Monthly Archives: June 2019

THE GUNFIGHTER

Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Tim Lucas has helpfully and subsequently furnished us with the following on Facebook: “According to his autobiography, Roger Corman — then a script reader at Fox — retrieved this script from a slush pile and presented it to a producer acquaintance as having worth, given a proper rewrite. He did it himself, then presented it to the producer, who — without telling him — got the film greenlit as a Peck vehicle and took all the credit. Corman promptly quit his job and set about becoming a producer outside the Hollywood studio structure.” –  J.R.

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Commonly described as an “adult” Western, The Gunfighter (1950)  differs from both the Freudian Pursued (1947) and the classical The Furies (1950).  Though it comes close to equating screen time with real time, without any rhetorical emphasis (as High Noon brings with clocks), its method is historical revisionism, postulating a “real” West that tragically undermines the ones we accept in other Westerns. It plays an intricate double game with genre expectations, satisfying some demands and implicitly chiding us for certain others. Significantly, the film’s first and final images are almost identical but register as antithetical in moral significance.… Read more »

HUSBANDS

 Written for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s 2019 catalogue. — J.R.

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HUSBANDS

Subtitled “A Comedy about Life, Death and Freedom,” John Cassavetes’ most politically incorrect and machocentric movie (1970), made after the huge commercial success of his 1968 Faces and exercising both the creative control and the studio support it suddenly made possible, is arguably the most improvised and workshopped of his features. Inspired in part by the death of Cassavetes’ older brother Nick in 1957 at the age of 30, the film recounts what happens to a trio of 40ish east coast suburbanites (Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara) when their best friend dies and they decide to play hooky from their lives and families to recover their camaraderie and identities. But even though their collective flight seemingly has something to do with life, death, and freedom, there isn’t a Huck Finn in the bunch; they’re all Tom Sawyers, too desperate in their frantic fun and games to be as comic as they want to see themselves. Their fear of female assertiveness and their periodic brutality, as well as Cassavetes’ determination to follow the actors’ instincts and movements wherever they go without chalk marks are likely what inspired Elaine May to co-opt Cassavetes, Falk, and Husband’s cinematographer Victor J.… Read more »

EASY RIDER

 Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. — J.R.

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Along with the equally influential 2001: A Space OdysseyEasy Rider (1969) was one the key “trip” movies of the late 60s, making its music more expressive than its dialogue and defining a generational divide by cutting audiences into two.  As critic J. Hoberman has noted, the film “was above all fashionable” when it first appeared “and hence it dated almost immediately”. Yet arguably it is this datedness (unlike that of 2001) that defines much of its value today, as a time capsule offering certain parallels of hippies versus rednecks with current struggles between progressives and minorities versus reactionary Trump supporters.

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Even though Easy Rider, according to auteurist protocols, is mainly associated with its director, costar, and cowriter, Dennis Hopper, it seems appropriate that it’s being shown in Bologna as part of a tribute to Peter Fonda, its producer, costar, and cowriter. Fonda actually originated the project by pitching its basic premise — a contemporary Western with motorcycles replacing horses as its two heroes, named Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) to suggest Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, emerge from a drug score to drive east across the country to attend the New Orleans Mardi Gras.… Read more »

Night Moves (1975 review)

This review of Night Moves appeared in the May 1975 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. [September 11, 2009 postscript: Having just reseen Night Moves for the first time since it came out, I think it holds up remarkably well, in terms of its script and direction and almost uniformly fine performances. There's also some additional interest now in seeing Melanie Griffith in her first credited performance and James Woods, less impressive, in one of his earliest after Elia Kazan discovered him for The Visitors. As for Alan Sharp, it would appear that his filmography (which also includes The Hired Hand and Ulzana's Raid) warrants further investigation -- as does Jennifer Warren's.] — J.R.

