My column from the Fall 2015 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
Practically speaking, we should invent our own extras, not necessarily or invariably depend on those that are made on our behalf. To cite four examples of what I mean:
a) According to normal usage, Icarus Film’s DVD of Frédéric Choffat and Vincent Lowy’s 44-minute Marcel Ophüls and Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais contains no extras. But according to my own usage, this DVD itself functions as an extra to a 100-page book that I own, Dialogue sur le cinéma: Jean-Luc Godard & Marcel Ophüls, published by Le Bord de l’Eau in 2011. That book — which is prefaced by short essays by Lowy and André Gazut and concludes with Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s essay for Le Monde, “Mon ami Godard” — transcribes two encounters between Godard and Ophüls held in 2002 and 2009 (the first of these focusing more on Marcel’s father Max), whereas the DVD includes most (but not all) of the second of these dialogues, and somehow manages to leave out some of the more interesting parts, either through cuts or incomplete subtitles. Which doesn’t mean that the Icarus release isn’t worth having, only that its contents are worth contextualizing beyond the material offered by Icarus.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 27, 1991). This film is now available on a Criterion Blu-Ray. Although I still have some issues with the film, after reseeing it on this edition, Terry Gilliam’s audio commentary is terrific, and his own enthusiasm for the film is often compelling. — J.R.
THE FISHER KING
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Richard LaGravenese
With Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer, Michael Jeter, and Tom Waits.
Terry Gilliam’s elephantine yet breezy The Fisher King is a gripping new-age extravaganza, visually splendid and adroitly paced. But some gross conceptual cheating — presumably the fallout of commercial ambitions — makes the film a little hard to swallow. Gilliam’s fifth feature (he also directed Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) revels in duality — everything comes in twos — so it’s little wonder it indulges in both duplicity and outright doublethink; the film is also littered with internal “rhymes,” both significant and gratuitous. This duality may come partly from the fact that for the first time Gilliam has not written the script himself — it’s by talented newcomer Richard LaGravenese. At any rate the duality echoes Gilliam’s well-advertised desire to make this both an artistic and commercial success — to prove he can turn out a money-maker (after the box-office flop of Baron Munchausen) and yet retain his reputation as an overachiever in the grand style, a director known for his quirky humor and ravishing visual conceits.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 5, 1997). — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll, and Godard.
Almost exactly 33 years ago, in October 1964, the critical reception of Jean-Luc Godard’s widest American release of his career and his most expensive picture to date was overwhelmingly negative. But now that Contempt, showing this week at the Music Box, is being rereleased as an art film — in a brand-new print that’s three minutes longer — the critical responses have been almost as overwhelmingly positive. It’s tempting to say in explanation that we’re more sophisticated in 1997 than we were in 1964 — that we’ve absorbed or at least caught up with some of Godard’s innovations — but I don’t think this adequately or even correctly accounts for the difference in critical response. Despite all the current reviews that treat Le mépris as if it were some form of serene classical art, it’s every bit as transgressive now as it was when it first appeared, and maybe more so. But because it’s being packaged as an art movie rather than a mainstream release — because Godard is a venerable master of 66 rather than an unruly upstart of 33 — we have different expectations.… Read more »
Cinema. Film Study. What a pity that the left hand rarely knows what the right hand is doing, and vice versa.
Thanks to the generosity of Girish Shambu, I’m the happy owner of a copy of Timothy Barnard’s retranslated, reselected, and annotated edition of André Bazin’s What is Cinema?, recently published in a handsome hardcover by www.caboosebooks.com, based in Montreal, with Varvara Stepanova’s 1922 woodcut of Charlie Chaplin, Sharlo Takes a Bow, gracing the cover.
First, here is the selection: “Ontology of the Photographic Image,” “The Myth of Total Cinema,” “On Jean Painlevé” (a short fragment that Barnard has translated for the first time), “An Introduction to the Charlie Chaplin Persona,” “Monsieur Hulot and Time,” “William Wyler, the Jansenist of Mise en Scène,” “Editing Prohibited,” “The Evolution of Film Language,” “For an Impure Cinema: In Defense of Adaptation,” “Diary of a Country Priest and the Robert Bresson Style,” “Theatre and Film (1),” “Theatre and Film (2),” and “Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation”.
