Yearly Archives: 2019

Absence of Conscience [on GOODFELLAS]

From the Chicago Reader (October 5, 1990).  From the vantage point of  2013, The Wolf of Wall Street might be regarded in certain respects as an inferior remake of GoodFellas, with all the limitations of the original dutifully preserved. — J.R.

GOODFELLAS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese

With Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Chuck Low, Frank Sivero, and Debi Mazar.

Greed, indiscipline and amorality drench the money-military culture, in its upper echelons and in its pits. Somebody destroyed the national superego. Does anyone have a plan to make one anew? — from a recent editorial in the Nation

The opening, white-against-black credits of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas whiz horizontally across the screen to the sounds of traffic in quick, isolated bursts, telling us at the outset that speed is of the essence. Using a cast of almost 150 players (including a delightful performance by Scorsese’s mother Catherine) and a sound track with about 40 pop singles that are both apposite and subtle in the way they comment on the action, Scorsese pushes the narrative along with a sense of gliding motion and legible fluidity that is often breathtaking.… Read more »

Sex and Drugs and Death and Writing [NAKED LUNCH]

From the Chicago Reader (January 17, 1992). — J.R.

NAKED LUNCH **** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by David Cronenberg

With Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Michael Zelniker, and Nicholas Campbell.

And some of us are on Different Kicks and that’s a thing out in the open the way I like to see what I eat and vice versa mutatis mutandis as the case may be. Bill’s Naked Lunch Room . . . Step right up. Good for young and old, man and bestial. Nothing like a little snake oil to grease the wheels and get a show on the track Jack. Which side are you on? Fro-Zen Hydraulic? Or you want to take a look around with Honest Bill?” — William S. Burroughs, introduction to Naked Lunch (1962)

The first time I read William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—or at least large portions of it — was in 1959, a few months after its first printing, in a smuggled copy of the seedy Olympia Press edition fresh from Paris. As I recall it was missing most or all of the accompanying matter — the introduction (“Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”), “Atrophied Preface” (“Wouldn’t You?”), and appendix (“Letter From a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs”) — that gave so much body, flavor, shape, and outright usefulness to the Grove Press edition published in the United States three years later.… Read more »

Wind from the East (A TALE OF THE WIND)

From the Chicago Reader (May 29, 1992). . — J.R.

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A TALE OF THE WIND

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan

Written by Loridan, Ivens, and Elisabeth D.

With Ivens, Loridan, Han Zenxiang, Liu Zhuang, Wang Delong, Wang Hong, Fu Dalin, Liu Guillian, Chen Zhijian, Zou Qiaoyu, and Paul Sergent.

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The Old Man, the hero of this tale, was born at the end of the last century, in a country where man has always striven to tame the sea and harness the wind. Camera in hand, he has traversed the 20th century in the midst of the stormy history of our time. In the evening of his life, at age 90, having survived the various wars and struggles that he filmed, the old filmmaker sets off for China. He has embarked on a mad project: to capture the invisible image of the wind.”

That’s my translation of the French opening title of A Tale of the Wind. It follows the credits, which accompany shots of a plane flying through the clouds and Michel Portal’s primitive-modern jazz score for woodwinds and percussion. After the opening passage the giant blades of a Dutch windmill fill the screen, followed by shots of a little boy in an aviator suit on a windswept lawn, apparently preparing to fly away on a small plane to China, calling to his mother.… Read more »

Changing (or Reflecting) the World: Cinema and its Discontents

 Commissioned by the Lima Film Festival in Peru in 2018. — J.R.

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Whenever someone tells me that it’s impossible for films to change the world, I like to point out that only half a year after Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta won the Paume d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, a new Belgian law known as “Plan Rosetta,” which prohibited employers from paying teenage workers less than the minimum wage, was passed. And one could further point out that Rosetta “changed the world” in several other ways: it launched the substantial acting career of its eponymous, 18-year-old lead actress, Émilie Dequenne, it greatly enhanced the careers of its writers-directors, and it deeply affected a good many spectators, myself included — viscerally, aesthetically, spiritually, and politically.

