How film history gets rewritten
I realize it must sound crazy for people who haven’t seen Jacques Rivette’s 750-minute Out 1 (1971) or his 255-minute Out 1: Spectre (1972) to keep reading blog posts about them — even though I keep hearing almost every day from various others who have seen either or both films recently, in Chicago or New York or Vancouver or Berkeley, and are still recovering from the experience.
What I’d like to focus on here is how these films wind up getting misrepresented due to the circulation of incomplete data. For instance, everyone who’s seen any stills from the two films and hasn’t seen the films probably concludes that they’re both in black and white. They’re wrong; the problem is that the only photos available from the films on the Internet and in film magazines are in black and white, undoubtedly because color stills would cost too much money to process. In fact, the beautiful restoration of Spectre that showed at the Gene Siskel Film Center last Saturday, blown up from 16-millimeter to 35, had far more luscious and luminous colors than any other print I’ve ever seen — finally justifying Rivette’s supposedly extravagant claim in a 1975 interview that “you might almost say that I am trying to bring back the old MGM Technicolor!
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The first and last parts of what follows are taken (and in a few cases adapted) from my book Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.
In spite of my five years of living in Paris, my grasp of French has always been mediocre — a weakness that over the years I’ve come to regard as a sort of disability, because I’ve made many efforts to overcome it. That François Truffaut had a similar (and similarly embarrassing) problem with his English set the stage for a rather awkward and uncomfortable afternoon in London between the two of us — with his assistant Suzanne Schiffmann often serving as mutual interpreter – after I’d signed with Harper & Row to carry out a translation of Bazin’s book on Welles, as well as a new Foreword to that book that Truffaut was writing. Truffaut undoubtedly came away from that afternoon with some understandable skepticism about why I’d been hired to do this job, while I emerged, somewhat defensively, with the impression that he was closer to being a nervous and irritable businessman than the sort of critic and director that I had formerly revered.
I hasten to add that I wasn’t bluffing when I’d praised in print Bazin’s 1950 monograph on Welles in 1971 as the best criticism published about him —- or at least not entirely.… Read more »
From the August 17, 2001 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
Apocalypse Now Redux
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by John Milius and Coppola
With Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, G.D. Spradlin, Harrison Ford, Colleen Camp, Cynthia Wood, Christian Marquand, and Aurore Clement.
It’s hard to think of many movies where the great, the not so great, and the simply awful coexist quite as brazenly as they do in Apocalypse Now. This was true in 1979, when the movie clocked in at 150 minutes, and it’s true 22 years later, when the new version, Apocalypse Now Redux, runs a third longer.
If anything, the longer version — not so much a rethinking of the material as an expansion, with a minimum of reshuffling, by the adept Walter Murch, who also worked on the original — is better and worse, emphasizing both the ambitious scope and the fatal flaws of Francis Ford Coppola’s achievement. Among the more substantial additions are a ghostly sequence set on a French plantation (featuring Aurore Clement and the late Christian Marquand) that tries, with mixed results, to poeticize the futility of outsiders, French or American, getting involved in the Vietnam war and a silly and rather inconclusive sequence involving a couple of Playboy Playmates (Cynthia Wood and Colleen Camp) that adds nothing.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 20, 1987). — J.R.
The four films to date of independent Chicago filmmaker Peter Thompson form two diptychs: not films to be shown simultaneously side-by-side, but successive works whose meanings partially arise out of their intricate inner rhymes and interactions. Two Portraits (1982), which has already had limited exposure in Chicago, describes the filmmaker’s parents: Anything Else, devoted to Thompson’s late father, combines stop-frame images of him, in an airport and outdoors, with a painful recording of his voice taken in a hospital and a multifaceted verbal portrait delivered by his son; Shooting Scripts juxtaposes the filmmaker’s mother, Betty Thompson, reading from her own diaries with a minimalist view of her sleeping on a beach chair, alternating stop-frames with privileged moments of movement. Together these films create a rich tapestry, but the more recent hour-long pair, Universal Hotel and Universal Citizen (1987), receiving their premiere here, create a still more ambitious and dense interweaving of objective and subjective elements. As Thompson puts it, this diptych deals with three main themes: “the emotional thawing of men by women, the struggle to disengage remembrance from historical anonymity, and nonrecoverable loss.” In the first film, Thompson describes his involved research about medical experiments in deep cold conducted on a Polish prisoner and a German prostitute by Dr.… Read more »
From Cineaste, Summer 2007. — J.R.
