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 »
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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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.
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1992). — J.R.
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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From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 1997). — J.R.
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (June 10. 2005). — J.R.
*** (A must see)
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldman
With Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill, and Ron Canada
Ron Howard is an exemplar of honorable mediocrity. His films are conventional and stuffed with cliches, but their nice-guy liberalism is more sincere and nuanced than their tropes would lead one to expect. In his better efforts — Night Shift, Far and Away, Parenthood, The Paper, and now Cinderella Man — the sense of conviction is so passionate that the truth behind the cliches periodically emerges.
This is Howard’s first feature since the award-winning A Beautiful Mind, and the storytelling is fluid and gripping. He has plenty of cliches to peddle about boxing and working-class virtues in the midst of deprivation during the Depression, and the visual rhetoric in which he couches those cliches even give them a metaphysical dimension. The decor is as underlit as it is in Million Dollar Baby, and the cinematography’s even more mannerist in fetishizing darkness to project an aura of doom and desperation. In the deftly staged prizefight sequences, Howard goes even further than Clint Eastwood did in rendering subjective impressions in expressionistic terms.… Read more »
From Film Comment, September-October 1984. — J.R.
Rear Window, The Leopard Man [see first two photos above], Phantom Lady, The Window, The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid. Considering that almost 30 features have been Cornell Woolrich adaptations, it seems a genuine anomaly that he should remain so shadowy a figure. He is as central to the thriller as Olaf Stapledon is to science fiction, and has been comparably eclipsed by a singularity that exceeds and surpasses some genre expectations while grievously falling short of certain others. Despite all the purple prose, tired rewrites, and preposterous plots that crop up in his fiction, perhaps no other writer handles suspense better, or gives it the same degree of obsessional intensity. More soft-boiled than hard-boiled in the depiction of his heroes and heroines, Woolrich nonetheless seems central to the overall pessimism of film noir in the violent contrasts of his moods and the dark tempers of his villains.
Webster’s New Collegiate gives three definitions of dreadful: “(1) (adjective) inspiring fear or awe, (2) (adjective) distressing, shocking; very distasteful, (3) (noun) a morbidly sensational story or periodical; as, a penny dreadful.” Woolrich assumes all these meanings and invents a few more of his own.… Read more »
Commissioned by BFI Video for an April 2015 release. — J.R.
Charlie Chaplin, the late Gilbert Adair liked to assert, doesn’t simply belong to film history; he belongs to history. And the same might be said for Roberto Rossellini’s first major feature, Roma città aperta. Even though it’s routinely regarded as a landmark in film history — the film that decisively put Italian Neorealism on the global map — one could argue that its lasting importance owes far more to the major role it played in humanizing the Italian population for the rest of the world after it emerged from over two decades of Fascist rule under Benito Mussolini.
We don’t hear much about that Fascist rule in Rome Open City, an omission that entails a historical simplification, albeit an understandable as well as an expedient one — not so much an expression of “first things first” as an expression of “second things first,” viewed by most audiences around the world from the vantage point of the war’s end. A project that was first conceived in August 1944, only two months after the Allies had forced the Nazis out of Rome, the film was driven primarily by a desire to expose the brutalities and indignities suffered by Romans under the German occupation as well as the discovery of a common purpose between the Communist and Catholic partisans who had opposed it.… Read more »
This was written in December 2008, after Dana Linssen, the editor-in-chief of the independent Dutch film monthly de Filmkrant, sent out a request early that month for contributions to what she called a “Slow Criticism” dossier, to appear in their special English-language newspaper at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in late January. I revived it in 2011 as my own contribution to the avalanche of journalism that had been appearing about Pauline Kael, capped by Frank Rich’s lengthy piece in the New York Times; it’s also included in my most recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, where it concludes the book’s penultimate section, “Films,” just before its final section, “Criticism”. There isn’t a piece about Kael in the final section, but this broadside helps to explain why.
One aspect of recent journalism about Kael that seems to confirm the provinciality of American film criticism in general is the tacit assumption that “the world of film” in the U.S. is somehow (and automatically) coterminous and equivalent to global film culture — unless the assumption is simply that global film culture is too esoteric and inconsequential a subject to be worthy of discussion in the U.S. But it’s worth stressing that outside the English-speaking world, Kael’s critical status was and is pretty limited.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 28, 1990). This is the first time I wrote at length about what is still my favorite Eastwood film; the second time was many years later, and that piece can be found here. — J.R.
WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Peter Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy
With Clint Eastwood, Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Alun Armstrong, Marisa Berenson, Timothy Spall, and Mel Martin.
I can’t say that I’ve been one of Clint Eastwood’s partisans. He was amusing as the Man With No Name — the mean, laconic hombre whose supercoolness suggested a hip Gary Cooper — in Sergio Leone’s mid-60s western trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), and fun in Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules for Sister Sara shortly afterward. But for me the joke of this ornery, poker-faced, string-bean dude was already running thin as early as Dirty Harry (1971), a right-wing remake of High Noon that amplified Eastwood’s relation to Cooper and marked the point at which he was moving commercially into high gear. (To my mind, the gothic excesses and male hysteria of The Beguiled, made the same year — a Civil War tale in which Eastwood was seduced and unmanned by a bevy of females in a girls’ school — were much more interesting.)
