Monthly Archives: April 2019

Trying to Have Some Fun (QUILLS, SMOKING, & NO SMOKING)

From the December 15, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Quills

***

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Doug Wright

With Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide, and Amelia Warner.

Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnès Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma.

No Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnes Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azema.

Quills is an American adaptation of an American play about the famous 18th-century French libertine the Marquis de Sade, starring Australian, English, and American actors. It is also, in part, an unacknowledged mainstreaming of a more intellectual German play that became famous in the mid-1960s because of an exciting and inventive staging by avant-garde English director Peter Brook — Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, popularly known as Marat/Sade. (Brook’s 1966 film adaptation of this intensely theatrical play is a pale shadow of the original.)

Smoking and No Smoking – not a double bill but a pair of interactive features that can be seen in either order, both playing at Facets Multimedia Center this week — are French adaptations of a cycle of eight mainly comic English plays by Alan Ayckbourn.… Read more »

Wrinkles in Time [ALONE. LIFE WASTES ANDY HARDY]

From the February 18, 2000 Chicago Reader. This piece is reprinted in my forthcoming Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (University of Chicago Press), appearing this fall. — J.R.

Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Martin Arnold

With Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Fay Holden.

Wearing suspenders, Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy steps behind his mother (Fay Holden), clutching her left shoulder and right forearm with his two hands, and firmly kisses the back of her neck while she slowly nods her head with a stoic, worldly-wise expression. In a series of stuttering, staccato jerks, he does the same thing again, to the throbbing strains of eerie, ghostly music. Then he does it a third time, pausing first to rock back and forth from one foot to another a good many times, as if he had ants in his pants. When he kisses the back of his mom’s neck this time, his lips seem to remain glued there. This embrace, his barely perceptible jaw movements, and her steadily bobbing head all conspire to suggest something vaguely obscene and depraved. Could Andy have become some kind of Dracula, sucking blood from his mother’s neck? Or do the slow pumping rhythm and repeated nervous thrusts represent some kind of sexual motion?… Read more »

The Life and File of an Anarchist Filmmaker [MR. HOOVER AND I]

From the Chicago Reader (May 18, 1990). — J.R.

MR. HOOVER AND I

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Emile de Antonio.

1. “Born Pennsylvania U.S.A., in intellectual surroundings and coal mines. Went to Harvard. Became, and still is, a Marxist, without party or leader. Started making films at age of 40 after having avoided films most of his life. Favorite film is L’age d’or.” Emile de Antonio’s self-description was written around 1977 for a poll organized by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium and eventually published in book form as The Most Important and Misappreciated American Films. Under the category of most important American films, de Antonio listed, in order, The Birth of a Nation, It’s a Gift, A Night at the Opera, The Cure, The Immigrant, One A.M., The Kid, Big Business, The Navigator, and Foolish Wives, and added the following comment:

“Most American films were and are like Fords. They are made on assembly lines. John Ford is not an artist any more than Jerry Ford is a statesman. Harry Cohn said it all and the Capras jumped.

“Comedy was spared all that. Irreverence was possible because the booboisie didn’t know it was being laughed at.… Read more »

Film on Film: Documenting the Director

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 1990). — J.R.

DOCUMENTING THE DIRECTOR

It’s no secret that over the past few years, while “entertainment news,” bite-size reviews, and other forms of promotion in all the media have been steadily expanding, serious film criticism in print become an increasingly scarce. (I’m not including academic film interpretation, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field that has by now developed a rhetoric and a tradition of its own — the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating book Making Meaning, published last year.) But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, in some cases supplanting the sort of work that used to appear only in print.

There are plenty of talking-head “documentaries” about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios — currently clogging cable TV, but what I have in mind is something quite different: analytic films about films and filmmakers. Many of these films are shown in film festivals, turn up on TV, and are used in academic film courses, but very few of them ever wind up in commercial theaters, with the consequence that they’re rarely reviewed outside of trade journals.… Read more »

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.

Read more »

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.

Read more »

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 »

Comeback Kid [LITTLE BUDDHA]

From the Chicago Reader (June 3, 1994). — J.R.

