From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.
This 1993 film by the eclectic and talented Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Peddler, Marriage of the Blessed) is a contemporary semitragic farce about a burly film actor who wants to act only in art films but is forced by his family’s economic demands to do a string of trashy commercial movies. His tormented wife, infertile and obsessed with having a baby, insists that her husband marry and impregnate a second wife, a deaf-mute Gypsy, to provide them with a child. What keeps this picture frenetic, apart from the hysterical action and satirical treatment of the Iranian media, is the couple’s surreal, high-tech home and Makhmalbaf’s hyperbolic, eccentric mise en scene, which fit together hand and glove (as they were undoubtedly designed to do). The three lead actors — Akbar Abdi (playing some version of himself), Fatemeh Motamed Aria, and Mahaya Petrossian — were all in Once Upon a Time, Cinema, Makhmalbaf’s previous feature; there appear to be some cross-references (such as the hero’s Chaplin worship), but here the tone is more caustic, the inventiveness more pointed. The meanings of both films are less than entirely clear, but my hunch is that each is a comic allegory about the rift between traditional and contemporary Iran, in which class differences and cultural differences are equally pertinent.… Read more »
From the April 8, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. When I reprinted this article in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics, I gave it a different title: “Polanski and the American Experiment”.
For me, The Ghost Writer is easily Polanski’s best film since Bitter Moon, and. certainly his most masterful, although his subsequent Venus in Fur and Based on a True Story, both more subdued and subtler, may be more interesting. — J.R.
**** BITTER MOON
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski, Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Jeff Gross
With Peter Coyote, Emmanuelle Seigner, Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Victor Bannerjee, Sophie Patel, and Stockard Channing.
Fairly late in What? (1973), Roman Polanski’s least seen and least critically approved feature — an absurdist, misogynist, yet oddly affectionate ‘Scope comedy filmed in the seaside villa of its producer, Carlo Ponti — the bimbo American heroine (Sydne Rome), an Alice set loose in a decadent wonderland belonging to a dying millionaire named Noblart, wanders for the second time into a living room where she encounters a middle-aged Englishman. Once again this Noblart employee bemoans his arthritis, cracks his knuckles, then sits down at a piano to play the treble part of a Mozart sonata for four hands.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Summer 1985). This is a revised and expanded version of a lecture given at the Rotterdam International Film Festival’s Market in early 1985, the second year I attended the festival. Some of it’s obviously very dated now (hopefully in a way that’s historically instructive) and some of it anticipates a few of the arguments made in my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See 15 years later. The late Huub Bals, director and presiding spirit of the Rotterdam festival, asked me to give this talk, and, as I recall, it was well attended; the audience members included, among others, Eszter Balint (the female lead in Stranger Than Paradise), Bernardo Bertolucci, Sara Driver, Jim Jarmusch, and Rudy Wurlitzer. –- J.R.
A feeling of having no choice is becoming more and more widespread in American life, and particularly among successful people, who are supposedly free beings. On a concrete plane, the lack of choice is often a depressing reality. In national election years, you are free to choose between Johnson and Goldwater or Johnson and Romney or Reagan, which is the same as choosing between a Chevrolet and a Ford — there is a marginal difference in styling.… Read more »
This was the second column I wrote for Film Comment, when that magazine was still a quarterly. It became a bimonthly the following year, and for a span of about seven or eight years, I wrote a column for almost every issue: initially a Paris Journal, it later became a London Journal, and finally, after I moved back to the states, a column known as “Moving” that more or less concluded with a piece that became the “prelude” in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (Harper & Row, 1980; 2nd ed., University of California Press, 1995). –J.R.
According to the current issue of Pariscope -– an indispensable guide to local moviegoing — 260 films will have public screenings in Paris this week: 217 at commercial theaters, and 43 at the two Cinémathèques. By rough count, only 67 of these (about one fourth) are French. A hundred more are American, and the remaining 93 are split between fifteen other nationalities. Of the non-French films, approximately 40% are subtitled; except for a dozen or so at the Cinémathèques that will be shown without translation, the rest are dubbed.
