Yearly Archives: 2020

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 »

OCCASIONAL WORK OF A FEMALE SLAVE (with Yehuda Safran, 1975)

Cowritten by Yehuda Safran (a lecturer in the philosophy of art with whom I was sharing a flat in Hamstead at the time), and published in the Winter 1974/75 issue of Sight and Sound. It seems fair to say that this review (from the 1974 London Film Festival) is in some ways more Yehuda’s than mine. Note: This film has more recently been called Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave in some English-speaking countries. -– J.R.

Occasional work

‘Roswitha feels an enormous power within her,’ Alexander Kluge remarks offscreen at the outset of his latest feature, ‘and cinema teaches her that this power exists.’ The task of making the invisible visible is essentially the project of a director more concerned with social and political history than with film history, who seems to regard his work as a translation of ideas into sounds and images rather than the other way round. What matters is what the words and images ‘say’ and imply in relation to each other -– not their independent formal qualities, but their capacity of modify and explicate a complex experience.

What do Kluge’s opening words say and imply? That film is a means of translating potentiality into actuality, feeling into thought, experience into understanding –- the very problem that Roswitha Bronski (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister) is struggling to cope with over the film’s duration.… Read more »

Tabu

From the August 2, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

tabu-f-w-murnau-cine-ibere-fundacao-ibere-camargo

tabu2

The last film of F.W. Murnau, who was probably the greatest of all silent directors (he didn’t live long enough to make sound films, as he died in an auto accident only a few days after work on the musical score of this masterpiece was completed). Filmed entirely in the South Seas with a nonprofessional cast and gorgeous cinematography by Floyd Crosby (fully evident in this fine restoration), this began as a collaboration with the great documentarist Robert Flaherty, who still shares credit for the story, though clearly the German romanticism of Murnau (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise) predominates, above all in the heroic poses of the islanders and the fateful diagonals in the compositions. The simple plot is an erotic love story complicated by the fact that the young woman becomes sexually taboo when she is selected by an elder (one of Murnau’s most chilling harbingers of doom) to replace a sacred maiden who has just died. The two “chapters” of the film are titled “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” and another theme is the corrupting power of “civilization”  – money in particular — on the innocent hedonism of the islanders.… Read more »

Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left For The East?

From the June 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Why-Has?

A much more serious treatment of Buddhism than Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, this 1989 Korean feature by Bae Yong-kyun (who produced, directed, shot, and edited) has become something of a cult film, and it’s easy to understand why. The title is an unanswerable Zen koan, at one point echoing the narrator’s queries: Who is Buddha? Who isn’t he? The skeletal plot concerns an old master, a young disciple, and an orphaned boy in a remote Korean monastery in the mountains, but the film’s main offering is its contemplation of and inexhaustible fascination with the natural world; indeed, we periodically have the sensation that the narrative has been suspended almost entirely for the sake of this meditation. Full of ravishingly beautiful images rather than ravishingly beautiful shots, the film conveys not so much a filmic intelligence as a Buddhist intelligence that’s being translated, step-by-step, into movie terms; the film seems to reach us from a certain remove, with positive as well as negative consequences. Count on something slow, arresting, and lovely, and if you’re looking for drama, expect to find it internally. 135 min. (JR)

WhyHasRead more »

Never Too Late [on a Carl Dreyer retrospective]

Posted on Artforum‘s web site (March 12, 2009). — J.R.

One reason why it never seems like an inappropriate time to have a Carl Theodor Dreyer retrospective is that most of his films haven’t dated, even though reactions to his works have fluctuated quite a bit over the years. Based on my own experiences in recently showing his 1943 Day of Wrath to students, I would venture that fewer spectators nowadays are likely to regard the film’s slow tempo as intolerable the way that the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther did over sixty years ago. (“Dreyer has kept his idea so obscure and the action so slow and monotonous that the general audience will find it a bore,” he claimed.)