Night Moves

U.S.A., 1975                                                 Director: Arthur Penn

 

Cert—X. dist—Columbia-Warner. p.c—Hiller Productions/Layton. p—Robert M. Sherman. assoc. p—Gene Lasko. p. manager—Thomas J. Schmidt. asst. d—Jack Roe, Patrick H. Kehoe. sc—Alan Sharp. ph—Bruce Surtees. col—Technicolor. underwater ph—Jordan Klein. ed—Dede Allen, Stephen A. Rotter. p.Read more »

PENTHESILEA: QUEEN OF THE AMAZON (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 491).

I must admit that the hyperbole of the last couple of sentences here embarrasses me now. But readers can judge for themselves, because this first feature by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen has recently become available as an extra on the BFI DVD of Riddles of the Sphinx. –- J.R.

Great Britain, 1974 Directors: Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen

The film is composed of five sequences, each preceded by a quotation. 1: “Ghost white like a not yet written page” (Mallarmé, “Mimique” ): A mime of Kleist’s Penthesilea, filmed in long shot from a fixed camera position. 2: “The shadows sprinkled in black characters” (Mallarmé, “Quant au livre”): A lecture on Kleist’s play, the myth of Penthesilea and the theoretical basis of the film, delivered by Peter Wollen while moving about a terrace and adjoining living room, the camera tracing an independent trajectory within the same confined space and occasionally approaching the index cards of notes left behind by Wollen at various stages in his route. 3: “Blazons of phobia, seals of self-punishment” (Lacan, after Vico): A succession of images relating to Penthesilea and the Amazons — paintings, sculptures, artifacts, tapestries, etc., including frames from a Wonder Woman comic book — separated by animated wipes and maskings, and accompanied on the soundtrack by Berio’s “Visage”.… Read more »

False Idol [NIXON]

From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 1995). — J.R.

Nixon

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Stephen J. Rivele,

Christopher Wilkinson, and Stone

With Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, J.T. Walsh, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce, E.G. Marshall, Madeleine Kahn, David Paymer, and Mary Steenburgen.

Did we really win the cold war? I know that capitalism prevailed on the economic front, but I’m less sure about the cultural front. I suspect a capitalist version of Stalinist culture has triumphed rather than any sort of democracy: Stalinist culture meaning calcified, state-supported art built around solemn, hulking father figures — something like Oliver Stone’s latest two-ton Christmas turkey, Nixon. If we recognize that Disney has effectively become the federal government, the rest of the scenario falls into place. Just as Stalin’s flunkies had to praise the official “masterpieces” of Stalinist art no matter how inert or uninventive they were, Nixon‘s producers (who’ve spent millions promoting the movie) have guaranteed that media savants are already describing Stone’s Nixon as a figure of Shakespearean proportions rather than the poorly cast, two-dimensional numskull decked out with a few grade-Z horror-movie traits that he is.

Toddlers have been treated a lot more like adults by the movies this year than grown-ups have.… Read more »

At War with Cultural Violence: The Critical Reception of SMALL SOLDIERS

Chapter Four of my book Movie Wars. It was originally written for Another Kind of Independence: Joe Dante and the Roger Corman Class of 1970, a critical collection coedited with Bill Krohn for the Locarno International Film Festival in 1999, which came out in French and Italian editions. -- J.R.

 

During the spring of 1998, not long before the American release of Small Soldiers, I happened upon “The Toys of Peace,” a wise and wicked tale by Saki included in A. S. Byatt’s recent collection, The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. Set in 1914, it recounts the noble and doomed efforts of the hero to interest his two nephews, aged nine and ten, in “peace toys”: models of a municipal dustbin and the Manchester branch of the YWCA, lead figurines of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, and a district councillor. Forty minutes later, he looks in on the boys and finds that they’ve converted these objects into war toys: the municipal dustbin punctured with holes to accommodate the muzzles of imaginary cannons, Mill dipped in red ink to approximate an eighteenth‐century French colonel, with a grisly game plan mapped out to yield a maximum amount of bloodshed, including the remainder of the red ink splashed against the side of the YWCA building.

