This is the second of two interviews I’ve had with Michael Snow. (The first, “The `Presents‘ of Michael Snow,” can be found elsewhere on this site.) Commissioned by Simon Field, it ran in the Winter 1982/83 issue (no. 11) of the excellent English magazine Afterimage, a special issue called “Sighting Snow,” and it concerns both So Is This and Presents. I’ve incorporated some but not all of the additions from the version of this article that was reprinted in my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Arden Press). I regret some of the hectoring tone of my political rhetoric here, and it became clear to me after Film: The Front Line 1983 was published that Snow objected to some of this rhetoric in the book even more, thus curtailing some of our friendship that had prevailed beforehand. – -J.R.
Snowbound: A Dialogue with a Dialogue
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
A few specifics about what follows. Last September 15th, I taped an interview with Michael Snow at his home in Toronto.… Read more »
Now that I’ve seen three of the most recent half-dozen features of Jon Jost — Coming to Terms (2013, Butte, Montana), Blue Strait (2014, Port Angeles, Washington), and They Had it Coming: True Gentry County Stories (2015, Stanberry, Missouri), in that order — I find myself, unlike certain others (including Jost himself), preferring the third to the second and the second to the first. The reason why is that the basic theme of Jost’s narrative films for quite some time has been the tragic story of American men, some of them patriarchal, others simply burnt-out cases, losing their all-American souls — a theme that to my mind he already gave near-perfect expression to in his 1977 Last Chants for a Slow Dance (dead end) and which he has been spinning out periodically in diverse variations ever since. But to judge from the developments between these three recent features, this may be a story that Jost may finally be turning away from — for the sake of non-narrative meditations (especially in much of Blue Strait) and the stories of others (as in They Had it Coming), others whom in some cases may not even have discernible souls to lose. And for me, these are positive developments for a prodigious independent artist whose productivity is so difficult to chart that his eight separate blogs and two separate web sites make it even harder to track in its various forms and dispersals.… Read more »
From DVD Beaver (posted December 2007). — J.R.
The first John Ford film I can remember seeing, probably encountered around the time I was in first grade, was archetypal: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Apart from its uncommonly vibrant colors, this had just about everything a Ford movie was supposed to have: cavalry changes, drunken brawls, Monument Valley, and such standbys as John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Ford’s older brother Francis; only Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond were missing.
Ford was one of the very first auteurs I was aware of, along with Cecil B. De Mille, Walt Disney, and Alfred Hitchcock, and what made him especially distinctive was that he was apparently less restricted than the others to a single genre. De Mille made spectaculars, Disney did cartoons, and Hitchcock specialized in thrillers, but a Ford movie could be a western, a war movie, or something else.
The ten relatively neglected Ford movies I’ve singled out here include a few that still can’t be found on DVD. I might well have selected some others if I’d seen them more recently (I’m currently looking forward to re-seeing the 1945 They Were Expendable, for instance), but I’d none the less argue that all of these are well worth hunting down.… Read more »
From the June 11, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Bertolucci and Clare Peploe
With Thandie Newton, David Thewlis, and Claudio Santamaria.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Many times over the past three decades I’ve been close to giving up on Bernardo Bertolucci. The rapturous lift of his second feature, Before the Revolution (1964), promised more than he seemed prepared to deliver with the eclectic Partner (1968). Yet it was The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) rather than The Conformist (made just afterward and released the same year) that renewed my faith in his talent. Both movies, like Before the Revolution and Partner, were the flamboyant expressions of a guilt-ridden leftist, a spoiled rich kid with a baroque imagination and a social conscience that yielded dark and decadent ideas about privilege and guiltless fancies about sex. Where they differed for me was in the degree to which The Conformist succumbed to fashionable embroidery, a stylishness that took the place of style.
It was the relatively big budget The Conformist, an adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel, that made Bertolucci’s name in the world market and so influenced American movies that Coppola’s Godfather trilogy would have been inconceivable without it.… Read more »
My Spring 2014 DVD column for Cinema Scope, posted in March. — J.R.
