Yearly Archives: 2020

SAFE and Sorry

A kind of ten-best meditation for Artforum, December 1995 (vol. 34, issue 4), that anticipates some of my arguments in my subsequent book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See. Incidentally, I’ve since then come to value Showgirls (and, more generally, Paul Verhoeven) far more than I did 25 years ago, politically and otherwise. — J.R.

In October I compiled three lists for my own schizoid edification. The first consisted of the 50 best films I had seen this year at festivals in Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, and Toronto and as a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee (which entailed a screening of 100 more films in August). The second was my impression of what comprised the 50 most discussed films released in the United States this year; my third list was a selection of what I considered the 20 most important releases, whether they were widely discussed or not. Only one feature appears on all three lists — Todd Haynes’ Safe.

One reason for the lack of overlap between my three lists is that, unless it’s a big-studio product, a film usually takes at least a year to open commercially in the United States after its premiere at festivals, ensuring that we remain something of a last-stop backwater when it comes to most non-Hollywood movies.… Read more »

Us and Them [BLOOD IN THE FACE]

From the December 6, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

BLOOD IN THE FACE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty, and James Ridgeway

If memory serves, it was around my junior year in college, during the mid-60s, when a conservative classmate took my brother and me to a John Birch Society meeting in Hyde Park, New York, held inside a trailer in a trailer camp. The friend advised us to conceal our identities as liberal Jews (he was half Jewish himself) and try to blend in with the surroundings, which we did.

It was a sparsely attended meeting. Before that we made small talk with the handful of other people present — including the couple who owned the trailer and a young man who identified himself as the son of communists and who cheerfully explained that the society had deliberately adopted the structure of the Communist Party, complete with cell meetings like this one and vows of secrecy. He and everyone else in the room seemed friendly, normal everyday folks, until the film projector blew a fuse just as they began to screen a movie.

Then the paranoid speculations began: they made extensive flashlight searches of the yard around the trailer, looking for spies and saboteurs.… Read more »

Expatriate Filmmaking, For Better and For Worse

From Stop Smiling, issue 36, 2008. — J.R.

It’s easy to argue that most of the greatest filmmakers in the history of movies can’t be reduced to single nationalities, and that an uncommon number of them worked as expatriates. “I’m not at home anywhere,” declares Friedrich Munro (Patrick Bauchau), the expatriate director-hero in Wim Wenders’ underrated The State of Things (1982) — shooting an apocalyptic SF film in a remote corner of Portugal until money suddenly runs out and he has to chase down the producer (Allen Garfield) in Hollywood, who appears to be fleeing from the Mafia. This line is actually a quote from a real-life, very great German expatriate director with a similar name, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. And it might be argued that a condition of homelessness has helped more major filmmakers than it’s hurt, maybe because it’s forced them to reinvent themselves — a process that has also often entailed reinventing their cinema.

Some examples of this tendency may not be immediately obvious. Luis Buñuel is usually regarded as quintessentially Spanish, yet he only made three films that fully qualify as Spanish — a short documentary called Land without Bread (1932) and two features, Viridiana (1961) and Tristana (1970).… Read more »

Criminal Genius [THIEVES]

This review of a major film, Andre Téchiné’s Les voleurs (Thieves), that was (perhaps typically, at least for this period) completely ignored in The New Yorker – along with Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man from the previous year — appeared in the December 27, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Thieves

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Andre Téchiné

Written by Téchiné, Gilles Taurand, Michel Alexandre, and Pascal Bonitzer

With Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Laurence Côte, Fabienne Babe, Julien Riviére, Benoît Magimel, Didier Bezace, and Ivan Desny.

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

“Before Christ was a time of orgies. Then came love.”

“Love’s less fun.”

“Probably. In orgies you give your all. No more, no less. In love, it’s never enough. It’s always too much or not enough.” –a conversation in Thieves between a philosophy professor (Catherine Deneuve) and a policeman (Daniel Auteuil) in love with the same woman

When was the last time you saw a movie that was truly for as well as about grown-ups? Whatever the virtues of Breaking the Waves, a mature point of view certainly isn’t one of them.… Read more »

Albert Brooks, Triple-Threat Truth-Teller

The following was commissioned in 1999 by Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild, which decided not to run it because Brooks’s agent refused to let me see The Muse in advance for this article unless a “cover story” was promised. Written By, to its credit, refuses to make deals of this kind. So the magazine paid me for the article and didn’t run it, which I hope made Brooks’s agent properly proud of his efforts. — J.R.

