Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.
A bickering husband and wife (John Hubbard and
Carole Landis) switch bodies and lives (but not voices)
after encountering a Buddhist curse. Hal Roach
directed this extremely odd 1940 comedy -– the only
feature I’ve selected not because it’s good, exactly
(some would regard it as pure camp), but because of
how singular and uncanny it is as a kind of freakish
prelude to Adam’s Rib, with gay undertones to spare.
(Not surprisingly, the Catholic Legion of Decency
found it “objectionable”.) It’s adapted from a novel
of the same title by Thorne Smith (1892-1934), who
became one of the most popular sources of erotic
fantasy and whimsy used in Hollywood movies of the
30s and early 40s (in Night Life of the Gods, Topper
and its sequels, and René Clair’s I Married a Witch,
among others). The secondary cast is also notable:
Adolphe Menjou (actually given top billing),
William Gargan, Mary Astor, Donald Meek,
Franklin Pangborn, and Marjorie Main.
ADAM’S RIB (1949)
This comedy, directed by George Cukor from a script by Ruth
Gordon and Garson Kanin, is probably the best of all the features
pairing Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.… Read more »
From the Jewish Daily Forward, October 9, 2012. — J.R.
Hollywood’s Chosen People:
The Jewish Experience in American Cinema
Edited by Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson
Wayne State University Press, 270 pages, $31.95
The coeditors stake their claim in the first sentence of their Introduction: “This book sets out to mark a new and challenging path of the role of Jews and their experience in Hollywood filmmaking.” And to some degree, they live up to this goal, in a varied collection that tends to get livelier as it proceeds. But considering how slippery and elastic their definitions of “Jews” can be, part of their path strikes me as both familiar and questionable.
Fritz Lang, for instance, gets cited over a dozen times in the book’s index, but for me his inclusion is fully justified only once — in a fascinating article by Peter Krämer that charts diverse efforts over four decades to make a movie about Oskar Schindler that preceded Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1993, many of them launched by Schindler himself, who had a lengthy correspondence with Lang about the first of these projects in 1951. Virtually all the other references assume that Lang was a Jew because of his mother’s origins—a default position held in spite of his being raised solely as a Catholic and apparently never betraying the slightest interest in identifying himself any other way.… Read more »
I’m saddened that Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) didn’t live longer than 83, even though he had a very rich and rewarding career as a film critic.
This book review appeared in the sixth issue of Cinema Scope (Winter 2001) and is reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
The American Cinema Revisited
Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic:
Essays in Honor of Andrew Sarris
Edited by Emanuel Levy
The Scarecrow Press, 2001
Ironically, my enemies were the first to alert me to the fact that I had followers.
– Andrew Sarris, Confessions of a Cultist (1970)
One of the main emotions aroused in me by the 40 or so contributions to the millennial Festschrift Citizen Sarris is nostalgia –- specifically, a yearning for the era three or four decades ago when something that might be described as a North American film community was slowly emerging and recognizing its own existence.
This was just before academic film studies, radical politics, drugs and diverse other developments splintered that community into separate and mainly non-communicating cliques and ghettos, accompanied by an intensification of studio promotion that eventually took infotainment beyond its status as a minor industry and into an arena where advertising was coming close to defining as well as monitoring the whole of film culture, thus phasing out individual voices -– or at the very least bunching them together in sound bites, pull quotes, bibliographies and adjectival ad copy.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1975, Vol. 42, No. 500. — J.R.
W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings
Director: John G. Avildsen
Cert—A. dist–Fox-Rank. p.c–20th Century-Fox. exec. p–Steve
Shagan. p–Stanley S. Canter. p. manager–William C. Davidson. asst. d
–Ric Rondell, Jerry Grandey. sc–Thomas Rickman. ph–Jim Crabe.
col–TVC; prints by DeLuxe. ed–Richard Halsey, Robbe Roberts. a.d–
Larry Paull. set dec–JimBerkey. sp. effects–Milt Rice. m–Dave Grusin.
songs–”Hound Dog” by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, sung by Elvis
Presley; “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” by Calvin Carter, James
Hudson; “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry; “Bye Bye Love” by
Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant; “I’m Walkin’” by Antoine “Fats”
Domino, Dave Bartholomew; “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Lee Perkins;
“Mama Was a Convict” by Tom Rickman, Tim Mclntire; “A Friend” by
Jerry Reed; “Dirty Car Blues” (traditional), performed by Furry Lewis.
cost–Dick LaMotte. titles–PacificTitle. sd. rec–Bud Alper. sd. re-rec–
Don Bassman. stunt co-ordinator–Hal Needham.… Read more »
Here’s a short piece of mine written for a glossy film magazine, On Film, that never survived past its first issue. It was prompted largely by a negative review of this film by the late Stuart Byron that appeared in the Village Voice after the film showed at the New York Film Festival in September 1970 — a review claiming, as I recall, that the film was a slavish, simplistic, and reductive imitation of Bresson. The fact that Byron was also my (putative) editor at On Film probably didn’t help to speed things along.
