This was commissioned by and written for the Rotterdam International Film Festival — specifically for a booklet of essays entitled Grandeur Locale that they published in late January 1992. — J.R.
1. “We acknowledge with gratitude and admiration the spirit of cooperation of the 25,000 citizens of Phenix City, Alabama,” reads a title after the credits of Phil Karlson’s remarkable film noir, THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955), shot on location less than a year after the events it describes took place. “…To the Mayors and the City Commissioners, the Chiefs of Police, and the many thousand citizens of Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama, who contributed immeasurably to the making of this picture…our sincerest thanks.” For once, the standard courtesy of such an acknowledgement becomes the literal truth. In many prints of the film, we meet four of the local, real-life participants in the story we’re about to see even before the credits come on. The singular accents and speech patterns of these people are literally the sound of my own childhood: I was thirteen years old and had lived all my life in Alabama when the film was released, and to see the film in 1955 was to experience some of the truth of my home state on the screen for the very first time.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 1990). — J.R.
THE ICICLE THIEF
Directed by Maurizio Nichetti
Written by Nichetti and Mauro Monti
With Nichetti, Caterina Sylos Labini, Federico Rizzo, Heidi Komarek, Renato Scarpa, Carlina Torta, Lella Costa, and Claudio G. Fava.
There is still so much we have to learn about TV! — Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus
Some people have called Maurizio Nichetti the Italian Woody Allen, an unfortunate appellation in more ways than one. Not only does it not do him justice, it also attributes to him an urban snobbishness that couldn’t be further from his world and persona. In the New York Times, where Allen’s movies are ranked higher than the late works of Welles and Antonioni — apparently because Allen, unlike Welles and Antonioni, reflects the worldview of many New Yorkers — the label can only backfire. But take a look at both actors and ask yourself which of the two is funnier.
The first time I saw a Nichetti movie, all it took was the opening sequence to convince me that there was no contest.
At an international conference in Milan, a distinguished participant suffers a stroke. A desperate call is made across the city to Colombo — a short nebbish with a mop of hair and a Groucho mustache, who operates a hilltop refreshment stand — for a glass of mineral water for the poor man.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 20, 1989). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Christopher Hampton
With Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Mildred Natwick, and Uma Thurman.
Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, first published more than 200 years ago, is one of the greatest novels ever written, but one would never guess it from the watchable but shallow comedy-melodrama of manners that Christopher Hampton and Stephen Frears have extracted from it. They’ve stuck fairly close to the general outlines of the original plot, but they’ve jettisoned the form entirely, so that what remains is a distortion as well as a simplification of what is conceivably the best French novel of the 18th century.
Admittedly, Roger Vadim’s updated French film adaptation of 30 years ago, set partially at a contemporary ski resort, was no less reductive, and a third film version presently being prepared by Milos Forman, Valmont, is unlikely to avoid similar problems. Laclos’ 1782 masterpiece is an epistolary novel consisting of 175 letters written by at least ten separate characters, preceded by a “Publisher’s Note” and an “Editor’s Preface” and accompanied by several “editorial” footnotes throughout — an intricate dialectical construction that offers us several independent and often contradictory versions of practically everything that happens, and more than one interpretation of what all the various events mean.… Read more »
Written for Criterion‘s DVD and Blu-Ray of The Immortal Story, released in 2016. — J.R.
Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence…
— Grandmother in Isak Dinesen’s “The Blank Page” (Last Tales)
Virginie had a taste for patterns; one of the things for which she despised the English was that to her mind they had no pattern in their lives. She frowned a little, but let Elishama go on. “Only,” he went on, “sometimes the lines of a pattern will run the other way of what you expect. As in a looking-glass.”
“As in a looking-glass,” she repeated slowly.
“Yes,” he said. “But for all that it is still a pattern.”
— Dinesen’s “The Immortal Story” (Anecdotes of Destiny)
Aside from William Shakespeare, no writer excited Orson Welles’ imagination more than Isak Dinesen (1885-1962) — a Danish baroness who wrote mainly in English — especially when it came to the films he wanted to make. Even though she was born thirty years ahead of him, they shared a capacity to stand outside and beyond their own eras.… Read more »
Written for the Olive Films Blu-Ray in 2016. — J.R.
[Orson Welles’s] desire to transcend the barriers separating the classics, the avant-garde, and popular culture remains, I believe, his most enduring legacy.
– Michael Anderegg, Orson Welles, Shakespeare and Popular Culture (1999)
It seems probable that no American film director ever rattled the American mainstream more than Orson Welles, and none of his features rattled that mainstream more than his two versions of Macbeth, made successively out of the same material he shot in 1947, and released successively in the U.S. in 1948 and 1950. Welles’ fifth completed feature, it was the first of many that would come out in more than one version, and the first that decisively shifted his public status, against his own wishes, from that of commercial studio director to that of arthouse auteur — a profile that would be deviated from only by Touch of Evil a decade later, the only other studio feature he would ever make.
