Monthly Archives: August 2019

Wellesian: Quixote in a Trashcan [New York University Welles Conference]

From the Autumn 1988 Sight and Sound. — J.R.

“I earn a good living and get a lot of work because of this ridiculous myth about me,” Orson Welles told Kenneth Tynan in the mid-60s. “But the price of it is that when I try to do something serious, something I care about, a great many critics don’t review that particular work, but me in general. They write their standard Welles piece. It’s either the good piece or the bad piece, but they’re both fairly standard.”

Standard Welles pieces were for once not the main bill of fare at a major Welles; retrospective and conference held last May at New York University and the Public Theater. A welcome amount of concrete research into Welles’ work in radio, theatre and film was aired, along with the obligatory theoretical exercises. Sidebars included an extensive exhibition of Welles’s radio shows and materials documenting stage productions, and an effectively staged reading of Moby Dick — Rehearsed, a prime instance of how Wellesian magic could be conjured out of suggestively minimal sounds and images.

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In his keynote address, James Naremore offered some fascinating glimpses into the Welles archive in Bloomington, Indiana. The original version of THE STRANGER was half an hour longer, with a flashback structure, a surreal early scene set on a dog-training farm in Argentina and a nightmarish dream sequence.

Read more »

Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge (Part 2)

Originally written as the tenth chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000), this is also reprinted in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles. Because of the length of this essay, I’m posting it in two installments – J.R.

OrsonWelles1937

JohnCassavetes

3. The taboo against financing one’s own work. I assume it’s deemed

acceptable for a low-budget experimental filmmaker to bankroll his or

her own work, but for a “commercial” director to do so is anathema

within the film industry, and Welles was never fully trusted or respected

by that industry for doing so from the mid-forties on. This pattern

started even before Othello, when he purchased the material he had

shot for It’s All True from RKO with the hopes of finishing the film

independently, a project he never succeeded in realizing. As an

overall principle, he did something similar in the thirties when he

acted in commercial radio in order to surreptitiously siphon money

into some of his otherwise government-financed theater productions

during the WPA period, a practice he discusses in This Is Orson

Welles. John Cassavetes, who also acted in commercial films in order

to pay for his own independent features, suffered similarly in terms of

overall commercial “credibility,” which helps to explain why he and

Welles admired each other.… Read more »

Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge (Part 1)

Originally written as the tenth chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000), this is also reprinted in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles. Because of the length of this essay, I’ll be posting it in two installments – J.R.

OrsonWelles1937

Nothing irritates one more with middlebrow morality than the perpetual needling of great artists for not having been  greater.

— Cyril Connolly

Orson-Welles-Opens-Paper

During my almost thirty years as a professional film critic,

I’ve developed something of a sideline — not so much by

design as through a combination of passionate interest and

particular opportunities — devoted to researching the work

and career of Orson Welles. Though I wouldn’t necessarily

call him my favorite filmmaker, he remains the most

fascinating for me, both due to the sheer size of his talent, and

the ideological force of his work and his working methods.

These continue to pose an awesome challenge to what I’ve been

calling throughout this book the media-industrial complex.

orson-welles-color

 

In more than one respect, these two traits are reverse sides of

the same coin. A major part of Welles’s talent as a filmmaker

consisted of his refusal to repeat himself — a compulsion to

keep moving creatively that consistently worked against his

credentials as a “bankable” director, if only because banks rely

on known quantities rather than on experiments.… Read more »

Dead Ringers

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1988). — J.R.

