My column for Caíman Cuadernos de Cine, submitted on March 21, 2019. — J.R.
It’s tiresome to keep hearing from several American colleagues what a lousy year 2018 supposedly was for movies — “movies” being virtually equated with Hollywood crap in much the same way that “the world” is often equated with the U.S. (with Cuarón, Farhadi, Pawlikowski, and a few others occasionally accorded the dubious status of honorary Americans, usually on the basis of their Oscars). Given how much non-American cinema one can see nowadays via streaming, this is an inexcusable way of allowing the big companies to keep their stranglehold on what passes for film culture, making it easier than ever to miss out on what matters.
Even so, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t recognize the brilliance of Christian Petzold until recently, when I saw Transit (2018) — having previously seen only his Ghosts (2005) and Barbara (2012). Having now accessed, in swift succession, his Phoenix (2014), Yella (2007), Jerichow(2008), and Barbara again — I feel that it’s the dreamlike, hallucinatory surfaces (both aural and visual) of Yella, Phoenix, and Transit more than the literal places and spaces of Jerichow and Barbara that best capture Pertzold’s investigations into historical and existential identity.… Read more »
The following article appeared in the February 23, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
ART OF MUSIC VIDEO
For people like myself who have conflicted feelings about music videos as an art form, the four-part series Art of Music Video – playing for the second time at the Film Center this weekend — offers lots of material to consider. Even so, this presentation of a hundred videos assembled by Michael Nash of the Long Beach Museum of Art involves a number of curatorial decisions that I have problems with. Before considering the videos themselves, let me list these problems; some of them are overlapping rather than consecutive, but putting them in list form will help to give some idea of how many boats this particular series is missing:
(1) Historical. Although Nash’s selection is media-specific—that is, generally limited to videos—one of his four programs, “Vanguard Re-visions,” has a subcategory called “Experimental Film: Invention and Intervention,” consisting of films made by Bruce Conner, James Herbert, and Jem Cohen between 1961 and 1989.
While I have no quarrel with the inclusion of these figures, it’s clear that this attempt to give a foreshortened art-history perspective rules out a lot more of the history of music videos and their precursors than it includes.… Read more »
From AFI Education Newsletter (January-February 1982). Because of the length of this, I’ll be running it in two installments. — J.R.
FROM UN CHIEN ANDALOU TO CHANTAL AKERMAN (Part 2)
UNIT III: German and Soviet Experimentation in the Twenties
Part of the strategy of studying German and Soviet experimentation over roughly the same period is the striking contrast between these national film movements and their relationship to popular genres as well as their different themes and subjects. On the one hand, one finds the efforts of a Fritz Lang to experiment with the thriller format, and those of F.W. Murnau (and his scriptwriter Carl Mayer) to construct an essentially non-verbal visual language. On the other hand, one finds the relatively less script-bound experiments with montage and certain documentary principles provided by the Soviet filmmakers. An interesting topic to consider speculatively is the Soviet version of Lang’s first Dr. Mabuse film, which was re-edited by Eisenstein for Russian audiences.
Bronenosets Potemkin (The Battleship Potemkin) (1925, 65 min.) Directed by Sergei Eisenstein — Perhaps the most famous of all experimental films, including some 1300 shots, Eisenstein’s classic is structured in five “acts.” Along with Strike, made the previous year, this is the most accessible of Eisenstein’s silent films, and might be contrasted with October (or significant portions thereof) in terms of the different principles of montage at work.… Read more »
From AFI Education Newsletter (January-February 1982). Because of the length of this, I’ll be running it in two installments. — J.R.
FROM UN CHIEN ANDALOU TO CHANTAL AKERMAN (Part 1)
UNIT l: lntroduction
One distinct advantage to teaching a course in experimental film as opposed to avant-garde film is that it automatically gives one much more leeway in terms of screenings to be selected as well as overall teaching approaches. While “avant-garde cinema” can be regarded, by and large, as a distinct body of work with its own traditions, history and critical literature, “experimental film” is a rather more subjective and ambiguous category, and one that cuts across certain forms of commercial as well as avant-garde filmmaking. (There are many more references to various commercial forms of filmmaking, including Hollywood, in David Curtis’s Experimental Cinema, than there are in P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde.)
