Yearly Archives: 2020

The Major Film Theories: An Introduction

From Sight and Sound (Summer 1977). -– J.R.

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THE MAJOR FILM THEORIES: AN INTRODUCTION

By J. Dudley Andrew

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, £2.50(paperback)

The widespread distrust of film theory still persisting in mainstream criticism is scarcely confined to Anglo-American film culture. Less than a decade back, when Noël Burch’s Praxis du cinéma -– later translated as Theory of Film Practice –- first appeared in France, someone at Gallimard hit on a rather demented sales pitch, and the book was marketed with a wraparound banner boldly proclaiming, ‘Contre toute théorie.’ The curious science fiction tone of this declaration highlights a subterranean bias which informs most film reviewing on and off the continent: the idea that theory is an option best left to dusty academicians, while everyone else is better off operating on free-floating intelligence and intuition. Ironically, this is an assumption which expresses a theory of its own: that knowledge is essentially empirical. And the definition accorded to ’empiricist’ by the Concise Oxford may be worth at least considering:'(person) relying solely on experiment; quack.’

In all fairness to ‘anti-theorists’, it should be conceded that science and art are hardly the same thing. If a sizeable part of our knowledge of the former is grounded in theory, the parti pris underlying our knowledge of cinema tends to be a much more random affair, a generally murky blend of half-examined predilections and working hypotheses.… Read more »

Vampyr

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1990). — J.R.

The greatness of Carl Dreyer’s first sound film (1932, 82 min.) derives partly from its handling of the vampire theme in terms of sexuality and eroticism and partly from its highly distinctive, dreamy look, but it also has something to do with Dreyer’s radical recasting of narrative form. While never less than mesmerizing, it confounds conventions for establishing point of view and continuity, inventing a narrative language all its own. Some of the moods and images are truly uncanny: the long voyage of a coffin, from the apparent viewpoint of the corpse inside; a dance of ghostly shadows inside a barn; a female vampire’s expression of carnal desire for her fragile sister. The remarkable sound track, created entirely in a studio (in contrast to the images, all filmed on location), is an essential part of the film’s voluptuous, haunting otherworldliness. It was originally released by Dreyer in four separate versions — French, English, German, and Danish; most prints now contain portions of two or three of these versions, although the dialogue is pretty sparse.) (JR)

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It

From the Chicago Reader (April 3, 1998). — J.R.

A department store clerk (Clara Bow) tries to live according to the tenets of Elinor Glyn’s book about sex appeal (also titled It) and winds up marrying her boss. This fast and funny silent comedy of 1927 has one of the great lines of the period — “Hot socks! Here comes the boss!” — and as Dave Kehr has pointed out, it “launched Clara Bow as a star of extraordinary dimensions (most of them around the hips).” Directed by Clarence Badger, with Antonio Moreno, William Austin, Jacqueline Gadsdon, a young Gary Cooper, and Glyn herself, who worked on the script with Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton. A real treat. (JR)

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New Rose Hotel

From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 1999). — J.R.

It’s not at all surprising that Abel Ferrara’s most recent feature (1998) has failed to find an American distributor or that some of his most eloquent defenders have labeled this transgressive adaptation of a William Gibson story the collapse of a major talent. A murky and improbable tale about prostitution, industrial espionage, and manufactured viruses, it works on the very edge of coherence even before the final 20 minutes or so, during which earlier portions of the film are replayed with minor variations and additions. On the other hand, few American films in recent years have been so beautifully composed and color coordinated shot by shot, and the overall experience of an opium dream is so intense that you might stop making demands of the narrative once you realize that none of the usual genre expectations is going to be met. Almost all the principal action occurs offscreen, and most of Ferrara and Christ Zois’s script concentrates on scenes between a corporate raider named Fox (Christopher Walken); his deputy, X (Willem Dafoe); and Sandii (Asia Argento, daughter of cult horror director Dario Argento), an Italian prostitute hired to seduce a Japanese scientist.… Read more »

