Monthly Archives: July 2020

Global Discoveries on DVD: Anomalies and Experiments (my 9th column)

From Cinema Scope (Spring 2005, issue 22). The down side of reproducing my old DVD columns is that many of the links are bound to be out of date and no longer functional; the up side is that they offer some kind of history of what used to be available (or unavailable). — J.R.

With the exception of a few film buffs at some of the more discerning labels, and still fewer at the major studios, decisions about what older films to release on DVD, as well as when or why, are often capricious to the point of absurdity. So asking why some things are readily available and some things aren’t is a bit like asking an illiterate about his or her reading taste. Some time ago, I was contacted about contributing to the extras of an ambitious DVD being planned for Elaine May’s infamous and underappreciated Ishtar — a project developed with loving care by some maverick film buffs at Columbia/Tristar over many months, eventually soliciting the unprecedented cooperation and input of May herself.

ishtar-song-in-club

It seemed like a golden opportunity for some thoughtful studio revisionism — especially in light of how much this prescient farce has to say about the dangerous blunders of American innocence and stupidity in the Middle East and how blind American reviewers were to this aspect of the movie back in 1987.Read more »

Purple Noon

From the June 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

A very elegant and watchable 1960 French thriller starring Alain Delon in his prime, this film was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley by director Rene Clement and screenwriter Paul Gegauff, best known as Claude Chabrol’s key script collaborator in the 60s and 70s. The Hitchcockian theme — transference of personality — is given almost as much mileage here as in Hitchcock’s own Highsmith adaptation, Strangers on a Train, as Delon decides to take over the identity of a spoiled, wealthy playboy he’s been hired to bring home to his father. Henri Decae’s color cinematography is dazzling, and the Italian and Mediterranean locations are sumptuous. With Marie Laforet, Maurice Ronet, and PlayTime‘s Bill Kearns. 118 min. (JR)

Read more »

Red Psalm

redpsalm8 redpsalm

East Side Story, a recent documentary about communist musicals, assumes that communist-bloc directors were just itching to make Hollywood extravaganzas and invariably wound up looking strained, square, and ill equipped. But Red Psalm (1971), Miklos Jancso’s dazzling, open-air revolutionary pageant, is a highly sensual communist musical that employs occasional nudity as lyrically as the singing, dancing, and nature; within its own idioms it swings as well as wails. Set near the end of the 19th century, when a group of peasants have demanded basic rights from a landowner and soldiers arrive on horseback, it’s composed of less than 30 shots, each one an intricate choreography of panning camera, landscape, and clustered bodies. Jancso’s awesome fusion of form with content and politics with poetry equals the exciting innovations of the French New Wave in the 60s and early 70s. The music, ranging from revolutionary folk songs to {Charlie Is My Darlin’,} will keep playing in your head for days, and the colors are ravishing. The picture won Jancso a best director prize at Cannes, and it may well be the greatest Hungarian film of the 60s and 70s, summing up an entire strain in his work that lamentably has been forgotten here.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: DANCING IN THE DARK

Recommended Reading: DANCING IN THE DARK: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION by Morris Dickstein, New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009, 598 pp.

How refreshing it is to encounter a treatment of Busby Berkeley’s Depression musicals as something other than escapism — as genuine engagements with their own period and audience. Part literary criticism, part film and art criticism, part history of popular as well as intellectual culture, Morris Dickstein’s magnum opus is full of sensible revisionist observations of this kind to counter received wisdom, and it’s always a pleasure to read. Even if he doesn’t always accord full justice to the ideological and ethical underpinnings of some Depression novels (I’m perhaps the only one on the planet who regards Faulkner’s 1932 Light in August, my supreme favorite, as a communist novel, at least existentially), Dickstein is almost always deepening my understanding of whatever he happens to be writing about. [9/28/09]… Read more »

On Alain Resnais

Written to introduce a dossier in Farsi on Alain Resnais prepared by Ehsan Khoshbakht in March 2012. — J.R.