It is possible that New York is beginning to surpass Paris in the number of interesting films that one can see.… Read more »
From Film Quarterly, Fall 2008 (Vol. 62, No. 1). I’ve recently watched Curtis’s powerful and eye-opening Bitter Lake (2015) as well as his somewhat more paranoid HyperNormalisation (2016), also readily available for free on the Internet, which generally maintain the high level of the work discussed here. — J.R.
There’s been a steady improvement over the course of the three most recent BBC miniseries of Adam Curtis – The Century of the Self (2002, four hour-long episodes), The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004, three hour-long episodes), and The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, three hour-long episodes) —- both in terms of their intellectual cogency and persuasiveness and in terms of the interest of Curtis’s developing, innovative style of filmmaking. One might even contend that each remarkable series has been twice as good as its predecessor. Even so, a closer look at Curtis’s filmmaking style starts to raise a few questions about both the arguments themselves and the way that he propounds them. (Regarding Curtis’s earlier TV series — such as the 1992 Pandora’s Box and the 1999 The Mayfair Set, which I’ve only sampled, and won’t be discussing here —- one can already see some of the thematic and stylistic seeds of his more recent work there.)
I’m certainly not the first one to address these issues arising out of Curtis’s work.… Read more »
Posted on Indiewire on January 6, 2012, with different illustrations. — J.R.
Critical Consensus: Kent Jones and Jonathan Rosenbaum Discuss Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard
By Kent Jones, Eric Kohn and Jonathan Rosenbaum | Indiewire January 6, 2012 at 11:20AM
Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Jonathan Rosenbaum (formerly of the Chicago Reader) and Kent Jones (executive director of the World Cinema Foundation and editor-at-large at Film Comment) discuss two legendary filmmakers: Robert Bresson, the subject of a retrospective beginning at New York’s Film Forum today, and Jean-Luc Godard, whose “Film Socialisme” comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on January 10. More details on films opening this week follow after the discussion.
ERIC KOHN: There’s no easy way to have a short conversation about Robert Bresson without shortchanging a career spanning 13 films and widely considered paramount to 20th-century film history. Bresson’s Catholicism, his narrative precision, use of non-actors and painterly formalism have been analyzed many times over.
However, the Bresson retrospective that begins at Film Forum today ahead of a national tour, and includes 35mm prints of 11 films, is the first one in 14 years.… Read more »
From The Oxford-American, issue #42, Winter 2002. — J.R.
Karlson pushes and punches, but he’s good at it. He can dredge up emotion; he can make the battle of virtuous force against organized evil seem primordial. He has a tawdry streak (there’s an exploitation sequence with a nude prostitute being whipped), and he’s careless (a scene involving a jewelry salesman is a decrepit mess), but in the onrush of the story the viewer is overwhelmed….One would be tempted to echo Thelma Ritter in All About Eve –”Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end” — but some of the suffering has a basis in fact.
– Pauline Kael on Walking Tall (1974)
1. What Qualifies as Real
As an Alabama expatriate who fled north the first chance I could get, I didn’t keep my southern accent for long; it fell away, in a matter of months, like dead skin. The fact was — and is — that Alabama accents sound stupid to Yankees; and since I was both a teenager and trying hard to become a Yankee, they eventually began to sound stupid to me. Especially during the Civil Rights Movement, already in full swing by then, having a southern accent, if you were white, made you sound like a racist to some people, regardless of what you said or did.… Read more »
One thing suggested by Sanford Schwartz’s editing of The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (Library of America) is that Kael’s editing of her own work is superior to his. I admire his discernment in including her thoughtful and uncharacteristically generous review of Marguerite Duras’ Le camion (The Truck) — even though I regret the suppression of its original context, in the September 26, 1977 issue of The New Yorker, where it was sandwiched between Kael’s eloquent two-paragraph dismissal of Star Wars and a longer mixed review of Short Eyes, in a column pointedly called “Contrasts”.