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Reflections on “Rivette in Context”

From Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema, Volume 1, No. 1, 2012 (a Spanish academic online journal, available at http://www.ocec.eu/cinemacomparative/pdf/ccc01.pdf) — J.R.

“Rivette in Context” had two separate incarnations, occurring a year and a half apart. The first consisted of 28 programs presented at London’s National Film Theatre in August 1977, to accompany the publication of Rivette: Texts and Interviews – a 101-page book I had edited for the British Film Institute while still working on the staffs of two of its magazines, Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound, in 1976.

This book included a polemical Introduction by me and translations — most of them by my London flat mate, Tom Milne — of two lengthy interviews with Rivette (one in 1968 that was centered on L’amour fou, the other in 1973 that was centered on the two separate versions of Out 1), three key critical texts by him (“Letter on Rossellini,” 1955; “The Hand” [on Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt], 1957, and “Montage” [with Jean Narboni and Sylvie Pierre], 1969), and a brief, undated proposal of his from the mid-1970s (“For the Shooting of Les Filles du Feu” — the latter was the working title for a projected series of four features, never completed, that was subsequently retitled Scènes de la Vie Parallèle).… Read more »

THE LADIES MAN (1961) (upgraded, 5/25/13)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

Jerry Lewis’s opulent second feature as a director
(1961), in some ways his most ambitious (and his first
in color), is also the one that has the most to say
about his character’s sexual hysteria, intensified once
the hero discovers that he’s been hired to work as
houseboy in a boarding house full of sexy young aspiring
actresses -– all of whom are initially seen simultaneously
in their separate rooms as part of a single gigantic
dollhouse set occupying two soundstages at
Paramount. (To keep track of both this set and his
own performance, Lewis invented the video assist, a
filmmaking technique used in Hollywood filmmaking
ever since.) Furthermore, Lewis’s talent for freeform
psychic fantasy, which clearly distinguishes his
work from the social satire and narrative motivations
of Frank Tashlin, reaches a kind of apogee here when
he encounters a Bat Lady (shades of Artists and
Models
) lurking inside a “forbidden” room, along
with the Harry James Orchestra. And his character is
no less free to dance with George Raft (playing himself)
in another sequence.… Read more »

American in Paris

This appeared in the December 8, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

THE FILMS OF WILLIAM KLEIN

At a time when the National Endowment for the Arts is under siege — and not only from yahoos like Jesse Helms, but also from certain anarchists, leftists, and intellectuals — the general paucity of information and understanding about national funding of the arts in other countries only helps to underline how isolationist this country has become in cultural matters. As a rule, our overseas news coverage and our access to foreign films both seem to operate according to the same chillingly reductive circular reasoning: if people don’t already know about something or understand it, they aren’t likely to be interested.

Thus reports last spring of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square routinely assumed that any popular sentiments in China that didn’t support the status quo automatically had to be “pro-democracy”; a lifetime of U.S. reporting has been devoted to the principle that only two political positions exist in the world, not three or six or 30 or 600. By the same token, most of the foreign films that we wind up seeing are those that support rather than challenge our generally clichéd notions of what other countries are like.… Read more »

Powell & Pressburger: English To the Core

This essay originally appeared in The Soho News on December 3, 1980. I’ve taken the liberty of revising it slightly.–J.R.

Michael Powell and
Powell & Preesburger
Museum of Modern Art, Nov. 20—Jan. 5

By and large, the Englishman Michael Powell directs, while his longtime Hungarian collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, writes screenplays. But when they started their own  English production company, The Archers, in 1942 — an institution that lasted almost 15 years — the credits of their joint efforts usually read, “Written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger”.

A testimony to the rare capacity for collaborative work that helps to distinguish English life and culture from American individualism, the team of P & P offers the working assumptions of auteur criticism a number of interesting challenges. On the one hand many aspects of Powell’s style, temperament and preoccupations can be traced through films that Pressburger didn’t work on. At the same time it would be too simplistic to pretend that one could separate individual contributions to their joint ventures with anything like total assurance.

