Monthly Archives: September 2020

Salt Of The Earth

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

SaltoftheEarth

This rarely screened 1954 classic is the only major American independent feature made by communists; a fictional story about the Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico then striking against their Anglo management, it was informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of the period. The film was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun), producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan, among others; as Jarrico later reasoned, since they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a crime to fit the punishment by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a very high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated. Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, it was widely shown and honored in Europe, but it’s never received the recognition it deserves stateside. If you’ve never seen it, prepare to have your mind blown. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Road Not Taken (The Films of Harun Farocki)

It was shocking to learn that Harun Farocki (January 9, 1944 – July 30, 2014) died at the age of only 70. According to Artnet, he made over 90 films. He will be sorely missed.

From the Chicago Reader (February 14, 1992). — J.R.

FILMS BY HARUN FAROCKI

The paradox is that Farocki is probably more important as a writer than as a filmmaker, that his films are more written about than seen, and that instead of being a failing, this actually underlines his significance to the cinema today and his considerable role in the contemporary political avant-garde. . . . Only by turning itself into “writing” in the largest possible sense can film preserve itself as “a form of intelligence.”

— Thomas Elsaesser, 1983

The filmography of Harun Farocki — a German independent filmmaker, the son of an Islamic Indian doctor   — spans 16 titles and 21 years. To the best of my knowledge, only one of his films (Between Two Wars) has ever shown in North America before now. A traveling group of 11 films put together by the Goethe-Institut began showing in Boston last November and this April will reach Houston, the last of the tour’s ten cities.… Read more »

The Vision of the Conquered

This appeared in the Chicago Reader (February 21, 1992), and is reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

RHAPSODY IN AUGUST

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Akira Kurosawa

With Sachiko Murase, Hisashi Igawa, Mie Suzuki, Tomoko Ohtakara, Mitsunori Isaki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, and Richard Gere.

Next month, Akira Kurosawa will be celebrating his 82nd birthday. Having long outlived the two other supreme masters of the Japanese cinema — Kenji Mizoguchi, who died in 1956, and Yasujiro Ozu, who died in 1963 — he bears the handicap of living on in an era that clearly seems remote and alien to him, despite the fact that his work has enjoyed much more currency in the 80s and early 90s than that of any of his near-contemporaries.


I’ve always been somewhat slow to appreciate the mastery of Kurosawa in relation to the works of Mizoguchi and Ozu, perhaps in part because I started off on the wrong footing. The first Kurosawa film I ever saw was Rashomon (1950), the single movie that was most responsible for introducing the western world to the Japanese cinema, and, as it happens, I saw it as a teenager only after reading the two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa that it was based on.… Read more »

Rivette’s Rupture (DUELLE and NORÔIT)

From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 1992). For earlier reflections on both films, go here and here. — J.R.

TWHYLIGHT (DUELLE)

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Eduardo de Gregorio, Marilu Parolini, and Rivette

With Juliet Berto, Bulle Ogier, Hermine Karagheuz, Jean Babilee, Nicole Garcia, and Jean Wiener.

NOR’WESTER (NORÔIT)

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Eduardo de Gregorio, Marilu Parolini, and Rivette

With Geraldine Chaplin, Bernadette Lafont, Kika Markham, Larrio Ekson, Jean Cohen-Solal, Robert Cohen-Solal, and Daniel Ponsard.