The Triumph of the American Imagination
by Neal Gabler. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 851 pp.,
illus. Hardcover: $35.00.
This is the first book by Neal Gabler since his magisterial and eye-opening An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) that hasn’t seriously disappointed me, though I didn’t warm to its virtues right away. His 1994 biography of Walter Winchell (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) had less of an impact on me than the 1971 journeyman’s effort of Bob Thomas (which I also preferred to Michael Herr’s 1990 musings on the subject), while Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998), which I barely remember now, felt at the time like all windup and no delivery. And one clear limitation of this hefty volume from the outset, in spite of its strengths, is that Gabler can’t function very effectively as either a critic of Disney’s films or as a historian of Hollywood animation; his talent lies elsewhere.
Given Gabler’s privileged access to Disney files and papers, this may be the closest thing to an authorized biography that we can expect to get, but it doesn’t exactly add up to an apologia — even though it refutes charges of Disney being anti-Semitic, and, apart from occasionally conceding that he was mainly a passionately anti-union Goldwater Republican, tends to depoliticize him.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 2, 2000).
On October 5, 2014, I had the pleasure of introducing The Sandwich Man at the Museum of the Moving Image’s exhaustive Hou retrospective in Astoria. My late friend Gilberto Perez came to the screening and we had dinner afterwards; it was the last time I ever saw him. — J.R.
Films by Hou Hsiao-hsien
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. — Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mother Night
How significant is it that neither of the two greatest working narrative filmmakers is fluent in English? Not very. But it might be logical. After all, most of the people in the world, including those in Iran and Taiwan, don’t speak English, even though that places them, in American eyes, in the margins, outside even the on-line global culture.
If being in the margins means being in the majority, it stands to reason that Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, as chroniclers of what’s happening on the planet at the moment, should both be poet laureates of the sticks — though they don’t have much in common beyond a taste for filming in long shot, pioneering direct sound recording in their national cinemas (in both cases to honor the speech patterns of nonprofessional actors), and a general sense of philosophical detachment.… Read more »
From the July 1980 issue of Omni. Portions of this are derived from a lecture I gave at the Venice film festival the previous year, which is reprinted in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980). A lot of the terminology used here seems pretty quaint now. — J.R.
Speculating on what movies of the future will be like, it’s hard to get very far without some notion of the changing needs of the audience. A crucial part of this change can be detected in where we see movies. According to present signs, it seems pretty clear that most of the films we’ll see will be either in homes or in shopping malls.
“Once inside a mall, shoppers have few decisions to make,” the magazine Dollars & Sense recently noted. “Corners are kept to a minimum so the customers will flow along from store to store, propelled, as the developers say, by `retail energy’.” It’s a description that fits several recent movie blockbusters — and others we can expect to see in the future.
By contrast, the movie houses that traditionally cropped up near the centers of towns — public gathering places, not unlike the municipal squares they were often adjacent to — are quickly becoming nostalgic emblems of another era.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1975. — J.R.
U.S.A., 1975 Director: Norman Jewison
A classic demonstration of how several millions of dollars can be
unenjoyably wasted, Rollerball postulates an unlikely future society
from which war, poverty, illness and individual initiative have all
magically vanished, but then resolutely refuses to show it, reserving
all its heavy hardware for the brutal mechanics of an exceedingly
dull sport that is presumed to make this invisible anti-utopia
possible. Featuring a noble savage hero who stumbles clumsily
after an obscure mystery like a donkey running repeatedly into a
brick wall — James Caan reprising his performance in The Gambler
without the literary quotes, in a comparable embodiment of
mindless masochism-and a Sphinx-like villain (John Houseman)
who glowers occasionally to illustrate which side he’s on, this
glib fable seems to be aiming at a simplified version of A
Clockwork Orange without any intimations of wit or satire to
carry the vague moralistic message. Futuristic extrapolation, apart
from the central conceit, is mainly restricted to a couple of
streamlined buildings and the same lettering design recurring
whenever possible; humor, aside from an irreverent (if
implausible) scene with Ralph Richardson as a computer
librarian, usually figures only unintentionally, for instance
when Jonathan E is informed that Moonpie’s brain has ceased
to function — the first indication in the script that it has ever
functioned at all; the multi-track musical accompaniment
principally comprises an anthology of classical favorites
used in previous films.Notwithstanding the inconsistency
of racist gibes from the Houston team about their Japanese
opponents in a world where such sentiments are
supposed to be obsolete, the old-fashioned carnage of the
Rollerball matches is admittedly democratic in spirit, for given
the general lack of individuation it is frequently a moot point as to
who clobbers whom.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 43, No. 504, January 1976. As with some of my other reviews from this magazine reproduced on this site, the credits and synopsis are omitted.– J.R.
