Monthly Archives: January 2019

Hot Under the Collar [PRIEST]

From the Chicago Reader (April 14, 1995). I’m not sure why, but this is one of the most popular posts on this site. — J.R.

Priest

**

Directed by Antonia Bird

Written by Jimmy McGovern

With Linus Roache, Tom Wilkinson, Cathy Tyson, Robert Carlyle, James Ellis, Lesley Sharp, Robert Pugh, and Christine Tremarco.

A friend of mine who hasn’t even seen Priest calls it “post-Oprah,” and it’s easy to see what he means — in terms of pacing as well as subject matter. Its first incarnation was as a 200-page script by Jimmy McGovern for a four-part BBC miniseries, but he shaved it to 65 pages when the BBC decided to make it a feature. When it went out to festivals last year (where it won numerous awards), director Antonia Bird’s cut was 109 minutes; since then it’s been trimmed by 8 minutes, apparently to make it eligible for an R rating: its distributor, Miramax, now under the control of the Disney studio, isn’t allowed to release any NC-17 pictures. I haven’t seen the longer version, but it’s likely that these successive abridgments have both produced the taut narrative that’s central to the movie’s powerful impact as entertainment and limited it as art and as a piece of sustained thought.… Read more »

Rare and Revelatory

From the Chicago Reader (November 10, 2006). I’m currently attending a Portabella retrospective in Croatia as part of Tanja Vrvilo’s 12th annual Movie Mutations event. — J.R.

Pere Portabella: Cinema From the Spanish Underground

The first North American retrospective of Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella started last week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and it’s one of the year’s biggest cultural events. None of his films has ever been screened in Chicago, and none has ever been released anywhere on DVD or VHS. All five of his features are showing here (though none of his ten shorts), and if you don’t see them now, chances are you never will.

Most of Portabella’s films can be classified as experimental, though they have little in common with the films usually given that label, which tend to be nonnarrative and shot in 8- or 16-millimeter or on video. All of his features are in 35-millimeter and use narrative, though they never tell a complete story. They all have rich sound tracks that go in and out of sync with the images, sometimes reinforcing what we see, sometimes contradicting it. They all drift smoothly, often unexpectedly, from narrative to reverie and from fiction to documentary, interjecting rude shocks along the way.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: A lovely text by Jonas Mekas

R.I.P. Jonas Mekas, Patron-Saint of Cinema, 1922-2019. — J.R.

(from http://www.incite-online.net/jonasmekas.html)

jonas-mekas

Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto
By Jonas Mekas

 

As you well know it was God who created this Earth and everything on it.  And he thought it was all great.  All painters and poets and musicians sang and celebrated the creation and that was all OK.  But not for real.  Something was missing.  So about 100 years ago God decided to create the motion picture camera.  And he did so.  And then he created a filmmaker and said, “Now here is an instrument called the motion picture camera.  Go and film and celebrate the beauty of the creation and the dreams of human spirit, and have fun with it.”

But the devil did not like that.  So he placed a money bag in front of the camera and said to the filmmakers, ‘Why do you want to celebrate the beauty of the world and the spirit of it if you can make money with this instrument?”  And, believe it or not, all the filmmakers ran after the money bag.  The Lord realized he had made a mistake.  So, some 25 years later, to correct his mistake, God created independent avant-garde filmmakers and said, “Here is the camera. … Read more »

Prologue to the Spanish edition of MOVIE MUTATIONS by Pere Portabella [2010]

The following English translation of Pere Portabella’s “Prologue” to the Spanish edition of Movie Mutations (published in October 2010), commissioned by Portabella himself, was sent to me by Portabella’s secretary Helena Gomà. I have added a footnote to the text that I originally wrote in February 2011.  — J.R.

Movie Mutations Spanish edition cover

Prologue to Movie Mutations

 

By Pere Portabella

 

 

Over a period of six years, Jonathan Rosenbaum coordinated a group of analysts, critics and film historians with the idea of starting research through dialogue, texts, epistolary exchanges and personal encounters. The people forming part of this interesting process, which has now been made into a book, wove together an ensemble of observations, drawing together verified information and conclusions which allow us to see and understand film from an updated perspective thanks to the integrity of the authors. Everything began as a generational phenomenon and turned into something greater, in a broader, collective reflection about many forms of “mutation” which affect film and film culture in our present era. Technological mutation: “the digital era” is ushering in a new definition of the filmed image.

