Yearly Archives: 2020

American Beauty [on Chris Petit’s NEGATIVE SPACE]

From the May 12, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader.  –J.R.

Negative Space

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Chris Petit

With Robert Mitchum, Manny Farber, Dave Hickey, and (as narrator) Petit.

There aren’t many films or videos about film criticism, especially ones that perform the actual work of film criticism. An interesting and ambitious exception is Chris Petit’s Negative Space (1999), an experimental 39-minute video made for BBC TV that’s being shown for free by Chicago Filmmakers at the Chicago Cultural Center this Friday, along with Petit’s The Falconer (1998). Named after the only book by film critic, painter, and teacher Manny Farber — a 1971 collection reprinted in an expanded edition in 1998 — Petit’s video wrestles with American landscape and culture, irony, memory, Las Vegas, the beginning of a new millennium, death, desert, film versus video, J.M.W. Turner’s painting, several movies (including Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy), as well as two critics, Farber and Dave Hickey. Petit also looks at Farber as a painter and an art critic and Hickey as an art critic, a resident of Las Vegas, an appreciator of Farber, and a commentator on American culture.… Read more »

Mise en Scène as Miracle in Dreyer’s ORDET

Like my essay on Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, this essay was written for an Australian DVD, which came out in 2008  on the Madman label. (One can order these and many other DVDs, incidentally, from Madman’s site.) My thanks to Alexander Strang for giving me permission to reprint this. (It’s also reprinted in my most recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia.  —J.R.

Mise en Scène as Miracle in Dreyer’s Ordet

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Ordet (The Word, 1955) was the first film by Carl Dreyer I ever saw. And the first time I saw it, at age 18, it infuriated me, possibly more than any other film has, before or since. Be forewarned that spoilers are forthcoming if you want to know why.

The setting and circumstances were unusual. I saw a 16-millimeter print at a radical, integrated, co-ed camp for activists in Monteagle, Tennessee — partially staffed by Freedom Riders, during the late summer of 1961, when we were all singing “We Shall Overcome” repeatedly every day. So the fact that Ordet has a lot to do with what looked like a primitive form of Christianity — combined with the particular inflections brought by the black church to the Civil Rights Movement, including one of its appropriated hymns — had a great deal to do with my rage.… Read more »

My Ten-Best List for SIGHT AND SOUND (2020)

Submitted to Sight and Sound on October 26, 2020. — J.R.

Alphabetical order:


1. L’ANNÉE DERNIÈRE À DACHAU (Mark Rappaport)

2. BOTTLED SONGS: MY CRUSH WAS A SUPERSTAR (Chloé Galibert-Laîné)

3. CENOTE (Oda Kaori)

4. FIRST COW (Kelly Reichardt)

5. LA FRANCE CONTRE LES ROBOT(Jean-Marie Straub)

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6. HER SOCIALIST SMILE (John Gianvito)

7. MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)

8. SCHOOLGIRLS (Pilar Palomero)

9. VITALINA VARELA (Pedro Costa)

10. WOMEN ACCORDING TO MEN (Saeed Nouri)

Comment: The meditative and solitary aspects of film watching have  increased during the pandemic, when many of us are exiled to our laptops, but fortunately, online platforms for post-screening discussions have grown as well. Read more »

MIDNIGHT COWBOY

Written for the Il Cinema Ritrovato catalogue for June 2018, although they wound up not using this entry because the film got canceled. — J.R.

