From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1989). — J.R.
By far the most underrated of Sam Peckinpah’s films, this grim 1974 tale about a minor-league piano player (Warren Oates) in Mexico who sacrifices his love (Isela Vega) when he goes after a fortune as a bounty hunter is certainly one of the director’s most personal and obsessive works — even comparable in some respects to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano in its bottomless despair and bombastic self-hatred, as well as its rather ghoulish lyricism. (Critic Tom Milne has suggestively compared the labyrinthine plot to that of a gothic novel.) Oates has perhaps never been better, and a strong secondary cast — Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Kris Kristofferson, Donnie Fritts, and Emilio Fernandez — is equally effective in etching Peckinpah’s dark night of the soul. R, 112 min. (JR)
This was probably my first review of a James Cameron film, published in the August 11, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. It’s a review that helps to explain, in any case, some of the reasons why I dislike Avatar. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by James Cameron
With Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, John Bedford Lloyd, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, and Kimberly Scott.
To satisfy these new cravings of human vanity, the arts have recourse to every species of imposture; and these devices sometimes go so far as to defeat their own purpose. Imitation diamonds are now made which may be easily mistaken for real ones; as soon as the art of fabricating false diamonds shall become so perfect that they cannot be distinguished from real ones, it is probable that both will be abandoned, and become mere pebbles again. — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
I happened to see The Abyss with someone who only sees about three Hollywood movies a year. In a way it proved to be an appropriate choice for him, because it’s a veritable survey of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking in the 80s, as cannily up-to-date as the latest issue of Variety.… Read more »
From the Spring 1972 issue of Film Comment; this is also reprinted, with a lot of contextual material, in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles (where I’ve also retained my original title — not used by Film Comment, who ran it as an untitled review). I’m still hugely embarrassed by the assertion early in this piece that “[Kael’s] basic contention, that the script of KANE is almost solely the work of Herman J. Mankiewicz, seems well-supported and convincing” — a howler if there ever was one. I’m not sure if this would qualify as a valid excuse, but this was the first lengthy essay about film that I ever published.
Recently I‘ve been reading Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael, and I’m very pleased that he’s up front about the serious flaws of “Raising KANE,” factual and otherwise — but also disappointed that Kellow is unaware that “The Kane Mutiny” — signed by Peter Bogdanovich, and the best riposte to Kael’s essay ever published by anyone — was mainly written by Welles himself. (See This is Orson Welles and Discovering Orson Welles for more about this extraordinary act of impersonation.) It appears that the main source of this doubtful assumption in Kellow’s book is Bogdanovich himself.… Read more »
Written in early February 2012 for “En Movimiento.” my bimonthly column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
The unexpectedly huge acclaim accorded to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in the U.S, appears to be motivated by something more than an appreciation for a better-than-average feature. Is this a sufficient reason for it to be the most successful Iranian film to be released in America to date? Why was it named the best foreign language film of 2011 by the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, and the New York Critics Circle, and the best picture of the year by the most popular American film critic (Roger Ebert), meanwhile placing third as the best picture by the National Society of Film Critics (which rarely considers films for this category in any language but English, and included only one other such film in its latest top ten, Ruiz’s Mistérios de Lisboa)? Why was it nominated for two separate Academy Awards?
I suspect that an important reason for this sort of enthusiasm is the desire of many Americans — or at least Americans who see foreign-language films — not to go to war again, shortly after the (very) belated return of American troops from Iraq, and during the incessant and frightening beating of war drums by all of the Republican candidates for President except for Ron Paul (who still isn’t taken seriously by the mainstream media–and not because of his radical economic positions, but, to all appearances, because he refuses to support another American invasion in the Middle East).… Read more »
Written in May 2014 for De Lumière a Kaurismäki: La clase obrera en el cine, coedited by Carlos F. Heredero and Joxean Fernández and published by Colección Nosferatu in 2014. — J.R.
