I wasn’t ready for Susan Sontag’s non-fiction film about the 1973 Yom Kippur War in 1974, and I’m not at all sure that I’m ready for it even now, on the DVD released by Zeitgeist and Kim Stim. But there’s no question that part of my perspective on it has changed. For one thing, this film obviously needs to be cross-referenced with her book of thirty years later, Regarding the Pain of Others. Furthermore, in 1974, when I attended Susan’s private screening of Promised Lands in Paris, I was probably expecting to hear her words and her voice, her writerly badges, and I was surprised that I got neither: the voices and words are mainly those of three unnamed individuals — Yoram Kaniuk (for me the most sympathetic commentator), Yuval Ne’emangood, and a psychiatrist at the end who claims to be offering therapy to a shellshocked Israeli soldier under a drug-induced trance when he contrives to recreate the soldier’s wartime trauma, complete with brutal sound effects. (After the screening, Sontag described the latter aptly and with considerable horror as “Docteur Folamour” — the French name for Dr. Strangelove — and I strongly suspect that it was this sequence that led to the film originally being banned in Israel.) Given especially the anguished screams of the soldier, it’s an unbearable conclusion, yet this grisly patch of “medical” theater itself morphs into Sontag’s own theater of war as the sound of comparable cries plays over the advancing of Israeli tanks, and the profusion of corpses that we see throughout the film are no less assaulting.… Read more »
Monthly Archives: October 2019
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 2000). — J.R.
I haven’t read Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities, but it’s reportedly director Leos Carax’s favorite novel. What there is of a plot to this 1999 modern-dress adaptation, which Carax wrote with Lauren Sedofsky and Jean-Pol Fargeau, concerns a wealthy author (Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard) living in Normandy in semi-incestuous contentment with his mother (Catherine Deneuve). Upon encountering a soulful eastern European war refugee (Katerina Golubeva) who claims to be his half sister, he runs out on his wealthy fiancee (Delphine Chuillot) and retreats to a funky part of Paris to write another novel. There’s clearly some sort of self-portraiture going on here. A 19th-century romantic inhabiting a universe as mythological as Jean Cocteau’s, Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood, The Lovers on the Bridge) has a wonderful cinematic eye and a personal feeling for editing rhythms, and his sense of overripeness and excess virtually defines him. He’s as self-indulgent as they come, and we’d all be much the poorer if he weren’t. Characteristic of his private sense of poetics is this film’s dedication, near the end of the closing credits, “to my three sisters” — it appears on-screen for less than a second.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2005). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Sarah Adler, Nade Dieu, Godard, Rony Kramer, Mahmoud Darwich, Jean-Christopher Bouvet, Simon Eine, Juan Goytisolo, Peirre Bergounioux, George Aguilar, Leticia Gutierrez, Jean-Paul Curnier, and Gilles Pequeux.
Jean-Luc Godard has had a tendency to be combative and obscure. He’s a lot calmer and steadier in his latest feature, Notre musique, opening this week at the Music Box. He’s also been making an effort to express his intentions clearly and simply in interviews, including those with the mainstream American press. Yet some viewers will probably still feel excluded and puzzled by his methods as a filmmaker and his habits as a thinker, however beautiful and powerful the results.
Even if one can deal with Godard’s compulsive use of metaphor and abstraction and his Eurocentric perspective — all standard in much of his late work — there’s something morose and emotionally remote about this film. Around a sense of futility, a disenchantment with the world, he builds a kind of poetics that’s akin to some of the excesses associated with German romanticism. The issue isn’t whether such despair is warranted, but what one does with it.… Read more »
This article was commissioned by and published in the Canadian online magazine Synoptique in its 7th issue, devoted to Susan Sontag and edited by Colin Burnett (dated 14 February 2005, about six weeks after her death), and is also reprinted in my Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
Goodbye Susan, Goodbye: Sontag and Movies
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I don’t think that Susan Sontag was a great film critic; to hear her tell it, she wasn’t really a critic at all. But it’s still hard to overestimate her importance as an American writer in relation to movies. The last of the great New York intellectuals associated with Partisan Review, she was the only one in that crowd who understood and appreciated film in a wholly cosmopolitan manner, as a part of art and culture and thought —- something that couldn’t be said of Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, Edmund Wilson, or any of the editors at the New York Review of Books. Even if one considers the most sophisticated members or fellow travelers of that group who functioned as film critics —- James Agee, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Dwight Macdonald, Delmore Schwartz, Parker Tyler, Robert Warshow —- none of them could claim quite the same global, cultural, and historical reach that Sontag had.… Read more »
Full disclosure: Gerald Peary’s 80-minute documentary accords me two sound bites — one near the beginning (about Manny Farber), the other towards the end (about internet criticism) — and one lingering look at this web site (specifically, my 2005 essay about Susan Sontag).
Overall I’m fundamentally in agreement with David Bordwell’s verdict about this film on his own web site, after seeing it recently in Hong Kong: “In all, For the Love of Movies offers a concise, entertaining account of mass-market movie criticism, and I think a lot of universities would want to use it in film and journalism courses.”
