Monthly Archives: September 2019

Ten Best Films Directed by Women

The BBC has just asked me for this list. I took care to split this evenly between fiction and non-fiction. — J.R.

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TheEnchantedDesna

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vagabond

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passionless-moments

fromtheotherside

YouAreNotI-Sister

daisies

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1. The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963)

2. The Enchanted Desna (Yulia Solntseva, 1964)

3. Mix-up ou Méli-Mélo (Françoise Romand, 1986)

4. Vagabond  (Agnès Varda, 1985)

5. The Asthenic Syndrome (Kira Muratova, 1989)

6. Passionless Moments  (Jane Campion, 1983)

7. From the Other Side  (Chantal Akerman, 2002)

8. You Are Not I  (Sara Driver, 1981)

9. Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)

10. Aragane  (Oda Kaori, 2015)… Read more »

The Pearls Of The Crown

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

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Pearls

Henry II dies in a quizzical jump cut, Arletty’s voice is run backward to suggest the speech of an Abyssinian snake princess, and writer-director Sacha Guitry plays several parts (including Francis I, Napoleon III, and himself telling the film’s story to his wife). It’s often been said that you have to know French to fully appreciate Guitry’s cleverness and genius. But even if only those who speak French will catch a pun capping Jacqueline Delubac’s attempt to resist Raimu’s advances by speaking exclusively in adverbs, the sheer personality and energy of this 1937 film transcends linguistic barriers. A tale about the fate of seven perfect pearls, four of them in the English crown, it starts in the 16th century and proceeds by leaps and bounds into the 20th, periodically shifting to English or Italian to give its wit and formal play more international cachet. If you’ve never encountered Guitry, this is a plausible place to start. The all-star cast also includes Marcel Dalio, Claude Dauphin, and Jean-Louis Barrault. In English and subtitled French and Italian. 100 min. (JR)

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Le Mouton Enragé

From Oui (August 1974). — J.R.

Le Mouton Enragé. Before the credits of Le Mouton Enragé come on, we see Jean-Louis Trintignant as Nicolas, an unassuming bank clerk who is so sheepish that he accepts a sandwich he hasn’t ordered in a café and winds up paying for a seat in a park where he doesn’t want to sit. Then he sees a pretty girl (Jane Birkin) standing alone by the Seine. A flush of courage overtakes him, he places a hand on her arm and says, “The person you’re waiting for doesn’t exist.” “Probably not,” she agrees, and  voilà! The lamb is already on his way to becoming a lion. Carefully advised and tutured by his best friend (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Nicolas proceeds to make his way in the world; before the final reel, he has already become the editor of a jazzy tabloid and has bedded practically every attractive woman in the cast, including Birkin, Romy Schneider, Florinda Bolkan, and Estella Blain. The director of this graceful, inconsequential lark is Michel Deville, something of a specialist in neoclassy, softcore wish fulfillment — particularly harem fantasies where the ladies keep begging for more. (His Benjamin, a fleshy 18th century romp of a few years back, is a prime example.)Read more »

Exchange with Charles Wolfe on Claude Chabrol (1975)

From Film Comment (January-February 1975). This was a good eight years before I became a colleague of Chuck Wolfe at the Film Studies program University of California, Santa Barbara, where I found myself trapped in a dead-end job for four years before my 20-year stint at the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

 

To the editor:

Contrary to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s introduction to his interview with Jacques Rivette (Film Comment, Sept.-Oct.1974), the first major Cahiers critic to embark on a feature film was Claude Chabrol, not Rivette. Chabrol shot LE BEAU SERGE between December 1957 and February 1958, finished editing in May, and presented the film at the Locarno festival that year. Rivette began work on PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT in the summer of 1958 while Chabrol filmed his second feature, LES COUSINS. This information is confirmed in Claire Clouzot’s Le Cinéma Français depuis la nouvelle vague and Guy Braucourt’s Cinéma d’aujourd hui volume on Chabrol.