There’s no question that DVDs and Blu-rays are fostering new viewing habits and also new critical protocols and processes in sizing up what we’re watching. A perfect example of what I mean is Criterion’s brilliant idea to release Kurosawa Akira’s Throne of Blood (1957) with two alternative sets of subtitles by Linda Hoaglund and the late Donald Richie, both of whom were also commissioned to write essays explaining the rationales and methodologies of their very different translations—a move that I already wrote about and praised in my fourth DVD column for this magazine, just over a decade ago. So I’m very happy to find these subtitles and essays preserved in Criterion’s new dual-format edition, providing an invaluable pedagogical tool that was (and still is) unavailable to anyone seeing Throne of Blood theatrically.
In 1963, after seeing Jules and Jim, I had the pleasure of reading Roger Greenspun about it in Sight & Sound. I regret this option isn’t readily available today, but I have to admit that in Criterion’s new dual-format edition, I have many other things I can turn to—I’m especially grateful for the dialogue between Dudley Andrew and Robert Stam, an interview with Truffaut’s co-writer Jean Gruault, and a fascinating documentary about the film’s real-life models, all of which, perversely or not, held my interest longer than seeing the film all the way through for the umpteenth time.… Read more »
My Winter 2019 column for Cinema Scope. — J.R.
Some of Roman Polanski’s early features — Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Tess (1979) — are centred on vulnerable women, but as Bitter Moon (1992) makes abundantly clear, these are all films predicated on the male gaze, as are the more recent and more impersonal films of his that come closest to qualifying as Oscar bait (The Pianist , arguably The Ghost Writer , and, I would presume, An Officer and a Spy). Bitter Moon even problematizes this fact by assigning that gaze to two mainly unsympathetic males (Peter Coyote and Hugh Grant), and defining it mostly as poisonous, and Venus in Fur (2013) carries this tendency further by explicitly labelling it sexist, meanwhile making the male figure (Mathieu Almaric) almost a dead ringer for Polanski as a young man. Based on a True Story (2017), by focusing almost exclusively on two women (Emmanuelle Seigner and Eva Green), seeks to minimize the male gaze even more, not so much by problematizing it as by making it closer to irrelevant. Polanski himself comments on this fact in the interview included on the Spanish DVD of this film (apparently the only way it can be seen with English subtitles translating its French dialogue, which is how I finally managed to catch up with it).… Read more »
My column for the April 2016 issue of Caimán Cuadenos de Cine. — J.R.
1. I can easily understand why some of Abel Ferrara’s biggest fans have certain reservations about his Pasolini, available now on a splendid region-B Blu-Ray from the BFI. Even if it’s a solid step forward from the stultifying silliness of Welcome to New York, it lacks the crazed, demonic poetry of Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, and New Rose Hotel; most disconcertingly, it’s a responsible, apparently well-researched treatment of one of the most irresponsible of film artists, made by another film artist generally cherished for his own irresponsibility. And stylistically, it’s almost as if Ferrara has moved from being the great-grandson of F.W. Murnau to being the grandson of Vincente Minnelli — although one could argue, more precisely, that this isn’t really an auteur film at all. Yet as a portrait of the great and uncontainable Pier Paolo Pasolini, filtered through the last day of his life –- a day focused on new creative work (a novel in progress and a film in preproduction) as well various other activities, at home and on the street -– it carries an undeniable conviction and emotional authenticity in which the prosaic strengths of Lust for Life may finally be more relevant to this film’s serious ambitions than the poetic flourishes of a Faust or a Tabu.… Read more »
From The Financial Times (Friday, July 2, 1976). This was the second and last time that I took over Nigel Andrews’ weekly film column while he away. — J.R.
