Yearly Archives: 2019

Redirecting the Canon

From the Chicago Reader (August 9, 1996). — J.R.

Red Hollywood

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Thom Andersen and Noël Burch

Narrated by Billy Woodberry.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

When Peter Wollen wrote about canon formation in the English film magazine Sight and Sound three years ago, he conceptualized “a motley set of cultural gate-keepers and taste-makers.” Archivists come first, determining which films to acquire, preserve, and screen; then come the academics and critics, singling out the touchstones and masterpieces; they’re followed by filmmakers and, finally, the audience. As Wollen notes, “The process of cultural negotiation among these many gate-keepers of taste results not only in the surface phenomena of lists and programs, but also in the crystallization of an implicit aesthetic paradigm at a deeper level.”

I can think of several sources critical to the formation of my own canon. When I was in my early teens, the only sources I could find were library books like Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art, which is useful as a beginner’s survey, and Agee on Film, which is hampered by its limited coverage. During my freshman year in college I purchased my first film magazine: the Winter 1961-’62 issue of Sight and Sound, which contained the results of an international poll of critics about the ten best movies ever made; I resolved to see as many movies on the composite and individual lists as possible.… Read more »

Echoes of Old Hollywood [DESTINY & THE ADOPTED SON]

From the Chicago Reader, April 2, 1999. —J.R.

Destiny

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Youssef Chahine

Written by Chahine and Khaled Youssef

With Nour el-Cherif, Laila Eloui, Mahmoud Hemeida, Safia el-Emary, Mohamed Mounir, Khaled el-Nabaoui, Abdallah Mahmoud, and Ahmed Fouad-Selim.

The Adopted Son

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Aktan Abdikalikov

Written by Abdikalikov, Avtandil Adikulov, and Marat Sarulu

With Mirlan Abdikalikov, Albina Imasmeva, Adir Abilkassimov, Bakit Zilkieciev, and Mirlan Cinkozoev.

Apart from their exoticism, Youssef Chahine’s Destiny and Aktan Abdikalikov’s The Adopted Son don’t have much in common. Destiny is the 35th film by Chahine, a 73-year-old writer, director, and sometime actor who’s generally agreed to be the major figure in the history of Egyptian cinema. His subject here is Averroes (1126-1198), a dissident Spanish-Arab philosopher best known for his commentaries on Aristotle, and his film resembles a Hollywood period spectacular — exuberant, packed with action, and positively overflowing with energy. The Adopted Son is both the first independent feature ever made in Kyrgyzstan — a former Soviet republic in central Asia — and the first feature of 42-year-old writer-director Abdikalikov, who cast his own teenage son in the title role. It’s shot mainly in an exquisitely modulated black and white, though it periodically shifts to color, always with great dramatic effect.… Read more »

War of the Poses (OLEANNA)

From the November 11, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

*** OLEANNA

(A must-see)

Directed and written by David Mamet

With William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt.

David Mamet’s four features to date, none of them realistic, are all concerned to a greater or lesser extent with con games. Ultimately what one thinks of any of them has a lot to do with which side of the con one winds up on — which proves to be a matter of how one relates to the style as well as the content. Language is the major instrument of both seduction and deception in these films, and Mamet’s stylized use of it, playing on its ellipses and ambiguities as well as its more abstract and musical qualities, often deceives and seduces the audience. So how one responds to these characters has a lot to do with how one reacts to these language games.

To my mind, House of Games and the first half of Things Change are seductive (if brittle) fantasies about the allure and danger of spinning seductive fantasies; the second half of Things Change and Homicide are outsized sentimental bluffs. All three films star Joe Mantegna, are about criminals, and bear some relation to Hollywood genres; but where one places one’s trust and emotional allegiances is different in each case.… Read more »

Sweet Outrage [SCOTCH TAPE & FLAMING CREATURES]

From the Chicago Reader (February 20, 1998). — J.R.

Scotch Tape

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Jack Smith

With Jerry Sims, Ken Jacobs, and Reese Haire.

Flaming Creatures

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Jack Smith

With Francis Francine, Sheila Bick, Joel Markman, Judith Malina, Dolores Flores, Marian Zazeela, and Smith.

