Monthly Archives: July 2020

Robert Frank’s ONE HOUR (1990)

Commissioned by and published in Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, a 2009 German retrospective catalogue published in English. It seems typical, alas, of Frank’s very Swiss anal-retentiveness that neither this video (my favorite audiovisual work of Frank’s) nor any image from it is readily available, except in a very pricey box set, which is why I’ve had to resort to pictures of the book version. You can see a few brief glimpses of the video in the fascinating recent documentary Don’t Blink — Robert Frank. It was produced by Philippe Grandrieux for French television. — J.R.

“I’ve seen La chouette aveugle seven times,” Luc Moullet once wrote of Raúl Ruiz’s intractable masterpiece, “and I know a little less about the film with each viewing.” Apart from being both intractable and a masterpiece, I can’t say Robert Frank’s One Hour [also sometimes known as Sixty Minutes)  has anything in common with the Ruiz film, yet what makes it a masterpiece and intractable is the same paradox: the closer I come to understanding it, the more mysterious it gets.

My first look at this single-take account of Frank and actor Kevin O’Connor either walking or riding in the back of a mini-van through a few blocks of Manhattan”s Lower East Side — shot between 3:45 and 4:45 pm on July 26, 1990 — led me to interpret it as a spatial event capturing the somewhat uncanny coziness and intimacy of New York street life, the curious experience of eavesdropping involuntarily on strangers that seems an essential part of being in Manhattan, an island where so many people are crammed together that the existential challenge of everyday coexistence between them seems central to the city’s energy and excitement.… Read more »

Foreword to THE MEDIEVAL HERO ON SCREEN

Below is my Foreword to The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy (McFarland, 2004), a collection edited by Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray, minus a few editorial tweaks and abridgements. — J.R.

 

 

 

It’s a curious fact, at least to me, that I’m writing a forword to this book, even a short one. I’m neither a medievalist nor a historian; I haven’t seen many of the films discussed, and, perhaps because I spend much of my time reviewing films for a weekly newspaper, the Chicago Reader, I have seen but have mainly forgotten some of the others. As a professional film critic who occasionally gets invited to speak and teach at college campuses, I have the benefit of both close and long-range views of film history, and try to create some two-way traffic between these positions in my writing.

It has always been a handicap for film scholars that one can’t necessarily count on all the important works being widely accessible or even widely known. In the essays that follow, some of my favorite films with medieval themes and settings have only been briefly touched upon —- I’m thinking especially of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Eric Rohmer’s Perceval -— while others, including Fritz Lang’s magnificent two-part, five-hour Die Nibelungen (1924), and Les visiteurs du soir (1942), a haunting fantasy written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche and directed by Marcel Carné during the French Occupation, are not mentioned.Read more »

Rohmer’s Perceval, Our Contemporary

 Written for the Australian journal Screen Education 91 in 2018. — J.R.

What I say, I do not say with words. I do not

say it with images either, with all due respect

to the partisans of pure cinema, who would

speak with images as a deaf-mute does with

his hands. After all, I do not say, I show. I

show people who move and speak. That is

all I know how to do, but that is my true

subject. The rest, I agree, is literature.

Éric Rohmer (1)

 

perceval

Éric Rohmer’s least typical film, Perceval le Gallois (1978) offers a wonderfully strange and evocative version of Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th-century poem — set to music and translated into contemporary French by Rohmer himself — about the adventures of a callow and innocent youth who becomes the Red Knight (Fabrice Luchini). It captures the essence of its medieval trappings like no other film, yet it does so without ever presuming or pretending to recreate a historical period about which we know relatively little. Thus it might be seen — and in fact was seen when it first appeared — as a bizarre exercise in literal literary adaptation, an odd experiment in representation itself.… Read more »

Creative Overload [on PIERROT LE FOU]

From the June 9, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

PIERROT LE FOU

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Dirk Sanders, Raymond Devos, Graziella Galvani, Roger Dutoit, Hans Meyer, Jimmy Karoubi, and Samuel Fuller.