You may recall him as the wealthy convict in Out of Sight, or, prior to that, as Cybill Shepherd’s wisecracking cohort at the campaign headquarters in Taxi Driver, as Holly Hunter’s best friend in Broadcast News, or as the neurotic Hollywood producer in I’ll Do Anything. Maybe, if you’re luckier, you’ve seen his five underrated and highly durable comedies – Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985), Defending Your Life (1991), and Mother (1996) — which will be succeeded later this year by The Muse.

Albert Brooks has so far taken solo writing credit only on Defending Your Life — sharing script credit with TV comedy writer Monica Johnson on the other four (as well as on The Scout, a disappointing 1994 baseball movie he didn’t direct), and also with Harry Shearer on Real Life, the first and probably the funniest of the lot.Read more »

The Road to Overload [NORTH ON EVERS]

From the Chicago Reader (October 2, 1992). — J.R.

NORTH ON EVERS

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by James Benning.

A good many of the fine points of the film business elude me. But if I understand some of the current rules correctly, it’s poison to use black-and-white cinematography, letterboxing (for framing wide-screen formats on video), or subtitles –unless they appear in music videos or, in the case of subtitles, in Dances With Wolves or The Last of the Mohicans, when they automatically become commercially desirable.

I cite these ridiculous rules of thumb to show just how fanciful most such commercial “rules” turn out to be. Producers, distributors, and exhibitors often claim that their choices are dictated by the well-researched desires of audiences; of course audiences counter that they can only choose from what’s put in front of them. In other words everyone passes the buck when it comes to explaining why black-and-white features can’t get bankrolled in this country and why foreign-language films have a tough time — only 1 percent of all movies shown here are subtitled. And the industry takes enormous pains to ensure that we don’t see letterboxing on TV or video — except on MTV.… Read more »

Arizona Dream

From the December 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

arizonadream

The first English-language movie (1993) by Bosnian director Emir Kusturica. An orphan (Johnny Depp) working for the New York Department of Fish and Game is asked to serve as best man at the wedding of his uncle (Jerry Lewis), an Arizona Cadillac dealer marrying a Polish woman (Paulina Porizkova) less than half his age. A cousin who comes along (Vincent Gallo) is an aspiring actor whose performances consist of repeating lines and gestures in sync with classic movies. The orphan starts an affair with a widow (Faye Dunaway) nearly twice his age who lives with her neurotic stepdaughter (Lili Taylor). This goofy, disturbing piece of magical realism about dysfunctional families was picked up by Warners, cut by 23 minutes, unsuccessfully test-marketed, and then shelved — until someone got the great idea of releasing the original 142-minute cut. It illustrates the truism that the biggest difference between European and American directors using America as a site for fantasies is that the Europeans are likelier to know what they’re doing. (JR)

arizona-dream

SCIENCE: GOOD, BAD AND BOGUS (book review)

From the Village Voice (June 1, 1982). — J.R.

SCIENCE: GOOD, BAD AND BOGUS by Martin Gardner. Prometheus, $18.95.

As an old fan of Fads and Fallcies in the name of Science, Martin Gardner’s classic ’50s “study in human gullibility,” I’ve been looking forward to a sequel for quite some time. This collection of 38 skeptical pieces about “pseudoscience” (from Uri Geller to UFOs, by way of ESP) and “eccentric fringes” (such as black holes, catastrophe theory, and talking apes) isn’t that sequel, but it’s the next best thing — an elegant paste-up of articles and book reviews Gardner has written over the past three decades.

Fads and Fallacies took up a veritable rogues’ gallery of cranks, bumblers, and hustlers through the ages — like Wilbur Gleen Voliva, who thought the earth was shaped like a pancake, or Colonel Dinshah Ghadiali, whose Spectro-Chrome Therapy prescribed colored lights and a proper diet for every ailment. Thanks to the warm amusement of the man who brought us The Annotated Alice, these characters were often imbued with a certain Gogolian density even as Gardner dispassionately tore their science to shreds. Faced with his less humorous contemporaries in Science: Good, Bad and Bogus, Gardner has to forgo much of this novelistic bent — an aesthetic loss, in some ways, but also a practical gain.… Read more »

SWANN IN LOVE (1986 review)

From the March 1986 Video Times. — J.R.