Woman Under the Influence, A
Director: John Cassavetes
Beginning with Shadows, the films of John Cassavetes have been at once limited and defined by their anti-intellectual form of humanism, an unconditional acceptance of the social norms of his characters that exalts emotion and intuition over analysis and, in narrative terms, looseness and approximation over precision. Used as an instrument for a delivering a thesis (as in Faces) and/or allowing actors to indulge themselves in fun and games (as in Husbands), it is a style which characteristically operates like a bludgeon, obscuring at least as much as it illuminates while confidently hammering home its proud discoveries. But when it serves as a means for exploration, as in Shadows or A Woman Under the Influence –- however halting or incomplete a method it may be for serving that function — it deserves to be treated with greater credence.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 510). –- J.R.
Nat King Cole Trio
Director: Josh Binney
Dist—TCB. p.c–All-American. p–Glucksman. m/songs–“Oo Kickerooni”, Rooney”, ‘”Now He Tells Me”, “Breezy and the Bass” performed by–Nat “King” Cole (piano, vocals), Johnny Miller (bass), Oscar Moore (guitar). No further credits available. 262ft. 7 mins. (16 mm.).
A musical extract from the Forties black feature Killer Diller – made, like Jivin in Be-bop, exclusively for black audiences — this short illustrates Cole’s remarkable piano playing in a concert, as well as certain aspects of the cooler and more commercial vocal style which he eventually adopted. A graceful, inventive soloist, whose style virtually bridges swing and bebop, with long, perfectly articulated lines which have influenced pianists for three successive decades, he also conveys an unmistakable stage presence — sitting almost perpendicular to the piano while performing difficult runs effortlessly in a manner that is nearly as ‘visual’ as Chico Marx’s. Moore and Miller also takes solos, and the latter is highlighted on “Breezy and the Bass”, a fast virtuoso piece based on the chords of ”I Got Rhythm”; “Now He Tells Me” features Cole’s smooth mock-hip singing of the period, exuding a kind of throwaway charm that remains irresistible.
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This was written in May 2014 for an Italian volume about fantastique cinema between 1980 and 2010 coedited by Antonio Gragnaniello. — J.R.
Speaking to Tom Milne and Richard Combs in Monthly Film Bulletin, the director of Aspern, Eduardo de Gregorio (1942-2012), avowed that “it was never meant to be a fantastique film”— which isn’t surprising given that its source, Henry James’ novella The Aspern Papers, has no relation to that genre either. But it was regarded by several French critics as having some relation to fantastique, apparently for two reasons: because fantastique as opposed to fantasy is often regarded as a matter of style and/or atmosphere rather than content, and because the better known works of de Gregorio — such as his scripts for Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau, Duelle, and Noroît and his own Sérail and Tangos volés—clearly belong to fantastique, while his work as a whole has clear links to both the 19th century Gothic tradition and the so-called “magical realism” of 20th century Latin American literature.
Even though much of Henry James’ dialogue is carried over into Aspern (translated into French), its basic plot — an obsessive literary scholar (the narrator in James’ tale) insinuates himself into the Venice household of an aged woman cared for by her lonely spinster niece with the aim of procuring her love letters from Aspern, a long-deceased romantic poet she was once involved with — undergoes several decisive changes in de Gregorio’s version, scripted by his partner at the time, Michael Graham.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 27, 1988)….Seeing a more recent Konchalovsky picture, the powerful Holocaust drama Paradise, at Mar del Plata, I was reminded of what a terrific filmmaker he can be, which whetted my appetite to resee his powerful Runaway Train (a recent Twilight Time Blu-Ray that was waiting for me when I returned to Chicago). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Written by Konchalovsky, Gerard Brach, and Marjorie David
With Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Hershey, Martha Plimpton, Merritt Butrick, John Philbin, and Mare Winningham.
