Monthly Archives: August 2019

Split Images (Rotterdam 1984)

From the June 1984 issue of Film Comment. This chronicles my very first visit to the Rotterdam International Film Festival. I believe I was the first member of the American press ever to have been invited (a perk I owe to Sara Driver and Jim Jarmusch having spoken to festival director Huub Bals) — the first of my 20 visits to this very special festival. I’m sorry that Rotterdam no longer invites me (I believe that my last visit there was in 2007), but I guess even the best perks can’t be expected to last forever. My first visit there, in any case, was one of the most memorable; Joseph L. Mankiewicz was there to accept the Erasmus Prize (and to give a press conference at which, if memory serves, he spent almost half an hour answering the first question), and I received my very first glimpses of the work of Raúl Ruiz. I should add that I did festival reports this first year for both Film Comment and Sight and Sound, although it was part of Huub’s singularity that he never required any coverage from me in order for me to get invited back the following year.Read more »

Not Reconciled (1976 review)

This review for the March 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin was part of a larger project, tied to my position as the magazine’s assistant editor, to have other films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet that were distributed in the U.K. reviewed in the magazine — in that particular issue, History Lessons (by Yehuda E. Safran), as well as The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (by Tony Rayns) and  Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (by Jill Forbes). That same issue of the magazine inaugurated a back-cover feature that persisted for the publication’s remaining life and years, devoted in this particular case to a detailed bibliography that I compiled of interviews, scripts, and “other statements and texts” by Straub and Huillet, in half a dozen different languages. —J.R.

Nicht Versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gerwalt, wo Gerwalt herrscht (Not Reconciled, or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules)

West Germany, 1965
Director: Jean-Marie Straub

“Far from being a puzzle film (like Citizen Kane or Muriel), Not Reconciled is better described as a ‘lacunary film’, in the same sense that Littré defines a lacunary body: a whole composed of agglomerated crystals with intervals among them, like the interstitial spaces between the cells of an organism”.… Read more »

Sign and Cinema [IN THE LAND OF THE DEAF]

From the Chicago Reader (August 5, 1994); this was reprinted with the DVD of this film released in the U.K. by Second Run Features (see below). — J.R.

*** IN THE LAND OF THE DEAF

(A must-see)

Directed by Nicolas Philibert.

Nicolas Philibert’s beautiful, illuminating, and energizing documentary, Le pays des sourds (“In the Land of the Deaf”), playing Saturdays and Sundays in August at the Film Center, implicitly reflects on three different kinds of language: (1) the different languages spoken in movies, (2) the so-called language of cinema, and (3) sign language, specifically the language of the deaf.

(1) Language in film. I never attended a film school, but during the five years I lived in Paris, from 1969 to 1974, I was unofficially attending something very close to one several days a week — the Cinematheque Francaise, which was then operated by its eccentric, visionary main founder, Henri Langlois (1914-1977). The Cinematheque had two screening facilities that showed together seven or eight films daily, each for a nominal price; if you had a student card, each was less than a dollar. These were films from all over the world, and Langlois was a purist: silent films were almost never shown with musical accompaniment, and little effort was made to show silent or sound films with subtitles that the audience could understand.… Read more »

On the Internet, No One Can Hear You Think (or, Datelessness Equals Cluelessness)

The avoidance or frequent absence of history on the Internet is often a problem, but I’ve rarely seen it exploited so shamelessly and cripplingly as it is in a post supposedly “celebrating” Godard’s 82th birthday that quotes fifteen filmmakers on the subject of Godard, including Godard himself, arranged alphabetically from Chantal Akerman to Wim Wenders.

Let’s start with the first sentence in the first quotation, from Akerman: “You can see him excluding himself from the world in an almost autistic manner.” Is this the Godard of For Ever Mozart, the Godard of Film Socialisme, or a much earlier Godard?  It’s impossible to understand, much less evaluate what Akerman is saying, without knowing the answer to this question. Pretend that this doesn’t matter and you’re pointlessly sliming both Akerman and Godard, for no good reason.

Five quotes later, we get, “Luis Buñuel: I’ll give him two years more, he is just a fashion.” Obviously, this statement was made when Buñuel was still alive, which means he had to have said it at some point between, say, 1960 and 1983. Lots of leg room in there — about 30 features’ worth.