All this may seem trivial, but it reflects a general misunderstanding of Chabrol’s crucial role n the transition of the Cahiers critics from writers to filmmakers.… Read more »

Letter to Jane (1975 review)

Missing from this review from the July 1975 Monthly Film Bulletin is any acknowledgment that Godard and Gorin’s rather punitive analysis against Jane Fonda’s role in a still photograph might have incidentally reflected some misogyny along with their resentment against the power of a movie star. For those interested in tracking down Letter to Jane, it’s included as an extra on the Criterion DVD of Tout va bien. —J.R.

 


Letter to Jane

France, 1972            Directors: Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin

 

Letter to Jane was initially made to be shown in a specific limited context: as a short accompanying Tout va bien at the New York and San Francisco Film Festivals in 1972. As with all of Godard and Gorin’s joint projects, the essential aims of the film are demystification and political analysis. More generally, it pursues a demystification of cinema itself as art object, reflected in the minimal technical means used in the articulation of the filmmakers’ argument (a montage of stills separated by cuts or makeshift wipes accompanied by the voices of Godard and Gorin in English, with brief uses of recorded music as punctuation) — an approach further developed by Godard’s more recent work  with video, which seeks to demonstrate that the “production of sounds and images” need not be as expensive or as technically elaborate as is usually supposed.… Read more »

Process of Illumination [RADIUM CITY]

From the February 5, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

RADIUM CITY

Directed by Carole Langer

Thanks largely to the influence of auteur criticism, most of our aesthetically oriented writing about film since the 60s has been concerned with style. But one could argue that such an emphasis has tended to divert attention from what might be considered even more important — namely, form and content. “Whatever its sophistication,” Roland Barthes wrote in Writing Degree Zero, “style always has something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention. . . . Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical . . . it rises up from the writer’s myth-laden depths and unfolds beyond his area of control.”

Perhaps only in an area like Hollywood moviemaking, where the artist seldom has final control over either the form or the content, can style be raised to the level of an ultimate principle. Yet because Hollywood continues to dominate our screens as well as the ways that we think about movies in general, the notion of style is also routinely applied to Bresson, Godard, Kubrick, and Tarkovsky, when surely form and content, not style, is what their best films are about.… Read more »

Manifesto

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

Manifesto 09

Manifesto 10

Dusan Makavejev’s 1988 comedy, his first film to be shot in his native Yugoslavia in 18 years, is easily his most pleasurable work since WR: Mysteries of the Organism, albeit without the intellectual ambitions of that or any of his earlier Yugoslav works. The major premise here is that eastern Europe of the 20s is not something we know from history so much as from Hollywood — specifically the imaginary countries of Lubitsch and Million Dollar Legs during the 30s. The influence of Lubitsch (who once pointedly remarked that he preferred Paris, Paramount, to Paris, France) is apparent from the opening intertitle, and if the plot of Manifesto remains pretty inconsequential —  a network of sexual and political intrigues involving murders, numerous sexual liaisons, an insane asylum, assassination attempts, and garden parties that never leads to any satisfactory conclusion — the sexiness, wit, lush rural settings, and style keep it bubbling throughout. Camilla Soeberg (Twist and Shout) is especially good as a wealthy and promiscuous political schemer; others in the cast include Eric Stoltz, Alfred Molina, Simon Callow, and Lindsay Duncan. (JR)

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Global Discoveries on DVD: Compulsively Yours (including a few real-life confessions/admissions)

From the Autumn 2019 Cinema Scope (https://cinema-scope.com/columns/global-discoveries-on-dvd-compulsively-yours-including-a-few-real-life-confessions-admissions/). — J.R.