In her final collection For Keeps (1994), Kael omitted the other two reviews, but she also had the foresight to delete the final sentence of her review of The Truck, which referred to its original context: “At the opposite end from popcorn filmmaking, it’s a demonstration of creative force — which doesn’t always cut as clean as that laser sword in Alec Guinness’s hand.” Schwartz also leaves out the reviews of Star Wars and Short Eyes, yet he retains the final sentence in the review of The Truck, which now reads like a non sequitur coming from left field (or from outer space).… Read more »
Unfortunately, Richie’s division of Ozu into successive stages of ‘creation’ inevitably leads to the erection of a Platonic ideal, an all-purpose model of ‘the’ Ozu film — an unrigorous model indeed when what one concretely has to contend with are films, each with its own peculiar set of conditions and stresses. Since Richie has more production details about the later films, these tend to dictate most of the dimensions of the model, and the lost films implicitly become subsumed in the same homogenising process whenever Richie speaks about the entire body of the work. The usual approach is to lump together examples of certain aspects or procedures, leading to the formulation of such generalities as ‘the Ozu family’. This results in a profusion of catalogues, some quite nonsensical in presumed meanings and applications: ‘Another pastime to which the Ozu family is addicted is toenail cutting, an activity which seems worth mentioning because it occurs possibly more often in Ozu’s pictures (Late Spring, Early Summer, Late Autumn) than in Japanese life.’ In the long run, individual works are made to seem important or unimportant insofar as they help or fail to exemplify the hypothetical model.
Problem No.… Read more »
For the beginning of this article, go here.
While one could hardly claim that Days of Youth is a major work, it is at the very least an arresting one, and some of its comedy is on a par with the wonderful opening sequence of Passing Fancy (1933) at a naniwabushi recital (when a stray purse gets surreptitiously picked up, investigated, and tossed around like a beanbag by various spectators until the. entire assemblage, reciter included, is dancing about from an attack of lice). One would expect, then, that any serious Ozu scholar would pay some heed to it. Yet all that Richie has done in Ozu — apart from noting at one point that, like all of Ozu’s subsequent films, it shows actors directly facing the camera — is to expand his original commentary on the film (in Film Comment, Spring 1971) from five words (‘A student comedy about skiing’) to seven: ‘Another student comedy, this one about skiing.’ And if one searches in his book for something about Tatsuo Saito — an actor who went on to play the father in I Was Born, But . . . (1932), and figured centrally in several of the twenty other Ozu films where he appeared — one finds that he isn’t even listed in the index; in fact, the only reference to him in the entire book is the observation that he ‘keeps rubbing his hip during various scenes’ in Tokyo Chorus. … Read more »
From the Summer 1975 issue of Sight and Sound. Due to the length of this piece, I’m running it in three parts. I’ve hesitated for years about reprinting this because of its harshness towards the very amiable and sweet-tempered Donald Richie (1924-2013), whom I eventually met and befriended in Tokyo a quarter of a century after writing this piece (and who generously forgave me for having written it after I offered an apology). Even though I can’t say I agree with everything I wrote here — I’m especially dubious about some of Burch’s arguments (and many or all of the passages I quote here from To the Distant Observer, which he was writing at the time, subsequently got edited out of the manuscript) — it holds up better than I suspected it would, which is why I’m posting it here. I tend to think now that the failings of Richie’s book on Ozu are more institutional than personal — that is, a reflection of his unfortunate virtual monopoly on critical discourse in English about Japanese cinema during that period. — J.R.
A few years ago in New York, a lecture by Henri Langlois was announced at the Museum of Modern Art under the rough heading — I quote from memory — of ‘Why We Know Nothing About Cinema’.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 492). — J.R.
Short and Suite
Canada, 1959 Directors: Norman McLaren, Evelyn Lambert
Dist—BFI. p.c–National Film Board of Canada. visuals–Norman
McLaren, Evelyn Lambert. In color. sp. effects–Arnold Schieman.
m–Eldon Rathburn. performed by–The Buff Estes Group. 450 ft.
5 mins. (35 and 16mm.).