And one quote later, from Godard himself: “I am not an auteur, well, not now anyway.”Read more »

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [Kizino Kizi] (1976 review)

Apart from Woody Allen, “the American filmmakers” discussed in this review — which appeared in the March 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin (vol. 43, no. 506) — were apparently Frank Buxton, Len Maxwell, Louise Lasser, Mickey Rose, Julie Bennett, and Bryna Wilson, all credited jointly with Allen  for the “script and dubbing” of the 1964 Japanese feature Kizino Kizi that was originally written by Hideo Ando. In recent years, Allen has routinely omitted this film from his filmography, but I persist in finding it one of his funniest. — J.R.

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [Kizino Kizi]

U.S.A, 1966
[Director: Senkichi Taniguchi]

The wonderful surprise of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? — a modest exploitation exercise which predates Woody Allen’s career as a director, and has inexplicably taken a full decade to reach England — is how much mileage it gets out of what might seem to be a very limited conceit; for sheer laughs alone, it is arguably the most consistently funny film in which Allen has so far taken a hand. Undoubtedly a crucial factor in its success derives from the cheerful fashion in which the American filmmakers foreground their principal strategies. Unlike the dubious practice of an American TV cartoon series which slyly perpetuated the racist stereotypes of Amos ‘n’ Andy by assigning similar voices to animal characters, this 1966 jeu d’esprit avoids the chauvinistic possibilities inherent in a reverse procedure post-dubbing live-action Japanese actors with American voices, many of them evocative of cartoon animals — by  beginning with material that is already reeking with American influence, and by taking care to remind audiences of what is being done every step of the way.Read more »

Preface to the Argentinian edition of MOVIE MUTATIONS (2002)

The following was written specifically for the first (and much shorter) edition of Movie Mutations, a collection of nine letters published in Spanish translation by Ediciones Nuevos Tiempos as Movie Mutations: Cartas de cine in the spring of 2002 at the 4th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, and revised only slightly for its publication here. (It originally appeared in English in the online Senses of Cinema, May-June 2002.) — J.R.

***

March 23, 2002

Dear Quintín and Flavia (1),

I guess it must seem excessive, starting off a book of letters with yet another letter –- and rounding off a neat dozen of them with an unlucky thirteenth in the bargain. Skeptics who will find the following correspondence too chummy and cozy for comfort are apt to be equally or even more irritated by this Preface, but I can’t see any way out of this dilemma. When you, Flavia, asked me to write this less than a week ago -– emailing me that as the instigator of a project called “Movie Mutations”, I should be the one to introduce it in its initial book form — my first rude response, uttered only to myself, was, “But haven’t I done this already?… Read more »

The Politics of the Oscars

An article commissioned by La Repubblica‘s weekly magazine D. in Italy for publication on February 1, 2017. A slight variation of this appeared as one of my columns in Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

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emma-stone-ryan-gosling-la-la-land

I’ve never been adept at predicting the Oscars, and writing this shortly before the nominees are announced puts me at an even greater disadvantage. But the winners of the Golden Globes awards several weeks before the Academy Awards are a good indication of the overall trends in industry thinking. And the tendency in this year’s Golden Globes winners is a preference for ideological and aesthetic prestige over mainstream appeal: Moonlight for best drama, La La Land for best musical or comedy,  Isabelle Huppert in Elle and Emma Stone in La La Land for best actress, Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea and Ryan Gosling in La La Land. Otherwise, La La Land broke the record for prizes by winning seven in all, including also screenplay and direction (Damien Chazelle) and original score (Justin Hurwitz).

 

What generalizations can one reach about all four of the aforementioned prizewinners? A preference for gloom and doom over optimism that seems quite appropriate following the recent election of the United States’ own Silvio Berlusconi, Donald J.… Read more »

Not the Same Old Song and Dance

  • From the Chicago Reader (November 27, 1998), and reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema and on the BFI Blu-ray of the film. In his audiovisual essay on the latter release, Geoff Andrew rightly corrects my error, below, of describing the ax murder victim as Demy’s Lola, not von Sternberg’s Lola Lola. — J.R.

The Young Girls of Rochefort

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, George Chakiris, Gene Kelly, Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, Grover Dale, Jacques Perrin, Geneviève Thénier, Henri Crémieux, and Jacques Riberolles.

