Written for Criterion’s Current (web site), April 21, 2009. — J.R.
I recently had occasion to show Ivan the Terrible in a course on forties world cinema I’m teaching at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, and found it more mind-boggling than ever. This has always been the Eisenstein feature that’s given me the most pleasure — the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made as well as a showcase for the Russian master’s boldest graphics. But ever since I first saw it in the 1960s, this is a pleasure I’ve often had to apologize for, thanks to the vagaries and confusions of cold-war thinking. This thinking maintained that Eisenstein caved into Stalinist pressures, denounced the montage aesthetic that was central to his best work, and turned out an archaic, made-to-order glorification of a dictator.
Part of the problem has been reconciling the film’s multiple paradoxes — how much it functions as Eisenstein’s autocritique and apologia as well as an attack and glorification of Stalin, meanwhile combining elements of both high and low art at virtually every instant with its tortured angles and extreme melodrama. (Though portions of Part II could be termed inferior to Part I, the moment the film switches to color, using Agfa stock seized from the Germans during World War II, it moves into dizzying high gear, reminding us that Walt Disney was one of Eisenstein’s favorite filmmakers.) Some critics did take a slightly more nuanced view of things in Part II, but even a few of these writers, such as Dwight Macdonald, wound up adding homophobic invective to their charges, maintaining that Eisenstein’s homosexuality distorted his view of history — a dubious complaint that, as I later discovered, tended to oversimplify Eisenstein’s (bi)sexuality as well as the historical record.… Read more »
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:
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 »
This appeared originally in Film Comment, July-August 1978, and was reprinted by Saul Symonds in March 2005, with separate new prefaces by myself (reproduced below) and David Ehrenstein, in the online Light Sleeper (which is no longer up, alas). It’s also reprinted in my recent book Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues (2018). — J.R.
Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-Narrative
By Raymond Durgnat, David Ehrenstein and Jonathan Rosenbaum
Preface by Jonathan Rosenbaum, March 2005:
When this piece was written, or more precisely assembled, over 30 years ago, Ray Durgnat and I were sharing a house in Del Mar, California with experimental filmmaker Louis Hock. Ray and Louis were teaching film in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego, where I had taught the previous year — having been coaxed by Manny Farber into leaving my job as assistant editor of Monthly Film Bulletin and staff writer of Sight and Sound in London, at the British Film Institute, and returning to the U.S. after almost eight years of living in Europe. Ray, already a friend, also came over from London to take my position when I wasn’t rehired, and I was starting to work on a book that eventually became Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980).… Read more »
From Cinema Scope No. 50, Winter 2012, as part of a feature, “50 Best Filmmakers Under 50″. — J.R.
Many reviewers of Azazel Jacobs’ four features understandably place them in a direct lineage from his father Ken’s work. Both filmmakers are clearly preoccupied with interactions and crossovers between fiction and nonfiction — although the same could be said of everyone from Lumière, Méliès, and Porter to Costa, Hou, and Kiarostami. And both are remarkable directors of actors/performers, even though, in the case of Ken, projectors and found footage have performative roles along with people. The dialectics forged by opposite coasts and mindsets — corporate Hollywood vs. flaky New York Underground, claustrophobic obsession/fixation versus airy and uncontrollable street theatre — are equally constant.
Most reviewers are quick to point out that Azazel is more committed to narrative than his father. It’s easy to see what they mean, but some of their assumptions are worth questioning. If part of what we mean by “narrative” is plot and incident, there may be more of both contained in the intertitles of Ken’s The Whirled (1956-63) than there is in the main action of Azazel’s second feature The GoodTimes Kid (2005). If part of what we mean is “character,” then the work of both filmmakers is overflowing with it, from Jack Smith’s manic cavorting in many of Ken’s films to Diaz’s exhilarating dance in The GoodTimes Kid, not to mention John C.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 1991). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Wesley Strick
With Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas, Fred Dalton Thompson, and Robert Mitchum.