I’m writing this in one-sentence paragraphs because that’s pretty much Gerry’s discursive style and manner here, largely carried by the narration (delivered by Patricia Clarkson), for better and for worse. So — to expand my own discursive style here into two sentences, one of them fairly long — in the two or three minutes devoted to Manny Farber, unless you’ve already read and digested a couple of his key articles, you might wind up concluding that “termite art” has something directly to do with “low-budget crime melodrama,” even though snippets of Farber’s prose and a couple of lines from a late onstage interview are also included.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 29, 1990). A more recent look at this sequel shows that it dates badly, even (and perhaps especially) with all its Trump references. Its gibes all remain on the same level, even when they’re funny, so that it never becomes disturbing (as its predecessor does) or provocative. — J.R.
GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Charlie Haas
With Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, John Glover, Robert Prosky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lee, Haviland Morris, Keye Luke, and Dick Miller.
A cautionary tale set in a Frank Capra universe, Joe Dante’s original Gremlins (1984) gives us a kindhearted, unsuccessful inventor named Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) who buys a furry little creature called Mogwai as a Christmas present for his teenage son Billy (Zach Galligan). He finds Mogwai in Chinatown, in a curio shop run by the sage Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), who doesn’t want to sell it, but Wing’s practical-minded grandson, who says they need the money, arranges the deal anyway. Peltzer is warned to follow three rules of animal maintenance: keep Mogwai out of the light, don’t get it wet, and, above all, never feed it after midnight. After Peltzer brings it home, he names the pet Gizmo, reflecting his own taste in crackpot inventions.… Read more »
I never expected to see any Margarethe von Trotta movie more than once, but Hannah Arendt proved to be well worth a second look. Some of my reasons for going back are undoubtedly personal; Arendt’s husband, Heinrich Blücher, astutely played in the film by Axel Milberg, is by far the greatest teacher I’ve ever had, two of whose seminars at Bard College I was fortunate to take, and Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, the main focus of the film, appeared in The New Yorker during the same period. The controversy it sparked among New York intellectuals at the time made it the major topic of discussion among visiting speakers; I can recall lengthy conversations I had or overheard with Harold Rosenberg and Dwight Macdonald, among many others who came to campus during that period. (Lionel Abel, perhaps the most intemperate of Arendt’s foes, also came, but as I recall I went out of my way to avoid broaching the subject with him.) And there were plenty of snack-bar dialogues at Bard with Blücher on the same subject.
For me, part of the singularity of both Blücher and Arendt (whom I met only briefly, once in their Riverside Drive apartment) was the degree to which art, politics, philosophy, moral seriousness, and a remarkable passion for ethics interfaced in their discourse and lives with an unflagging intensity, and what I cherish most about von Trotta’s movie is the degree to which she — and, above all, Barbara Sukowa as Arendt — capture this.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 2, 2005). Also reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
This weekend the Gene Siskel Film Center launches “Merry Marilyn!,” a Marilyn Monroe retrospective, starting with two pivotal Howard Hawks features, Monkey Business (1952) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). The series will include most of her major films at Fox as well as Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Misfits (1960).
By coincidence Playboy this month is publishing a package of stories about her final days and death. The magazine is reviving the popular conspiracy theory that Monroe’s reported suicide in August 1962 was murder, the consequence of her secret affairs with John and Bobby Kennedy. If, like me, you’re less interested in how she died than in how she lived, the most interesting part of this package is an inexact transcript of the freewheeling confessional tape recordings she made for her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, a few weeks before her death. Greenson had asked her to free-associate during their sessions, but she found that difficult. Then she discovered that she lost her inhibitions when she was by herself speaking into a recorder. Shortly after her autopsy Greenson played these tapes—once, in his office—for Los Angeles County deputy district attorney John Miner, who like him was skeptical that Monroe had been of a mind to kill herself.… Read more »
Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.
MONKEY BUSINESS (1952)
Although technically a fantasy, this characteristically
grim Howard Hawks comedy about the fear of aging
and the worship of youth is arguably one of his most
honest and realistic, therefore among the most frightening.
A chimpanzee in a chemistry lab manages to
create a youth potion accidentally ingested by the
middle-aged scientist-hero (Cary Grant), who regresses
first to his teens and then, after a second dose, to
his attitudes and behavior in grammar school, which
also happens eventually to his wife (Ginger Rogers)
and boss (Charles Coburn), thereby debunking a
good many myths about youth and happiness (such
as those involving carefree innocence) in the process.
Broadly speaking, this movie does for (and with)
ageism what Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, shot half a
year later (with some of the same cast members, including
Marilyn Monroe, Coburn, and George Winslow),
does for (and with) capitalism, albeit with less
celebratory cynicism and more visible despair. This
doesn’t mean, of course, that it isn’t funny; at least
four Hollywood pros (Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer,
I.A.L.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). — J.R.
