers, which is exactly what more and more critics today seem to be doing; but that is no comfort to those of us eager to understand, and eager as critics always are to have the last word, which we are not about to have with this ﬁlmmaker. At least our direction, as always, is laid out for us: as long as one frame of ﬁlm by the greatest ﬁlmmaker of the modern era is moldering in vaults, our work is not done. It is the last challenge, and the biggest joke, of an oeuvre that has always had more designs on us than we could ever have on it.
Bill Krohn’s cautionary words in Cahiers du cinéma’s special “hors série” Orson Welles issue in 1986 offer a useful motto for the present collection of essays, whose own title, Discovering Orson Welles, suggests an ongoing process that necessarily rules out completion and closure — the two mythical absolutes that Welles enthusiasts and scholars seem to hunger for the most.… Read more »
From the August 3, 2001 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
This month the Film Center is inaugurating a monthly “Music Movies” series, five programs that will play on Sundays and Thursdays. The focus in August is jazz films, and the programs include four classics I first saw years ago and four others I’ve just seen for the first time. The worst film in the bunch (Cannonball) happens to be the newest one, and the two most interesting (Cry of Jazz and Black and Tan) are the oldest, though I don’t see any particular trend in this.
It’s difficult to speak of any consistent evolution or devolution in jazz films, because each one is the product of a particular taste and sensibility. One rule I use when evaluating these films is how much we’re allowed to follow the music. Another rule, less obvious and more purist, is how important the on-screen listeners are — which matters a good deal, because jazz at its most exciting is a collective experience involving the audience as well as the interacting musicians. If the people on-screen aren’t seen listening when music is being played, we’re discouraged from listening intently.
This helps explain why I was driven batty by the new 23-minute video about Cannonball Adderley, a musician who has given me a lot of pleasure.… Read more »
I’ve appended a different title to this Chicago Reader review which ran on July 11, 2003 and restored a few details in my argument as well as phrases that a bleary-eyed editor, foregoing the Reader’s usual writer-friendly protocol, deleted at the last minute without telling me. Down with Love, in particular, continues to be a major revelation and source of pleasure for me. — J.R.
Down With Love
Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake
With Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Sarah Paulson, David Hyde Pierce, and Tony Randall.
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Guy Maddin
With Zhang Wei-qiang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni, CindyMarie Small, Johnny Wright, and Brent Neale.
If a more interesting and entertaining Hollywood movie than Down With Love has come along this year, I’ve missed it. Down With Love – which has already closed in Chicago — is entertaining thanks to Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake’s clever script, Peyton Reed’s mainly assured direction, inventive production and costume design, a musical number behind the final credits I’d happily swap all of Chicago for, and even a miscast Renee Zellweger pulling off a difficult climactic monologue.… Read more »
My Afterword to the second edition (paperback) of my 2004 collection Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. — J.R.
“Unwitting omissions —- films I’ll eventually hate myself for having overlooked — are inevitable,” I wrote in December 2003, introducing my list of 1,000 personal favorites, “largely because I haven’t come up with any sure-fire method of recalling or tabulating everything I’ve seen, or even everything I can remember seeing.” Even when I wrote this, I could scarcely imagine I’d omit a film as important as Chimes at Midnight (1966) from my list —- an oversight that illustrates my point all too well. No less vexing was the absence of Flaming Creatures (1963), a film celebrated elsewhere in the same book, and the silly blunder of renaming Crimson Gold (2003) Crimson Red – though at least I was able to correct these latter gaffes, as well as restore a missing accent to Tangos volés (2002), in the book’s second printing. (In the case of Flaming Creatures, this addition was managed ecologically by omitting The Disorderly Orderly  from my list on the same page.)
I discovered the omission of Chimes at Midnight later, from a blog, while cruising the Internet.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1995). — J.R.
The Voice of the Moon
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Federico Fellini
Written by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, and Ermanno Cavazzoni
With Roberto Benigni, Paolo Villaggio, Nadia Ottaviani, Marisa Tomasi, and Angelo Orlando.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese
With Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, and L.Q. Jones.