You’d never imagine this from the mainstream press, but experimental film is on the rise again, as a taste as well as an undertaking — even if it’s often returning in mutated forms like video or in areas of filmmaking where we least expect it. At the Rotterdam International Film Festival three weeks ago, hundreds of Dutch viewers, most of them in their 20s, stormed the largest multiplex in Holland — one of the best-designed facilities I know of, suggesting an unlikely cross between a Borders and a Beaubourg, a mall and an airport — to see work that’s thought to have little or no drawing power in this country. They watched short experimental videos from Berlin, London, and Providence, Rhode Island, at a crowded weekday afternoon program called “City Sounds.” They watched Blue Moon, a charismatic Taiwanese feature by Ko I-cheng whose five reels can be shown in any order (they all feature the same characters and settings, but whether the five plots match up chronologically or as parallel fictional universes — signifying flashbacks, flash-forwards, or variations on a theme — is left to the viewer).… Read more »

My Dozen Favorite Non-Region-1 Box Sets

From DVD Beaver (posted June 2008). Some of these listings may be out of date — and in the case of Godard’s Histoire(s), superseded by subsequent American and/or Blu-Ray editions. –  J.R.

Coming up with my favorite box sets from abroad is a far cry from compiling a list of my favorite films on DVD, foreign or otherwise, even if some of my favorite films are represented here. The problem is, as Mick Jagger puts it, you can’t always get what you want. To start with an extreme example, my favorite Hou Hsiao-hsien film is most likely The Puppetmaster (1993), but my least favorite of all the DVDs of Hou films in my collection happens to be the Winstar edition of that film. It’s so substandard —- not even letterboxed, and packaged so clumsily — that I’m embarrassed to find myself quoted on the back of the box, especially with the quotation mangled into tortured grammar.

I’ve aimed for a certain geographical spread as well as some generic balance: popular comedies, art films, experimental films, and one serial; DVDs from Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Admittedly, roughly half of my selections come from France, and a quarter of them, to my surprise, comes from a single label, Gaumont —- maybe because this blockbuster company seems to specialize in blockbuster box sets.Read more »

Stargazer: Andy Warhol’s World and his Films

From Film Quarterly (Spring 1974). I wrote this review while I was living in Paris, which made acquiring a review copy especially difficult. (I grimly recall even getting into something resembling a fistfight with the French distributor of the book, who didn’t want to give me one and blew a fuse when I insisted, even though I had an assignment.) Stephen Koch, whom I knew from my previous stint as a graduate student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, was a friend at the time, as was Annette Michelson, who commissioned the book for Praeger. My second-hand assessment of **** (Four Stars) came from another friend, Lorenzo Mans, who saw the entire film and reviewed it for the Village Voice, though I had attended a New York screening of Blue Movie, when it went by the title Fuck. -– J.R.

STAR-GAZER:

ANDY WARHOL’S WORLD AND HIS FILMS

BY Stephen Koch. New York: Praeger. $8.95.

Books about filmmakers that do something more than regurgitate filmographies and sketch career summaries are not exactly plentiful these days, and for this reason alone Stargazer is worthy of serious attention. What it attempts is not a mere pigeon-holing of Warhol’s films but a complex assessment of his persona and its accompanying strategies — in, through and beyond these films — as they flourished in the sixties.… Read more »

America in Welles’ European Films: A Few Speculations

A lecture written circa fall 2002, I forget for which occasion. I’m not even sure if this represents a complete or final draft. This was written before the belated rediscovery of The Third Man in Vienna (not one of the better episodes in Around the World with Orson Welles, alas, and now available on DVD).  — J.R.

My point of departure for this paper is remarks that have been made by myself and others about Orson Welles’ three completed features of the 1950s —- Othello, Mr. Arkadin, and Touch of Evil—- and how these reflect his attitudes towards what was happening in the United States around the same time. More specifically, I’m thinking of my own speculation that Othello (1952) may have something to do with the Hollywood blacklist and witch hunts, and James Naremore’s observation that the character of Van Stratten (Robert Arden) in Mr. Arkadin (1955), “quite by accident, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young, athletic Richard Nixon,” relates to the Cold War (with Arkadin having been modeled to some degree on Josef Stalin and the character of Van Stratten suggesting Richard Nixon in certain respects).

