From the Chicago Reader (April 5, 1996). — J.R.
The Neon Bible
Directed and written by Terence Davies
With Gena Rowlands, Diana Scarwid, Jacob Tierney, Denis Leary, Leo Burmester, Frances Conroy, and Peter McRobbie.
Two paradoxical facts about Terence Davies’s first film adaptation:
(1) It follows fairly closely The Neon Bible, a novel written by John Kennedy Toole for a literary contest in the mid-50s, when he was 16 — a decade before he finished work on his second novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, and about 15 years before he, still unpublished, committed suicide (A Confederacy of Dunces was published ten years later, The Neon Bible ten years after that). I don’t care much for The Neon Bible, a hackneyed mood piece set in a rural backwater of the deep south, but I think the movie, which seems 100 percent Davies, is wonderful.
(2) Of all the English-speaking films shown at Cannes last May, the two that got the most boorish and least comprehending reception by the English-speaking press were The Neon Bible and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, though for nearly opposite reasons. Jarmusch, who’s long been criticized for coasting along in Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Night on Earth on the same kind of hip humor he virtually invented for Stranger Than Paradise, finally broke free and did something bold, original, political, dark, scary, outspoken, witty, and often beautiful — a black-and-white western that should be opening here sometime next month.… Read more »
From The Velvet Light Trap, spring 1996 (and reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). Given all the screenings of Out 1 that have more recently taken place on both sides of the Atlantic, with (almost) concurrent Blu-Ray and DVD releases in France, the U.K., and the U.S., this seems like a good time to repost this article. My still lengthier reflections can be found on the Carlotta digital releases in France and the U.S. — J.R.
On the Issue of Nonreception
What connections can be found between two French serials made almost half a century apart? Aside from the fact that both of them appear on my most recent “top ten” list (1), I’m equally concerned with the issue of why such pleasurable, evocative, enduring, multifaceted, and incontestably beautiful works should remain so resolutely marginal — unseen, unavailable, and virtually written out of most film histories except for occasional guest appearances as the vaguest of reference points. The problem isn’t simply an American or an academic one; although no print of either serial exists in the United States, it can’t be said that either film has received much attention in France either — or elsewhere, for that matter.… Read more »
From the June 9, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
PIERROT LE FOU
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Dirk Sanders, Raymond Devos, Graziella Galvani, Roger Dutoit, Hans Meyer, Jimmy Karoubi, and Samuel Fuller.
All the good movies have been made. — Peter Bogdanovich to Boris Karloff in Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968)
Two or three years ago I felt that everything had been done, that there was nothing left to do today. . . . Ivan the Terrible had been made, and Our Daily Bread. Make films about the people, they said; but The Crowd had already been made, so why remake it? I was, in a word, pessimistic. After Pierrot, I no longer feel this. Yes. One must film everything — talk about everything. Everything remains to be done. — Jean-Luc Godard in an interview about Pierrot le fou (1965)
After many years out of circulation, Jean-Luc Godard’s ninth feature is finally back, in a sparkling new 35-millimeter ‘Scope print, and the Film Center is celebrating with a week-long run. Looking at it again almost a quarter of a century after it was made, 20 years after its initial U.S. release, is a bit like visiting another planet; it’s an explosion of color, sound, music, passion, violence, and wit that illustrates what used to be regarded as cinema.… Read more »
I’m waiting for any of the enthusiasts for Inglourious Basterds to come up with some guidance about what grown-up things this movie has to say to us about World War 2 or the Holocaust — or maybe just what it has to say about other movies with the same subject matter. Or, if they think that what Tarantino is saying is adolescent but still deserving of our respect and attention, what that teenage intelligence consists of. Or implies. Or inspires. Or contributes to our culture.
For me, assuming that it’s a message worth heeding or even an experience worth having is a little bit like assuming that Lars von Trier is closer to Sergei Eisenstein than to P.T. Barnum, as many of my colleagues also seem to believe — a genuine film theorist and not just a consummate con-artist who knows how to work the press.