Odeon, St. Martin’s Lane
When the Leaves Fall
National Film Theatre
Thirty-four years have passed since Walt Disney’s Bambi first hit the screen. Yet barring only its quaintly dated musical score – six unremarkable tunes by Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb that are well below the usual Disney standard – an unsuspecting child who can’t read Roman numerals might assume that it was made yesterday. It is no small irony that a movie only slightly more than half as old, Silk Stockings (1957), gets treated like a museum piece worthy of nostalgia in the recent That’s Entertainment Part II, while this animated feature gets born afresh for each new generation – not so much like a phoenix rising out of its ashes as like a display of calendar art circulated periodically, with only the dates changing.… Read more »
This appeared in the Chicago Reader on November 21, 2003. — J.R.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Larry Doyle
With Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Heather Locklear, and the voice of Joe Alaskey.
Ever since the word “auteur” became part of the standard English vocabulary in the late 60s and early 70s there’s been some confusion about its meaning. In French auteur simply means “author,” and when François Truffaut started formulating a “politique des auteurs,” or policy of authors, in Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-50s, he had in mind a critical policy that recognized the stylistic and thematic unity certain directors gave their films. And because politique means “politics” as well as “policy,” he was also implying a ranking of those directors.
In his early writings Andrew Sarris transformed these ideas into an “auteur theory” that focused less on policy and politics. This is where the confusion started, because it wasn’t clear to most people whether this was a theory about how films were made or about how they should be viewed and interpreted. Because the mainstream discourse centered on the powerful Hollywood studios, the theory came to be understood as focusing on how films were made, with the emphasis on film as a business.… Read more »
Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.
SHERLOCK JR. (1924)
In Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, which he directed
solo, he plays a lovesick movie projectionist who
climbs into the movie screen to solve a crime, walking
through several different kinds of movies and
landscapes in the process. Not simply a charming
dreamlike fantasy, this is also a lovely piece of
Americana circa 1924.
TWO TARS (1928)
A better-than-average Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
short about two sailors (or «two tars,» according to
the slang expression) on leave and their dates culminates
in an epic grudge match occurring in the midst
of an endless traffic jam, making this extravaganza
the ideal companion-piece to 1941. Supervised by
Leo McCarey and filmed by none other than
George Stevens, this was directed by Laurel and
Hardy regular James Parrott.
THE MUSIC BOX (1932)
Perhaps the greatest of Stan Laurel and Oliver
Hardy’s sound shorts (1932), which won them
an Academy Award, is a half-hour epic of sorts,
most of it devoted to their torturous efforts to deliver
a piano to a hilltop home.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 27, 1998). — J.R.
The Gingerbread Man
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by John Grisham and Al Hayes
With Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger, and Robert Duvall.
Some people are going to go to The Gingerbread Man looking for a John Grisham movie, and some are going to go looking for a Robert Altman film. Both are likely to be disappointed.
The alliance may have been a shotgun marriage presided over by desperate commerce, though the movie’s press book works overtime trying to put a positive spin on it: “Both Altman and Grisham champion the causes of Everyman underdogs who are fighting the system. Indeed, in their own different ways, these two artists are mavericks, outsiders-by-choice who examine a system and an orderly regimen that they have long ago abandoned. John Grisham left a successful legal practice for an even more lucrative literary career based in large part on his ability to accurately depict the shortcomings of our legal system and the behind-the-scenes machinations that are a routine part of that profession. And against considerable odds, Robert Altman has bucked the Hollywood establishment for 30 years, continuing to make distinctly personal movies exactly the way he wants to make them, ignoring the marketing driven, lowest-common-denominator sensibilities that seem to determine which studio films actually get made.”
But if The Gingerbread Man didn’t come out of a market-driven sensibility, it’s hard to imagine what else could have led to such a lackluster result — a movie with no driving justification at all.… Read more »
From Cineaste, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, September 2006. Viridiana is showing today in London as part of the massive Pere Portabella retrospective at the Close-up Film Centre. — J.R.