Welles’ approach to the material is wildly neo-primitive and so expressionistic that one can never be entirely sure whether the action is taking place in interiors or exteriors; the same ambiguity persists in the spoken text, where off-screen internal monologue and on-screen external speech often seem only a breath apart.… Read more »
Written for the StudioCanal Blu-Ray of The Trial in the Spring of 2012. — J.R.
‘What made it possible for me to make the picture,’ Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich of his most troubling film, ‘is that I’ve had recurring nightmares of guilt all my life: I’m in prison and I don’t know why –- going to be tried and I don’t know why. It’s very personal for me. A very personal expression, and it’s not all true that I’m off in some foreign world that has no application to myself; it’s the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me. And just because it doesn’t speak in a Middle Western accent doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.’
To anchor these feelings in one part of Welles’ life, he was 15 when his alcoholic father died of heart and kidney failure, and Welles admitted to his friend and biographer Barbara Leaming that he always felt responsible for that death. He’d followed the advice of his surrogate parents, Roger and Hortense Hill, in refusing to see Richard Welles until he sobered up, and ‘that was the last I ever saw of him….I’ve always thought I killed him….I don’t want to forgive myself.… Read more »
From Film Comment (January-February 2013), with a few cuts made to this piece restored and the spelling of *Corpus Callosum (which Film Comment is determined never to get right, or even to acknowledge its former misspellings) corrected. I’ve retained their title, however, which is better than mine (“Mark Cousins’ Friendly and Innocent Odyssey”). — J.R.
“Much of what we assume about movies is off the mark.
It’s time to redraw the map of movie history that we have
in our heads. It’s factually inaccurate and racist by omission.
The Story of Film: An Odyssey can be an exciting,
unpredictable one. Fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be
a bumpy ride.”
Delivered offscreen in Mark Cousins’ lilting Irish accent, this hefty promise and warning — only eight minutes into his lively, watchable, eight-part, fifteen-hour series — carries an undeniable thrill, even after one factors in the nod at the end to All About Eve, which suggests that some of the bumps along the way may be familiar and even predictable glitches. I haven’t read the book by Cousins (The Story of Film: A Worldwide History), written in 2002-2003, that served as his starting point and has already become an exorbitant collectors’ item on the Internet.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 12, 2017). — J.R.
In this French road movie, whose original title juxtaposes faces with villages, 89-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda follows 33-year-old photographer and installation muralist JR across the countryside as he and his team photograph working people, enlarge these shots into monumental black-and-white likenesses, and paste them onto the sides of the buildings where the subjects live and work. From the opening-credit animation onward, this delightful, digressive, breezy collaboration, staged to look more spontaneous than it possibly could be, celebrates and enhances both artists, repeatedly finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and growing more reflective and melancholy only in its Swiss epilogue. For Varda, this is a spinoff of sorts to The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008); for me it’s a welcome introduction to the work of JR. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
… Read more »
Françoise Romand’s Mix-up is surely one of the greatest films I’ve ever reviewed, and I can happily report that it’s become available in recent years on DVD (which isn’t to say that it isn’t still grossly neglected); you can even find it on Amazon in the U.S. This article appeared in the February 26, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader, and eventually it led to my becoming friends with Romand. — J.R.
Directed by Françoise Romand.
ANATOMY OF A RELATIONSHIP
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Luc Moullet and Antonietta Pizzorno
With Moullet and Christine Hébert.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Les Blank.
While the issue of representation is at the cutting edge of most debates about film, it usually gets posed in relation to fiction features; documentaries, ranging from Shoah to the evening news, are commonly exempted. The unspoken assumption that nonfictional form is a discardable, see-through candy wrapper — a means of organizing and containing information, which can safely be ignored once we get to the goodies inside — not only keeps us ideologically innocent but limits the kinds of content we may find permissible in documentaries.
Many valuable documentaries, of course, exist chiefly to let certain voices be heard that might otherwise remain silent: Carole Langer’s Radium City, about a radioactive town in Illinois, is one such example, and Deborah Shaffer’s powerful account of the Sandinista struggle, Fire From the Mountain (which is playing this week at Facets), is another.… Read more »
Written at the request of Jae-cheol Lim, the editor of this Korean edition of Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (second edition, 2008), which was translated by Ahn Kearn Hyung and was published in late February 2016. Now that three copies of this hefty volume have just arrived in the mail (637 pages long, which is considerably more than the 449 pages of the original, apparently due in part to a different font size), this seems like a good time to repost the new Afterword. 2018 Postscript: I now regret including No Home Movie on my list, the only new selection I’ve changed my mind about. — J.R.
Afterword to the Korean Edition of ESSENTIAL CINEMA (January 2016):
The closer one comes to the present, the harder and more hazardous it becomes to compile a list of the best films. As I’ve recently pointed out elsewhere, one should consider the lengths of time between Jean Vigo’s death and the first appearances of Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante in the U.S. (thirteen years), or between the first screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 and its recent appearances on Blu-Ray (forty-five years), and it becomes obvious that the popular custom of listing the best films of any given year is unavoidably a mythological undertaking derived more from faith than from any secure knowledge.… Read more »
From The Soho News (March 25, 1981). — J.R.
