Monthly Archives: December 2019

AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL + WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES

My contribution to MUBI Notebook’s Fantasy Double Features of 2019 (posted in late December). — J.R.

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NEWAn Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo, China)

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OLD: Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)

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Some of the differences between the late Hu Bo (1988-2017) and his mentor Béla Tarr may be just as important as their similarities. The latter made black comedies whereas An Elephant Sitting Still, Hu’s only feature, doesn’t find anything to laugh about. Even though the metaphysical and novelistic cast of both artists allows them to treat a group of lost individuals as a cosmos, with Tarr’s visible whale carcass in Werckmeister Harmonies apparently rhyming with Hu’s offscreen elephant, the compulsion of Tarr to follow his characters isn’t the same thing as Hu’s compulsion to embrace his own by moving ahead of them in the process of encircling them. Both ultimately offer blistering sociopolitical critiques of their respective societies in spite of their metaphysical trappings. The task of making blighted, hateful, and mean-tempered fools lovable is an essential part of both Satantango and Elephant, but what makes the latter fools slightly more redeemable is the degree to which they try to connect with one another, even if the results are futile.… Read more »

Guilty by Omission

From the September-October 1991 issue of Film Comment; this was also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies. — J.R.

If one were to undertake a diagnosis of the cultural and historical amnesia that currently afflicts American society in general and the American cinema in particular, the suppression of radical politics as part of our history might be a useful place to start. It is a suppression that comes in many forms, many of them barely conscious.

When a radical youth movie — PUMP UP THE VOLUME — actually gets made and released in the United States today, a repudiation of the 1960s counterculture becomes an obligatory part of its argument, because otherwise many contemporary teenagers would dismiss it out of hand. And when the same film gets reviewed in the United States, even most sympathetic critics find it convenient to overlook the fact that the film is political, for fear of alienating the public. Or when a recent film about Vietnam such as JACOB’S LADDER has the rare courage to attack the Pentagon (unlike, say, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and CASUALTIES OF WAR), one can predict that, given the present climate in America, it will be attacked by some critics for being exploitative and unserious — and praised by others as entertainment — whereas the issues broached by the film won’t be addressed at all.… Read more »

En movimiento: Denial Incorporated and Cinematic Substitutes

My column for the December 2019  Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

En movimiento: Denial Incorporated and Cinematic Substitutes

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Given how much we watch [TV] and what watching means, it’s inevitable, for those of us…who fancy ourselves voyeurs, to get the idea that these persons behind the glass — persons who are often the most colorful, attractive, animated, alive people in our daily experience — are also people who are oblivious to the fact that they are being watched. This illusion is toxic.

—David Foster Wallace

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La Scala Woody Allen, Milan, Italy - 02 Jul 2019

 

Insofar as “political correctness” often functions as a sad form of compensation for political powerlessness — so that one winds up eagerly penalizing a Roman Polanski or a Woody Allen for a real or imagined crime committed decades ago largely because one can’t find a way of getting rid of a Donald Trump in the present — the degree to which simple denial plays a role in governing one’s consumer choices needs to be recognized. What may be most significant about the flood of negative reviews in the U.S. given to Joker after both a slew of domestic mass shootings and the film winning a Golden Lion from Lucrecia Martel’s jury in Venice is how similar these reviews were to one another in both their phraseology and their arguments, comprising a herdlike form of collective expression that has to blame a movie for its frustration because it can’t (or at least won’t) blame the American gun lobby. … Read more »

THE LAST WOMAN (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1976, Vol. 43, No. 514. — J.R.

Ultima Donna, L’ (The Last Woman)

ltaly/France, l976

Director : Marco Ferreri

Cert—X. dist–Columbia.Warner. p.c—Flaminia Produzioni Cinema (Rome)/Les Productions Jacques Roitfeld (Paris). p—Edmondo Amati. p. managers–Maurizio Amiti, Roberto .Giussani. asst. d—Enrique Bergier, Bernard Grenet. sc–Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona, Dante Antelli. story–Marco Ferreri. collaboration on dial–Noël Simsolo. ph—Luciano Tovoli. col—Eastman Colour. ed–Enzo Meniconi. a.d—Michel de Broin. m—Philippe Sarde. m.d—Hubert Rostaing. cost—Gitt Magrini. sd. ed— Gina Pignier, sd. rec–Jean-Pierre Ruh. l.p—Gérard Depardieu (Gérard), Ornella Muti (Valérie), David Biggani (Pierrot), Michel Piccoli (Michel), Renato Salvatori’ (René), Giuliana Calandra (Benoîte), Zouzou (Gabrielle), Nathalie Baye (Girl in Shopping Mall), Soulange Skyden (Girl at Night-club), Carole Lepers (Anne-Marie), Daniela Silverio (Jane), Vittorio Ganfoni (Policeman with Dogs), Guerrino Totis. 9,799 ft. 109 mins. French dialogue; English subtitles.