Although I’m no longer a member of Il Cinema Ritrovato’s DVD jury, two other visitors to Bologna in June who are familiar with this column presented me with new DVDs:

LOLAMONTEZ


1. A year ago in this column, while celebrating Edition Filmmuseum’s PAL DVD release of Max Ophüls’ Liebelei (1933) and the German version of his 1955 Lola Montez (which I misspelled as Lola Montès, the title of the French version), I registered the minor complaint that the “bilingual” booklet, which I hoped would explain how and why Marcel Ophüls finally withdrew his obscure objection to the German version (which I regard as the best version, above all for its colours), was only in German. It turns out that this lapse was just a printing error, and the corrected bilingual version of this two-disc set is now available. (Furthermore, I gather that the withdrawn objections of Ophüls fils were basically a matter of money.) Combined with the recent and long-overdue publication of François Truffaut’s Chronique d’Arts Spectacles 1954-1958 — Gallimard’s collection of his texts for a prominent right-wing weekly that, in the opinion of some French cinephiles, are superior to his reviews for Cahiers du Cinéma, and which includes some rapturous writing about Lola Montès (the French version), including praise for its “[un]natural” colours — this makes me want to re-see the German version yet again.… Read more »

Five Easy Pieces [NIGHT ON EARTH]

From the Chicago Reader (May 15, 1992). — J.R.

 

 

NIGHT ON EARTH

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Beatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, and Matti Pellonpaa.

As the most popular American independent filmmaker around, Jim Jarmusch carries a special burden: his reputation makes his work particularly hard to evaluate. Other American independents who haven’t enjoyed his commercial success — he’s the only independent who comes to mind who works mainly in 35-millimeter and owns all his own pictures — envy and even resent him, questioning whether he offers a serious alternative to the commercial mainstream. Indeed, Jarmusch has come to be so identified with artistic freedom that it’s difficult to see how any of his movies can live up to his reputation.

“Jim Jarmusch’s planet is the Lower East Side,” began Karen Schoemer in an awestruck feature in the New York Times late last month. “Its bars, its bodegas and its pavement make up his home, his office and his hangout.” “The director finds drama in the ordinary” reads a pull quote in the following hagiography, and clearly so does the Times: it finds a special magic and potency in a run-down neighborhood simply because Jarmusch lives there.… Read more »

Tati’s Influence on David Lynch

I’m grateful to have Kristin Thompson’s detailed and useful report on the Jacques Tati exhibition at the Cinémathèque Française, which closes on August 2nd and which I won’t be able to attend myself. But there’s one very small point in her account with which I disagree. I’m not referring to her spelling of Playtime as Play Time — a long-standing position of hers, based (I believe) on the styling of the film’s ads and opening title credit — because it’s possible that she’s been right about this while I and virtually everyone else have been wrong. (For me, the cinching argument either way would be how Tati spelled the title himself. I’m sorry that I never thought to ask him, during the brief period in 1973 when I worked for him.)

No, my disagreement has to do with the influence exerted by Tati on David Lynch, which Kristin deals with only parenthetically by noting that Lynch “might conceivably be said to reflect a Tatian influence only in The Straight Story.” I’m not disputing whether or not The Straight Story reflects Tati’s influence; as nearly as I can recall, this hadn’t occurred to me when I saw the film, and she might well be correct.… Read more »

Fear of Feeling [THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST]

From the Chicago Reader (January 13, 1989). — J.R.

THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Written by Frank Galati and Kasdan

With William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis, Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, Ed Begley Jr., and Bill Pullman.

Why is the inability to feel such a popular and respected subject in contemporary American movies? William Hurt makes his way through most of The Accidental Tourist, the new Lawrence Kasdan film based on Anne Tyler’s novel, like a human slug, devoid of energy, emotion, or much thought — a freeze-dried mass of nerveless inertia — and audiences appear to be cheering him on, as if there were something intrinsically noble about his condition.

A relatively serious, relatively realistic soap opera, The Accidental Tourist has scant stylistic or formal interest, so how one responds to it depends on how one responds to the story and characters. John Williams’s lush, romantic score asks us and evidently expects us to feel a great deal of tenderness toward its oatmeal hero, and I suspect that many members of the New York Film Critics’ Circle did, for they recently voted this movie the best of the year. But my main response was halfhearted respect (for the script and performances more than for the hit-or-miss direction) tinged with boredom, and a certain curiosity about what all the fuss was about.… Read more »

William Styron

 

DARKNESS VISIBLE: A MEMOIR OF MADNESS by William Styron (New York: Vintage Books), 1990, 84 pp.