Une Simple Histoire can be seen now in its entirety on YouTube, and in what appears to be a decent print, although not, alas, with English subtitles. – J.R.
UNE SIMPLE HISTOIRE
Marcel Hanoun, 1958
In the frantic setting of a film festival, with an audience and press too eager to call “hit” or “miss” at the drop of a curtain, there is little chance of a masterpiece like Une Simple Histoire receiving the kind of attention it deserves. Although Marcel Hanoun’s first film was made over a decade ago, it is much too individual a work to have gone through any significant aging process; one suspects that it will continue to be as new and as unassimilated by other films ten years from now.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1975. — J.R.
Romantic Englishwoman, The
Great Britain/France, 1975 Director: Joseph Losey
Elizabeth Fielding arrives in Baden Baden on holiday; on the
same train is Thomas Hursa, carrying a supply of drugs, which he
hides on the roof of the luxury hotel where Elizabeth is staying.
Her husband Lewis, a successful novelist now at work on a
screeinplay about a discontented woman who leaves her
husband, phones her at midnight. While Elizabeth converses
with Thomas in a lift, Lewis imagines her making love with
a man in a similar situation (an image which he uses in his
screenplay); he rings her again at 12:30 and she answers
belatedly, saying that she will be home in Weybridge the
next day. Thomas’ drug supply is destroyed in the rain
and he flees when he discovers that Swan, a drug contact, is
looking for him. When Elizabeth returns at night, she and Lewis
start to make love on their front lawn, but are interrupted by a
neighbor. After expressing his suspicion that his wife was
unfaithful in Baden Baden, Lewis receives a letter from Thomas
describing himself as a poet and admirer of Lewis’ work and
mentioning that he met Elizabeth in Baden Baden.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1974, Vol. 41, No. 490. — J.R.
Portiere di Notte, Il (The Night Porter)
Director: Liliana Cavani
Cert—X. dist—Avco-Embassy. p.c—Lotar Film. A Robert Gordon
Edwards/Esa De Dimone production. A Joseph E. Levine presentation
for Ital Noleggio Cinematografico. p—Robert Gordon Edwards. p. staff–
Umberto Sambuco, Dino di Dionisio, Roberto Edwards, (Vienna) Otto
Dworak. asst. d–Franco Cirino, Paola Tallarigo, (Vienna) Johann
Freisinger. sc–Liliana Cavani, Italo Moscati. story–Liliana Cavani,
Barbara Alberti, Amedeo Pagani. ph–Alfio Contini. co1–Technicolor;
prints by Eastman Colour. col. sup–Ernesto Novelli. ed–Franco Arcalli.
a.d–Nedo Azzini, Jean-Marie Simon. set dec–Osvaldo Desideri. m/m.d–
Daniele Paris. cost–Piero Tosi. sd. ed–Michael Billingsley. sd. rec–
Fausto Ancillai. sd. re-rec–Decio Trani. post-synchronisation d–Robert
Rietty. sd. effects–Roberto Arcangeli. l.p–Dirk Bogarde (Max),
Charlotte Rampling (Lucia), Philippe Leroy (Klaus), Gabriele Ferzetti (Hans),
Giuseppe Addobbati (Stumm), Isa Miranda (Countess Stein), Nino
Bignamini (Adolph), Marino Mase’ (Atherton), Amedeo Amodia (Bert),
Piero Vida (Day Porter), Geoffrey Copleston (Kurt), Manfred Freiberger
(Dobson), Ugo Cardea (Mario), Hilda Gunther (Greta), Nora Ricci
(Neighbour), Piero Mazzinghi (Concierge), Kai S.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 510). I’ve made a couple of corrections and added several basic credits, visible now at the end of my VHS copy but not accessible to me back in 1976. (I should add that the pitches made by the coproducer to potential sponsors aren’t on the VHS version.) Thanks to Ehsan Khoshbakht for some help with the illustrations.–- J.R.