As eccentric as this may sound, Jacques Demy’s 1967 Les demoiselles de Rochefort is my favorite musical. Yet despite my 30-year addiction to the two-record sound track, the first time I was able to see the movie subtitled was a couple of weeks ago — helpful considering my faltering French. It’s certainly the odd musical out in terms of both its singularity and its North American reputation — a large-scale tribute to Hollywood musicals shot exclusively in Rochefort in southwest France, and an unabashedly romantic paean to American energy and optimism that’s quintessentially French. It has a score by Michel Legrand that’s easily his best, offering an almost continuous succession of songs with lyrics by Demy, all written in alexandrines (as is a climactic dinner scene that’s spoken rather than sung); choreography that ranges from mediocre (Norman Maen’s frenchified imitations of Jerome Robbins) to sublime (Gene Kelly’s choreography of his own numbers); and perhaps the most beautiful dovetailing of failed and achieved connections apart from Shakespeare and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, shot during the same period.… Read more »

MELINDA AND MELINDA (a pre-edited review)

This is the pre-edited version of a review published in its post-edited form elsewhere on this web site, as well as in the March 25, 2005 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

MELINDA AND MELINDA*

DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY WOODY ALLEN WITH RADHA MITCHELL, WILL FERRELL, CHLOE SEVIGNY, CHIWETEL EJIOFOR, JONNY LEE MILLER, BROOKE SMITH, WALLACE SHAWN, AND LARRY PINE

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Amongst a democratic population, all the intellectual faculties of the workman are directed to…two objects: he strives to invent methods which may enable him not only to work better, but quicker and cheaper; or, if he cannot succeed in that, to diminish the intrinsic quality of the thing he makes, without rendering it wholly unfit for the use for which it is intended. When none but the wealthy had watches, they were almost all very good ones; few are now made which are worth much, but everybody has one in his pocket. Thus the democratic principle not only tends to direct the mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities.”

— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

De Tocqueville’s 170-year-old account of why Americans  often blanch at intellectual abstraction and art-for-art’s-sake — and prefer accessibility over complexity when it comes to both thought and art  — still seems pretty up to date.Read more »

Reviews of Two Terrence Malick Films

Here are my reviews of two Malick films that I like much more than The Tree of Life, written almost a quarter of a century apart.

First, my review of Badlands from the November 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin:

U.S.A., 1973
Director: Terrence Malick

It would hardly be an exaggeration to call the first half of Badlands a revelation -– one of the best literate examples of narrated American cinema since the early days of Welles and Polonsky. Compositions, actors, and lines interlock and click into place with irreducible economy and unerring precision, carrying us along before we have time to catch our breaths. It is probably not accidental than an early camera set-up of Kit on his garbage route recalls the framing of a neighborhood street that introduced us to the social world of Rebel Without a Cause: the doomed romanticism courted by Kit and dispassionately recounted by Holly immediately evokes the Fifties world of Nicholas Ray -– and more particularly, certain Ray-influenced (and narrated) works of Godard, like Pierrot le fou and Bande à part. Terrence Malick’s eye, narrative sense, and handling of affectless violence are all recognizably Godardian, but they flourish in a context more easily identified with Ray.… Read more »

Play it again: Review of THE CULT FILM EXPERIENCE

From Sight and Sound (November 1991). -– J.R.

Play it again

________________________________________________________

Jonathan Rosenbaum

________________________________________________________

The Cult Film Experience: Beyond AII Reason

J. P. Telotte (ed), University of Texas Press,

$36, 218 pp.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

________________________________________________________

“It will be a sad day when a too smart audience will read Casablanca as conceived by Michael Curtiz after having read Calvino and Barthes”, Umberto Eco wrote in 1984. “But that day will come”. J. P. Telotte’s collection reminds us that Eco’s sad day is already well behind us — though it turns out to be Eco himself rather than Calvino or Barthes who provides the principal theoretical back-up.

Serious analysis of film cults can be traced back to a 1932 essay by Harry Alan Potamkin, but you won’t find Potamkin’s name in Telotte’s index. Indeed, apart from some cursory acknowledgments, the book fosters the impression that the arrival of film cults coincided with the burgeoning of film studies in the early 70s. This suggests that academic film study is itself an unacknowledged form of cult activity predicated on repeated viewings by a fetishistically inclined minority audience which reappropriates the film in question for its own specialized purposes.

One of these purposes is institutional, which accounts for the academics’ frequent recourse to the self- validating and ahistorical term ‘classical’ to dignify both mainstream movie-making and established film theory.… Read more »

Looking for America [UNCOMMON SENSES]

From the Chicago Reader (August 26, 1988). — J.R.

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UNCOMMON SENSES

Directed and written by Jon Jost.

The film essay, as opposed to the documentary, remains in some respects the most neglected of contemporary film genres, by filmmakers and audiences alike, perhaps because it is seldom acknowledged as a film form at all. The only recent mainstream examples that come to mind are the first two parts of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Powaqqatsi (1988). As an English reviewer remarked of Koyaanisqatsi — a film that, incidentally, owed most of its exposure to Francis Ford Coppola’s distribution — “Its vainglorious appeal as a ‘new cinematic experience’ is really to an audience that would rather be open-mouthed than open-minded.” I found its glib borrowings from the avant-garde so irritating that I had no sense of regret about missing its sequel.