I’ll concede that when Tarantino recently (and plausibly) faulted Truffaut’s The Last Metro as a film about the French Occupation that should have been a comedy, that qualified, at least for me, as a grown-up observation, and one that made sense to me. I just don’t see any comparable observations in his movie.
Part of the assumption of his defenders seems to be that no subject is so sacrosanct that it can’t be met with an adolescent snicker — including, say, the Holocaust or, closer to the present, 9/11.… Read more »
This review originally appeared in the July 14, 1997 issue of In These Times. — J.R.
Mason & Dixon
By Thomas Pynchon
773 pp. $27.50
It’s always been one of the paradoxes of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction that he combines the encyclopedic researches of a polymath with the rude instincts of a populist. V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, the stories in Slow Learner, Vineland, and now Mason & Dixon synthesize an awesome array of scientific and historical speculation while steadily sabotaging, with a compulsive anti-elitism, every effort to marshal this material into the stuff of high art. Fusing studied literary pastiche with collegiate humor and flip song lyrics, philosophical soul-searching with barroom brawls and locker-room asides, Pynchon’s intricate and unwieldy narratives tend to define and confound boundaries in the same gesture. So it stands to reason that this epic about American origins, focused on a couple of low-level line drawers (the 18th century executors of the Mason-Dixon Line), winds up favoring sprawl over progression, digression over linear advance.
It’s surely too soon to post final verdicts about a novel that reportedly was almost a quarter of a century in the making.… Read more »
Excerpted from a chapter in my book Film: The Front Line 1983. — J.R.
Of all the films discussed at length in this book, Too Soon, Too Late (1981) is conceivably the one that has had the strongest impact on me, although I have seen it only twice. After having seen it the first time, in Spring 1982, I was sufficiently impressed to put the film at the end of my “all-time” top ten list for Sight and Sound’s international critics’ poll later the same year. Consequently, it seems paradoxical yet unavoidable that of all the films dealt with here, Too Soon, Too Late automatically qualifies as the most difficult and elusive to write about. My two previous efforts have yielded only a few inadequate and hastily conceived sentences in the introduction to my Straub-Huillet catalog, and a somewhat more reasoned paragraph in the conversation with Jonas Mekas which opens this book. The notes below cannot pretend to be more than an interim report; further and more extensive analysis will have to await a future date:
(a) First, a few concrete facts about the film. For the first time in a Straub-Huillet film, the texts used are all read off-screen, making separate versions in different languages possible without any recourse to dubbing. … Read more »
From The Soho News (September 15, 1981). -– J.R.
Made in USA
By Jean-Luc Godard
Thalia, September 11 and 12
WHAT could be more timely than a Godard movie that repeatedly returns to the slogan, “The Left, Year Zero”? In point of fact, the beautiful, goofy, and explosive Made in USA was made in France in 1966. But for dispirited moviegoers, having to choose between Blow Out and Prince of the City (or the bossy rival senior critics pushing them) is like having to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 50s (with bland Eisenhower and jocular Khrushchev at the respective helms). All things considered, Made in USA may well be the funniest and punchiest “new” movie around.
It’s the last feature that Godard ever shot with Anna Karina, who was never lovelier and never more made-up to seem at once Japanese and doll-like — in dazzling color and Scope. (Most of the close-ups of her in the movie are the kind of bold compositions you could hang on your wall.) In her off-screen film noir narration, she more or less accurately describes the formal and moral profile of the movie she’s in as ”a film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart — therefore a political film.… Read more »
Written in November 2014 for my February 2015 “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. Given the precipitous decline in Truman Capote’s literary reputation since his death, it seems a pity that he’s better known as a screenwriter on the overrated Beat the Devil than on The Innocents, a far more durable though far less celebrated work. — J.R.
