Monthly Archives: November 2020

Reactionary Humor and Southern Comfort (review of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES)

This book review appeared in the August 27, 1980 issue of The Soho News.

I was moved to repost this review by the generous recent reference to it made by Sam Jordison in the Guardian.

— J.R.

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

Foreword by Walker Percy

Louisiana State University Press, $12.95

Is it by mere chance, or through some form of subtly earned tragic irony, that this brilliantly funny, reactionary novel is being published during a reactionary period, apparently about a decade and a half after it was written? God knows what it might have been like to read this in the mid-’60s. I suspect it would have been less warmly received — one reason, perhaps, why it wasn’t published way back then.

What I mean by Reactionary Humor is the boring literary schemes of Tom Sawyer, not the expedient escape tactics of Huck Finn. Broadly speaking, it’s what we learn to expect from the perennial antics of Blondie and Dagwood, Amos and Andy, Franny and Zooey, Laurel and Hardy (and Marie and Bruce, in Wallace Shawn’s recent play), not to mention W.C. Fields, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Archie Bunker, and Woody Allen.

One can even say that Reactionary Humor is what we get from Don Quixote — a figure mentioned twice by Walker Percy (along with Oliver Hardy and Thomas Aquinas) in the foreword to this remarkable, posthumous New Orleans novel, whose author killed himself at the age of 32.… Read more »

The Other Side of the Argument: First Thoughts on Orson Welles’ Demonic Fugue

Written for my collection Cinematic Encounters 2: Portraits and Polemics (2019), although it has also appeared by now in Spanish (in Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, November 2018), in Persian (in Sazandegi, December 19-20, 2018), and in French (in Trafic, March 2019). The Other Side of the Wind is still visible and available on Netflix, but I think we’re still a long way from it being adequately “digested” or coherently dismissed, much less adequately defined. Even those who consider it a failure haven’t, for the most part, come up with very persuasive accounts of what it is and does. Superficial replays of rumors about the film that circulated decades ago, many of them half-baked, continue to predominate. — J.R.

The Other Side of the Argument:

First Thoughts on Orson Welles’s Demonic Fugue

TheOtherSideoftheWind

The only time I ever met Orson Welles — in 1972, in response to a letter of mine, to discuss his very first Hollywood project, an updated adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that I was writing about — I also had occasion to ask him about the status of his more recent projects. There was the film called Hoax that he was currently editing, which later became F for Fake (“not a documentary,” he assured me, but “a new kind of film”); two films that he declared were nearly done but he was in no hurry to release, The Deep and Don Quixote; and a still-unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind, that he wanted to release ahead of the others because it was about movies and “movies are a popular subject now,” though he wasn’t sure how long this interest would last.… Read more »

THE OWNERS

The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). I’m delighted that this prompted Adilkhan Yerzhanov to send me a very kind email along with a fresh link to his film. — J.R.

owners

I’ve seen Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners (2014) only once, and if I dwell on my inability to see it a second time for this review, this is only to pay tribute to the issues and complications of ownership, which are so basic to the film’s universal relevance.

TheOwners

One year ago, I wrote the following as part of my bimonthly column for the Spanish film magazine Caimán Cuadernos de Cine:  “12 June (Chicago): As preparation for serving as a ‘mentor’ to student film critics at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I watch online a film they’re assigned to write about, Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners from Kazakhstan. This is quite a revelation — at least for me, if not, as I later discover, for most of the students. Three city siblings arrive in the county to claim the ramshackle hut they’ve inherited from their deceased mother, and the tragicomic misadventures and forms of corruption that they encounter oscillate between grim realism, absurdist genre parody, and dreamlike surrealism, culminating in a doom-ridden yet festive dance in which both victims and victimizers participate….Yerzhanov’s… Read more »

The Market Value of a Missing Movie

Posted on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, February 16, 2007. It’s nice to report that both Pete Kelly’s Blues and Too Late Blues are now readily available, on both DVD and Blu-Ray. — J.R.

