Monthly Archives: January 2020

Strange Bedfellows [on NANOU & WE THE LIVING]

From the Chicago Reader (January 27, 1989). — J.R.

NANOU

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Conny Templeman

With Imogen Stubbs, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Christophe Lidon, Valentine Pelka, Roger Ibanez, Daniel Day Lewis, and Lou Castel.

WE THE LIVING

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Goffredo Alessandrini

Written by Anton Giulio Majano

With Alida Valli, Rossano Brazzi, Fosco Giachetti, Emilio Cigoli, Cesarina Gheraldi, Giovanni Grasso, and Guglielmo Sinaz.

There’s obviously a world of difference between Nanou, a low-budget Anglo-French coproduction of 1986, playing this week at the Film Center, and We the Living, a big-budget Italian movie of 1942, adapted from Ayn Rand’s first novel, playing this week at Facets Multimedia. But in certain areas they have an interesting relationship to one another. Both films come to us filtered through diverse national contexts, and both are love stories in which intense political commitment plays a substantial role — a role that is erotic as well as ideological and ethical in its implications. Where they differ most strikingly is in their underlying political assumptions, and in the way their narratives relate to those assumptions.

Nanou, shot entirely on locations in France and Switzerland and utilizing mainly French dialogue, is nonetheless an English film, in style as well as overall conception.… Read more »

The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). — J.R.

the-wonderful-horrible-life-of-leni-riefenstahl-1-1

A fascinating if irritating and ultimately unsatisfactory 1993 German documentary by Ray Müller about the remarkable filmmaker whose work provided Nazi Germany with its greatest propaganda. It’s important to know that this film was made at Riefenstahl’s own instigation, clearly designed to accompany her then recently published autobiography, and that she had veto power over who would be interviewed (don’t expect to see Susan Sontag here). Consequently this is more often self-portrait than portrait; like Hitler in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, she’s presented as a fully formed deity without family background or ideology except for a reverence for beauty and strength. Admittedly, compared to the Nazi industrialists who went unpunished, she has suffered disproportionately for her Nazi associations (albeit far less than any Jew who was gassed), and she deserves full recognition as an extraordinary woman; even in her early 90s she remained a courageous deep-sea diver, as the film shows. But at 182 minutes the film has only a few skeptical asides, and it shirks certain basic historical facts — allowing its subject to insist, for instance, that Triumph of the Will was a “straight” documentary, with no allusion to all the carefully crafted studio retakes.… Read more »

Can Films Be Fascist?

This originally appeared in the June 24, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader, with a slightly different title (“Can Film Be Fascist?”) —J.R.

** THE WONDERFUL HORRIBLE LIFE OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL

(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Ray Muller.

*** THE EYE OF VICHY

(A must-see)

Directed by Claude Chabrol

Written by Jean-Pierre Azema and Robert O. Paxton.

Last year, about the time that Ray Muller’s mediocre if watchable three-hour documentary about Leni Riefenstahl was getting widespread coverage in New York, a European friend thoughtfully sent me a tape of Looking at “Triumph of the Will”, an excellent 45-minute BBC program designed to introduce Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film to a contemporary audience. Interviewing such commentators as Hugh Hudson, Annette Insdorf, Claude Lanzmann, George Steiner, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Budd Schulberg, and Brian Winston, the program offered diverse historical, ideological, and aesthetic perspectives without privileging any single point of view. Riefenstahl herself refused to be interviewed, yet her own self-serving interpretation of her career was included, as well as that of one of her American apologists — David Hinton, the author of a book about her, who argues, as Riefenstahl does, that Triumph of the Will should not be regarded as propaganda.… Read more »

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 »