The visceral impact came first: From its opening seconds, Rosetta makes it clear that its heroine is angry — before it tells us who she is or what she’s angry about. Alain Marcoen’s virtuoso handheld camera, which stays close to her throughout the film, follows as she slams a door, strides through the industrial workplace where she’s just been laid off, and then assaults her boss when he insists that she leave. After taking the bus back to the trailer park where she lives with her alcoholic       mother, Rosetta stops briefly in the woods and methodically takes off her shoes and puts on a pair of boots hidden behind a large rock in a drainpipe.… Read more »

Huck Finn and Mr. Welles (1988 lecture)

As far as I know, this is the only surviving remnant, at least on paper, of a lecture I gave at what may have been the first international and academic conference devoted to Orson Welles, held at New York University in May 1988. The footnotes haven’t survived. — J.R.

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Note: The following is a revised version of a paper which was initially structured around four lengthy excerpts from the Huckleberry Finn radio show presented on The Campbell Playhouse. In order to make this adaptation, I have eliminated all of my remarks about music and sound effects and given more emphasis to allusion and description rather than citation. Interested readers are urged to consult the radio show, available on Mark 56 Records (no. 634), P.O. Box One, Anaheim, CA 92805. [April 2015: This can now be accessed online and for free here.]

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Huckleberry Finn was broadcast on The Campbell Playhouse on March 17, 1940, during the period when Orson Welles was commuting every week between Hollywood and New York. Herman Mankiewicz was working on the first draft of the Citizen Kane script at the time. Three and a half months had passed since the final version of the film script of Heart of Darkness had been completed, and two months since the final script of The Smiler with the Knife.… Read more »

What I’m Reading (August 2010)

In August 2010, the editor of Seminary Coop’s The Front Table (an online arm of what may be the best academic bookstore in the U.S., located on the University of Chicago campus) emailed me and asked for a contribution to their series “What I’m Reading” in conjunction with the publication of my new book at the time, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I promptly sent him the following, which I don’t believe they ever published. — J.R.

What I’m Reading: Jonathan Rosenbaum

Boy in Darkness and Other Stories by Mervyn Peake. The title novella in this recent, posthumous collection, perhaps the scariest fantasy I’ve ever read, was first encountered by me in my teens, on its first publication, in a 1956 Ballantine paperback called Sometime, Never, where it was published alongside stories by two other Englishmen, William Golding and John Wyndham. I find it every bit as dreamlike and as chilling now as it was then. And it inspired me to finally start reading

The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake. This fantasy epic trilogy in slow-motion, most of it set in a castle that appears to be roughly the size of Manhattan, among characters obsessed with their duties and rituals, has beautifully vivid and magically precise prose, and it’s attractively packaged with two introductions (by Quentin Crisp and Anthony Burgess) and 140 pages of critical assessments.… Read more »

Declarations of Independents: Chance Encounters

From The Soho News (June 24, 1981). — J.R.

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Rediscovering Warner Brothers
Thalia, Thursdays through Aug. 27
***
High Heels (Dr. Popaul)
Written by Paul Gegauff
Based on a book by Hubert Monteilhet
Directed by Claude Chabrol
***
Dandy, The All-American Girl (subsequently retitled Sweet Revenge)
Written by B.J.Perla and Marilyn Goldin
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg

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Juke Girl is an unassuming Warner Brothers program filler — a Depression movie made in 1942 starring Ronald Reagan as a young socialist hero from Kansas and Ann Sheridan in the tough-and-tender title part. It reminds me of something that Manny Farber said in a recent lecture about what people looked like in 30s films, when “every shape was legitimate,” as opposed to the more constricting notions about what people are supposed to look like in 70s films — a model that remains in force today.

As a general rule of thumb, I think one can argue pretty plausibly that any Warner Brothers Depression film, however minor, has something going for it on a social/aesthetic level that can’t be found in any over-publicized New Hollywood glitz production, however major. This is less monolithic a judgment than it sounds, especially if one considers the radically different notions of audience involved.… Read more »

Check Your Baggage [CRIMSON GOLD]

From the Chicago Reader (April 16, 2004). As much as I share my colleagues’ admiration [in 2012] for Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film, I must confess that I find it both depressing and somewhat insulting to Panahi that this is receiving more attention and praise in some quarters than his full-fledged films ever did, including such masterpieces as The White Balloon, The Circle, and Crimson Gold (not to mention Panahi’s more inventive and fruitful 2013 Closed Curtain, made under the same constraints as This is Not a Film). Which is why it seems worth reviving my review of the latter film. — J.R.

