By Marsha Gordon. Oxford University Press, 314 pp. £24.07, ISBN 9780190269753
Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Some Samuel Fuller fans may find it surprising that
the two most substantial academic studies of him so
far have both been by women—Lisa Dombrowski’s 2008
The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! and
now Marsha Gordon’s more specialised volume. But for
anyone lucky enough to have known Fuller personally,
isn’t surprising at all. An unabashed feminist whose
feisty mother remained a key figure for him, Fuller
confounded macho stereotypes as much as those
associated with familiar ideological and Hollywood
patterns, even while remaining a feverish self-mythologizer.
Gordon’s principal strength is as a researcher, and her access to such items as Fuller’s letters home and diaries during his wartime service and some of his lesser-known publications, productions, and projects (such as a 1944 magazine story, an unsold 1959 TV pilot called Dogface with some striking anticipations of his White Dog, and his subsequentunrealized screenplay The Rifle) allows her to treat her elected subject with a great deal of thoroughness. For its illustrations alone, this book offers a fascinating Fuller scrapbook.… Read more »
Chances are, if you’ve seen many of the late films of Theodoros Angelopoulos, Michelangelo Antonioni (everything since L’avventura), Marco Bellocchio, Vittorio De Sica (Sunflower, A Place for Lovers, Marriage Italian Style), Federico Fellini (almost everything since Amarcord), Mario Monicelli, Elio Petri, Francesco Rosi, Andrei Tarkovsky (Nostalghia), the Taviani brothers, and/or Luchino Visconti, and paid much attention to their script credits, you know who Tonino Guerra (1920–2012) was and is—a ubiquitous presence in modernist European cinema, especially its Italian branches. Petri was his first cinematic employer, after Guerra started out as a schoolteacher and poet whose parents were illiterate; later on, he became a visual artist as well as a screenwriter with over a hundred credits.
Even after one acknowledges the exceptionally collaborative role played by multiple writers on Italian films, it seems that no one else was considered quite as essential by so many important directors. In Nicola Tranquillino’s documentary about Tonino (visible on YouTube), Tonino himself suggests that what he brought to their films was a certain poetry. Yet what that poetry consisted of has been less than obvious to me.… Read more »
It’s important to acknowledge that part of what makes Jia Zhangke the most exciting and important mainland Chinese filmmaker currently active also makes him one of the most disconcerting and sometimes even bewildering. This has a lot to do with his propensity for viewing fiction and non-fiction, and, even more radically, fantasy and reality, as reverse sides of the same coin, and, in keeping with this complex duality, a talent for bold stylistic shifts not only between successive films but between and within separate sequences. His ambitions are such that even his ‘failures’ are worth more than the successes of many of his colleagues — and, for that matter, what we might describe as a Jia ‘failure’ often means simply a film that we should see again and reconsider.
Confounding us still further in A Touch of Sin (2013), his seventh feature, Jia reverses his previous position of avoiding on-screen violence by delivering it this time by the bucketful. In his earlier features, treatments of violence tended to be reticent or elliptical, so that government executions in Platform (2000) registered as distant gunshots and the tragic and fatal industrial accident of a construction worker in The World wasn’t shown at all.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 26, 1993); reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.
NIGHT AND DAY **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Chantal Akerman
Written by Akerman and Pascal Bonitzer
With Guilaine Londez, Thomas Langmann, François Negret, Nicole Colchat, Pierre Laroche, and Christian Crahay.
Considering all the oppositions that inform the work of Chantal Akerman — such as painting versus narrative, France versus Belgium, being Jewish versus being French and Belgian, and the commercial versus the experimental — it’s only logical that both the plot and the title of her recent Night and Day, one of her best features to date, should reflect the same pattern. The situation it refers to is so simple that it’s hard to describe without making it sound singsongy: Julie (Guilaine Londez) and Jack (Thomas Langmann) — an infatuated young couple from the provinces who’ve recently come to Paris — live in a small flat near Boulevard Sebastopol. During the day they make love; at night Jack drives a taxi and Julie walks the summer streets, singing happily to herself. One night they meet Joseph (François Negret) — another isolated newcomer to Paris — who drives Jack’s cab during the day. Jack heads for his shift; Julie goes walking with Joseph, and they quickly fall in love.… Read more »
With Jacques Bidou, Anne Kravz-Tarnavsky, Narda Blanchet, Radslav Kinski, Arrigo Mozzo, and Iosseliani.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Im Kwon-taek
Written by Kim Yong-oak and Im
With Choi Min-sik, Han Myung-goo, Yoo Ho-jung, Ahn Sung-ki, Kim Yeo-jin, and Son Yae-jin.
I haven’t attended the Cannes film festival in five years, but one thing that keeps it fascinating from a distance is the ideological tension that gets exposed there. The Americans display a sense of entitlement, which tends to irritate representatives of other countries. And the conflict is played out in the form of rants from both sides about what’s shown in competition and what wins prizes.