One might go further and argue that unlike most other film masters who started out in the silent era, Dreyer’s major works were not only cinematically ahead of their own times; without ever becoming quite contemporary, they’ve even remained slightly ahead of ours. There are multiple reasons for this, including his penchant for making highly personal adaptations of preexisting works, most of them period films; his dialectical camera movements, in which he simultaneously pans and tracks in opposite directions; and, during the sound era (when he was generally able to make only one feature per decade), his unorthodox preference for using direct sound inside studio settings.… Read more »

Resistance Is Futile

From the May 26, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Army of Shadows

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville

With Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier, and Serge Reggiani

Around 1971 Jean-Pierre Melville said, “I sometimes read (I am thinking of the reviews after Le Samourai and Army of Shadows), ‘Melville is being Bressonian.’ I’m sorry, but it’s Bresson who has always been Melvillian.”

Melville’s assertion — echoed by critic André Bazin and allegedly by Robert Bresson himself — may seem startling. Melville is best known for his eight noir features, all of them stylish and artificial in a way that seems utterly foreign to the more physical and neorealistic surfaces of Bresson’s work. But these differences are ultimately superficial. What the two filmmakers have in common is much more important: the styles, themes, and philosophical positions of both can be traced directly to their experiences during World War II.

Bresson spent nine months in a German internment camp in 1940-’41, before the occupation of France, and his imprisonment is alluded to in one of his greatest films, A Man Escaped (1956). Melville, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, joined the resistance in the early 40s — changing his Jewish surname to Cartier and then Melville in homage to Herman Melville — and three of his 13 features, all made after the war, deal with the German occupation.… Read more »

Lanzmann’s Second Thoughts: THE LAST OF THE UNJUST

From the February 2014 Artforum; their title was “Beyond Good and Evil”. — J.R.

Claude Lanzmann, The Last of the Unjust, 2013, 16 mm and 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 218 minutes. Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein.

 

THE LAST OF THE UNJUST, the latest of Claude Lanzmann’s footnotes and afterthoughts to his 1985 masterpiece, Shoah, functions even more than that earlier film as a dialectical palimpsest, so its successive layers — which remain in perpetual dialogue with one another — should be identified at the outset:

December 1944: Benjamin Murmelstein, a Vienna rabbi, is appointed by the Nazis as the third (and last) Jewish “elder” of Theresienstadt (Terezin, in Czech), a “model” or “showcase” ghetto set up in the former Czech Republic in 1941, his two predecessors having been executed the previous May and September. Murmelstein retains this position through the war’s end. Then, after spending eighteen months in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis, he is acquitted of all charges (although still widely despised as a traitor) and moves to Rome.

1961: Murmelstein publishes a book in Italian, Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann, describing the suffering of the ghetto’s inhabitants.

1975: Lanzmann films an interview with Murmelstein over a week in Rome — the first interview that he films for Shoah, although he later decides to discard it, donating the unedited footage to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.Read more »

The Potent Manic-Depressiveness of LA LA LAND

emma-stone-ryan-gosling-la-la-land

I was too late in catching up with La La Land to have included it in my best-of-the-year lists for Sight and Sound and Film Comment, where it likely would have figured in both cases. But one telling aspect of the movie that I find missing from the reviews that I’ve read is just how desperate its euphoria turns out to be — which is not an argument against this euphoria but a statement of what gives rise to it and what makes it so poignant. Of course this is a fact about many of the greatest musicals (and greatest post-musicals, such as those of Jacques Demy that Damien Chazelle is so obviously emulating) that characteristically gets overlooked, which is how much the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat. The most salient thing about the musical numbers here is how they figure as interruptions to misery and diverse irritations and frustrations — interruptions that are typically interrupted in turn by the hell of a freeway traffic jam or the anguish of a failed audition.  

La-La-Land

This is what makes the singing and dancing seem absolutely necessary, not merely a simple flight from unpleasantness.… Read more »

What (Do) We Mean by Frank Cinema–and is That a Question or a Statement?