On the other hand, the most masterful examples I can think of from the last two decades — Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1973) and Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1982) — both flopped commercially in this country. And most of the other distinguished examples from the 70s and 80s seem to appear only on the experimental film circuits: Trinh T. Min-ha’s Reassemblage (1982) and Naked Spaces (1985), Chicago filmmaker Peter Thompson’s Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen (1986-87; available on tape at Facets), Jane Campion’s 1984 Passionless Moments (which showed at the Film Center last weekend), and Jon Jost’s Speaking Directly: Some American Notes (1973; also available on tape at Facets).… Read more »

Action and Distraction (STRANGE DAYS)

From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 1995). — J.R.

Strange Days

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks

With Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, Glenn Plummer, Brigitte Bako, and Richard Edson.

In the introduction to his recently published first draft of the Strange Days screenplay, James Cameron offers a candid, suggestive description of what working on the script was like: “The problem was I had never written anything remotely this densely plotted and character driven. I circled and circled the computer, like a dog slinking around trying to work up the courage to steal food from a sleeping drunk.”

Cameron’s simile could be seen to apply not so much to Strange Days and other overhyped media events as to the sort of measures our legislators have been pushing through Congress lately. These measures more or less state that we can no longer afford to coddle criminals, the elderly, crack babies, the poor, the sick, or the homeless or support art, culture, or education — not because we’re living through any kind of depression but because millionaires still aren’t making as much money as they want to. Assuming that we’re the sleeping drunk in this scenario, it’s worth asking what sort of dreams we could possibly be having that would allow those congressional canines to find the courage to slink around us with this kind of hope.… Read more »

Ten Sub-Categories of Dark Reflection in 4.56.20

Written for a Portuguese exhibition catalogue in Fall 2016. My affectionate thanks to Nicole Brenez for both landing me this assignment and correcting a few of my imprecisions.– J.R.

1. On a film by Jean-Luc Godard

I’ll never forget the very strange sort of non-reception that appeared to greet the challenge of Jean-Luc Godard’s Numéro Deux when it first appeared in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The first time I saw the film, in the mid-1970s, soon after its unexpectedly wide commercial opening in Paris — a release apparently prompted by the misleading claim that it was a “remake” of A bout de souffle (premised on the fact that it had the same producer, Georges de Beauregard, as well as the same budget, without allowing for any inflation), plus the fact that it was being distributed by Gaumont — was at a large cinema just off the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, where I was startled to find myself the only person inside the auditorium. Communing all alone with that big screen containing many smaller screens was a singular experience in more ways than one.

 

When Numéro Deux was subsequently shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the key annual event of Marxist film theorists in the United Kingdom, many of the intellectuals associated with Screen magazine who had previously treated Le gai savoir and Vent d’est as exemplary manifestos for a political “counter-cinema”, quoting from its various speeches as if they were all graspable and teachable recipes for a revolutionary practice, abruptly dismissed Numéro Deux for its alleged “sexism” and “mystifications” (if they bothered to discuss it at all).… Read more »

The Pluck of BARRY LYNDON

From the March-April 1976 Film Comment. I’m somewhat irritated today by the hectoring tone of this, but I tend to think most of my arguments are sound — apart from my far-too-facile insistence that Barry Lyndon is a failure, which I would now dispute. — J.R.

So BARRY LYNDON is a failure. So what? How many “successes” have you seen lately that are half as interesting or accomplished, that are worth even ten minutes of thought after leaving them? By my own rough count, a smug little piece of engineering like a CLOCKWORK ORANGE was worth about five. I’m reminded of what Jonas Mekas wrote about ZAZIE several years ago: “The fact that the film is a failure means nothing. Didn’t God create a failure, too?”

Anyway, what most Anglo-American critics appear to mean by failure is that they were (a) bewildered and (b) bored by their bewilderment. To some extent, I was bewildered and befuddled too. So what? Who says we have to understand a film back to front before we can let ourselves like it? “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

London critics got to see BARRY LYNDON at least a couple of weeks before their New York counterparts, so the contrasts and comparisons that were drawn were somewhat different: while most of the former chastised Kubrick for his beautiful images before going on to rave about HARD TIMES (known over here as THE STREETFIGHTER) or A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, the latter were usually more equitable in establishing that BARRY LYNDON and LUCKY LADY were both failures, leading the unwary to suspect that they might as well be equivalents.… Read more »