The usual hyperbolic level of the discourse was exacerbated this year by the war in Iraq. American critics — especially in the trade press, which tends to have the highest profile at Cannes — expressed the same sort of disdain for French critics as other American journalists had for French politicians just before and after the invasion. In turn the French and British media bashed Hollywood studios and their flacks, just as they’d bashed the U.S.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 24, 1989). — J.R.
LOOK WHO’S TALKING
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Amy Heckerling
With Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, George Segal, Olympia Dukakis, Abe Vigoda, and the voice of Bruce Willis.
The biggest surprise in the film industry this season has been the box office performance of what is generally known as “the talking-baby movie.” Last month, only a week after a Variety reviewer plausibly predicted that this “yuppie-targeted programmer is destined for a short life in theaters, and its video future seems likewise limited,” Look Who’s Talking leapt to the top of the national charts, where it has remained ever since.
Having only just caught up with Look Who’s Talking, I must confess that I found the voice-overs of the talking baby, delivered by Bruce Willis, to be the silliest and least engaging aspect of the picture, although the audience I was seeing it with seemed to feel otherwise. I was probably biased by unpleasant childhood memories of the “Speaking of Animals” shorts — a rather odious series made by Jerry Fairbanks for Paramount during the 40s, which consisted of live-action animals with animated mouths spewing out wisecracks, usually in response (if memory serves) to the gag setups of the offscreen narrator.… Read more »
Despite all the signs of exacerbated brilliance in Godard’s work since 1968, it is arguable that only after he left Paris in 1973 for Grenoble and Rolle — and before he made Every Man for Himself about a year ago — has he been able to function seriously as a political filmmaker, in direct and personal confrontation with his subjects.
Before that, preoccupations with the “correct” lines about certain struggles and their representations have cheifly yielded case studies for conservative armchair Marxists — ideal meditations for Parisian camp followers preferring to keep their feet dry and their politics fashionably academic. And from the vantage point of the next five years, it is difficult to avoid seeing Godard’s recent alliance with Coppola, at least partially, as a gesture of impotence and defeat.
The more purposeful stretch of his career that I have in mind begins with Ici et Ailleurs (Here andElsewhere), in 1974, continues with Numéro Deux (1975), Comment ça va and Sur et sous la communication (both 1976) and ends with his difficulties in getting his second TV series France/tour/détour/deux/enfants broadcast as he intended in 1978 and 1979.… Read more »
What dispiriting news, to learn of Raúl Ruiz’s death at age 70 upon waking today [in August 2011], just after receiving the Portuguese DVD box set of his extraordinary Mysteries of Lisbon yesterday and watching the first half of it last night. I knew, of course, that his health had been very poor, so this wasn’t entirely a shock. But it’s clearly a major loss. (A curious coincidence: Raúl lived the same number of years as the filmmaker he admired the most, Orson Welles.)
We had been friends for a time, then drew apart — mainly, I suspect, because he became a little fed up with my inability to speak and understand French more fluently. But I’m very grateful for the many hours we were able to spend together, including one opportunity I had to appreciate what an excellent cook he was. (For an excellent memoir about him, as well as one of the best appreciations of Ruiz that I know — even though I disagree with its premise that Klimt qualifies as a biopic [at least in its original, longer, and better version], and Raúl himself disagreed with the premise that Three Lives and Only One Death was one of his best films — check out Adrian Martin’s “A Ghost at Noon” at http://www.filmcritic.com.au/essays/ruiz.html.)
From Sight and Sound (Summer 1985). This is a revised and expanded version of a lecture given at the Rotterdam International Film Festival’s Market in early 1985, the second year I attended the festival. Some of it’s obviously very dated now (hopefully in a way that’s historically instructive) and some of it anticipates a few of the arguments made in my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See 15 years later. The late Huub Bals, director and presiding spirit of the Rotterdam festival, asked me to give this talk, and, as I recall, it was well attended; the audience members included, among others, Eszter Balint (the female lead in Stranger Than Paradise), Bernardo Bertolucci, Sara Driver, Jim Jarmusch, and Rudy Wurlitzer. –- J.R.