Dagger in hand, I scaled the heights of raw power, thanks to the male role that Rivette gave me. . . . This kind of sexual metamorphosis, this strange androgyny, never appeared in the French cinema before Rivette. After I performed the role of Giulia in Norôit I felt that I was capable of anything. Rivette changed my ideas about acting; for me, he is a kind of Mao and his films are a Cultural Revolution. — Bernadette Lafont in an interview, 1977

Though no one would ever think to call Jacques Rivette a realist, the fact remains that all of his first six features take place in a sharply perceived environment that can arguably be called the “real world.”… Read more »

Roadside Prophets

From the April 17, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The acting is raw and unglued, the guest-star appearances of aging 60s icons (Arlo Guthrie, Timothy Leary, David Carradine) are self-conscious and arch, and the sprawling episodic construction is underlined by conceptions that are sentimental to a fault. But this odd little road movie — a first feature written and directed by Abbe Wool, who cowrote Sid & Nancy — still got to me, mainly because of its sincerity and its relative novelty in trying to locate the dregs of American counterculture in various portentous and philosophical roadside encounters. The semifantastical plot concerns the absurdist journey of two bikers (John Doe and Adam Horovitz, members respectively of the bands X and the Beastie Boys) from southern California through parts of Nevada. Doe, the older biker, is a grizzled factory worker literally searching for a place called El Dorado, where he wants to scatter the ashes of an acquaintance (David Anthony Marshall) who died in a freak accident; Horovitz is a younger biker with a Motel 9 fixation who insists on tagging along. At its worst, this registers like an unconscious parody of Easy Rider; at its best, it suggests a flea-bitten yahoo version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Hawks and Sparrows.… Read more »

Jarmusch in the American Weeds

From The Guardian, August 27, 2004, where this appeared under the title “Independence Day”. — J.R.

It’s an enduring and endearing paradox of Jim Jarmusch’s art as a writer-director that even though it may initially come across as a triumph of style over content, it arguably turns out to be a victory of content over style. The humanism of this mannerist winds up counting for more than all his stylistic tics, thus implying that his manner may simply be the shortest distance between two points.

Maybe it’s the ultimate paradox of minimalism: the less your work does and is, the more these things matter. In Jarmusch’s case, this partially means that the very notions of hipness and independence that originally defined his stylish filmmaking in the 80s — with Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger Than Paradise (1984) Down by Law (1986), and Mystery Train (1989) — started working against his public profile in the 90s, especially once being outside the mainstream started being regarded with greater suspicion.

Furthermore, around the time of Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1992), released the same year as Reservoir Dogs, hipness and independence as values within American culture had both become somewhat muddled and coarsened in the process of becoming mainstreamed.… Read more »

American Beauty

AmericanBeauty

An unusually clever and shrewdly corrupt first feature (1999) by English stage director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball, this deftly juggles satire about contemporary consumerist America (sexual obsession, gun worship, working out, capitalism) and fanciful wish fulfillment in the duplicitous Hollywood manner of The Graduate and Risky Business. Kevin Spacey, at his best, plays the disgruntled hero whose lust for his teenage daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari) gives him a new lease on life; Annette Bening does her best with the more caricatured part of his shrewish wife. But the moral heroes here are their teenage daughter (Thora Birch) and her weird and secretive next-door neighbor (Wes Bentley), both thoroughly and understandably disgusted with the adult world. Mendes uses the superlative cinematography of Conrad Hall to excellent advantage, has a sharp sense for how to employ pop music, and moves back and forth between reality and fantasy without missing a beat; Ball has an uncanny ability to make disparate characters suddenly rhyme with one another. With Chris Cooper and Peter Gallagher. R, 121 min. (JR)

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Being John Malkovich

From the Chicago Reader (October 12, 1999). — J.R.

being-john-malkovich

This outrageous comic fantasy may not sustain its brilliance throughout its 112 minutes, but it keeps cooking for so much of that time that I don’t have many complaints. The first feature of both screenwriter/executive producer Charlie Kaufman (who’s written for several TV series) and director Spike Jonze (who’s directed commercials, music videos, and short films), it charts the complications that ensue when an out-of-work puppeteer (John Cusack) gets a filing job on the surrealistically cramped seventh and a half floor of an office building, where he discovers a hidden tunnel that allows its occupant to become actor John Malkovich (playing himself, natch) for 15 minutes before being ejected onto the New Jersey Turnpike. Things get even wilder when the filing clerk and his wife (Cameron Diaz as a pet-store employee) both get the hots for the same woman (Catherine Keener), who has comparable lust for the wife as long as she’s inside Malkovich. What’s great about this lunatic farce isn’t only its premises about sexual and professional identity but also the spirited way the actors and filmmakers flesh them out. With Orson Bean and Mary Kay Place. (JR)

