Daily Archives: January 2, 2020

The Mysterious Elaine May: Hiding in Plain Sight

This was written for the Writers Guild magazine Written By; it ran in their August 1997 issue and was later reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.

My comparison of May with Erich von Stroheim, which may sound frivolous, is actually something I take very seriously. Both filmmakers are mainstream figures with the temperaments of avant-garde artists; Orson Welles’ description of Stroheim’s style as “Jewish baroque” also fits May’s quite well; and perhaps most significantly of all, both of these highly obsessional writer-director-performers create films populated almost exclusively by monsters, yet characters whom their creators clearly love. In this latter respect, May might even be considered more radical than Stroheim because one can’t cite a single villain in her four features — unlike, say, Schani the butcher (Matthew Betz) in Stroheim’s The Wedding March. Furthermore, for me, the two greatest Stroheim films, Foolish Wives and Greed, are echoed in many respects by The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky, the two best films of May.

On the evening of June 27, 2010, in Bologna, Italy, I had the rare, unexpected, and delightful privilege of spending a couple of hours with May. It was a friendly conversation over dinner rather than any sort of interview, but she did tell me in passing a few things about her life and work that I’ve added to this piece as footnotes.Read more »

Pierrot Le Fou

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“I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple,” Jean-Luc Godard said of this brilliant, all-over-the-place adventure and meditation about two lovers on the run (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina). Made in 1965, this film, with its ravishing colors and beautiful ‘Scope camerawork by Raoul Coutard, still looks as iconoclastic and fresh as it did when it belatedly opened in the U.S. Godard’s misogynistic view of women as the ultimate betrayers is integral to the romanticism in much of his 60s work — and perhaps never more so than here — but Karina’s charisma makes this pretty easy to ignore most of the time. The movie’s frequent shifts in style, emotion, and narrative are both challenging and intoxicating: American director Samuel Fuller turns up at a party scene to offer his definition of cinema, Karina performs two memorable songs in musical-comedy fashion, Belmondo’s character quotes copiously from his reading, and a fair number of red and blue cars are stolen and destroyed. In French with subtitles. 110 min. (JR)

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Final Bow

It’s really sad: Wikipedia had listings for no less than eight different men named John Berry when I originally posted this article, but the film director (1917-1999) wasn’t one of them (fortunately, this is no longer the case); and you won’t find an article about him in Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors, either. I can’t say I knew the man well. but I consider myself fortunate to have spent some time with him in a variety of places — including film festivals in Rotterdam and Vienna, in Paris, and even one enjoyable evening at a jazz disco in Taipei. His accounts of his experiences with Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater -– which included several hours of holding up scenery during the shooting of Too Much Johnson — were priceless.

The following comes from the February 2, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Boesman & Lena ***

Directed by John Berry.

Written by Athol Fugard and Berry.

With Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, and Willie Jonah.

Director John Berry got his big start as an actor in Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles then introduced him to film in 1938 when he hired him as assistant director on a silent slapstick film made to accompany and introduce portions of the stage farce Too Much Johnson.… Read more »