Written for MUBI Notebook in April 2020. — J.R.
It’s disconcerting that the collected writings in English of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers currently sells for $852 on Amazon — or a whopping $980, if you opt for the paperback — while the only American book about him downgrades his work’s artistic value in its very title (Vance Kepley’s 1985 In the Service of the State: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko). Look him up on Wikipedia, and you find that his name is shared by a poker player and a psychiatrist — hardly fit company for the epic, poetic Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956), a pagan mystic whose masterful films look as wildly experimental, as dreamlike, as hysterically funny, as fiercely tragic, and as beautiful today as they did a century ago.
A Cold War casualty, often defined in the West as a Russian Communist and in Russia as a turncoat, this Ukrainian nationalist lived under KGB surveillance for most of his life — which may help to explain why his devoted second wife Julia Solntseva, who filmed many of his unrealized scripts after his death, had joined the KGB herself, possibly in order to protect her husband. And as one of his better Western explicators, Ray Uzwyshyn, has pointed out, “With regard to the non-Russian republics (i.e.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 20, 2001). — J.R.
John Carpenter at his most enjoyable generally means ‘Scope, working-class sass, kick-ass antiestablishment heroes, typecast villains who individually suggest quiet serial killers and collectively resemble hordes of whooping savages, a minimalist music score by Carpenter himself, and an overall affection for the way action movies looked and sounded 50 years ago. This movie — an action romp in which cops and prisoners go up against vengeful martian spirits on a colonized Mars in the year 2176 — adds a few more likable ingredients: a flashback structure with several overlapping points of view, great use of Ice Cube and Pam Grier, lap dissolves, and a notion of shifting alliances that keeps things hopping. (Natasha Henstridge as the head cop is pretty lively too.) As in many other Carpenter movies both good and bad, a lot of the cramped settings can be traced back to the original version of The Thing. With Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, and Joanna Cassidy; Larry Sulkis collaborated with Carpenter on the script. 98 min. (JR)
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This review originally appeared in the March 28, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader.-— J.R.
The Graduate **
Directed by Mike NicholsWritten by Buck Henry and Calder WillinghamWith Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross,William Daniels, MurrayHamilton, Elizabeth Wilson,and Brian Avery.
If I feel myself as the producer of my life, then I am unhappy. So I would rather be a spectator of my life. I would rather change my life this way since I cannot change it in society. So at night I see films that are different from my experiences during the day. Thus there is a strict separation between experience and the cinema. That is the obstacle for our films. For we are people of the 60s, and we do not believe in the opposition between experience and fiction. –- Alexander Kluge, 1988
The Graduate opened in December 1967, the same month the first successful human heart transplant was performed. It was a few weeks after the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde and about three months before the launching of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Among the albums that came out the same year were the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free.… Read more »
From Film Comment. In a few slight particulars, I’ve taken the liberty of editing my 30-year-old self 47 years later. I’ve also omitted the remarks about several recent French film books (apart from Benayoun’s) that concluded this column. — J.R.
The admiration of French cinéastes for Jerry Lewis continues to be in evidence everywhere. In an interview in the current Time Out [in London], Jean-Pierre Gorin pays his own respect to Lewis’s greatness – over the protests of his interviewers – for the “experimental” and “scientific” ways that he deals with sound and image, cutting and plot construction, adding that Godard has seen WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? (which “is almost mathematical if you look into it deeply”) five times. And in DOCTEUR POPAUL, Chabrol’s latest film, Mia Farrow is furnished with eyeglasses and buck teeth to make her resemble Julius Kelp in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, while Jean-Paul Belmondo is run through a series of sight-gags that are clearly Lewis-inspired.
To my mind, Chabrol’s pastiches are vastly inferior to Lewis’s originals, and DOCTEUR POPAUL is less worthy of American release than Chabrol’s earlier OPHÉLIA, LA RUPTURE, or JUSTE AVANT LA NUIT (the last-named, a perverse and elegant companion-piece of LA FEMME INFIDÈLE, is probably the best of the lot).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 1996). — J.R.