Alain Resnais is clearly one of our greatest living filmmakers. But he’s also one of the most elusive, for a number of reasons. He started out as the most international of all the French New Wave artists, at least in his early features (especially Hiroshima mon amour,Last Year at Marienbad, La Guerre est finie,Je t’aime, je t’aime, and Providence), but then went on to become the most French of French directors (not only in obvious cases such as Mon oncle d’Amérique, Stavisky…, Mélo, Same Old Song, Not on the Lips, and Wild Grass, but even in films derived from English or partially American sources, such as I Want To Go Home, Smoking, No Smoking, and Private Fears in Public Places). Even before he got around to making features, he made by far the greatest films in the history of cinema about racism and colonialism (Statues Also Die), the Holocaust (Night and Fog), plastic (La Chant du Styrène), and libraries (Tout la mémoire du monde).Among… Read more »

Jonathan Rosenbaum Interview by Noel King (2002), Part 2

From Framework (volume 45, number 1, Spring 2004). Because of its length, I’m running this in two parts. — J.R.

 

This interview took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 20, 2002 — if memory serves, at the Abasta shopping mall, where the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film was then being held.

 

 

NK: How did you come to film criticism and film journalism? You start out in the States and have some years in Paris and then London and then back to the States.

JR: Like most other film critics of my generation I didn’t set out to be a film critic. I was a writer from very early on and my family was involved in the film business but my initial interest was in being a fiction writer. I wrote fiction in high school and in college and was hoping, very unrealistically, to have a career as a novelist.

NK: The fiction writer aspect survives into the opening page of Moving Places where you riff on the opening of William Faulkner’s Light in August.

JR: My MA thesis was on Light in August. At the time I got fed up and quit graduate school I was working on a novel and somebody I knew from college offered me a job editing a collection of film criticism.… Read more »

A Short Note on Béla Tarr

Written for a Persian collection about Béla Tarr, published in May 2016. — J.R.

 

 

Damnation

My first encounter with the work of Béla Tarr was Damnation (1987), seen in 1989, followed soon afterwards by Almanac of Fall (1984), but the point at which I became an acolyte rather than a mere fan was Sátántangó (1994), which remains for me the towering pinnacle of his work.  Other favorites include The Turin Horse (2011) and his nearly impossible-to-see short film The Last Boat (1989), but I know plenty of other viewers who were first won over by Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), and another good starting point might be Tarr’s 1982 production of Macbeth (1982), made for Hungarian television in only two shots.

 

Most of his films qualify as black comedies filmed in black and white, spiritual without being religious and peopled most often by grubby and not especially honorable individuals who are followed with lengthy takes and elaborately choreographed camera movements that implicate the viewer in their activities and thwarted destinies. Starting with Damnation, they are mostly written by the great Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, whose endless and labyrinthine sentences in his novels are as relentless and as passionately serene as Tarr’s camera movements.… Read more »

East Side Story

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1998). — J.R.

esshats_b2

EastSide

The words “communist musical” may call to mind tractors and factories —  both of which are certainly in evidence here — but this fascinating and enjoyable 1996 documentary by Romanian-born filmmaker Dana Ranga and American-born independent Andrew Horn presents the singular genre as a conflict between capitalist glitz and socialist poetry, revealing both the Marxists’ tragicomic attempts to beat the West at its own game and the homegrown folksiness of their efforts. Reportedly only 40-odd musical features were produced in the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, and Romania prior to the collapse of communism, and roughly half of them are excerpted here. Ranga and Horn interview writers, directors, stars, and ordinary viewers of communist musicals, as well as one prestigious film historian (Maya Turorskaya, best known here for her book on Andrei Tarkovsky). The selection of clips isn’t everything it might have been — I regret the absence of any examples by Alexander Medvedkin, some of which are glimpsed in Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik, and eastern European critics have cited other omissions. But Ranga and Horn’s insights into communist film production and their story of how the communist musical triumphed or withered in its various settings offer plenty of food for thought.… Read more »

Three Seats For The 26th

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1990). — J.R.