Spoilers ahead: The title heroine (Silvia Pinal) of
Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece, a Spanish novice
about to take her final vows, is ordered by her
mother superior to visit her rich uncle (Fernando
Rey), Don Jaime, who’s been supporting her over
the years but whom she barely knows. A
necrophiliac foot fetishist, he’s preoccupied with
how closely his beautiful niece resembles his
late wife, who died tragically on their wedding night,
and somehow manages to persuade Viridiana
to put on her wedding dress, which he’s
faithfully preserved. With the help of his servant
Ramona (Margarita Lozano), he then drugs her with the
intention of raping her, but deeply mortified by
his behavior, ultimately holds back and hangs
himself instead, using the skipping-rope he
previously gave to Ramona’s little girl.
If this opening strongly evokes the horror of a
Gothic novel — a form of literature Luis Buñuel
was especially drawn to — it takes on
further dimensions just after this suicide, an outcome
already complicated by the fact that Don Jaime,
no simple villain and highly principled, is shown rather
sympathetically.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, November 22, 2007. –J.R.
I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
I’ve owned copies of Don’t Look Back and Nashville Skyline for decades, but I’d never describe myself as a hard-core Bob Dylan fan. Obvious as his talent may be, he often mixes metaphors and combines images in a way that skirts the edge of incoherence. And as the appointed spokesman for my generation — born in 1941, only a couple of years before me — he sometimes strikes me as little more than a series of shifting masks and poses. So I went into I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s ambitious new film about the man, fully prepared to feel out of step, and was surprised to find my misgivings addressed at every turn. Widely described as a tribute, it frequently comes across as a series of insults.
To call the film biographical is misleading. If anything, it’s a speculative essay that uses Dylan to comment on his audience and the 60s in general. Haynes, a graduate of the semiotics department at Brown University, isn’t really concerned with Dylan as an individual; rather he presents him as a cluster of signs and texts, spread across six characters embodying phases or distinct aspects of his early career.… Read more »
From the November 22, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Far From Heaven
Directed and written by Todd Haynes
With Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, and James Rebhorn.
It becomes apparent that in this context, for practical purposes, “Sirk” does not denote a mood or a philosophy or a set of plot elements, but rather a repertoire of technical decisions. With that lexicon of effects, new sentences can be written. — Geoffrey O’Brien, writing on Far From Heaven in the November issue of Artforum
Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven – a revisionist pastiche of the Technicolor melodramas Douglas Sirk made for Universal Pictures in the 1950s — was easily, and in some ways deservedly, the most popular movie among critics at the Toronto film festival in September. Though less obviously a tour de force than many flashier recent art films, such as Alexander Sokurov’s one-take feature Russian Ark, it’s no less impressive as a technical achievement.
Despite the Toronto buzz, Far From Heaven may not become a hit, even in art theaters (though I’ve heard it had a strong opening week at the Landmark). Having twice discussed it with audiences (as part of Talk Cinema screenings at Northbrook and Pipers Alley), I’ve seen how it can divide viewers.… Read more »
This is one of a series of essays that I wrote in 2007 about four Fassbinder films for Madman, the Australian DVD label. The other three — on Martha, Katzelmacher, and The Bitter Tea of Petra von Kant – can be found elsewhere on this site. —J.R.
I’m still trying to figure out what I think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982). An awesomely prolific filmmaker (he turned out seven features in 1970 alone), he became the height of Euro-American fashion during the mid-70s, then went into nearly total eclipse after his death from a drug overdose –- reminding us that the fates of the fashionable can often be precarious.
Openly bisexual, tyrannical on his sets, and habitually dressed in a leather jacket, Fassbinder cut a starlike figure in the firmament of New German Cinema, though he was hardly alone. If the French New Wave of the 60s was mainly about films, the New German Cinema of the 70s was mainly about filmmakers, and each of the best-known directors had a claim to fame that was mainly a matter of public image: eccentric exhibitionism crossed with German romanticism (Werner Herzog), existentialist hip crossed with black attire and rock ‘n’ roll (Wim Wenders), Wagnerian pronouncements (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg), a dandy’s stupefied worship of shrines and divas (Werner Schroeter), and so on.… Read more »