All the good movies have been made. — Peter Bogdanovich to Boris Karloff in Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968)

Two or three years ago I felt that everything had been done, that there was nothing left to do today. . . . Ivan the Terrible had been made, and Our Daily Bread. Make films about the people, they said; but The Crowd had already been made, so why remake it? I was, in a word, pessimistic. After Pierrot, I no longer feel this. Yes. One must film everything — talk about everything. Everything remains to be done. — Jean-Luc Godard in an interview about Pierrot le fou (1965)

After many years out of circulation, Jean-Luc Godard’s ninth feature is finally back, in a sparkling new 35-millimeter ‘Scope print, and the Film Center is celebrating with a week-long run. Looking at it again almost a quarter of a century after it was made, 20 years after its initial U.S. release, is a bit like visiting another planet; it’s an explosion of color, sound, music, passion, violence, and wit that illustrates what used to be regarded as cinema.… Read more »

Ten More Key Moments & Scenes

Here are ten more of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007).  — J.R.

Scene

1996 / Irma Vep – Maggie Cheung stealing Arsinée Khanjian’s jewels

France (Daica Films). Director: Olivier Assayas. Cast: Maggie Cheung, Arsinée Khanjian.

Why It’s Key: If a movie can be said to have an unconscious, here’s where this one’s secret is buried.

Costumed in a tight black latex suit, Maggie Cheung, playing herself, is in Paris to play the title role in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 crime serial, Les vampires. She also seems to be the object of the sexual fantasies of everyone working on the film —- most noticeably the director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and the woman handling costumes (Nathalie Richard).

After what seems like a restless, sleepless evening in her hotel room, Cheung goes out into the hallway, still in her suit, stealthily climbs the stairs, and, after spying a maid delivering a tray to a room and leaving, sneaks into the room herself. Still hidden, she sees a nude woman (Khanjian, wife and lead actress of Atom Egoyan) describing her lonely boredom on the phone to someone named Fred, then glimpses the woman’s jewels in another room, which she promptly steals.… Read more »

The 31 best movies of 1994

From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1995). Happy birthday, incidentally, to Bela Tarr, who turns 65 today. — J.R.

satantango-furniture1

Many friends and colleagues have been moaning about what a bad year 1994 was for movies, but I disagree. The main issue, I think, isn’t so much how we feel about the same movies — though there are a few differences there, including in some cases where and when we happened to see them — as it is what we saw. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Chicago, you had loads of terrific movies to see last year, new as well as old, and if you didn’t see very many of them, it’s possible that you were looking in the wrong places — where the mass media was telling you to look. Because of their running times, my two favorite films, the seven-hour Satantango and the nearly 26-hour The Second Heimat, received only limited exposure, yet I refuse to accept the standard alibi of most critics who neglected to see them — that they were too difficult or esoteric for the general public. I found them easier to sit through and vastly more involving and pleasurable than such overhyped and overattended European monoliths as Germinal and Queen Margot, which to the best of my knowledge gave little enjoyment to most people.… Read more »

TV Films by Alexander Kluge

From the Chicago Reader (January 12, 1990). — J.R.

kluge_crying_xl

American TV watchers, eat your hearts out! These four selections from “Ten to Eleven” — a series of short, experimental “essay” films made for German television by the remarkable German filmmaker Alexander Kluge, to be shown here on video — are not always easy to follow in terms of tracing all their connections, but they’re the liveliest and most imaginative European TV shows I’ve seen since those of Ruiz and Godard. Densely constructed out of a very diverse selection of archival materials, which are manipulated (electronically and otherwise) in a number of unexpected ways, these historical meditations often suggest Max Ernst collages using the cultural flotsam of the last 100 years. Why Are You Crying, Antonio? relates fascism, opera, and domesticity; Articles of Advertising historicizes ads in a number of novel ways; Madame Butterfly Waits offers a compressed history of opera and its kitschy successors in pop culture; and the self-explanatory The Eiffel Tower, King Kong, and the White Woman makes use of comics, movies in the 1890s, a quote from Heidegger, and multiple images of the famous ape and tower. These are apparently fairly recent works. A Chicago premiere. (Randolph St.… Read more »