The market value of a missing movie

Posted By on 02.16.07 at 09:31 AM

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PeteKellysBlues-Webb&cornet

Don’t ask me how, but I recently had a chance to resee Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), a terrific, atmospheric, period noir in Cinemascope and WarnerColor about a cornet player (Webb) in a Dixieland band in 1927 Kansas City (after an evocative prologue in 1915 New Orleans and 1919 Jersey City showing us where and how Pete Kelly came by his cornet). It’s got an amazing cast: Edmond O’Brien, Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, Andy Devine (in a rare and very effective noncomic role), Ella Fitzgerald, and even a bit by Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy. The screenplay, which deservedly gets star billing in the opening credits, is by Richard L. Breen, onetime president of the Screen Writers Guild and a key writer on Webb’s Dragnet, and it’s full of wonderful and hilarious hardboiled dialogue and offscreen narration by Webb. (When a flapper played by Leigh says to Kelly that April is her favorite month, he replies, “If you like it so much, I’ll buy it for you.”)

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Recommended Reading: FRANKLY, MY DEAR

FRANKLY, MY DEAR: GONE WITH THE WIND REVISITED by Molly Haskell (New Haven/London: Yale University Press), 2009, 244 pp.

I’m glad that Armond White gave this book a favorable review in the New York Times, which it clearly deserves. But I wish he hadn’t muddied his kindness with lazy misinformation and lazier prose.

Misinformation: “Haskell gave up regular reviewing in the early ’90s, leaving criticism that seriously examined the big-screen image of women and the popular representation of female social roles to go underground — into academic studies where abstruse, tenure-seeking jargon is used to rebuff popular taste.” I’m not aware that Haskell ever left the kind of criticism White describes; unless one decides to make a very big deal out of her brief stint of teaching, she certainly didn’t go into “academic studies”, abstruse, jargony, or otherwise; and if White knows something that the rest us don’t about her rebuffing of popular taste, I wish he’d enlighten us further on this subject.

autant en emporte le vent

Prose: “Haskell inter­twines her own history with Mitchell’s Georgia background, Leigh’s British origins and Selznick’s Jewish American determination.” (Whenever White gets around to identifying Haskell’s abstruse, jargony rebuffing of popular taste, he might also explain what Jewish American determination consists of — unless Haskell explains this herself, which I doubt.… Read more »

GOODBYE, NORMA JEAN (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin , September 1976, vol. 43, no. 512. — J.R.

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Goodbye, Norma Jean

U. S.A./Australia, 1975                                          

Director: Larry Buchanan

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   Hollywood, 1941. Ogled by her foster father and despised by her foster mother, Norma Jean Baker is thrown out by the latter and takes work in a factory. Raped by a policeman whom she earlier persuaded not to give her a speeding ticket, she is comforted by Corporal Ralph Johnson. He prompts her on how to behave when she enters the Miss Whammo-Ammo contest (which she wins), photographs her in cheesecake poses, and advises her in her efforts to become a movie star. They drive to Tijuana and make love, although she admits that her former experiences with men have prevented her from enjoying sex. He next introduces her to model agent Beverly, who finds her work posing for pulp magazine illustrations and introduces her in turn to agent Irving Ollbach, who takes her to a party in Palm Springs. There she is sneered at by casting director Ruth Latimer, raped by actor Randy Palmer (who first offers to give her a screen test), and mocked by the party’s host, the wealthy Hal James, who none the less later arranges for her to have an interview at Lion-Rampant pictures.… Read more »

My Favorite Films/Texts/Things (1976) (further upgraded for reposting)

From the November-December 1976 Film Comment and exhumed now mainly as a telling time capsule of this period in the world of English film criticism. I’m still indebted to Laura Mulvey for introducing me to Zoo, or Letters Not About Love in her own list, which has subsequently become a touchstone for me.

For illustrations, I’ve selected the first film cited in each list whenever possible, even when there’s no particular significance to the order (when I couldn’t come up with one for The Nightcleaners, at least until Ehsan Khoshbakht — see below — furnished me with production stills or framegrabs; I accorded the late Claire Johnston two others)….Because of a scanning error and oversight, I originally had to omit two entries, those of David Pirie and Paul Willemen, which are now included. In the remaining 27, I’ve corrected a few typos for the first time, and accidentally introduced a few others, but thanks to the generous efforts of my good friend and best proofreader, Ehsan Khoshbakht, on December 4, 2014 (as well as Adrian Martin three days later, who caught a few more glitches), these are now corrected, and five additional illustrations (again, courtesy of Ehsan) have been added.Read more »

American Directors (1984 book review)

From Film Quarterly, Spring 1984. -– J.R.