DeadRingers

David Cronenberg’s finely tuned psychological thriller (1988, 115 min.) explores the complex lives of two gynecologists, identical twins (both played by Jeremy Irons) who share everything from their lovers to their successful fertility clinic. Their close mutual ties become challenged when both are attracted to the same actress (Genevieve Bujold). A tour de force — especially for Irons, whose sense of nuance is so refined that one can tell almost immediately which twin he is in a particular scene — and the special effects involving both twins simultaneously are so well handled that one quickly forgets about the underlying illusion. But the sheer unpleasantness of the plot, inspired by a real-life case, guarantees that this isn’t a film for everyone, and people like myself who find the character played by Bujold (in one of her best performances) more interesting than either of the twins are bound to feel rather frustrated by the end. (JR)

dead-ringersRead more »

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.” When is “now”?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 »

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

Melinda_and_melinda_poster

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 »

Second Thoughts on Stroheim

This appeared as the lead article in the May-June 1974 issue of Film Comment – a somewhat pared-down revamping of my entry about Stroheim for Richard Roud’s belatedly published Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (New York: The Viking Press, 1980), and, if memory serves, the longest of my several contributions to that long out-of-print collection. I’m sorry that I’ve been unable to illustrate this more precisely with most of the shots that I describe. – J.R.

Second Thoughts on Stroheim

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Preface

Total object, complete with missing parts,
instead of partial object. Question of degree.
– Samuel Beckett, “Three Dialogues”

Two temptations present themselves to any modern reappraisal of Erich von Stroheim’s work; one of   them is fatal, the other all but impossible to act upon. The fatal temptation would be to concentrate on the offscreen image and legend of Stroheim to the point of ignoring central facts about the films themselves: an approach that has unhappily characterized most critical work on Stroheim to date. On the other hand, one is tempted to look at nothing but the films — to suppress biography, anecdotes, newspaper reviews, reminiscences, and everything else that isn’t plainly visible on the screen.

Submitting Stroheim’s work to a purely formal analysis and strict textural reading of what is there — as opposed to what isn’t, or might, or would or could or should have been there — may sound like an obvious and sensible project; but apparently no one has ever tried it, and there is some reason to doubt whether anyone ever will.… Read more »

A Stylist Hits His Stride (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND)

From the March 19, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Michel Gondry

Written by Charlie Kaufman, Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth

With Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Tom Wilkinson.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;

“Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;”

Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,

Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n.


–Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717)

Only once in a blue moon does a screenwriter who isn’t a director become known as an auteur. Plenty of distinctive movie writers have reputations as actors or as actor-directors, starting with such giants as D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Erich von Stroheim, but they’re rarely celebrated for their writing. You have to go back to Robert Towne, who’s done only a little directing, and Paddy Chayefsky, who never did anything but write and produce, to find auteurs known mainly as writers.

A Chayefsky movie isn’t hard to identify, but I think it’s safe to say that these days a Charlie Kaufman movie is even more recognizable.… Read more »

FOOLISH WIVES (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 514). –- J.R.

 

Foolish Wives

U.S.A., 1922
Director: Erich von Stroheim

Cert—A. dist–BFI. p.c–Universal Super Jewel. p–Carl Laemrnle. asst. d–Edward Sowders, Jack R. Proctor, Louis Germonprez. special asst. to Stroheim–Gustav Machaty. sc–Erich von-Stroheim. ph–Ben Revnolds, William Daniels. illumination and lighting effects—Harry J. Brown. ed–Erich von Stroheim, (release version: Arthur D. Ripley). a.d—E. E. Sheeley, Richard Day. scenic artist—Van Alstein [Alstyn]. technical d–William Meyers, James Sullivan, George Williams. sculpture–Don Jarvis. master of properties–C. J. Rogers. m—[original score by Sigmund Romberg]. cost–Western Costuming Co., Richard Day, Erich von Stroheim. titles–Marian Ainslee, Erich von Stroheim. research asst-J . Lambert. l.p—Rudolph Christians/Robert Edenson (Andrew J. Hughes), Miss Du Pont [Patsy Hannen] (Helen Hughes), Maude George (“Princess”Olga Petschnikoff), Mae Busch (“Princess” Vera Petschnikoff), Erich von Stroheim (“Count” Sergei Karamzin), Dale Fuller (Maruschka), Al Edmundsen (Pavel Pavlich, the Butler), Cesare Gravina (Signor Gaston), Malvina Polo (Gaston’s Daughter [Marietta]), Louis K. Webb (Dr. Judd), Mrs. Kent (Mrs, Judd), C.J. Allen (Albert I, Prince of Monaco), Edward Reinach (Secretary of State of Monaco).… Read more »