It would obviously be hyperbolic for me to claim that the editorial evisceration originally suffered by this article was comparable to some of the curtailments experienced by Richard Pryor when he appeared on TV or in the Hollywood mainstream, but that’s more or less what it felt like to me at the time. I recently and very belatedly uncovered all but the last paragraph or so of my original version (after posting mainly the published version several months earlier), which I’ve reinstated here [on November 14, 2011]. The fact that the editor who placed this article in a lead section of Film Comment’s July-August 1982 issue entitled “The Coarsening of Movie Comedy” also changed my title to “The Man in the Great Flammable Suit” may give some notion of what his evisceration felt like at the time.
My working assumption in restoring original drafts on this site, or some approximation thereof, isn’t that my editors were always or invariably wrong, or that my editorial decisions today are necessarily superior, but, rather, an attempt to historicize and bear witness to my original intentions. It was a similar impulse that led me to undo some of the editorial changes made in the submitted manuscript of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), when I was afforded the opportunity to reconsider them for the book’s second edition 15 years later (now out of print, but available online here) — not to revise or rethink my decisions in relation to my subsequent taste but to bring the book closer to what I originally had in mind in 1980.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 23, 2007). This film is currently available for free on YouTube. — J.R.
This 2006 feature is my favorite to date by English writer-director Christopher Petit (Radio On). Subtitled both On Stalking and Being Stalked and A Story of Obsessive Passion, it’s about a young woman (Rebecca Marshall) stalking a London academic (Gregory Dart, author of the source novel) who is himself obsessed with a woman in Leipzig. Both paranoid and lyrical, the movie visualizes its strange tale mainly through ersatz surveillance footage, and the music is appropriately Hitchcockian. To complicate matters, the first-person voice-over is shared by Marshall and Petit himself (his portion is full of film references). Formally this is a dazzler. 77 min. (JR)
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From the November 7, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1994). — J.R.
I would nominate this authoritative 1962 adaptation of Ed McBain’s novel The King’s Ransom as Akira Kurosawa’s best nonperiod picture, though Ikiru and Rhapsody in August are tough competitors. It’s a 142-minute ‘Scope thriller in black and white, except for one partly colorized shot, about a kidnapping that goes awry: a chauffeur’s son is accidentally spirited away instead of the son of the businessman the chauffeur works for. The title refers to the topographical layout of the action as well as class divisions, and Kurosawa’s script and masterful mise en scene do a lot with both. Scorsese has been talking for years about doing a remake of this, but it’s hard to believe he could equal it. With Toshiro Mifune. In Japanese with subtitles. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 2000). — J.R.
Dancer in the Dark
Directed and written by Lars von Trier With Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, and Jean-Marc Barr.
To put it in the singsongy fashion of its own tacky musical numbers, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark enrages as well as engages, but I must confess that it also fascinates with its capacity to elicit extreme reactions. Ever since this musical about a woman from communist Czechoslovakia working in an American factory won the Palme d’Or and best actress prize (for rock star Bjork) from a Cannes jury headed by Luc Besson — one of the only Europudding directors who’s both crass and clever enough to rival von Trier as the most shameless sensationalist around — it has provoked hysterical reactions, pro as well as con. Viewers are struck by its technology (it was allegedly shot with 100 stationary digital cameras) as well as its aesthetics, its setting and social aspects, and its melodramatic story, not to mention its musical numbers. Though the movie certainly has its American defenders, many of its most vociferous detractors come from this country too. It’s not too surprising considering that this movie offers a horrific view of the American justice system, one you’d expect to find in an east European propaganda film shot 40 or 50 years ago.… Read more »
I no longer remember if this was at the Miss America
Pageant, and I’m not even 100% sure it was Bert Parks,
but I do remember that either Bert or someone much
like him decided to show what a regular guy he was by
singing the Elvis anthem “Blue Suede Shoes” on TV. But
because this was American TV in the mid-50s, he had to
clean up the already stupid hyperbolic lyrics (“You can burn my
house, steal my car, drink my liquor from an old fruit jar”) by
replacing the last line with, “Drink my soda from a soda jar”.
Who ever heard of a soda jar before that moment, or since
that moment either? Bert or his lyricist or their censor must
have invented the soda jar in order to make this Elvis homage
or watered-down Elvis ripoff sound more proper, but even so,
soda jars have been lodged in my brain ever since. [3/26/20]… Read more »
Commissioned by the Lima Film Festival in Peru in 2018. — J.R.