AMERICAN DIRECTORS

Two volumes.  Edited by Jean-Pierre Coursodon, with Pierre Sauvage. New York: McGraw Hill, 1983. $21.95 per volume cloth, $11.95 per volume paper.

On the whole, Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s 874-page, two-volume American Directors is closer in genre to Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary than it is to Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema. Like both predecessors, it is an encyclopedia of opinions first and facts second — although, to its credit, it has many more facts per entry (in filmographies and career summaries) than either of the earlier monoliths. Like the Roud and unlike the Sarris, it attempts exhaustive surveys rather than suggestive critical miniatures, and is authored by many hands. Coursodon wrote 66 of the 118 essays and co-editor Pierre Sauvage, who furnished all the filmographies, contributed 13; the remaining 39 are by 20 other writers.

Again like the Roud, the Coursodon stands or falls as a compendium more than as a book with a sustained viewpoint; consecutive or continuous reading is neither recommended nor viable. Overall, the criticism is homogeneous, perhaps too much so: the standard auteurist form of career survey — already a bit fossilized — as developed out of Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier’s Trente ans de cinéma américain (1970) and The American Cinema (1968) is so predominant here that other critical persuasions of the past two decades might as well have never existed.… Read more »

Woody on the Wild Side [MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY]

From the Chicago Reader (August 27, 1993). — J.R.

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MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Woody Allen

Written by Allen and Marshall Brickman

With Allen, Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Jerry Adler, Joy Behar, Ron Rifkin, and Lynn Cohen.

It’s instructive to divvy up Woody Allen’s movies into “art films” and entertainments. Without too much boiling and scraping, I think you could say that the entertainments come from his first 11 years as a filmmaker, from What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966, now missing from the press-kit filmography) to Annie Hall (1977), while his art-film efforts extend from Interiors (1978) to Husbands and Wives (1992).

Some would argue that Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), coming halfway through the second period, belong to the entertainment category, along with “Oedipus Wrecks” (1989), his contribution to New York Stories, but I would beg to differ. (The first of these is in black and white, the second traffics in misery and pathos, and the third derives directly from Fellini’s episode in Boccaccio ’70 — the first pieces of counterevidence I’d cite.) Similarly, to those who’d claim that the “foreign movie” sketch in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) pushes it into the art-movie category, I’d maintain that there’s a world of difference between this film’s parody of Antonioni and the pastiches of the later movies.… Read more »

Robert Altman (1975)

The following is from the [London] National Film Theatre’s program guide in December-January 1975-76, introducing a retrospective that I curated. If the valuation that I placed on Altman seems more idealized to me now than it did at the time, the fact that it came shortly after his best run as a filmmaker explains much of my enthusiasm. But my disillusionment with the media support of Altman already began to sour after I described at length the use of sound in a particular sequence from California Split to a BBC-Radio interview, only to discover that the broadcast version blithely substituted a different sequence from the film to illustrate my point, thereby reducing my analysis to gibberish. -– J.R.

MCCABE soliloquy

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While most commercial American streamliners turn all members of an audience into second-class passengers following the same route from an identical vantage point, Robert  Altman’s multilinear adventures oblige us to take some initiative in charting out the trip -– supplying one’s own connections, and pursuing one’s own threads and interpretations in order to participate in a game where everyone, on-screen and off, is entitled to a different piece of the action.

NASHVILLE-crowd

Admittedly, this is a somewhat idealized description of an approach that is still in a state of development, and not every Altman film conforms precisely to this model.… Read more »

THE EXECUTION (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin,  November 1975 (vol. 42, no. 502). This film has also been called The Death Merchants and The Spy Who Never Was. –- J.R.