Now I hasten to add that the conscious intentionality of Welles in relation to either of these relationships or many others like them probably fluctuates a good deal, and that this isn’t my only frame of reference.Read more »

Reading: The (Remote) Glass House That Jerry Built (1988)

An unpublished essay written in June 1988 for the Chicago Reader. One of my few regrets about my 20 years at the Reader, unlike the year and a half I spent (1979-1981) at New York’s Soho News, was that whereas the latter allowed me to review books and movies concurrently, the Reader was interested in me only as a film reviewer, so any attempt to write about books for them was discouraged. I did make a point of reviewing two of Thomas Pynchon’s late novels for them (Vineland and Against the Day) –- having previously reviewed Gravity’s Rainbow for the Village Voice and having much later reviewed Mason & Dixon for In These Times between the two Reader reviews (all four of these reviews, incidentally, plus my earlier review of The Crying of Lot 49 for a college newspaper, can be accessed on this site).

I wrote the piece below on spec when Michael Lenehan was the paper’s editor and he told me I’d have to do a lot of rewriting before it could be published, so I bowed out.Read more »

Great Expectations

From the Chicago Reader (January 19, 1998). — J.R.

great_expectations1

A reductio ad absurdum of the recent trend of idea-starved producers to plunder 19th-century English fiction — a movement that to my mind has justified itself only with Clueless, and in this case makes Charles Dickens look like a weak second cousin to John Grisham. In fact, so little of the novel is dealt with in this updated adaptation, and so much of that little is mauled, that it might have made more sense to do a remake of Youngblood Hawke, the sort of wet dream this movie is really craving to approximate. Ethan Hawke plays a young gulf-coast artist (formerly known as Pip) lured to the Big City, Gwyneth Paltrow plays cruel Estella (the only character allowed to keep the same name), and Anne Bancroft can’t be blamed for the incoherent version of Miss Havisham assigned to her by Mitch Glazer’s stupid script (though perhaps Robert De Niro, playing the convict, can be blamed for reminding us of Cape Fear). A horrendous effort all around, though a couple of the locations — notably a Venetian Gothic mansion on Sarasota Bay — are suggestive. Alfonso Cuaron, who did a far better job with A Little Princess, directed.… Read more »

A Little Princess

From the Chicago Reader (May 1,1995). — J.R.

ALittrlePrincess

I’m not sure whether this sensitive 1995 adaptation of a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (author of The Secret Garden) from Warners is quite the miracle some of my colleagues claimed, but it blows most Disney competition out of the water and is enjoyable for grown-ups as well. Set during World War I, it follows the adventures of an imaginative and resourceful little girl (Liesel Matthews) raised in India and then deposited by her father at an exclusive New York boarding school, where she soon becomes the victim of a mean headmistress (Eleanor Bron). Directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron in his American debut and scripted by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) and Amy Ephron, the film uses studio resources to create an entrancing world both in New York and in the heroine’s fantasies about India. G, 97 min. (JR)

ALPRead more »

Children Of Men

From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 2006). — J.R.

Adapted from P.D. James’s dystopian novel, this SF feature by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) takes place in England in 2027, when the human race has mysteriously become infertile and faces extinction. A onetime revolutionary (Clive Owen) is asked by an old flame (Julianne Moore) to take part in her underground movement defending illegal aliens, who are trucked off to concentration camps; assisted by an older hippie pal (Michael Caine in an Oscar-worthy performance), he agrees to smuggle a young woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) out of the country. The film gradually devolves into action-adventure, then the equivalent of a war movie. But the filmmaking is pungent throughout, and the first half hour is so jaw-dropping in its fleshed-out extrapolation that Cuaron earns the right to coast a bit. R, 108 min. (JR)

children-of-men-2006-michael-caine-pic-4Read more »

Diaries, Notes & Sketches — Volume 1, Reels 1-6: Lost Lost Lost

From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1977, Vol. 44, No. 516. Both this film and Mekas’s earlier diary film Walden (1969) have been released together on a Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. –- J.R.