According to the authors, the film that we knew of in the past was based on making a photographic record of the world, a concept highly valued by their mentor in one era, André Bazin.… Read more »

Portabella and Continuity

The following essay was commissioned by Pere Portabella himself in 2009 when he was planning to include some written materials with a DVD box set of his complete works — a box set that he eventually decided to release four years later without any written material. This essay has subsequently appeared in my 2010 collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia and, in Spanish translation, in El mundo in March 2013. 

I’m speaking today about Portabella at the 12th annual edition of Tanja Vrvilo’s Movie Mutations event in Zagreb, where a Portabella retrospective is in progress.   – J.R.

Filmmakers who reinvent the cinema for their own purposes generally operate under certain distinct handicaps. In a few privileged cases (Griffith, Feuillade, Chaplin, Hitchcock) it’s the cinema itself, as art form and global institution, that winds up readjusting to the reinvention. But what happens more often is either a prolonged banishment of the filmmaker’s work from public awareness or a protracted series of misunderstandings until (or unless) the new rules are recognized, understood, and assimilated.

In the case of Pere Portabella, where some of the principles of production, distribution, and exhibition have been reinvented along with some concepts of reception, the frequent time lags between completed projects have only exacerbated some of the difficulties posed to uninitiated viewers.Read more »

Family Values and Mass Murder

This appeared in the May 21, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader.  Although the YouTube link given below no longer works, I can happily report that it’s out now on DVD. — J.R.

STAR TIME

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Alexander Cassini

With Michael St. Gerard, John P. Ryan, Maureen Teefy, and Thomas Newman.

I doubt that any current media buzz term is more ideologically polluted than “family values.” Even its alternative, “suitable for the whole family,” doesn’t contain the same puritanical lies. The egregious false assumptions built into this phrase as it’s now used are breathtaking: that families are all alike when it comes to their values; that these shared values are somehow independent of — and therefore free of — the sex and violence purveyed by Hollywood movies (“sex and violence” invariably viewed as an irreducible entity that also mysteriously includes profanity); and that, because they eschew sex and violence, “family values” are uniformly good and healthy. These assumptions seem predicated on the notion that everything bad that happens in society necessarily occurs outside the home, on the streets. Never mind that statistics show that an inordinate amount of lethal violence occurs during national holidays, in homes, between family members; this is factored out of the discussion along with the inconvenient fact that babies (and therefore families) are generated by sex, not storks.… Read more »

Young Einstein

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). — J.R.

ye

Postmodernism with a vengeance. This 1988 Australian comedy made some tidal waves on its home turf — perhaps because, like the subsequent and even more enjoyable Children of the Revolution, it offers a cheerful alternative to the usual Australian self-hatred. A distant cousin of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it has the charm and advantage of a genuine visual style of its own, both laconic and witty, as well as a likably dopey plot and cast of characters. Directed, written, coproduced by, and starring Yahoo Serious, the movie follows the adventures of a teenage Tasmanian apple farmer named Albert Einstein, who splits the atom in order to produce a beer that contains bubbles, falls in love with Marie Curie (Odile le Clezio) and follows her to Paris, meets Charles Darwin, and invents rock ‘n’ roll in the process of draining off the atomic energy in a nuclear beer keg fashioned by the villain (John Howard). Invert the auteur’s name and you get a partial notion of what he’s up to — which is not exactly serious in its own right, but is at least serious from a yahoo standpoint. 90 min.… Read more »

Art Film by Numbers

From the Chicago Reader (April 13, 1990). — J.R.

THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Peter Greenaway

With Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, and Tim Roth.