BJMRead more »

WR: Mysteries Of The Organism

From the November 4, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

We may forget that the most radical rethinking of Marx and Freud found in European cinema of the late 60s and early 70s came from the east rather than the west. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a headier mix of fiction and nonfiction, or sex and politics, than this brilliant 1971 Yugoslav feature by Dusan Makavejev, which juxtaposes a bold Serbian narrative shot in 35-millimeter with funky New York street theater and documentary shot in 16. The WR is controversial sexual theorist Wilhelm Reich and the mysteries involve Joseph Stalin as an erotic figure in propaganda movies, Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs killing for peace as he runs around New York City with a phony gun, and drag queen Jackie Curtis and plaster caster Nancy Godfrey pursuing their own versions of sexual freedom. In English and subtitled Serbo-Croatian. NC-17, 85 min. (JR)

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The Modest Master [Luc Moullet]

From the March 31, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Luc Moullet: Agent Provocateur of the New Wave

Almost 30 years have passed since I wrote a heated article about French filmmaker Luc Moullet for Film Comment — the first extended defense of his movies and his film criticism in English. But the first American retrospective devoted to him is only now opening, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Only 8 of his 32 films will be included, and some of my favorites are missing. Still, it’s been worth the wait.

Moullet, who grew up in the sticks, the son of a mail sorter and a typist, started writing for Cahiers du Cinéma in the 50s, when he was in his teens, and he’s still a critic today. Brigitte Bardot is seen reading Moullet’s book on Fritz Lang in Godard’s Contempt (1963), and his Politique des Acteurs came out in 1993. But only a fraction of his major writing has been collected. He was the first to write at length about Samuel Fuller and Edgar G. Ulmer and the first at Cahiers to champion Luis Buñuel. Neither a formalist nor an ideologue, he has a particular feeling for film style that in 1958 led him to compare the gratuitous camera movements in Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels to the run-on sentences in its source novel, William Faulkner’s Pylon.… Read more »

Smoke and Mirrors

From the Chicago Reader (December 3, 2004). — J.R.

Bright Leaves

*** (A must-see)

Directed and Written by Ross McElwee

As a filmmaker who’s always philosophizing about his family, his southern heritage, and the meaning of life, Ross McElwee can get a little high-flown at times. The funniest shot in the latest installment of his autobiographical saga, Bright Leaves, brings him down to earth a bit — and shows that McElwee actually may have learned something from the deflation. The shot occurs toward the end of the film and there are several reasons it’s so funny.

(1) A noisy dog is following McElwee as he threads his way through a kitschy sculpture garden, whose relevance to the story remains obscure. Is it cemetery statuary? Whatever it is, it’s a visual and narrative non sequitur that only adds to the screwball ambience.

(2) The growling dog, seen near the lower edge of the frame, recalls a smudgy, minimalist black-and-white comic strip drawn by David Lynch between 1983 and ’92, The Angriest Dog in the World. (The graphics of the four panels in each strip were almost identical — the same dog angrily pulling at the same chain in a fenced-in backyard — but the introductory words and the balloons of dialogue coming from someone unseen inside the house were always different.)… Read more »

Black Widow (1954) on Blu-Ray

I’ve never thought that Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow (1954), a New York whodunit in 2.55:1 CinemaScope, was a masterpiece, either at the age of 11 when I saw it in first-run or tonight, when I saw it on Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray, even if it held my interest both times, and even moved me at times (especially Reginald Gardiner’s character and performance). But I have to admit that the single thing I found most memorable about it in 1954 — the brassy yet awkward sort of intermission grinding the story to a halt in the eleventh hour in order to dare or challenge the audience to solve the mystery before the movie itself does — is oddly missing from the Blu-Ray.

