Monthly Archives: December 2018

CUTTER’S WAY (1985 review)

From the April 1985 Video Times. — J.R.

Cutter’s Way

(1981), C, Director: Ivan Passer. With Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, and Ann Dusenberry. 105 min. R, MGM/UA, $69.95.

A powerful, erotic thriller with remarkable performances from all three of its leads (Jeff Bridges, John Heard, and Lisa Eichhorn), Cutter’s Way never made the impact it should have when it was released. Originally titled Cutter and Bone, after the novel by Newton Thornberg on which it is based, it quickly became a studio write-off in the immediate wake of Heaven’s Gate. Not even a brace of rave reviews and a couple of film festival prizes could save it. Rereleased a few months later as Cutter’s Way, the film went on to acquire an enthusiastic cult that continues to appreciate its sensitive, offbeat mood and its indelible portrait of disaffected America.

The film is tightly scripted by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin and directed by the Czech expatriate Ivan Passer, best known for his bittersweet Czech feature Intimate Lighting, as well as such American features as Born to Win, Law and Disorder, and Silver Bears. Cutter’s Way is an in-depth portrait of the complex relations between three disaffected people.… Read more »

ZABRISKIE POINT (1984 review)

From Video Movies (August 1984). — J.R.

Zabriskie Point

(1969), C, Director: Michelangelo Antonioni. With Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Rod Taylor, and Kathleen Cleaver. 111 min. R. MGM/UA, $59.95.

In the 1960s, he could do no wrong, especially after his hit, Blow-up. In the 1980s, Michelangelo Antonioni emerges as a shamefully neglected figure — only one of his last four films (The Passenger) has been released in this country. And Zabriskie Point, the film that virtually destroyed his American reputation, offers ample proof of both the Italian director’s brilliance and his neglect of filmmaking particulars that Americans seemingly will not stand for. To understand Antonioni’s art, we must acknowledge that he is not a storyteller but a composer/choreographer of sounds and images.

As either a plausible romance about disaffected youth or as a documentary rendering of 1969 America, Zabriskie Point is often ludicrous. But one keeps in mind that Antonioni thinks through his camera more than through his scripts — and that realism is far from his intention — one can see this film as an astonishingly beautiful achievement. As the director noted at the time, “The story is certainly a simple one. Nonetheless, the content is actually very complex.… Read more »

Zona and Noriko Smiling: Two Literary Voyages into Film Analysis

A slightly edited version of this article entitled “Devotional Reading” appeared in the November-December 2012 issue of Film Comment. For whatever it’s worth, I find Geoff Dyer’s taped interview about Stalker on Criterion’s forthcoming Blu-Ray (to be released on July 18)  more perceptive than anything in this book. I  guess he’s had more time to think about it by now. — J.R.

 

 

 

 

There are at least two intriguing recent trends reflected in the publications of Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (New York: Pantheon, 2012) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011) — book-length studies of masterpieces (Stalker and Late Spring, respectively) and film criticism by amateurs (both of them prestigious literary Brits). A couple of much older attitudes underlying both is a view of cinema as literature by another means and, conversely, a view of film analysis as a literary and linear pursuit.

 

It’s obvious that what links these two trends historically is the phenomenon of home viewing, which has made every viewer a potential “expert” for the first time. Prior to VCRs and DVD and Blu-Ray players, the only tools available for studying films at length were 16 mm projectors and moviolas, most often belonging only to “professionals” of one kind or another.Read more »

Family Plots (a story)

I no longer know when I wrote this story, although it was obviously written before I wrote digitally, because the typescript I recently came across, which I’ve revised here only slightly, clearly came from a typewriter. (I suspect that most or all of it was written in Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s, although I may have started it much earlier.) A few of the details are autobiographical in origin (e.g., I grew up with three brothers, but certainly without a nanny, and the description of the grandparents’ mansion mostly corresponds to my own grandparents’ home in Florence, Alabama, owned and occupied today by a local friend), but most of them obviously aren’t.

I’ve hesitated about publishing much of my fiction on this site because the responses to my stories so far have been fairly minimal — a likely result of “niche marketing” that tends to associate this site almost exclusively with film (or, to a lesser extent, jazz and reviews of prose fiction) — but I’ve decided to repost this with links on Facebook and Twitter just to see if this changes anything. — J.R.