Bonus features are an important part of digital film culture, and one shortcoming is the attention usually accorded to both literary and cinematic sources. While these sources aren’t necessarily ignored, they’re rarely emphasized, so that younger viewers watching, for the first time, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) –- two exceptionally literate and intelligent horror films, both beautifully and resourcefully filmed in black and white CinemaScope -– are apt to overlook the fact that they’re adapted quite faithfully from what Stephen King has called the two “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” namely Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Though both novels are cited and discussed in the extras (and Truman Capote’s contribution of Southern Gothic elements to the screenplay for The Innocents is rightly applauded), they’re rarely accorded the attention they deserve.… Read more »
This appeared in the April 8, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader and is reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. – J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Peter Sellars, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard, Molly Ringwald, Norman Mailer, Kate Miller, Leos Carax, and Woody Allen.
Jean-Luc Godard’s latest monkey wrench aimed at the Cinematic Apparatus — that multifaceted, impregnable institution that regulates the production, distribution, exhibition, promotion, consumption, and discussion of movies — goes a lot further than most of its predecessors in creatively obfuscating most of the issues it raises. Admittedly, Hail Mary caused quite a ruckus on its own, but mainly among people who never saw the film. King Lear, which I calculate to be Godard’s 34th feature to date, has the peculiar effect of making everyone connected with it in any shape or form — director, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, spectators, critics — look, and presumably feel, rather silly. For better and for worse, it puts us all on the spot; as Roland Barthes once wrote of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, it prevents us from redeeming ourselves.
From its birth, a table-napkin contract signed by Godard and producer Menahem Golan of Cannon Films at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985, to its disastrous world premiere at Cannes two years later, the project has always seemed farfetched and unreal, even as a hypothesis.… Read more »
A reprint from the Taipei Times (October 13, 2014), with different illustrations. For the record, I don’t think it was betel nuts that I was chewing at Hou’s 1991 party; what I recall was a kind of barklike Taiwanese form of speed. — J.R.
Narrating Taiwanese identity
The Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image educates American film buffs about Taiwanese history and identity
By Dana Ter / Contributing reporter in New York
The year was 1991. American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was experiencing his first authentic night out in Taipei at a late night karaoke party hosted by renowned Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (侯孝賢). Fueled by bottles of cognac and a generous supply of betel nuts, the duo belted out Beatles songs until 3am before stumbling home.
Having reviewed Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, 1986) and A City of Sadness (悲情城市, 1989) for the Chicago Reader, long-time film critic Rosenbaum was no stranger to Hou’s work. But being in Taipei for the Asia-Pacific Film Festival gave him a better appreciation of the local culture, history and setting.
“I was able to spend my 19 days there less as a tourist than as a part of everyday life in Taipei,” said Rosenbaum, who was in New York this past week for the retrospective “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien” at the Museum of the Moving Image.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 28, 2002). — J.R.
Aptly subtitled “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys,” the fifth feature by Austrian director Michael Haneke (2000, 117 min.), his best to date, is a procession of long virtuoso takes that typically begin and end in the middle of actions or sentences, constituting not only an interactive jigsaw puzzle but a thrilling narrative experiment comparable to Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime, Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, and Rob Tregenza’s Talking to Strangers. The film’s second episode is a nine-minute street scene involving an altercation between an actress (Juliette Binoche in a powerful performance), her boyfriend’s younger brother, an African music teacher who works with deaf-mute students, and a woman beggar from Romania; the other episodes effect a kind of narrative dispersal of these characters and some of their relatives across time and space. I couldn’t always keep up with what was happening, but I was never bored, and the questions raised reflect the mysteries of everyday life. This is Haneke’s first feature made in France, and the title refers to the pass codes used to enter houses and apartment buildings in Paris — a metaphor for codes that might crack certain global and ethical issues.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 5, 2005). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Ingmar Bergman
With Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephon, Borje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius, and Gunnel Fred
*** (A must see)
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch
With Bill Murray, Julie Delpy, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Alexis Dziena, Frances Conroy, Christopher McDonald, Chloe Svigny, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, and Mark Webber
Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers are two minimalist features about burned-out individuals picking over the wreckage of relationships they can barely remember and about the special art of not really giving a shit. (A third is Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, scheduled to open here next week.) With its sprawling and far from symmetrical plot, Saraband, made in 2003 for Swedish television, is stark and economical, with a small cast of characters and sparse rural settings, and it seems like an apocalyptic endgame in terms of Bergman’s own career — the end of the world as he knows it. It was shot in digital video, and at Bergman’s insistence is being projected as such — and his peculiar use of that medium is what makes this work compelling.