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An expert piece of machinery highlighting two gifted actors — Jon Voight in his screen debut and Dustin Hoffman in the immediate aftermath of The Graduate, playing an antithetical role as a crippled street rodent named “Ratso” — Midnight Cowboy actually looks better to me now than it did in 1969. Even back then, I was impressed by the jubilant energy of the film’s opening: our introduction to Voight’s Joe Buck, the title hero, to the strains of Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” was every bit as galvanizing as our first look at John Travolta’s Tony Manero would be eight years later in Saturday Night Fever, strutting to his own music. And much of what followed, after this Texan dishwasher boarded a bus for New York with dreams of becoming a first-class gigolo, impressed me with its deft storytelling and its eye for flavorsome detail.  But English director John Schlesinger, in spite of his skill with actors, was designated as a bad object by Anglo-American auteurists such as myself —  crassly derivative of the French New Wave in his flashy effects and a tireless trend-monger.… Read more »

Fever Dreams in Bologna: Il Cinema Ritrovato, Cineteca Bologna, June 28–July 5, 2008

Originally published in Moving Image Source (posted online as “Hidden Treasures”), July 17, 2008. — J.R.

Ever since I retired a few months ago from my 20-year stint as film reviewer for the Chicago Reader, perhaps the biggest perk of all has been freedom from the chore of having to keep up with new movies. In practice, this translates into more free time to keep up with old movies. So returning to one of my favorite annual pastimes, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna — a festival that caters to people devoted to seeing old films in good prints — seemed only natural. Its 22nd edition, the fourth one I’ve attended, was especially rich.

Held in the oldest university town in Europe — hot and muggy this time of year, and full of labyrinthine back streets — the eight-day event mainly takes place at three air-conditioned cinemas during the day and at the Piazza Maggiore every evening, where the grand public shows up for outdoor screenings. (There’s also a jury that I’ve served on in previous years selecting the best restorations on DVD.)… Read more »

Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1975); I’ve mainly followed the editorial changes (mostly trims) used in the version that appears in my collection Essential Cinema….My apologies for the format problems with this piece, only some of which I’ve managed to resolve satisfactorily. — J.R.

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 [. . .] Unless it is claimed that a pianist’s hands move haphazardly up and down the keyboard — and no one would be willing to claim this seriously — it must be admitted that there exists a guiding thought, conscious or subconscious, behind the succession of organized sound patterns . . . Of course, it does happen, and not too infrequently, that an instrumentalist’s fingers  ‘recite’ a lesson they have learned; but in  such cases there is no reason to talk about creation.

— André Hodeir, Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence

 

I can never think and play at the same time. It’s emotionally impossible.

Lennie Tristano, circa 1962

 

CHARLIE (Elliott Gould): This is the truth. You’re an animal lover, right?/ SUSAN (Gwen Welles): Yeah./CHARLIE: Okay, well: the great blue whale, right? You know about a great blue whale?/ SUSAN (semi-audible): . . . got that wrestling guy, hunh? /CHARLIE: No, it’s a big fish, a big fish, there’s only two or three left in the world.Read more »

Interview with Oja Kodar (2015)

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My 2015 interview with Oja Kodar in Woodstock, Illinois:
https://vimeo.com/149237341

PASSWORD: Woodstock

Note: A book collecting my other interviews, starting with one with Orson Welles — CINEMATIC ENCOUNTERS: INTERVIEWS AND DIALOGUES — was published by the University of Illinois Press in December 2018. And my essay about THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND concludes its companion volume, CINEMATIC ENCOUNTERS 2: PORTRAITS AND POLEMICS,  published by the same press half a year later.

I’ve already posted this link on Facebook, but am reposting it here because I think everyone who cares about Orson Welles should see and hear it. — J.R.Read more »

The Filth And The Fury

From the April 3, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

A pretty good English documentary about the 26-month life span of the Sex Pistols, by Julien Temple, who tries to correct some of the false impressions left by his first feature, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, which was made 20 years ago and privileged the role played by the punk band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren. For my taste, this corrected version has way too many clips from Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. I also would have enjoyed more animated material, since what we have is loads of fun. The period ambience (call it funk) is irresistible, but the main points of interest here are sociological rather than musical. 108 min. (JR)

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DONALD PHELPS, 1929-2015

CovereingGround

Readingthe Funnies

In some ways, the saddest deaths are those we only hear about accidentally. For me, Donald Phelps was one of the very greatest of American critics — not just literary critic and film critic, but comics critic as well — even though only two collections devoted solely to his written work exist (see above). I would love to imagine that many more will follow, because it’s clear that anyone who tracks down obscure journals, including his own (For Now), looking for Phelps’ insightful and highly original prose, will discover an unending bounty. But it seems like he never had much money, and even before the advent of Trump, Phelps appears to have lived his entire life in the shadows.