A characteristically bright, giggly and pithy animated short in
the McLaren manner, Short and Suite would probably be better still
if it had more inspired music to work with. Begone Dull Care (1948-
49), thanks to the ebullience and effervescence of Oscar Peterson’s
piano, was closer to a duel than a gloss on a ‘text’; this more modest
foray into synchronized, syncopated doodling plays with and against
a less improvised, less distinctive form of jazz, which is certainly
enhanced and highlighted by the visuals, but is not exactly transcended
by them. Beginning with pink and blue splotches to illustrate the bass
notes, and then clean white lines to match those played by the piano,
the design resolves itself into shifting parallel lines as the clarinet
comes in. Sometimes the lines wiggle or pulsate in strict
accordance with the music (one line reflecting the melody, the
other the rhythm), sometimes they curl into other shapes that
suggest the equivalent of a separate melodic line.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 24, 1990). — J.R.
Although there are times when one feels that the filmmakers have bitten off a little more than they can chew, this is a bold, watchable adaptation (by director James Foley and coproducer Robert Redlin) of a noirish thriller by Jim Thompson that comes surprisingly close to capturing the grisly, hard-boiled, and unstable world of that author — thanks in part to a sharp feeling for sensual detail that includes everything from wet, squishy kisses to a scummy unused swimming pool. (Cinematographer Mark Plummer works wonders with light and scenery in striking ‘Scope compositions.) Jason Patric, calling to mind a slightly heavier James Dean at a low flame, stars as a former boxer who has escaped from an insane asylum; whether he’s actually nuts or merely on the edge is one of the central ambiguities that keep the plot moving, and the fact that he narrates the story off-screen in classic noir fashion only complicates one’s uncertainty. He falls in with a salty, alcoholic English widow (Rachel Ward) and a small-time con man and ex-cop (Bruce Dern) in southern California who are plotting to kidnap a little boy from a wealthy family, and paranoia and other complications start to unravel the trio’s uneasy rapport.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 31, 1990). — J. R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Michael Almereyda
With Suzy Amis, Dylan McDermott, Crispin Glover, Harry Dean Stanton, Lindsay Christman, Charlaine Woodard, Lois Chiles, and Jenny Wright.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The second part of the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina applies pretty well to the eccentric Kansas family in Michael Almereyda’s oddball comedy Twister, but in a way that’s only half the story. Not only is the family as a whole unhappy in its own particular way, most of its members are out of whack with themselves, each other, and everybody else too.
The father is Eugene Cleveland (Harry Dean Stanton), a distracted, long-divorced retired multimillionaire who made his fortune in soda pop and miniature-golf courses. His main distraction is courting Virginia (Lois Chiles), the born-again hostess of “Wonderbox,” a local Sunday-morning TV kiddie show that teaches toddlers about “the weather, animals, and God.” Maureen, or Mo (Suzy Amis), his 24-year-old chain-smoking alcoholic daughter, is a crabby recluse who hasn’t quite grown up or broken away from home; she occasionally camps out in the backyard of the family mansion, which borders a golf course.… Read more »
It appears that I hated Basic Instinct when it came out in 1992 (this review appeared in the Chicago Reader on April 3), before I became something of a diehard Paul Verhoeven fan, and now I like the movie a lot. Or maybe I was a fan back then, at least in a back-handed sort of way, and wouldn’t or couldn’t admit this to myself. I offer the following as evidence of my former position, whatever it might have been.– J.R.
No stars (Worthless)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Joe Eszterhas
With Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt, Leilani Sarelle, and Dorothy Malone.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
What’s really news about Basic Instinct isn’t that it’s number one at the box office; after all, that happens to some movie every week. Nor is it that you get to see Sharon Stone’s (quite ordinary looking) twat for a few seconds when she uncrosses her legs. Even the bisexual and lesbian psycho serial killers, which gay groups are protesting, aren’t news.
No, the real news about Basic Instinct is that Joe Eszterhas got $3 million for the script. This is clearly a script that’s going to be studied and emulated for some time to come.… Read more »