Writing about the reception of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera in pre-Hitler  Germany, Hannah Arendt noted (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) that “The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters.The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral[First comes food, then comes morals],” was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun. The effect of the work was exactly the opposite of what Brecht had sought by it.”… Read more »
Written for the special 50th anniversary issue of the Finnish film magazine Filmihullu, published in November 2018. “The ‘rules of the game’ are simple,” wrote the editor-in-chief, Lauri Timonen. “Seize the day and choose your all time favorite film scene – just one scene, from any film ever made – and write a maximum of 2000 letters (i.e. one page / A4) about it and why that moment in time is so special to you.” — J.R.
The restaurant scene in PlayTime
My scheme for cheating a little on your assignment is to select what I shall call “the restaurant scene” in Jacques Tati’s PlayTime — a scene or sequence, in short, that actually comprises almost half of the entire film, or at the very least more than a third of the running time. It’s not even certain when this sequence actually begins — does it start with various street pedestrians watching the last-minute construction of the establishment, or does it begin more properly with the restaurant’s official opening? — but I will assume that it ends with one of the few antirealistic gags in the film, the early-morning crowing of a distant rooster, as various restaurant customers stagger out into the street.… Read more »
This is my kind of kung fu film — written and directed by the most original stylist of the Hong Kong new wave, Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), with action so fleetly and oddly edited you may not be sure what you’ve seen. Even when it slows down, this strange adaptation of Jin Yong’s martial-arts novel The Eagle Shooting Heroes is still a riot of fancy moves and obscure intrigues, spurred on by Wong’s usual ruminations about memory and the past and shot with incandescent brilliance by Christopher Doyle, probably the best cinematographer of the Hong Kong new wave. Basically a western, with swords replacing guns and a camel or two thrown in to supplement the horses, this 1994 feature is mannerist genre filmmaking at its most delirious and mystical, suggesting at times a weird cross between Sergio Leone and Josef von Sternberg. With Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung, Brigitte Lin, and Maggie Cheung. In Cantonese with subtitles. 100 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 29, 2002). Soberbergh’s Contagion confirms his bottomless cynicism, as well as the cynicism of those reviewers who seem to like him because he expresses their jaundiced views. I continue to find that same cynicism lethally dull and all too familiar. — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Steven Soderbergh
With George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies, and Ulrich Tukur.
It’s easy to scoff at Monarch Notes, but before I quit graduate school in disgust I reached for them every time I thought a professor might be ruining a literary masterpiece for me — and vowed to read the work later, on my own time, for my own reasons. As a teacher, I also used them when I suspected a student of plagiarism, and they did help me spot an offender or two. But having read the outlines, I rarely read the works — the crib had robbed me of the desire.
If you haven’t seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 SF masterpiece Solaris, can’t see it Friday night, November 29, on Turner Movie Classics, and don’t want to watch the just-released DVD or wait for the Music Box’s rerelease in January, you might find Steven Soderbergh’s remake intriguing and compelling, because the story it tells is certainly haunting.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 12, 1990). I was disappointed to hear from one of the audio commentators on the Criterion DVD of Solaris that he regarded the lengthy highway sequence as one of the film’s “weaker” sections; for me it’s one of the highlights, both as a provocation and as a “musical” interlude that becomes an occasion for hypnotic drift. — J.R.
SOLARIS **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Written by Friedrich Gorenstein and Tarkovsky
With Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Yuri Jarvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Anatoly Solonitsin, and Sos Sarkissian.
“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 2002). — J.R.
Gangs of New York
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, and David Hemmings.
For almost the first two-thirds of Martin Scorsese’s 168-minute Gangs of New York, I was entranced. I felt like I was watching a boys’ bloodthirsty adventure story — a blend of pirate saga, 19th-century revenge tale (three parts Dumas to one part Hugo), sword-and-sandal romp, and Viking epic poem, all laced with references to works ranging from Orson Welles’s claustrophobic Macbeth (the beginning of the prologue) to Pieter Brueghel’s spacious Slaughter of the Innocents (at the end of the prologue) and incorporating romantic touchstones from Potemkin (a stone lion), The Lusty Men (hidden possessions), Chimes at Midnight (thrusts and counterthrusts), and The Shanghai Gesture (prostitutes in hanging cages).