I learned of his death by ordering another collection — Sparring with Gil Kane: Debating the History and Aesthetics of Comics — from Fantagraphics Books, chiefly because it boasted having a dialogue with Phelps, and it was only upon reading editor Gary Groth’s introduction that the demise I’d already suspected was confirmed. But at least Donald survived until his mid-80s. Several years earlier, after the stupidity and intolerance of a new Film Comment editor had summarily turned him from an invaluable regular contributor into a non-contributor, I had started to communicate with Donald by letters and by phone as a way of funneling his genius into the precincts of an Australian online film journal named Rouge that managed to publish half a dozen texts of his over its 13 precious issues.… Read more »

Pynchon on the Beach

My review of Thomas Pynchon’s lamentable Inherent Vice, for Slate (August 3, 2009). Much less lamentable — actually quite good in spots — is Pynchon’s more recent Bleeding Edge, which I prefer to everything of his since Vineland. But even more lamentable, in my opinion, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which even after a second viewing strikes me on most counts as his worst film to date. (I’d been hoping for something more transformative, such as Norman Mailer’s superb film adaptation of his own worst novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.) Despite a few glancing virtues (e.g., Josh Brolin’s Nixonesque performance) and the (so far) unsubstantiated enthusiasm of many of my smarter colleagues, Anderson’s film strikes me as being just as cynical as its source and infused with the same sort of misplaced would-be nostalgia for the counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, pitched to a generation that didn’t experience it, as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. [Postscript, January 27, 2015: The first semiplausible defense of the film that I’ve read can be found here.]  — J.R.

 

“In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there … or … if you were there, then you … or, wait, is it …” Once again, for his seventh novel, Inherent Vice, it sounds as if the author has furnished his own jacket copy, exploiting the doper humor that’s often been part of his signature.

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History and Egotism: ME AND ORSON WELLES

Written for the FIPRESCI web site from the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival in September 2008. — J.R.

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The continuing mythological status of Orson Welles in the realm of cinephilia complicates the challenge of representing Welles on film in many different ways. It’s one of the clearest merits of Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, to have met and grappled responsibly with many if not all of the issues of this formidable challenge.

Working uncharacteristically with a script written by others — Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, adapting a novel by Robert Kaplow that I haven’t yet read — Linklater tells the story of a fictional high school teenager (played by Zac Efron, best known for his role as Link Larkin in the recent remake of Hairspray) in 1937 who by sheer chance lands a bit part as a lute player in Welles’s famous stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a highly edited modern-dress adaptation known as Caesar built around the conceit of the story taking place in contemporary fascist Italy, with a bare set illuminated by “Nuremburg” lighting. Linklater has obviously researched existing records of this production (which include photographs, a script published some years ago by Welles scholar Richard France, and at least two audio recordings of the play performed by essentially the same cast around the same time) in considerable detail.

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Lights up! A few final words on the [New York] film festival [in 1981]

From the Soho News, October 20, 1981. Girish Shambu’s post on Facebook about Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont de Nord having “just popped up at both MUBI and Fandor on streaming” led me to unearth my original review of the film, which I’ve neglected to scan or post before now. — J.R.

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At a juncture like this. the New York festival splits into disassociated sections for me. One part furnishes a launching pad for a commercial venture that scarcely needs it, while the other is furnishing us with a tantalizing glimpse of movies that something called Commerce is otherwise steadily denying us. (Mutatis mutandis, the same can be said for the highly uneven collection of shorts shown with the festival features. It’s hard to know when or if my own two favorites — George Griffin’s Flying Fur, a wild burst of contemporary animation energy set to an old Tom and Jerry soundtrack, and Clare Peploe’s beautifully shot comic English sketch, Couples & Robbers, about a middle-class straight couple and an upper-class gay couple and how their lives and goods interact –- might turn up again, so I’m grateful to the festival for letting me see them.)