Consequently, any teacher setting out to plan a course in experimental rather than avant-garde cinema automatically has a greater amount of material to select from, and substantially more freedom in defining the scope and limits of his or her subject. By the same token, the demands placed on one’s imagination, creative input and organizational capacities might also be significantly greater.… Read more »
This essay was originally written as liner notes for a DVD released in 2006 in the U.K. by Second Run, an excellent label. (This DVD can be obtained here—a site well worth checking out for other films as well.) My thanks to Mehelli Modi for commissioning this piece as well as for allowing me to reprint it, both here and in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I’m delighted, incidentally, that Lorber Kino’s recent DVD release of these films also includes not only My Girlfriend’s Wedding and Pictures from Life’s Other Side, but also McBride’s wonderful recent short, My Son’s Wedding to My Sister-in-Law (2008). — J.R.
In my mind, there isn’t as much of a distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one. — Abbas Kiarostami
Artifact #1: A softcover book, The Film Director as Superstar (Garden City, NY:
Doubleday & Co.,1970)—-a collection of 16 interviews in three parts, each of
which has two subsections: “The Outsiders” (”Beyond the Underground,” “Their
Own Money, Their Own Scene”), “The European Experience” (”The Underemployed
Independent,” “The Socialist Film Schools”), and “Free Agents Within the System”
(”Transitional Directors,” “Independents with Muscle”).… Read more »
The following essay was commissioned by Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann in 1992 for the book-spinoff of his documentary Grass. I wrote this around the same time that I reviewed Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai for the Chicago Reader, which helped to focus my conclusion; for more aspects of this argument, see “International Sampler”.—J.R.
What Dope Does to Movies
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
To the memory of Paul Schmidt
Consider how the camera cuts from Richie Havens’s face, guitar, and upper torso during his second number in Woodstock (1970) to a widening vista of thousands of clapping spectators, then to a much less populated view of the back of the bandstand, where there’s no clapping, watching, or listening — just a few figures milling about near the stage or on the hill behind it. What’s going on? This radical shift in orientation and perspective—a sudden movement from total concentration to Zenlike disassociation — is immediately recognizable as part of being stoned, and Michael Wadleigh’s epic concert film, which significantly has about the same duration as a marijuana high, is one of the first studio releases to incorporate this experience into its style and vision.
Or think of the way that Blade Runner (1982) starts: a long, lingering aerial view of Los Angeles in the year 2019, , punctuated by dragon-like spurts of noxious yellow flames, with enormous close-ups of a blue eye whose iris reflects those sinister, muffled explosions.… Read more »
From the Soho News (August 11, 1981). This film is available now on Blu-Ray. — J.R.
Written by David Eyre and Michael Wadleigh
Based on a novel by Whitley Streiber
Directed by Michael Wadleigh
Tarzan, the Ape ManWritten by Tom Rowe and Gary Goddard
Directed by John Derek
I Hate Blondes
Written by Laura Toscano and Franco Marotta
Directed by Giorgio CapitaniHeavy Metal
Screenplay by Dan Goldberg and Len Blum
Directed by Gerald Potterton (opens August 7)
It was at the Cannes Festival in 1970 — a happy, unreal event — that I first came upon the awesome, utopian Woodstock, in 70mm and stereo, along with its pie-eyed director, Michael Wadleigh. He spoke beatifically about the convergence of art and politics in his press conference, and quite movingly dedicated Woodstock before its screening to the students who had just been killed at Kent State. After the movie, he passed out black armbands in the Grand Palais; I took one and wore it for a while. Eventually, some of the boutiques along the Croisette started selling them — which made it hard to know whether one was representing the New Left or Warner Brothers. I’m not sure that Wadleigh was entirely clear about this either.… Read more »
I’m not sure why, but it seems like Woodstock has rarely gotten its due as a film. This review for the Chicago Reader ran on August 12, 1994, while I was working in New York on the New York Film Festival’s selection committee, and I recall that as a consequence I had to write and get most of this piece edited in Chicago well in advance. A little bit of it is recycled from the first paragraph of an article, “What Dope Does to Movies,“ that I wrote for Grass: The Paged Experience, the 2001 book spinoff of Ron Mann ‘s documentary Grass — an update and revision of an article I wrote for High Times 15 years earlier. –J.R.