 

 

 

 

Family Plots

 

1.

The restaurant was so crowded that they had to assign all six of us to separate tables, with careful instructions to deliver five of the checks to Daddy-Pop after the meal, reconvene, and then go to see a Marx Brothers double feature down the street.… Read more »

Through the Past, Darkly [GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI & THE CRUCIBLE]

From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 1996). — J.R.

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Ghosts of Mississippi

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Rob Reiner

Written by Lewis Colick

With Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Ladd, Bonnie Bartlett, Bill Cobbs, William H. Macy, Virginia Madsen, and Michael O’Keefe.

The Crucible

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Written by Arthur Miller

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Jones, Peter Vaughan, and Karron Graves.

“This story is true,” reads the opening title of Ghosts of Mississippi, a movie about the murder of NAACP activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in June 1963, and the conviction of his murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, which took a little more than 30 years.

“This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian,” Arthur Miller wrote in a note prefacing his 1953 play The Crucible, which depicts events that occurred in 1692, and which has now been turned into a movie adapted by Miller. Miller went on to detail the ways he’d changed history — he sometimes fused many people into one character, and he made a central character, Abigail, older.… Read more »

The Freed Woman

From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 2007). –J.R.

FLYING: CONFESSIONS OF A FREE WOMAN ***

DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY JENNIFER FOX

There’s something nervy about the way Jennifer Fox, in her new autobiographical six-part, six-hour miniseries, showing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, tries to combine her life, her art, and her politics. Made with funding from the Danish Film Institute over a four-year period ending in late 2006, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman recounts the privileges, confusions, and self-examinations of Fox, a Manhattan-based filmmaker in her mid-40s who grew up associating her freedom with being like a boy, feeling much closer to her permissive father than to her disapproving mother, and never having the slightest interest in getting married or (until recently) having kids.

Known for such PBS documentaries as Beirut: The Last Home Movie (1987) and An American Love Story (1999), a miniseries about the everyday life of an interracial couple, Fox does a fair amount of globe-trotting, and during the time frame of Flying she’s juggling two lovers on separate continents who know about each other. The less serious relationship is with Patrick, a Swiss-German cinematographer she sees more often, mainly in New York (he’s credited as the film’s “technical supervisor”).… Read more »

Strangeness on a Train [on von Trier's ZENTROPA/EUROPA]

From the Chicago Reader (July 3, 1992). This marks my first encounter with Lars von Trier. — J.R.

ZENTROPA

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Lars von Trier

Written by von Trier and Niels Vorsel

With Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Erik Mork, Jorgen Reenberg, Henning Jensen, Eddie Constantine, and the voice of Max von Sydow.

Lars von Trier’s Zentropa is the most exciting failure to come along in ages. This Danish-French-German-Swedish coproduction (known as Europa outside the United States), turning up here over a year after it received both the Jury Prize and the Technical Prize at Cannes, addresses so many fundamental contemporary questions about postmodernism, language, colonialism, the Common Market, coproduction, the future of European cinema, and our collective memory of World War II that one may feel a mite churlish pointing out that its technique ultimately overwhelms the themes and characters. After all, exercices de style worthy of the name are not exactly plentiful these days, and Zentropa is an especially dazzling example — vastly more impressive than Barton Fink or Kafka or Shadows and Fog, to cite only the first rough counterparts that come to mind. It has so much to say and do, in fact, that its failure to get everything said and done has to be weighed against the failure of most other recent movies to say or do anything at all beyond the barest commercial minimum.… Read more »

Complicated Characters [STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING]

From the Chicago Reader (December 13, 2007). — J.R.

Starting Out in the Evening 

Directed by Andrew Wagner ***

The two most interesting movies I saw at press screenings last summer had their opening dates postponed, and it’s not hard to imagine why. As Orson Welles experienced time and again, features that are fresh and unconventional are harder to gauge as commercial prospects than stale conventional ones — and thus they’re harder to sell. This explains both the box-office success of Welles’s relatively pedestrian The Stranger (1946) and the delayed and relatively unprofitable U.S. releases of many of his other features, starting with Citizen Kane and continuing through The Lady From Shanghai, Othello, and F for Fake, among others.