Regrettably, the 354-page book, with a ten-page Publisher’s Foreword, the aforementioned 13 essays by Bazin, 61 pages of helpful annotation, a combined 19-page Glossary of Films and Film Title Index, and a six-page Index of Names, is unavailable to most people outside of Canada, and for legal reasons, including copyright laws, you can’t even order this from Canadian Amazon.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 30, 2001). — J.R.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Written by Claude Faraldo
With Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Emir Kusturica, Philippe Magnan, and Michel Duchaussoy.
I find that some movies change more than others over repeated viewings, and after three screenings Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre slid all the way from near masterpiece to effective piece of distraction. I saw it three times only out of professional duty — after seeing it at a press screening several weeks ago, I led two discussions about it for the “Talk Cinema” film series. I would have been happier seeing it only once, and if you don’t intend to spend a lot of time reflecting on it afterward, The Widow of Saint-Pierre could add up to one good evening.
That may sound condescending, but some moviegoers — including, on occasion, myself — have the attitude that “I don’t like to think when I go to movies; I want to have fun.” It’s depressing that there are people who are willing to say they can’t have fun while they’re thinking — that is, if they’re telling the truth, since I suspect some of them are fibbing, even if they don’t know it.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 11, 1990). — J.R.
LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Uli Edel
Written by Desmond Nakano
With Stephen Lang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Burt Young, Peter Dobson, Jerry Orbach, and Alexis Arquette.
After making the rounds of Europe late last year, this West German feature, an adaptation in English of Hubert Selby Jr.’s famous short-story collection of 1964, has finally reached our shores, and it proves to be at least as much of a mixed blessing as the book itself was a quarter of a century ago. Although shot on location in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district, adapted by an American (Desmond Nakano, who scripted Boulevard Nights about a decade ago), and featuring an all-American cast, this is very much a European picture in style and ambience, with more emphasis on mood and atmosphere than on plot and action.
Uli Edel, the director, whose best-known previous effort in the U.S. is Christiane F. (1980), and who has been interested in adapting this book since the early 70s, employs a somewhat distanced theatrical style in lighting, production design, and staging that registers a bit like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s did, though without the political irony that gave Fassbinder’s style its edge.… Read more »
A post on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.
Adolescent sex in Oberhausen
I’ve just returned from the 53rd International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany, where I was invited to serve on the jury of FIPRESCI, the international film critics organization. My work, apart from participating in a panel about the privatization of film experience, consisted of seeing the 64 short films in the international competition and, along with two other jurors (Oliver Baumgarten from Cologne and Alexis Tioseco from Manila), awarding one of them a prize. We picked Amit Dutta’s 22-minute Kramasha from India — a dazzling, virtuoso piece of mise en scene in 35-millimeter, full of uncanny imagery about the way the narrator imagines the past of his village and his family.
The Festival had 14 prizes in all, gave a total of 30,000 Euros to many of the winning filmmakers, and concluded with a ceremony that lasted well over two and a half hours. Part of what made the event interesting was the same default position that sustained me through the 64 shorts I saw: the notion that at a festival as genuinely international as this one, a certain education was possible, however limited, in how people in other parts of the world were living and thinking — all of which provides a potential context for better understanding some of the choices involved, conscious or otherwise, in how Americans live and think.
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From the April 28, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. There’s a wonderful new Blu-Ray edition of Khroustaliov, My Car! just out from Arrow Academy. Please note that they spell the title differently: Khrustalyov, My Car! – J.R.
Fun and infuriating in roughly equal proportions, Mike Figgis’s Timecode is an unusually bold experiment for a major studio. Its plot is outlandish and its characters the most overblown parodies this side of Robert Altman. In some respects, it’s even more cockamamy than James Toback’s Black and White and its sensationalist riffs. So you can’t laugh at much of it without feeling either self-satisfied or stupid.