I wouldn’t dream of contesting Bergman’s status as a film master.… Read more »
Adapted from “Cannes, tour de Babel critique,” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, in Traﬁc no. 23, automne 1997. –- J.R.
By common agreement, the ﬁftieth anniversary of the Cannes
Film Festival, preﬁgured as a cause for celebration, wound up serving
more often as an occasion for complaint. Disappointment in the over-
all quality of the ﬁlms ran high, even if the arrival over the last four days
of ﬁlms by Abbas Kiarostami, Atom Egoyan, Youssef Chahine, and
Wong Kar-wai improved the climate somewhat. But I don’t mean to
suggest that the shared feelings of anger and frustration demonstrated
any critical unanimity. On the contrary, the overall malaise of Cannes this
year forced to a state of crisis the general critical disagreement and lack
of communication that has turned up repeatedly, in a variety of forms.
If the pressing question after every screening at Cannes is whether a ﬁlm
is good or bad (or, more often, given the climate of hyperbole,
wonderful or terrible) — a question that becomes much too pressing, because
it short-circuits the opportunity and even the desire to reﬂect on a ﬁlm for
a day or week before reaching any ﬁnal verdict about it — the widespread
disagreements at the festival derived not only from different and
irreconcilable deﬁnitions of “good” and “bad,” but also from different and
irreconcilable deﬁnitions of “ﬁlm.” And the ensuing Tower of Babel
brought into sharp relief the competing agendas — in some cases
implicit, in come cases explicit — of such an occasion.… Read more »
This appeared in the Chicago Reader‘s February 3, 2006 issue. Tommy Lee Jones’ subsequent feature, The Homesman, confirms the talent, originality, and boldness of Jones as a director, even if it may also come across at certain junctures as less lucid than its predecessor. — J.R.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Written bu Guillermo Arriaga
With Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, and Melissa Leo
At last year’s Cannes film festival, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada walked off with the prizes for best actor (Tommy Lee Jones) and best screenplay (Guillermo Arriaga). It’s often hard to disentangle story, acting, and direction when they’re working together as well as they are here, but I would have honored Jones for his direction. That prize went to Michael Haneke for Caché, his eighth theatrical feature. This is Jones’s first, though he directed (and cowrote and starred in) a made-for-TV western, the 1995 The Good Old Boys.
Both Haneke’s and Jones’s films are political. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a western, protests the abusive treatment of Mexican immigrants in west Texas, and Caché, an anxiety-ridden crime thriller, protests the abusive treatment of Algerians in France.… Read more »
From the January 15, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Thin Red Line
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Terrence Malick
With Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Arie Verveen, Dash Mihok, John Savage, John Travolta, and George Clooney.
Last week the National Society of Film Critics voted Out of Sight the year’s best picture, also awarding it best screenplay and best direction. If this baffles or bemuses you, you should know that the awards in each category are chosen by multiple ballots listing three titles in order of preference. What now seems like a collective preference for a sexy thriller over more ambitious pictures was in effect a tie-breaker between two irreconcilable positions.
As a participant in the meeting I saw partisans of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan square off against partisans of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s first film since Days of Heaven (1978). Practically no one voted for both — only Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune comes to mind — so Steven Soderbergh lurched forward as a second choice, finally copping 28 votes while Spielberg and Malick tied for second place with 25 votes apiece.… Read more »