Daily Archives: April 21, 2019

Benjamin Schwarz on David Thomson: A defense of Orson Welles [Chicago Reader blog post, 1/12/07]

A footnote to the following (February 7, 2018): I now regard Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane as the best of all the Welles biographies to date — at the very least, the most thoroughly researched. — J.R.

Film Benjamin Schwarz on David Thomson: A defense of Orson Welles

Posted By on 01.12.07 at 03:30 PM

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I sent the following letter to the Atlantic last August. I’m not surprised it wasn’t published. But I can’t resist reproducing it now that Benjamin Schwarz, the magazine’s literary editor and national editor, has shown further signs of his David Thomson idolotry while writing about Cary Grant in the current issue. This time Schwarz calls Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition, the “finest reference book on the movies.” (He also offers some other debatable critical judgments, such as calling Sylvia Scarlett “a mess of a picture” rather than an exciting forerunner of the French New Wave in its daring mix of genres.) But before getting to his assertion about Thomson’s book, let me reproduce my letter:

“It seems sadly characteristic of the mainstream reviewing of film books in general and those about Orson Welles in particular that nonspecialists routinely take precedence over specialists — and that biographers who forgo original research for the sake of speculation or invention, and even admit to doing this, can be deemed superior to actual scholars, at least if their biases match those of the reviewers.

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A Staggering Statistic [Chicago Reader blog post, 6/28/07]

Film A Staggering Statistic

Posted By on 06.28.07 at 05:42 PM

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Check out the June 26 post on Dave Kehr’s blog for an important piece of news and a staggering statistic.

The important piece of news is the launch of the Turner Classic Movies database, TCMDB, a potential alternative to the often less-than-reliable Internet Movie Database. (Sitting on a panel in Austin with Monte Hellman several years ago, I heard him recount writing to the IMDB to inform them that some of his film credits on the site were incorrect, only to be informed by them that because he wasn’t a qualified film scholar they couldn’t make the required corrections.)

As Dave points out, the TCMDB “has as its core the unsurpassable AFI Catalog of American Feature Films, previously accessible only with a $50 AFI membership (or through certain libraries). For those who don’t know it, the AFI Catalog is a towering work of scholarship that covers the period 1893 to 1971 in exquisite detail, with full credits, reliable plot summaries and significant side notes.” I can only concur with Dave. Indeed, there are times when I think that the only two irrefutably towering achievements of the American Film Institute are David Lynch’s Eraserhead, produced on its west-coast premises, and this reference work.

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Two Heads [EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES]

From the Chicago Reader (May 27, 1994). — J.R.

** EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES

(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Gus Van Sant

With Uma Thurman, Rain Phoenix, John Hurt, Lorraine Bracco, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Angie Dickinson, Sean Young, Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover, and Carol Kane.


Sissy Hankshaw, born with oversize and decidedly phallic thumbs that inspire her to become a compulsive and virtuoso hitchhiker, never stopping anywhere long enough to pitch a tent, works occasionally as a model for a decadent New York queen known as the Countess, who uses her in feminine-hygiene-spray ads. He wants her to appear in a commercial featuring a flock of whooping cranes that periodically migrate through his dude ranch and beauty salon, the Rubber Ranch, and he sends her there, not realizing that the cowgirls running the place are on the verge of seizing it and turning it into a radical feminist collective with a different set of priorities.

This is the central premise of Tom Robbins’s 1976 hippie novel, though it hardly begins to describe its proliferating characters and issues. For starters, there’s a Mr. Natural sort of guru hiding out in the mountains overlooking the Rubber Ranch — a Japanese American known as the Chink, who periodically has sex with one of the cowgirls, Bonanza Jellybean, and eventually impregnates Sissy, and who maintains a Rube Goldberg sort of timepiece that was bestowed on him by a group of renegade Indians known as the Clock People.… Read more »