Eastwood emerged from his apprenticeship with Don Siegel to direct Play Misty for Me (also 1971), the kinky misogyny of which, while undeniably quirky, was so unedifyingly unpleasant that I skipped his next several pictures, despite the enthusiasm of many colleagues for some of them (especially The Outlaw–Josey Wales and The Gauntlet).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2000); also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
With Emilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux, Olivier Gourmet, and Bernard Marbaix.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
I saw Rosetta three weeks ago, and haven’t recovered from it since. In fact, I didn’t see any film since the Dardennes’, except films for work. It moves me to the heart of my heart, this film about the necessity of life, the impossibility of morality, the soil of human experience. [A teaching colleague] told me that he couldn’t watch it because he thought too much about [Robert Bresson's] Mouchette, but precisely, it’s at last Mouchette today, our Mouchette, the one we deserve, without any heaven and any transcendence. Her scream, ‘Mama! Y’a d’la boue! Y’a d’la boue!’ ['Mama! It's full of mud! It's full of mud!'] haunts me, I can’t forget it, it’s exactly the despair of being in life without any pathos, any margin, just real life in the immediacy of the impulse. — E-mail from film critic Nicole Brenez
The 80s practically ended with the euphoric takeover of Tiananmen Square by more than a million demonstrators led by students, many with access to fax machines, though a brutal government crackdown followed.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 21, 1998). — J.R.
John Waters’s laid-back comedy and ultimate anti-New York statement (1998) concerns a young sandwich maker (Edward Furlong) whose amateurish photos of his working-class life in Baltimore are discovered by the New York art world (mainly through a dealer played with wonderful understatement by Lili Taylor). Waters builds to a didactic message that he underlines with Disney-esque dream dust (in various colors), as if to protect his sincerity with the disclaimer of self-mockery. Always a better writer than director, Waters makes me laugh even when he’s dawdling, and though this is no Hairspray there’s a lot of good-natured funny stuff here about the hero’s sugar-addicted kid sister, his fag-hag older sister (Martha Plimpton), the girlfriend who runs a laundromat (Christina Ricci), and other local eccentrics. It’s a low-key effort compared to a hyperraunch festival like There’s Something About Mary, but that movie could never have existed without Waters’s shining example. (JR)
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From the December 22, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
List in the Pocket
With both a year and a decade now drawing to a close, the number of lists indicating the best and the most seems greater than ever. So pronounced, in fact, is this listomania concerning the 80s that in many cases it had already moved into full gear by late October, while the decade still had a good nine or ten weeks to go. The Tribune‘s Sunday arts section, for example, got its critics to come up with their ten-best lists for the 80s in time for an October 22 publication date, while the movie magazines Premiere and American Film, which plan their issues much further in advance, hit the stands with their own hit parades in early November.
Should we attribute these premature evaluations to a general eagerness to have the 80s over and done with? Whatever the reason, a recent movie list issued by Baseline, “the entertainment industry’s information service,” based in New York and Beverly Hills, offers some additional causes for gloomy reflection. The list in question gives us “the top ten turkeys of the 80s.”
Once upon a time, a “turkey” was a bad film, and a movie that lost money was a “bomb.” This was certainly true in 1980, when Harry and Michael Medved published The Golden Turkey Awards.… Read more »
From the December 4, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Paul Haggis
With Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, Jay Baruchel, and Mike Colter
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, and Ian Holm
Despite his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood, like Martin Scorsese, is at the mercy of his scripts. But in Million Dollar Baby he’s got a terrific one, adapted by Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner.
This book was the first published work by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pseudonym F.X. Toole, after 40 years of rejection slips. Boyd had been a fight manager and “cut man,” the guy who stops boxers from bleeding so they can stay in the ring, and he was 70 when the book came out; he died two years later, just before completing his first novel. This movie is permeated by those 40 years of rejection, and the wisdom of age is evident in it as well. Henry Bumstead, the brilliant production designer who helped create the minimalist canvas — he was art director on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and has been working for Eastwood since 1992 — will turn 90 in March, and Eastwood himself will be 75 a couple months later.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 28, 1995). I’ve just reseen The Underneath, for the first time in 16 years, and it still looks good — indeed, possibly even better than any other Soderbergh film I’ve seen since then (although reportedly he dislikes it himself). More recently, it seems that cynicism of various kinds tends to engulf most of his films — perhaps making his filmmaking more appealing to some of my colleagues for this reason, but also making it less appealing to me. — J.R.
Kiss of Death Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Written by Richard Price and Eleazar Lipsky
With David Caruso, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicolas Cage, Helen Hunt, Stanley Tucci, Michael Rapaport, and Ving Rhames.
The Underneath Rating *** A must see
Directed by Steven Soderbergh Written by Sam Lowry (Soderbergh) and Daniel Fuchs
With Peter Gallagher, Alison Elliott, William Fichtner, Adam Trese, Joe Don Baker, Paul Dooley, and Elisabeth Shue.
Sound-bite explanations are the media’s preferred means for tackling (i.e., buying and selling) the past as well as the present. Growing up on media images of the end of World War II that evoke relief and euphoria as well as exhaustion, I was hardly prepared for the discovery, in the spring issue of the academic journal October, that according to the respected German filmmaker Helke Sander, approximately 1.9 million women were raped in the territories of the former Third Reich between March and November 1945.… Read more »