Director: Shepard Traube
Dist–TCB. p–Shepard Traube, Arthur Small. sc–Arthur Small. p. sup– George Goodman. ph–Arthur Ornitz. ed–Morton Fallick. sd–Robert Lessner, Frank J. Gaily. m/songs—“Lover Man” by Jimmy Davis, Roger “Ram” Ramirez, Jimmy Sherman, “Sunday” by Chester Conn, Ned Miller, Bennie Krueger, Jule Styne, “Just You, Just Me” by Jesse Greer, Raymond Klages, “Taking a Chance on Love” by Vernon Duke, John Latouche, Ted Fetter, performed by Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), Roy Eldridge (trumpet, vocals), Johnny Guarnieri (piano), Barry Galbraith (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Cozy Cole (drums), Carol Stevens (vocals). l.p– Meredith Gaynes (Cigarette Girl), Albert Minns (Head Waiter), Leon James (Doorman), Richard Blackmarr (Bartender). narrator– William B. Williams. 967 ft. 27 mins.… Read more »
From the Village Voice (October 10, 1974). — J.R.
A book by Dwight Macdonald
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Dwight Macdonald’s latest collection of articles is a sequel of sorts to his Politics Past — political-cultural and incidental literary criticism that composes a loose chronicle of the times, taking in a span of nearly five decades.
I blush a little to admit it today, but Dwight Macdonald was the first film critic I ever took seriously. He liked Citizen Kane, Breathless and Shadows and so did I, but I think the clincher was his prose — a rare kind of magazine writing, bursting with energy, that danced or sang or clowned regardless of what it was saying, with a fine ear for polemics and invective. This latter talent has gradually become known as his specialty. More humanistic and less of a school marm than John Simon and a lot more folksy and homespun than Gore Vidal, he shares with them the status of Master of the Chopping Block. (For the best whacks, see my favorite Macdonald collection, Against the American Grain [much of it recently reprinted, in 2011, as Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain].)
But he usually takes on a different coloration in his political writing, where his loves and hatreds become more personal and complex — more mutable and prone to reversals or other kinds of second thoughts.… Read more »
I wrote this book review for The Village Voice shortly after I moved to London from Paris in 1974 (which helps to explain how I could cite the English paperback of Myra Breckinridge), so I was more than likely a little miffed when the Voice noted at the end of the piece, “Jonathan Rosenbaum is a film critic presently living in Paris.” Although I think this review suffers a bit from the Voice‘s overheated smart-alecky manner during this period, which I was only too willing to adopt (and which makes some of my gripes potentially open to the charge of the pot calling the kettle black), I was reminded of both this review and Myra Breckinridge/Myron while recently reading Vidal’s somewhat similar 1978 novel Kalki, which has a similarly formidable heroine-narrator with a comparably ambiguous relation to gender. — J.R. [4/3/09]
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Random House, $6.95
Myra Breckenridge was a stunt: a clever gay trick pulled on a straight audience — or, if one prefers, a bisexual prank pulled on a unisexual audience — with kibitzers and spectators welcome on either side of the ironies, different jokes for different folks.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 489). Postscript: Thanks (once again!) to Ehsan Khoshbakht for providing me with an extra illustration for this review. — J.R.
Born to Swing
Great Britain, 1973
Director: John Jeremy
Dist–TCB. p.c–Silverscreen Productions. p–John Jeremy. p. manager–
Angus Trowbridge. sc–John Jeremy. ph–Peter Davis, Tohru Nakamura.
photographs–Ernie Smith, Valerie Wilmer. ed–John Jererny. m–Buddy
Tate, Earle Warren, Joe Newman, Dicky Wells, Eddie Durham, Snub
Mosley, Gene Ramey, Tommy Flanagan, Jo Jones, The Count Basie
Band (1943). m. rec—Fred Miller. sd. rec—Ron Yoshida. sd. re-rec–
Hugh Strain. narrator–Humphrey Lyttelton. with–Buck Clayton, John
Hammond, Andy Kirk, Jo Jones, Albert McCarthy, Gene Krupa, Snub
Mosley, Joe Newman, Buddy Tate, Earle Warren, Dicky Wells. 1,773 ft.
49 mins. (16 mm.).