Diaries, Notes & Sketches — Volume 1, Reels 1-6: Lost Lost Lost

U.S.A. ,1975
Director: Jonas Mekas

Dist–Artificial Eye. p.c /p/sc/ph–Jonas Mekas. addit. ph–Charles Levine, David Brooks, Peter Beard, Ken Jacobs. Part in colour. ed–Jonas Mekas. m/songs–including piano music by Chopin, “Abschied” by Schubert, traditional Lithuanian music, “Kiss of Fire” by Lester Allen, Robert Hill, excerpts from Wagner’s “Parsifal”,“How Deep Is the Ocean” by Irving Berlin, music by Lucia Dlugoszewski. sd/narrator–Jonas Mekas. with–(Reels 1-6) Jonas Mekas, Adolfas Mekas; (Reel 2) Prof. Pakstas, Juozas Tysliava, Stepas Kairys, Zadeikis, George Maciunas and family, Faustas Kirsa, Aleksandra Kasuba, Vytautas Kasuba, Vladas Jakubenas, Jeronimas Kacinskas; (Reel 3) Gideon Bachmann, Dorothy Brown, Sidney Grief, Lily Bennett, Storm De Hirsch, Louis Brigante, George Fenin and son, Arlene Croce, Edouard de Laurot, Ben Carruthers, Leo Adams, Sheldon Rochlin, Frances Starr, Robert Frank, Peter Bogdanovich, LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Bremser, Ged Berliner, Dick Bellamy; (Reel 4) Gretchen Weinberg, Herman Weinberg, Dick Preston, Dwight Macdonald, Shirley Clarke, Julian Beck, Judith Malina, Robert Hughes, Nat Hentoff, Norman Mailer, David Stone, Jules Feiffer, Naomi Levine, David Reynolds, Paul Goodman; (Reet 5) Peggy Stefans, Herman Weinberg, Gretchen Weinberg, Marty Greenbaum, Peter Beard, Ed Emshwiller, David Stone, Taylor Mead, Sheila Finn, P.… Read more »

Notes on the March to Montgomery

Here is my first-person reportage of the last laps of the original event, hurriedly written for the April 2, 1965 issue of the Bard Observer. I’ve only done a little bit of light editing on this text. — J.R.

Notes on the March to Montgomery

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

(Note: because of the haste with which this article was written, and because of its close proximity in time to the event itself, I cannot claim to be attempting anything definitive here, either in terms of impression or opinion. The following reactions are immediate and fragmented ones written only a few days after the march, and as such must suffer the defects of hurried writing and tentative suppositions. –- J.R.)

 

 

I

We arrived in Montgomery by Wednesday afternoon, following Highway 80 through the middle of town and heading towards St. Jude. a Catholic hospital complex on the city’s outskirts whose property was being used as a campsite for the marchers. We drove a rented Avis car; the Hertz people in Atlanta, when they overheard what we were up to, had told us that they had no cars available, but being hospitable Southern folk had driven us over to their competitors a few blocks away.… Read more »

Y tu mama tambien

From the Chicago Reader (April 5, 2002). — J.R.

y_tu_mama_tambien

A genuine rarity: a sex comedy with brains. Even rarer, one with smart politics — so unobtrusive you may not notice — and wonderful acting. Writer-director Alfonso Cuaron — best known here for two Hollywood efforts, the enchanting A Little Princess and the less enchanting Great Expectations – went back to his native Mexico to put together this road movie about two 17-year-old boys from Mexico City, one privileged, the other working-class. On an impulse, they take off for a remote coastal beach with a 28-year-old married woman. It’s not difficult to understand why this movie has been a smash success in Mexico, especially with teenagers; few films deal with teenage hormones, Latin machismo, and the complexities of friendship in such a refreshing way. The movie keeps surprising you and stays with you long after it’s over. With Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Maribel Verdu. In Spanish with subtitles. 105 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Crown Village 18, Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre, North Riverside.

YtumamaTRead more »

Redeemable for Cash: The Damned and the Saved

A special sort of Christmas essay from the Chicago Reader (December 23, 1994). — J.R.

Over the past year we’ve been hearing a lot about the theme of redemption in current movies. Actually the seeds of this trend were probably sown back in 1980, when Raging Bull came out, but now “redemption” is becoming something of a buzzword. I recall being taken slightly aback when I heard Harvey Keitel, speaking at the 1992 Toronto film festival, employ the term without any trace of irony in regard to Reservoir Dogs. And since then I’ve been hearing it more and more, mainly in relation to movies associated with Quentin Tarantino (not only Reservoir Dogs but also True Romance, Natural Born Killers, Killing Zoe, and Pulp Fiction) and such varied films as Cape Fear, Cliffhanger, Forrest Gump, The Professional, and even Heavenly Creatures.

What’s surprising is not only the odd assortment of movies in this new canon but those that are automatically excluded. Looking over last year’s releases, one might logically conclude that movies dealing with the spiritual redemption of their lead characters would include, say, Schindler’s List, Little Buddha, Savage Nights, The Shawshank Redemption, Bill Forsyth’s grossly neglected Being Human, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, White, and Red.… Read more »