Yearly Archives: 2019

Remaking History [on SHULIE]

An article about “remakes” of independent documentaries, from the November 20, 1998 Chicago Reader. – J.R.

Shulie

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Elisabeth Subrin

With Kim Soss, Larry Steger, Rick Marshall, Eigo Komei, E.W. Ross, Marion Mryczka, Ed Rankus, Kerry Ufelmann, and Jennifer Reeder.

What is it about American culture that compels the film industry to do remakes? The compulsion has been growing over the past two decades — one of my oldest friends, a cinephile and sometime screenwriter based in Hollywood, was already viewing it with philosophical resignation ten years ago. As she put it, “My best friends and I have been spending most of the 80s sitting in cars discussing remakes.”

Since the early 80s we’ve been inundated with more cultural objects than ever before, but we have less and less sense of what to do with them. It’s easy to explain the Hollywood remake syndrome as unimaginative cost accounting: it made money before, so why not do it again? Then there’s the expanding youth market, which encourages unimaginative cost accountants to figure that former hits can be recycled for younger generations — one of the justifications offered by Gus Van Sant for his forthcoming remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.… Read more »

Two Movies for the Price of None [James Benning's UTOPIA]

From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 1998). — J.R.

Utopia title

Utopia

Rating *** A must see

Directed by James Benning

what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear you can verify this proposition by a simple experiment turn off the sound track of your television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track prerecorded on your tape recorder street sounds music conversation recordings of other television programs you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems to be appropriate and is in fact determining your interpretation of the film track on screen people running for a bus in piccadilly with a sound track of machine-gun fire looks like 1917 petrograde — William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded

Although James Benning’s most recent experimental feature, Utopia, doesn’t literally reproduce Burroughs’s experiment, it does call it to mind. An opening title describes Benning’s effort as a combination of “images…found in the desert landscape from Death Valley south to and crossing the Mexican border” with the entire sound track of the English-language version of Richard Dindo’s 1994 Swiss documentary, Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal — an appropriation that, as the same title explains, was made without permission. (Some years ago the animator George Griffin appropriated the sound track of a Tom & Jerry cartoon for his own short animated film, Flying Fur.) Benning has added a few ambient sounds, but otherwise you might say that Utopia is two separate movies — the images of one, the sound track of another — running on parallel tracks.… Read more »

En movimiento: A Reconstructed Diary of Cinematic Highpoints

An “En movimiento” column for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, written in July 2014 for their October 2014 issue. — J.R.

TheOwners

the_owners

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12 June (Chicago): As preparation for serving as a “mentor” to student film critics at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I watch online a film they’re assigned to write about, Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners from Kazakhstan. This is quite a revelation — at least for me, if not, as I later discover, for most of the students. Three city siblings arrive in the county to claim the ramshackle hut they’ve inherited from their deceased mother, and the tragicomic misadventures and forms of corruption that they encounter oscillate between grim realism, absurdist genre parody, and dreamlike surrealism, culminating in a doom-ridden yet festive dance in which both victims and victimizers participate. Unlike the hyperbolic violence that brutalizes the characters of Jia Zhange’s A Touch of Sin by reducing their humanity, Yerzhanov’s use of genre staples actually expands his expressive and emotional palette without foreshortening our sense of the people involved.

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kimiavi_mongols

21 & 23 June (Edinburgh): The two high points of my six days here are two very different masterpieces from the first Iranian New Wave, Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1965) and Parviz Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973).  … Read more »

A SEPARATION: The Unspoken Subject in Iranian (and American) Cinema

Written in early February 2012 for “En Movimiento.” my bimonthly column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

The unexpectedly huge acclaim accorded to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in the U.S, appears to be motivated by something more than an appreciation for a better-than-average feature. Is this a sufficient reason for it to be the most successful Iranian film to be released in America to date? Why was it named the best foreign language film of 2011 by the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, and the New York Critics Circle, and the best picture of the year by the most popular American film critic (Roger Ebert), meanwhile placing third as the best picture by the National Society of Film Critics (which rarely considers films for this category in any language but English, and included only one other such film in its latest top ten, Ruiz’s Mistérios de Lisboa)? Why was it nominated for two separate Academy Awards?

I suspect that an important reason for this sort of enthusiasm is the desire of many Americans — or at least Americans who see foreign-language films — not to go to war again, shortly after the (very) belated return of American troops from Iraq, and during the incessant and frightening beating of war drums by all of the Republican candidates for President except for Ron Paul (who still isn’t taken seriously by the mainstream media–and not because of his radical economic positions, but, to all appearances, because he refuses to support another American invasion in the Middle East).… Read more »

THE HOUSE IS BLACK

The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). — J.R.

thehouseisblack-mirror

The House is Black is the most acclaimed of all Iranian documentaries. It was directed by Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), widely regarded as the greatest of all Iranian women poets and the greatest Iranian poet of the 20th century, who died in a car accident when she was only 32. It was Farokhzad’s only film, produced in 1962 by her lover Ebrahim Golestan (an important filmmaker in his own right, for whom she also worked as an editor, and who serves as one of the film’s narrators). The film observes the tragic life of lepers in an isolated leprosy hospital (a hell on earth and a nest of suffering and death) near Tabriz in northwestern Iran. The Society for Assisting Lepers commissioned the film, and the director’s intention was “to wipe out this ugliness and to relieve the victims.”