Sam Fuller Spills His Guts

My first meeting with Samuel Fuller is chronicled in this interview/essay published in the July 9, 1980 issue of The Soho News and was reprinted in my recent collection Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues. Seven years later, while concluding my academic career at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I was placed in charge of running the film studies summer school program, I was still crazy about Fuller, and invited him to serve as our “visiting artist”, which led to our becoming friends from that summer until his death a decade later. I did my best to try to capture his singular way of talking in this article. For my title, I’m using the headline on that issue’s front page, not the title given inside (“Sam Fuller Reshoots the War”). — J.R.

SamFuller

When I enter his suite at the plaza, he’s finishing lunch, expressing his regret about missing Godard at Cannes, remarking on the absurdity of prizes at film festivals, asking me what Soho News and Soho are. (The one he knows about is in London — he fondly recalls a cigar store on Frith Street.)

It isn’t hard to figure out why Mark Hamill affectionately calls him Yosemite Sam, or why Lee Marvin simply says he’s D.W.… Read more »

The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies

From The Soho News (August 4, 1981), very slightly tweaked on January 27, 2010. –J.R.

The Celluloid Closet:
Homosexuality in the Movies
By Vito Russo
Harper Colophon Books, $7.95

Want to read the first comprehensive study in English of homosexuality in the movies? Go hunt up Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes (1972). Prefer a more theoretical and political, less coterie-oriented approach? Try Richard Dyer’s first-rate Gays and Film (1975), which includes Caroline Sheldon on lesbians, Dyer on stereotyping, and Jack Babuscio on camp. Like something even more up to date, dealing with the “textual incoherence” of recent Hollywood movies like Cruising and Looking for Mr. Goodbar from a gay lib perspective? Check out Robin Wood’s interesting and fruitful article (no pun intended) in the current issue of Movie.

Where does this leave Vito Russo’s serious and ambitious The Celluloid Closet — which incidentally bears the same subtitle as Tyler’s book? Not so much in the lurch as the above list may imply. As the best researched and illustrated book on the subject — entertainingly and intelligently written in epigramatic journalese, and clearly backed up by years of patient fact-finding and interviewing — it deserves to be considered a significant reference point and a source of reference in the years to come.… Read more »

Flirt

A “critic’s choice” from the Chicago Reader (November 8, 1996). — J.R.

Flirt

This 1995 film is the only feature by Hal Hartley that has the same degree of formal playfulness as his overlooked short films — perhaps because it was made as if it were three separate shorts, all recounting the same story but set in different cities (New York, Berlin, and Tokyo) and told mainly in different languages, with certain differences regarding gender, race, ethnicity, and milieu. Though it lacks some of the behavioral charms of Hartley’s Trust and The Unbelievable Truth and even announces its own likelihood to fail as an experiment in the second episode, this is in some ways my favorite Hartley picture — not only because it takes the most risks, but also because it gives the mind more to do in the process. The actors include Martin Donovan and Parker Posey in New York, Dwight Ewell, Geno Lechner, and Elina Lowensohn in Berlin, and Miho Nikaidoh, Kumiko Ishizuka, and Hartley himself in Tokyo. The whole thing unfolds in an economical 85 minutes. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 8 through 14.

— Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Prince of Darkness

From the Chicago Reader (October 23, 1987). — J.R.

Genre specialist John Carpenter returns to the principle of confined space that he used as a disciplinary structure in Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing in this horror thriller set in an abandoned church. The main difference here from earlier Carpenter films is the heavy metaphysical baggage: a team of graduate students and teachers (including Lisa Blount, Victor Wong, and Jameson Parker) in physics and science is summoned by a Catholic priest (Donald Pleasence) to study an ancient religious manuscript that proves to contain differential equations (long before such equations were developed), and a canister containing a green liquid that proves to be seven million years old. Mathematics combines with demonology to produce a variant on Night of the Living Dead, and while the church is playfully called Saint Godard’s, the pivotal use and significance of mirrors spawned by the canister liquid might make Saint Cocteau’s a more appropriate appellation. While the dense significations of the script (credited to one “Martin Quatermass”) may get a bit thick in spots, Carpenter’s handsome ‘Scope images generally make the most of them, and some haunting poetic notions — such as video images from the future that appear as recurring dreams dreamt by the church’s inhabitants — figure effectively in the plot.… Read more »

The Struggle

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1988). — J.R.