Commissioned by MUBI Notebook for November 18, 2019. — J.R.

pull-my-daisy

“How much of this film is composed, and how much is improvised?” The obvious question posed by Robert Frank’s first film (coauthored by painter Alfred Leslie), Pull My Daisy (1959), is also posed, sometimes less obviously, by the authored and coauthored Frank films that follow it—an unwieldy filmography that has on occasion become even harder to access because of the unwieldy ways it was financed or put together. (Most notoriously, Cocksucker Blues, produced by the Rolling Stones to chronicle their own 1972 North American tour, has been banned by them from most venues.) To wonder whether they’re Frank or frank is arguably another way of interrogating their relative degrees of sincerity or subterfuge, non-fiction or fiction, single or collective authorship. And it’s ultimately our call whether any given shot in a Frank film corresponds to a declarative statement or a question—something that might also apply to his better known, more celebrated, and noncollaborative still photography. “After seeing these pictures,” wrote Jack Kerouac of The Americans, “you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.” But whereas most or all the Frank photographs I’ve seen are recognizably his, each successive Frank film is a reinvention of what the art of film might consist of.… Read more »

The American Gaze

From the Chicago Reader (June 15, 2001). — J.R.

Signs & Wonders

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Jonathan Nossiter

Written by James Lasdun and Nossiter

With Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Deborah Kara Unger, Dimitris Katalifos, Ashley Remy, and Michael Cook.

+

The Fourth Dimension

Rating *** A must see

Directed, written, and narrated by Trinh T. Minh-ha.

Broadly speaking, Signs & Wonders, an ambitious thriller set in contemporary Athens, and The Fourth Dimension, a documentary about Japan, derive most of their strengths from being meditations by American tourists. Signs & Wonders, running this week at Facets Multimedia Center, is a 35-millimeter feature shot on digital video, and it’s directed by Jonathan Nossiter, a quirky and talented son of a journalist who grew up in France, England, Italy, Greece, and India and has made only one previous narrative feature, Sunday (1997). Nossiter wrote both films with James Lasdun, a Londoner now based in the U.S. who also wrote the story on which Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1998 Besieged was based.

It’s a gorgeous mess of a movie, brimming with provocative ideas about the state of the planet, multinational corporations, political amnesia, American idealism, and some of the monstrous ways love can turn sour, and demonstrating how these ideas can converge and inform one another.… Read more »

Replies to a 2003 Symposium about Kiarostami

The following are my responses to questions from Alvaro Arroba about Kiarostami for the Spanish film magazine Letras de Cine that wound up appearing in Spanish in their 7th issue, in 2003. I’ve taken the liberty of slightly revising the English in a few cases, hopefully while respecting the meanings that Alvaro had in mind. –- J.R.

1- WHICH IS THE FIRST ABBAS KIAROSTAMI FILM YOU SAW? AND WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST REACTION TOWARDS IT?  The first Kiarostami film I saw was LIFE AND NOTHING MORE at the Locarno International Film Festival, and it struck me immediately as a masterpiece. I was impressed by the film’s profound meditation on how to perceive and deal emotionally with a disaster, as well as by the use of long shots, which reminded me especially of the philosophical distance of Jacques Tati: not always knowing what to look at in a busy frame is sometimes a way of trusting in the choices and imagination of the spectator, and for me Kiaroistami in this film and Tati in PLAYTIME are both masters in this highly ethical game….I also have to admit with embarrassment that when I saw my next two Kiarostami films, CLOSE-UP and WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOUSE?, a month later in Toronto, my initial reaction to the latter film was that it was only a “cute” comedy about kids in the manner of a minor Truffaut.Read more »

Screwball Squirrel (1976 review)

The following was written for the May 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.

Screwball Squirrel

U.S.A., 1944
Director: Tex Avery

Cert—U. dist—Ron Harris. p.c—MGM. p—Fred Quimby. story—Heck Allen. col—[originally made in Technicolor]. anim—Preston Blair, Ed Love, Ray Abrams. m—Scott Bradley. 248 ft. 7 min. (16 mm.).

