Monthly Archives: March 2020

Changing (or Reflecting) the World: Cinema and its Discontents

 Commissioned by the Lima Film Festival in Peru in 2018. — J.R.

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Whenever someone tells me that it’s impossible for films to change the world, I like to point out that only half a year after Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta won the Paume d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, a new Belgian law known as “Plan Rosetta,” which prohibited employers from paying teenage workers less than the minimum wage, was passed. And one could further point out that Rosetta “changed the world” in several other ways: it launched the substantial acting career of its eponymous, 18-year-old lead actress, Émilie Dequenne, it greatly enhanced the careers of its writers-directors, and it deeply affected a good many spectators, myself included — viscerally, aesthetically, spiritually, and politically.

The visceral impact came first: From its opening seconds, Rosetta makes it clear that its heroine is angry — before it tells us who she is or what she’s angry about. Alain Marcoen’s virtuoso handheld camera, which stays close to her throughout the film, follows as she slams a door, strides through the industrial workplace where she’s just been laid off, and then assaults her boss when he insists that she leave. After taking the bus back to the trailer park where she lives with her alcoholic       mother, Rosetta stops briefly in the woods and methodically takes off her shoes and puts on a pair of boots hidden behind a large rock in a drainpipe.… Read more »

Review of ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND FILM-PHILOSOPHY

 From the April 2017 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.

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ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND FILM-PHILOSOPHY _____________________________________________________

By Mathew Abbott. Edinburgh University Press. 167 pp. UK£70.00. ISBN 9780393243123.

__________________________________________________________

Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

 

 

It isn’t only the hefty price that makes this volume look forbidding to most readers of this magazine. However inviting it might seem to regard the features of Abbas Kiarostami as genuine works of philosophy—not merely as philosophical statements but as brazen acts that challenge viewers into making them rethink and reformulate many of their assumptions about both life and cinema—the academic etiquette of tracing this concept through a labyrinth of other philosophers and other Kiarostami critics may often prove to be less user-friendly to the lay reader.  And it must be admitted that for readers more accustomed to journalistic paraphrase than to the rigours of scholarly hair-splitting and jargony word-spinning, a bumpy ride is in store. Mathew Abbott’s Introduction pivots on page 4 from Kiarostami to Stanley Cavell, but by this time the author has already had recourse to the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy on the previous page, and he will be chasing after Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Descartes soon afterwards

 

Even so, this book is after much bigger game than a daunting bibliography.… Read more »

Seven Views of Water under the Warsaw Bridge

 Posted on MUBI Notebook February 25, 2020. — J.R.

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1. Written in 2007 for Sight and Sound’s annual “five best” poll: “The beautiful and exciting fifth feature of Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella — the onetime coproducer of Viridiana who forged a memorable kind of clandestine experimental cinema under Franco with Vampir Cuadecuc (1970) and Umbracle (1972) — was made in 1989. But thanks to the overall scarcity of his work, I only caught up with it this year, at the first North American Portabella retrospective, held in Chicago in November. His work as a whole has been preoccupied with issues of continuity in almost every sense of that term — historical, political, thematic, narrative, poetic, musical, pictorial, sonic, stylistic, formal. And now that mainstream cinema has replaced Franco as the power to be subverted, continuities of narrative and those between sound and image are the principal orthodoxies to be played with.“

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2. In between its opening shot (rain falling on pavement) and its final shot (a plane spraying artificial rain –- actually a torrential downpour—on what remains of a burnt forest), Warsaw Bridge is concerned with both flow and contact, movement and collision, agitation and stasis. What might be said to flow and move, apart from water, is different kinds of narrative and different forms of information.… Read more »

Mark Rappaport [from FILM: THE FRONT LINE 1983]

The following is a chapter from my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver, CO: Arden Press) — which I’m sorry to say is only available now at ridiculously inflated prices (one copy at Amazon currently sells for $989.90). It probably remains the least well known of my books. I’m immensely grateful to Jed Rapfogel and Stephanie Gray at New York’s Anthology Film Archives for furnishing me with a document file of this essay so that I could post it here, originally to help promote their Mark Rappaport retrospective in March 2011, prior to the updated version of this held earlier this year. Readers should also consult my separate articles about Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg as well as my interview with Rappaport about the latter, all of which are also available on this site, along with a more recent piece about two of his videos.  — J.R.