I have nothing against pornography when it’s good, clean sex, but I don’t enjoy watching a cat play with a mouse, and I got no pleasure from seeing Mr. Mitchum — huge, brawny and sweatily bare-chested — toy first with the frantically terrified ten-year-old daughter and then move on to conquer her shrinking, pleading mother. — Dwight Macdonald
Cape Fear is heavy on Spanish moss and sick behavior, a classic demonstration of the differences between rich and poor; to say nothing of the typical good ol’ Southern boy’s view of women. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of ‘em have very much good to say. You won’t forget this movie, especially if you’re a Yankee Jew. — Barry Gifford
These remarks come from reviews of the original Cape Fear. Macdonald’s was written the same year the movie came out, 1962, and Gifford’s a couple of decades later; together, they help to show how we’ve increasingly come to view nastiness as a form of high art.… Read more »
My column for the April 2015 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. Although I didn’t have the space to discuss this, it seems to me in retrospect that Jack Nance, even as a relatively minor character (Pete Martell), is as much the realistic backbone of Twin Peaks as he is the realistic anchor of Eraserhead — and, as such, he stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from such supernatural pasteboard characters as Bob (Frank Silva) and Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). — J.R.
The news that David Lynch and Mark Frost are preparing nine new Twin Peaks episodes — all to be directed by Lynch and set in the present, and to air on cable TV’s Showtime in 2016 — has coincided with the release of a beautifully designed Blu-Ray box set with ten discs, Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery and The Missing Pieces, devoted to the 29 episodes broadcast in 1990 and 1991 and the subsequent prequel theatrical feature, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and many extras. All this has prompted a re-evaluation of the series as a whole, which I’ve now seen in its entirety for the first time. A few critics have aided me in this quest—especially Michel Chion in his 1992 French book on Lynch, Martha P.… Read more »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (December 3, 2004). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and Written by Ross McElwee
As a filmmaker who’s always philosophizing about his family, his southern heritage, and the meaning of life, Ross McElwee can get a little high-flown at times. The funniest shot in the latest installment of his autobiographical saga, Bright Leaves, brings him down to earth a bit — and shows that McElwee actually may have learned something from the deflation. The shot occurs toward the end of the film and there are several reasons it’s so funny.
(1) A noisy dog is following McElwee as he threads his way through a kitschy sculpture garden, whose relevance to the story remains obscure. Is it cemetery statuary? Whatever it is, it’s a visual and narrative non sequitur that only adds to the screwball ambience.
(2) The growling dog, seen near the lower edge of the frame, recalls a smudgy, minimalist black-and-white comic strip drawn by David Lynch between 1983 and ’92, The Angriest Dog in the World. (The graphics of the four panels in each strip were almost identical — the same dog angrily pulling at the same chain in a fenced-in backyard — but the introductory words and the balloons of dialogue coming from someone unseen inside the house were always different.)
(3) McElwee complains offscreen that the appearance of the dog “ruined the shot,” then does a second take showing him calmly traversing the same space without it.… Read more »
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 »
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 »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (August 4, 2006). –J. R.
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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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
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 »
This review, from the February 4, 1981 issue of The Soho News, is most likely harsher than it needed to be. Since Mary McCarthy’s death, I’ve been moved to reformulate some of my positions about her after reading the wonderful book Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1995) edited by Carol Brightman, which reveals a side of McCarthy that seems quite contrary to her much better-known bitchiness as a critic. It proves to me that unforeseen and unforeseeable sides of some people tend to come out only in specific relationships with certain other people, and the loving generosity of McCarthy’s letters to Arendt are a particular striking example of this. —J.R.
Ideas and the Novel
By Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95
Despite her wicked way with some words and ideas, Mary McCarthy has never exactly thrilled me with her aesthetics. With a taste stuck so comfortably, nostalgically, even trivially in the prosaic 19th century that even the avant-garde that she values often seems furnished with fog and brass doorknobs à la Doyle, Verne, or Poe, her acute critical intelligence usually whiles away its time polishing statues and suits of armor — rather like the New York Times Book Review — whenever she turns to the Novel.… Read more »
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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