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Farrokhzad avoids infringement by creating a close relationship with the lepers, and by searching for the seeds of joy and vitality within the hopelessness. She depicts the inhabitants in their daily occupations, having meals, praying, the children playing ball and attending school.… Read more »

My Dozen Favorite Non-Region-1 Single-Disk DVDs

From DVD Beaver, posted in November 2008. A few of the links may be out of date by now.  — J.R.

The following selection is not only personal but very eclectic. It’s not exactly a list of my favorite films: I prefer Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922) and Greed (1924) to his Blind Husbands (1919), for instance, and if I had to take one Anthony Mann film along with me to a desert island, this would undoubtedly be The Naked Spur (1953) rather than his Man of the West (1958). Similarly, my favorite films by Nicholas Ray are probably Johnny Guitar (1954) and Bitter Victory (1957), even though Party Girl (1958), for all its flaws, is still a Ray film that I’d describe as sublime. But I’ve opted in these cases for the DVDs devoted to Stroheim, Mann, and Ray that I cherish the most, and the reasons why I cherish them are stated below.

A few other caveats:

(a) There are at least two other editions of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) —- the U.S. one from Criterion and the English one from the British Film Institute—- that are top-notch, and they’re probably easier to come by in the Western hemisphere than the Australian edition on the Madman label that I cite.… Read more »

Death and Life [on Alexander Dovzhenko]

From the June 7, 2002 Chicago Reader. This is also reprinted in my book Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Landscapes of the Soul: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko

When I speak of poetry, I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality….Think of Mandelstam, think of Pasternak, Chaplin, Dovzhenko, Mizoguchi, and you’ll realize what tremendous emotional power is carried by these exalted figures who soar above the earth, in whom the artist appears not just as an explorer of life, but as one who creates great spiritual treasures and that specific beauty which is subject only to poetry. Such an artist can discern the lines of the poetic design of being. He is capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life. — Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

It is possible that we are still in a pre-historic stage of cinema, for the great history of cinema will begin when it leaves the frame of ordinary artistic representation and grows into a tremendous and extraordinarily encompassing perceptive category. — Alexander Dovzhenko, 1933

Ukrainian writer-director Alexander Dovzhenko may be the most neglected major filmmaker of the 20th century.… Read more »

The Heart of an Enigma [BARTLEBY]

From the May 24, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Bartleby

** (Woth seeing)

Directed by Jonathan Parker

Written by Parker and Catherine di Napoli

With David Paymer, Crispin Glover, Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, and Seymour Cassel.

Jonathan Parker’s first feature adapts Herman Melville’s eerie 1853 novella “Bartleby” (also known as “Bartleby the Scrivener”) with the kind of fidelity to mood and feeling that’s rare among movie adaptations of literary classics. The action has been updated roughly a century and a half, the setting transferred from Wall Street to a building perched on a hilltop over a freeway in an unnamed American location. Characters have been added, significant plot details altered, and a strategic part of the exposition shifted from the end of the tale to near the beginning. Yet the story still has much of the same maddening mystery, conviction, and unsettling comedy that Melville gave it.

The added epilogue is harder to justify and much less successful, and the filmmaking throughout, starting with the early use of slow motion, is needlessly fussy and self-conscious. But these are forgivable flaws in a first feature, one that updates Melville’s story and conception without betraying it.

The nameless narrator of the original is a lawyer on the verge of retirement looking back on the events he describes from a distance of many years.… Read more »

Penn & Teller Get Killed

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1989). — J.R.

PENN&

Whether this goofy 1989 black comedy is a total success is debatable, but you’ve got to admit it’s different. Postmodern comic magicians Penn Jillette and Teller play themselves in a script of their own devising, which is deftly delivered by director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves). After Jillette brazenly announces on national TV that his life would be more exciting if someone tried to kill him, a bizarre series of murder attempts ensues during an engagement in Atlantic City, and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine who’s pulling the strings. Deconstructing illusion, Penn and Teller’s stock in trade, becomes the modus operandi of the plot — like a farcical version of House of Games, with heaps of good-natured gore added and a literally unbelievable grand finale — and the dynamic duo make the most of it. With Caitlin Clarke, David Patrick Kelly, Leonardo Cimino, and Celia McGuire. (JR) 90 min.

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The Lovers Of The Arctic Circle

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 1999). — J.R.

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The best Spanish film I’ve seen in years, this 1998 feature by Julio Medem (Cows, The Red Squirrel, Earth), attractively shot in ‘Scope, is the story of two young lovers who first encounter one another at the age of eight, told from alternating viewpoints that after 17 years converge in Finland. The romantic style of the film commands attention as much as the story itself, which is shaped — like the names of the two lead characters, Otto and Ana — as a palindrome. The graceful jumping about in time and space may recall the early work of Alain Resnais, but the theme and ambience are Spanish to the core; Medem charts the crisscrossing destinies of the two leads with passion as well as lyricism. With Fele Martinez and Najwa Nimri. In Spanish with subtitles. R, 112 min. (JR)

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These Are The Damned

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1989). — J.R.