Neither Jon Poll’s Charlie Bartlett nor Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Eve­ning is a masterpiece, but both films exemplify a kind of adventurous filmmaking that’s increasingly difficult to envisage in today’s marketplace, where first impressions mean everything — it’s an unpromising cli­mate for any art form. When I saw Charlie Bartlett — an edgy and quirky satirical teen comedy, unusual for both its nervy politics and its class consciousness — in mid-July, it was scheduled to open in early August.… Read more »

Afghan High Jinks

From the Chicago Reader (February 15, 2002). — J.R.

Kandahar

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantai, and Sadou Teymouri.

“Shall I recite the Koran for the dead?”

“We are the dead; sing for us.”

Kandahar

There are times in history when the aesthetic quality of a work of art appears to become secondary to the urgency and currency of the work’s subject matter. The era of Italian neorealism was arguably one of those times. Kandahar — a film in which the terrible and the wonderful, the gauche and the graceful, the beautiful and the ugly, and the smart and the not-so-smart rub shoulders — surely marks another.

In many ways the qualities of Kandahar that derive from actuality operate as art ordinarily does — so that, for instance, the bad acting serves as well as good acting would to bring us closer to the people we’re seeing. In some ways, the bad acting may even serve better, because it allows more of the actors’ personal characteristics to shine through. Yet once we become aware of this, our responses to the actuality become aestheticized. And even if we could overlook the quality of the acting altogether — no easy matter — writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf is too much of an artist to abandon the aesthetic parts of his sensibility.… Read more »

He’s So Heavy [COLD HEAVEN]

From the August 14, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

COLD HEAVEN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Allan Scott

With Theresa Russell, Mark Harmon, James Russo, Talia Shire, Will Patton, Richard Bradford, and Julie Carmen.

The sexy, volatile cinema of Nicolas Roeg might be said to operate under a kind of curse. Born in London in 1928, Roeg entered movies as a clapper boy at the age of 22 but didn’t become a cinematographer until his early 30s. After shooting such interesting films in the 60s as The Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, and Petulia, he directed his powerful and still-dangerous Performance (in collaboration with Donald Cammell) in 1968, but then had to wait two years for Warner Brothers to release it.

After Roeg’s first solo directorial effort (Walkabout, 1971) came his first and only commercial hit (Don’t Look Now, 1973). He followed that up with two controversial cult items (The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976, and Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, 1979). In 1982 he made a feature (Eureka) that had a very limited release. Next in line was Insignificance (1985), then another feature with virtually no theatrical life in the United States (Castaway, 1986), then a third limited release (Track 29, 1988).… Read more »

Review of THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE, THE GOVERNMENT AND FILM CULTURE, 1933-2000

From the online Screening the Past,  issue 36, posted 17 June 2013. — J.R.

BFI Strike August 1974_NEW_0001

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Christophe Dupin (ed.)

The British Film Institute, the Government and Film Culture, 1933-2000

Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 2012

ISBN: 978 0 7190 7908 5

US$95/UK£65

288pp (hc)

(Review copy supplied by Footprint Books/Warriewood)

The most interesting job I’ve ever had was my two and a half years of working for the British Film Institute, between 1974 and 1977 –- as both assistant editor of the Monthly Film Bulletin (under Richard Combs) and staff writer for Sight and Sound (under Penelope Houston, who was directly responsible for my getting hired), occasioning at the time a move from Paris to London. This is what sparked my particular interest in this impressively detailed history, coedited and mostly written (apart from four of its 15 chapters) by the University of London’s Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and the International Federation of Film Archives’ Christophe Dupin after more than six years of research — and the fact that it retails for $95 at Amazon in the U.S. and 65 quid at Amazon in the U.K. meant that the only reasonable way I could acquire it was to ask to review it.… Read more »

Raymond Durgnat’s IMAGES OF THE MIND

While eagerly awaiting the publication of the aptly named Images of the Mind: The Essential Raymond Durgnat, a definitive collection edited by Henry K. Miller that the British Film Institute will apparently publish later this year, I’ve just found time to experience the pleasure of a remarkable 1992 documentary with half of the same title, Jarmo Valkola’s 45-minute Images of the Mind: Cinematic Visions by Raymond Durgnat — a film now available at newly revamped Durgnat web site that manages to be both a wonderful portrait of the greatest of all English film critics (1932-2002), speaking as both a fan and as a friend over the last three decades of his life (as well as one-time house mate, circa 1977-78), and a brilliant lecture by Ray about the nature of film, the history of the English character in the 20th century, and the art of Michael Powell. Indeed, the only thing that can be said to be dated about this remarkable film is the fact that it cites Durgnat’s still-unpublished book about Powell as one of his publications. Otherwise, it impressively predates the recent film criticism on film that can be found in the work of Kevin Lee and Volker Pantenburg, among many others.… Read more »

Review of SPEAKING ABOUT GODARD & NEGATIVE SPACE

From Cineaste, Fall 1998. –J.R.