On the face of it, this movie seems to have a good many things going for it. Although he was born in 1942, Peter Greenaway is still probably the closest thing that the English art cinema currently has to an enfant terrible. A former painter and film editor who started making experimental films in the mid-60s, he achieved an international reputation with The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982; he went on to become a star director and cult figure in Europe with several TV films and three more features that had considerable success in both England and France as well as on the international festival circuit — A Zed & Two Noughts (1986), The Belly of an Architect (1987), and Drowning by Numbers (1988) — although they have had only limited circulation in the U.S. A fair number of my film-buff friends swear by him, and he is commonly regarded as the most “advanced” art-house director currently working in England.

Greenaway’s latest feature makes sterling use of many of his longtime collaborators: Sacha Vierny, one of the best cinematographers alive (working here in ‘Scope), whose credits include Hiroshima, mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, Belle de jour, and Stavisky, as well as films by Raul Ruiz and Marguerite Duras; composer Michael Nyman, a sort of neoclassicist who has worked for everyone from the Royal Ballet to Steve Reich to Sting; and production designers Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs, former interior designers who have worked in the Dutch film industry since 1983.… Read more »

Red Bridge to Australia [on CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION]

This originally appeared in the May 23, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Children of the Revolution

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Peter Duncan

With Judy Davis, Sam Neill, F. Murray Abraham, Richard Roxburgh, Rachel Griffiths, Geoffrey Rush, Russell Kiefel, John Gaden, Ben McIvor, Marshall Napier, Ken Radley, Fiona Press, and Alex Menglet.

This cockeyed story is recounted by several narrators in pseudodocumentary style (a style distantly patterned on Warren Beatty’s in Reds): various old codgers in present-day Australia speak to the camera about the past, their accounts leading into several extended flashbacks. Judy Davis plays Joan Fraser, a red-diaper baby who learned about Karl Marx from her father when he took her fishing. In 1949 — during the darkest days of the cold war — she’s a young woman who still dreams of a workers’ revolution and still idolizes Joseph Stalin. When Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies decides that Australia should follow the U.S. into Korea and outlaw communism and sign various anticommunist treaties, Fraser goes ballistic: she gets herself and her boyfriend, Welch (Shine’s Geoffrey Rush), ejected from a movie theater by causing a commotion during a newsreel, decides it would be OK to go to prison (“What do you people want — a discreet revolution?”), proposes a march on the parliament, and speaks to workers.… Read more »

The Great Divide [FROM THE OTHER SIDE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 16, 2003). — J.R.

From the Other Side **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Chantal Akerman.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost  to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

— from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, quoted on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty

More than 25 years ago, when I was living in a beachside bungalow in a suburb of San Diego, I eventually realized that the bungalow across the alley was a halfway house for Mexicans who’d just made it across the border. I had to figure this out on my own because none of my neighbors ever even alluded to the place or what it was. The constant arrival and departure of new faces was perfectly obvious yet completely unacknowledged—in fact, everything in the surrounding Elysian landscape seemed to encourage one not to observe it. The halfway house was there but not there, like the Mexican ghettos in other parts of suburban San Diego — too decorous to prompt a second look. If people needed to go there in search of cheap labor, they concentrated on what they were looking for.… Read more »

Notes on a Conversation with Welles (1972)

The following notes appeared in the same issue of Film Comment (November–December 1972) as “The Voice and the Eye,” at the end of my regular column, titled “Paris Journal,” which typically dealt with several different topics. Though these notes largely replicate things said elsewhere by Welles, two details for me stand out as significant additions to the record: that Welles regarded his Don Quixote as nearly completed in 1972 -— which corresponds fairly closely to the conclusions of “Don Quixote: Orson Welles’s Secret” by Audrey Stainton (who worked “on and off” as Welles’s secretary in the late 1950s) in the Autumn 1988 Sight and Sound — and that he remained convinced that the deleted footage of Ambersons was destroyed by RKO (a belief I regretfully share, though legends continue to circulate about another copy of the longer cut that may survive somewhere in Brazil).

2014 footnote: The information that The Deep was “completed” by 1972 seems contradicted by the apparent fact that Jeanne Moreau never dubbed her part. -– J.R.