Rumble in the Bronx
Directed by Stanley Tong
Written by Edward Tang and Fibe Ma
With Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Francoise Yip, and Bill Tung.
Directed by John Woo
Written by Graham Yost
With John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Delroy Lindo, Bob Gunton, and Frank Whaley.
Many people who’ve seen Saturday Night Fever probably remember the poster of a bare-chested Sylvester Stallone as Rocky in the bedroom of Tony (John Travolta), the king of Brooklyn disco. But how many recall the poster of a bare-chested Bruce Lee as well? In the nearly two decades since Saturday Night Fever was released, the dream of wedding Hong Kong action pyrotechnics with Hollywood production values to conquer the American mainstream has surfaced periodically, but until recently the results have seemed halfhearted at best.
I haven’t seen any of the earlier Jackie Chan vehicles with American settings — films like The Big Brawl (1980) and The Cannonball Run (1981) — but it’s clear that none of these succeeded in turning Chan into an American household word. At most he’s become an alternative action hero for some passionate aficionados — especially in Chicago, where Barbara Scharres’s efforts at the Film Center to honor his work, climaxing in an in-person appearance a few years back, have helped to foster a growing cult.… Read more »
Even though much of this early piece of mine about Ruiz (also available in my collection Placing Movies), originally published in separate versions in 1987 and 1990, is out of date by now, and also incorrect in spots, I’ve decided to reprint and illustrate it here, over three decades later, because of the way Ruiz inspired me to play various games of my own, as he did several years later when I wrote about him at some length again (here). (August 2011, shortly after Ruiz’s tragic death, I’ve also updated the illustrations for my 2002 interview with him for Cinema Scope.) — J.R.
The sheer otherness of Râúl Ruiz in a North American context has a lot to do with the peculiarities of funding in European state-operated television that make different kinds of work possible. The eccentric filmmaker in the United States or Canada who wants to make marginal films usually has to adopt the badge or shield of a school or genre — art film, avant-garde film, punk film, feminist film, documentary, or academic theory film— in order to get funding at one end, distribution, promotion, and criticism at the other. Ruiz, however, needs only to accept the institutional framework of state television — which offers, as he puts it, holes to be filled — and he automatically acquires a commission and an audience without having to settle on any binding affiliation or label beyond the open-ended rubric of “culture” or “education.” Consequently, the sheer existence of Ruiz’s massive, varied work constitutes a genuine affront to the capitalist definitions of experiment governing our own culture.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 1988). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Dennis Hopper
Written by Michael Schiffer and Richard Dilello
With Sean Penn, Robert Duvall, Maria Conchita Alonso, Randy Brooks, Grand Bush, Don Cheadle, Glenn Plummer, and Rudy Ramos.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Tengiz Abuladze
Written by Nana Djanelidze, Tengiz Abuladze, and Rezo Kveselava
With Avtandil Makharadze, Zeinab Botsvadze, Ketevan Abuladze, Edisher Giorgobiani, Kakhi Kavsadze, Iya Ninidze, and Merab Ninidze.
For several weeks now, I’ve been trying to get a fix on what irritates me so much about Colors. Seeing it again recently, and then seeing Repentance for the first time the next day, a few hours before I started this review, gave me the beginning of an answer, and it isn’t a pretty one. If these films can be said to represent what “social criticism” currently means in the respective cultures of the U.S. and the Soviet Union — and, after a certain amount of boiling and scraping, I think that they can — then it seems to me we’re in trouble.