Speaking About Godard

by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki; foreword by Constance Penley. New York/London: New York University Press, 1998. 245 pp., illus. Hardcover: $55.00, Paperback: $17.95.

Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies (expanded edition)

by Manny Farber; preface by Robert Walsh. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. Paperback: $15.95.

Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki’s dialogues about eight features by Jean-Luc Godard, stretching from Vivre sa vie (1962) to Nouvelle vague (1990), is a book I’ve been awaiting ever since coming across its sixth and seventh chapters, on Numéro deux (1975) and Passion (1981), in issues of the journals Camera Obscura and Discourse, respectively. The two best critical studies I’ve encountered anywhere of these difficult, neglected masterworks, they manage to account for a great deal of what’s going on in them, metaphorically, ideologically, and intellectually, and the graceful division of labor between the two critics as they proceed through the films — roughly speaking, a dialectical exchange between Freud (Silverman) and Marx (Farocki) — makes the process of their exploration all the more illuminating. Silverman, a film theorist who teaches at Berkeley, and Farocki, a German essayistic filmmaker with over seventy films to his credit, are both primarily concerned with what these two films mean, and they attack this question with a great deal of lucidity and rigor.… Read more »

Unpublished letter to Sight and Sound (9/19/15)

living-together

I’m very glad that Anna Karina’s neglected first feature, Vivre ensemble (1973), wasn’t overlooked in “The Female Gaze” (S&S, October), but I should also point out that the film isn’t quite as inaccessible as James Blackford, who couldn’t find a way of seeing it, assumes. Having been at the film’s premiere at Cannes and then having reseen it shortly afterwards in Paris, I still remembered it almost 40 years later when I selected and presented it on January 21, 2012, at Toronto’s Lightbox, as part of a series celebrating the Cannes’ La Semaine de la Critique. Seeing it again on that occasion, I found it fascinating — very brave, very personal, and also very, very 1973, in quite illuminating ways. The occasional autobiographical echoes reflecting Karina’s earlier relation to Godard only added to the fascination, and Karina herself suggested to me in a brief phone conversation that the film was badly received by the French film industry in part because the decision of a local actress to write and direct her own feature was virtually unprecedented at the time. I should add that she has written and directed a second feature, Victoria (2008), made in French Canada, that is even more obscure and inaccessible than Living Together has been; I haven’t been able to see it myself, and information about it on the Internet is extremely scarce, but I’m still hoping this situation will change.Read more »

Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

From the Chicago Reader (September 16, 1988). — J.R.

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CASTAWAY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Allan Scott

With Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohue.

ASSAULT OF THE KILLER BIMBOS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Anita Rosenberg

Written by Ted Nicoleau, Rosenberg, and Patti Astor

With Christina Whitaker, Elizabeth Kaitan, Tammara Souza, Mike Muscat, Nick Cassavetes, Dave Marsh, and Patti Astor.

A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Larry Cohen

Written by Cohen and James Dixon

With Michael Moriarty, Samuel Fuller, Andrew Duggan , Ricky Addison Reed, June Havoc, Evelyn Keyes, and Ronee Blakley.

The three movies listed above are all probably playing in Chicago this week, but not in any local theaters; they’re available in video rental stores and playing on home screens. Recent releases that have never opened theatrically, and presumably never will, they represent a growing breed of movie, at once omnipresent and unacknowledged.

Ever since the fairly recent time when the amount of money spent in this country on video rentals began to exceed the amount spent on movie tickets, notions about moviegoing have become even more specialized and limited. In contrast to moviegoing in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, when individual movies provided national experiences that were public and shared, moviegoing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s has increasingly become a less communal activity.

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