 

HAVANAS IN CAMELOT: PERSONAL ESSAYS by William Styron (New York: Random House), 2008, 162 pp.

 

Two late autobiographical books by a writer I’ve always liked —- the first somewhat disappointing, perhaps because I came to it with the wrong expectations, the second a pleasurable surprise.

 

I guess what I was hoping to encounter in DARKNESS VISIBLE, Styron’s brief and somewhat sketchy account of his own excruciating bouts with depression in the 1980s, was some clarification or extension of what I found so powerful about his treatment of bipolar behavior in SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1979) -– specifically the depiction of Nathan, which seemed to derive from some deep personal understanding of this condition. But Styron points out early on that his own malady was “unipolar,” not the same thing at all. Still, I admire the scrupulous way he avoids leaping to too many conclusions about a condition that he’s still far from fully understanding.

 

The late essays collected in HAVANAS IN CAMELOT deal with such topics as a few amicable encounters with John F. Kennedy (the title essay), an apparent contraction of syphilis during his youth (as a fledgling Marine at a naval hospital in South Carolina), his friendships with fellow novelists (Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Terry Southern), some late prostate trouble, and walks with his dog in his early 80s.Read more »

Lemming

  From the Chicago Reader (August 4, 2006). –J. R.

LemmingDVD

Lemmingad

Brilliantly conceived and competently executed, this disturbing psychological thriller by German-born French filmmaker Dominik Moll (With a Friend Like Harry) has been compared to David Lynch’s Lost Highway, in part because of its uncanny two-part construction. But it also suggests an original spin on Eyes Wide Shut in the unspoken understandings of its married couple (Laurent Lucas and Charlotte Gainsbourg) and its ambiguous mix of reality and fantasy. Andre Dussollier and Charlotte Rampling play another couple who arrive for a dinner party, and the unpredictable transactions among the four kept me engrossed and curious throughout. In French with subtitles. 129 min. Music Box.

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High Infidelity [OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS]

This review of Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared in the February 13, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. I’m not positive that the second image I’ve used to represent Sokurov’s Oriental Elegy actually comes from that video and not from another Sokurov work, but it evokes my memory of that video so well that I hope I can be granted poetic license for this. — J.R.

Other Voices, Other Rooms

0 (worthless)

Directed by David Rocksavage

Written by Sara Flanigan and Rocksavage

With Lothaire Bluteau, Anna Thomson, David Speck, April Turner, and Frank Taylor.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

I cannot tell a lie: my first exposure to two great tragic novels, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), was the dreadful Hollywood adaptations released during my teens, both of which had happy endings. As silly as these movies were — Vincent J. Donehue’s Lonelyhearts (1958) and Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959) — they piqued my interest in the original novels, and I discovered, among many other things, the blatant inadequacy of the movie versions.

The same thing could happen to a teenager attending the dreadful film adaptation of Truman Capote’s first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) — not a novel of the same caliber as West’s and Faulkner’s, though still a work of real distinction, from his best period — but the odds are slim.… Read more »

Hallelujah, I’m A Bum!

 

HallelujahImaBum

This eccentric and soulful anarcho-leftist fantasy is probably the most underrated of all Depression-era musicals. Directed by Lewis Milestone in 1933 from a script by Ben Hecht and S.N. Behrman, with a score by Rodgers and Hart that features rhyming couplets, the film stars Al Jolson as a Central Park hobo who actually likes being homeless — until he falls in love with an amnesia victim (Madge Evans) who’s a former mistress of the mayor (Frank Morgan) and has to get a job to support her. The overall conception owes something to Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights, but the editing and mise en scene are genuinely inspired and inventive. (The parodic Eisensteinian montage cut to the syllables of “America” must be seen to be believed, and a tracking shot past muttering customers in a spacious bank is equally brilliant and subversive.) Harry Langdon is memorable as a Trotskyite, and Richard Day’s art deco sets are striking. 82 min. 2019 postscript: According to the late Pierre Rissient, much of this film’s brilliance can be credited to the preproduction work on it done by Harry d’Arrast. (JR)

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