Crimson Gold **** (Masterpiece) Directed by Jafar Panahi Written by Abbas Kiarostami With Hussein Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheissi, Azita Rayeji, Shahram Vaziri, Ehsan Amani, and Pourang Nakhayi.

“War President” is an image. It is not a textual statement or rhetorical argument. An image is like an empty room and any message that one reads in that room necessarily came in the baggage one carried when one walked in the door. If I made an image of George Washington composed of images of the American dead from the revolution, would viewers likely take that image as an indictment of Washington?Read more »

Welles’s Anguish and Goose Liver: CONFIDENTIAL REPORT

This essay, a revised and updated version of my article “The Seven Arkadins,” was commissioned by the Australian DVD label Madman for their DVD of Orson Welles’ Confidential Report, released in 2010. — J.R.

Mr. Arkadin “was just anguish from beginning to end,” Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich in their coauthored This is Orson Welles, and probably for this reason, Welles had less to say about this feature — known in a separate version as Confidential Report — than any of his others, either to Bogdanovich or to other interviewers. Editing This is Orson Welles in its two successive editions took me the better part of a decade (roughly, 1987-1997), and one of the biggest obstacles I faced throughout this work was the paucity of specific details that Welles was willing to offer about this film. It was plainly too painful a memory for him to linger on, and he even spoke of being blocked in remembering certain particulars.

Broadly speaking, the features of Welles fall into two categories: those he finished and released to his satisfaction and those he didn’t. In the first category are Citizen Kane, Macbeth, Othello, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Filming “Othello”.… Read more »

25th Hour

From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 2003). — J.R.

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Spike Lee’s best feature since Do the Right Thing. Though none of the major characters is black, it’s one of Lee’s most personal and deeply felt works, and the fact that it’s based on someone else’s material — David Benioff’s adaptation of his novel — makes the film all the more impressive. The narrative follows a former drug dealer (Edward Norton) spending his last 24 hours in Manhattan before beginning a seven-year prison term, though it’s also very much about the people closest to him: his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), two best friends (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman), and father (Brian Cox). The film persuades us to think long and hard about what prison means, and Lee has shaped it like a poem that builds into an epic lament, especially in a beautiful and tragic closing that risks absurdity to achieve the sublime. With Anna Paquin. 134 min. (JR)

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The Unmaking of I’LL DO ANYTHING

From the January-February 2011 Film Comment. — J.R.

“In describing rarely screened movies like Lev Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler or Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik,” wrote a Boston Globe reviewer of my latest collection, “Rosenbaum is like a restaurant critic describing the mouth-watering meal he had at a restaurant that just closed in another city.” Since both films are available on DVDs with English subtitles to anyone who knows how to Google, this is a dubious compliment at best. But it might apply to the following, from my 2000 book Movie Wars: “Having had the opportunity to see I’ll Do Anything as a musical, I can report that it was immeasurably better in that form — eccentric and adventurous, to be sure, but also dramatically and emotionally coherent.”

I hope that someday Brooks can find a way of releasing his original cut of this film on DVD, though I’m told that the cost of the song rights might make this prohibitive. (Nine of these original songs are by Prince, and at least two others are by Carole King and Sinéad O’Connor.) So what follows is an attempt to explain what I like about a movie you may never be able to see, which is still my favorite Brooks feature.Read more »

Ritwik Ghatak: Reinventing the Cinema

This article was written in 2006 — specifically at the request of Ghatak’s son Ritaban, whom I met at the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea in the spring of that year. I was serving on one of the festival’s juries and also lectured with Ritaban at a screening of The Cloud-Capped Star during a Ghatak retrospective. Ritaban was then planning a critical collection about his father’s work, as a kind of follow-up to a collection of his father’s writings about cinema (Rows and Rows of Fences, published by Seagull Books in Calcutta in 2000) and asked me to contribute an article to it. But once I emailed this piece to him about half a year later, I never heard from him again, leading me to conclude that the critical collection project was suspended. So eventually I submitted this to my friend Adrian Martin, coeditor of the online Rouge, who published this in their 10th issue in 2007, about a year later. — J.R.