(1984), C, Director: Volker Schlöndorff. With Jeremy Irons, Ornella Muti, Alain Delon, Fanny Ardant, and Marie-Christine Barrault. 110 min. Subtitled. Cinematheque (Media). $59.95.

They said it couldn’t be done, and strictly speaking, it hasn’t been. Proust is ultimately as unfilmable a writer as they come, and any attempt to translate his work to the screen has to be chancy undertaking. But if we approach Swann in Love as variations on a theme by Proust — a work in its own right, and not an effort to translate the untranslatable — then director Volker Schlöndorff’s elegant film emerges as much finer than critics have admitted.

Clearly, any work as labyrinthine as Remembrance of Things Past – or even Swann in Love, the lengthy, self-contained section of the first volume on which this film concentrates — has to be drastically simplified and formally revamped in order to fit within the borders of a feature film. The solution adopted is to focus almost exclusively on the events of a single pivotal day in the plot. Charles Swann (Jeremy Irons). a wealthy Jewish art critic of 19th-century Paris  who moves in aristocratic circles, discovers over this day that his infatuation with the courtesan Odette de Crécy (Ornella Muti) has grown into a jealous obsession.… Read more »

THE LATE MATHIAS PASCAL (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 505). A tinted restoration of this film was presented at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato with a beautiful, large-orchestra score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock a few years back, and I must say that this very impressive presentation substantially transformed my original skepticism, fully demonstrating how much difference a serious archival restoration can make. And Flicker Alley has brought out this version on a lovely Blu-Ray, which I can heartily recommend. – J.R.

Feu Mathias Pascal
(The Late Mathias Pascal)

France, 1925
Director: Marcel L’Herbier

Miragno, Italy. Acting on behalf of herself, her son Mathias and her sister-in-law Scolastique, Maria Pascal authorises agent Batta Maldagna to sell her property; worried about her debts, he sells it at one-sixth its value. Mathias’ shy friend Pomino, secretly in Iove with Romilde Pescatore, asks Mathias to propose to her on his behalf at a village fête. Discovering that she is-in love with himself, Mathias marries her instead, but soon finds his life made miserable by his shrewish mother-in-law, who holds sway over Romilde. He goes to work at the chaotic municipal library, where his time is largely spent contriving to catch rats. After the nearly simultaneous deaths of his mother and infant daughter, he flees to Monte Carlo, where, by following the advice of a gambler who tells him to bet on 12, he unexpectedly wins a fortune.… Read more »

JERRY LEWIS IN PERSON

A book review published in the Village Voice (January 25, 1983). The version below restores some of the details deleted by an editor. — J.R.

JERRY LEWIS IN PERSON

By Jerry Lewis with Herb Gluck

Atheneum, $14.95

As a longtime Lewis fan who has lived in Paris, I have less curiosity about the French passion for him than most Americans. The unbridled sweep of the all-American ego at its most infantile and traumatized has always been an object of awe and fascination for the French; think of their celebrations of Poe and Faulkner, H.P. Lovecraft and Orson Welles. Call Jerry Lewis “America” (or vice versa) and you have a recognizable psychosexual object that signifies something more than slapstick and telethons. You also have an explanation for why some part of us despises the man — for rubbing our noses into potential traumas we claim to have outgrown, postulating his hysterical comedy as the literal cutting edge of our equilibrium.

One doesn’t ordinarily turn to an as-told-to show-biz memoir for extended self-analysis. But Jerry Lewis In Person exudes an uncomfortable candor that may actually endear Lewis to some of his detractors, while making admirers like me squirm a bit. The childhood sections which predictably dominate depict not only the lonely New Jersey misfit I expected, but also the street-smart chutzpah of a semi-abandoned tough guy who dreamt of murdering his grandfather, killed his cat in a rage when he was five, hated his show-biz parents for not even showing up to his bar mitzveh, and habitually socked anti-Semites and other wise guys (including his high school principal) in the mouth.… Read more »

Fear of Feminism [FATAL ATTRACTION]

This is one of the first hatchet jobs that I wrote for the Chicago Reader, which ran on October 2, 1987.  – J.R.