People like myself who often despair of finding a cop-and-crime movie that isn’t encrusted in cliches should take to this wonderful sleeper by writer-director George Armitage (Vigilante Force), based on a novel by Charles Willeford (Cockfighter) and coproduced by Jonathan Demme. A small-time thief and ex-con (Alec Baldwin) arrives in Miami, latches on to a local hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and winds up stealing the gun and badge (along with the dentures) of police detective Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) in order to pose as a cop while pulling off more thefts. Some of the characters and situations, such as the thief’s stylish chutzpah and his relationship to the hooker, recall Godard’s Breathless, but Armitage’s handling of the material is consistently fresh and pungent. The three lead actors all manage to be terrific without showing off — Leigh, in the course of an exquisite performance, does one of the best impersonations of a country southern accent I’ve ever heard — and the use of Miami locations is a consistent delight. The late Willeford wrote five Hoke Moseley novels (and managed to publish four), and this crisp, funny, grisly, and perfectly balanced adaptation makes me yearn for Armitage to film a few more of them.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1997). — J.R.
This creepy Woody Allen musical (1996) has got to be the best argument ever against becoming a millionaire. It unwittingly reveals so many dark facets of the filmmaker’s cloistered mind that one emerges from it as from a crypt, despite the undeniable poignance of some of the musical numbers (the best of which hark back to Guys and Dolls in displaying the vulnerability of the amateur performers). This isn’t only a matter of how Allen regards the poor, nonwhite, sick, elderly, and incarcerated segments of our society, how he feels about the ethics of privacy, or what he imagines his rich upper-east-side neighbors are like. In this characterless world of Manhattan-Venice-Paris, where love consists only of self-validation and political convictions of any kind are attributable to either hypocrisy or a brain condition, the me-first nihilism of Allen’s frightened worldview is finally given full exposure, and it’s a grisly thing to behold. With Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Julia Roberts, Tim Roth, and Natalie Portman. R, 101 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1996). My capsule here doesn’t really do justice to this masterpiece, one of Bergman’s absolute achievements. — J.R.
A major early feature by Ingmar Bergman, also known as The Naked Night (though the Swedish title apparently means The Clown’s Night). This 1953 film is perhaps the most German expressionist of Bergman’s 50s works, as redolent of sexual cruelty and angst as Variety and The Blue Angel, but no less impressive for all that. The aging owner of a small traveling circus who left his wife for a young performer in his troupe tries to regain his lost family. Visually splendid, but you may find the masochistic plot pretty unpleasant. With Ake Gronberg and Harriet Andersson. In Swedish with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1996). — J.R.
A profoundly sexist and eminently hummable 1954 CinemaScope musical — supposedly set in the great outdoors, but mainly filmed on soundstages — with some terrific athletic Michael Kidd choreography and some better-than-average direction by Stanley Donen. Based on a story by Stephen Vincent Benet (who took the plot from the rape of the Sabine women), it concerns six fur-trapping brothers who go to town to find wives after big brother Howard Keel marries Jane Powell; they wind up kidnapping them. A fascinating glimpse at the kind of patriarchal rape fantasies that were considered cute and good-natured at the time, performed to the music of Johnny Mercer and Gene DePaul. With Russ Tamblyn, Virginia Gibson, and Tommy Rall. 103 min. (JR)
From the April 3, 1998 Chicago Reader. My affection for Richard Linklater’s most underrated film has only grown over time. — J.R.
The Newton Boys
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Linklater, Claude Stanush, and Clark Lee Walker
With Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Dwight Yoakam, Julianna Margulies, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Chloe Webb.
Shortly before reseeing Richard Linklater’s sixth feature, The Newton Boys, I caught up with his first — a Super-8 opus from 1988 with the enigmatic title It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books [see below]. Essentially an epic of inaction starring Linklater himself, the movie consists mainly of hanging out, taking train rides, driving, using a variety of vending machines, doing household chores, and watching movies on TV. The film might be described as a noncommercial version of his second feature, the 1991 Slacker – a Slacker without much dialogue or plot, devoted to the everyday pleasures of vegetating and drifting. Some of it reminds me of structural films and of the work of Jon Jost. Just about all of it is attractively shot. And Linklater’s film references — including choice bits from the sound tracks of The Killing and Some Came Running and an extended ravishing clip from Gertrud — pop up like generous, unexpected gifts.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 7, 1996). — J.R.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by David Koepp, Steven Zaillian, and Robert Towne
With Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Henry Czerny, Emmanuelle Beart, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott-Thomas, and Vanessa Redgrave.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Simon Wincer
Written by Jeffrey Boam
With Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta Jones, James Remar, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.
My Favorite Season
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Andre Téchiné
Written by Téchiné and Pascal Bonitzer
With Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Marthe Villalonga, Jean-Pierre Bouvier, Chiara Mastroianni, Carmen Chaplin, Anthony Prada, and Michèle Moretti.
I think that one never grows up emotionally. We grow up physically, intellectually, socially, and even morally but never emotionally. Recognition of this fact can be either terrifying or deeply moving. Everyone handles it in their own way. — Andre Téchiné
The principal pleasure of the Cannes festival for me was a two-week vacation from the “fun” of American movies. Maybe this fun — which points to our inability to grow up emotionally — would seem less oppressive if it didn’t also inform the American experience of news, politics, fast food, sports, economics, education, religion, and leisure in general; this kind of fun is less an escape than an enforced activity, a veritable civic duty.… Read more »