Monthly Archives: September 2018

The Tyranny of Sensitivity

From The Soho News, July 18, 1980. Also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995). — J.R.

John Cassavetes, Filmmaker and Actor Museum of Modern Art, 20 June — 11 July


Nineteen years ago, when I was a high school senior making one of those boring, difficult adolescent transitions — from being a social outcast in my hometown in the Deep South to being a social outcast as a southerner at a New England prep school — I had the good fortune to discover John Cassavetes’s SHADOWS at the New Embassy at Broadway and 46th. It was near the beginning of my spring vacation, which meant that I could return to this movie again and again, during the same week or so when I was getting my first looks at BREATHLESS, THE RULES OF THE GAME, ROOM AT THE TOP, SPARTACUS, THE MISFITS, and TAKE A GIANT STEP.

Art in our time, Harold Rosenberg once wrote, appeals either to other artists or “to introverted adolescents, to people in crises of metamorphosis, a small-town girl who has met an intellectual, a husband forced to give up drinking, a business man who feels spiritually falsified, all these being, like the audience of artists, more attentive to themselves than to the work.” And D.… Read more »

Visions of the South

From Nashville Scene (cover story), March 10, 2011. This essay was commissioned by the late Jim Ridley, whose recent unexpected death was a grievous loss.  — J.R.

In certain respects, the “Visions of the South” series of Southern

movies being launched in Nashville this week at The Belcourt deserves

to be applauded for its omissions as well as its inclusions. The most

conspicuous of these omissions is probably Robert Altman’s Nashville

(1975), which Brenda Lee once aptly described as “a dialectic collage of

unreality.” (Altman, at least, proved better at handling Mississippi —

in Thieves Like Us the year before Nashville, and in Cookie’s

Fortune a quarter of a century later.)

We all know, of course, that Hollywood and even some of its maverick

celebrities have been guilty of fostering and/or perpetuating false images

of the South from the very beginning. A few other prominent and

dubious examples might include Jean Renoir’s The Southerner

(1945), Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959), Richard

Brooks’ Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Otto Preminger’s Hurry

Sundown (1967), John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line

(1970), and, surely the most bogus of all, Alan Parker’s

Mississippi Burning (1989), with its outlandish errors

involving both Jim Crow and the FBI, just to get started.Read more »

Cukor and Sensuality

Recently reseeing George Cukor’s scandalously neglected Travels with My Aunt (1972) helps to clarify how central self-images and sensual discoveries are to his best as well as his most personal films. Travels with My Aunt isn’t on  the same level as Sylvia Scarlett (1935), A Star is Born (1954), and Bhowani Junction (1955), probably my favorites, but it often seems just as personal, and it does have some of the superbly intricate and dispersed ‘Scope compositions that one often finds in the latter two, as well as in Les Girls (1957) and Let’s Make Love (1960), with their own mottled lighting schemes.

(Too bad that Les Girls, also recently reseen, is so unpleasant apart from its choreography and compositions. All the characters are monstrous and the plot is absurd. Why does the Rashomon theme, both here and in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, depend mainly on odious people and motives — unlike Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, which uses a modified version of the same theme and is much kinder to its characters?)

Travels with My Aunt can also be read as a kind of response to the free-wheeling 60s and early 70s, much as Sylvia Scarlett celebrated certain aspects of the free-wheeling and footloose 30s.… Read more »

Ten Favorite Offbeat Musicals

Published by DVD Beaver in March 2006; I’ve updated several links.  — J.R.

Read more »

Consider the following not so much a definitive list — offerings and preferences keep changing — as a starting point for checking out some of the weirdest and most pleasurable musical comedies in my personal pantheon. The order is chronological.
(CLICK COVER FOR MORE) Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932) A controversy used to rage about whether this was “imitation Lubitsch with too many camera angles” (as Andrew Sarris once put it) or a lighthearted send-up of Ernst Lubitsch (as Tom Milne argued in his book on Mamoulian). Since the movie costars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, the same leads as Lubitsch’s previous The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant, and Lubitsch himself was production chief at Paramount when it was made, these issues can’t be resolved simply. But my own preference for this masterpiece over the Lubitsch films that influenced it comes easy, and not only because it’s appeared on DVD ahead of them. It has a wonderful Rodgers and Hart score and a singular impulse to encompass nothing less than the entire world in its musical numbers. Towards the beginning, “Isn’t it Romantic?” passes from Chevalier (a tailor in Paris) to a customer to a composer passing on the street to a cab driver to soldiers on a train to a Gypsy fiddler in the countryside to MacDonald singing on a distant balcony; and plenty of non-singers are allowed to take over bits of subsequent songs, like the reprise of “Mimi”.