March 10: Permanent Vacation — a punk art film by Jim Jarmusch, with Chris Parker, visible in the Bleecker Street Cinema’s James Agee Room every weekend this month. A semi-promising beginning offers alternately deserted and busy city streets (crisply shot by Tom DiCillo), and a skinny existential drifter reflecting on the “newness” of rooms in his travels that fades away, replaced each time by dread: “The story is how I got from there to here — or maybe I should say here to here.”
The problem is, while trekking dutifully through enough architectural (and cultural) rubble to furnish at least a dozen other art movies, the movie mainly gets from there to nowhere, at a fairly leisurely crawl. Along the way are a few good ideas and jokes, most of them literary and underdeveloped (like affectless Beckett/beat conceits which evoke Wurlitzer’s Nog), one of them actorly (Frankie Faison), some of them musical (John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards). Chances are, if this is the sort of thing you like, you’ve already found your way there.
March 11: Marta Meszaros’ Nine Months, a Hungarian feature made in color five years ago, now on at the Cinema Studio 2. … Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 1994). This is also reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.
*** ED WOOD
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
With Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, George “The Animal” Steele, and Vincent D’Onofrio.
*** PULP FICTION
Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino
With John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Maria de Medeiros, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, and Tarantino.
[The media] ask those who know nothing to represent the ignorance of the public and, in so doing, to legitimize it.
– Serge Daney, Sight and Sound
If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. — Orson Welles
In Vamps & Tramps, Camille Paglia’s latest collection of sound bites and press clips, one finds an extended account of her long-term obsession with Susan Sontag, including the following nugget: “She is literally being passed by a younger rival, and she’s not handling it, I’m afraid, very gracefully. . . . I am the Sontag of the 90s, there’s no doubt of it.” Her statements recall Wynton Marsalis’s compulsive self-positioning as Miles Davis’s rival/replacement — especially in the 80s, when Davis was still alive — as well as repeated assertions reviewers have made over the past several weeks that Quentin Tarantino is Jean-Luc Godard’s successor.… Read more »
From The Soho News (September 8, 1981); tweaked a little on June 6, 2010. — J.R.
Comin’ at Ya!
Written by Lloyd Battista, Wolf Lowenthal, and Gene Quintano
Directed by Fernando Baldi
Take This Job and Shove It
Written by Jeff Bernini and Barry Schneider
Based on the song by David Allan Coe
Directed by Gus Trikonis
Let’s face facts. When notions of what a “good” movie is shrinks to the level of TV deepthink like Kramer vs. Kramer or Prince of the City, it may be time to bring the glories of the big-screen “bad” movie back again — at least if what we’re out for is fun and adventure. Unlike the most dutiful Oscar winners, whose notions of the good and proper usually revolve around the relatively straight and narrow, or the collected works of a Bergman or a Fellini that are even more consistent about their consistency — beating you into submission as they gradually meld into one all-purpose archetype — certain bad movies can boast range, unpredictability, and singularly distinctive tastes.
Indeed, a fascinating and suggestive literature has been accumulating for some time about bad movies, ranging from Jack Smith on Maria Montez to Myron Meisel on Edgar G.… Read more »
This piece comes from the November 19, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Tennessee Williams and Oscar Saul
With Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden.
FLESH AND BONE
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Steve Kloves
With Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, James Caan, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Depending on whose figures you believe, the recently released “director’s cut” of A Streetcar Named Desire is either 4 percent or 8 percent longer than the version released in 1951. All the originally censored elements — lines of “racy” dialogue and shots of lustful expressions — have been restored, and the fact that this once-scandalous 126-minute movie is now accorded a PG rating indicates the progress we’ve made in some areas.
But if you think people are getting more of the movie now than they could 42 years ago, you’re mistaken. The running time is longer, but thanks to current movie-projection habits, close to 25 percent of every frame is missing at most screenings. The aspect ratio of the original movie — the relationship between the height and width of the frame — is 1:1.38, the standard ratio of all Hollywood movies in 1951.… Read more »
Written for Cinema Guild’s Blu-Ray of Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, released in mid-January 2015. — J.R.
Stray Dogs (2013), winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, is Tsai Ming-liang’s tenth theatrical feature. It was described by Tsai at its premiere as his last, and in many ways it’s his most challenging. Considered as the apotheosis of his film work to date — which also includes eleven telefilms made between 1989 and 1985, and ten shorts or segments of portmanteau features, culminating in the 2014, 56-minute Journey to the West – it constitutes a kind of nervy dare to the viewer, and to prime oneself for it, it might help to look at Journey to the West first.
Even though both films flirt with stasis, usually in the midst of extremely long takes, they’re also performance pieces that hark back to Tsai’s roots in experimental theater and television. And the performers are not only hired actors but also unsuspecting street pedestrians, places, weather conditions, the camera, and, perhaps most crucial of all, viewers watching the activity of all of the above. If Tsai’s films typically qualify as questions rather than answers, foremost among the questions is how we perform as spectators – a question that we’re obliged to pose in relation to all the materials offered.… Read more »