** LITTLE BUDDHA

(Worth seeing)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Mark Peploe, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Bertolucci

With Keanu Reeves, Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda, Alex Wiesendanger, Ying Ruocheng, Jigme Kunsang, Raju Ial, and Greishma Makar Singh.

“Nirvana” is a word that comes from Sanskrit, the Reader’s Encyclopedia informs me, meaning “blowing out, extinction”; in Buddhist teaching it refers to “a complete annihilation of the 3 main ego-drives, for money, fame, and immortality.”

Bernardo Bertolucci has said that his aim in Little Buddha is low-key. Of the third film in his self-described orientalist trilogy, following The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990), he says, “My hope is to open the eyes for a glimpse of something, my hope is to trigger a curiosity about something. I can’t teach or ask anything more than just for others to participate in my emotional discovery of Buddhism.” But Little Buddha is a multimillion-dollar project designed to make money and to exploit and perpetuate Bertolucci’s fame while catering to the viewer’s desire for immortality. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that nirvana, one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought, plays a reduced role in Bertolucci’s “emotional discovery,” whereas reincarnation as a means of immortality plays a major role.… Read more »

Off Color [Kieslowski's WHITE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 17, 1994). — J.R.

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** WHITE

(Worth seeing)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski

With Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delphy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr, Grzegorz Warchol, and Jerzy Nowak.

“Imagine a kind of filmmaking that’s truly in tune with the ways you think and relate to other people. A deeply humane kind of filmmaking, but free from ‘humanist’ lies and sentimental evasions. Not a dry, ‘realistic’ kind of filmmaking, but one in which all the imaginative and creative efforts have gone into understanding the way we are. A kind of filmmaking as sensitive to silence as to speech, and alert to the kind of meanings we prefer to hide away. To my knowledge, only two directors in the world are currently making films like that. One is Krzysztof Kieslowski in Poland. The other is Edward Yang in Taiwan.”

These rousing words by Tony Rayns in the June issue of Sight and Sound were just what I needed to read after returning last month from Cannes, where wonderful films by Yang and Kieslowski about contemporary life were showing in competition. They were the two best competing films that I saw, though neither won any prizes.… Read more »

Villain the Blank [BLOWN AWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1994). — J.R.

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* BLOWN AWAY

(Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Stephen Hopkins

Written by Joe Batteer, John Rice, and M. Jay Roach

With Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Lloyd Bridges, Forest Whitaker, Suzy Amis, John Finn, and Stephi Lineburg.

In the Roy Rogers westerns I saw as a kid, I could always figure out in a flash who the villain was. If memory serves, Roy Rogers always played a cowboy named Roy Rogers, whom the good characters invariably called Roy and the bad guy referred to as Rogers. This sometimes made it possible to know who the bad guy was even before Roy figured it out himself.

There’s a popular kind of suspense movie that’s been with us at least since Dirty Harry in which the villain is often just as easy to detect: he or she is someone who has it in for the hero and wants to hurt him very, very badly, most often by hurting or killing whomever the hero is supposed to protect: his daughter’s pet rabbit (Fatal Attraction), his wife, his mistress, and his daughter (Cape Fear), the citizens of Gotham City (the Batman movies), the president of the United States (In the Line of Fire), the passengers in a local bus (Speed), a coworker and a pet dog and a wife and a daughter (Blown Away).… Read more »

Tribal Trouble [CALENDAR]

From the Chicago Reader (August 19, 1994). — J.R.

**** CALENDAR

(Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Atom Egoyan

With Arsinee Khanjian, Ashot Adamian, and Atom Egoyan.

In terms of craft, originality, and intelligence, there are few young filmmakers in the world today to match Atom Egoyan — a Canadian writer-director with a bee in his bonnet about video, photography, voyeurism, sexual obsession, troubled families, and personal identity (not necessarily in that order). But of his half-dozen features to date, the only one I’m comfortable calling a flat-out masterpiece is his fifth, Calendar — in some ways the least premeditated or worked over of the bunch. (Its successor, Exotica, which showed at Cannes in May 1993, will probably surface in New York later this year, which means it probably won’t get to Chicago before next summer.)