A feeling of having no choice is becoming more and more widespread in American life, and particularly among successful people, who are supposedly free beings. On a concrete plane, the lack of choice is often a depressing reality. In national election years, you are free to choose between Johnson and Goldwater or Johnson and Romney or Reagan, which is the same as choosing between a Chevrolet and a Ford — there is a marginal difference in styling.… Read more »
This 1994 feature is much too goofy to qualify as an absolute success, but it’s so unpredictable, irreverent, and provocative that you may not care. Australian writer-director Ann Turner has a lot on her mind, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to plot out many of her quirky moves in advance. Imagine Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (with Sandra Bernhard in the Terence Stamp part, seducing most of a bourgeois Australian family and enough other country-club notables to wind up as mayor) crossed with Repo Man and you’ll get some notion of the cascading audacity. This is a satire about foreign invasion in which America (in the form of Bernhard, a spiritual “golf guru”), then Japan, and finally extraterrestrials in a spaceship all turn up to claim the land down under as their own. Along the way Turner gives us delightfully incoherent dream sequences, bouts of strip miniature golf, some hilarious lampooning of the new-age mentality, and one of my favorite performances by a dog. Incidentally, Bernhard despises this movie and trashes it whenever she gets a chance, but I liked it as well as or better than many of her routines.… Read more »
This remarkable and beautiful 160-minute family saga by the great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (Goodbye South, Goodbye, Flowers of Shanghai) begins in 1945, when Japan ended its 51-year colonial rule in Taiwan, and concludes in 1949, when mainland China became communist and Chiang Kai-shek’s government retreated to Taipei. Perceiving these historical upheavals through the varied lives of a single family, Hou again proves himself a master of long takes and complex framing, with a great talent for passionate (though elliptical and distanced) storytelling. Given the diverse languages and dialects spoken here (including the language of a deaf-mute, rendered in intertitles), this 1989 drama is largely a meditation on communication itself, and appropriately enough it was the first Taiwanese film to use direct sound. It’s also one of the supreme masterworks of the contemporary cinema and, as the first feature of Hou’s magisterial trilogy about Taiwan during the 20th century (followed in 1993 by The Puppetmaster and in 1995 by Good Men, Good Women), an excellent launch to the Film Center’s eight-film Hou retrospective, which runs over the next three weeks. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, June 1, 7:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
In 1998, Water Bearer Video issued in a boxed set of four cassettes the complete ten-episode silent French serial Les vampires. Directed by Louis Feuillade in 1915 and 1916 and starring the great actress Musidora as the mysterious Irma Vep, this monumental and exciting crime fantasy is one of the key works in the history of cinema — seminal in its inﬂuence on moviemaking as a whole, and to my mind considerably more watchable, pleasurable, and even modern from certain perspectives than the contemporaneous long features of D. W. Grifﬁth, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Yet astonishingly, this major work had been unavailable in the United States for over eighty years, ever since it ran commercially as a serial in American movie houses; apart from a few exceptional archive and festival showings from the sixties onward, not a single episode was distributed in any form.… Read more »
From Cinemad No. 3 (2000). Much of this piece makes me blush, and other parts are clearly out of date, but I’m posting this basically “for the record”. -– J.R.
A conversation with film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum by Paolo Ziemba
This being the first article that I’ve written for Cinemad I thought it was more than appropriate to delve into a time where films changed my way of thinking of the world. Rosenbaum was key in this new beginning. Cinemad continues this process. While reading Rosenbaum’s books for research I experienced a sort of nostalgia for the days back when I was broadening my knowledge of cinema. Rosenbaum had opened many doors to a world of cinema that I had never experienced before. With this in mind I would like this article, at the least, to stir the readers to explore what Rosenbaum, and the world of cinema, is more than willing to offer.
Imagine a film critic who travels the world and experiences all cinema. Imagine a critic who is not only moved by cinema because of its beauty, but also because of its importance in the world. Imagine a critic who takes all of this in and then serves it to anyone willing to read.… Read more »
When I spent a day in Brisbane four years ago, it struck me in terms of climate as well as social ambience as being the Mississippi or Louisiana of Australia. That’s only one of the reasons why this grim, passionate, and graphic love story about two highly dysfunctional young individuals — a chain-smoking asthmatic (Peter Fenton) and an irritable, promiscuous, and possibly crazy victim of eczema (Sacha Horler), both unemployed — reminds me of the tale about a doomed couple that forms half of William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms. Another reason is the uncanny way that Andrew McGahan, adapting his own best-selling novel, director John Curran, and cinematographer Dion Beebe have of making their story paradoxically superromantic by keeping it so doggedly antiromantic. With its honesty about sexual inadequacies (his rather than hers), drugs, squalor, and compulsive behavior, this obviously isn’t a film for everyone, but you can’t accuse it of toeing the Hollywood line, and parts of it remind me of Gus Van Sant’s first three movies, before he was swallowed whole by the studios. If you’re looking for something other than the usual cheering up, check this sick puppy out (1999, 98 min.).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 2000). — J.R.
Requiem for a Dream
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Hubert Selby Jr. and Aronofsky
With Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald, and Louise Lasser.
Darren Aronofsky’s first feature, Pi (1998), had more style than substance — or perhaps it’s just that the only thing I now remember with much clarity is its razzle-dazzle style. The black-and-white cinematography and the jazzy editing were pretty attractive in a disposable sort of way, though critic Bill Boisvert had a point when he suggested in these pages that the attitude of this metaphysical thriller was “profoundly anti-intellectual,” rightly adding that this was “true of most indie genius films.” (He may have been more right than he realized. His second example was the 1997 Good Will Hunting, directed by Gus Van Sant, who’s been offering us nothing but anti-intellectual holiday releases about geniuses ever since — with Alfred Hitchcock rather than Norman Bates as the prodigy in the 1998 Psycho remake and Robert Brown taking the equivalent role in Finding Forrester, which opens on Christmas day.)
When I belatedly caught up with Aronofsky’s second feature, Requiem for a Dream, it was with the hope of seeing something more than just fancy style.… Read more »