Here are ten 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.
1995 / The Neon Bible – “It didn’t snow that year.”
U.K. (Academy/Channel Four). Director: Terence Davies.
Cast: Drake Bell, Jacob Tierney, Gena Rowlands.
Why It’s Key: It reveals the power of imagination in a flash.
Few moments in movies reveal the power of imagination more succinctly than the opening of Terence Davies’ CinemaScope adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s first novel, written when the southern author was only 16. It opens with 15-year-old David (Jacob Tierney) alone on a train at night, the camera moving past him to the darkness glimpsed outside. Then David at ten (Drake Bell) is seen peering out a rain-streaked window in his rural home to the strains of “Perfidia”, circa 1948, while narrating offscreen, “People came to see us that Christmas. They were nas, those people —- they brought me things…”
A moment later, we cut to a diptych: on screen left, an empty porch topped by icicles framing an enchanted snowfall, as decorous as a neatly filled box by the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell. On screen right, young David is seated on the floor inside, now looking out the same window in profile, while narrating offscreen, “There was no snow —- no, not that year.”… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 4, 2007). — J.R.
In its story line, this wacky tale from Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) about estranged wealthy brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, cowriter Jason Schwartzman) reunited for a strained spiritual journey through India is pretty unconvincing as character development. Every bit as precious as Anderson’s preceding features, it differs this time from late Salinger only in the way that these spoiled neurotics are implicitly ridiculed as both ugly Americans in the third world and spiritual poseurs — unlike their more committed mother (Anjelica Huston). What this movie has going for itself in spite of its cloying pleas for indulgence is a playful and interesting narrative structure that precludes much development and comes to the fore only toward the end. The whole thing may drive you batty, but as with Rushmore, the melancholy aftertaste lingers. With Amara Karan and Bill Murray. R, 91 min. a Century 12 and CineArts 6, Renaissance Place. — Jonathan Rosenbaum
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These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the sixth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
Too Early, Too Late
This 1981 color documentary by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, one of their few works in 16-millimeter, is almost certainly my favorite landscape film. There are no “characters” in this 105-minute feature about places, yet paradoxically it’s the most densely populated work in their oeuvre to date. The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the “Notebooks of Grievances” compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants’ resistance to English occupation prior to the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film’s formal inspirations is Beethoven’s late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what’s remarkable about Straub and Huillet’s beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.… Read more »