This engaging jazz film has both a general subject and a specific
one. Generally, it is about American swing music of the past;
specifically, its main focus is six veterans of Count Basie’s band in
the present. Interspersed with a 1943 clip of the Basie band inspiring
some athletic dancers are album covers, flurries of sheet music,
neon signs, and a string of short reminiscences: by Andy Kirk,
about his stint with the Eleven Clouds of Joy; Snub Mosley, about
New York in the Thirties; the doorman at Jimmy Ryan’s, about
52nd Street; Gene Krupa, mainly about himself.… Read more »
This is by far the most challenging book review I’ve ever had to write. I wrote it during my extended stint in Paris (1969-74), after requesting the assignment from an editor at The Village Voice. I was already a big Pynchon fan by then, having already reviewed The Crying of Lot 49 for my college newspaper, The Bard Observer. Years later, I would review both Vineland and Against the Day for the Chicago Reader, and Mason & Dixon for In These Times. I’ve recently been assigned to review Pynchon’s next novel – Inherent Vice, due out in early August — for Slate.
Eventually, after getting assigned to review Gravity’s Rainhow for the Voice in 1973, I received a copy of the bound, uncorrected galleys resembling the one seen below on the right, the marked-up copy of which I still possess today. One significant difference between this version and the published one is the epigraph preceding the fourth and final section, “The Counterforce”. In the published version, which I received shortly before completing my review, this is, “What?” — Richard M. Nixon. In the uncorrected proofs, this is, “She has brought them to her senses, /They have laughed inside her laughter, /Now she rallies her defenses, /For she fears someone will ask her /For eternity — /And she’s so busy being free….” — Joni Mitchell.… Read more »
From the December 1981 issue of American Film. I was quite unhappy with the way this article was edited at the time, but having discovered my original submitted draft quite recently (in mid-November 2011, 30 years later), I’ve decided to resurrect it here, including my own title. (Theirs was “Looking for Nicholas Ray”.)
My working assumption in restoring original drafts on this site, or some approximation thereof, isn’t that my editors were always or invariably wrong, or that my editorial decisions today are necessarily superior, but, rather, an attempt to historicize and bear witness to my original intentions. It was a similar impulse that led me to undo some of the editorial changes made in the submitted manuscript of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), when I was afforded the opportunity to reconsider them for the book’s second edition 15 years later (now out of print, but available online here) — not to revise or rethink my decisions in relation to my subsequent taste but to bring the book closer to what I originally had in mind in 1980. – J.R.
By and large, the last three decades in the life of film director Nicholas Ray can be divided fairly evenly into three distinct parts.… Read more »
One of my first published reviews, which appeared in the November 2, 1972 issue of The Village Voice, this was commissioned by Andrew Sarris, bless him. I was always grateful for this opportunity to write about a film that I love, and that I continue to cherish. — J.R.
Jonas Mekas’s Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, a film dedicated “to all the displaced people in the world,” has itself become the object of some displacement. Screened jointly with Adolfas Mekas and Pola Chapelle’s Going Home at the New York Film Festival, defined in the program as a non-narrative film and by its author as a home movie, it has become a casual victim of “convenient” programing and somewhat deceptive labels. Whatever “non-narrative” and “home movie” mean — and I think the latter describes Going Home pretty accurately — they are less than helpful in describing the achievement of what must be called Jonas Mekas’s testament. If they must be understood, let it be understood that Reminiscences is a home movie about homelessness, a non-narrative film with one of the most beautifully constructed and articulated narrative lines in autobiographical cinema.
Going Home, a rambling collection of travel photos and family poses, resembles the jazzy surfaces of Hallelujah the Hills, joke titles and all, and registers not unlike a boastful list of possessions (the secret metaphysic behind every family album): this is my garden, my Moscow, my family, my Lithuania.… Read more »
This originally appeared in Stop Smiling‘s “Hollywood Lost and Found” issue (2007); it’s also reprinted in my latest collection. — J.R.
The camera cranes around the grand façade of a palace, a chateau, or a luxurious grand hotel, peering obliquely through the windows at the various doings inside. Or it stays perched in a hallway, outside a bedroom or a suite inside one of these buildings, while servants, musicians, or cigarette girls enter or leave, encouraging us to imagine what romantic shenanigans might be taking place on the other side of the door.
These are the two main signature shots of the great Hollywood filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch — especially during his Hollywood heyday, the 30s -— and one can also find variations of the second kind, the outside-the-door interiors, in the more romantic movies of Billy Wilder, Lubitsch’s major disciple, whose own Hollywood heyday was the 50s. In Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), which Wilder and his frequent writing partner Charles Brackett helped to script, we’re made to understand how much three Russians in Paris (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) on a government mission are enjoying themselves in their hotel suite when they order up cigarettes, meaning three cigarette girls.… Read more »