It’s been estimated that over 60 million Russians have already seen Repentance, the most prominent of all the belated, post-glasnost Soviet releases — scripted in 1981-82, filmed in 1984, and apparently shelved for only two years prior to the thaw.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1994). — J.R.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger transfer the plot of Johann Strauss’s opera Die Fledermaus to postwar Vienna for a 1955 musical filmed in Technicolor and ‘Scope. Not one of their best movies (cf The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death), but it’s certainly an engaging mannerist oddity that calls to mind such contemporary cross-references in delirium as Frank Tashlin and Vincente Minnelli, and the cast — Anton Walbrook, Michael Redgrave, Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer, Dennis Price, and Ludmilla Tcherina — is occasionally as enterprising as the candy-box decor. (JR)
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From the June 5, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Naked Spur
Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom
With James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, and Millard Mitchell.
Man of the West
Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Reginald Rose
With Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord, John Dehmer, Royal Dano, and Robert Wilke.
Q: What is the starting point for The Naked Spur?
A: We were in magnificent countryside — in Durango — and everything lent itself to improvisation. I never understood why almost all westerns are shot in desert landscapes! John Ford, for example, adores Monument Valley, but I know Monument Valley very well and it’s not the whole west. In fact, the desert represents only one part of the American west. I wanted to show the mountains, the waterfalls, the forested areas, the snowy summits — in short to rediscover the whole Daniel Boone atmosphere: the characters emerge more fully from such an environment. In that sense the shooting of The Naked Spur gave me some genuine satisfaction. –Anthony Mann in a 1967 interview
This seems to be landscape week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with Abbas Kiarostami’s sublime Where Is the Friend’s House?… Read more »
This appeared in the June 18, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Rene Hardy, Ray, and Gavin Lambert
With Richard Burton, Curt Jurgens, Ruth Roman, Raymond Pellegrin, Anthony Bushell, Andrew Crawford, Nigel Green, and Christopher Lee.
Jane Brand: What can I say to him?
Captain James Leith: Tell him all the things that women have always said to the men before they go to the wars. Tell him he’s a hero. Tell him he’s a good man. Tell him you’ll be waiting for him when he comes back. Tell him he’ll be making history. –Bitter Victory
This week, as part of its series devoted to war films, the Gene Siskel Film Center is showing a restored version of Nicholas Ray’s little-known masterpiece Bitter Victory—a powerful, albeit flawed, black-and-white CinemaScope feature set mainly in Libya during World War II. This 1957 film offers a radical reflection on war, and its relevance to the current war in Iraq goes beyond the desert settings and references to antiquity.
Many films are regarded as antiwar, including ones that proceed from antithetical premises; in the 60s a popular revival house in Manhattan liked to run a double bill of Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory.… Read more »
This was written in the mid-1970s for Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, a two-volume reference work edited by Richard Roud that wasn’t published until 1980 (by The Viking Press in the U.S. and Secker & Warburg in the U.K.), and reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.
Otto Preminger (born 1906) directed five films before Laura (1944) — one Austrian, four American — but since he disowns them, I haven’t seen them, and no commentator to my knowledge has ever spoken well of them, we might as well begin with the (false) assumption that a tabula rasa preceded his early masterpiece.
False assumptions — and clean slates that tend to function like mirrors — are usually central to our experience of Preminger’s work. His narrative lines are strewn with deceptive counter-paths, shifting viewpoints, and ambiguous characters who perpetually slip out of static categories and moral definitions, so that one can be backed out of a conventionally placid Hollywood mansion driveway by somebody and something called Angel Face (1952) (and embodied by Jean Simmons) only to be hurtled without warning over the edge of a cliff. As for tabulae rasae, there is Angel Face herself and her numerous weird sisters — among them Maggie McNamara in The Moon Is Blue (1953), Jean Seberg in Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Eva Marie Saint in Exodus (1960) and, closer to the cradle, the almost invisible Bunny Lake in Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) and Alexandra Hay in Skidoo (1968).… Read more »
My column for the Spring 2017 issue of Cinema Scope. - - J.R.