The silliness and the daring of Timecode are often made to seem like opposite sides of the same coin — a kind of cagey self-protection that cheerfully self-destructs to ensure that the movie poses little threat to anyone. Back in the 60s, critic Noël Burch tartly observed that there would always be an 8½ to provide a refuge from the implications of a Last Year at Marienbad. Timecode suggests an unlikely synthesis: a flamboyantly obvious and carnivalesque satire of Tinsel Town and its excesses tied to an open-ended, highly interactive, and somewhat abstract form. It isn’t nearly as good as either predecessor.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by James Bridges
Written by Jay McInerney
With Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Swoosie Kurtz, Phoebe Cates, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, Jason Robards, John Houseman, Dianne Wiest, and William Hickey.
Considering the thinness of Jay McInerney’s 1984 best-seller, one might imagine that the movie version would stretch out the material, or at least fill in some of the blanks. But by and large, the original text is treated as if it were engraved in marble, and I doubt its fans will have any cause for complaint.
If Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Algren, Updike, and Styron have never received a tenth of the respect from Hollywood accorded here to Jay McInerney, this may be because, unlike McInerney, they are writers whose styles and formal structures are easily lost in translation. McInerney’s book, written in the present tense and in the second person, is already aiming for the immediacy and easy identification available from a movie, so most of the work of the filmmakers in putting it across is relatively sweat-free. In fact, given the charisma of Michael J. Fox and the spit and polish of director James Bridges — not to mention the music of Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) and the cinematography of Gordon Willis — it could easily be argued that the movie fulfills the novel’s designs better than the novel does.… Read more »
This is the first ten-best round-up I ever did for the Chicago Reader, which ran in their January 8, 1988 issue. Having recently been reading the Library of America’s mammoth collection of Manny Farber’s film criticism (which is coming out in September), I’ve become especially aware of how much one’s taste and preferences tend to change over time. Today, for instance, I suspect I would have placed Mélo in the number #1 slot, and probably wouldn’t include House of Games or Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen in the also-rans but would move them both up to the main list. The first photo, incidentally, directly below, is from Godard’s still woefully neglected King Lear.-–J.R.
What is the meaning of a ten best list? For me, at any rate, it means a list of movies with the highest possible mystery quotient — the movies that fascinate me the most because they still have secrets to withhold. And the best litmus test that I know for determining this quality is repeat viewings. If a movie that knocked me out seems less mysterious after a return visit — as was the case with Broadcast News, Cross My Heart, and Orphans — then it doesn’t belong on the list.… Read more »
Published in Screen Dynamics: Mapping the Borders of Cinema, coedited by Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, and Simon Rothoehler and published by the Austrian Film Museum in 2012. A year later, this is already out of date in some particulars, but I haven’t attempted to update it. — J.R.
Shoals Theater, Florence, Alabama, 1948
Shoals Theater, Florence, Alabama, 2008
It’s a strange paradox, but about half of my friends and colleagues think that we’re currently approaching the end of cinema as an art form and the end of film criticism as a serious activity, while the other half believe that we’re enjoying some form of exciting resurgence and renaissance in both areas. How can one account for this discrepancy? One clue is that most of the nay-sayers tend to be people around my own age (66) or older whereas most of the optimistic ones are a good deal younger (most of them under 30).
I tend to feel much closer to the younger cinephiles on this issue than I do to the older ones. But I must admit that much of the confusion arises from the fact that the two groups typically don’t mean the same things when they use terms like “cinema,” “film,” “movie,” “film criticism,” and even “available”.… Read more »
From The Soho News (February 11, 1981), slightly revised. This is the first of my ten Soho News columns with that title, and the only one without a subtitle. — J.R.
Jan. 23; Arriving at the Collective [for Living Cinema] too late to absorb either of Gail Camhi’s 1980 quickies, I’m plunged almost at once into her lovely 22-minute Bellevue Film (1977-78), also silent, which is just what its title and program note say it is: “A look at physical therapy, having profited from it.”