When the critic of a narrative film is feeling desperate, the first place that he or she is likely to turn to is a plot summary. Feeling rather desperate about my capacity to do justice to the last two features of the remarkable Mark Rappaport, I looked up the synopses and reviews of The Scenic Route and Impostors in the usually reliable Monthly Film Bulletin, which appeared precisely three years apart (February 1979 and February 1982), only to discover that each critic, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Simon Field, respectively, starts off with the admission that his own synopsis is misleading.… Read more »

Selected Moments: Some Recollections of Movie Time

Commissioned by and written for a collection entitled Time, published in February, 2016 by Punto de Vista, Festival Internacional de Cine Documental de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. — J.R.

Selected Moments: Some Recollections of Movie Time

Florence_0431. My first sixteen years (1943-1959) — growing up in northwestern Alabama as the grandson and son of Jewish movie theater exhibitors — ensured that time and cinema were alternately parallel and crisscrossing rivers that coursed through my childhood, along with the Tennessee River that separated Florence from Sheffield. Florence, where I lived, had three of the Rosenbaum theaters, at least until 1951, all within a three-block radius, while Sheffield, which I could see across the river from my back yard, had two more theaters, one around the corner from the other. For Southerners like myself, the past was always present, a kind of double vision that movies taught me as well — a camera’s recording of the past becoming the present of both a screen and an audience, which then in retrospective memory becomes the past as well. And for Jews like myself, the past was also identity — meaning one’s past, present, and future. This explains why Lanzmann’s Shoah represents a shotgun marriage between the present tense of existentialism and the past tense of Judaism.… Read more »

CHRONIQUE D’UN ÉTÉ (CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER) (1961)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

A joint effort by French ethnographer-filmmaker Jean Rouch and French sociologist Edgar Morin (The Stars) yielded this remarkable 1961 documentary investigation into what Parisians — regarded as a “strange tribe” — were thinking and feeling during the summer of 1960. This was when the war in Algeria was still a hot issue, although many other topics are discussed as well, private as well as public. At first, everyone is asked, simply, “Are you happy?” More generally, the film catches the shifting emotional tenor of a few lives over a certain period.

The filmmakers treat their interview subjects with a great deal of respect and sensitivity. Among them are Marilou, an Italian emigre working as a secretary at Cahiers du Cinéma; a French student named Jean-Pierre; a factory worker named Angelo; an African student named Landry; a painter and his wife named Henri and Maddie; and a pollster named Marceline assisting with some of the other interviews.

Not only do we see these individuals in diverse groupings, even on holiday in St.-Tropez; we also see many of them becoming friends over the course of the film.… Read more »

First Look: Faat Kiné

From Film Comment (January-February 2001). –- J.R.

I blush to admit that I’ve still seen only half the eight features to date of Ousmane Sembene, made over a 33-year period as a supplement to his dozen or so volumes of fiction. Yet considering how difficult it generally is to track his remarkable and varied work on film or video that comes ridiculously close to qualifying me as an expert. (The fact that it typically takes a couple of years for a new Sembene film to reach these shores is commonly perceived as an African as opposed to American form of inertia, but I would think the responsibility for this state of affairs might be shared.)

The first and in many ways still the greatest of all African filmmakers — give or take a masterpiece or two each by Yousef Chahine, Souleymane Cissé, and Djibril Diop Mambety, among others — Sembene, born into the Senegal working class in 1923, started out as a gifted novelist who turned to filmmaking at the age of 40 chiefly in order to address more Africans. Yet because he’s a storyteller who regards film more as an extension of his prose than as an abstract calling, one of the clearest pleasures to be derived from his work is his propensity for reinventing the cinema – his own and everyone else’s — every time he embarks on a new feature.… Read more »

Letter to Shigehiko Hasumi (December 2016)

Written for the Japanese literary magazine Eureka‘s special issue devoted to Shigehiko Hasumi in early 2017. — J.R.