WOODSTOCK **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Michael Wadleigh
With Richie Havens, Country Joe and the Fish, Joe Cocker, Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Ten Years After, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Who, John Sebastian, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix.
Michael Wadleigh’s epic documentary Woodstock (1970) has been reviewed often as an event, a symbol, and a cause, but it’s seldom been considered strictly as a movie; yet on this score it’s light-years beyond anything on the 60s counterculture ever released by a Hollywood studio.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 2003). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Christine Jeffs
Written by John Brownlow
With Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Amira Casar, Andrew Havill, Lucy Davenport, Blythe Danner, and Michael Gambon.
In the Mirror of Maya Deren
Directed by Martina Kudlacek
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.
– Sylvia Plath, “Fever 103 °“
In film, I can make the world dance.
– Maya Deren
In college it always seemed like the guys who were poets got more girls than the prose writers. The assumption was that poets had all the romance and sensuality associated with their medium working for them. Poetry, after all, isn’t just a block of printed material; it’s an activity, and one that can turn people on sexually as well as spiritually.
In cultures such as those of Russia and Iran sexual and spiritual qualities tend to run neck and neck: the great Persian poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-’67), a fan of Sylvia Plath, retains a mythic allure that combines the auras of Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday, and Marilyn Monroe. And an erotic charge is one of the first things that Sylvia, a biopic about Sylvia Plath (1932-’63), gets right.… Read more »
Written in April 2011 for the Cinema Guild DVD of In the City of Sylvia and Some Photos in the City of Sylvia. Alas, most of the illustrations used here come from the former of these, the second to have been made. — J.R.
José Luis Guerín’s Some Photos in the City of Sylvia has been described, by myself and others, as a silent, black and white “study” (or filmed “treatment,”or “scenario”) in 2007 that formed the basis for In the City of Sylvia, a color and sound “remake”of the following year. Whether or not this might be technically accurate in terms of causality and financing, it now strikes me as an inadequate way of summarizing the fascinating relation between these two works. I even think it’s an error to view these two films as two versions of the same story — a mistake I made myself when I reviewed them together back in 2008 — because assuming this overlooks too many other things.
Just as there are viewers who prefer Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties (1983), her feature-length “preview” to her 1986 musical Window Shopping, and others who prefer Jean-Luc Godard’s 54-minute Scenario du Film “Passion” (1982) to his 88-minute Passion (made the same year), it’s entirely possible to prefer Guerín’s 67-minute “sketch” to his 84-minute feature.… Read more »
Written circa June 2010 and previously unpublished. — J.R.
I can still recall the amusement of Penelope Houston — my boss, during the mid-1970s, when I was working for British Film Institute’s Editorial Department, on the staffs of Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin – whenever she came across routine references to directors Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk as “neglected” figures. Even though very few Anglo-American cinephiles could have even identified Fuller and Sirk during the 1950s, when most of their major films were coming out, Penelope certainly had a point when it came to questioning how “neglected” they still were among contemporary cinephiles in the U.K., especially after the Edinburgh film festival had extensive retrospectives devoted to each of them in 1969 and 1972, respectively. By the mid-70s, at least three books about Fuller and two about Sirk were available in the U.K — none of which appeared to have the slightest effect on their status as “neglected” filmmakers, according to the usual sound-bites.