FATAL ATTRACTION

no stars (Worthless)

Directed by Adrian Lyne

Written by James Dearden

With Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, and Stuart Pankin.

“A profoundly uninteresting married yuppie lawyer (Michael Douglas) has a weekend affair with a profoundly uninteresting unmarried yuppie book editor (Glenn Close). The latter proves to be insane and makes the former’s life a living hell as soon as he ends the relationship, and the plot gradually turns into a sort of upscale remake of The Exorcist, with female sexuality (personified by Close) taking over the part of the Devil, and yuppie domesticity (personified by Douglas, wife Anne Archer, and daughter Ellen Hamilton Latzen) assuming the role of innocence. While billed as a romance and a thriller, the movie strictly qualifies as neither. The major emotions appealed to are prurient guilt, hatred, and dread; and with director Adrian Lyne shoving objects like a knife, a boiling pot, and an overflowing bath in the spectator’s face to signal that Something Awful’s Going to Happen, he can’t be expected to display any curiosity about the motivations of the spurned antiheroine, who eventually becomes, simply, an extraterrestrial robot killer.… Read more »

Reel Life: Richard Pena’s Film Center Testament

From the May 13, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The notion of the “testament” — the final work of a major filmmaker — is an important one to film lovers. It can be traced back to the 60s, specifically to the French New Wave and the forging in this country of the concept of the film auteur, a time when these and related phenomena were altering the official canons of movie culture. Starting next Tuesday, May 17, the Film Center of the Art Institute will present a weekly series of testaments to run through the end of June.

A lot of the movies included in “Testaments: Final Films of the Great Directors” were getting their first releases back in those days. And almost invariably, they were dying at the box office and at the hands of most mainstream reviewers, while a team of passionate and informed enthusiasts were singing their praises. Bloody religious wars were waged over these movies; in most cases, they’re still being waged.

Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), for example, and John Ford’s Seven Women (1966) are movies that separate the sheep from the goats as far as aficionados of their directors are concerned.… Read more »

Hollywood Types [THE MODERNS]

From the Chicago Reader (May 13, 1988). — J.R.

THE MODERNS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Alan Rudolph

Written by Rudolph and Jon Bradshaw

With Keith Carradine, Linda Fiorentino, Geneviève Bujold, Geraldine Chaplin, Wallace Shawn, Kevin J. O’Connor, and John Lone.

For its first hour, at least, The Moderns gives us an Alan Rudolph very nearly back at the top of his form, on a level that approaches that of his two masterpieces, Remember My Name and Choose Me. The effort isn’t sustained — and the movie encounters a number of booby traps, emerging more than a little battle scarred — but it still qualifies as far and away the most ambitious Rudolph movie to date. Painters and art critics who were offended by the treatment of art forgery in Orson Welles’s F for Fake will probably be even more outraged by Rudolph’s tracing of related ironies, set in what purports to be the Paris of 1926. But those who are will be missing something enjoyable.

Fundamentally a gifted stylist with only a couple of effective stories to tell — usually “romantic” yarns that progressively unravel their own artificiality, inviting the viewer to reassemble them — Rudolph has had an unusually scattered and elusive career.… Read more »

Light Fantastic [THE LIGHTED FIELD]

From the Chicago Reader (April 29, 1988). Note: The Andrew Noren stills are copyrighted by his estate. — J.R.

THE LIGHTED FIELD

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Andrew Noren.

I’m a light thief and a shadow bandit. I deal in retinal phantoms. Film is illusion, period, however you choose to see it — shadows of human delights and adversities or raging conflicts of emulsion grains. We see only “films” of films, as all of our sight and sensing is illusion, the phantom movies of our encounter with the world, which, remember, is equally phantom, trompe l’oeil of that clown and ghostmeister, the sun.

The lovers, light and shadow, and their offspring space and time are my themes, working with their particularities is my passion and delight. — Andrew Noren

The difference between narrative and nonnarrative filmmaking is a little bit like the difference between team sports and individual exercise. In contrast to a collective game with a beginning, a middle, and an end, personal exercise tends to be more rhythmically repetitive, involved more with process and with cycles than with development, and moves with a steadier pulse that eschews the more unpredictable dynamics of drama and suspense.

Andrew Noren’s lovely 59-minute The Lighted Field — part five of his ongoing work The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse, which has engaged him over the past two decades — belongs mainly to the nonnarrative realm.… Read more »