Hasumi

14 December 2016

Dear Shigehiko,

 

I’m indebted to you for a good many things, including my very first visit to Japan. This was eighteen years ago, in December 1998, to participate in a panel about Ozu that you organized for Shochiko in Tokyo, significantly titled “Yasujiro Ozu in the World,” along with Jean Douchet, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Thierry Jousse, and Tien-wen Chu. Undoubtedly the most luminous moment of that event for me was being approached in the lobby immediately afterwards by an elderly gentleman who spoke in Japanese to Hou and myself, shook our hands, and then walked away — a puzzling encounter that immediately (and appropriately) became explained to me via mime, as soon as Hou imitated for me the signature comic gesture of Tomio “Tokkankozo” Aoki, the younger son in I Was Born, But… – thus identifying the child actor discovered by Ozu who went on to enjoy a screen career that would eventually last seventy-five years, encompassing even Suzuki’s Pistol Opera. All of which made up for the disturbing fact that apparently none of the film students I spoke with at Tokyo University had seen any of Ozu’s silent films, even though all of the surviving ones were available on VHS.… Read more »

Romance of the Ordinary [on Chantal Akerman]

This was written for the January 26, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, a good five years before the premiere of at least one of my absolute favorite Akerman films: her non-fictional From the East (see the first photograph below; just below that is a smaller still from her subsequent From the Other Side in 2002, which isn’t exactly chopped liver either ). But in fact there were many high points and wonders from Akerman since then. — J.R.

THE FILMS OF CHANTAL AKERMAN

On one hand, the films of the 39-year-old Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman are about as varied as anyone could wish. Some are in 16-millimeter and some are in 35; some are narrative and some are nonnarrative; the running times range from 11 minutes to 205. The genres range from autobiography to personal psychodrama to domestic drama to comedy to musical to documentary to feature-in-progress — a span that still fails to include a silent, not-exactly-documentary study of a run-down New York hotel (Hotel Monterey), a vast collection of miniplots covering a single night in a city (Toute une nuit), and a feature-length string of Jewish jokes recited by immigrants in Brooklyn exteriors (Food, Family and Philosophy), among other oddities.… Read more »

The Undistributed

This appeared in the Chicago Reader in their Christmas issue (December 25) in 1992.  – J.R.

The presumption behind most ten-best lists is that they include items available to everybody. One can always look at such lists and say, “Too bad I missed such and such. Maybe I’ll catch up with it on video.” But few people seem to be aware that they may never catch up with a film, because it never made it to Chicago at all—either to theaters or to video stores. In a consumer culture like ours we aren’t supposed to think too much about what merchandisers choose to put in front of us; it’s better for business if we assume that new movies just fall from the sky into theaters and video stores—and that those that don’t make it don’t deserve to. However, I see a certain number of movies in other countries every year that don’t make it to town, and sometimes they’re better than the movies that do. Why this happens so often is a matter worth exploring briefly.

In 1938 the U.S. government filed an antitrust action against Paramount Pictures, objecting to the monopolies of movie theaters held by the studios. By the end of 1946 a court judgment enjoined not only Paramount but also Loew’s, RKO, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century-Fox from acquiring additional theaters.… Read more »

Is Ozu Slow?

The following is a lecture delivered at a symposium, “Yasujiro Ozu in the World,” organized by Shigehiko Hasumi in Tokyo on December 11, 1998. The other participants, apart from Hasumi himself, were Jean Douchet (the keynote speaker), Hou Hsiao-hsien, his screenwriter Tien-wen Chu, and Thierry Jousse. I’m proud to say that Hasumi, my favorite Japanese film critic, has included a link to this text on his own web site, mube.jp. — J.R.

I’d like to preface these remarks by citing a moment from Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932) and the particular significance it has for me. During the home movie projection which marks the critical turning point in the film from comedy to tragedy, and shortly before the clowning of the father in front of his boss appears in one of the home movies, the father’s two little boys start having a debate about the zebra they see on the screen — does it have black stripes on white, or white stripes on black? — creating a disturbance that momentarily halts the screening. In comparable fashion, a spurious, distracting, and no less innocent debate has been persisting about Ozu for years: is he a realist or a formalist? What seems lamentable about this debate is that it fails to perceive that cinematic forms and social forms are not alternatives in the world of Ozu but opposite sides of the same coin, so that it should be impossible to speak about one without speaking about the other.Read more »

RED DESERT’s Inconceivable Values

This essay was commissioned in fall 2018 for an exhibition devoted to Michelangelo Antonioni in Tehran curated by Sami Astan. — J.R.