Penelope indeed had a point. But then again, so did the various teachers and journalists who described Fuller and Sirk as “neglected,” because even though one book about each figure was published in the British Film Institute’s Cinema One series (a joint effort of the BFI’s Editorial and Education Departments in which Peter Wollen had a voice as well as Penelope), these directors remained relatively shadowy figures in Sight and Sound, a quarterly in that period which had a guaranteed subscription list based on BFI membership and therefore an unparalleled degree of clout over other film magazines in the U.K.… Read more »
I’m thrilled that my favorite academic film critic, James Naremore, finally brought out a collection of his critical and theoretical essays, and even more thrilled that its final section, “In Defense of Criticism,” includes an essay on me (along with essays on James Agee, Manny Farber, and Andrew Sarris, and extracts from Jim’s own ten-best columns for Film Quarterly between 2007 and 2010). Naremore’s essay about me ends with an email interview, and Jim has given me permission to reprint that text here. You can order his book, An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema — which also contains some wonderful material about Hawks, Hitchcock, Huston, Kubrick, Minnelli, and Welles, as well as about such topics as acting, auteurism, and literary adaptation — on Amazon. — J.R.
I took advantage of my friendship with Jonathan Rosenbaum to interview him on e-mail about the practical concerns or realpolitik of working as a film reviewer. His replies give us insight into at least one corner of the world of critical journalism:
JN: As a weekly film reviewer for the Chicago Reader, were you given the word length you needed for reviews? Was there any pressure, however subtle, to review big commercial films over art films and revivals?… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Spring 1983). -– J.R.
Wayne Wang: Chinese structures and American economies
Opening with a rousing Cantonese version of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ which is all about inflation — the rising cost of tea and rice — Wayne Wang’s remarkable, offbeat Chan is Missing neatly combines its concern about what it means to be Chinese-American with the current economic crisis. Praised in these pages by Richard Combs after its appearance at the 1982 London festival as a film that ‘answers nothing, but in a way satisfies one’s curiosity,’ this black and white mystery, about two Oriental cab drivers searching for their missing partner through San Francisco’s Chinatown, has done surprisingly well since its U.S. release last fall, especially for an independent feature costing under $20,000. A strong review from the New York Times‘ Vincent Canby, coupled with careful handling by New Yorker Films, helped to turn the film into something of a commercial sleeper. ‘After the first quarterly report, we were already in the black,’ Wang cheerfully told me on the phone from San Francisco early this year, adding that the cast and crew members, who had originally been partially paid off in points, were already just starting to get proceeds for work done in 1980.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 5, 1990). From the vantage point of 2013, The Wolf of Wall Street might be regarded in certain respects as an inferior remake of GoodFellas, with all the limitations of the original dutifully preserved. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese
With Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Chuck Low, Frank Sivero, and Debi Mazar.
Greed, indiscipline and amorality drench the money-military culture, in its upper echelons and in its pits. Somebody destroyed the national superego. Does anyone have a plan to make one anew? — from a recent editorial in the Nation
The opening, white-against-black credits of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas whiz horizontally across the screen to the sounds of traffic in quick, isolated bursts, telling us at the outset that speed is of the essence. Using a cast of almost 150 players (including a delightful performance by Scorsese’s mother Catherine) and a sound track with about 40 pop singles that are both apposite and subtle in the way they comment on the action, Scorsese pushes the narrative along with a sense of gliding motion and legible fluidity that is often breathtaking.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 17, 1992). — J.R.
NAKED LUNCH **** (Masterpiece)
Directed and written by David Cronenberg
With Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Michael Zelniker, and Nicholas Campbell.
And some of us are on Different Kicks and that’s a thing out in the open the way I like to see what I eat and vice versa mutatis mutandis as the case may be. Bill’s Naked Lunch Room . . . Step right up. Good for young and old, man and bestial. Nothing like a little snake oil to grease the wheels and get a show on the track Jack. Which side are you on? Fro-Zen Hydraulic? Or you want to take a look around with Honest Bill?” — William S. Burroughs, introduction to Naked Lunch (1962)
The first time I read William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—or at least large portions of it — was in 1959, a few months after its first printing, in a smuggled copy of the seedy Olympia Press edition fresh from Paris. As I recall it was missing most or all of the accompanying matter — the introduction (“Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”), “Atrophied Preface” (“Wouldn’t You?”), and appendix (“Letter From a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs”) — that gave so much body, flavor, shape, and outright usefulness to the Grove Press edition published in the United States three years later.… Read more »