French titleLa Dernière Femme

Gérard, a young engineer whose wife, Gabrielle, has recently left him, meets Valérie, the attractive teacher at the factory nursery where he goes to collect his thirteen-month-old son Pierrot, and invites her home with him; she agrees, and is assured by her lover Michel thathe won’t interfere.… Read more »

Under the Chador

From the Chicago Reader (April 6, 2001). This is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.— J.R.

The Day I Became a Woman

***

Directed by Marzieh Meshkini

Written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar, Hassan Nabehan, Shabnam Toloui, Cyrus Kahouri Nejad, Azizeh Seddighi, and Badr Irouni Nejad.

“Aren’t you afraid?” some of my stateside friends asked before I visited Iran for the first time last February. “Only of American bombs,” I replied. Notwithstanding all of the things that are currently illegal there — such as men and women shaking hands or riding in the same sections of buses — I’m not sure I’ve ever been    anyplace where people display more social sophistication in terms of hospitality, everyday courtesy, or sheer enterprise in the use of charm and persistence to get what they want. Some of this character came through in Divorce Iranian Style, a fascinating documentary that turned up at the Film Center a couple of years ago showing the aggressive resourcefulness of Iranian women in divorce court, despite the repressive laws they have to work with.

The locals I spoke to tended to be pessimistic about the reformist movement — regarding Mohammad Khatami about as skeptically as American liberals regarded Bill Clinton during his last year in office — but it also quickly became clear that some aspects of Iranian life are not defined by Islamic fundamentalism and that what might seem hopeless in one context might be possible in another.… Read more »

It’s a Big World After All [The Best Movies of 2001]

From the Chicago Reader (January 4, 2002). — J.R.

There is no such thing as film production. It is a joke, as much as the production of literature, pictures, or music. There are no good years for films, like good years for wine. A great film is an accident, a banana skin under the feet of dogma; and the films that we try to defend are a few of those that despise rules. — Jean Cocteau, 1949

Two events in the year 2001 changed my relation to movies — one public and momentous, the other private and relatively trivial. The public event, of course, took place on September 11, and for many Americans, myself included, it broadened dramatically what we mean when we say “us.” It changed the way we see the world as well as the U.S., and for me the change in the way we see the world was more important. Some of my compatriots may still not be able to move mentally beyond this country, even theoretically; others may be considering the possibility for the first time. I saw better than ever the role movies can play in helping us understand the world from other perspectives, and the sudden outpouring of interest in films about Afghanistan — most notably Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar — was only the most obvious sign that this is happening.… Read more »

TOUCH OF EVIL: From Program Picture to Classic (2002)

Published as “Classic Touch” in the January 2002 issue of AMC: American Movie Classics Magazine….The last photo reproduced here is of the whole crew of the re-edit team at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1998. — J.R.

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Considering all the rereleases in recent years of studio classics that are
labeled “director’s cut,” it must seem like every studio picture has one.
But the phrase is often a marketing term, and therefore potentially
misleading. There are some movies, including a few great ones, that can’t
be released in “director’s cuts” because the director was never accorded
final cut in the first place. At least five of Orson Welles’s European films
and three of his Hollywood features have director’s cuts, but Touch of
Evil (1958), his last Hollywood movie, isn’t one of them. (For the record,
his three director’s cuts are all in the 1940s: Citizen Kane and two
separate edits of his Macbeth.)

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Admittedly, there was less studio interference on this noir thriller than
there had been on Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger,
and The Lady from Shanghai. Welles was allowed to direct and rewrite
the script only after he’d been cast as the heavy, a crooked cop — mainly
through the intervention of lead actor Charlton Heston, who played an
honest Mexican cop.… Read more »

James Benning’s CALIFORNIA TRILOGY

From the March 15, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

California Trilogy

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by James Benning.