Probably the most important DVD release of last year, inexplicably overlooked by me when I made out my lists for Sight and Sound and DVD Beaver, is Josef von Sternberg: The Salvation Hunters (1925) and The Case of Lena Smith (fragment, 1929), a single all-region disc from www.edition-filmmuseum.com for 19.95 Euros. It includes a wonderful new 32-minute audiovisual essay on The Salvation Hunters by Janet Bergstrom, and a new score to Sternberg’s first feature by Siegfried Friedrich, but the real pièce de résistance here is the dazzling four-minute fragment from the otherwise lost The Case of Lena Smith, discovered by Japanese film historian Komatsu Hiroshi in a Chinese junk shop in Dalian in 2003. (See the Filmmuseum’s exhaustive 2007 book about The Case of Lena Smith for more details.) In Edgardo Cozarinsky’s 1995 Citizen Langlois, Langlois’ companion Mary Meerson is quoted as saying, “The Case of Lena Smith will reappear one day when mankind deserves it.” In the meantime, here is a fragrant glimpse of what undeserving mankind is missing.
Although most of the recent Blu-Ray releases of Olive Films have tended to steer clear of their previous auteurist commitments, Otto Preminger’s underrated if sometimes problematic 1969 Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is a very welcome exception.… Read more »
From Cineaste, Summer 2008 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 3). It’s gratifying that Such Good Friends has finally come out on DVD. — J.R.
The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger
by Chris Fujiwara. New York: Faber & Faber, 479 pp., illus. Hardcover: $35.00.
Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King
by Foster Hirsch. New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 573 pp., illus. Hardcover: $35.00
Few film directors resist critical biography as much as Otto Preminger, given all the puzzling and intractable mismatches one encounters as soon as one tries to reconcile his very public life with his no less private body of work as an auteur. This is a difficulty acknowledged in the title and subtitle of Chris Fujiwara’s book, and one he essentially tries to resolve by splitting most of his chapters into two sections. But the overall disassociation of Preminger’s life and work, even though it’s addressed by this structure, still becomes a kind of structuring absence that haunts this biography as well as Foster Hirsch’s, which tries to integrate the two concerns more conventionally.… Read more »
Otto Preminger took LSD before making this demented, vulgar 1968 screwball musical about hippies taking over the world, in which his own trip is re-created as Jackie Gleason’s. This isn’t exactly funny, and it’s the last Preminger film one would pick to convince a skeptic of his talent, but it’s fascinating throughout. The satirical plot pits hippies against corporate gangsters lorded over by someone named God (Groucho Marx in his last film performance), whom Gleason used to work for. The cast mainly consists of aging TV stars (Gleason, Marx, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang) and Hollywood has-beens (Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Fred Clark). Preminger’s celebration of the counterculture may be peculiar (Channing serves as the major go-between and, oddly enough, the sanest character), but it’s certainly sincere. Don’t miss the hallucinatory Garbage Can Ballet — the apotheosis of this cheerful garbage can of a movie — and the sung credits at the end. 98 min. (JR)
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From the January 1, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
In the first of his independent features as producer-director (1953) Otto Preminger adapts his most successful stage production, a light romantic comedy by F. Hugh Herbert that ran for over 900 performances. Released without production code approval and condemned by the Legion of Decency for its use of such taboo phrases as virgin, seduce, and pregnant, none of which bothered anyone in the stage run, it’s regarded today mainly as a curio. Yet for all the movie’s staginess and datedness, it’s a more personal and ambiguous work than it initially appears to be. Architect William Holden ogles and picks up professional virgin Maggie McNamara at the Empire State Building and brings her back to his apartment, where his next-door neighbors — his former girlfriend (Dawn Addams) and her playboy father (David Niven) — quickly involve this potential couple in various intrigues. A certain prurient (as well as analytical) curiosity in Preminger’s distanced and mobile camera style makes McNamara seem slightly corrupt and Holden and Niven slightly innocent, despite all appearances to the contrary, and the sour aftertaste to this frothy material is an important part of what keeps the picture interesting.… Read more »