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[Antonioni’s] trilogy was concerned with differing aspects of love as the medium of hope in our world. This film [Red Desert] is stripped to naked essence — hope or nonhope unadorned: the prospect of human life in the midst of whirling changes. We live,  as we know, in the age of the swiftest transition in history, and all indications are that the speed of change will increase: in everything from household appliances to concepts in philosophy, the whole architecture of thought. Antonioni seems to be saying, without effervescent cheeriness, that what was valuable can be preserved or can be transmuted  to a new viability: that the future may contain new,  at present inconceivable, values.                                                          — Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic, March 23, 1963

 

There seems little doubt that Red Desert (1964) represented a major turning point in both the art and the career of Michelangelo Antonioni, and not only because it was his first film in color. It also concluded his collaborations with Monica Vitti as his lead actress — in L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962) — apart from the sole and significant exception of The Mystery of Oberwald (1980) sixteen years later, which also worked with image (including color) manipulations.… Read more »

The Pianist

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 2002). — J.R.

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Roman Polanski’s 2002 film about classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jew who managed to survive the Warsaw ghetto, won the top prize at Cannes and an Oscar for best director, and it’s easy to understand why: Polanski, himself a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, is so authoritative in showing us what life there was like that this film makes more conventional heart tuggers like Schindler’s List shrivel to insignificance. He appears to follow Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of Szpilman’s autobiography with scrupulous thoroughness, as well as with the special patience that it takes to show a passive and mainly unheroic victim surviving. All of Polanski’s films reflect the grimness of his war experience in one way or another, and this feature serves to clarify some of the emotions and attitudes found in the others. The results are masterful, admirably unsentimental, and never boring, if also a little stodgy. The Polish dialogue is rendered as English, the German is simply subtitled. R, 148 min. (JR)

El Pianista 7Read more »

Silents Are Golden (Silent Ozu)

From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2005). — J.R.

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Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective

at the Gene Siskel Film Center

It’s no longer controversial to assert that Yasujiro Ozu (1903-’63) is one of the greatest filmmakers ever — certainly one of the top dozen and possibly the greatest of those who’ve focused on family life. But getting a fix on his work remains far from easy. Only 34 of his 50-odd films appear to have survived, and two features exist only in fragments. The Gene Siskel Film Center’s retrospective, which started last week and runs through March 3, includes 25 features, and some of his other works, including a seldom-shown documentary short, might be screened later if the features draw big enough crowds.

One of the films showing this week, Tokyo Story (1953) — the first Ozu film to have been seen widely in the West, and still the best known and most highly regarded — is a good starting point for viewers unfamiliar with his work. (So are Equinox Flower and Good Morning, two gorgeous color films from the late 50s, showing later this month.) But it has led many critics to make unfair broad generalizations about Ozu’s style and content, to claim that his films are slow and conservative, his technique minimalist.… Read more »

Symbol Life [SWAN LAKE -- THE ZONE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 14, 1991). — J.R.

SWAN LAKE — THE ZONE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Yuri Illienko

Written by Sergei Paradjanov and Illienko

With Victor Solovyov, Liudmyla Yefymenko, Maya Bulhakova, Pylyp Illienko, and Victor Demertash.

One of the most fascinating things about Russian cinema is that we still know next to nothing about it. There are the socialist realist holdovers (Little Vera, for example, and Freeze — Die — Come to Life) and wannabe American releases (Taxi Blues), but the rest of the recent Soviet pictures that have made it to Chicago are interesting mostly because of what remains obscure and intractable about them — their refreshingly and, at times, bewilderingly different views of life and art.

The films that constitute the most obvious reference points in Soviet film history — a few key classics by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Kuleshov, Vertov, and closer to the present, the films of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky — have practically nothing to do with what ordinary Soviet moviegoers see most of the time. Even worse, we can’t take it for granted that these avant-garde works necessarily represent the best that innovative Soviet cinema has to offer, or that what we see of the Soviet mainstream is necessarily the best either.… Read more »