What’s lovely about that?, one might ask, although no one at this crowded screeni9ng seems to be asking it. Russian Formalism associates art with defamiliarization, “making strange”. Gail Camhi seems to be doing just the reverse – showing how ordinary, say, amputees and their stumps and artificial limbs are, making them familiar and banal presences rather than fearfully charged objects. Yet by removing (to some extent) myth and other forms of fantasy from a hospital ward, she may actually be inviting the aesthetic imagination to relocate itself elsewhere in the film – not merely banishing this imagination to purgatory, as some arguments would have it.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1990). — J.R.
Preston Sturges’s second feature as writer-director (1940, 66 min.) is in many ways the most underrated of his movies — a riotous comedy-satire about capitalism that bites so deep it hurts. An ambitious but impoverished office clerk (Dick Powell) is determined to strike it rich in a contest with a stupid slogan (“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk”). He’s tricked by a few of his coworkers into believing that he’s actually won, promptly gets promoted, and proceeds to go on a shopping spree for his neighbors and relatives. Like much of Sturges’s finest work, this captures the mood of the Depression more completely than most 30s pictures, and the brilliantly polyphonic script repeats the hero’s dim-witted slogan so many times that it eventually becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation. As usual, Sturges’s supporting cast (including Ellen Drew, William Demarest, and Raymond Walburn) is luminous, and he uses it like instruments in a madcap concerto. (JR)
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As I recall, this article, published in the November 2, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, had two immediate consequences for me. The first was that the late Gene Siskel, an acquaintance of mine from press screenings, refused to speak to me for several years, and I was no longer able to attend any more press screenings in Chicago held mainly for him and Roger Ebert. The second was that on November 11, when Rouch appeared at the Film Center, he publicly thanked me for my article, which I don’t believe had ever happened to me before with a filmmaker. So one might say that I lost an acquaintance (at least until Gene decided to forgive me several years later, after I attended a tribute to him and Roger at the Music Box) and gained a friend. —J.R.
LES MAÎTRES FOUS
Directed by Jean Rouch.
THE LION HUNTERS
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jean Rouch
With Tahirou Koro, Wangari Moussa, Belebia Hamadou, Ausseini Dembo, Sidiko Ko ro, and Ali the apprentice.
Directed by Jean Rouch
With Damoure Zika, Lam Ibrahim Dia, and Illo Gaoudel.
Anthropologists of the year 2090 — if humanity still exists and is still sufficiently divided, sufficiently colonialist and hierarchical, to need anthropologists — may look with wonder at that revealing artifact of late-20th-century multinational capitalism, the American newspaper.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 2007). — J.R.
NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY ****
DIRECTED BY CHARLES BURNETT | WRITTEN BY BURNETT, FRANK CHRISTOPHER, AND KENNETH S. GREENBERG
WITH CARL LUMBLY, TOM NOWICKI, TOMMY HICKS, JAMES OPHER, WILLIAM STYRON, ERIC FONER, MARY KEMP DAVIS, OSSIE DAVIS, EKEWUEME MICHAEL THELWELL, AND BURNETT
THE ASTRONAUT FARMER *
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL POLISH | WRITTEN BY MARK AND MICHAEL POLISH
WITH BILLY BOB THORNTON, VIRGINIA MADSEN, BRUCE DERN, MAX THIERIOT, TIM BLAKE NELSON, BRUCE WILLIS, KIERSTEN WARREN, AND RICHARD EDSON
Very little is known about Nat Turner, the black slave in Virginia’s Southampton County who led a revolt by more than 50 other black slaves in August 1831. Over two days they slaughtered 57 white men, women, and children, and after the rebellion was suppressed, 60 to 80 slaves were summarily executed and mutilated. As one historian notes in Charles Burnett’s hour-long TV documentary, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), screening Sunday at the DuSable Museum of African American History, we have precise information about Turner’s victims but know almost nothing about the slaughtered blacks.
Most of what’s known about Turner is based on his unverifiable “confession” to a white lawyer, Thomas Gray, before he was executed.… Read more »