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Tod eines Fremden (The Execution)

West Germany/lsrael, 1972

Director: Reza S. Badiyi

TheExecution

Returning to Hamburg from a business trip, corporation lawyer Arthur Hersfeld is mistaken for Baruch Herzog, a non-existent Israeli agent invented by Israeli intelligence, and his cab from the airport is run off the road. He is given a lift into town by Amina, a French journalist calling herself Janine who works in the Arab underground and proceeds to investigate Hersfeld after dropping him off. Meeting her again, Arthur tells her that he knows she’s a spy, but a mutual attraction nevertheless develops between them. After a man named Zui Adam is murdered outside his home, and his office and house are ransacked, Arthur is questioned at the morgue by Inspector Barkan, who has been investigating Arab terrorist activity. Ordered to Berlin to kill Herzog, Amina buys a plane ticket for Hersfeld as well, and they have an affair; she talks about her family having been driven out of their home by Israelis and he tells her about his Jewish background, having been raised in New York after his father was killed by the Nazis.… Read more »

Two Off-the-Charts DVD Box Sets (Hou & Hanoun)

HHHEarly Works

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Since I’m about to leave in a few days for visits to Madrid and Lisbon — to be followed, only four days after I return, to a separate trip to Bologna, Paris, Potsdam, and Frankfurt, in that order — I can’t pretend to do justice to either of these exceptional releases, apart from telling you that they exist, where they come from, and a little bit about them. The two excellent labels responsible for them — Cinematek in Brussels, Re:Voir in Paris — were kind enough to send me review copies at my request in each case. Ordinarily, I would (and should) have covered both in my “Global Discoveries on DVD” column in Cinema Scope, and the only excuse I can offer about why I haven’t is that both of them are sufficiently special to seem daunting. In fact, so far I’ve only sampled each package long enough to glimpse some of the riches that I’m still looking forward to savoring in detail later.

In other respects, I hasten to add, they’re really quite different from one another, apart from the fact that both have suggested to me, from disparate angles, the postulate that being regarded as an auteur qualifies in certain ways as a class privilege.… Read more »

UNE SIMPLE HISTOIRE (previously unpublished, 1970)

Here’s a short piece of mine written for a glossy film magazine, On Film, that never survived past its first issue. It was prompted largely by a negative review of this film by the late Stuart Byron that appeared in the Village Voice after the film showed at the New York Film Festival in September 1970 — a review claiming, as I recall, that the film was a slavish, simplistic, and reductive imitation of Bresson. The fact that Byron was also my (putative) editor at On Film probably didn’t help to speed things along.

Une Simple Histoire can be seen now in its entirety and with English subtitles, for free, and in what appears to be a decent print, at https://ok.ru/video/2383975287406.  — J.R.

UNE SIMPLE HISTOIRE

Marcel Hanoun, 1958

In the frantic setting of a film festival, with an audience and press too eager to call “hit” or “miss” at the drop of a curtain, there is little chance of a masterpiece like Une Simple Histoire receiving the kind of attention it deserves. Although Marcel Hanoun’s first film was made over a decade ago, it is much too individual a work to have gone through any significant aging process; one suspects that it will continue to be as new and as unassimilated by other films ten years from now.… Read more »

The Preminger Enigma

From the Chicago Reader (February 17, 1995). — J.R.

One of the strangest things about the elusive career of Otto Preminger (1905-1986) is that it remains elusive not because of the man’s invisibility but because of his relative omnipresence in the public eye. Though never as familiar as Alfred Hitchcock, he cut an imposing figure in the media, registering much more than either John Ford or Howard Hawks. Preminger was well known for his Nazi roles in Margin for Error (1943) and Stalag 17 (1953), for appearing in TV guest spots on Batman and Laugh-In and numerous talk shows, as a colorful player in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, and for grabbing headlines as the man who defied the Production Code of the 50s and the lingering Hollywood blacklist of the 60s while grandly mounting well-publicized movie versions of best-sellers like Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent, and The Cardinal. Since he was one of the first of the high-profile American independents after the heyday of Griffith and Chaplin and moved from Hollywood to New York in the early 50s and never shifted his home base later, in most people’s minds he was more producer than director.… Read more »