D.W. Griffith’s last film (1931) was unquestionably dated when it was released at the height of the Depression, both as an antidrinking polemic — probably fueled in part by Griffith’s own struggles with alcoholism — and as a Victorian melodrama. Yet today it emerges as one of his most powerful and intensely felt works — not merely a heartbreaking story and a portrait of the Depression at its grimmest, but a poignant summary of everything that Griffith could do with a camera, even in low-budget, unspectacular circumstances. With Hal Skelly and Zita Johann. 87 min. (JR)

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Mélo

From the Chicago Reader (April 8, 1988). — J.R.

Alain Resnais’ masterpiece, easily his best film in years, is bound to baffle spectators who insist on regarding him as an intellectual rather than an emotional director, simply because he shares the conviction of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson that form is the surest route to feelings. In his 11th feature, he adapts a 1929 boulevard melodrama by a forgotten playwright named Henry Bernstein, and holds so close to this “dated” and seemingly unremarkable play that theatrical space and décor — including the absence of a fourth wall — are rigorously respected, and shots of a painted curtain appear between the acts. None of this is done to strike an attitude or “make a statement”: Resnais believes in the material, and wants to give it its due. Yet in the process of doing this, he not only invests the original meaning of “melodrama” (drama with music) with so much beauty and power that he reinvents the genre, but also proves that he is conceivably the greatest living director of actors in the French cinema, and offers a way of regarding the past that implicitly indicts our own era for myopia. (Mélo is certainly a film of the 80s and not an antique, but it may take us another 20 years to understand precisely how and why.)… Read more »

The Act Of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1988). — J.R.

Stan Brakhage’s convulsive personal and silent documentary about a Pittsburgh morgue, made in 1971, is one of the most direct confrontations with death ever recorded on film. Included on the same program — along with a lecture by Chuck Kleinhans, professor of film at Northwestern University — are three other shorts that are not conventionally regarded as horror films, but that will be considered in relation to that genre: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s ground-breaking experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943); Chris Marker’s innovative science fiction film La jetee (1964), which tells its story almost exclusively in stills; and Celia Condi’s 1982 combination of soap-opera characters and dark humor, Beneath the Skin. (JR)

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To Die For

From the Chicago Reader (October 3, 1995); slightly tweaked in late 2013.  — J.R.

http://31.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lu41znWo3C1qbn0e5o1_400.jpgIf, like me, you find things to admire in many of Gus Van Sant’s films, you may be especially gratified by what he’s done with this satirical anti-TV script by Buck Henry — suggested by a real-life crime and adapted from a Joyce Maynard novel — and a spot-on performance by Nicole Kidman that may be the best of its kind since Tuesday Weld’s wicked sexual turns in Pretty Poison and Lord Love a Duck. Charting the ruthlessness of an ambitious bimbo telecaster in Little Hope, New Hampshire, this staccato black comedy sustains its brilliant exposition and narration until the plot turns to premeditated murder, complete with hapless and semicoherent teenage accomplices. The movie loses much of its pitch and many of its laughs at this juncture, and there’s an uncomfortable tendency to equate the falsity and venality of TV too exclusively with Kidman’s character, thereby bypassing golden opportunities offered by Wayne Knight (as a station boss) and an uncredited George Segal to make the target less gender specific. But much of this is good nasty fun, with a fine secondary cast that includes Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Alison Folland, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, and Dan Hedaya; also look for striking cameos by David Cronenberg and screenwriter Buck Henry.… Read more »

Wise Blood

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.

