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.
… Read more »
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 »
From the June 10, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Bob Dolman and George Lucas
With Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis, Billy Barty, Gavan O’Herlihy, Jean Marsh, Pat Roach, and Patricia Hayes.
As one of those spoilsports who actively disliked Star Wars when it burst on the scene 11 years ago, enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back (1980) even less, and happily managed to miss both Return of the Jedi (1983) and Labyrinth (1986), I can’t say that I approached George Lucas’s latest ecumenical blockbuster with expectations of much pleasure. Nevertheless, now that his latest fantasy epic has confirmed my nonexpectations, I can’t help but wonder why Willow has been getting such a drubbing from the same reviewers who responded to the early Lucas mega-hits with such enthusiasm. Is it really all that different from its predecessors?
Lucas’s reputation seems to be passing through the same sort of vicissitudes as Ronald Reagan’s: a few years of euphoric tub thumping while the future was getting steadily sold away under our feet, followed by recriminations and icon bashing, which seem motivated less by second thoughts than by certain automatic principles built into an economy of planned obsolescence.… Read more »
This appeared in the November 6, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. Reseeing Pleasantville recently on DVD, I continue to find its diverse perceptions and confusions equally fascinating. On his audio commentary, producer-director-writer Gary Ross alludes to his childhood as the son of an activist screenwriter who was blacklisted, and part of what’s so intriguing about the film is the way its own theme of innocence crossed with sophistication is matched at times by its own multiple forms of ideological doublethink. Ross’s ongoing and seemingly untroubled assumption, for instance, that black and white film is innately artificial and stylized whereas color film is innately “realistic” makes me wonder how he can perceive MGM Technicolor of the 50s as being closer to reality (and thus presumably further away from fantasy) than all the black and white cinematography from the same period — or whether, for that matter, he can even distinguish sufficiently between the alleged “realism” of the contemporary color sections of this film and the subsequent expressionism of the hallucinogenic colors impinging on a 50s sitcom’s black and white to confidently declare that both of these kinds of color are automatically and unproblematically superior to black and white in representing reality accurately.… Read more »
Posted on Slate, December 27, 2005. — J.R.
Does Choosing “The Year’s Best” Compromise the Truth?
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Dec 27, 2005 2:13 PM
Holiday Greetings, David, Scott, and Tony,
David, I appreciate your invitation to “shake hands and come out punching,” though I suspect our disagreements this time around may wind up having more to do with Steven Spielberg and Munich than they do with Terrence Malick and The New World. (See Edelstein’s top-20 list of 2005 films here.) Just to be contrary, however, let me start off with four agreements. Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, William Eggleston and the Real World, and Homecoming all belong somewhere on my own extended list of favorites — and I’d need an asterisk of my own for the penultimate title, David, because Michael Almereyda is a friend whom we share.
To be contrary in another way, I haven’t yet composed my full list for Slate —although I’ve already filed separate lists for the Chicago Reader (which will appear online on Jan. 6) and the Village Voice (which has already appeared online). With your patience and indulgence, I’d like to delay this ritual for another day or so, concentrating for the moment on the issue of what the four of us actually do for a living.… Read more »
Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. — J.R.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1998 feature, his thirteenth, represents a bold departure from his previous work. It’s his first film to be set completely outside Taiwan, the implicit or explicit subject of his earlier movies — most noticeably in his trilogy comprising City of Sadness, (1989), The Puppetmaster, (1993), and Good Men, Good Women(1995), but also in the bittersweet allegory of Son’s Big Doll, his seminal contribution to the 1983 sketch feature The Sandwich Man. After focusing mostly on families and landscapes, Hou fashions a chamber-piece set exclusively in the interiors of Shanghai brothels in the late 19thcentury, adapted from a novel by Han Bangqing by his usual screenwriter Chen Tien-wen.
And after Hou showed striking stylistic affinities with Yasujiro Ozu, here’s a film whose long takes, camera movements, and concentration on prostitution suggest a Kenji Mizoguchi without melodrama. But insofar as Hou’s previous films deal with existential and historical questions of identity related to Taiwan as a country occupied and colonized at various times and in various ways by China, Japan, and the U.S., Flowers of Shanghai finds similar issues arising from interactions between prostitutes (the “flower girls”), their madams (or “aunts”), and their wealthy and powerful customers.… Read more »
Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. — J.R.
In my early teens, I wrote a time-travel yarn in which time travelers revisit 1871 to determine whether Mrs. O’Leary’s cow really kicked over a lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire — their abrupt arrival startling the cow and thereby causing the self-same catastrophe. Despite claims to being historical, this two million dollar Fox epic (1938) — a quarter of whose budget went towards depicting this fire (which had taken 300 lives and destroyed two million dollars worth of property) — seems almost as fanciful about some of its facts as I was. But Henry King, as mythical about the Midwest as Ford was about the West and De Mille was about the Middle East, makes Chicago both a cauldron of corruption (the grandfather of Ben Hecht’s Chicago) and the site of his recurring theme — the coexistence of nihilism and decency, rebellion and domesticity, represented here both by the Cain-and-Abel dialectic of the O’Leary brothers (Tyrone Power and Don Ameche) and the two women who lord it over them, a showgirl-capitalist (Alice Faye) and their prudish mother (Alice Brady), the latter of whom owns the recalcitrant cow.… Read more »