Whenever someone tells me that it’s impossible for films to change the world, I like to point out that only half a year after Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta won the Paume d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, a new Belgian law known as “Plan Rosetta,” which prohibited employers from paying teenage workers less than the minimum wage, was passed. And one could further point out that Rosetta “changed the world” in several other ways: it launched the substantial acting career of its eponymous, 18-year-old lead actress, Émilie Dequenne, it greatly enhanced the careers of its writers-directors, and it deeply affected a good many spectators, myself included — viscerally, aesthetically, spiritually, and politically.
The visceral impact came first: From its opening seconds, Rosetta makes it clear that its heroine is angry — before it tells us who she is or what she’s angry about. Alain Marcoen’s virtuoso handheld camera, which stays close to her throughout the film, follows as she slams a door, strides through the industrial workplace where she’s just been laid off, and then assaults her boss when he insists that she leave. After taking the bus back to the trailer park where she lives with her alcoholic mother, Rosetta stops briefly in the woods and methodically takes off her shoes and puts on a pair of boots hidden behind a large rock in a drainpipe.… Read more »
From the April 2017 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND FILM-PHILOSOPHY _____________________________________________________
By Mathew Abbott. Edinburgh University Press. 167 pp. UK£70.00. ISBN 9780393243123.
Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum
It isn’t only the hefty price that makes this volume look forbidding to most readers of this magazine. However inviting it might seem to regard the features of Abbas Kiarostami as genuine works of philosophy—not merely as philosophical statements but as brazen acts that challenge viewers into making them rethink and reformulate many of their assumptions about both life and cinema—the academic etiquette of tracing this concept through a labyrinth of other philosophers and other Kiarostami critics may often prove to be less user-friendly to the lay reader. And it must be admitted that for readers more accustomed to journalistic paraphrase than to the rigours of scholarly hair-splitting and jargony word-spinning, a bumpy ride is in store. Mathew Abbott’s Introduction pivots on page 4 from Kiarostami to Stanley Cavell, but by this time the author has already had recourse to the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy on the previous page, and he will be chasing after Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Descartes soon afterwards
Even so, this book is after much bigger game than a daunting bibliography.… Read more »
Posted on MUBI Notebook February 25, 2020. — J.R.
1. Written in 2007 for Sight and Sound’s annual “five best” poll: “The beautiful and exciting fifth feature of Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella — the onetime coproducer of Viridiana who forged a memorable kind of clandestine experimental cinema under Franco with Vampir Cuadecuc (1970) and Umbracle (1972) — was made in 1989. But thanks to the overall scarcity of his work, I only caught up with it this year, at the first North American Portabella retrospective, held in Chicago in November. His work as a whole has been preoccupied with issues of continuity in almost every sense of that term — historical, political, thematic, narrative, poetic, musical, pictorial, sonic, stylistic, formal. And now that mainstream cinema has replaced Franco as the power to be subverted, continuities of narrative and those between sound and image are the principal orthodoxies to be played with.“
2. In between its opening shot (rain falling on pavement) and its final shot (a plane spraying artificial rain –- actually a torrential downpour—on what remains of a burnt forest), Warsaw Bridge is concerned with both flow and contact, movement and collision, agitation and stasis. What might be said to flow and move, apart from water, is different kinds of narrative and different forms of information.… Read more »
The following is a chapter from my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver, CO: Arden Press) — which I’m sorry to say is only available now at ridiculously inflated prices (one copy at Amazon currently sells for $989.90). It probably remains the least well known of my books. I’m immensely grateful to Jed Rapfogel and Stephanie Gray at New York’s Anthology Film Archives for furnishing me with a document file of this essay so that I could post it here, originally to help promote their Mark Rappaport retrospective in March 2011, prior to the updated version of this held earlier this year. Readers should also consult my separate articles about Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg as well as my interview with Rappaport about the latter, all of which are also available on this site, along with a more recent piece about two of his videos. — J.R.
When the critic of a narrative film is feeling desperate, the first place that he or she is likely to turn to is a plot summary. Feeling rather desperate about my capacity to do justice to the last two features of the remarkable Mark Rappaport, I looked up the synopses and reviews of The Scenic Route and Impostors in the usually reliable Monthly Film Bulletin, which appeared precisely three years apart (February 1979 and February 1982), only to discover that each critic, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Simon Field, respectively, starts off with the admission that his own synopsis is misleading.… Read more »
Commissioned by and written for a collection entitled Time, published in February, 2016 by Punto de Vista, Festival Internacional de Cine Documental de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. — J.R.