Everywar [THE RAGGEDY RAWNEY]

From the Chicago Reader (September 7, 1990). — J.R.

THE RAGGEDY RAWNEY

*** ( A must-see)

Directed by Bob Hoskins

Written by Hoskins and Nicole De Wilde

With Dexter Fletcher, Hoskins, Zoe Nathenson, Dave Hill, Ian Dury, and Zoe Wanamaker.

An offbeat and highly original English film that’s been very slow making the rounds — Bob Hoskins’s The Raggedy Rawney (1987) — may be in trouble commercially. It didn’t even show in England until about two years after its completion, and it took an additional year to reach Chicago. Now that it’s here, it has at least five serious handicaps:

(1) At first glance, hardly anyone has any idea what the title means. (“Rawney,” a rather specialized word not found in most dictionaries, roughly means “magical madwoman.”)

(2) As an actor, Hoskins is basically known for his roles in contemporary settings, usually within a noir context — either as a gangster (as in The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa) or as a detective (as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). His part in The Raggedy Rawney, as a sort of gypsy leader, plays off neither of these associations, nor is it the lead role.

(3) Inspired by a legend told to Hoskins as a child by his grandmother that reportedly can be traced all the way back to the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1443), the movie is nonetheless given a setting so vaguely defined that the best description I’ve seen yet (published in the synopsis in Monthly Film Bulletin) is: “Sometime during the first half of the 20th century, in a European country at war.” On the other hand, if it were set during the Hundred Years’ War, that probably wouldn’t have helped; the best film that comes to mind that dealt with that war — John Huston’s A Walk With Love and Death (1969), starring his daughter Angelica in her first major role — was possibly the biggest flop of his career, and it’s virtually impossible to see nowadays.… Read more »

East Coast Journal (1975)

From Film Comment (May-June 1975). -– J.R.

February 28: Heathrow Airport, London. As soon as I step on the plane, TWA’s Muzak system has seen to it that I’m already back in America. Listening on the plastic earphones to blatant hypes for GOLD on two separate channels, the soundtrack of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT on another (where “fuck” is consistently bleeped out, but “fucker” and the sound of Jeff Bridges getting kicked in the face are dutifully preserved), it becomes evident once more that America starts and stops where its money reaches, and that “going there” means following the money trail. It’s over two years since my last visit – my longest sojourn abroad, during which I’ve had to miss the splendors of Watergate and depend on such things as Michael Arlen’s excellent TV column in The New Yorker for accounts of shifts in the national psyche — but TWA tells me in its own quiet way that nothing essential has changed.

On the plane I read Pauline Kael’s pre-release rave about Altman’s NASHVILLE, and and it certainly does its job: I can’t wait to see the movie. But why does she have to embarrass everyone by comparing Altman to Joyce? It’s just about as unhelpful (and unsubstantiated) as her earlier comparisons of, say, LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS with Ulysees and THIEVES LIKE US with Faulkner, which confuse more than they clarify.… Read more »

Cinema Stylists, by John Belton

From the Summer 1984 Film Quarterly (Vol. XXXVII, No. 4). I can happily report that some copies of this book are still available on the Internet. — J.R.

CINEMA STYLISTS

By John Belton. Metuchan, N.J. & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1983. $19.50.

From the outset, in his Introduction, John Belton makes the organizing stance of Cinema Stylists admirably clear. Revised auteurism — that is to say, non-vulgar and non-biographical auteurism, an auteurism brought more in line with the qualms of Barthes and Foucault (and subsequently Wollen) about authorship, and tempered with some of the notions about authorial presence in Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction — is the dominant (if not exclusive) mode in this collection of over three dozen pieces, written over the past fourteen years. With the specters and examples of Robin Wood and Andrew Sarris hovering over his shoulders – his right and left consciences, as it were – Belton lacks the stylistic fluidity of either of his mentors, but has certain sound academic virtues which match and occasionally surpass the capacities of both.

A champion of the underdog film as well as the neglected figure, Belton can be seen going to bat in Cinema Stylists for Robert Mulligan, Edgar G.… Read more »

Surviving the Sixties

From Cinema Scope no. 17 (Winter 2003); reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties

by J. Hoberman (New York/London: The New Press, 461 pp., 2003.