If I had the choice of seeing either Martin Scorsese’s latest (Casino) or Federico Fellini’s last (The Voice of the Moon) a second time, I’d opt for the Fellini. Both films are relatively minor works by relatively major filmmakers, though Scorsese has described The Voice of the Moon as one of Fellini’s “better pictures.” But Fellini’s swan song has a sweetness and sadness because it represents a kind of local — that is to say national — filmmaking that seems to be quickly vanishing from the mainstream. It isn’t hard to understand why no U.S. distributor has picked up this 1990 movie: it’s too Italian, and it isn’t at all easy to follow as storytelling, because it digresses all over the place. Yet these qualities, which are part of the film’s charm and poetry, might have worked in its favor outside Italy 30 years ago, when audiences tended to be more curious about other cultures and other forms of storytelling.… Read more »
On January 3, 1978, during what must have been my first visit back to London after moving from there to San Diego in early 1977, I attended a private screening at the British Film Institute of glorious new prints of Fritz Lang’s Indian films. Over four years later, when I was invited to program “Buried Treasures” at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, I was delighted to be able to book these prints and thus hold what I believe was the North American premiere of Fritz Lang’s penultimate films in their correct versions, uncut and subtitled in English rather than dubbed. Luckily, Film Forum’s Karen Cooper attended this screening, and two years later, when she booked these prints for a theatrical run, she commissioned me to write program notes, reprinted below. — J.R. THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR/THE INDIAN TOMB (1958, 1959/101, 97 min.) Directed by Fritz Lang. Exec. Producer: Arthur Brauner. Screenplay by Lang & Werner Jorg Luddecke from a novel by Thea von Harbou & a scenario by Lang & von Harbou. Photographed by Richard Angst. Art direction by Helmut Nentwig, Willy Schatz. With: Debra Paget (Seetha), Paul Hubschmid (Harald Berger), Walter Reyer (Chandra), Claus Holm (Dr. Rhode), Sabine Bethmann (Irene Rhode), René Deltman (Ramigani).… Read more »
A slightly different version of the Introduction to my 2004 collection, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. — J.R.
As the son and grandson of small-town exhibitors — a legacy explored in detail in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980/1995) — I find it difficult to pinpoint with any exactitude when my film education started. But I can recall two pivotal early steps during my freshman year at New York University in 1961, when I was an English major still aspiring to become a professional novelist: taking the first and only film course I’ve ever had in my life and purchasing my first film magazine.
The course was an introductory survey taught by the late Haig Manoogian, who was serving as Martin Scorsese’s mentor in production courses around the same time. For me, it mainly afforded me my first opportunity to see The Birth of a Nation, The Last Laugh, and a few other film history staples; since I had no interest in making movies — or at this point in writing about them — I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for such matters as “story values” that Manoogian tended to emphasize.… Read more »
The third chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press. To set the context, the book’s previous chapter is called “Some Vagaries of Distribution and Exhibition”. — J.R.
A much more common and systematic method of obfuscating business practices in the ﬁlm industry, especially in blurring the lines between journalism and publicity, is the movie junket. Here’s how it generally works: a studio at its own expense ﬂies a number of journalists either to a location where a movie is being shot or to a large city where it is being previewed, puts the journalists up at fancy hotels, and then arranges a series of closely monitored interviews with the “talent” (most often the stars and the director). The journalists are then expected to go home and write puff pieces about the movies in question, run in newspapers and magazines as either reportage or as a classy form of “ﬁlm criticism.” If these journalists don’t oblige — and sometimes obliging entails not only favorable coverage, but articles with particular emphases set by publicists, articles that screen out certain forbidden topics and hone in on certain others — then the studios won’t invite them back to future junkets.… Read more »
Chapter Two of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press. — J.R.
How often are aesthetic agendas determined by business agendas? This question is not raised often enough.Terminology plays an important role here. For example, once upon a time, previews of new releases were called “sneak previews” because the titles of these pictures weren’t announced in advance. Most industry people continue to use the term, despite the fact that the titles are announced and even advertised, so that the original meaning gets obfuscated: the only thing “sneaky” is the fact that they’re called “sneak previews.”This is a relatively trivial example of how terminology alienates us from what goes on in the world of movies. A more signiﬁcant example is how we use an extremely loaded term like “independent.” An independent ﬁlmmaker traditionally meant a ﬁlmmaker who worked independently, free from the pressures of the major studios. If you believe what the media say about independent ﬁlms, then the mecca for independent ﬁlmmaking would be the Sundance Film Festival, an event where independent ﬁlms and ﬁlmmakers congregate annually.… Read more »