Experimental films usually attempt to rearrange our reflexes along with our expectations. James Benning’s 270-minute, 16-millimeter “California Trilogy” does that in part by obliging us to rethink the way we interpret “directed by” and “written by.” If “directing” refers to the placement of camera and microphone, then Benning — who works alone, recording image and sound by himself — directed these three films. And if “writing” means the choice and identification of subjects — including the way they’re represented in the credits — then Benning is also the trilogy’s writer.

Benning — who will attend the March 21 screening of his film at the Film Center — placed his name at the end of the final credits of El Valley Centro, Los, and Sogobi, the three 90-minute features comprising his trilogy. Each feature consists of 35 shots lasting 150 seconds apiece, followed by final credits also lasting 150 seconds. Thirty-six times two and a half minutes equals an hour and a half; multiply that by three and you get 270 minutes, or four and a half hours.… Read more »

Desperate Characters [BOILING POINT and BODIES, REST & MOTION]

From the Chicago Reader (April 23, 1993). — J.R.

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BOILING POINT

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by James B. Harris

With Wesley Snipes, Dennis Hopper, Lolita Davidovich, Viggo Mortensen, Seymour Cassel, Jonathan Banks, Christine Elise, and Valerie Perrine

BODIES, REST & MOTION

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Michael Steinberg

Written by Roger Hedden

With Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Alicia Witt, Sandra Lafferty, and Sidney Dawson.

At least 30 or 40 years separate the sensibilities that underlie Boiling Point and Bodies, Rest & Motion, two current releases I suspect won’t be with us very long. The first, a quirky and at times oddly charming museum piece, is masquerading as a Wesley Snipes action thriller, but advertising — even wall-to-wall — isn’t everything. The writer-director, James B. Harris, who was born in 1928, produced the first three important Stanley Kubrick features — The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita (1962) — and what’s most distinctive about this movie is its bittersweet aroma of 50s nostalgia and over-the-hill desperation, most of it wafting around a pathetically cheerful con artist called Red Diamond (Dennis Hopper) who’s simply trying to stay alive.

There’s desperation aplenty in Bodies, Rest & Motion as well, but not the sort that has the weight of lived experience — or even the relative weightlessness of recollected innocence.… Read more »

The Love Parade

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2003). — J.R.

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Ernst Lubitsch’s first talkie and first operetta, costarring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, contains the excitement of movies being reinvented, so that silence as well as sound becomes a brand-new plaything (in contradistinction to silent movies, which usually had musical accompaniment). A study in playfulness, this fantasy about a country preoccupied with its queen getting married actually has a dog barking out half a chorus of one number, perfectly in tune, and the precode erotics and sexual politics seem pretty advanced in spots. Secondary leads Lillian Roth and Lupino Lane offer some acrobatic low comedy as servants whose best song is called “Let’s Be Common”. 110 min. (JR)

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THE GAMBLER (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 494). — J.R.

Gambler, The
U.S.A., 1974

Director: Karel Reisz

The limitations and pretensions of James Toback’s script for The Gambler are so formidable that it is difficult to conceive of any director redeeming or transcending them. A Q.E.D. (indeed, virtually ABC) demonstration of a masochist’s steady progress to self-obliteration, peppered with ‘significant’ flashbacks and literary quotes, it involves gambling no more and no less than The Conversation involves tape recording — which is to say, incidentally rather than substantively. By the end of the first reel or so, it is already painfully clear that Axel Freed (James Caan) is more interested in losing than winning, and from that point onward narrative interest is increasingly diffused by a clinical spelling out of his condition which has all the earmarks of a stacked deck. The problem is not so much a surfeit of psychological analysis — the script offers hints, not explicit causes explaining Axel’s condition — as too little to account for his behavior naturalistically, and too much to permit any sustained acceptance of the character on an allegorical or mythical level. Unlike the abnormal, high-strung and death-defying auto racer played by James Caan in Hawks’ Red Line 7000, there is nothing in Axel that suggests hidden depths; indeed, despite Caan’s consistent professionalism, the actor appears to be as uninterested in his character as Axel seems to be in himself.… Read more »

Two OXFORD COMPANION TO FILM entries (Albert Brooks and découpage) (previously unpublished)