Dogville

From the Chicago Reader (March 19, 2004). — J.R.

dogville_productiondesign

This experimental drama about the cruelty of a Rocky Mountain community toward a woman (Nicole Kidman) in flight from gangsters, shot with an all-star cast on a mainly bare soundstage, bored me for most of its 178 minutes and then infuriated me with its cheap cynicism once it belatedly became interesting — which may be a tribute to writer-director Lars von Trier’s gifts as a provocateur. The fact that he spends most of his time in Denmark as a porn producer seems relevant to his exploitation instincts, yet those who have called this blend of Brecht and Our Town anti-American may be overrating its ideological coherence. As in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, the heroine suffers greatly, but whether she suffers at the hands of humanity or von Trier himself isn’t entirely clear. With Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Udo Kier, and Chloe Sevigny; John Hurt narrates. R. (JR)

DogvilleRead more »

Actor, Auteur [SHIRLEY VALENTINE]

From the Chicago Reader (September 22, 1989). — J.R.

SHIRLEY VALENTINE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Written by Willy Russell

With Pauline Collins, Tom Conti, Julia McKenzie, Alison Steadman, Bernard Hill, Joanna Lumley, and Tracie Bennett.

I had my first experience of English theater in London’s West End around the mid-1960s–a program of three one-act plays written by and starring Noel Coward. (I no longer remember the show’s title, but I believe it was Coward’s last theater piece.) [2011 postscript: this was Suite in Three Keys, in 1966.] The plots of all three plays were fairly slender, and the mise en scene, as I recall, was strictly conventional. What was remarkable about the overall performance, and quite characteristic (as I soon discovered) of the English theater in general, was the extraordinary, almost conspiratorial rapport between Coward the actor and his audience — a very cozy kind of intimacy that reflected the appeal of the three characters Coward was playing and very little else. The stories and direction were nothing more than the recipes and the cooking necessary to serve these characters up to the public for its delectation, and once combined the ingredients retained no attributes of their own; all that remained was Coward’s plump, juicy, quirky personality.… Read more »

Deseret

One of the best films of James Benning, one of this country’s leading experimental filmmakers, is this multifaceted look at the landscape and history of Utah (or Deseret, as the Mormon Church prefers to call it). Benning condenses 93 news stories from the New York Times from 1852 to 1992 (read offscreen by Fred Gardner) and sets them against contemporary Utah landscapes, the shots changing with each sentence. Benning’s eye for evocative beauty is as sharp as ever, and his complex invitation to the viewer to create a narrative space between his separate elements keeps this 1995 film continually fascinating. 82 min. (JR)… Read more »

Noises Off

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1992). — J.R.

Noises-off

Peter Bogdanovich directs Marty Kaplan’s adaptation of Michael Frayn’s highly successful stage farce about a director (Michael Caine) and a cast of hapless actors trying to whip a sex farce into shape. The transition from stage to screen may be bumpy in spots, but this movie is much funnier than Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?, and the long-take shooting style is executed with fluidity and precision. The basic idea is to hurtle us through three increasingly disastrous tryouts of the same first act, which might be loosely termed Desperate Dress Rehearsal in Des Moines, Actors in Personal Disarray Backstage in Miami Beach, and Props in Revolt in Cleveland; the fleetness of this raucous theme-and-variations form makes it easy to slide past the confusion of all the onstage and offstage intrigues. I can’t comment on the changes undergone by Frayn’s material, except to note that I find it hard to buy the closing artificial uplift, which seems to have been papered over the original’s very English sense of pathos and defeat. Ironically, after the warm and dense ensemble work of Texasville, Bogdanovich reverts here to the cold-blooded mechanics of choreographing one-trait characters, though the chilly class biases of his early urban comedies once again give way to something more egalitarian and balanced.… Read more »

Full Metal Jacket

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1987). — J.R.