Is this because 20th Century-Fox decided to delete this intertitle at some later date, or because Twilight Time decided it was too corny to keep? I hope it’s the former, because this label is usually pretty scrupulous about history and sticking to original versions, and indeed, part of what makes this movie watchable now (if not then) is how outlandishly dated it all is — its embarrassment about an unmarried woman’s pregnancy (which oddly places her boyfriend of roughly the same age completely beyond suspicion when she winds up murdered), its totally implausible bitch-goddess mythology (which Peggy Ann Garner can’t be blamed for, given the lines that writer-director Johnson handed her), its equally overdone diva misogyny (which Ginger Rogers arguably makes even worse than it has to be), the bored indifference of both script and direction shown towards Gene Tierney as the dutiful spouse, the goody two-shoes rectitude of Van Heflin playing Van Heflin, and the sheer palatial breadth of its Manhattan apartments (cf.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD (2nd column)

From Cinema Scope No. 15 (Summer 2003). Needless to say, a good deal of this is dated now, and I’ve mainly left this in its original form for historical purposes, apart from deleting a few errors. (At least most of the links still work.) — J.R.

It was a tip from filmmaker Françoise Romand that led me to search out Agnès Varda’s “DVD store” on Paris’s Rue Daguerre early last February, with Australian film critic Adrian Martin along for the adventure. Not knowing quite what to expect, we found ourselves at Varda’s storefront editing studio, with an ad in the window for the video and DVD of her wonderful 2000 documentary Les glaneurs et la glaneuse  (The Gleaners and I) and a note on the door to ring the doorbell across the street if no one was around. Feeling as if we were in a small town rather than on a street in Montparnasse, we were greeted by Varda at the front door of her house, and a moment later led back across the street by her, where she proceeded to demonstrate the special features of her DVD.

gleaners

I hasten to add that both The Gleaners and I and its amiable hour-long 2002 sequel Deux ans après (Two Years Later) are readily available from Zeitgeist in North America, but without the extra features —- mainly, I suspect, because Zeitgeist hasn’t access to the sort of state funding that has made Varda’s deluxe edition possible.Read more »

The Distinguished Gentleman

From the November 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J. R.

Query: How do you make a satire about contemporary corruption in the U.S. Congress, much of it based on real-life abuses, with a former speechwriter for Walter Mondale (executive producer Marty Kaplan) as cowriter, and somehow ensure that it never intersects with reality? Answer: Cast Eddie Murphy in the lead. Murphy plays a con artist who scams his way into the Senate, then (you guessed it) belatedly develops a conscience; the filmmakers treat all the characters, not to mention the audience, as sitcom puppets. Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny) directed, and the costars are Lane Smith, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Joe Don Baker, Victoria Rowell, Grant Shaud, Kevin McCarthy, and Charles Dutton (1992). (JR)

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Chaplin

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1992), though this version of the capsule is corrected and slightly tweaked from the original. 2013 postscript: Last year, while preparing to teach a brief course about Chaplin in Brazil, I wound up reading the first good Chaplin biography I’ve encountered so far (as well as one of the shortest), published fairly recently — Stephen M. Weissman’s Chaplin: A Life (2008). Even though it’s written by a psychiatrist, which made me suspicious at first, Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine liked it enough to write an Introduction, and it’s easy to see why. I highly recommend it. — J.R.

Given the decision to cram as much as possible of Charlie Chaplin’s 88 years into one Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, Cry Freedom) blockbuster, it’s no surprise that this packaged tour through the great man’s career is unenlightening and obfuscating, despite an adept lead performance by Robert Downey Jr. Hard put to explain how the world’s most beloved individual could have been hounded out of this country and barred from re-entry, the movie can only invent a personal grudge on the part of J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), letting everyone else off the hook; it also omits Monsieur Verdoux (perhaps Chaplin’s greatest achievement) entirely from its chronology.… Read more »