Scorsese once described his concept of the film as a western set on Mars, which adds two more playgrounds to the above list and helps explain the kind of historical fantasy he had in mind. I know little about New York’s early history, yet I was impressed by how thoroughly he wanted to steep me in its otherness.… Read more »
This appeared in The Soho News on March 11, 1981. A month earlier, I had launched a kind of weekly column there called “Declarations of Independents” that was in diary form — a bit like some of my Paris Journals and London Journals for Film Comment during the 70s –- and this was the third of these. — J.R.
Feb. 24: Why go all the way to the Thalia tonight to see five Screen Directors Playhouse episodes, all half-hour TV shows from the mid-50s? Two professional reasons spring to mind, both essentially recycling operations. As often happens in such cases, I feel myself split between the two — processes that honor my asocial aesthetics on the one hand, my social politics on the other.
Auteurist Retrieval technology (we’ll call it ART for short) — cultivated by me and a lot of other film freaks in the late 60s — is predicated on the pleasure of recognizing the taletale signs of favorite directors in all sorts of unlikely material. And what better excuse to put ART to work than patriarchal episodes by John Ford, Leo McCarey, Frank Borzage, Tay Garnett, and William Seiter? Indeed, to narrow the focus down to the evening’s main event, what better specimen could one hope to find but a crisp 35mm print of Ford’s Rookie of the Year, made immediately before his masterpiece The Searchers, with the same scriptwriter (Frank Nugent) and no less than four of the same actors — John Wayne, Pat Wayne, Vera Miles and Ward Bond — playing central roles?… Read more »
Ernst Lubitsch’s only completed film in Technicolor (1943), and the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies’ man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from roughly The Merry Widow on, this is a movie about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the former been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson’s script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast–Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington–is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch’s testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance. 112 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Monday, January 27, 8:00, and Thursday, January 30, 6:00, 312-846-2800.
Written for the Rotterdam International Film Festival in November 2003. — J.R.
In his biography of André Bazin, Dudley Andrew notes in passing that “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” and “The Myth of Total Cinema,” which he calls Bazin’s“first great essays,” were both composed during the French Occupation. I hope I can be forgiven for taking the meaning of the second essay’s title in a direction quite different from what Bazin intended–a direction inspired by the fact that we’re living today under a kind of Cultural Occupation imposed by advertising that currently approaches global dimensions, and which operates under the assumption of another kind of “myth of total cinema”. I’m thinking of the myth that the breadth and diversity of contemporary cinema in its present profusion are somehow knowable and therefore describable, something that can be analyzed in detail as well as evaluated.
From the Chicago Reader (October 18, 2002). — J.R.
Adapted by Mel Dinelli from a Cornell Woolrich story, this is one of the most underrated B pictures of the 40s, perhaps because neither its director (Ted Tetzlaff) nor its stars (Bobby Driscoll, Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Ruth Roman, and Paul Stewart) are strong calling cards today. Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a little boy known for telling fibs who witnesses a murder from a fire escape one night but can’t get anyone to believe him. This taut thriller (1949, 73 min) is almost as close to neorealism as to noir — the details of working-class city life are especially fine. (JR)
The article from the October 1982 issue of American Film is so quaintly and absurdly dated now that I can’t resist reproducing it. -– J.R.
The prospect of choosing ten French movies that I’d like to own on videocassette is pretty hard to resist –- even for someone who still doesn’t own a cassette recorder. And when I consider the losses that any great film is bound to suffer on a home screen, I find myself consoled by the opinion of Jean-Luc Godard, expressed, twenty years ago:
”Even with films like Lola Montès and Alexander Nevsky, something comes through on television, despite the distortion, the rounded screen, the lack of definition, the absence of color. . .With Lola Montès, what you lost visually you often gained by having your attention focused on the dialogue.If only part of the film survives. It will be enough to bring it across.”
Admittedly, Godard was speaking here about old-fashioned network transmission — and French television at that, which offered a higher visual definition, and no time-slotting cuts orcommercial breaks. Still, the overall thrust of his point, is true. Reproducing a classic film on cassette may do something drastic to its original purpose and format, but something essential remains.… Read more »