Joseph Losey’s black-and-white SF thriller, made in 1962 during his pre-Pinter British period, begins as a sort of love story — MacDonald Carey is an American businessman who shows interest in Shirley Anne Field and as a consequence gets beaten up by teddy boys led by Oliver Reed — then gradually turns into an antinuclear parable about radioactive children sequestered from humanity in an underground cave. Originally titled The Damned, the film was mangled by distributors but later restored for TV; more than an interesting curiosity, it’s one of Losey’s best English efforts, and Viveca Lindfors contributes a striking part as an eccentric sculptress. 96 min. (JR)

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The Sweet Cheat [THE PAST REGAINED]

From the Chicago Reader (July 21, 2000). My thanks to my editor on this piece, Kitry Krause, for (among  many other things) coming up with my title. — J.R.

Time Regained ***

Directed by Raul Ruiz

Written by Gilles Taurand and Ruiz

With Marcello Mazzarella, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Vincent Perez, John Malkovich, Pascal Greggory, Marie-France Pisier, Christian Vadim, Arielle Dombasle, Chiara Mastroianni, and the voice of Patrice Chéreau.

[A few years ago], I refused to direct Remembrance of Things Past. I wrote to the woman producer [Nicole Stéphane] that no real filmmaker would allow himself to squeeze the madeleine as though it were a lemon and in my opinion only a film butcher would have the nerve to put Proust through the mincer.

A few weeks later she obtained the agreement of the Verdurin salon, that is to say, Re Clement. Come to think of it, is Proust burning in [the book-burning fires of my film] Fahrenheit 451? No, but this omission will soon be corrected.

— François Truffaut, “The Journal of Fahrenheit 451” (1966)

I read Remembrance of Things Past all the way through more than 35 years ago, shortly before Truffaut registered his scorn about the very notion of a film version (Stéphane eventually got the film made in 1984, Volker Schlšndorff’s dispensable Swann in Love).… Read more »

A Major Talent [on SWEETIE]

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From the Chicago Reader (March 30, 1990). I must confess that  I was disappointed for a long time that none of Campion’s subsequent films lived up to the promise of Sweetie, in spite of the virtues of some of them, at least until her wonderful 2014 miniseries Top of the Lake, which I’ve just belatedly caught up with. (I’ll never forget a bitter comment Jean-Luc Godard made to me in Toronto in 1996, citing Campion as a perfect example of a talented filmmaker “completely destroyed by money”.) But then again, to cite someone cross-referenced in this review (and also significantly cross-referenced in Top of the Lake, a kind of feminist response to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), it’s also hard to think of many David Lynch films that have lived up to the promise of Eraserhead, at least prior to Inland Empire….I suspect that the collaboration of writer Gerard Lee on Passionless Moments, Sweetie, and Top of the Lake has something to do with what makes all three of them stand out so vividly in Campion’s oeuvre.– J.R.

SWEETIE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jane Campion

Written by Gerard Lee and Campion

With Genevieve Lemon, Karen Colston, Tom Lycos, Dorothy Barry, Jon Darling, Michael Lake, and Andre Pataczek.… Read more »

Robert Bresson’s AFFAIRES PUBLIQUES

From Film Comment (July-August 1999). I’ve done a light edit, trimming part of my original conclusion. It’s worth adding that at least two additional pieces about this film have recently turned up on the Internet — a new essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (the first part of an ongoing series) and a detailed account by the late Gilbert Adair that was originally published in 1987, not long after Affaires Publiques was rediscovered in Paris.

I apologize for the poor quality of the illustrations from Bresson’s short film, which are the best that I could find. — J.R.

Ten years ago, I flew all the way from Chicago to the San Francisco Film Festival for a weekend to see    Robert Bresson’s first film, which had been discovered in incomplete form at the Cinémathèque Française, bearing the title Béby Inauguré. Shorn of three of its musical numbers and now totaling 23 minutes,       this rather elaborate piece of slapstick and surrealist tomfoolery was written and directed by Bresson and released in 1934, a full nine years before shooting started on his first feature, Les Anges du péché, and      I had been hearing about it for years as an irretrievably lost curiosity.… Read more »

Female Trouble [MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR]

From the July 29, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by George A. Romero

With Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, and Janine Turner.

You’ve got to get through a few layers of foam rubber before you reach what’s good (or better than good) about George Romero’s new feature. There’s a series of obstacles — cultural, corporate, ideological, stylistic, aesthetic, commercial — standing in the way of what the movie is doing at its best; they may not count for much in the long run, but it’s better to be forewarned and forearmed.

First there’s the problem of the title. I appreciate that the producers did not want to suggest that the movie is a comedy — as sticking to the title of Michael Stewart’s source novel, Monkey Shines, would have done. So a subtitle is understandable as a means of labeling the contents. But An Experiment in Fear? Whose experiment and whose fear? The phrase describes nothing in the film (except for a brief undeveloped scene with a rodent and a beady-eyed behaviorist) and nothing you can say about the film (except as an easy platitude).… Read more »