Flying Fur

Couples & Robbers

With Truffaut’s La Femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door) and Jacques Rivette’s  Le Pont du nord (North Bridge), both New Wave veterans are giving us mixtures that we’ve seen in their works before.… Read more »

GHOST STORY (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1975 (vol. 42, no. 498). –- J.R.

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Ghost Story

Great Britain, 1974

Director: Stephen Weeks

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England; 1930. Talbot and Duller, former schoolmates of

McFayden, are summoned by the latter to a country house

supposedly belonging to a friend of his father for a weekend

of grouse hunting. Ragged and isolated by the other two for

his callow enthusiasm, Talbot is puzzled to find a warm

teacup and an odd-looking doll in his bedroom. In the

morning, he witnesses a scene in the parlor enacted by

people living forty years ago: Robert Quickworth signing

his sister Sophy over to Dr. Borden’s insane asylum, despite

the protests of her maid. At first Talbot assumes this to be

an elaborate practical joke, but after seeing people who

resemble these characters in the village pub and

dreaming or half-dreaming further episodes — in which

the doll leads him to Borden’s asylum -– he becomes

increasingly obsessed with the intrigue. Meanwhile

Duller, who has come to the house to seek ghosts with

‘scientific’ equipment, is disgruntled when all his

experiments fail and he insists on leaving. McFayden

confesses to Talbot that he has recently inherited the

house and invited him and Duller there to ‘test’ it

for ghosts, mentioning a cousin of his father’s who

went mad there.… Read more »

OCCASIONAL WORK OF A FEMALE SLAVE (with Yehuda Safran, 1975)

Cowritten by Yehuda Safran (a lecturer in the philosophy of art with whom I was sharing a flat in Hamstead at the time), and published in the Winter 1974/75 issue of Sight and Sound. It seems fair to say that this review (from the 1974 London Film Festival) is in some ways more Yehuda’s than mine. Note: This film has more recently been called Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave in some English-speaking countries. -– J.R.

Occasional work

‘Roswitha feels an enormous power within her,’ Alexander Kluge remarks offscreen at the outset of his latest feature, ‘and cinema teaches her that this power exists.’ The task of making the invisible visible is essentially the project of a director more concerned with social and political history than with film history, who seems to regard his work as a translation of ideas into sounds and images rather than the other way round. What matters is what the words and images ‘say’ and imply in relation to each other -– not their independent formal qualities, but their capacity of modify and explicate a complex experience.

What do Kluge’s opening words say and imply? That film is a means of translating potentiality into actuality, feeling into thought, experience into understanding –- the very problem that Roswitha Bronski (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister) is struggling to cope with over the film’s duration.… Read more »

JUGGERNAUT (1974 review)

From Time Out (London), October 11-17, 1974. –- J.R.

 

Up to now, Richard Lester has been in the habit of either attacking genres (‘How I Won the War’) or mixing them (‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ –- in the case of ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ virtually inventing a new genre out of the mixture). In ‘Juggernaut’, a commercial job with relatively modest pretensions, he is simply conforming to a genre -– the Ocean Liner catastrophe –- and comes up with a better-crafted version of ‘The Poseidon Adventure’, complete with multiple subplots and cornball heroics, but with smoother acting and sharper direction. The potential catastrophe is seven steel drums of amatol timed to go off and destroy 1200 passengers unless a ransom is delivered to the mysterious Juggernaut. Using such varied ingredients as the flamboyance of Richard Harris, the stolid inexpressiveness of Omar Sharif and the usual carrying on of Roy Kinnear, Lester milks the situation for all the suspense that can be expected and then some, pushing a few arch gags into the remaining cracks. The results: mindless entertainment of the first order, at least in the Ocean Liner Catastrophe cycle.Read more »