After beating up Sammy Squirrel — an effeminate Disney-like creature who purports to be the hero of the cartoon — Screwy Squirrel enters a phone booth and calls Meathead the dog to get another plot going. After an extended chase, Meathead tries to end the cartoon, but Screwy offers him one more chance to catch him. The results are immediately complicated by the fact that both confess to have been twins all along; a revived Sammy joins the group.

 

As Joe Adamson had ungrammatically but aptly noted, “Screwy Squirrel is Daffy Duck taken one step further that he absolutely has to.” A thoroughly demented character who lasted through five cartoons in the mid-Forties (Screwball Squirrel, Happy-Go-Nutty, Big Heel-Watha, The Screwy Truant, and Lonesome Lenny), he seems important in Avery’s career not so much for his own intrinsic qualities — monotonously aggressive mania and not much else — as for the wild bouts of anti-illusionist high jinks and comparable assaults on the audience that he provoked in his creators.… Read more »

Wholesale Memories [TOTAL RECALL]

From the Chicago Reader (June 8, 1990). — J.R.

TOTAL RECALL

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill, and Gary Goldman

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Mel Johnson Jr., and Marshall Bell.

The most influential SF movies of the past two decades are still very much with us, not only as landmarks but as continuing influences on newer release. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) gave us a whole slew of standbys, from the use of familiar brand names in outer space to a sense of visual design that, as critic Annette Michelson once put it, dissolved the very notion of the “special effect” as it was previously understood. In 1977 Star Wars popularized the notion of SF adventure as continuous action; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind the same year brought a certain pop religiosity (or perhaps one should say pseudoreligiosity) back to the genre, a combination of De Mille and Disney that sanctified Spielberg lighting as a means of bestowing halos on deserving characters, creatures, or locations.

Alien (1979) revitalized the claustrophobic horror-film dynamics of The Thing (1951), internalizing the monstrous and echoing David Cronenberg’s feature of 1975, They Came From Within.… Read more »

Telling Lies in America

From the October 24, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

TellingLies

Small, quiet virtues are rare enough in American movies these days, but to find them in a bittersweet autobiographical script by none other than Joe Eszterhas — about growing up as a green Hungarian immigrant in early 60s Cleveland — is a genuine shock. Yet I have to admit that earlier Eszterhas-scripted movies such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, for all their grotesqueries, have gradually become guilty pleasures of mine; there’s something touching about his honest primitivism. When the grotesquerie’s removed — as it has been under the thoughtful direction of Guy Ferland (whose only previous feature is The Babysitter) — what emerges is solid and affecting. Brad Renfro plays a shy, 17-year-old compulsive liar who goes to work for a master, a payola-happy rock DJ (Kevin Bacon in his prime) named Billy Magic. What the kid winds up discovering — like the hard discoveries in Elia Kazan’s America, America — is more nuanced than you might think. The period detail is mostly perfect and the casting of certain minor parts (such as Luke Wilson as an egg-market manager) sublime, and the purity of feeling recalls exercises in nostalgia on the order of The Last Picture Show.… Read more »

Showgirls

From the September 1, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

995SWG_Gina_Gershon_009

Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas’s fresh meat market—a sleazy Las Vegas porn show with clunky production numbers that resemble body-building exercises, backed by heaps of big studio money. The story, a low-rent version of All About Eve, charts the rise of one bimbo showgirl (Elizabeth Berkley) at the expense of another (Gina Gershon); alas, the only actor who seems comfortable is Kyle MacLachlan. It must be admitted that, as with Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, which I also underrated initially, this 1995 movie has only improved with age—or maybe it’s just that viewers like me are only now catching up with the ideological ramifications of the cartoonlike characters. In this case, the degree to which Las Vegas (and by implication Hollywood) is viewed as the ultimate capitalist machine is an essential part of the poisonous package. With Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, and Gina Ravera. R, 131 min. (JR)

Elizabeth-Berkley-Showgirls-11