I still have a lot of catching up to do with Andrei Konchalovsky. Out of his 11 or so features to date, the last 4 of which were made in the United States, I’ve seen prior to Shy People only 2. The Soviet Asya’s Happiness (1966), a film made with and about Russian peasants, was suppressed for many years because of its supposedly “gloomy” depiction of rural life but surfaced at the San Francisco Film Festival a couple of months ago. The other was Runaway Train (1985), costarring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca DeMornay and adapted from a script by Akira Kurosawa. But a couple of things are already becoming clear from this limited if striking evidence.… Read more »
From Film Comment (March-April 2012). — J.R.
Ever since Gilbert Adair died three weeks short of his 67th birthday, in London, I’ve been rereading him compulsively. And I’ve had a lot to choose from — not only many online articles (including pieces written for this magazine and for Sight & Sound), but all but one of the 18 books listed on the flyleaf of his nineteenth and last, And Then There Was No One: The Last of Evadne Mount (Faber and Faber, 2009) — the final volume in his inspired trilogy of Agatha Christie pastiches, which somehow manage to combine his taste for pop entertainment with his more avant-garde impulses, to riotous effect. Even though I eventually lost touch with Gilbert as a friend — whom I’d met in the early 1970s as a fellow habitué of the Paris Cinémathèque, and who years later was kind enough to broker my friendship with Raúl Ruiz (with whom he worked on several projects, including three that were filmed [see photo from Le territoire below, second still from bottom], and who tragically and prematurely died just a few months earlier) — I remained a steadfast fan who collected all his books.
For Film Comment, Gilbert made his first appearance in an interview with Jacques Rivette, conducted jointly with myself and Lauren Sedofsky for the September-October 1974 issue, available online at http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1974/09/phantom-interviewers-over-rivette-with-gilbert-adair-and-lauren-sedofsky/ .… Read more »
My column for the Spring 2019 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
In retrospect, I’m sure that an important part of what excited me about John Updike’s second novel, Rabbit, Run, when I read it in high school circa 1960, was the fact that it was recounted in the present tense, thus giving it some of the immediacy of a movie—rather like the thrill of the opening chapter of William Faulkner’s Light in August, which I first encountered around the same time. As Updike himself later noted, the movieness of his present tense was a conscious strategy — he even thought of subtitling the novel A Movie — although ironically, it’s precisely this sense of now and its location in the Eisenhower era that is most conspicuously absent from Jack Smight’s flatfooted 1970 movie adaptation (available on DVD from Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection), which doggedly tries to be “faithful” in its own misguided fashion, even to the point of updating the action from 1959 to the present, but only comes across as conventionally shopworn as a consequence. What’s clearly lost isn’t only Updike’s sense of history, pop-culture references and all, but the vibrant weight of the eponymous hero’s existential decision-making.… Read more »
I was interviewed by Estado de Minas, the largest newspaper in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, shortly before and in connection with my plans to teach a ten-hour course on Charlie Chaplin there in mid-August 2012. (They ran some of my comments on criticism but omitted what I had to say about Chaplin.) Here are their questions and my responses….The first photo below shows Chaplin in a London film studio with Cy Endfield (on the left). — J.R.
1. Questions about Chaplin:
Why do we still love Charlie Chaplin? What makes him so relevant in 2012?
These are questions that I hope my course will help to answer. Right now, one of my main reasons for wishing to teach this course is that I don’t know the answers to these questions.
Why do you think Chaplin must be reintroduced to contemporary filmgoers? Isn’t he universally recognized and understood enough already?
It would be presumptuous of me to speak about whether or not Chaplin is adequately recognized today in Brazil —or, for that matter, in any country that I haven’t visited and/or whose language I neither speak nor read. But to make a generalization based on my experience, I would say that Chaplin tends to be universally recognized today as a great performer, but very widely unrecognized, undervalued, and misunderstood as a filmmaker.… Read more »