In late 2002 or early 2003, I was approached by an editor at Oxford University Press about the possibility of editing a new Oxford Companion to Film. Despite some initial reluctance on my part—being rather frightened of the dimensions and demands of such a project—the editor was persistent, and eventually I signed a contract to carry out this work, after drawing up a proposal, enlisting the late Robert Tashman, a Chicago friend (and former Granta editor) to serve as line editor, and compiling several lists of entries (1099 of them covering A through L, as far as I ever got) and contributors (an ideal list of 43).  But the project fell aground after the editor who had enlisted me got downsized. A meeting of Tashman and myself with other Oxford editors in New York made it clear that they weren’t interested in following through on the project, and frankly, I wound up feeling relief about this (although I’m sorry to say that Bob was disappointed—even though both of us were able to keep our advances).

What follows are two sample entries that I wrote for this abortive project; if memory serves, both benefited from Bob’s line-editing. I haven’t updated either of them.Read more »

What’s Up, Doc?

From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 2003). I’m sorry that I’ve unable to find a single image illustrating The Last Conversation. — J.R.

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The Murder of Emmett Till

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Stanley Nelson

Written by Marcia A. Smith

Narrated by Andre Braugher.

Oporto of My Childhood

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed, written, and narrated by Manoel de Oliveira.

The Last Conversation

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Sally Banes

Written by Noel Carroll

With Galina Zakrutkina and James Sutton

Narrated by Patricia Boyette.

McLuhan’s Wake

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Kevin McMahon

Written by David Sobelman

Narrated by Laurie Anderson.

Echelon: The Secret Power

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by David Korn-Brzoza

Narrated by Francois Devienne.

It’s notoriously difficult to evaluate the way most documentaries treat their subject matter, because one has to assess what’s included in light of what’s left out — something we aren’t usually qualified to do. I’m much more comfortable evaluating documentaries on how well they draw us into their subject matter and on how well they work as cinema. On these terms I can confidently say that I’ve seen and heard about a lot of exciting new documentaries recently, including an American work I really want to see, Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.… Read more »

Dream Stuff [on MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA]

From the July 14, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Clemens Klopfenstein

Written by Klopfenstein, Wolfram Groddeck, and Felix Tissi

With Max Ruedlinger, Christine Lauterburg, Hans-Dieter Jendreyko, Shirley Wong, and Che Tin Hong.

1. Some part of me feels an enormous gratitude for movies that I don’t fully understand. The compulsive legibility of commercial movies — designed to be synopsized in three or four sentences, promoted in one or two catchphrases, represented in a short trailer, consumed in a single gulp — has a tendency over the long haul to give clarity a bad name; Hollywood’s form of lucidity usually rules out feelings, moods, and ideas that can’t be encapsulated so simply. People are fond of comparing movies to dreams, but when was the last time you had a dream that could be synopsized as effortlessly as a Hollywood movie?

Part of the allure of dreams is their mystery — not the kind of mystery that a Marlowe or a Freud could solve, which reduces the unknown to the status of a riddle, but the larger kind of mystery, whose uncanniness is a matter of aura and atmosphere, a cosmic question mark that can’t be resolved by plot contrivances or symbolic substitutions.… Read more »

Sylvia Scarlett

From the Chicago Reader (July 27, 2007). — J.R.

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SylviaS

 

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For my money, this 1935 feature is the most interesting and audacious movie George Cukor ever made. Katharine Hepburn disguises herself as a boy to escape from France to England with her crooked father (Edmund Gwenn); they fall in with a group of traveling players, including Cary Grant (at his most cockney); the ambiguous sexual feelings that Hepburn as a boy stirs in both Grant and Brian Aherne (an aristocratic artist) are part of what makes this film so subversive. Genre shifts match gender shifts as the film disconcertingly changes tone every few minutes, from farce to tragedy to romance to crime thriller — rather like the French New Wave films that were to come a quarter century later — as Cukor’s fascination with theater and the talents of his cast somehow hold it all together. The film flopped miserably when it came out, but it survives as one of the most poetic, magical, and inventive Hollywood films of its era. John Collier collaborated on the script, and Joseph August did the evocative cinematography. Screening in 16-millimeter; 95 min. Admission is free. a Sat 7/28, 7 and 9 PM, Univ.… Read more »