Indeed, as Ian Christie reminds us in the introduction to his very helpful collection Powell, Pressburger and Others (British Film Institute, 1978), auteur criticism is more a method of reading films than a means of establishing how they were put together.… Read more »

My Love, My Bride

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1992). — J.R.

Lee Myung-sei’s delightful Korean comedy about the trials and tribulations of a young married couple (Park Joong-hoon and Choi Jin-sii, both charming and resourceful actors) offers eloquent testimony to the stylistic importance of Frank Tashlin (The Girl Can’t Help It, Artists and Models, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) as an international legacy. Tashlin’s background as an animator — his graphic talent, his formal ingenuity, his taste for bright primary colors — and his flair for satire of contemporary lifestyles both seem fully present in this lively and inventive feature. It isn’t that Lee has necessarily seen or studied Tashlin’s work, but Tashlin’s bag of tricks has become an automatic part of everyone’s resources, and this comedy fully exploits it (1991). (JR)

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The Sour Journalist and the Sweet Romantic: Billy Wilder in AVANTI!

A slightly edited version of the following essay was published to accompany a film series devoted to the favorite films of Frieda Grafe that was held in the spring of 2013  at the Arsenal in Berlin. I was also invited to Berlin to introduce the screening of Avanti! on April 28. (The next day, in response to my opening sentence, Volker Pantenburg was kind enough to email me a rough translation of Grafe’s brief remarks about Avanti! in her “Filmtips”: “AVANTI!, 1972. As in FEDORA, it is about a corpse, but here it’s more time-critical. The American Moloch is confronted with its European frontiers, the Mafia. And: the Indian summer of business men” ["business men" is written in English].). — J.R.

Prologue

As someone who can’t read German, I feel more than a little frustrated    that I can’t read Frieda Grafe on the subject of Avanti! But I know that she selected the film in 1995 as one of her thirty favorites — a fascinating, eccentric line-up that contains only one silent picture(Frank Capra’s The Strong Man, 1926) and only one film of the 1980s (Jacques Rozier’s Maine-Océan, 1986), to cite the first and last items on her list.Read more »

The Wages Of Fear

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1992). — J.R.

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In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 suspense classic, four out-of-work Europeans (Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck), trapped in a squalid South American village that’s exploited by a U.S. oil company, agree to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerine over 300 miles of primitive roads in exchange for $2,000 eachif they survive. When this existentialist shocker opened in the U.S., 43 minutes had been hacked away, but the gripping adventure elements left intact were still enough to turn the film into a hit. (This restored and at least semicomplete version of the film, 148 minutes long, was released in the early 90s.) A significant influence on Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, this grueling pile driver of a movie will keep you on the edge of your seat, though it reeks of French 50s attitude, which includes misogyny, snobbishness, and borderline racism. It’s also clearly a love story between two men (Montand and Vanel). In French with subtitles. (JR)

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4 Little Girls

From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 1997). — J.R.

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This surprisingly humble documentary by Spike Lee may be his best film to date apart from Do the Right Thing. It’s not weighed down by an ounce of flab or hype, and the story it tells is profoundly affecting. On September 15, 1963, four little black girls attending Sunday school at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, a central meeting place in the civil rights movement, were killed in a racist bombing. This is a detailed exploration of what that event meant 34 years ago — to family, friends, and the movement — as well as what it means today. In the only picture Charlie Parker ever painted — a beautiful portrait of a daughter who died in infancy — he imagined what she might have looked like in her 30s, and in 4 Little Girls Lee gets us to imagine something comparable. He uses John Coltrane’s “Alabama” with tact and sensitivity, making up for his crude use of the piece in Malcolm X, and he seems to have learned a fair amount about my home state. Perhaps for the first time, Lee actually finds something to say about history — my only quibble is that he doesn’t tell us more about the belated sentencing of the bomber.… Read more »