“You know, I’m not someone who ever survived the Depression,” the great American film critic and painter Manny Farber once said to me, back in the late 1970s. “It’s not the sort of experience you ever really get over.” This was in part a gentle rebuke to someone born after the 1930s who tended to romanticize that era —- seeing glimmers of communal warmth and common cause leaking through all that picturesque poverty, especially in Hollywood pictures. For me, the 1930s were a legendary period —- the time in the U.S. when socialism came closest to being a mainstream position. Indeed, the next two decades in American history might be viewed as a series of desperate holding actions against the dreams nurtured in that epoch.

By contrast, the 1960s was a period of prosperity that nurtured outsized utopian dreams of its own —- dreams so grandiose that the succeeding decades up to the present could be viewed as another set of fearful responses.Read more »

Movie Love (on CINÉMA CINÉMAS, 1982-1991)

From Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], posted March 5, 2009. The last time I checked, the box set Cinéma Cinémas was still available from French Amazon, for 25.56 Euros. — J.R.

How does one distinguish American cinephilia from the original, hardcore French brand? Based on an exchange I had with French critic Raymond Bellour and several other friends a dozen years ago — a round of letters first published in the French film magazine Trafic that later grew into a collection in English that I co-edited with Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia — there’s some disagreement about how serious a role French cinema actually plays in “classic” (i.e., French) cinephilia. According to Raymond, spurred in part by remarks from the late Serge Daney — a mutual friend and the founder of Trafic — modern French cinephilia was from the outset basically American, as suggested by the archetypal question, “How can one be a Hitchcocko-Hawksian?”:

It’s a question of theory, but even more of territory. This is what necessarily divides me from Jonathan, in whom cinephilia was born, like in everyone else, through the nouvelle vague, but who, as an American, takes the nouvelle vague itself as an object of cinephilia — whereas the cinephile, in the historical and French sense, trains his sights on the American cinema as an enchanted and closed world, a referential system sufficient to interpret the rest.Read more »

Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies

From Sight and Sound (Summer 1973). – J.R.

 

FILM AS FILM: Understanding and Judging Movies

By V.F. Perkins

PENGUIN BOOKS, 35p

Responding polemically to some of the more antiquated notions found in Rotha, Lindgren, Manvell, Arnheim and others, the title of Victor Perkins’ short and engaging book carries a sympathetic resonance. A major part of his enterprise is to clear away cobwebs from the attics of film theory and lay a few outdated texbooks to rest, and ‘Film as Film’ adequately summarizes the central thrust of his yarious charges. But as we know, theories arc usually debunked to clear the way for newer models, and as soon as Perkins’ own theory gets under way, his title begins to seem much more inclusive than anything he claims to offer in his text. Unavoidably, alternate titles come to mind: “Action as Presentation”, or, perhaps more to the point, ‘Movie as Movie’.

As Perkins indicates in his preface, ‘The examples discussed are not drawn from the (rightly or wrongly) accepted classics of Film Art nor from the fashionable “triumphs” of the past few years, but generally from films which seem to representwhat the Movies meant to their public in the cinema’s commercial heyday.’ What is meant by this is not, say, Gone with the Wind, King Kong or Casablanca, but rather the films of Preminger, Hitchcock, Minnelli, Brooks, Fuller and Nicholas Ray — in short, an abbreviated paraphrase of the pantheon that dominated the pages of Movie in the 1960s.… Read more »

Introduction to Rivette: Texts & Interviews (1977)

This book was published in 1977 by the British Film Institute and has been long out of print, although nearly all its contents has been reprinted on the excellent Jacques Rivette website, “Order of the Exile”. — J.R.

Rather than be considered in isolation, this book should be regarded as part of a general effort to make the work of Jacques Rivette available, in every sense of the term. This is not to imply that the following texts and interviews are being offered as a mere supplement to his films: if the entire body of Rivette’s work can be read as a series of evolving reflections on the cinema, the critical work contained in this volume is indissolubly linked with the critical work represented by his film-making. From this standpoint, it is not enough to say (for instance) that Rivette’s 1957 review of Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt helps to ‘explain’ — indeed, provides a veritable blueprint for — many of the preoccupations of his 1976 film Noroit. One of the assumptions of this collection is that it might be equally valuable to view Noroit as a key towards understanding Rivette’s important text on Lang.Read more »

OVERLORD (1975 review and 2006 review)

Criterion has just released Overlord on Blue-Ray. Here are my two separate reviews of the film, written over three decades apart — for Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1975, Vol. 42, No. 500, and for the Chicago Reader, June 2, 2006. — J.R.