3PLACES

trois-places-pour-le-265edf26c8e3f2a

For viewers like me who harbor passionately fond memories of Jacques Demy’s 1967 tribute to the American musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy’s 1988 musical (his last film) is clearly worth seeing, even if the recommendation has to come with reservations. While Michel Legrand’s score for The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of the greatest for any musical, his comparably jazzy and airy work for the this one is only a pale reflection of his best. Similarly, the references to touchstones such as Silk Stockings, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon are all too fleeting, in striking contrast to the full-scale tributes in the earlier film to West Side Story, An American in Paris, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The difference between the two is partly a matter of scale and budget, and partly that the more recent film centers on Yves Montand, an eminence grise who looks more and more like Milton Berle. Playing himself, Montand arrives in Marseilles to launch an autobiographical musical revue that he plans to take on a world tour. He spends his spare time looking for an old lover, a onetime prostitute now a baroness (Francoise Fabian), whose husband is in jail for theft and whose 22-year-old daughter (Mathilda May), who knows nothing of her mother’s past, has a burning desire to make it in show biz.… Read more »

Car Wash (1977 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1977 (Vol. 44, No. 517). This is a movie I clearly went overboard about, even though I still might be inclined to defend it today, and I suspect now that I simply missed the boat by ignoring the screenwriter, Joel Schumacher — who, on the evidence of the subsequent D.C. Cab, surely qualified more as the auteur here than Michael Schultz. — J.R.

U.S.A., 1976
Director: Michael Schultz

Los Angeles. Lonnie arrives to open the gates of the Dee-Luxe Car Wash. Other workers turn up, including fancy dresser T.C. (“Fly”), who has a crush on Mona, a waitress at the restaurant across the street; Scruggs, who has just spent the night with another woman and is afraid to call his wife Charlene; Lindy, a flamboyant homosexual; and Hippo, Justin, Chuko and Goody. After Duane, an angry militant worker, arrives later, the white owner Mr. B drives up with his hippy son Irwin. A hooker escapes from a cab without paying her fare and hides in the ladies’ room. Irwin is ridiculed for hIs Maoist pretensions when he insists on joining the workers, and Calvin, a kid on a skateboard, turns up to pester everyone.… Read more »

A Place in the Pantheon: Films by Bela Tarr

From the Chicago Reader (May 9, 1996). — J.R.

Films by Bela Tarr

The movies of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr — half a dozen features in all — are divided into two parts. His first three films are socialist realist cries of rage, much of their style influenced by John Cassavetes. The 1979 Family Nest is about a young couple forced to live in a one-room apartment with the husband’s parents; the 1981 The Outsider focuses on a shiftless, heavy-drinking violinist who fathers a child with one woman and marries another while working sporadically in a hospital and at a factory, then is called up for military service; and the 1982 The Prefab People is about an unhappy family of four: a frustrated wife, two kids, and a disaffected husband and father (another heavy drinker) who plans to take a two-year job in Romania, much to his wife’s distress.

The second half of Tarr’s oeuvre, its style influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky, moves beyond socialism and realism to look with mordant wit at something more universal: a form of moral decay, perhaps, but with metaphysical implications. Whereas the first half of Tarr’s output is mainly shot in raw close-ups, the second half is largely shot in detached medium and long shots.… Read more »

The Importance of Being Sarcastic [SATANTANGO]

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 1994). — J.R.

**** SATANTANGO

(Masterpiece)

Directed by Bela Tarr

Written by Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai

With Mihaly Vig, Putyi Horvath, Erika Bok, Peter Berling, Miklos B. Szekely, Laszlo Fe Lugossy, Eva Almasi Albert, Alfred Jaray, Erzsebet Gaal, Janos Derzsi, and Iren Szajki.