Along with The Man Who Would Be King and The Dead, this is arguably John Huston’s best literary adaptation, and conceivably his very best film — a very close rendering of Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable first novel about a crazed southern cracker (a perfectly cast Brad Dourif) who sets out to preach a church without Christ, and winds up suffering a true Christian martyrdom in spite of himself. The period, local ambience, and O’Connor’s deadly gallows humor are all perfectly caught, and apart from the subtle if highly pertinent fact that this is an unbeliever’s version of a believer’s novel, it’s about as faithful a version of O’Connor’s grotesque world as one could ever hope to get on film, hilarious and frightening in equal measure. O’Connor conceived her novel as a parody of existentialism, and Huston’s own links with existentialism — as the director of the first U.S. stage production of No Exit, as well as Sartre’s Freud script — make him an able interpreter. With Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Daniel Shor, Ned Beatty, and Huston himself as the hero’s fire-and-brimstone grandfather. The producer is Michael Fitzgerald, whose family’s friendship with O’Connor guaranteed the fidelity and seriousness of the undertaking (1979).… Read more »

Displaced Agendas, Real Corpses: NIGHT WILL FALL

Written for Artforum (February 2015). — J.R.

Night-Will-Fall-Holocaust-Documentary1

Doomed by shifting postwar social and political agendas, the never-completed documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey — launched in April 1945 by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and shelved in September — might have been the key nonfiction film on the subject had it been finished and shown as originally planned, as required viewing for German prisoners of war. Shot by trained GI  cameramen accompanying British, American, and Russian troops as they liberated the camps, it might even have served as the principal disclosure to the rest of the world of the hitherto unthinkable conditions these troops uncovered.

NightWillFall-inmate

Produced by Sidney Bernstein — an old chum of Alfred Hitchcock’s who would later produce, uncredited, Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949), and I Confess (1953), and who persuaded Hitchcock to come to London to supervise the documentary’s postproduction — the film was halted by British embarrassment about the tangled fate of camp survivors (many of whom chose to remain in the camps, having nowhere else to go), combined with a reluctance to further demoralize the postwar German populace. But there was still enough of a desire to educate (or browbeat) the Germans to engage Billy Wilder to make a short film using parts of the atrocity footage, yielding Death Mills, which premiered in 1945 to five hundred viewers in Würzburg after a Lilian Harvey operetta, although only seventy-five or so remained to the end.… Read more »

Review of Peter Biskind’s SEEING IS BELIEVING

 

From the Autumn 1984 Film Quarterly. I reviewed this book at Biskind’s request, and my position was hampered by the fact that he was the main editor of American Film at the time, where his commissions were essential to my livelihood. Our relationship became even more strained after I was all set to review the book and he then informed me that he wished I weren’t reviewing it. — J.R.

SEEING IS BELIEVING: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties By Peter Biskind. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. $22.95 cloth, $10.95 paper.

The first thing to be said about Peter Bis­kind’s ambitious and long-awaited study of ideology in Hollywood movies of the fifties is that it can’t be dipped into at random with­ out a considerable amount of confusion setting in. Without the benefit of Biskind’s careful construction and preparation, the unwary reader who plunges in midstream is bound to be bewildered or dismayed by many of the political labels, whereby Thieves Highway, for instance, is designated as a “right-wing film,” or High Noon and The Blob as “radical films.” Even in the Introduction, which tends to be more cautious than the rest of the book, several eyebrows are likely to be raised by the followingsentence: “The films of Robert Aldrich can usually be counted on to be somewhere on the left, just as the films of Elia Kazan are frequently in the middle, while those of John Ford are to the right of his and those of Alfred Hitchcock are to the right of his.

While nothing in Seeing is Believing quite succeeds in eliminating all the booby-traps contained in the above declaration, the book is a lot more reasoned and reasonable than any sort of scattershot spot-checking might suggest. Examining the… Read more »