Overlord-Poster

Overlord

 

Great Britain. 1975

Director: Stuart Cooper

Cert–A. dist-EMI. p.c–Joswend. p–James Quinn. p. manager

Michael Guest. sc–Stuart Cooper, Christopher Hudson. ph–John

Alcott. optical effects–Vee Films. ed–Jonathan Gili. a.d–Michael

Moody, Barry Kitts. m–Partl Glass. songs–”The Lambeth Walk” by

Douglas Furber, Noel Gay; “We Don’t Know Where We’re Going” by

Ralph Butler, Noel Gay, sung by Nick Curtis. costume advice–Laurie

Milner. titles–Ann Hechle. sd. ed–Alan Be1l. sd. rec–Tony Jackson.

sd. re-rec–Gerry Humphries. l.p–Brian Stirner (Tom), Davyd Harries

(Jack), Nicholas Ball (Arthur), Julie Neesam (Girl), Sam Sewell (Trained

Soldier), John Franklyn-Robbins (Dad), Stella Tanner (Mum), Harry

Shacklock (Station-master), David Scheuer (Medical Officer), Ian Liston

(Barrack Guard), Lorna Lewis (Prostitute), Stephen Riddle (Dead German

Soldier), Jack Le White (Barman), Mark Penfold (Photographer), Micaela

Minelli (Little Girl), Elsa Minelli (Little Girl’s Mother).… Read more »

Introduction to the Chinese edition of ACTING IN THE CINEMA

Written in mid-February 2013 for the publication of the Chinese edition of James Naremore’s Acting in the Cinema, which was originally scheduled for publication in China in 2014. It finally came out only two months ago. This is the second Introduction I’ve written for a Chinese translation of a Naremore book; my previous one was for More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. — J.R.

In film criticism, acting tends to be the most neglected single aspect of cinema — one that’s especially difficult to describe and also easy to confuse with other skills and effects in filmmaking, to cite only two of the reasons for its neglect. Often not knowing whose creativity and whose creative decisions are the most relevant, we easily become confounded over issues of intentionality, agency, credit, and defining precisely what it is that we’re responding to, which becomes all the more difficult due to the mythological auras that surround famous actors.The few times that I’ve tried to write about actors myself in any detail, such as Kim Novak, Marilyn Monroe, Eric von Stroheim, and Charlie Chaplin, I’ve concentrated mainly on those auras, and in the case of the latter two, I’ve even found it hard to separate their acting from their writing and directing.… Read more »

Lost In Yonkers

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1993). — J.R.

a6_1_b

As in Rambling Rose, director Martha Coolidge does an interesting and effective job here of reinterpreting from a woman’s perspective autobiographical and nostalgic material written by a man. This time the material is an adaptation by Neil Simon of his own play about living for a spell in Yonkers in 1942 (Brad Stoll plays the narrator-protagonist at age 15) with his younger brother (Mike Damus), bitter and tyrannical grandmother (Irene Worth), and wacky aunt (Mercedes Ruehl), while his widowed father (Jack Laufer) struggles in the south to pay off some debts. Ironically, the movie comes into its own only in scenes from which the teenage hero is absent; the rest of the time it is charming Simon material without much staying power. Richard Dreyfuss plays a criminal uncle who briefly hides out with the family and David Strathairn’s a slow-witted movie theater usher the wacky aunt wants to marry. (JR)

Lost_in_yonkersRead more »

Questions about Film Acting: A Dialogue with James Naremore

Written for the Savannah-based, online Cine-Files in May 2014, posted circa early June, and reprinted here, with their permission (and some added illustrations). — J.R.

Acting-in-the-Cinema

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: For me, a key part of your argument in Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) occurs in your fourth chapter, “Expressive Coherence and Performance within Performance,” when you argue that even a sincere expression of one’s feelings is an actorly performance, “because the expression of ‘true’ feeling is itself a socially conditioned behavior.”  Which then leads you to quote from Brecht:

“One easily forgets that human education proceeds along theatrical lines. In a quite theatrical manner a child is taught how to behave; logical arguments only come later. When such-and-such occurs, it is told (or sees), one must laugh….In the same way it joins in shedding tears, not only weeping because the grow-ups do so but also feeling genuine sorrow. This can be seen at funerals, whose meaning escapes children entirely. These are theatrical events which form the character. The human being copies gesture, miming, tones of voice. And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” (69)

It seems to me that one reason why acting tends to be neglected in film criticism is that we can too easily confuse it with other elements — writing, directing, the ‘auras” of certain personalities, even certain casting decisions — in much the same way that we’re often confused or misguided about the sources of our own behavior (such as, are we weeping to express sorrow or to produce sorrow?) Or do you see this neglect stemming from other reasons?… Read more »