There are various ways of categorizing Egoyan’s six features, but perhaps the most useful involves distinguishing between the relatively low-budget ones, which happen to be my favorites – Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987), and Calendar (1993) — and the slicker, more expensive ones: Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), and Exotica (1994). Though all these movies have similar preoccupations and many have similar formal structures, a few distinctions between them are worth noting.… Read more »

Recycled Cinema [DIVERTIMENTO & NATURAL BORN KILLERS]

This appeared in the August 26, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

*** DIVERTIMENTO

(A must-see)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette

With Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Béart, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marianne Denicourt, and the hand of Bernard Dufour.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS

(No stars–Worthless)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, Stone, and Quentin Tarantino

With Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Edie McClurg, Sean Stone, and Russell Means.

One of the more deceitful explanations for the compulsive repetition that informs most contemporary movies is that Hollywood is simply giving the public what they want. The idea that they even know what they want is pretty dubious to begin with — especially if one factors out all the publicity and hype that supposedly speaks for them. And the argument that moviemakers have any better sense of what the public wants is usually self-serving propaganda.

A more likely explanation for all the recycling is that it serves business interests — and contrary to what you read in Variety and Premiere, that is not necessarily the same thing as serving the public.… Read more »

They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber

I’m reposting this as a sort of adjunct to David Bordwell’s excellent two-part study of Manny Farber (available here and here). And my relatively recent review of Farber on Film can be accessed here.

This very personal essay was written in 1993 for my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. I’ve updated a few facts, all placed in square brackets, and corrected some typos, including one that appeared on the first page of the essay in the book, much to my irritation (as well as Manny’s) ….The photograph at the very end of this piece, before the new Afterword, taken by Andy Rector, shows Manny and Patricia with Gabe Klinger. — J.R.

They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

“What is the role of evaluation in your critical work?” Manny Farber was once asked in an interview. “It’s practically worthless for a critic,” Farber replied. “The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” A few years later, in another interview — published in French, so I can’t quote from it verbatim — he expressed his irritation with Pauline Kael writing about RAGING BULL as if she knew what was good or bad in every shot, in every scene.… Read more »

Getting Personal [CARO DIARIO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 2, 1994). — J.R.

Caro Diario (Dear Diary)

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Nanni Moretti

With Moretti, Jennifer Beals, Carlo Mazzacurati, Renato Carpentieri, Antonio Neiwiller, and Mario Schiano.

How many movies put us in touch with real people as opposed to stars and characters? Not very many, perhaps because we tend to go to movies to escape people — or at least to encounter them in more circumscribed and protected ways than we would in real life. Thanks to movies and TV, a good many of us think of some real people as heroes, villains, and other stock figures; witness the recent election campaigns.

One form of literature, and by extension, one form of film that’s designed to place us directly in contact with individuals is the personal essay. According to writer Phillip Lopate — an expert theorist and practitioner of the form whose invaluable anthology The Art of the Personal Essay was published earlier this year — “The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue — a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.”

Lopate is also a sensitive film critic and in the winter 1992 issue of the Threepenny Review devotes one of his own essays to defining, describing, surveying, and celebrating “a cinematic genre that barely exists” — namely, the personal film essay.… Read more »

Ethereal Girl [WHO'S THAT GIRL]

This was the first long review I wrote for the Chicago Reader after I started working there, but its publication was delayed for almost a couple of months until October 30, 1987 because the film was pulled from distribution just before we were going to press.  – J.R.

WHO’S THAT GIRL

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by James Foley

With Madonna, Griffin Dunne, Haviland Morris, John McMartin, and John Mills.

The current spate of recycled movies is only the latest stage in a process that has been in force for almost three decades, ever since the French New Wave launched the idea of a self-devouring cinema. Broadly speaking, the movement started out as esoteric polemical criticism (in print and on-screen) in the 60s, gravitated toward name-dropping and flag-waving testimonials in the 70s, and has finally degenerated in the 80s to an insidious kind of self-censorship that uses the past — and a severely delimited version of it at that — as a kind of stopper to prevent too much of the present from leaking through.

It’s a cynical truism of journalism that any story with 100 percent new information is virtually unusable. In order to provide the reader or spectator with a safety net, most of the story has to be based on old information, even if much of that old news turns out to be out of date or false.… Read more »