Stanley Kubrick shares with Orson Welles and Carl Dreyer the role of the Great Confounder — remaining supremely himself while frustrating every attempt to anticipate his next move or to categorize it once it registers. This odd 1987 adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, with script-writing assistance from Michael Herr as well as Hasford, has more to do with the general theme of colonization (of individuals and countries alike) and the suppression by male soldiers of their female traits than with the specifics of Vietnam or the Tet offensive. Elliptical, full of subtle inner rhymes (for instance, the sound cues equating a psychopathic marine in the first part with a dying female sniper in the second), and profoundly moving, this is the most tightly crafted Kubrick film since Dr. Strangelove, as well as the most horrific; the first section alone accomplishes most of what The Shining failed to do. With Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, and R. Lee Ermey. R, 116 min. (JR)

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Dream Masters II: Tex Avery

From Film Comment (January-February 1975).  An expanded version of an entry for Richard Roud’s 1980, two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. (“Dream Masters I,” incidentally, which appeared in the same issue of Film Comment, is devoted to Walt Disney — a much longer essay that can be accessed here.) I was delighted to receive a handwritten letter of thanks from Avery himself sometime after this was published which I still have in one of my scrapbooks. And, for the record, despite my gripes here about the unlikeliness of a Paul Fejos Festival, I did actually attend a Paul Fejos retrospective at the Viennale in 2004, almost 30 years after this was written. — J.R.

 

CHRISTMAS IN JULY & THE PALM BEACH STORY

A double feature of my two favorite Preston Sturges comedies, both of them sublimely wacko. Christmas in July, his second feature as writer-director (1940, 66 min.), is in many ways his most underrated movie, a riotous satire of capitalism that bites so deep it hurts. An ambitious office clerk (Dick Powell), determined to strike it rich in an advertising contest with his stupid slogan (“If you can’t sleep, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk”), is tricked by a few of his coworkers into believing that he’s actually won, promptly gets promoted, and goes on a shopping spree for his neighbors and relatives. Like all of Sturges’s finest work, this captures the mood of the Depression more succinctly than most pictures, and the brilliantly polyphonic script repeats the hero’s dim-witted slogan so many times that eventually it becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation. As usual, the supporting cast (including Ellen Drew, William Demarest, and Raymond Walburn) is luminous, and Sturges uses them like instruments in a madcap concerto. In the simultaneously tender and scalding The Palm Beach Story (1942, 88 min.), Rudy Vallee turns in his all-time best performance as a gentle, puny millionaire named Hackensacker. Claudette Colbert, married to a penniless architectural engineer (Joel McCrea), takes off for Florida and winds up being wooed by the millionaire, and when McCrea shows up she persuades him to pose as her brother.… Read more »

Dream Masters I: Walt Disney (Part Two)

This is the second and final part of an article published in the January-February 1975 Film Comment. — J.R.

angry donald duck GIF

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Towards an aesthetic evaluation. For critics of the Thirties and the early Forties, Disney was an essential figure in the arts. Eisenstein declared him to be the most interesting filmmaker in America, and over the decade that followed, Erwin Panofsky praised the early cartoons and “certain sequences” in the later ones as “a chemically pure distillation of cinematic possibilities”; Gilbert Seldes offered many sympathetic critiques; and even E.M. Forster published a brief tribute to Mickey Mouse. Lewis Jacobs’ assessment of Disney in The Rise of the American Film is certainly more likely to raise eyebrows today than it was in 1939:

“In the realm of films that combine sight, sound, and color Disney is still unsurpassed. The wise heir of forty years of film tradition, he consummates the cinematic contributions of Méliès, Porter, Griffith, and the Europeans [sic]. He has done more with the film medium since it added sound and color than any other director, creating a form that is of great and vital consequence not only for what it is but for what it portends.… Read more »