In the course of a conversation with Orson Welles about his Heart of  Darkness script, which is detailed elsewhere in this issue, I asked Welles about his more recent projects.… Read more »

Prospero’s Books

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1992). — J.R.

Prospero's Books

Poor John Gielgud tried for years to set up a film version of The Tempest that would record his performance of Prospero; he finally had to settle for director Peter Greenaway. Gone is any sense of drama or character; the cluttered spectacle yields no overriding design but simply disconnected MTV-like conceits or mini-ideas every three seconds. Don’t expect to enjoy Shakespeare’s poetry: aural distractions constantly intrude, from sound effects, echo chambers, and Michael Nyman’s neoclassical Muzak. And don’t expect to enjoy Sacha Vierny’s exquisitely lit cinematography: double exposures, ugly rectangular overlays, graceless quick cutting, and lots of nude or semiclad extras cavorting in clunky modernist choreography drain all the pleasure from that as well. On the other hand, if you share Greenaway’s misanthropy, you might get some kicks out of watching a cherub piss on everyone in sight. With Michael Clark, Michel Blanc, Erland Josephson, and Isabelle Pasco (1991). R, 124 min. (JR)

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Discovering MARGARET

Written for FIPRESCI’s web site (fipresci.org)  on November 7, 2012. — J.R.

The potential everyday glibness of journalism is surely one of the key factors that distinguishes film reviewing from film criticism. This was painfully brought home to me shortly after reseeing at the Viennale the 150-minute version of Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable Margaret, the winner of my jury’s FIPRESCI prize, almost a year after first encountering the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. In between these two viewings, I saw Lonergan’s 186-minute cut of the same film on a Blu-Ray containing both versions of the film, prompting me to write the following paragraph in my latest column for the Canadian quarterly Cinema Scope:

“I’m grateful to Kenneth Lonergan for clarifying in interviews that the 150-minute Margaret, which I saw in December 2011 and the 186-minute cut, which I saw in July, are both ‘director’s cuts,’ and now that Fox has released both in one Blu-Ray package, it’s hard to say which version I prefer. Both are brilliant messes and finely distilled renderings of the New York Jewish upper-middle-class zeitgeist circa 2003, regardless of whether one regards Anna Paquin’s teenage heroine as someone to identify with (apparently the writer-director’s position), or as monstrous, or as both (my position).Read more »

Scenes From A Mall

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

scenes-from-a-mall

A middle-aged couple (Woody Allen and Bette Midler) in southern California celebrating their 15th anniversary go to a shopping mall, and they proceed to decompose and recompose their relationship on the basis of various revelations. Although this only runs for about 90 minutes, it’s the emptiest and most long-winded movie Paul Mazursky (working here with his frequent cowriter Roger L. Simon) has ever made, a disappointingly steep descent after his Enemies, a Love Story. The characters never come to life, and restricting almost all of the action to a gigantic mall only makes the narrowness and boredom of the movie more obvious. Mazursky has returned with a vengeance to his special universe where the upper middle class is the only thing that exists, and this time he has absolutely nothing to say about it. (JR)

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High Season

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1988). — J.R.

High_Season_poster

Clare Peploe’s accomplished and intelligent first feature is a sunny tale of expatriates set on the Greek island of Rhodes, with a cast of characters and a set of crisscrossing destinies that occasionally suggest Graham Greene in one of his happier moods. The people include a talented professional photographer (Jacqueline Bisset) faced with the possibility of having to sell her house, her teenage daughter (Ruby Baker) and ex-husband (James Fox), an art historian who is her oldest friend (Sebastian Shaw), a tradition-minded Greek peasant (Irene Papas) and her rebellious son (Paris Tselios), and an English couple on holiday (Kenneth Branagh and Lesley Manville). Many of these characters are not who they initially seem to be, and there are various forms of comedy in how they relate (or fail to relate) to one another. For spectators who recall Mazursky’s Tempest, this is a much better and smarter handling of many of the same elements, done this time for grown-ups — pleasurable and diverting throughout. (JR)

Bisset_Jacqueline_High_Season_001Read more »