If great films invent their own rules, reinventing some of the standards of film criticism in the process, Bela Tarr’s Satantango surely belongs in their company. Showing Sunday as part of the Chicago Film Festival, this very dark Hungarian black comedy has more than a few tricks and paradoxes up its sleeve. Shot in black and white, with a running time of just under seven hours (it’s designed to be shown with two short intermissions), it boasts a decrepit, squalid rural setting enveloped in constant rain and mud and a cast of about a dozen greedy, small-minded characters, none of whom has any remotely redeeming qualities. Yet over two separate viewings it has provided me with more pleasure, excitement, and even hope than any other new picture I’ve seen this year.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Since the film surfaced at the Berlin Film Festival in February and was enthusiastically heralded by J.… Read more »

A Bluffer’s Guide to Bela Tarr

From the Chicago Reader (May 25, 1990). This is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. — J.R.

ALMANAC OF FALL

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Bela Tarr

With Hedi Temessy, Erika Bodnar, Miklos B. Szekely, Pal Hetenyi, and Janos Derzsi.

1. Problems

One reason that Eastern European films often don’t get the attention they deserve in the West is that we lack the cultural and historical contexts for them. If Eastern Europe’s recent social and political upheavals took most of the world by surprise, this was because most of us have been denied the opportunity to see the continuity behind them: they seemed to spring out of nowhere. The best Eastern European films tend to catch us off guard in the same way, and for similar reasons.

My own knowledge of Hungarian cinema is spotty at best, despite the fact that, according to David Cook in A History of Narrative Film, the Hungarians “seem to have identified film as an art form before any other nationality in the world, including the French.” (One of the first major film theorists, Bela Balazs, was Hungarian, and a contemporary film studio in Budapest is named after him.)… Read more »

Critical Departures [in Tehran]

Written for the U.K. journal Underline in July 2018. — J.R.

JR with students at National Film School in  Tehran.jpg

In mid-July 2018, I had the honour and privilege of helping to launch an ambitious lecture series in English at the Iranian National School of Cinema – at their attractive and comfortable new headquarters, built only a couple of years ago – by giving a week of daily two-hour lectures about film criticism. Other guest lecturers over the next several months will include Dina Iordanova from Scotland, art historian Marion Zilio from France, Dudley Andrew from the US, Jean-Michel Frodon from France, Paolo Mereghetti from Italy, Carlos F. Heredero from Spain, and Raymond Bellour from France. Several Iranian film critics will also be featured.

The hundred or so students who applied to enroll in this moderately priced series had to take an exam testing their knowledge of film history and their proficiency in English, and roughly a quarter of these applicants were accepted. This winnowing out of applicants proved to be quite efficient in yielding a group of students who were appreciative of such contemporary filmmakers as Abbas Kiarostami, Béla Tarr, and Andrei Tarkovsky and able to write the sort of English that communicated in spite of some uncertain grammar.… Read more »

On Ozu

This is the first thing I ever wrote about Ozu’s films. I’ve subsequently come to value Hen in the Wind much more than I did in 1972, above all as an expression of Japanese’s humiliation after the end of the war and during the American occupation. — J.R.

From Paris Journal, Film Comment, Summer 1972 (excerpt):

A recent screening of eight Ozu films at the Cinémathèque was, for Paris, an event of some importance. To date, not a single film by Ozu has received distribution in France, and local ignorance about his work extends to such places as Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif, which in their combined 368 issues have failed to publish a single article about him.

A particular revelation was WIFE FOR A NIGHT, which contradicted at least half of the received ideas that have been circulating about Ozu elsewhere. One of the ten silent films that he made in 1930, this remarkable American-style thriller begins and ends mainly in exteriors: a desperate robbery and escape at night, the criminal being led away at dawn. Virtually all of the intervening action is contained in the robber’s one-room flat, where he, his ailing daughter, his wife, and a policeman stand nervous vigil over one another for the night’s duration.… Read more »