Ritwik Ghatak: Reinventing the Cinema

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

I have no way of knowing if Ghatak ever saw Jacques Tati’s 1953 masterpiece Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, but when I look at his second feature, Ajantrik (1958), it’s hard not to be reminded of it.… Read more »

Michael Roemer: The Man Who Knew Too Much

From the Jewish Daily Forward, January 31, 2013. — J.R.

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I’ve seen only two features written and directed by Michael Roemer — Nothing But a Man (1964) and The Plot Against Harry (made between 1966 and 1968, but released only in 1989). Either of these suffice to make him a major American filmmaker. And two other Roemer scripts I’ve read — one of which he managed to film (Pilgrim, Farewell, 1982), the other of which he hasn’t (Stone My Heart — undated, but apparently from the late 60s and/or early 70s) — show equivalent amounts of conviction, originality, density, and courage. But there’s a fair chance that you’ve never heard of him. And I think one of the reasons why could be that he’s a man who knows too much.

What do I mean by this? Partly that these films are politically incorrect (meaning that they all grapple with life while posing diverse challenges to people who think mainly in established and unexamined political and ethnic categories) and partly that in filmmaking we often confuse advertising and hustling with other kinds of talent — most obviously when it comes to the Oscars, but also when it comes to how we categorize and package various achievements.… Read more »

Remembrance of Things Passed: Some Reflections about Moral Agency and Global Synchronicity

Written for Volume 34,  Number 3,  Issue No 135 of the Winnipeg-based Canadian arts journal Border Crossings in Fall 2015 (see below).  — J.R.

 

I’m frequently troubled these days by the growing absence of global perspectives in what passes for news and other forms of mainstream discourse in the U.S. — the perpetually shrinking definitions of what we mean by ‘we’.  A good many of the congealed stereotypes of foreign cultures that crop up in both Hollywood blockbusters and Internet chatter — ranging from the notion that ‘the French’ are crazy about Jerry Lewis to the pop images we still have of Latinos, Italians, Russians, Arabs, and Asians in SF blockbusters whenever ‘the world’ has to be represented — can paradoxically be traced back to the 50s and 60s, when the Cold War and all of its most rigid either/or assumptions were still in force. One might suppose that the combined resources of the Internet and digital viewing would widen our cinematic and other cultural reference points rather than shrink them. But the tendency of even respectable, adult media pundits to speak about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in the world at large suggests a metaphysics tailored to the dimensions of a Star Wars saga or a video game, where the cultural givens plunge back even further into the mythical past: Flash Gordon serials and Triumph of the Will from the mid-1930s, Roy Rogers Westerns and airborne World War 2 epics of the mid-1940s.… Read more »

Retelling Jewish American Story Through History of Cinema

From The Forward, April 18, 2013. — J.R.

TAJSTC

The American Jewish Story Through Cinema

By Eric A. Goldman
University of Texas Press, 264 pages, $55.

Eric A Goldman’s look at about a dozen Hollywood movies released between 1927 and 2009 can be recommended especially to readers who don’t flinch when they ponder his book’s title. For me, the very notion of postulating such a thing as “the” American Jewish Story — as opposed to, say, “an” American Jewish story (meaning any American Jewish story, of the author’s own choosing), or, better yet, multiple American Jewish stories — is already somewhat problematic. But in fact, Goldman is usually too thoughtful to be quite as categorical as his title threatens. Stories told in and by movies are basically what he’s thinking and talking about, and usually these are ones about American Jewish assimilation: characters stepping beyond ghetto and ethnic boundaries to contemplate such things as intermarriage and other forms of wider acceptance while repositioning historical memories and a sense of cultural identity.

I wish that the movies he picked for close examination, such as “The Young Lions,” “The Prince of Tides” and “Avalon,” were more engaging to me as art. I should admit that it was his book that finally induced me to catch up with the original, Al Jolson version of “The Jazz Singer” (at the age of 9 or so, I saw the 1952 Danny Thomas remake) and made me seek out Jerry Lewis’s strange 1959 made-for-TV version, with Molly Picon, no less, playing his mother.

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