Selected Moments: Some Recollections of Movie Time
1. My first sixteen years (1943-1959) — growing up in northwestern Alabama as the grandson and son of Jewish movie theater exhibitors — ensured that time and cinema were alternately parallel and crisscrossing rivers that coursed through my childhood, along with the Tennessee River that separated Florence from Sheffield. Florence, where I lived, had three of the Rosenbaum theaters, at least until 1951, all within a three-block radius, while Sheffield, which I could see across the river from my back yard, had two more theaters, one around the corner from the other. For Southerners like myself, the past was always present, a kind of double vision that movies taught me as well — a camera’s recording of the past becoming the present of both a screen and an audience, which then in retrospective memory becomes the past as well. And for Jews like myself, the past was also identity — meaning one’s past, present, and future. This explains why Lanzmann’s Shoah represents a shotgun marriage between the present tense of existentialism and the past tense of Judaism.… Read more »
This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.
A joint effort by French ethnographer-filmmaker Jean Rouch and French sociologist Edgar Morin (The Stars) yielded this remarkable 1961 documentary investigation into what Parisians — regarded as a “strange tribe” — were thinking and feeling during the summer of 1960. This was when the war in Algeria was still a hot issue, although many other topics are discussed as well, private as well as public. At first, everyone is asked, simply, “Are you happy?” More generally, the film catches the shifting emotional tenor of a few lives over a certain period.
The filmmakers treat their interview subjects with a great deal of respect and sensitivity. Among them are Marilou, an Italian emigre working as a secretary at Cahiers du Cinéma; a French student named Jean-Pierre; a factory worker named Angelo; an African student named Landry; a painter and his wife named Henri and Maddie; and a pollster named Marceline assisting with some of the other interviews.
Not only do we see these individuals in diverse groupings, even on holiday in St.-Tropez; we also see many of them becoming friends over the course of the film.… Read more »
From Film Comment (January-February 2001). –- J.R.
I blush to admit that I’ve still seen only half the eight features to date of Ousmane Sembene, made over a 33-year period as a supplement to his dozen or so volumes of fiction. Yet considering how difficult it generally is to track his remarkable and varied work on film or video that comes ridiculously close to qualifying me as an expert. (The fact that it typically takes a couple of years for a new Sembene film to reach these shores is commonly perceived as an African as opposed to American form of inertia, but I would think the responsibility for this state of affairs might be shared.)
The first and in many ways still the greatest of all African filmmakers — give or take a masterpiece or two each by Yousef Chahine, Souleymane Cissé, and Djibril Diop Mambety, among others — Sembene, born into the Senegal working class in 1923, started out as a gifted novelist who turned to filmmaking at the age of 40 chiefly in order to address more Africans. Yet because he’s a storyteller who regards film more as an extension of his prose than as an abstract calling, one of the clearest pleasures to be derived from his work is his propensity for reinventing the cinema – his own and everyone else’s — every time he embarks on a new feature.… Read more »
Written for the Japanese literary magazine Eureka‘s special issue devoted to Shigehiko Hasumi in early 2017. — J.R.
14 December 2016
I’m indebted to you for a good many things, including my very first visit to Japan. This was eighteen years ago, in December 1998, to participate in a panel about Ozu that you organized for Shochiko in Tokyo, significantly titled “Yasujiro Ozu in the World,” along with Jean Douchet, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Thierry Jousse, and Tien-wen Chu. Undoubtedly the most luminous moment of that event for me was being approached in the lobby immediately afterwards by an elderly gentleman who spoke in Japanese to Hou and myself, shook our hands, and then walked away — a puzzling encounter that immediately (and appropriately) became explained to me via mime, as soon as Hou imitated for me the signature comic gesture of Tomio “Tokkankozo” Aoki, the younger son in I Was Born, But… – thus identifying the child actor discovered by Ozu who went on to enjoy a screen career that would eventually last seventy-five years, encompassing even Suzuki’s Pistol Opera. All of which made up for the disturbing fact that apparently none of the film students I spoke with at Tokyo University had seen any of Ozu’s silent films, even though all of the surviving ones were available on VHS.… Read more »
This was written for the January 26, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, a good five years before the premiere of at least one of my absolute favorite Akerman films: her non-fictional From the East (see the first photograph below; just below that is a smaller still from her subsequent From the Other Side in 2002, which isn’t exactly chopped liver either ). But in fact there were many high points and wonders from Akerman since then. — J.R.
THE FILMS OF CHANTAL AKERMAN
On one hand, the films of the 39-year-old Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman are about as varied as anyone could wish. Some are in 16-millimeter and some are in 35; some are narrative and some are nonnarrative; the running times range from 11 minutes to 205. The genres range from autobiography to personal psychodrama to domestic drama to comedy to musical to documentary to feature-in-progress — a span that still fails to include a silent, not-exactly-documentary study of a run-down New York hotel (Hotel Monterey), a vast collection of miniplots covering a single night in a city (Toute une nuit), and a feature-length string of Jewish jokes recited by immigrants in Brooklyn exteriors (Food, Family and Philosophy), among other oddities.… Read more »